New iPhone apps for bird watchers, wildflower lovers


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Ah, nature. It’s so full of whatchamacallits.

For many, no labels are necessary when a flower catches the eye or a bird flits overhead. It could be cuckoo or it could be a sparrow. It’s background.

For others, the problem isn’t lack of interest, but memory. By the time most of us are back home flipping through a bird book, our minds will have played tricks with the plumage. He is sure it was an oriole; she is just as sure it was a woodpecker.


A new iPhone application from Audubon Guides can settle the dispute. But before reading the obituary for printed guides, publishers should be assured this new app is no replacement for a good book, particularly the string of exquisitely observed, illustrated and written works by David Sibley.

Beyond speed, the brilliance of the new Bird of North America phone app ($19.99) is the audio. For most entries, from albatross to wren-tit, you can listen to the bird calls. In a nice touch, the audio includes hammering sounds for woodpeckers. Listening is much easier than figuring out what a print author means by a “low chup, and an excited zeeee chuppity chup.”

The phone photographs are good, but unlike a good bird book, the app does not necessarily give different sexes or illustrate differences between juvenile and adult, never mind provide under-wing perspectives. Though the program might ultimately supplant field guides, which would you rather drop in a marsh or a tide-pool: an iPhone or a paperback? For more on the Audubon app and a similar e-guide to Western wildflowers, click to the jump ...

The Audubon series that brought us the bird program also offers supplemental apps for identifying mammals, trees and wildflowers for $9.99 each. Also available: regional and state apps that cost less, including a California wildflowers program for $4.99. I passed on the mammals. If I see a bear, I’ll look it up later.

As for phone guides that deal specifically with the West, I went to a new series of applications by California native plant enthusiast Steve Hartman.

Hartman, also a board member at the Theodore Payne Foundation, has two iPhone apps out through a company called Earthrover Software. One is for wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada ranges, another for California native wildflowers. Each is $9.99.


In both cases, Earthrover helps you “key” wildflowers with a series of useful prompts: What time of year is it? Where did you see it? Roadside? Coastal bluff? Is it a shrub, vine, succulent? The botanically literate can search by plant families, but a kid old enough to hold the phone could simply start searching photos.

Grammar is not a strong point. Pedants might wince at the use of “over” rather than “more” to enumerate the sheer numbers of plants addressed by the applications. But what this application has that others don’t is a deep knowledge of our local terrain that more general texts, even ones that are more professionally produced, so often lack.

Moreover, the programs don’t rely on their own descriptions and photos. Search under what’s flowering now and select big berry manzanita, and you will get links to the Jepson Manual and to UC Berkeley’s CalPhoto Plants, where there may be dozens of shots from all manner of angles in all seasons, ready for examination.

When I plan hikes or trips to botanical gardens or nurseries, I use books -- as many as I can stack up on a desk or around a couch. These are the tools of comfort, anticipation and relish. Their batteries don’t go dead and they don’t drop into sleep mode in mid-use. But when hiking in Griffith Park, or standing out in a nursery trying to find out how big a 1-gallon ceanothus might get in my garden, I’ll be using Earthrover’s mobile field guides. And when an interesting bird flies by, the Audubon one will be right next to it.

-- Emily Green

CORRECTED: A previous version of this post said the various Audubon apps were $19.99 each.

Photography of Audubon app courtesy of Audubon. California Wildflower Field Guide app courtesy of Earthrover Software.