Bird identification apps will help you learn the names of your favorite neighbors.

It’s less than a week before Christmas, and I’ll bet by now you’re beginning to feel “gadgeted out,” tired of being bombarded with all of the e-mail, internet and TV ads for nifty electronics, smartphones, e-readers and apps. I think nature lovers, in particular, feel the commercialization of the holidays even more than others.

That’s probably because when we imagine ourselves doing what we like best—getting away to some wild, remote place filled with wildlife—we rarely picture laptops and iPads as part of the mix. But at this time of year, inspired by all the attention and news time being given to the many gizmos out there, maybe we can allow for a little “charity” and let a gadget work its way into that lofty ideal we hold of our unplugged selves alone in the wilderness.

Because, could it actually turn out that some of those devices that we tend to think will drive us crazy in the great outdoors bring value to our wild wanderings?

Leaf identification apps may go a step beyond by aiding scientists studying climate change. ©John H. Gaukel

Say hello to friends you know . . .

Although I’ve often proclaimed my indignation over those who dare to bring their cell phones on nature trips, I’ve recently found myself outside with iPhone in hand, playing with an application called LeafSnap. By taking a photo of any leaf I find on my hikes, the app will attempt to identify what tree it’s from. And for someone like me who has only a rudimentary knowledge of the flora that surrounds us, it’s fascinating to finally learn just who all my arboreal neighbors are.

And in preparation for an upcoming trip to Yellowstone National Park in the spring, I’ve recently downloaded the National Geographic Park Maps app. I now have maps of 20 of the most popular national parks—as well as the parks’ regulations, histories, survival tips and bear safety tips, among other information—in the palm of my hand. Without having to haul around tour books, I look forward to a lighter backpack.

Audubon has bird call identification apps, and NatureFind has an app that will help you find and learn about the best parks, nature centers, botanical gardens, arboretums, aquariums, preserves and fish hatcheries in your area.


Just, please, don’t make a cell phone call to your office when you’re paddling near me.

And, surprisingly, some of these new apps are doing more than helping us get closer to nature. For example, one tree identification application will beam the photo you take to an information database where scientists studying climate change and biodiversity loss can use the information for research.

. . . and everyone you meet

So, for this holiday week anyway, I promise not to write any more articles about the lack of respect people show when they bring their handheld devices into my nature experience.

Just, please, when you’re paddling near me, don’t make a cell phone call to your office.

Do you have any favorite outdoor apps?

Happy holidays, and here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,