Eight smart phone apps for learning about nature in your backyard or in the field
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Eight smart phone apps for learning about nature in your backyard or in the field

Whether you’re camped out in your backyard, walking in the prairie outside town or hunting in the backwoods, you probably have a smart phone in your pocket.

They’ve become another appendage for most of us. They document our trips, keep us in touch with family and friends and tell us if a storm is coming. So why don’t we put them to work helping us learn?

Books on birds, flowers and geology are great. Don’t throw yours away. But when you’re in the field staring at a strange yellow flower or wondering what that constellation is, little is handier than consulting your phone.

The Star-Tribune compiled a list of some of the best outdoor apps to help you better understand your yard, neighborhood and nearby open spaces. And when summer really arrives, snow melts and we’re able to be socially distant in even more nature, let these be your guide. Consider them an educational tool for your kids, a learning tool for you, and a way to quickly solve all of your “what bird is that?” questions.

Birds: Depending on your needs and interests, birding apps are in no short supply. They all function slightly differently, and most will provide those identifications you’re seeking. One of the best bird identification apps is iBird by Field Guide to North America. The basic version is $9.99 and pro is $14.99. With it comes access to an incredible database with bird illustrations and images and a searchable database that allows you to input dozens of characteristics like color, location, bill shape and others. Use Merlin Bird ID or eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to contribute to citizen science efforts and for comprehensive bird ID. The Audubon Bird Guide App is free and has had more than 2 million downloads. Bird Song ID USA will help you identify birds by their song.

Plants and insects: Imagine noticing a flower and immediately consulting your smart phone for identification. That possibility exists. The Seek App might not be able to identify the species every time, but it will get you close. The best part is, it’s free and friendly to even the most beginner smart phone user. Simply open, point your phone’s camera at a flower, insect, bird or amphibian and wait for the answer to pop up. It will tell you every location in the family tree from kingdom to species. It pulls information from millions of observations made on iNaturalist, and is a joint initiative between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

Geology: Have you ever wondered what layers of rock and earth are underneath you? Have you driven through canyons and admired the twisted lines of color? The Rockd App may be for you. The University of Wisconsin-Madison created this app for geologists and non-geologists alike. Use it when you’re finally out on the road to tell you about what you see. When you’re at home, use it to look up areas you’ve always been curious about. The app gives you access to hundreds of geologic maps, summaries of your current location and the ability to track what you’ve seen.

Stars: Even if you took an astronomy class in college, you could probably use a refresher. And for most of us, constellation knowledge may not extend much past the Big Dipper. Enter the SkyView app. Point your phone’s camera at the sky, night or day, and see what stars, planets and constellations appear. Try out the basic version, SkyView Lite, for free, or upgrade to the original for $1.99.

Help NASA: Download NASA’s GLOBE Observer app, then head outside and tell NASA what you see. Observations from people like us help NASA understand and model the environment in ways it can’t do with satellites alone. Prompts will ask you questions about clouds, mosquito breeding grounds, trees and land cover. Use this app to contribute to science, scientists and the broader global community.

GPS: When you’re stuck at home thinking about backpacking this summer or hunting in the fall, turn to the OnX Hunt or OnX Off Road apps for up to date information about landownership, roads, trails and anything else you need to know before you head into the backcountry. Then download the maps you need for where you’re going and take the app with you. It will help keep you on public land and make sure you don’t get lost.

Animal tracks: Paying $14.99 for an app might seem pricey, but what you get is “the most comprehensive digital field guide to animal tracks ever made.” iTrack Wildlife has more than 700 track, sign and animal photos with detailed captions along with 120 skull photos. It has track and sign information for more than 70 common North American animals. Most importantly, it allows you to search by criteria such as number and shape of toes, claw size, track symmetry and track length or width.

Butterflies: Download the Leps by Fieldguide app for the ability to identify butterflies and moths, keep the app for unrestricted access to beautiful photos and images of butterflies and moths. Fieldguide crowdsources information about nature, and the Leps Fieldguide works similarly. For anyone wondering, leps is an abbreviation for lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies.

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