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Naturalist Apps

Explore some of the latest technology used by naturalists and community scientists!

Since the turn of the century, there has been a steady increase in the apps and technology available to community scientists and naturalists of all skill-levels. While many find benefits in having paper field guides, sighting logs, and data sheets, mobile apps can be carried in a compact mobile device and feature free innovative technologies that help you learn and contribute to community science. In this article, we will introduce you to a few popular mobile apps that are often used by naturalists in the field and give you the information and resources you need to get started using them. and the eBird Mobile App:

Community science is not a new concept, however, with the rise in technology and ease in data organization and collection via online portals, it has become easier for naturalists to contribute their observations to community science platforms and projects. is an example of a community science platform that has gained a lot of attention and popularity among bird enthusiasts. eBird allows birders to document lists of bird species and counts of each species they observed (seen and/or heard) as a result of either an incidental observation (bird(s) observed while birding was not your primary purpose, i.e. driving, gardening, sitting at a café, etc.) or a more organized stationary or traveling birding effort (birds observed while watching a bird feeder, going on a walk in a park, riding on a ferry, etc.). Since its release in 2002, eBird has received over 75 million complete checklist submissions reporting 10,712 species of birds worldwide! (Note: A complete checklist is a list reporting every species you (the birder) could identify to the best of your ability by sight and/or sound during a period of time where birding was your primary purpose.)

Beyond simply acting as a portal for birders to contribute their sightings to community science, eBird also offers a suite of valuable resources for birders found on their Explore page. Some examples of resources include:

  • Species Maps - show where specific species have been reported in the past. 
  • Explore Species - species profiles are available for over 10,000 bird species! Each profile houses identification and distribution information along with all photo, audio, and video files of that species contributed by eBirders around the world.
  • Explore Regions - a regional search tool which allows you to explore checklists, sightings, and data at a county, state, or country level
  • Explore Hotspots - allows birders to find public birding areas around the world.

eBird offers two methods of entering and submitting your bird observations either via the online portal or through the eBird mobile app. On the mobile app, necessary birding effort statistics that eBird requires, like distance traveled and duration, are automatically tracked and recorded and you can add birds to your checklist in real time. With internet or cellular reception in the field, the eBird app will also provide a list of likely bird species to be found in a 20 square kilometer area around your location based on previous checklists from that week in previous years. Species are categorized as either common (observed in ≥6% of checklists from that week and area), infrequent (observed in <6% of checklists from that week and area), or previously unreported from that week and area. This feature allows the user to gain a greater understanding of the bird species they could expect to observe on their birding outing. While you are using the app or online submission portal, you may encounter “flagged” reports. Some unusual observations may be flagged due to an unexpectedly high count or if the species is rare for that date and location. In this case, your observation will require further documentation (i.e. a description of the bird(s) you observed, what method you used to get your count, how you eliminated similar species during the identification process, etc.) for your local volunteer eBird reviewer. For a complete overview of how to use eBird and to gain an understanding of eBird’s best practices, enroll in the free eBird Essentials course through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy or review resources in the online eBird Help Center.

The eBird app also allows you to review checklists previously submitted or created using the app, and view your eBird statistics by month/year and by county, state, and country. While connected to the internet, you can also use the Explore tab to find nearby birding hotspots and explore what species have been reported.

Your contributions to eBird help to inform the work and decisions of researchers, biologists, wildlife managers, and land conservation agencies. Learn about how Land Trusts have been using eBird data through the Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative here: and the iNaturalist Mobile App:

iOS Download  |  Android Download

While eBird allows for reports of comprehensive checklists of the birds observed during an outing, iNaturalist takes a finer scale approach to documenting the presence of ALL organisms, life forms, and the signs of their existence, living or not. Each iNaturalist observation whether submitted through the online submission portal or via the mobile app, requires a photo or audio recording, a location with any specified level of precision, and a date and time in order to be considered for use in scientific outputs/analyses. When using the iNaturalist mobile app, time and location are automatically recorded for each photo or audio recording taken using your mobile device. With a cellular or internet connection, either in real time or after you document organisms of interest and return from the field, iNaturalist will utilize image recognition technology to offer a few suggested identifications for each photo observation.

Perhaps one of the best features of the iNaturalist platform is that no identification is necessary to submit an observation! The collective group of iNaturalist users, which come from all backgrounds, and all areas and levels of expertise, will suggest identifications for your observation and go over reasons why they suggest one identification over another. Once more than 2/3rds of identifiers agree on the correct taxon, your observation will be listed as “Research Grade,” meaning that it is suitable for sharing with data outputs and partners of iNaturalist. This verification system offers iNaturalist users a helpful learning environment to improve their naturalist skills, embrace their curiosity, and contribute valuable data to community science without the prerequisite of naturalist skills.

iNaturalist allows for the creation of projects to collect observations filtered by a location or a specific taxa. An example of a project collecting observations by taxa and location would be the Vermont Lady Beetle Atlas, run by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which automatically collects observations of any member of the Lady Beetle family (Coccinellidae) made in Vermont. Other common examples of iNaturalist community projects include bioblitzes, where community scientists come together to document as many species, across all taxa, as possible on a given site. Audubon Vermont is hosting an ongoing bioblitz at the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington, VT. While most bioblitzes have a time restriction, the Green Mountain Audubon Center Community Bioblitz is an ongoing bioblitz that has collected all previous sightings made within the boundaries of the Audubon Center property. Learn more about how you can participate by visiting the Community Science and Naturalist Resources landing page!


Seek by iNaturalist:

The popular Seek mobile app by iNaturalist acts as a powerful tool to help you identify plants, insects, fungi, and wildlife in the field! Harnessing the power of image recognition technology, the Seek app allows users to use the camera on their phone as a live identifying lens. By simply framing your subject in question in your camera’s view, the Seek app will identify it to the finest taxonomic level (i.e. Order, Family, Genus, or Species) it can with a high level of confidence. Changing the camera angle or, lighting of your subject can help Seek approach a species level identification. Pressing the shutter button will take a photo of your subject and give you the option to visit the profile page for that species/taxa where you can view the distribution of similar observations nearby, learn a few facts about that species, and view photos of that species. While the Seek app can be used without an iNaturalist account, linking the app to your iNaturalist account allows you to submit your observation directly to

You can also put photos in your photo library into the Seek “lens”, but this has varying success as the app is unable to gather information from multiple camera angles to build up to a species-level identification. While some features of the Seek app do require either a cellular or internet connection to function, the app itself will still be able to make identifications and take photos. If you are using the Seek app without an internet connection and wish to post your sightings to iNaturalist afterwards, you can queue your observations in the Seek app to upload once a connection is established. This app is great for helping you learn about the natural world around you! As a rule of thumb with most, if not all, naturalist/nature enthusiast apps, this should be used as a tool to aid your identification of the organisms you encounter. While the photo recognition technology of the Seek app is always improving, it is not 100% accurate and has its limitations. As such, any observations made with the Seek app that are posted to are subjected to the same review process as other observations.


Merlin Bird ID app:

This versatile bird identification app offers all the features you need whether you are new to birds and birding or you are an experienced birder looking to advance your birding skills. The simple home screen interface of this app offers four easy to use functions. The first is the Bird ID Wizard (usually requires internet connection) which walks you through a progression of five questions about the bird you observed, then produces a list of likely species based on your answers. The second function is a Photo ID optional add-on to the Merlin App. Like the photo recognition technology found in both the iNaturalist and Seek apps, the Photo ID function of Merlin will take any bird photo and offer a selection of suggested identifications.

Perhaps one of the most useful tools the Merlin app offers is the Sound ID functionality! By downloading this optional add-on, you will be able to use the microphone on your phone to record the bird songs and calls around you and receive live identification suggestions all while creating a visual spectrogram of the recording. Do you have multiple birds calling and/or singing in your recording? Not a problem for Merlin Sound ID! The app will list off positive bird species identifications and highlight them in a flash of yellow each time that bird’s vocalization is identified. Within each species identification pop-up, you can find recordings of those bird species to help you verify what Merlin Sound ID is “hearing”.

As with the Seek app, the Merlin Bird ID Wizard, Sound ID, and Photo ID features should be used as tools to aid you while you are observing birds and require some additional verification by the observer as they are not always accurate. If you are using the Merlin app to aid you while you are keeping an eBird checklist, be sure to take some measures to verify Merlin’s suggested identifications. Unlike, which requires verification of every observation, eBird only calls for the review of reports that exceed a species count filter or are listed as rare and was designed for checklists to consist of observations made by human observers, not solely artificial intelligence technology.

The final function of the Merlin Bird ID app is the Explore Birds tab which acts as a field guide offering photos, descriptions, audio recordings and range maps of each species. Simply download the Bird Pack for your region and you have access to this comprehensive resource even without an internet connection. In the presence of an internet connection, you can also sort the bird list by likely species for your area based on previous eBird reports.


The Audubon Bird Guide (Audubon) App:

The Audubon Bird Guide App is another option for anyone looking for mobile field guide to the birds of North America! Unlike the Merlin app, the Audubon app features in-depth life history details including information about habitat, conservation status, feeding behaviors, diet, nesting, and more for over 800 species. Each species profile also includes a selection of images, audio recordings and a range map. Like the Bird ID Wizard of the Merlin app, the Audubon app offers an “Identify a Bird” feature which guides you through a set of questions regarding your observation of an unknown bird species and offers suggested identifications. With access to an internet connection, you can also use the Audubon app to explore nearby bird sightings that have been submitted to A similar Explore feature is also available on the eBird app. Additional features of the Audubon app are the ability to post photos of birds you spot to a Photo Feed with photos from other Audubon app users, keep a list of the bird species you have observed, and get involved with Audubon community science initiatives. If you are interested in participating in Climate Watch, the Audubon app allows you to submit your observations directly to the Climate Watch database without any further steps!


These are examples of just a few high-quality apps that are available as resources to naturalists and community scientists. There is always something more to learn about the natural world around you and these apps can help you in your learning journey. Interested in contributing to community science? Any one or combination of these apps can get you started! For more information on community science opportunities, visit the Community Science and Naturalist Resources page. If you need more information about or support for using any of the applications above, please visit the appropriate help page linked below:

eBirdHelp Center | eBird Essential Course (free) | Using eBird Mobile

iNaturalist:  Getting Started | Video Tutorials | Frequently Asked Questions

Seek:  User Guide 2020

Merlin Bird IDHelp Center

Audubon App: Frequently Asked Questions and Help Center

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