If you’re able to drag yourself away from your mobile phone for a second, look up and notice how many people are looking at their phones. On the bus and train, leaning against the wall on the high street, on park benches, people are fixated with their Samsungs and iPhones. The other day as I stepped out my front door, I even saw a boy travelling on a skateboard reading his phone – I have to say I was impressed.
It is clear that most of us are increasingly experiencing the world through our personal screens. In many ways, this addiction to hand-held technology stops us from fully engaging with nature. For one, it’s easy to sit at home and disappear down a virtual rabbit-hole rather than venture out and see a real one. I also feel to fully experience nature, you have to give yourself over to it totally and tune into the sights and sounds of the wild. It’s very difficult to reach this level of mindfulness if you’re checking your WhatsApp messages every 5 minutes.
But there is a space where Wi-Fi meets wildlife, where mobile phones and apps can enhance your experience outdoors. For me, a walk in the wild is enriched if you are with a knowledgeable companion who is able to identify plants, and pinpoint snippets of birdsong. The whole experience becomes an education. If you aren’t lucky enough to have such a guide, then you can turn to your mobile phone.
There are two apps that I use on a regular basis: one is PlantNet, in my experience, the best app I’ve found to help identify trees and plants. Simply load up a photograph and an accurate answer appears. I also love the Merlin Bird ID app, which is a brilliant way of identifying the birds singing around you. Simply hold up your phone and record what you are hearing and after a few seconds, a list of bird names will start to appear. It’s an incredible piece of technology that is able to discern the distinctive songs of separate birds from a hubbub of sound.
Both apps use the computational power of many and become more accurate the more people use them, because it helps to build up a global archive of leaf shape and birdsong that feeds back into the identification process.
Chaffinch; photographed by Aimee Fairbank Brown
I prefer Merlin to an app I used to use all the time called UK Bird Songs which at the press of a button enables you to call up the songs and mating calls of hundreds of British birds. I still use it at home but have stopped using it outside because I feel it can mess with nature. I remember playing a chaffinch song to a male chaffinch in local woods and it went crazy, bouncing from branch to branch searching in vain for a non-existent rival. My son and I inadvertently scared off two terrified Egyptian geese who had landed in a field near Linton by playing their call.
The final straw came when yards from a robin, I turned the app to robin mode. These loveable redbreasts are notoriously territorial and this particular Erithicus Rubecula immediately saw me as a threat, flying straight for my face, causing me to quickly duck for cover.
Robin singing; photographed by Ron Smith
Thank you Mackman
Phones are an easy means to fritter time away, on the other hand, they can provide a wonderful gateway into a world of information – it’s your choice. If the latter is what you’re after, you might want to visit our new website which was launched last week – sudburycommonlandscharity.org
Whether accessing it by phone or laptop, it’s a major improvement on the old site and along with all the images on our Instagram feed, enables us to show people what a special place the Common Lands and other local green spaces are. The hope is that by using technology to get this message across, the growing number of people that use the Common Lands will treat it with respect and bear in mind the wildlife that live there.
A massive thank you must go to Sudbury marketing agency, Mackman, who designed the website free of charge. They are a highly professional business with a friendly approach and social conscience, and we are extremely grateful for their time and expertise.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity