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  1. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Field Guides, by Green Mountain Digital
    Varied (see below), ****


    • High quality field guides, replaces the old field books
    • Many nice images, multiple regions and topics available


    • Some guides lacking various media options (sounds, video)
    • No incorporation of GPS for identification
    • Limited “guided searches” to help identify groups

    A few weeks ago, I reviewed the Audubon Field Guide for Mammals (here). At the time, I liked it, although I found a few flaws. I also noticed that Green Mountain Digital has put out a wide variety of Audubon Field Guides, for specific locations as well as organismal groups (birds, reptiles, fish, etc.). Being a nature loving biologist (is there any other kind?) I wanted to take a look at them to see how they worked. I downloaded a number of them – Audubon Guide to Mushrooms, Fishes, Wildflowers, and of course Insects. I also downloaded the Guides for a couple of regions – Texas and New England. There are many more available, including different regions (Mid-Atlantic, Florida, Northwest, Afirca) and even specialized regional wifdlife options (such as California birds). There are also many more organismal categories – owls and birds come to mind. Lastly, there are two grouped nature guides that are cheaper to purchase than buying the individual components – Birds and Insects as well as Trees, birds, mammals, and flowers. Whew, lots of options for budding naturalists. Personally, I would have liked to see one large guidebook, where you could use in-app purchases to expand your library of nature guides.

    I will include a brief write-up of the app I purchased below, to identify any specific strengths or flaws, but right now I want to provide a generalized write up for the Audubon Guides, in case someone is thinking about purchasing one of these or one that I didn’t review. I will start with the general organismal guides. First, the positives – the guides a very nicely laid out, with clear reference sections and multiple methods to try to find whatever you are looking for. All the guides allow you to search for the organisms based on shape, name, or biological order. In addition, there is an advanced search feature that allows you to specify things like habitat, regions, colors that you see, sizes, and more specific categories for different organisms (like cap size for mushrooms or leaf shape for trees). This allows for a high degree of specificity when trying to identify an unknown organism.

    Another great feature of all these guides is that they contain great reference information. For example, the trees guide included information about general tree identification, habitats, natural history, and even something about threats to trees. The insect guide included helpful guides on how to find insects, conservation, and how to start an insect collection. These additional reference materials provide some great information to people who are interested in nature. The individual entries for each species are well laid out, containing at least one picture, descriptions, and allowing for a notation in a sighting log (although you need to create an online account to do this). There is some variation – for example, the insect guide only seemed to contain one picture for each insect (which is a shame for insects since you can’t identify the larval stage from looking at the adult stage), as did the fish guide. In addition, some of the guides included range data (such as the trees, fish, and wildflowers) while others didn’t (such as the insects and the fungus). I suspect the range data probably has more to do with the organisms and interest people have in finding them.

    There are some features that seem to be missing which I mentioned in my review of the mammals guide – there is no integrated GPS, which would seem to be a great way to rule out a number of organisms that simply aren’t found in the area where you are looking. In addition, there were limited options for multimedia – in some cases this might make sense (who really cares what a fungus sounds like? I don’t think a movie of a tree would be all that interesting, but certainly in some cases video and sound would be an added benefit. They did have an audio tab for the owls, but nothing was listed – possibly something that would want to add in the future?

    My two biggest complaints about the guides are the journal feature and the lack of a guided identification option. While there is a journal feature in the apps, you need to create an online account in order to use it. You can’t just record what you have seen, using geo-referenced GPS data and recording video or sound with your iPhone. Many people might be interested in a personal journal but don’t really want to create an online account. In addition, it would be great to use the iPhone interactivity to have a guided “question by question” feature for identification. Sure, they allow you to identify by shape, but that is all – you are then taken to a list of organisms that match that general shape. Going further with trees, for example, then asking about leaf shape, bark, size, location (see GPS complaint) would really narrow down the kind of tree that you are looking at – especially if the guided questions had reference pictures included!

    The two regional guides I downloaded (Texas and New England) are useful for people that might not care about wildlife that is found in a region of North America where they will never travel. The regional guides include Birds, Butterflies, Fish, Insects and Spiders, Seashells (at least the two I looked at), Seashore Creatures, Mammals, Wildflowers, Trees, and Reptiles and Amphibians. Presumably landlocked regions will not include seashells or seashore creatures. When you start up the regional guides, you get to choose what you want to look for from that list. Once you specify what kind of living thing you are looking for, the guide basically appears the same as the individual guides for that category, allowing for the same feature (search by shape, name, order, etc). The regional guides also contain the reference information found in the individual guides. I was happy to see general reference information about the region itself – the kinds of habitats, the climate, conservation or parks, etc. Given that you are looking in a specific region, it is really nice to get references on the kinds of habitats found there (for example, in Texas we have scrubland, desert, mountains, sub-tropical desert, shoreline, and even more ecotypes!). Unfortunately, they didn’t have a map showing where the different regions are, but it is still nice to see this added feature.

    I have included some general pictures in this post, and in the followup posts (with a paragraph for each individual guide) I have included pictures just from that guide. Links for the individual apps are also listed below, although I have not rated each one individually.

    All in all, these references are nicely made, well designed nature guides for either specific kinds of organisms or specific regions. While there are some clear flaws in all the apps (lack of GPS integration, limited journal options, no guided identification) and there are some differences between the individual guides (limited/non-existent multimedia for some guides, lacking ranges in some guides, limited photographs) overall these are a nice, useful tool for the amateur naturalist who may want to be able to actually identify what they are seeing when outside hiking, camping, or engaged in any activity where they may come face to face with nature. The regional guides are a conglomeration of the larger nature guides, but focused on specific regions of North America (and Africa). The prices of these guides range from free (Audubon Owls, Birds of Central Park) up to $14.99 (for the mammals, birds, wildflowers, and trees in one guide, although it is now on sale for $9.99). While there are some flaws, the usefulness and design of these apps win out in the end, and I give them an overall rating of four out of five stars.

    * = No redeeming qualities or features, probably not worth it even if it is free
    ** = Few redeeming qualities, or is simply isn't worth the price
    *** = Some good features but also some clear flaws.
    **** = A solid app, worth the money if interested, a few flaws or problems or slightly overpriced
    ***** = Top of the line app, no problems or drawbacks.

    Price is factored into the ratings. Ratings are lowered if I feel the price of the app outweighs the benefits/enjoyment/features it provides. Likewise, an app that is a good value for the money will have a higher rating. Please comment on these reviews. All opinions expressed in this review are precisely that – opinions. You may agree or disagree. If you own the app, tell me what your opinion is. If the review prompted you to buy (or not buy) the app, let me know why. If you want more information about the app, go ahead and ask.

    *To all who are awaiting reviews – I apologize about the lack of reviews recently, but I hope to post a steady stream of app reviews of the next few weeks. If you have contact me regarding an app review, I will try to get back to you as soon as possible. Please note that contacting me (even sending a promo code) does not guarantee a review. If you have not heard from me within the next week or so, please send me another PM*
    Last edited by cjvitek; 07-19-2012 at 04:01 PM.
    07-19-2012 03:46 PM
  2. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Mushrooms: This guide is everything mushrooms. At $4.99, it is a relatively comprehensive guide to mushrooms of North American, and includes just about every kind of fungus you might expect to find. While they don’t show the ranges of the mushrooms, they do include a nice photograph of the fruiting body (one of the reproductive stages) as well as a nice description of each fungus. I was also happy to see a fairly extensive reference section about fungi, their role in nature, how they reproduce, and even what kinds of fungus may be edible or not!
    07-19-2012 03:47 PM
  3. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Fishes: While looking at fish in nature may be a little more difficult than other living things, if you ever find yourself in a position to observe native North American fish, this guide can come in handy. Descriptive information included covers about range, behavior, and even if it is good for fishing! The reference information talks about conservation, introduced species, and even dangerous fishes to be on the lookout food. No recipes for a good fish fry, however. At $4.99, the guide is a reasonable purchase if you would find yourself needing natural history information about fish, or just want to know what you might have in your backyard stream.
    07-19-2012 03:48 PM
  4. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Insects and Spiders: As an entomologist, I am happy to see that they differentiate between insects and arachnids, and the references included even tell you why they are different. Unfortunately they don’t include butterflies – you need to purchase the separate butterfly guide for that. I was disappointed to see that they don’t have pictures of the different life stages, instead focusing on the adult specimens. Presumably this is because identifying insects based on immature stages is much more difficult. No range information is included, which is odd since insects do clearly have specific ranges. At $4.99, if you are an arthropod-enthusiast, this guide is well worth the money.
    07-19-2012 03:49 PM
  5. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Reptiles and Amphibians: The reptiles and amphibians guide is great for day time herp-hunters. The shape browsing leaves a little bit to be desired, as they simply classify things as “lizard”, “snake”, “frog/toad”, etc, without going into much more detail. However, the descriptive information for each species is great, including vocalizations (which I think I may have to go test on the herpetologist whose office is next to mine!). Reference information include identifying types of reptiles, how to observe and collected them, but interestingly doesn’t include a specific guide for identifying venomous reptiles. At $4.99, another solid entry into the Audubon guidebooks.
    07-19-2012 03:51 PM
  6. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Butterflies: This is a sub-category of insects, but is included as a separate guide presumably because butterfly watching is such a popular hobby. The classification guides are handy, and include general butterfly categories with color, not just shape of the butterfly. Each species listing again is missing the range (just like insects) but otherwise have all pertinent information. The guides do discuss basic butterfly biology, including morphology, metamorphosis, evolution of defenses, but not feeding or migrating behavior. For butterfly enthusiasts, the $4.99 price tag is probably worth the cost.
    07-19-2012 03:52 PM
  7. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Owls: Owls is one of the free Audubon guides, and you can tell it isn’t quite as polished as the others. The references are listed on the main page, and you don’t have the different browsing options available in the paid guides. There is also a “fun” category, which I wish was included in the other guides as well (including such features as puzzles and photo/audio quizzes). Browsing options are only by name, so you had already better know a little bit about owls. For serious bird/owl watchers, the Audubon Bird Guide is probably the way to go, but for a little weekend fun this free app might be all you need.
    07-19-2012 03:55 PM
  8. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Trees: The tree guide was one of the first I downloaded, and it was one of the ones I was most happy with. Species information includes range, leaf and tree shape guide, and natural history information. You can also browse by shape of the tree (oval, columnar, shrub, etc) or shape of the leaf. Unfortunately there isn’t anything about bark, which is another good way to help identify trees. The reference information is pretty basic, mostly about tree identification and habitats, with a little about general tree biology, but if does include some information about threats that trees face. For $4.99, if you enjoy walking through the woods and ever wonder what trees you are looking at, this guide certainly can help.
    07-19-2012 03:56 PM
  9. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Flowers: This is one of the newer Audubon Guides, and the reference information is surprisingly lacking. It only included information on habitats, parts, and identification – nothing about the life history or biology or wildflowers themselves. While it was working originally, when I went to write up this review I also experienced a glitch in the search feature, which would close the app. The browsing features also seem to have a glitch – there are no flowers listed!! While presumably this bug is being worked out, I can’t recommend this specific guide until the problems are solved. The price is $4.99, but I would hold off until there is an update.
    07-19-2012 03:58 PM
  10. cjvitek's Avatar
    Audubon Texas/New England Nature: Living in Texas, this was the first regional Audubon guide I downloaded. The plethora of information available on all living organisms is great, and the specific information about habitats, ecotypes, topography, as well as conservation information is a great reference source. The guides themselves are basically mini-versions of the full North America guides, but for people living in a specific region, these individual regional guides are a great compromise between buying all the organismal guides and having all the information you need!
    07-19-2012 04:00 PM
  11. pkcable's Avatar
    There guides are THE best! I was not aware that they had iOS versions, but it sure does make sense. I'm really going to have to check these out!
    07-20-2012 10:04 AM