Do you wonder which species of bird it is that you keep seeing on your backyard fence? Are you curious about what butterflies are visiting your garden? Would you like to know more about the mammals that call your local park home? Thankfully there are plenty of smartphone apps that help you quickly and easily identify flora and fauna, record your findings and learn more about them. Not only that, but a few will even turn you into a citizen scientist!
Here are our favorite apps for making your dreams of being a wildlife expert a reality.
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For animals and their tracks
- Audubon's Field Guide to North American Mammals: Audubon has created some of the best field guide apps out there, so we're starting out with their guide to North American mammals. If you're curious about what kind of critter it was that just darted into the underbrush, you can use this app to narrow down the possibilities by size, shape, habitat, region, or even the scat or tracks it left behind.
- WildObs Observer: Thousands of species are logged in this app, so you can search through and learn more about the species you just spotted. You can also record your wildlife encounters in the app's database and National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watch program, making you not only a more informed naturalist but also a citizen scientist.
- MyNature Animal Tracks: Sometimes the only thing you spot are animal tracks, but that doesn't mean you have to go on wondering what kind of animal left a certain paw print. This robust app helps you match a set of tracks to a species through seven track categories and five scat categories. Use the illustrations to figure out the species as well as even the gait the animal was using as it traveled. It even has a built-in ruler for measuring track sizes, and gives tips for tracking animals.
- Audubon's Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians: If you're mostly curious about reptiles and amphibians, this app is for you. The database has information for 437 species, including photographs and even recorded sounds for frog and toad species. It also has a section for recording the species you've spotted and sharing your sighting on social media.
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For birding in the backyard or on the trail
- iBird: The apps from iBird are perhaps some of the best bird identification apps out there. Download apps specific to your area of the country, or certain types of birds. For instance, if you’re just getting started in birding, you can download the Yard+ guide for all the bird species commonly found around backyard feeders in North America. Or if you're more serious about identifying species spotted on the trail, the iBird Pro has nearly 1,000 species in its database with easy searchability for narrowing down possibilities until you hit on the correct species. There is even an iBird Journal for serious birders wanting to record every sighting.
- Peterson Birds — A Field Guide to Birds of North America: This app lets you compare similar species side-by-side so you can make sure you're identifying the correct bird without the hassle of doing multiple searches. You can also add your own photos to the bird species and customize it in other ways to make it your own app.
- Merlin Bird ID App: If the other two apps aren't easy enough, this one strips down searching to about as fast and simple as it can possibly get. You just answer five quick questions and the app comes up with a list of possible species — and with a good deal of accuracy. It uses more than 70 million observations recorded in the eBird citizen science project to make its educated guesses. It also provides bird sound recordings and tips for identifying species.
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For butterflies and bugs
- Butterfly Collection: Butterflies are some of the most beautiful insects you'll find in any garden, park, or hiking trail. This app has 240 species of butterflies and moths in its database. Scroll through the photographs, learn species names, and see which species live near you.
- Audubon Butterflies: For a more robust identification tool, Audubon provides us with a database of more than 620 species of butterfly in the U.S. and Canada. You can not only identify species, but you can also record and share observations. It also includes a ton of information on metamorphosis, evolution and observation tips.
- Audubon's Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders: Go beyond butterflies with this app. More than 500 insects and spider species are included in the database, so you can identify any crawlers encountered in the house, garden or hiking trail. Each species has an in-depth description, including its habitat, life cycle and other great information.
Photo: Dmitry Naumov /Shutterstock
For trees, plants and flowers
- LeafSnap: This app from researchers at Columbia University, University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution takes an interesting approach to helping you identify plant species. It uses visual recognition software — snap a photo of a plant leaf and it will figure out what species you're looking at. The database includes images of not only leaves but also flowers, fruits, seeds and bark to help identify a species. While it is limited to only the Northeast for now, it will hopefully grow to include the entire U.S. soon.
- GSM Wildflowers: This app has nearly 180 of the common wildflower species within the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. It's a great app to have on hand if you live in or are visiting the area, and includes loads of information from the flowers' attributes to when you can see different species flowering.
- Audubon Wildflowers App: Another gem from Audubon is this field guide to wildflowers, which covers species across the country. Everything from common garden plants to unusual specimens you might see while hiking or camping can be found in this app, making it easy to identify any plant. You can also keep track of your sightings, including geolocation of the plant you're recording, in a journal feature.
- MyNature Tree Guide: This handy app has two databases for searching by leaf or by needle, so you can identify over 190 tree species found across the U.S. and Canada. You can search by leaf or needle, or you can even search by question. It includes a ruler for measuring out leaf or flower sizes for more accurate identification, and also has a journal for recording your sightings along with other bonus features.
- Audubon's Field Guide to North American Trees: With 716 North American tree species included in this app, you'll be able to identify the species of most any tree around. It includes notes on leaves, bark, fruits, seeds and more so you have multiple tools for identifying a species. The app also includes gorgeous photos to sort through.
Photo: Anton Gvozdikov /Shutterstock
For wildlife in parks and on hiking trails
- Park Wildlife: Our national parks are some of the best places to watch wildlife. This field guide will help you identify birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians commonly encountered in 100 national parks across the country. Not only that, but it points out native endangered species as well as native poisonous or dangerous species to keep an eye out for in each of the parks included. As an extra bonus, it also gives information on park directions, hours, fees, phone numbers and other important info for getting out and identifying critters.
- Audubon Ultimate Nature Guide Series: All those Audubon apps mentioned above? Well there's one way to get an all-inclusive deal. The Ultimate Nature Guide series breaks down field guides into everything you'll find in a particular state or geographical region. Each state or area’s guide features the flora and fauna you’ll find across that state’s parks, backyards and hiking trails. For example, The Ultimate California Nature Guide app helps you identify 10 different subjects, including birds, insects, mammals and even sea life found along the state's coastline. So if you'd like a thorough field guide app specific to where you live, this is what you want!
- iNaturalist: This app is not simply an animal identification app. It's actually a social network for naturalists. You can record your observations of plants and animals and add them to the database. You can ask the community to help you identify something, keep track of everything you've encountered during hikes, build your "life list" of what you've identified to date, and most importantly, become a citizen scientist. By recording what you've seen with this app, you're helping scientists and land managers everywhere keep track of what's happening with the natural world. As the website says, "Maybe you'll rediscover a flower that was thought to be locally extinct, or help a scientist map the range of a little-studied beetle!"
- Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder: Can't find where to take a hike? This app will help! Use it to find the nearest parks with the activities you want to do, whether that's hiking, bird watching, canoeing or whatever. This huge database features not only every national park, state park, and federal public land in the country, it also includes 50,000 local parks. With this app, there's no excuse for staying inside!