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Our favourite nature apps

Smart phone apps make it easier to identify all the plants, animals and other creatures in Muskoka

It wasn’t that long ago that the only way to identify plants was to flip through field guides and identification keys. Unless you were a professional naturalist, you probably only knew a handful of species that live around the cottage in Muskoka. You could identify cedars and cattails, loons and red-winged blackbirds. But telling an ostrich fern from an interrupted fern? Forget it!

But these days, there are some amazing smart phone apps that let you instantly identify just about everything.  Ferns, flowers, trees, mushrooms — not to mention insects, birdsong and more — are all just a camera click away.

It can actually become overwhelming. We know a couple who installed the Seek app then went on a canoe trip. It was fall, prime mushroom season, and their portages regularly ground to a halt as they became immersed in identifying every fungus they saw. Eventually they had to agree to limit themselves or else risk arriving at the next campsite in the dark!

Using these apps helps you learn the names of the creatures around you, but that’s really just a first step. Once you know what a plant or insect or animal is called, you can also start to learn about how it is related to the rest of the natural world in Muskoka. Identification can open up all kinds of other questions, such as:

  • Is this a native species or an invader?
  • What are its predators?
  • What does it need to thrive?
  • What does seeing this species tell me about the health of this patch of nature?

Asking these questions and more can help give us a richer understanding of the complex web of life that runs through every forest, field, lake and stream in Muskoka. And it helps us to know our role in helping the natural world to thrive.

So load up your phone while you’re at the cottage, step out into the woods, and let the understanding begin.


A joint initiative of the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences, this is more than just an identification app: it’s a social network and a citizen science forum. Create an account and you can share your observations with scientists around the world — to date there are more than 66 million observations in the database. You can also see what others have observed in your area, and even join — or create — a project with others. Get your family or cottage neighbours onboard, and you can start to build up a database of all the species that are found in your area. The app and platform are all free.


This app was created by the people behind iNaturalist. It uses the same powerful database to identify plants and insects that you photograph. Seek was designed for children and families to use, so they can identify species without having to create an account or log in to a social platform. It also offers rewards in the form of badges to encourage children (and playful adults!) to identify more and more. If straightforward identification is what you’re after, Seek is superb, and free.

Smart Bird ID

As the name implies, this one is focused purely on birds. One of the best things about it is that it makes use of your phone’s microphone as well as its camera, helping you to identify birds by their song. You’ll need to be close enough to get a clear recording, but if the bird is singing loudly, it does work quite well. There are also guides and even quizzes to help you learn to identify species without the app. Free, but there are add-ons available for purchase.

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Posted in Connecting with Nature.

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