Nature Apps To Explore The Great Outdoors (as close as your backyard)

A yellow bird is shown perched on a tree

Brian Raicich is the Associate Executive Director at the Upper Main Line Y and graduated from Penn State University with a BS in Environmental Resource Management and Masters in Environmental Pollution Control. He has served as a naturalist at the Y for over 25 years, leading nature programs, summer camps, and family programs.

Have you ever been on a walk with your family and wondered what was that weird bug crossing your path? Found a set of animal tracks in the mud, located a beautiful flower or heard a mysterious call at night? There are now many nature apps that can help you identify just about any plant or animal with your smartphone. 

You don’t have to travel to a national park or wildlife refuge to explore the natural world. The average backyard and garden is teeming with a lot more interesting things than just grass and mulch. Children love to explore and discover and these nature apps will help your family to identify what is living just outside your home in a fun way. 

Through scavenger hunts and games, these nature apps can provide activities similar to augmented reality games like Pokemon Go. Instead of capturing imaginary creatures, you can “collect” real plants and animals while learning more about your neighborhood’s ecosystem. Studies have shown children who explore and learn about their natural world have less anxiety, are happier, and will become stewards for the environment as adults.

While this provides for fun outdoor activity, the collection of these observations also provides a very important service known as citizen science. These observations recorded through the nature apps provide valuable data that is crowdsourced for scientists and conservationists to better protect and save bees, butterflies, birds, and more!

There is no better time to get outside and explore the great outdoors with the family and the following are suggested apps to help with your nature discoveries!

A Nature Guide Along For The Ride

iNaturalist: As your family sets off to explore the great outdoors, whether that be in a park or in your backyard, this app is like having a veteran naturalist along for your walk. It helps the user to identify plants and animals and record observations. And by animals, we mean everything from bugs, butterflies, birds, salamanders, frogs, mammals, and more! Make identifications, record what you have seen, and explore maps of locations to other plant and animal sightings made throughout your neighborhood. We can’t emphasize enough how much plant and animal identification information is packed into this app!

Who Is That Tweeting?

Birding or bird watching is one of the fastest-growing hobbies and a great way to engage your family with nature just outside your door. At any time, a yard in Chester County could have over 30 different species of birds passing through! To help identify these feathered friends, here are some suggested apps to begin your birding adventures.

Merlin Bird ID: This free app will help to identify the bird you have found through five simple questions or by submitting a photo. Developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the app compares your photo with millions of others stored in the Lab’s Macaulay Library to make an accurate ID.

Ready to spread your wings? 

Sibley eGuide to Birds, iBird, and Audubon Bird Guide offers complete digital field guides right on your phone, with photos, bird song recordings, videos, and range maps based on the birds found in your region. You can take the next step and enter your birding observations with eBird, the world’s largest birding community. This app provides your family with “hotspots,” locations in your community for the best places to go birding based on recent and historical observations. Just like iNaturalist, eBird uses this data to track bird species ranges, migration paths, and population trends to help protect species in need.

Now it's time to explore, identify, and expand your family’s knowledge of your little corner of the natural world. Get outside and make some discoveries!

Special thanks to Mike Defina, Chad Hutchison, and Brian “BQ” Quindlen, local Chester County naturalists, for sharing their reviews on the apps available for families to set off and explore the great outdoors.