Using smart phone applications as a learning tool while hiking

Blogpost written by PCMN Josh Skattum, Cohort 3.

Have you ever came across an unfamiliar plant, fungi, or animal and just became engaged with interest and wonder? You might ask yourself what that biota might be? Maybe you’ve heard a bird song or a frog call and wished an expert could help identify that particular species. As part of a community of Master Naturalists, we seek learning opportunities through volunteer work and advanced training due to our interest and passion for the outdoors. Many of our members seek volunteer leadership roles with non-profits, becoming immersed within settings where we are able to advance our knowledge and skills. What if I wrote that there are more resources that at your fingertips, through your hand-held device, such as a smart phone!

As an avid hiker and a community science volunteer, I find myself continuing to find plants and animals that are just completely unknown to me! It’s exciting and fascinating! During my hikes I have came across applications that have assisted me with not only identifying the unknown, but also provided me with information on the said species at hand.

For this blog I am touching on three applications including Seek, Inaturalist, and Merlin birding app! I’ll also be sharing some fun observations while sharing some of my own thoughts and experiences!

Seek and inaturalist basically go hand in hand, but are two separate applications that you can download. What I love about seek is that you can take photos of the biota in front of you and watch the algorithms narrow in on that said species. When you identify the discovery that you have, you have an option to open up a Wikipedia page listing their natural history! As you identify more plants and animals you also collect fun little badges!

Seek also can sink with your inaturalist account contributing your observations into an online database of information! This can be great for troubleshooting for more difficult observations. Sometimes your photos might not register making it difficult to identify. That’s when inaturalist can become even more helpful! Inaturalist has a community of professionals with expertise and they are here to help you narrow in on your findings! You can also upload photos after taking them with your smart phone. This is a nice feature in case you don’t have time or the ability for an in person seek ID. Many smart phone photos contain meta-data including the date, location, and time in which your photos were taken. This information can help professionals narrow in on the species at hand while also providing important information about your sighting!

I will be honest that I am not much of a birder at all and using the Merlin Birding ID app has been a fun experience as I ease into this hobby! I love being able to identify and learn about a new species while observing it. My favorite feature of this app so far is using the sound ID. All I have to do is hit a button and watch birds while letting my phone share with me the acoustics that it is picking up on! I believe that this app also sinks with ebird and will create a “life list”.

One tip that was given to me was to also get a visual confirmation while doing the acoustic ID. My last outing I even took a camera out to back up my observations. So far my favorite experience was using Merlin ID to identify a cooper hawk calling. The following day I visited to take photos of the birds that I had ID’d acoustically and I learned that there were actually 3 cooper hawks nesting along a stream by Lower Sabina Dam!

While using these programs on my phone, I have been able to identify and learn about the plants and wildlife in my surroundings wherever I go! I also get to help contribute to science! The Merlin birding app contributes to the ebird data-base. You can learn more about the research and conservation applications via this link here! Inaturalist also share’s their findings with scientific data repositories allowing scientists find and use your discoveries for research! You can learn more via a link here!

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