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There Really is an App for That

Tim McCreight
July 7, 2023

Since Harpswell Heritage Land Trust was created 40 years ago, our world has seen dramatic changes in almost every area we can think of—healthcare, travel, agriculture, communication and the list goes on. During the last twenty or so years we have come to depend on the pocket-size devices we call cell phones. We really should be calling them by their other name, smart phones, because the revolutionary aspect of these wireless devices is not just that we can call each other; the principal value might be in the thousands of applications, i.e. apps, that harness the power of these microchip-packed slabs of plastic and glass.

person holds phone to take photo of bee balm plant

Using an iPhone to identify bee balm (Amelia Graham photo)

In particular, let’s focus on the intersection between smartphone technology and how we interact with the natural world. It has never been easier to learn about the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees, the ponds and the seas than it is today. Apps make it possible to learn the names of the wonders we see, and to know more about them. What does a robin sound like? Why is there moss on that side of the tree? Is this mushroom okay to eat? All this and so much more at the touch of a button.

And that’s not all! The smarts of a smartphone include a compass and GPS positioning that can help you get to the parking lot at the beginning of a trail. The camera allows you to capture that quiet moment alone in the woods and the microphone can record birdsong and the relaxing babble of a babbling brook.

Did you know that this shift in technology affects your local land trust? Noticing that more people hiking on our trails are using phones for information as they walk, HHLT has upgraded our online resources to encourage trail users to save paper and forego the printed maps. Our trailhead markers now include Quick Response, or QR codes that link directly to our redesigned website.

In addition to the valuable information a smart phone puts in your hands, elements of that information can also travel to scientists and researchers working in laboratories around the world. In no other time in history has it been possible for so many people to provide real-time information about migration patterns and invasive plants to organizations that require this information to protect the environment.

What You Need to Know About Apps

Most people know that smart phones fall into two categories according to the software that runs them: iPhones made by Apple and Android phones made by anyone else. Many apps are made to run on either system, but before downloading or purchasing an app, make sure you’re in the right universe. The two most common places to search for and acquire applications are Google Play for Android phones and the App store on any Apple device. Some apps are free, some are only a few dollars, and others are pricey.

Almost all apps are listed as free, and some of them really are. In some cases, universities like Cornell underwrite the cost of the app and in exchange collect data from users to support research. In other cases, the app is free to download, but includes frequent messages encouraging an upgrade to a premium version with additional features. Another approach used by some companies is to provide a free three-day trial, then offer a subscription that can be paid by the month or year. As you would guess, the more sophisticated the app, the higher the cost.

It is not practical to provide recommendations or current pricing here because new applications will appear and prices will change. Also, the features that appeal to others might be too general or too specific for your level of interest. That said, here are some popular apps to get you started. These are not recommended or supported by HHLT, but offered as a place to start. Ask around; I think you’ll find that people are usually eager to share their opinions about their favorites.

Bird Identification

eBird by Cornell Lab
Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab
iBird Pro
Audubon Bird Guide
The Warbler Guide
Raptor ID
Sibley Birds

Tree and Plant Identification

Botany Buddy

Caveat: For all their power and convenience, the one thing smartphones do not provide is common sense. Some people mistakenly think that as long as they take their phone along, they can head off to the woods or onto the water without forethought or supplies. Unfortunately, sometimes such people find themselves in crisis — please don’t be such a person.