Not Your Grandma’s Field Guide

So your tech-savvy child or spouse got you an iPad for Christmas and assured you that this device would change your life. “Thanks,” you said in a drawn-out way, smiling with your mouth open, thinking to yourself: “A paper weight will change my life?”

Fear not. There is a way to apply this sleek, urban looking thing to your favorite rural pastimes. Today’s mobile handheld devices support field guide applications (commonly called “apps”) that you can download and use in field or forest. And it’s not just field guides going digital: fly-fishing apps provide videos on how to tie a fly, duck hunting apps help you train your retriever, and birding apps play songs to help you differentiate those mind-boggling warbler calls.

So what the heck is an app, and where do you get them? Apps are specialized computer programs, designed for handheld devices such as Apple’s iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, Google’s Android, and HP’s TouchPad. Apps are purchased online (though some are free) and downloaded onto your device of choice. Once downloaded, most do not require internet access to run.

Leafsnap is a tree-identification app developed by a couple of professors and a Smithsonian botanist using face recognition software. It features a collection of high-resolution images of leaves, flowers, and fruits. It is free and allows users to set up personal accounts to load their images and track their findings. Just point the device at the leaf you want identified, snap a picture, and the app will tell you what kind of tree it is (though you will have to be in range of wireless internet or have a data plan on your phone).

David Jacobs, one of Leafsnap’s creators and a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, said there are “big advantages” to using this app over a traditional tree field guide.

“The automatic recognition allows a user to take a picture of an isolated leaf and find matching species,” Jacobs explained. “If the instructions are carefully followed, this does a good job of finding matches for a leaf.”

Leafsnap currently includes three regions – New York City, Washington, D.C., and the Northeast. Most northeastern trees are currently available on the app, and any missing species will be included by spring, Jacobs said.

The National Audubon Society’s Audubon Guides have an extensive list of mobile field guides, ranging from apps for wildflowers of the southwest desert to mammals of North America. Charlie Rattigan, executive vice president of Green Mountain Digital, and creator of Audubon apps, said the digital guides offer more than a book can.

“These are not simply ebooks,” Rattigan said. “The bird guide, for instance, includes over eight hours of songs and calls and wintering range maps for all migratory species.” Green Mountain Digital also created a fly-fishing app for the sporting goods company Orvis, which includes instructional video of casting techniques, a library of flies, and 3D animation showing how to tie 22 different fly fishing knots.

Other apps that might be interesting to our readers include a Ducks Unlimited app, which features a waterfowl gallery and videos of duck hunting techniques and duck calls, and “Critter Trax,” an app that identifies tracks and scat.

Most field guide apps cost between $1 and $20, some are free.

  1. Jenna Dixon → in Tunbridge VT
    Mar 05, 2012

    Nice, warm intro, Meghan. I just wanted to chime in with the mention of the iPod Touch (think iPhone without the phone): more affordable and more portable than the iPad and Leafsnap et al. work on it too….. Disclaimer: I own no stock in Apple!

  2. Chester Karwatowski → in West Shokan, NY
    Apr 22, 2012

    In keeping with Earth Day 2012, this is a great article and is an example of how we can utilize technologies to better understand our environment. There are a couple of other apps out there that might be of interest to your readers. The first helps to document and map invasive species, plants and animals. “What’s Invasive” help collect information about Invasive species that are a threat to native plants and animals, crowding natives, consuming food sources, or acting as fire hazards. Another app is focused on river systems. “Creek Watch” help engage citizen scientists and help “crowd source” data collection -  something the Audobon Society pioneered over 100 years ago. Tech apps aid nature using mobile & social tech to crowd source data for protecting water

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