Apps for the Great Outdoors

CardinalEditor's note: This article was commissioned and submitted by Mitchell Waite, the publisher of iBird Explorer and CEO of Mitch Waite Group. Laura Kammermeier is a respected voice in the field of birding and has previously published on the subject of iPhone apps. We normally don't encourage submissions from app developers, when they concern apps or accessories they develop. However, we looked this article over carefully and felt that it was fairly written and covered an important topic.

How many times have you roamed the great outdoors and paused to wonder, "What kind of tree (bird, flower, mammal, etc.) is that?" And how many times have you asked yourself, "Where does this trail lead?" Thanks to the explosion in nature-based apps, you no longer have to lug a sack full of books into the field to answer those questions.

From full-length field guides and regional samplers, to slick geo-tracking devices, these apps harness layers of complex environmental data and present them to you with an easy-to-use interface. They help you satisfy your curiosity of the natural world, whether you are at your desktop, in the field, or en route to the next natural wonder. (Note: The majority of these are found in the App Store's Reference and Education categories.)


The App Store blossoms with plant-related apps such as guides to trees, wildflowers, marine flora, herbs, and more. We feature three of these in this article.

Botany Buddy

$9.99, Version 1.1;

Botany BuddyBuilt for gardeners, landscapers, and all-around plant lovers, Botany Buddy helps you identify trees and shrubs and choose beautifying additions to your landscape or garden. You can search by plant name or use the advanced search features to identify unfamiliar plants. The app includes a comprehensive and interactive reference guide with more than 1,300 plants. Each plant profile contains 25 fields of information along with color photos of the plant (over 4,500 come pre-loaded on the app). In addition, users can import photos into the app from the iPhone's camera or upload image files to the device using iTunes. Finally, "The Buddy System" feature lets you build and share collections with your friends and colleagues—a big hit with botanists and landscape designers alike.

Florafolio – Native Plants of the North East

$3.99, Version 2.0;

FlorafolioFlorafolio is an interactive pocket guide that introduces gardeners and nature enthusiasts to native plants of Northeastern North America, including Canada. Browse the plant catalog by plant type (tree, shrub, grass, etc.) or search by entering a common or Latin name in the search bar. Each plant profile provides multiple photos for easy ID, plant descriptions, tips on care, growing instructions, and habitat notes. You can personalize the app by adding notes for each plant. The app's plant library is expanding so hopefully it will soon cover a wider geographic area.

California Wildflowers

$9.99, Version 1.0;

FlorafolioThis app gives you info and rich, full-color photos of more than 400 of California's most beautiful wildflowers. Browse thumbnail images to identify plants sorted by flower color, plant part, or family. Tap the screen to jump to the group of photos you're interested in and review a brief description. The index and search functions help you find plants by common or Latin name and sort plants by family, flower color, geographic region, and habitat type. You can even sort by species likely to be in bloom during your next hike!


Bird-watching apps really took flight in the last year. Our bird section looks at four of the 50+ bird-related titles of interest to bird watchers in the App Store. (Check out the Books section for a few other titles).

iBird Explorer Plus

$19.99, Version 2.1; Pro version $29.99;

iBirdiBird Explorer puts detailed information on 924 North American species (including Hawaii) at your fingertips and helps you answer the question "What bird is that?" The 2009 winner of MacWorld's Best Reference App, iBird includes a self-contained database and an icon-driven search engine that lets you identify unknown birds based on location, shape, month, color, habitat, song, and many other criteria. The app can be personalized with a cumulative list of all the birds you've sighted in the wild, which is called a "life list," and with field notes. Extras include a Wikipedia and Flickr portal, and French and Spanish species names. The Explorer PRO version ($29.99) features advanced search filters and is designed for use by serious birders. A free version (iBird Explorer 15) as well as lower cost backyard ($4.99) and regional versions ($9.99 each) are also available.

Audubon Birds – A Field Guide to North American Birds

$19.99, Version 1.3.1;

Audubon BirdsAudubon Guides brought a series of print guides to the digital market in late 2009. Its guide to North American birds contains profiles of 751 species, including full descriptions, multiple more than 2,300 songs and calls for each species (including regional dialects), and color photographs of the birds. Birds are listed in alphabetical order, which appeals to beginners (birding purists tend to prefer taxonomic listings). The search engine allows users to search on up to seven attributes, including common name, shape, color, region, size, and location by ZIP code. You can personalize the app with your life list, ZIP code referenced sightings, and photos, which can be shared online at Audubon Regional versions are available for $6.99-$9.99 each, and a free Audubon Sampler is also available.


$19.99, Version 1.1;

BirdsEyeWhether you're at home or on the road, BirdsEye helps you find nearby places to spot birds. The app uses an Internet connection (via 3G or Wi-Fi) to sync with the powerful and growing eBird database from the Cornell Ornithology Lab. This database is generated by sightings from bird watchers all over the continent. The app senses your location and returns a list of all bird sightings in your area. It also lets you view "recent observations" to see the most current sightings and to help you plan a productive day of birding. Extras include species profiles, photographs, songs, and brief identification tips written by birding author Kenn Kaufman.

Chirp! Bird Songs USA

$2.99, Version 2.0.1 (free "Lite" version also available);

BirdsEyeChirp's simple interface makes it easy to play and learn birdsongs. The app has a library of 150 birds found across the United States and uses location awareness to return only the birds you're likely to encounter, from most to least common. (Anticipating travel? You can also select a specific area on a map to generate a song list.) Tapping on a bird name plays up to 34 seconds of audio; another tap yields song descriptions and tips for memorizing it. The app helps you identify mystery songs, letting you sort birds by vocalization type (hoot, warble, coo). Extras include a fun quiz to test your birdsong memory and allow you to compare your song skills to other users on the app's high score table!


A dozen or so guides and references to a variety of wild and domesticated animals (mammals, fish, reptiles, etc.) roam free in the App Store. Here are a few good picks.

Audubon Mammals – A Field Guide to North American Mammals

$9.99, Version 1.1;

Audubon MammalsAudubon Mammals brings an updated version of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals to digital life. More than 240 species profiles are featured; each describes the species' behavior, habitat, range, diet, reproduction, endangered status, and more. Extras include track and scat illustrations. The search engine allows users to find animals by name, family, shape/type, and ZIP code. You can personalize the app with your life list, sightings, and photos.

MyNature Animal Tracks

$6.99, Version 1.0;

AnimalTracksAn animal's tracks are an easy way to identify the presence of nearby creatures and an exciting way to share nature with children. The Animal Tracks app lets you search on footprint size and shape to identify more than 43 animals. The app shows images of the animal and its tracks, along with drawings of both its fore and hind prints. Track measurements and a description of the animal's habitat, lifecycle, and range are also provided. Extras include vocalizations of each animal, a handy ruler to measure tracks, and a journal for recording personal notes on each track sighting. This one's made for adults, but is also kid-friendly.


There are almost as many rock hounds as birders out there. The best reference for iPhone and iPod touch users is the "Geology" series of apps.

Geology (CA, AZ, CO, MA, etc.)

$4.99 to $9.99, Version 1.1;

Geology CAThe "Geology" series of data-rich apps were built for geography and geology junkies. Each app gives you instant access to as many as 40 layers of public domain data for each state covered. The app pinpoints your location on a map, which can be customized by downloading sets of layers such as cities, counties, ecological regions, USGS quads, surface geology, mineral resources, hydrology, annual precipitation, and more. The Tools section allows you to pan/zoom, take a screenshot, calculate distance and area, find latitude and longitude, and add bookmarks. As of late February, apps in this series were available for CA, TX, CO, AZ, UT, WY, NV, ID, NM, MT, WA/OR, NY, MA, OH, WI, MN, and FL.


Whether you're looking for birds, mammals, or rocks, you're going to find yourself wandering through the Great Outdoors. These apps will help you find your way.

Trails – GPS Tracker

$3.99, Version 2.5;

TrailsTrails lets you record, export, and import your hikes directly on your iPhone. View your hikes, bike trips, or runs and then view them on the Wikipedia of street maps (, as well as Web sites such as Every,, and The app displays your path in street or topographical views and even keeps track of your elevation. You can take and geotag photos on your trip and upload them. One critical feature—once maps are downloaded to your iPhone, you no longer need an Internet connection to view them; it works even when you're out of signal range. You can also edit the tracks on the map itself.

MotionX GPS

$2.99, Version 9.3;

MotionX GpsMotionX GPS lets you track and display your position at all times on street, topographical, or satellite maps, which you can download and store on your iPhone. It also calculates your motion statistics such as start/end/elapsed time, distance travelled, average speed, etc. So whether you walk, hike, run, cycle, bike, sail, ski, fly, race, or geocache, this app helps chart your route all the way there and back. The app lets you share details of your adventure (position, route, stats) by e-mail, and designate up to 300 waypoints and 101 tracks, which can also be posted to Facebook or Twitter. This app integrates with the magnetic compass on the iPhone 3GS to let you know in which direction you are pointed.

Boots, backpack…and your iPhone

With the proliferation of nature-based reference apps for the iPhone, we nature enthusiasts have instant access to information, wherever we are. This lets us better navigate, identify, and understand our surroundings.

So the next time Mother Nature calls you outside, grab your boots and backpack. But if you want to get the most of your journey, don't forget your iPhone.

A Game Changer for Field Guides

by Mitchell Waite

Before the iPhone, field guides—used to help you identify birds, mammals, insects, plants, and more—existed only as expensive full-color books containing hundreds of illustrations or photos and a small amount of text for each species. Once the iPhone appeared, there was a profound change in the creation and marketing of field guides. With its huge storage capacity, big colorful screen, and great audio capabilities, the iPhone provided developers with a perfect platform for portable, digital field guides.

Digital field guides do much more than allow you to leave your books at home. Because they are hosted on devices with powerful processors and digital video and audio, developers can add intelligent features to the guides. For example, field guides for birds can now include decision engines that improve the accuracy and speed of bird identification. And they can play back bird calls to help you identify species by sound—and even attract birds to you. In addition, because the iPhone has robust Internet access, developers can supplement information stored in the guide with information accessed from the Web.

Finding the right field guide for you

When you look for a digital field guide in the App Store, there are some points you should keep in mind and some questions you should ask:

General considerations

  • Read the iTunes and independent reviews thoroughly. They will help point you to the best apps.

  • Check out the app's version number and date of the last upgrade: The version number can indicate how much attention the developer given to improving the app, and how much they listen to user feedback. For example, an app originally released a year ago that is still on version 1.0 may not be the best bet.

  • Does your iPhone support all the app's features? For example, some apps take advantage of a digital compass, and those features will only work on an iPhone 3GS.

  • Check to see whether the app requires an Internet connection. If you're backpacking in Montana, you may not be able to access the app's information.

Specific considerations for field guides

  • Are illustrations and photos included? Illustrations are better for identification; photos can show seasonal, regional, and other variations.

  • Does the app use the available power of the iPhone? For example, does it provide a robust search engine to speed identification?

  • Does the app allow you create notes, tag favorites, and add to the database?

  • Does the app have an audio component and is it of good quality?

  • What is the source of the information and artwork? Many me-too apps are no more than collections of public domain images and content.

You can find answers to many of these questions by reading the App Store reviews or by looking on independent review sites like,, and others.

A final note: After you have selected your field guide, be patient installing it. Field guides often have large databases of information and take time to download.

Get back to nature with these great apps!
Summer 2010
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