Spring's warmer weather has finally — finally — gotten rolling, and the woods are returning to life.
It's a great time to enjoy and learn about nature, but unless you have a naturalist tagging along, it can be hard to know anything about this neat-looking flower or that flashy songbird. Several smartphone apps and other products can help quickly, easily and often without charge.
The free PictureThis app, for example, can help identify plants with a quick snapshot and even give plant-care tips for garden varieties, according to its makers.
The free Audubon Bird Guide app, meanwhile, can use details like a bird's size, what it's tail looked like, where you are and the date to help identify hundreds of species as well as provide recordings of their calls.
INaturalist can make anyone a citizen scientist. Users can take photos of species of all kinds, rare or common, then get identification information. Those observations can also then go to scientists studying particular organisms, such as with a University of Minnesota bee survey, to help them piece together where those creatures are and how they're doing.
Similar apps include the National Wildlife Federation Nature Guides, National Geographic Birds and countless more. Mushroom Identificator and several others can be an entry point to the colorful, diverse and weird world of fungi, which pop out of dead wood year-round.
Off-screen, there are guidebooks and other materials aplenty. Waterford Press's Pocket Naturalist pamphlets cost around $8 but, in my experience, are often worth it. These waterproof brochures include clear, colorful images of butterflies, trees, birds and other animals that make identifying them easy.
There are several hundred of the pamphlets to pick from. Some are generalist, focusing on things you'd see around the country, but several versions are specific to certain states or regions. They're available online at waterfordpress.com.
Speaking from personal experience, knowing a bird or plant's name can make even an ordinary stroll in a familiar place more fun. And it can build on itself. Once I knew what a few varieties of milkweed look like, I started seeing them on the side of every highway.
Researchers and environmental advocates say there's also more value in being a little more familiar with what's growing and flying around us. The bee you plug into iNaturalist, for example, might be falling in number or almost extinct. Milkweeds are essential for monarch butterflies to continue existing.
"We need more people that aren’t plant-blind," Minnetonka-based author and restoration expert Heather Holm told me earlier this year. She and several neighbors have worked for a few years cutting back invasive plants and restoring some habitat for native varieties around their neighborhood.
Some of those neighbors said they hadn't thought much about native ecosystems and now found they didn't want to stop learning and helping.
"I found I like being outside," Millie Clough said with a laugh. "It’s really given me a sense of my environment more and how important it is."