Cheat Sheets for Your Walk in the Woods

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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.

Leafsnap, free on iOS, 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 cell connection.

A great alternative to Leafsnap is Audubon Trees, $5 on iOS and $4 on Android. The app is a more traditional field guide, and it includes detailed info on more than 700 trees common in North America. Though 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 they belong to, 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.

There is also a social sharing option within the app, Nature Share, where you can upload sightings of trees or other flora and fauna, or browse to see what other people have spotted. The app's one flaw may be that it doesn't have the most easy-to-use design.

The company behind Audubon Trees, Green Mountain Digital, has plenty of other nature apps for spotting everything from birds to reptiles, which are worth checking out.

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

But 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. 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. It also costs $15.

For identifying creatures that walk instead of fly, try the iTrack Wildlife app on iOS. It has a comprehensive search function akin to iBird's to help you identify an animal from its footprints, and it comes with detailed data on each species it covers. But it has information on only 66 North American mammals, and it costs $15.

For a similar app on Android, check out the $5 MyNature Animal Tracks. Its interface design is not as sophisticated or elegant as iTrack's, nor does it offer as much data or photos, but it could still help you identify an animal from its footprints.

Last, a great app that may help you identify curious rocks you find on your trails is Rockhound, $2 on iOS. As well as offering data and photos about a long list of rock types from acanthite to zinc, this app has a list of sites across the United States where you can seek out examples. It's not the best designed or prettiest of apps, but it is nonetheless full of intriguing information.

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.

Quick Call

One Shot was already a pretty good camera and photo-editing app on Windows Phone, but it has just been upgraded and now includes more camera modes and automatic straightening of shots -- so expect fewer wonky horizons. It costs $2.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 10, 2013 2:00 PM


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