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The Naturalist In Your Pocket

“Disconnect!” “Unplug!” “Leave your phone at home!” The war cries of the modern naturalist. Understandably so. Brains, like phones, only have so much bandwidth. Where we once spent quiet summer evenings on the patio listening to cicadas, we too often turn this into a “second screen” experience, allowing the dusk’s chorus to play background to the LCD on center stage.


But there is another side of the equation. With each new advance in the technology in our pocket, our backpacks get a little bit lighter. The ur-naturalist of yore would go into the field with a bird guide, flower guide, trail map, perhaps a pair of binoculars, and a camera.


Today, we can replace all of that with a few free apps. It’s truly a wonderful gift, and a democratization of the deep knowledge formerly kept in expensive guides with pictures that seemingly always differed ever-so-slightly from field observations.


Variable leaf shapes of northern red oak, photo courtesy of Minnesota Wildflowers

Counterintuitively, the same devil we decry can foster a deeper connection with the natural world when we use it right.


I’ll confess, I spend a lot of time on my phone at work. But I promise, it’s (usually) for good reason.


Let’s start with the basics. Virtually every phone these days has a camera, so we can check that one off the list. But more than just pretty pictures, this little tool has immeasurably improved our ability to document and share field observations. Where once we needed notebooks and herbarium specimens to track phenology and develop inventories, we can now just create a photo folder without taking plants out of the field.


Seneca snakeroot at Bloody Run, documented but alive and well in the field

On the data sharing side of things, I’m presently watching a smooth serviceberry bush, Amelanchier laevis, for fruit ripeness. A research horticulturalist for the USDA has this species targeted for conservation. This subtle, unassuming shrub has a few features that separate it from its cousins within Amelanchier, including different blooming and ripening patterns (making it an important plant for pollinators and wildlife depending on serviceberry for some part of their life cycle).


This person lives in Ames, but most of these plants live around here. Meanwhile, the fruits ripen all at once, and the birds aren’t far behind when they do. Which means to harvest berries for propagation, he needs to get up here the second the berries are ripe. That used to be guesswork based on the species’ phenology. Now I can just send him a picture when I pass by the shrub on my way home, and he can know exactly when he needs to grab his go bag.


Not quite yet

Speaking of that camera, it can do much more than take pictures.


Many android phones come standard with a little button on the bottom called “lens,” that allows you to reverse-image search quickly. So, if you snap a picture of that bird or flower, you can use lens to find an ID.


But it’s not fail-proof, and it requires a connection to the internet – not always a guarantee in the wilds of Clayton County.


That’s where Seek comes in. Seek is a free app, powered by the dataset from the more well-known iNaturalist (more on that in a bit). This app provides real-time ID with or without a data connection, and often does a very good job. I use this app frequently, for flowers, insects, and even mushrooms.



*Disclaimer: ALWAYS double check the app’s ID against a more detailed field guide, and never eat a wild edible based exclusively on the Seek ID.


Unfortunately, by itself, Seek often struggles with finer-detailed plants like grasses and sedges. That’s where a simple hand lens, like a jewelry loupe, can come in handy – hold the magnifier against the phone’s camera, and it can often get a little closer to identification.


Carex spregellii (Sprengel's sedge) showing off those long beaks under the hand lens

The app’s capacity to access the database without the internet sets it apart, but several other excellent plant/insect/mushroom ID apps also exist, and I’m told do a wonderful job.


What’s more, since they run through the same organization, you can upload your Seek observations directly to iNaturalist. The latter does require an account setup and internet connection, but the account comes free.


iNaturalist will not provide real-time ID, though it does have the ability to ID from a photograph. However, it’s extremely useful for the hunter side of hunter-gatherer. With crowdsourced information on the location and timing of observations, iNaturalist (the app or the website) can help to find plants or animals you’ve always wanted to see without wandering blindly, guided only by hope.


Prothonotary warbler sightings

*Disclaimer 2.0: Extremely rare plants are often vulnerable to poaching. Make your contributions wisely and avoid highlighting the most sensitive plants or animals.

Of course, plants don’t run when you approach them. Not most of them, anyway. Animals are a different story. Perhaps you’re a bird lover. Nothing can ever replace a trusty set of high-quality binoculars, but for the random outing where they’ve been left at home, well, there’s an app for that. Several, actually.


I’m surprised at the capacity of free apps (I use Military Binoculars, but again there are others equally well-reviewed) to enhance my camera’s zoom capacity. A key feature of the technology, across all apps, is to minimize blur at even 30-40x zoom, while the stock camera typically maxes out well below that.


Birders know the struggle of trying to get eyes on a bird, and the importance of developing comfort with identification by sound. Again, the naturalist in our pocket comes to the rescue.

The Merlin BirdID app features the amazing ability to use your phone’s microphone to identify local bird calls. Like Seek, with your location settings turned on, this feature even works absent an internet connection.


Just this year, I had the opportunity to pick up a few rare birds at Bloody Run using Merlin. Cerulean Warblers, a bird of high conservation priority, have been a target of local bird researcher Jon Stravers for years. One day exploring the savannas at Bloody Run, I heard a unique call. I’m not the best at song ID, so I turned on Merlin, and voila.


Note the airplane mode is turned on!

Jon was able to come visit the site and confirm their presence, adding it to his list of locations to monitor as he develops information on their habitat preferences and conservation strategies.


As with the smooth serviceberry, I was able to get this information to Jon remotely, including the location.


I use a few different GPS apps in my day-to-day but in this case, it was Strava. Strava is one of many workout tracking apps, and I use it at work to ground-truth our trail maps and tag interesting finds. During the “workout,” I can snap a photo, and Strava drops that photo into the location along my route.


Similar functionality – and then some – can be found on any number of more dedicated GPS apps like OnX or AllTrails, though both come with a few more hoops to jump through in their free versions to achieve similar results, and let’s face it I’d almost always rather pay nothing than something.


Recreationally, Strava has one more interesting feature: the heatmaps. Heatmaps show the frequency of use for various routes, and I’ve used this often when traveling to find amenable destinations for a run, hike, or paddle.


The top jumble is Yellow River, the bottom is Wyalusing State Park.

Last but certainly not least, the dreaded social media. Yes, it will be the death of us all if the same AI and machine learning driving so many of these apps doesn’t get us first. But at least for now, I have found tremendous value in the crowdsourcing of nature study.


Slowly but surely, my social media feeds have gone from political vitriol and cat pictures to mostly discussions of habitat management, plant ID, and cat pictures (those were never the issue).


If you have an interest, there’s a facebook group for that. Iowa Wildflowers, Midwest graminoids, Iowa Tree & Shrub Enthusiasts, Iowa Foragers, Iowa Mushroom Hunters, Morel Mushroom reports, Iowa Birders, Native Habitat Managers, the list goes on and on. Many of these groups include experts in their fields, and unsurprisingly they delight in offering their skills to curious minds.


One final note: none of these apps will replace the computer between our ears. I recognize the value of mindfulness and practice it often. Especially in my familiar haunts, the phone doesn't leave my pocket while "forest bathing." I still enjoy birds as a chorus rather than individual soloists.


But to know the plants at my feet by name, to know the call of the cerulean by sound? This knowledge, no matter how we acquire it, greatly enriches any walk in the great outdoors. Really, that's the whole reason people attend wildflower walks and bird hikes and powerpoint programs.


An old tenet of interpretation states that naturalists seek not merely to educate, but to inspire. We aim to foster emotional and intellectual connection to the natural world. The naturalist in our pocket, while (so far) lacking the emotive element, can certainly foster a deeper connection with the world around us. We just have to use it, like any other tool, in the right way.


Looking Back


May sees our work schedule matching the frenetic pace of the local phenology. Seasonal staff, campers, and field trips all descended upon our parks and natural areas like warblers riding on a warm south wind.


The naturalists found themselves busy almost every day of May with a field trip, and the maintenance/natural areas folks found themselves busy definitely every day trying to keep up with the early spring growth.


EdCo 1st graders playing track detectives

Still, we found a few opportunities to get in some public programming. The O.W.L.S. took a trip down to Dubuque to visit the historic Mathias Ham house and learn about the mining history from interpreters in period garb, in addition to viewing what's considered the oldest building in Iowa.


On May 19th, celebrating the anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, naturalist Abbey led a program on the history of endangered species in Iowa, with a reading from the Lorax to see what lessons we could learn from this modern-day Aesop's fable.


On May 26th, a swirling cloud of bug repellent (with some humans inside) took a walk on the Well's Hollow trail at Bloody Run to view the beautiful remnant goat prairies and oak savannas. Attention-grabbers abounded, but the stops were a little abbreviated with the incredible gnat swarms we're experiencing this year.


A rare photo with no one swatting bugs

Looking Forward


Free fishing weekend kicks off this Saturday, June 3rd! Join Clayton County naturalists at Backbone Lake for the kid's fishing derby and see who can take home the biggest, or smallest fish!


On June 10th, we will partner with the Turkey River Recreational Corridor for the official TRRC safari kickoff at the Motor Mill Historic Site! Come pick up a safari kit and start your summer adventure in style, including an on-site safari with an ersatz Steve Irwin.


On June 13th, we'll partner with the ISU extension office to host a survival camp right here at Osborne. Get your young ones some serious skills for a journey out into the bush.


On June 15th, the O.W.L.S. will take flight to the George Maier Rural Heritage Museum in Elkader. This museum features a stunning collection of vintage pieces from the early days of farming in Northeast Iowa.


Phew! Busy season is here in earnest. We look forward to seeing you out there on the trails, on the water, or just lounging in the parks this summer.





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