by Skip Via
Due to several requests, we have collected and will continue to update reviews from our monthly newsletters that discuss apps and websites that can help identify and learn about various natural phenomena in the West Valley area.
It’s also possible to open past issues of our newsletter from the archive. Directions are provided on this page.
- General Flora and Fauna mobile apps (July 2021)
- Bird ID mobile apps (August 2021)
- Birds, Plants and Bugs websites (September 2021)
- Local resource websites (November 2021)
- Astronomy, Auroras and Clouds mobile apps (December 2021)
- Animal Tracks and Signs (January 2022)
- Mountain Names (March 2022)
- Mushrooms and Funguses (April 2022)
General Flora and Fauna (July 2021)
iSeek is a free, easy to use app for your iPhone or Android phone. Using iSeek, you can snap a photo of the mystery object (or use a photo that you have already taken and stored on your phone) and ask the iNaturalist community for help with identification. The results are surprisingly accurate, if not for the specific subject then at least for the family or genus. There is also a wonderful learning feature that lets you browse your local area by species for flora and fauna from arachnids to plants and everything in between. You do not need to create an account to use iSeek, although you can link to your iNaturalist account from there. You can install this app by going to the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.
iNaturalist is the big brother of iSeek, both being creations of the folks at iNaturalist.org. Its use does require a free account, but it opens so many doors for the user. iNaturalist is both a website and a free phone app. To get started, visit the website at https://www.inaturalist.org/. This will give you a good idea of what you can do as a member of the iNaturalist community, and you can also use it as you would use the app to submit photos for help with identification. I prefer using the app on my phone for this, but either way works. When you post a subject for identification, members of the community will quickly chime in to validate your guess or to offer suggestions for you. And in doing so, you are contributing to the overall database of knowledge of plant and animal species in your location. It’s a nice win/win. You can download the free app for iPhones and for Android.
Bird ID Mobile Apps (August 2021)
There are two heavyweights in this category, each from unimpeachable sources: the Audubon app from the Audubon Society and Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell School of Ornithology. I personally use both, but for different purposes. Each app has extensive information to help you learn about birds, including a bird identification guide that helps you identify birds in real time in the field–most of the time, anyway. An internet connection is very helpful in both cases, but each will work at least partially without connectivity. Both include extensive information about geographical ranges, habitats, feeding habits, migration patterns, songs and calls, conservation status, etc., in an easily accessible format. Each app is also free to download and use.
The Audubon app has versions that work on phones as well as tablets. The Merlin app will work on tablets, but not as a native app, which means you might have to move your tablet around to be able to use it. If I’m at home browsing for information, I always use the Audubon app on my iPad. The display is larger, so images are more detailed and text is easier to read. Merlin is made to use in the field, and of the two apps, it’s a much better app for active bird ID, in my opinion, as you will see below.
Probably the biggest difference between the two apps is in real time bird identification. Here Merlin is clearly the best choice. The Audubon bird ID is process somewhat clunky. You begin by manually specifying a size, color, and other information about the bird you are trying to identify, then search through a list of possible candidates. The choices for identification can be somewhat limiting. For example, you have to choose between sparrow and robin for size, but what if it’s somewhere in between? Color choices are limited in a similar fashion. In the Merlin app, you have two additional powerful ways of identification–you can snap a photo of the bird and get nearly instantaneous suggestions, or (and this is a VERY cool feature) you can record the bird’s call and get an instant ID that way. Amazingly, it can distinguish among simultaneous calls, so it will try–usually very accurately–to ID all of the birds it hears. Many birds of the same species appear different due to sex, age, time of year, or location, but their calls are usually consistent. In Merlin, the calls are recorded so you can listen to them later. This is a fairly new feature in Merlin, so if it doesn’t show up on your copy, update the app. There are currently over 450 different birds represented by call, with more being added regularly.
Birds, Plants and Bugs websites (September 2021)
If you are a bumblebee fancier, head over to Bumble Bee Watch and take look around. They have an extensive Bumble Bee Species section that is a great help in identifying bumble bee species with lots of photos, distribution maps, floral associations, best times for looking, etc. If you create an account, you can upload photos and get help identifying them while at the same time contributing to the knowledge base of sitings and distribution.
Insect Identification is a great place to learn about all varieties of insects and other bugs, including spiders. (If you’re not sure what the difference is between insects and bugs, check out this article on our website.) Their Insect Identification Tool is superb, especially for beginners, as I am. You can browse by state, by type, by color, or by behavior. It’s loaded with ads, so don’t get distracted by some of the popups, but it’s still a wonderful way to get started in the field, no pun intended, but I’ll take it.
A site I am just getting familiar with is Pl@ntNet (not a typo), a comprehensive site that encourages you to “identify, explore, and share your observations of wild plants.” You can learn quite a bit by heading to the Explore menu and browsing through families, genera, and species by common or scientific name. If you create a free account, you can upload your own photos and get help with identification. You can also browse through others’ contributions.
The Arbor Day Foundation hosts a helpful Tree Identification Guide that walks you through the process of identifying trees using a simple dichotomous key format. The Tree ID is a subsection of the much larger Arbor Day Foundation site, so if you get lost, look under the Trees menu along the top for “Tree Identification.”
As you might expect, the same folks that provide the excellent bird ID mobile apps that we discussed earlier also provide the best online bird ID sites. To me, the most useful is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s easy to use Merlin Bird ID. It uses the same identification process as the mobile app, but using the website at home on a large screen is a visual treat.
The Audubon Society’s How to Identify Birds is not so much of an identification tool as it as a primer on HOW to identify birds—what to look for, how to differentiate between similar species, etc. It’s a great study tool for going into the field.
Local Resource Websites (November 2021)
Center for Native Plants
The Center for Native Plants, located on Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish, sells native plant starts and other services for folks who are interested in having plants, shrubs and trees that attract local wildlife and work well in our environment here in the valley. If you visit their web site at https://centerfornativeplants.com/, you can find information on local planting along with a schedule of lectures and demonstrations that are useful for valley residents. Check out the “Get Gardening” link on the main menu for a wide variety of local and in-depth resources for selecting plants, gardening for pollinators, moisture control, or other aspects of growing things in West Valley.
The Center itself closes for the season on October 30, but the education resources are active all the time and are very helpful in planning your planting for next spring.
Flathead Watershed Resources
The folks at https://flatheadwatershed.org/ have created an extraordinarily rich site that documents many aspects of living and working in the Flathead Watershed—one of the largest, intact ecosystems around. Use their main menu to learn about the cultural and geological history of the watershed, all of the waterways in our valley, how these resources are used to drive our economy, etc. You can spend many hours learning about our local ecosystem and how to best preserve it for the future.
Flathead National Forest
The web site for the Flathead National Forest has a section that provides ideas for outdoor recreation, including places for wildlife viewing, hiking, and winter sports (among others) at https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/flathead/recreation/outdoorlearning. It’s a comprehensive list that includes just about every aspect of outdoor recreation, but if you’re looking for some new places to explore or some new activities to try, you just might find something here.
Flathead Lake Web Cam
If you’re planning on a trip to Flathead Lake—including what will soon become our newest state park along the north shore of the lake—you might benefit from taking a look at the Flathead Lake web cam. There’s also a time lapse video that can be interesting, especially when looking at the development of a storm or a front passing through.
Astronomy, Auroras and Clouds Mobile Apps (December 2021)
Stargazing and Astronomy
There are dozens of stargazing apps out there, and everyone has their favorite. One of the earliest ones, and still my favorite, is Star Walk. Load up this free (sort of; see below) app, point it to the night sky, and be presented with star names, constellation images, and a very rich compendium of knowledge and lore. This app works well for the beginning astronomer as well as for more seasoned stargazers, and it’s worth taking some time to explore its many features, like satellite tracking, meteor showers, Hubble images, comets, eclipses. finding and learning about planets, and more.
Star Walk is free, but ad supported. Buying the full version gets rid of the ads and includes a few additional resources, but if the ads don’t bother you, the free version works very well.
Full disclosure here. I have used the paid iPhone version of Star Walk for many years, and I am not at all familiar with the Android version. The Android version appears to have several different iterations (including one for kids) and I am not confident about which one to recommend. The link below takes you to all of the Star Walk apps, from which you’ll have to choose. Does anyone have a recommendation that they could share?
We lived in Interior Alaska for 35 years before moving to the Flathead Valley. In the dark winter months, auroras were commonly seen directly overhead. As often as we’ve viewed them, I’ve never gotten over the sense of awe that they bring to me as a viewer. While auroras are not as common here in the valley, they are still sometimes visible, especially from higher vantage points where there is little competing light.
There are many apps for viewing auroras, but the one I use is called My Aurora Forecast and Alerts. It’s free, easy to use, and can alert you when the possibility of an aurora exists. Predicting when and where auroras might occur is not a precise science, but this is a good place to start.
Here in Big Sky country, we have the privilege of viewing a wide variety of cloud formations on a big stage. In addition to enjoying the sheer beauty of clouds, knowing more about them can help predict weather changes and teach us about other aerial phenomena.
Again, there are multiple apps out there for this purpose, but a very good free one is Field Guide to Clouds, published by the UCAR Center for Science Education. The mobile app is easy to use and full of information. UCAR’s web site (https://scied.ucar.edu) is an even richer source of information about all things atmospheric and includes sections for teachers and classroom activities. The UCAR Learning Zone has particularly helpful sections on climate change, weather, storms, and other phenomena. Great stuff for teachers and students.
Animal Tracks and Signs
The gold standard for animal tracking apps is iTrack Wildlife from the folks at NatureTracking.com. It’s so comprehensive and useful that I am not going to review any other tracking apps here. If you are new to tracking, or if you are a seasoned veteran of the north woods, you will not find a more thorough encyclopedia of animal tracks and signs than you will here. And it will work anywhere—no need for an active internet connection.
iTrack Wildlife comes in three versions for iPhones—iTrack Wildlife Lite, ITW Basic, and ITW Pro–but currently only in a Pro version for Android phones. All versions cover mammals of North America. (The company also offers a separate set of tracking apps for African wildlife.) They are different in the number of species they cover and depth of information for each species. The Lite version is free, but it only covers 8 common species (you don’t get to choose which 8) and the information for each species is limited. I would not recommend downloading this version unless you just want to try it out, as it is not at all useful in the field around here.
The iPhone Basic version is not free—it costs $4.99 and covers 40 mammal species with more pictures and information than the Lite version, but not as comprehensively as the Pro version. This version covers the most common NA mammal species (although not all of our local ones) and may be upgraded to the Pro version if you find it too limiting. (I did, quickly.)
If you don’t mind spending $14.99, the Pro version of iTrack Wildlife (both platforms) is a spectacular compendium of facts, photos, and tips about tracking mammals and looking for animal signs such as scat. If you regularly carry your phone with you on your nature excursions, moving up to the Pro version is a no-brainer. It’s a simple matter to enter search criteria for tracks, including limiting searches by state so you can zero in on local species. The Tracking Info button provides a mobile encyclopedia of tracking info, from basics about learning to track, track anatomy, measuring tracks, gait patterns, etc. It’s a great way to learn as you observe.
If you are so inclined, visit the Nature Tracking website. There you will find a vast trove of information on tracks and signs of all animals, including guides for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates, lists of resources and tips on learning more about tracking. It’s a wonderful browsing experience.
When we first moved to the valley eight years ago, one of the first things we wanted to know was the names of the mountain peaks that dominate horizons from just about everywhere in the valley. An easy way to do this is using a nifty little mobile app called PeakFinder.
Once you have installed PeakFinder and downloaded the area databases that you want (where you live, or places you want to travel to), simply run the app, point your phone toward the nearest mountains, and immediately discover the names, heights, and other info about the peaks you are seeing. Because PeakFinder uses GPS to establish its location, you don’t need to have internet access in order for it to work–just wave your phone above your head in a figure eight pattern a few times to acquire a satellite or two and you’re good to go–so PeakFinder will work out in the wide open spaces and backcountry venues of Montana as you travel. The closer you are to a mountain range, the more accurate the results will be, but it works well even for mountains on a distant horizon. PeakFinder reads your altitude when it runs, so peaks that may be hidden when you are on the valley floor will show when you gain altitude.
PeakFinder does a lot more. If you click the camera icon in the upper left of the screen, you’ll see PeakFinder’s info over the actual view you are seeing. You can snap a photo with this scene and print it for future reference if you want, or take a panoramic photo, or perform a number of other neat little tricks.
PeakFinder is customizable to a large extent. You can decide if you want your peak measurements in feet or meters (or not show at all), whether or not you want the sun and moon paths to show (great for star gazing), and many other parameters.
One tip–before you set out for an adventure, open the app, tap the three-bar icon at the upper left, tap Coverage in the menu, and tap an area of the map to make sure you have downloaded the most current information for the places you will be. This data gets updated often, and if you have internet access when you run the app, PeakFinder will remind you that new updates are available. Always a good idea to install those, as any issues with accuracy get fixed over time.
Mushroom and Fungus ID
If you are really into fungus ID and want an encyclopedic amount of knowledge and connectivity at your fingertips, check out Shroom ID. You can snap a photo of your sample and have it immediately identified (if you have an internet connection; if not, you can upload it later), browse a huge array of information and research, check what’s growing near you at the moment, view a variety of example images, view distribution maps, and even interact with a community of fungus experts. This, however, comes at a price–$27.99 per year, or $4.99 per month. There is a 7 day free trial available, so you can try it before committing. You may also use the app without cost for simple picture ID, but the advanced features like what’s growing nearby and interacting with experts are only available if you upgrade to the Pro version. If you need this level of expertise and information, it’s probably worth upgrading. If not, see below.
Picture Mushroom is similar to Shroom ID in just about every respect, including a slightly higher ($29.99) yearly fee. Like Shroom ID, Picture Mushroom features a 7 day free trial, but you can’t use the app at all without first subscribing, which immediately begins your 7 day trial period. I passed.
Shroomify is the app I go back to every time. It’s free to use, but it has a limited dataset unless you purchase the Pro version for a one-time fee of $3.99. Well worth it. Unlike Shroom ID and Picture Mushroom, it doesn’t allow you to snap a photo for ID purposes. To identify a mushroom or fungus, you use a key system of images to identify your sample. It works very well and does not need an internet connection to function. I find it accurate and simple to use. You can search for common funguses by month, look for edible funguses (with the usual admonitions about not consuming anything that you are not certain about) and even browse some foraging tips.
Android (not available at this time)
If you are interested in being able to take a photo of a mushroom and get results in real time (and not pay nearly $30 per year to do so), check out Mushroom Identificator. With it, you have two options for identifying mushrooms: you can scan a sample from all sides in the field and have it identified (if you’re connected to the internet), or you can snap a photo and upload it either immediately or later if connectivity is an issue. The scanning feature is new and is not as accurate as the photo feature at the moment, but the developer is constantly working on improvements. Once identified, the app presents you with extensive information about your sample. Currently there are about 900 mushrooms (and they are mostly mushrooms and not other funguses) in the app’s dataset.
Mushroom Identificator may be used freely, but the free version contains ads. For $4.99 per year, the premium version does away with the ads and adds a few features. While I still go back to Shroomify most of the time, the potential for accurate field ID in Mushroom Identificator is interesting, especially the scanning feature. I have the sense that it will get better over time, so I keep it around.
You may already have an app installed on your phone that will help you identify funguses and mushrooms–iNaturalist. (We reviewed iNaturalist in the July 2021 issue of this newsletter.) iNaturalist is free to use and it represents a large and growing community of amateur and more seasoned naturalists who pool their observations to identify a wide variety of subjects–plants, insects, mammals, and more, including funguses. Results may not be as immediate as a dedicated app, but it’s still an excellent source of information and help. Take a picture of your subject, upload it, and make an educated guess about its identity. Other users of the app will chime in with their own ideas, and an ID will be made.