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Cheat sheets for your walk in the woods

A family friend has an amazing ability to casually identify most, if not all, of the flora we encounter when we’re walking in the countryside. Her skill is based on experience and knowledge gained from a lot of reading. But now, thanks to my smartphone’s high-tech trickery, I can almost begin to rival her powers. As you take long autumn strolls in the wild, apps can be excellent nature guides.


  • Free on iOS

  • Leafsnap is an impressive nature-guide app employing an extensive directory of North American plants. You can flip through the directory manually, filtering the species by leaf shapes, flowers, fruit, and so on. Tapping an entry takes you to a photo-rich data page on the plant with examples of its bark and seeds. There is also a text description of its habitats and bloom times as well other interesting information. It is fun to scan through this directory slowly, but this part really works best if you already know a plant’s common or scientific name.

  • For those of us without deep knowledge of plants, however, Leafsnap offers a magical bit of help. Take a leaf and snap a clear photo of it against a white background. The image is then uploaded to a server, and after a short delay the app gives you the trees that seem to best match the shape of the leaf. It’s fun, fascinating, and definitely educational. Sadly, the app hasn’t been updated in a couple of years, so its design looks a little dated, but it still works well as long as you have Wi-Fi or a good cellphone connection.

Audubon Trees

  • $5 on iOS and $4 on Android

  • A great alternative to Leafsnap is Audubon Trees. The app is a more traditional field guide, and it includes detailed information on more than 700 trees common in North America.

  • Although it lacks Leafsnap’s auto-ID magic, it does have a comprehensive database that helps you identify trees by describing their overall shape and the family to which they belong, like citrus or cypress. Each tree in the database has great photos of leaves, bark, and more, as well as comprehensive written information. Each entry also has maps of where the tree is usually found.

iBird Plus

  • $15 on iOS

  • IBird Plus, by the Mitch Waite Group, is a great bird-spotting app.

  • The app has detailed information on nearly 1,000 species of birds found in North America, which you can simply browse through to improve your knowledge at leisure.

  • The best bit is the search function, which is far smarter than merely entering search text.

  • It returns a list of birds that roughly match the details you select out of a long list of parameters, including location, size, colors, and wing shape.

  • If you’re out and about and you spot a bird you don’t know, it won’t take long to dial through the various menus and find out what it is.

  • Even more clever is the app’s audio samples of bird calls, which also may help with identification.

  • You can also upload your own photos of birds to the app and then share them on social networks.

  • In addition to being pricey, the app’s chief drawbacks are that its design sometimes feels a little inelegant and that it can be easy to get lost in the menus and submenus.

  • Don’t forget that you can also use some of these apps in your local park, or even in your backyard — nature is everywhere, if you look for it.

Kit Eaton writes on technology for The New York Times.
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