Nature apps can be helpful, but don’t expect your smartphone to always get it right

Nature apps can be helpful, but don’t expect your smartphone to always get it right


To identify plants in the wild, I’ve been using Seek by iNaturalist for several years. And, because I know plants fairly well, I can tell when this app doesn’t get it right.

For example, we planted a bur oak in our front yard, and Seek identified it as a different type of oak. I knew better. But Seek almost had me fooled when it identified a fern in my front yard growing beneath some Norway spruces as the New York fern, an Illinois endangered species.

After some initial excitement, I posted a photo of that fern to a botany group and was politely scolded that this was nothing more than a common ostrich fern. I have plenty of ostrich ferns in my backyard, but these in the front were much smaller.

Another botanist reminded me that the environment in which a plant grows can make a difference in its size and appearance. To give Seek a break, I do realize that identifying ferns in the wild — even with a magnifying glass — can sometimes be difficult.

Also, iNaturalist is a wonderful way to interact with other nature lovers and learn more about plants, insects and other critters.

But I found a better plant ID app called Picture This. It immediately recognized that the front yard plant was an ostrich fern. Picture This also identified a lady fern growing in the yard near a little homemade pond.

I also learned that what I thought was an American plum just planted this year is really a pin cherry.

The moral of this app story is that when in nature, do not expect your smartphone to get it right all the time. These apps should only be used as part of the learning process.

By talking with botanists and doing online research with sources I respect, I’ve learned the ostrich fern can be mistaken for a New York fern. But I’m not convinced that so-called plum is a cherry, even if Picture This says so, though it’s possible the nursery selling this plant misidentified it. I need to do more research.

There are also apps, including Merlin, to identify birds by both song and plumage. But beware, especially if you’re a beginning birder.

An Aug. 23 article in the National Audubon Society magazine said, “Merlin is magical, but it still makes mistakes.” I agree. Advanced birders might immediately recognize the mistakes, but unfortunately beginning birders don’t, and some have inaccurately been reporting birds based on what their app says.

One Merlin user and birder from southern Illinois said, “We know Merlin isn’t perfect, and the software tells you to confirm with a visual sighting, but the last couple days Merlin says there are pheasant cuckoos, rufous-breasted spinetails and pavonine cuckoos in the woods. I had to look them up. The first two live no further north than approximately Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and the last one is almost exclusively in Brazil. I’m going to be pretty surprised if I get a visual sighting of any of them.”

Other Merlin users have had great experiences. For example, one Merlin user and birder said, “I picked up the sound of American pipit on my Merlin app last week, and finally had a chance to photograph a small flock in the monastery cemetery this morning. It’s a new species for our campus list.”

A birder from Chicago’s southern suburbs was told by his Merlin app that a yellow-rumped warbler was singing in his yard. “I’d not seen or heard them previously,” he said. But after viewing the app, he saw these “little birds bouncing around the tree branches and even eating off poison ivy berries in the back part of my yard where the old pond used to be.”

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They were definitely yellow-rumped warblers, and it’s cool he discovered them in his yard.

The technology gurus are working to improve these apps, and there are various settings to improve accuracy.

But there is a lesson to be learned from these nature app anecdotes. Technology can enhance your knowledge of nature, but it should be used in conjunction with the tried-and-true method of learning from others, or while you’re in the field. 

I love using Picture This, but I’m not just going to run around collecting a list of plant names based on what the app is telling me.

Nature apps are tools, and you’ve got to know the right way to use them. Walking in a preserve outdoors should include more time looking with your eyes, and hearing with your ears, and less time turning on a smartphone.

I hope our natural areas don’t fill up with humans holding up their phones to see what may be out there, instead of exploring on their own and using their own five senses. Yes, certain plants emit an identifiable fragrance. I wonder if there’s an app for that.

Sheryl DeVore has worked as a full-time and freelance reporter, editor and photographer for the Chicago Tribune and its subsidiaries. She’s the author of several books on nature and the environment. Send story ideas and thoughts to [email protected].