Nature for newbies 🦜🍃
Free apps for enjoying the outdoors 🦅
Apps outdoors can be superfluous. I like being phone-less when I can. But sometimes it’s nice learning about nature while in it. Below are the apps I’ve found most useful.
This magical app recognizes nearly any bird you see or hear. It’s a free and fun way to learn about birds, whether you’re on a walk or at home and curious. When I tried similar services pre-pandemic, they felt clunky or crashed.
Merlin is fast, ad-free and reliable. It’s also easy to use. Open the app on any iOS or Android device and you’ll see four options.
Explore birds. If you just want to learn about birds, this option lets you thumb through a list, read short descriptions and hear bird call recordings.
Photograph a bird. Take or upload a picture. Merlin will identify it in seconds.
Describe a bird. Answer a few multiple-choice questions about a bird’s size, color, activity, and location, and Merlin suggests what it might be.
Sound. Identify birds by recording a bit of audio, even if you’re not up close. This is my favorite feature because I usually can’t get close enough — and lack sufficient patience and skill — to snap quality bird photos.
Below is a 90-second clip I just recorded in Setauket, NY
As I recorded the sound clip above on a walk recently, Merlin displayed live sound waves. The app also showed images of the birds it identified around me, as captured in the screenshot below.
I love how the app points out not just one bird, but a variety of local species, even if they’re all chirping simultaneously. I can click on any of the birds to learn more, or listen to recordings so I can eventually recognize bird calls without the app.
Merlin and its sister app, eBird, are projects of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can use eBird to keep track of birds you’ve spotted and to share sightings with the world’s largest community of birdwatchers. Since I don’t keep bird lists, I just use Merlin to identify birds I hear or see. It works best in quiet places. Background noise makes it hard to use on city park walks.
Point Seek at any plant, flower, bug or animal and the app magically identifies it. I love spotting new flowers and odd bugs and learning about unique species. The app collects no user data and has no ads. It doesn’t even require registration. It’s free for iOS and Android. Seek was created by iNaturalist, a joint Initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
Depending on how close you are, how much light there is, and how good your phone's camera is, results vary. I’ve been surprised at how often the app quickly identifies what I’m looking at.
I sometimes feel torn about using Seek with my wife and daughters, because we prefer to be free of screens outdoors. After using it extensively early in the pandemic, we use it more selectively now, mainly when we spot something intriguing that we want to remember or learn more about.
This classic field guide is for birders is free on iOS and Android. It has more detailed bird info than Merlin for those who want to dig deeper. The app lets you identify birds by noting their size, color, habitat, wing shape, tail shape, voice type or activity, so you don’t have to take a picture or record sound. If you prefer to enjoy nature without tech, you can open the app later to learn more about what you saw or heard.
Wingspan — A fantastic board game about birds
This game has 170 gorgeous game cards, each of which features a unique bird. You learn about them while playing the brilliantly-designed strategy game. It took my family several hours to figure out the complex play, but now we love it. Read more about the game in the NYTimes, Vox and Nature.
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