For many of us, getting outside is a welcome opportunity to leave our screens behind and connect to a world far removed from technology. But it’s also the case that the tools available to us on our smartphones can be invaluable for deepening our understanding of the natural world and enhancing our experience.
Dan Kraus, Weston conservation scientist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), points out that field naturalists of the past also relied on tools – of a very different kind – to identify species. He cites the example of early twentieth-century ornithologist Percy Taverner, who followed the common practice of shooting birds to identify them and who also collected skins to verify species. Indeed, one of the most famous ornithologists, John James Audubon, shot each of the birds he painted in his monumental Birds of America, which documented more than 700 species.
Thankfully, today’s field naturalists need only open an app on their smartphones to identify the birds, trees and other species they see on their hikes, canoe trips and other excursions. Kevin Callan, author of 15 books including the best-selling The Happy Camper and a popular series of paddling guides, says that rather than lugging a heavy field guide with you, smartphone apps like Audubon Birds Pro are a fantastic (and lightweight) resource for identifying birds on your travels.
Along the same lines, conservationist and well-known nature photographer Gregg McLachlan recommends using Virginia Tech Tree ID, the largest database of tree pictures in North America, to help with identification in the field. “It’s huge – about 400 MB – but well worth it for nature lovers,” he says.
Being able to identify the flora and fauna around us often leads to an interest in protecting wild spaces, and collecting and sharing information about the species we see on our travels is very useful for conservation groups like NCC, says Mr. Kraus. “Through online databases you can share information on NCC properties and other important conservation lands so that we can better understand and manage these places.”
He suggests that interested citizen scientists can participate by sharing observations on websites such as ebird.org and e-butterfly.org. Outdoor enthusiasts can also submit their observations of rare species to provincial conservation data centres. “Thanks to new technology, the modern naturalist can make important contributions to our understanding and conservation of Canada and share their passion for nature with others.”