Mobile apps enhance love of outdoors

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Pastor Brian Ray speaks at Robeline First Baptist Church’s Deer Fest. Attendees saw the results of hunters’ efforts, many of whom use apps to assess terrain, weather conditions and other environmental conditions.

Nathan Wilson

Pastor Brian Ray of Robeline is preparing for the start of rifle season by organizing Robeline Baptist Church’s annual Deer Fest for Oct. 29. “It’s an opening day, big buck, heaviest doe contest. It’s our 15th year to do it,” he says. “We’ll give away about $10,000 worth of prizes, cameras, knives, blinds, all hunting related.” Ray loves the sport, independence and tranquility provided by spending time in the outdoors, but he’s recently found that mobile apps like onX Hunt and HuntWise add to his experience. “I don’t know that I’m tech savvy with it, but there’s several out there that you could use for all kinds of different applications when it come to hunting,” he says. “The HuntWise app shows you wind direction, so you can map all your stand locations, (and) say okay the best wind for this stand location is a south wind and it will alert you and let you know this week on Wednesday, you’re going to have a south wind.”

The features provided by hunting apps make the sport as much a science as a sport. Ray reveals he relies heavily on terrain to make the most of his hunting trips. “Its got topographical maps so you can see the topography of the land for pinch points, draws and creeks and all those kind of things that come into play,” he says. “Topography has a lot to do with deer movement. Deer, just like most everything else, they like to take the path of least resistance, and of course things that block their movement or hinder their movement, you can use that to your advantage.”

Hunting apps can also provide basic legal information like property boundaries and ownership to astronomical influences that might influence a hunter’s fortunes. “A lot of people think that the moon phase has to do with deer movement, and a lot of these apps will tell you that the best time to be on the stand is between this time and this time in the morning or this and this time in the afternoon,” says Ray. “They attribute a lot of that to moon positioning and phase of the moon and things like that.”

Bird watchers are a different breed of hunter, and among birders, John Dillon of Athens, La is the best in breed. Part of his vast knowledge of birds comes from his favorite app called eBird. “If you go to eBird.org, you can spend hours and hours on there. It’s maintained by Cornell, and it’s the largest online database of bird records. It’s worldwide,” he says. “I use that extensively in my birding because it uploads directly to the eBird database.” Dillon is President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society and uses his depth of knowledge to help curate his favorite bird watching tool. “I’m actually a volunteer regional reviewer,” he says. He explains that submissions to eBird must be reviewed for accuracy because the database is built on community observations. “If somebody’s using eBird, whether it’s the website, the app or whatever, they’re submitting bird observations,” he says. “If anything gets flagged, like something that’s rare or a really high number of something then it comes to me and I investigate it or accept it.”

Apps like eBird rely on reviewers like him to verify data because cases of mistaken identity are common in bird watching. “They have reviewers like me because sometimes people aren’t certain. Sometimes people just make guesses,” says Dillon. He describes a recent sighting he saw posted where the submitter requested help identifying a bird. “They weren’t sure if it was a Pine Warbler or if it was a Yellow-throated Vireo,” he says. “If you look at the bar chart on this or you pull up the range map, you’ll see that only one of these is going to be left in the state at this time of year. Don’t just look at plumage; one of those birds should have already migrated, and that would be the Vireo.”

Despite the chance they’ll make mistakes, Dillon likes to see new bird watchers using eBird and other apps because of the resources the apps offer. “There’s a lot of data output from eBird that new birders could learn tons from,” he says. “There are bar charts, and range maps, and photos, and videos, and sound recordings and all sorts of things,” He considers the app worth promoting to other bird enthusiasts. “Its use is something I preach a lot to people for the sake of conservation,” he says. ”I tell people imagine if there were 20 million eBird users, what would that say about the desire of people across the planet for bird conservation?” Dillon warns some bird identification apps are a helpful starting point, but less reliable. “As a reviewer I’ve seen lots of problems with Merlin,” he says. “Sometimes it’s right sometimes it’s wrong, but it’s a crowdsourcing type app too. The more it’s used, the more the AI that runs that software gets improved to weed out mistakes, so it’s good it’s being used, but people don’t need to take it as 100% accurate.”

While he’s happy to see app users share photo and audio or video recordings, he recommends app users only submit sighting reports if they’re certain of the identity of a bird. “Birding is about the honor system, so if you’re not sure what you saw, then don’t make something up,” he says. “You have to be concerned about the data quality of it because it is citizen science, but it’s a very useful, very popular app.”

Dr. Margaret Cochran is an ecologist at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches and one of Dillon’s mentors. Like him, she has also begun contributing her expertise to curate her favorite citizen science app called iNaturalist, which helps users identify and document a variety of organisms. She explains that although people upload photos of plants, animals, mushrooms and other living things on social media sites all the time, volunteers on iNaturalist will help users identify specimens that pique their curiosity. “By not just using any old app that would tell you guess what it is, if you put it on (iNaturalist) you’re going to have experts look at it later and make sure that what you guessed it was is right,” she says. “You get confirmation and then you provide information that can be useful to other people.”

Cochran uses photos of a sassafras plant as an example. “You can teach a child to look for these kinds of things, and there’s nothing else like it.” she says. “You get these different kinds of leaves, and that’s the dead giveaway.” She has also learned from using the app. “I learned the blue mist flower. There are three species of this guy in Texas and two of them are rare,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started reviewing that I realized, oh, there are these other two species as well. I better be on the lookout for those.” As an ecology professor, Cochran has already incorporated the iNaturalist app into her classes. “We used it last year in the spring in place of the final for a lab,” she says. “I talk to them about what makes a good set of photos to identify a plant or an animal… I find it very helpful for a number of reasons. For one, it’s kind of competitive, but not really. It makes you look closely (and) not everybody has to the same thing, in fact it’s better if they don’t so they’re all doing their own specimen of different things.”

Cochran suggests the app could be useful for a range of people who are interested in learning about nature. “Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout Troops, any kind of school group or a family could do this kind of thing and contribute and be proud of what they’ve contributed and learn something,” she says. “It’s a way to find out all kinds of things: plants, animals, (or if) you need to what that bird is.” She says even audio recordings can be evaluated by experts. “You can’t upload video, but you can upload sounds, so if you hear a frog croaking, and you want to know what kind of frog it is, you can put that up and sometimes you can get an ID on it.” Cochran contrasts the app’s educational value with the way she struggled to identify unfamiliar species in years past. “I did not know what a parasol tree was, a Chinese parasol tree,” she says. “I didn’t even know where to look to find out what it was. I did eventually, maybe somebody told me, or I was flipping through a book and I went “Oh my god it’s that tree, and so I figured it out, but they can could look on the map and go, ‘Oh, there’s a parasol tree in front of Williamson. I can go over there and look at it and see what it looks like, or I can just pull up its picture right here on my phone.”

Many people worry about the youth becoming disconnected from nature because of technology, but as Cochran describes using the app, it becomes clear the app and the community it fosters has only strengthened her interest in the natural world. She shows off the number of photos she has uploaded to the app. “It takes a long time to go out and take these pictures,” she says. “Let me show you how addictive this is.” She then pulls up the site’s dashboard. “I was the number one person in the world verifying identifications for the month of August,” she says. “There’s a leaderboard; in July, I had 30,362, and in August it was 39,232.”