There’s an App for That

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 18, 2010 10

Just 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, 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, 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,



  1. K.N. June 2, 2010 at 5:41 am - Reply

    No way can a written guide really replace a human guide with a great personality, lots of knowledge, and who cares about the people who are traveling with her/or him. Just my opinion from several wonderful trips!!

  2. Carlyn Kline May 26, 2010 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    We too have shelves of guide books and field guides and “do our homework” before any new adventure. To me, this is simply laying a foundation for all the knowledge that can be provided by our own experience and the expertise of a guide, whose other great contribution is the personal relationship with local folks whom we would othewise never meet or learn from. Relying on printed or digitized material alone is like reading an anatomy book and then attempting a complicated surgical procedure; one really needs the guidance of someone who thoroughly knows and understands the territory.

  3. NineQuietLessons May 25, 2010 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I don’t think it has to be an either-or proposition; technology can supplement your naturalistic education, but can’t replace the human element.

  4. Joan Campbell May 23, 2010 at 10:10 am - Reply

    Oh my gosh, my DREAM is that, if I had Bill Gates’s money, I’d hire my own private, full-time (24/7) naturalist to accompany me EVERYWHERE, even to the grocery store. Well-guided trips such as those by NatHab have spoiled me. As much as I love guidebooks, field guides (I have a bookshelf-full) and nature apps (both Bird Jam and iBird are on my iPod), there’s nothing that compares to having a living, breathing expert who can respond to the moment, the situation, and the participants. A guidebook or app can answer only the questions you know enough to ask; a live expert can point out and explain things you didn’t even know existed, and he/she can help you make connections among natural history, geology, climatology, culture, events, and experiences. And no matter how breathless the writing style of a guidebook, it can’t infect you with enthusiasm and curiosity the way a good naturalist-guide can.

  5. Nancy Lippiatt May 22, 2010 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Field guides are becoming a thing of the past for many travelers. They are costly and become outdated much too quickly. If the visitor uses them for background information in his/her preparation for a trip, these guides become invaluable. Many of them give tips that I find very fascinating and add depth to the area being visited. I think part of the problem is the size of them. I often pull the pages out that apply to a particular area of interest and return the pages after I return home.

    As for naturalist guides…it reminds me of the school of thought that has been in the world of education. Yes, electronics/technology has made a huge impact on education, but nothing can replace the personal touch that can only come from a warm “body” with a caring spirit…teachers. I haven’t found any hand-held piece of equipment that can apply the personal insight and glimpses to cultures, history, people, etc.

    I would prefer hearing a first-hand account from a soldier who stormed the cliffs at the Normandy beaches rather than just reading about it an iPod, missing the reality of the beaches and not understanding the sense of fear and courage that the men who gave their lives felt. My ears and eyes work better together. Why waste taking in all I can take in at such a sobering place. I have five senses and learn better the more of them I use. Oh, what the “app-worshipers” miss.

    (Originally Posted on LinkedIn)

  6. Kit Nordeen May 22, 2010 at 5:48 pm - Reply

    Hi Candy: Loved the picture and I don’t mean the bird!! Glad you are still having so much fun. (Lately most of mine has been with dog, Cami, on our woods trails at the farm.) It has been beautiful down there. If you would ever like to go, just let me know. Kit

  7. Art Hardy May 22, 2010 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Now, when you accompany a naturalist guide in possession of a digital device, then you’ve got something!

  8. Mary May 22, 2010 at 7:24 am - Reply

    I too love the printed guides, but NOTHING can compare with the live guide with his or her spontaneous enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge. That’s one of the incredible pluses Nat Hab has to offer.

  9. Dorothy Klinefelter May 21, 2010 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    I will always treasure my printed nature guides. I can make comments in the margins and put post-it notes on pages I want to return to. I don’t know how to do that type of notation on the electronic versions of nature guides. I have used, and liked, an electronic bird song guide. It is neat to just press a button and hear the appropriate song. But I keep it at home and don’t use it in the field.

    Human naturalist guides will always be an important part of any worthwhile jaunt in the wilderness. All prerecorded, digitized info is homogenized for the average user and cannot accurately represent what you are seeing and doing at the particular moment. In watching wildlife, it is very valuable to have a person along who can interpret right on the spot just what is happening. Nothing will replace this.

  10. Travis May 21, 2010 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    Also helps with birdsong!

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