The Buzz

Check out these apps to enhance your outdoor adventures

A person using a cell phone outside.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Technology is always present in our lives these days, so it should come as no surprise that even our time outdoors — which arguably could be better spent without being tethered to technology  — can be enhanced by the smartphones that are always present in our pockets.

We're all for enjoying nature without the constant interruption of text alerts, push notifications and the countless other interruptions our phones provide, but having your phone handy can be useful while exploring the great outdoors, whether to help identify a bird you hear sweetly singing or to find a nearby place for a hike or fishing trip.

With that in mind, we gathered together a list of recommended apps from our own experts, the interpretive naturalists at our visitor centers. Here's a look at the apps they personally use to help them navigate nature. 

Note: Most of the apps below are free to download, but many include the option of in-app purchases. All apps are available at the App Store or on Google Play.

Seek by iNaturalist

This app was hands down the No. 1 recommended nature app by our naturalists, and it's easy to see why. If your'e not sure what flower that is along the trail on your hike or what kind of insect is crawling up the trunk of that nearby tree, you can use Seek to find out. Simply open the app and click the camera icon at the bottom of the screen and let the app's image recognition technology identify the plant or animal species you are seeking. 

Once the species is identified, you can learn more about it and where it is typically found. You'll also be able to see a range map overlaid with other Seekers' observations and see how many times the species has been identified using the app both nearby and globally. 

While Seek is especially useful as a species identification tool for plants, animals and fungi, it includes some fun elements as well. App users can participate in monthly challenges and receive badges for finding different kinds of species on their adventures.

Bird-watching apps

Experienced bird watchers likely have a trove of apps on their phones to aid them on their birding adventures, but a few in particular — Merlin Bird ID and eBird — are useful to both novice and experienced birders alike. 

If you're unsure what kind of bird you've seen in your yard, park, preserve or elsewhere, Merlin Bird ID gathers some information about your bird sighting to help you narrow down the possibilities. Using your location and the date as well as information about the bird's size, color and the environment where it was seen, the app generates a list of potential species, complete with photographs, that you can scroll through. Once you find the bird you saw, you can click on the "This is my bird!" button. From there, you can learn more about the species and log your sighting in the app. You can also switch to the eBird app to log your sighting there as well.

Using eBird, you can keep checklists of birds you find on all your birding adventures and also see what other people are seeing nearby. You can also track your lists and sightings along with photos and sounds of birds you've taken from the field. 

Another good app for birders is The Warbler Guide. This app, which costs $12.99, has loads of specific information about warblers, which are often the most confusing and frustrating birds to ID, said program coordinator Bob Bryerton, adding that having the app is like having a giant warbler field guide in your pocket. It includes some of the same features as Merlin Bird ID and eBird but also includes 3D models of warbler species to help with identifications in the field.

Sky-watching apps

Many people can find the Big Dipper in the night sky, and some of us may also be able to point out the Little Dipper and a few other constellations, but most of us would be considered novice astronomers at best. Luckily though, a plethora of sky-watching apps are available to help us connect the dots on what we are viewing in the night sky.

Among those used by our naturalists to help decipher the night sky are Sky Guide, SkyView Lite and Night Sky X. All three allow users to open their phone's camera in the app and point it at the night sky to see what's in view. Is that bright star above you part of a large constellation? Are any planets visible tonight? The app will even let you see where the International Space Station is and identify satellites traveling through space.

For trail users

Love hiking and exploring new places? The AllTrails app makes it easy to locate trails nearby and find new places you haven't explored yet. You can even scroll through the list of nearby trails for suggestions on family-friendly trails and lesser traveled trails as well as places that allow dogs or are suitable for activities such as horseback riding, snowshoeing, bird-watching and more.

The app includes many local trails, including Forest Preserve District trails. App users can also review trails and leave comments for other users. You can also log your trail activity to keep track of trails you've visited and mileage you logged.

For paddlers

What AllTrails is for hikers and trail users, Go Paddling is for kayakers and paddlers. You can use the app to find nearby paddling locations as well as amenities offered at these spots. Users can also add photos of paddling locations they have visited and offer reviews and other information that can help other paddlers. You can also use the app to plan a paddling trip.

Citizen science apps

Your time in nature can also be a boon to scientists and researchers studying wildlife populations and other trends through the use of any number of citizen science apps designed to collect data. These apps run the gamut, so no matter your interests there's probably one for you to use while out in nature.

The iNaturalist app, for example, allows you to record and share your observations of plants and animals wherever you are, and in turn your observations are included in data available to scientists and researchers in the iNaturalist community who are working to protect nature and better understand many different plant and animal species.

Many apps are also available to track observations of certain animals. For example, Project Squirrel lets users submit squirrel sightings from anywhere squirrels live, while Cicada Safari encourages uses to head out on a cicada hunt, recording observations of periodical cicadas from wherever they may be. In addition, some of the above mentioned apps, including eBird and Seek, have citizen science components.

For anglers

Anglers can help make their time on the water a little more fruitful with Fishbrain. Through the app, you can check out local fishing spots and monitor what other app users have been catching and what kind of bait and tackle they have been using. Several of the Forest Preserve District's most popular fishing spots are featured on the app, including Monee Reservoir and Whalon Lake.

The app also has an active online community where anglers can ask questions and get advice from other fishing enthusiasts and app users worldwide.

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