Top 10 Bay Area nature apps

May 31, 2012
Like everybody else, nature-lovers are increasingly digitizing their lives. 
As we reported this week, the lure of instant information has hit the birding world, big time, with the integration of tools like Facebook and smart phone apps for finding and identifying that flash of wing through the trees. In the case of the great horned owl nest in Claremont Canyon, we also recognize the ethical issues at stake when our local wildlife achieve celebrity status. 
Still, we think it’s worth pointing out that there are some amazing things that a smart phone can do for you out in the field. We set out to test several of the top nature and environment apps on the market today, and are finding more reasons to leave the guidebooks at home. All of the apps covered are available for the iOS (Apple’s operating system), and many are also available for Android as well. In order to make full use of most of these in the field, users will have to have some sort of network connection (like 3G or wifi). A number of these apps are specific to the Bay Area. 
iBird Explorer
If there’s any app that would prompt you to leave the guidebooks at home on your next birding trip, it’s iBird Explorer. The free, or “Lite,” version of the app contains a catalogue of 30 common bird species, complete with both photographic and artistic imagery, plus calls, conservation status and other information. In order to keep the app relatively lightweight, developers have divided it into regional editions (Western, Northern, Eastern, United Kingdom, etc.) that users can purchase based on their locale. The standout feature of this app, aside from having a comprehensive birding primer at your fingertips, is the way it connects users with an online birding community at the iBird website. There, users can compare notes and share finds with other birders worldwide. Each version is priced at around $10 with additional content upgrades available. That’s about the same as one guidebook. Plus, paid versions of the app don’t contain advertisements.
Cost: $9.99-$15.00; free “lite” version available.
This lightweight app lets users keep a log of their wildlife sightings on a map with locations logged using the smartphone’s GPS technology. The app automatically logs the sighting’s location, as well as date and time. Users are also able to add a photo and some notes to their entries, and upload information to the iNaturalist community. The app is strictly a tool to log sightings, and since it’s not specific to one type of wildlife observation (like birding), it doesn’t contain detailed species information. The science community can gain some valuable information from hobbyists’ sightings, too. For one, they’re able to track migration patterns and habitat concentrations of a specific species.
iNaturalist Redwood Watch
In the same way that users are able to catalogue their wildlife sightings using the iNaturalist app, they can catalogue their redwood sightings. The app is a product of the Save the Redwoods League, which hopes to use the app to determine how forces like climate change are impacting the migration of the threatened tree. 
Peterson Feeder Birds North America
Like iBird and iNaturalist, this app allows birdwatchers to catalogue their sightings, particularly of local feeder birds, as well as browse an extensive database of wild bird species. The “lite” database contains 162 species, but the full version of the app contains many more. While this app doesn’t have the same links to online communities like iBird, it does contain lots of basic bird information that a user can get from online communities, such as molt information, conservation status, ancestry and pollinators to best attract specific species. Maps of native habitats and photos are also provided, allowing users to get a broad example of all species native to their area.
Of all the app-hungry smartphone users that might find use in BeeSmart, gardeners might be most interested. After determining the user’s ecoregion by zip code, the app compiles a list of local plants and their pollinators. This can be useful in determining which plants will thrive in a specific region since aside from weather conditions, local pollinators are one of the most important factors in a plant’s survival. Also built into the app are physical features of the plant, like coloration and size, as well as seasonality and soil type. The app allows users to keep their own set of notes, though this feature does require users to sign-up for additional software. The BeeSmart website also has several primers in .pdf form, sorted by region, with more information. The absence of links built into the app is unfortunate, but understandable, since viewing a .pdf file on a mobile device is still not possible on many devices.
Golden Gate Park Field Guide
The San Francisco portion of Golden Gate Park is among the world’s largest urban parks at a thousand acres. This handy app, produced by the California Academy of Sciences (which happens to be located inside the park), provides both uninitiated and regular visitors to the park with a primer of information to guide their visit. Along with basic information, such as maps and native wildlife, the app comes preloaded with two preset trail “adventures,” in which users can spend a couple of hours discovering the hidden gardens in the park, or take a brisk walk around Stow Lake. The app also allows wildlife observers to catalogue their sightings. Also built-in are flora and fauna scavenger hunts, as well as a few adventures for bicyclists to try out. Of course, since Golden Gate Park is so vast, there’s plenty more than any one app is able to capture. But this is a great start.
Transit & Trails
The Bay Area has one of the nation’s most intuitive public transit systems. This app contains a database of day routes, trailheads and campgrounds, plus the transit routes needed to get there. Users are also able to create their own trails and log them into T&T’s database, creating a regional outdoors guide for everyone from hikers to bikers. In order to do this, users must register at the Transit & Trails website, but that’s quick and easy since the Transit & Trails website is very intuitive, and tablet friendly. Because the site is so intuitive, users can easily browse it using any mobile web application if their device doesn’t support iOS apps. Note: we like T&T so much that it’s a content partner for Bay Nature’s own Trailfinder site, to be released in July. 
Though residents of the immediate Bay Area might be hard pressed to find some constellations in their often foggy or light-polluted skies, the Starmap app can still provide both the amateur and the professional astronomer alike with a valuable resource. Using the smartphone’s GPS, the app localizes the user, and provides a date-specific map of the night sky that rotates as the user changes the orientation of their device. Users can look up specific planets, stars, nebulae or entire constellations in the app’s database, some of which is not available without purchasing the full app. Perhaps the best place to start is the app’s “Tonight” tab, which gives a full timeline of celestial bodies that are to appear on any given day.
Cost: $11.99-$18.99
Bay Currents  
The San Francisco Bay is home to some of the world’s most volatile currents, which have posed challenges for mariners for as long as people have been on the bay. Dispersed along the shorelines are sensors that measure the water’s current. The BayCurrents app is software that gives boaters real-time data from these sensors, allowing them to see the change in current over the last 24 hours, and project conditions for up to two hours in the future. It pinpoints your location using GPS, and generates arrows on a map of the bay showing the current’s direction. The arrows are either green, representing a slow current, yellow, or red, for a fast current. This app could never be sufficient to guide a container ship around Alcatraz Island and out the Golden Gate, but it might provide the information needed to keep a sailboat or kayak on course.
Where Bay Currents falls short, WindandTides picks up slack. Though this app does not take advantage of Google’s mapping services, it does provide detailed tide and current data centered around the Golden Gate and Angel Island, courtesy of NOAA. The data provided includes wind and current speed centered from either Angel Island or the Golden Gate, as well as the size of the tidal swells. Users are also able to get a wind speed and weather forecast that extends five days into the future.
About the Author

Chris Torres is a Bay Nature editorial volunteer.

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