ust enter your zip code into a bird identification app, and you’ll get 20 common birds in your area. ©John T. Andrews

A quick count of the field guides lined up on the bookshelves in my office currently numbers about 25 tomes. Some are quite hefty at several hundred pages, and some are nothing more than large-format, laminated sheets.

If I look in the glove compartment of my car, I could probably dig up a few more, which are pocket-sized and portable. But what’s even more convenient than these paper versions—and pretty cool to boot—are the field guides you can download into a mobile device.

For example, at audubon.org/apps, you can get apps for identifying trees, birds, wildflowers, mammals, reptiles and fish. You can even break it down more specifically with apps on Texas wildflowers or New England birds. And at wildtones.com, you can get the Peterson Field Guide to Backyard Birds for your iPhone. These new apps do what your printed field guide never could: not only can you see the bird images and maps and read the descriptive text, but they allow you to hear the bird calls. Making bird identification even easier, if you enter in a zip code, the app will shift through 900 North American bird species and show you the 20 most commonly found in your area.

With such a wealth of scientific and local information at our fingertips, are old-fashioned “naturalist” guides a threatened species?

The age of Aquarius

You can get apps for identifying almost anything, including trees, birds, mammals and fish. ©John T. Andrews

“Naturalists” are professionals with field skills and experience, and a significant knowledge of and passion for a particular region’s wildlife and plants. They are as apt to get excited about a beetle scuttling across their paths as they are about a 900-pound bruin. We tend to idolize and revere them; for while climatologists, vulcanologists and ecologists argue over policy matters and endless statistics, the naturalist is “out there,” pointing at the red-tailed hawk circling overhead or the lady’s-slipper orchid underfoot. They guide wide-eyed eco-tourists into new lands and converse poetically about a natural world we’ve somehow forgotten while in our cubicles and committee meetings.

But innovations in information technology in the last few years are starting to give naturalist guides an aura more associated with love beads and earth shoes than laptops and eco-credits. Anyone with a Twitter account can send out a request for recommendations on an area’s best places to eat or stay for a night and receive hundreds of tips back almost instantaneously. Much like travel agents and punch-card airline tickets, naturalist guides may soon become quaint relics of the travel industry, rather than trip essentials.

A walk on the wild side

Sometimes, I choose to travel to a particular location because I know it’s going to be hard for me to be there. I’m afraid of high places; so a few years ago, I decided to go to see the Andes, in the mountainous region of Patagonia. At one point during a hike in Torres del Paine National Park, I was sure I’d have to drop out and turn back. The narrow trail before us was bordered on one side by a steep, nearly vertical rock wall; and on the other by a nearly vertical, deep drop. Seeing my knees start to buckle under me, my naturalist guide came over and told me a story. “I used to be extremely afraid of the water,” she confided. “I tried everything to get over my fear, but nothing seemed to work. So, I took a few swimming lessons and then forced myself to jump off a diving board.”

My in-the-flesh guide and me (with “thumbs up”) on a mountain in Patagonia. ©Jane Schneider

I picked up my pack and soldiered on.

After my somewhat successful hike—I managed to make it partway through the toughest portion of the trail (albeit, glued and flattened against the rock wall most of the way)—my guide took my camera from me and handed it to another traveler. She asked her to take a photo of us on the trail, our hands in the “thumbs up” position. She then gave me a big smile and a hug.

I’m pretty sure there’s no app for that.

Do you think naturalist tour guides are becoming obsolete? Have you ever opted to use technology rather than hire a person to help you navigate the nature of an area?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy