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.
For animals and their tracks
Not sure if animal tracks are from a bobcat or coyote? (Photo: Russell Shively/Shutterstock)
- iNaturalist.org: Thousands of species are logged in this app, so you can search through and learn more about the species you just spotted. Simply snap a photo, share it on the site and discuss your find with others.
- 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.
For birding in the backyard or on the trail
Even with binoculars, it can be hard to identify birds. Photo: Stephane Bidouze /Shutterstock
- 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.
- Audubon Bird Guide App: From some people who should know.
For butterflies and bugs
There are hundreds of species of butterflies — each with their own unique traits. Photo: EpicStockMedia/Shutterstock
- 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.
For trees, plants and flowers
Whether looking at a flower or leaf, there are several apps that can help identify plants. Photo: Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock
- Seek: Have you ever come across a flower or tree and wish you knew what it was? Well, this app can identify a variety of plants for you! Just take a photo with your phone, and the app will search Wikipedia for you. Seek can also identify animals. You can create a profile and upload all your discoveries, and the app will add it to its photo database for other users to explore.
- 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.
For wildlife in parks and on hiking trails
Are you curious to know what other activities there are besides hiking at national parks? Photo: Anton Gvozdikov/Shutterstock
- 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.
- 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!