Downstairs on my bookshelves, I have an entire collection of well-worn field guides on everything from insects to wildflowers. Most of them, however, I haven’t opened in years. Like most people, if I want to identify a plant or animal, I’m more likely to reach for my phone. While it is possible to get replicas of my beloved field guides in digital form (Audubon offers a full set), my favourite apps are the ones that offer extra tools to make identification easier.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Merlin changed my life, but if any bird identification app has that power, it’s this one. Merlin can identify birds through images and by entering descriptive features, but the real magic comes from its ability to identify bird songs. As someone who has no ear for music—whether by birds or otherwise—Merlin has revealed a whole world of birds that I was previously unaware of.
Using Merlin has made me listen more closely to the natural world. While I still can’t identify many birds by ear, I listen more carefully when I’m outside, picking out individual birds from what was a cacophony of birdsong.
Merlin has also made me more aware of the human presence on the landscape. One of Merlin’s limitations is its ability to “hear” birds above the background noise of people and traffic. In an urban environment, this means that using Merlin often makes me wish everyone would just be quiet for thirty seconds to give the birds a chance.
If you’re someone who likes gamification, Merlin also offers the ability to create a life list and provides very satisfying graphics when you add a new species. Merlin is owned by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who are the global leaders in bird research. Their website offers an extensive range of bird-related tools and information. If you create an account, you can submit your bird data to be part of their database.
Wildflower Search is part of a family of apps that are broken down regionally on the app store. The interface for these apps and for their parent website isn’t the most elegant, but their search function more than makes up for it.
Unlike other apps that scan and identify photos of wildflowers, with some varying success, the Wildflower Search apps allow you to enter information about a species, using six different characteristics: plant type, flower colour, petals, flower size, leaf arrangement, and habitat. Using the data you enter, the app refines the possible options and produces a list of likely wildflowers. Every time I’ve used this app, the results have been within the top two or three options.
Wildflower Search requires slightly more work than the photo ID apps, but on the whole, the results are more accurate.
There are many apps available that claim to identify plants by scanning a photo. Unfortunately, many of them are inaccurate or can only identify plants to the genus level. While Picture This is not perfect, overall it does a better job of these identifications than others.
Using Picture This is as simple as you would hope from a photo-based ID app. Either use the camera to make an identification in real time, or allow the app access to your photos and have it make an ID from a saved image.
The app’s ability to identify plants, even from very blurry photos is quite remarkable. I recently uploaded a picture that was nothing more than five blurry purple petals and Picture This made an accurate identification. The app does struggle with species where there are multiple similar plants within the same genera. As do we all—Astragalus’s are hard.
Picture This can also identify cultivars of garden flowers, making doubly handy for when you forget which perennial you planted last year.
The free version of Picture This works perfectly well, however, you need to navigate their interface that directs you to create a paid account. Identifications on the free account are deleted after 90 days, so record your observations elsewhere if that’s important to you.
iNaturalist prides itself on being a community for naturalists and more than the other apps I’ve mentioned, it offers the opportunity to interact with other people from around the world.
Unlike the other apps on this list, iNaturalist isn’t strictly an identification app, although it can be used in that manner. Rather, iNaturalist allows users to upload photos of the birds, plants, animals, and insects that they see and have them added to iNaturalist’s map and database. If you don’t know the identification of the species you’ve seen, you can allow other users to offer suggestions.
If you’re someone who wants to share your observations and talk about them with others, iNaturalist might be the right app for you. At its core, it’s an international citizen science project that provides data about the plants and animals that are living in our backyards.
There are definitely those who believe that technology and the natural world are polar opposites, however, I’ve found that using these apps has made me more likely to want to be outside. Plus carrying these apps on my phone is much more convenient that hauling around a bookshelf of field guides.