App-solutely enhancing outdoors experience: iNaturalist, Seek and Merlin Bird ID apps; plus Stray Cast

The use of apps, such as iNaturalist, Seek and Merlin Bird ID, enhances the outdoors experience and increases general knowledge of the world; plus the Stray Cast.

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A common yellowthroat bird perched on a grass stem at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

A common yellowthroat photographed in 2020 at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie by volunteer Greg DuBois.

Provided/Photo by Greg DuBois

I’m a Luddite.

Come to think of it, I’m also a dinosaur as one of the last traditional outdoors columnists for a major newspaper.

But, even Luddites and dinosaurs evolve. The Seek app and the Merlin Bird ID app come to mind.

Last Wednesday was a perfect example.

I had couple hours to ramble at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie before the line of storms dropping from the north arrived.

I wanted to try the Sound ID on the Merlin Bird ID app ( Any excuse to roam Midewin in my favorite months of July and August is good enough for me.

A common yellowthroat was my first test. Instantly the app nailed it. To use, download the free Merlin Bird ID app, open, click “Sound ID,” then click the microphone icon.

Screenshot of the Merlin Bird ID app. Credit: Dale Bowman

Screenshot of the Merlin Bird ID app.

Dale Bowman

Midewin has serious railroad lines nearby. Before I did a second test, I had to wait until a train’s warning horn stopped and the train noise passed. In my testing at home, the same applied to traffic noise from major roads.

In the quiet after the train, the app picked up five birds calling: yellowthroat, American robin, killdeer, indigo bunting and Baltimore oriole.

Here’s where technology matters and improves the experience outdoors. I had only heard yellowthroat and robin. What makes that odd is that killdeer is one of the few birds I could identify by sound since I was a kid. After seeing it on the app, I was able to hear, then pinpoint, the killdeer. Same goes for the Baltimore oriole. Orioles are high canopy birds and, even though it was in the tree I was under, I could not spot it.

Bobolink on barbed wire at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Les Winkeler

Bobolink on barbed wire at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Les Winkeler

On Facebook, Karen Sadler recommended the BirdNET app ( “Free. Easy to use. Fun. And pretty amazingly accurate,” she posted.

For now, I will learn Merlin first.

Friends have had various outdoors apps for years, especially weather-related ones. But two years ago, I had a conversion experience of sorts.

Chris Evans, extension forester for the University of Illinois, gave a tree identification presentation for Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners.

While doing it, he emphasized how the iNaturalist app ( helped with basic identifications.

He added, “I use it a lot because I just think it is fun.”

The iNaturalist app seems to pique interest among young people.

When Evans combined fun with usefulness, I was inspired me to download Seek, a less-sophisticated sister app ( of iNaturalist. It changed my outdoor world, especially for identifying plants and trees.

The one problem I have with Seek is when I am in areas with limited cellphone coverage (happens often). I suspect that will be true of Merlin Bird ID, too. Dependency on the cellphone signal is a fact of modern life.

As I learned the secrets of Seek, I also have used it for identifying unknown insects and odd panfish, too. We have unusual panfish and some introduced and natural hybrid ones in our local waters.

Maybe I’m learning to be a hybrid of a Luddite and Steve Jobs in real life.

Screenshot of Seek app. Credit: Dale Bowman

Screenshot of Seek app.

Dale Bowman


Over the last few years, I’m impressed with how many became involved with pollinator habitat to milkweed and beyond. You can learn how to do it at the garden level with the University of Illinois Extension’s Pollinator Pocket Program ( It works for areas as small as 4 feet by 6 feet up to acres of land.


People who blow grass clippings on roadways have the same moral fiber as those who strew blue bait containers along the water’s edge.

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