Good apps for wild counting
Essential apps for wild counting on an iPhone.
written Jun 6, 2018 (last updated Sep 5, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Gear up
My iPhone SE, Apple’s little one-thumb operated iPhone, is now the centre of my wild counting. I’m old enough that I’ve been counting the wild using a long lineage of hand-held devices, through two older iPhones, an original iPod Touch, two Palm Tungsten Es (the first one broke), and, back in the 1990s, an HP 48GX graphing calculator. Yes, I entered most of my PhD field data directly into the memory of a graphing calculator.
These days we’re spoilt for choice in the diversity of apps that add functionality (and distraction and entertainment) to our devices. Here, I introduce the iOS apps that I rely on to count the wild on my iPhone. I also mention some of the good alternatives you might want to try. Some of these apps will also be available for Android.
The core requirements for my wild counting apps are that they must work offline, and they must store their data on my device. There’s plenty of New Zealand wilderness without mobile coverage and my iPhone battery lasts much longer with data turned off. I also want my counts stored locally, not just off in someone else’s computer in the cloud somewhere. Local+cloud is fantastic, but I’m a bit wary of cloud only solutions. I’ve seen too many apps and tech companies come and go over the years and my wild counts are long term.
I use FileMaker Go
The most important thing you need for wild counting is somewhere to enter your counts. Databases are best for this. Think of the web forms you’ve entered information into on websites. Web forms are a front end of databases. A good database app lets you set up the equivalent of a web form on your device that you can use offline (and online if you want).
Databases are vastly better for data entry than spreadsheets. Their layouts are much more flexible; you can also add all sorts of content besides text, like photos, sounds, drawings, and PDFs. Unlike spreadsheets, databases also force you to spend time designing what goes where before you start. What you can enter where is much more constrained, by your design. That’s a very good thing.
My favourite database app for iPhone is FileMaker Go. I’ve been using the FileMaker platform since the 1990s (including FileMaker Mobile on my Palm Tungsten). FileMaker Go is solid, dependable, feature-rich, and easy to use. It’s also free.
But wait. Unfortunately there’s a big catch. To make or edit your own database for Filemaker Go, you need FileMaker Pro on a computer (Mac or Windows). That is frustratingly expensive. And not $50 kind of expensive. It’s many hundreds of dollars. The good thing is that you can run other people’s databases on FileMaker Go. You’re welcome to use mine.
FileMaker Go is also, unfortunately, iOS-only.
Alternatives TapForms, Kobo Toolbox, and others
If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, you can’t go wrong with TapForms, an affordable and flexible database app. It’s available for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and even Apple Watch. I used TapForms back before FileMaker Go was released. It was good then and it looks like it’s only got better.
A newer solution that looks great is Kobo Toolbox. It’s another flexible web and app based database. It’s built for non-profits to use during humanitarian disasters to collect essential field data in difficult conditions. It’s free for public use and looks to be flexible enough to handle most wild counting.
There are also flexible new cloud-based databasing apps like Fulcrum and AirTable that are worth a look. If you’ve got GIS skills and access to an (expensive) ArcGIS license, also check out ArcGIS’s Survey123.
Update September 2021: A solution to enter in WildCounts Shorthand could be mixed up in any one of these databases. I’m not sure if any can do datetime-stamped and geotagged WildCounts Spoken audio notes like Filemaker Go. My focus has been instead on wrapping up the Wildcounts essentials into its own simple, cross-platform app, but I’m still on the beginning of that journey.
I use Camera+
Apple’s stock app is OK but Camera+ is better. Why? Because it can manually focus, macro focus, and it has complete exposure control (and even ISO control). Plus, it can shoot in RAW format for my best photos.
Just the manual focus and macro modes alone are well worth the few dollars. Autofocus in tangled vegetation drives me nuts. It’s great to be able to turn it off.
Regardless of the camera app, I also always carry a monocular and a hand lens for far away and close up viewing and photography. I can hold up either to my iPhone and get useful long distance or close up photos. (Beware of digital apps that just zoom by cropping away pixels from your images. Get close or get far away with lenses when you can.)
I have no use for all the filters and fancy photo modification tools but they’re also there in Camera+ if you want to get creative. Just don’t mess with your original photos of wild species. It’s best to treat those like you would a museum specimen.
Apple’s Camera app is fine for most situations, as is the default Android camera. Just watch your autofocus and autoexposure. The iNaturalist app also connects into your device’s camera, but lacks the controls of a camera app like Camera+.
I use Voice Memos and RØDE Reporter
There are paid voice recording apps available but I still use Apple’s stock app, Voice Memos, when I’m recording with the in-built microphone. It’s OK.
The iPhone microphone is OK but not great. I bought a a RØDE microvideo external microphone, with a fluffy wind protector, to plug in to my iPhone. I use the free RØDE Reporter app with it to record uncompressed audio.
I use Compass
Apple’s stock compass app is fine for my purposes. I use it for figuring out what direction things are from me and what direction birds are flying. It helps to already be aware of what approximate direction north really is, as the app sometimes takes a while to find its bearings if the phone has just woken up.
I’ve got a fancier app called Theolodite that I like but rarely use. It does all sorts of surveyor things, even calculating the height of objects using the distance and angle.
I use Cyclemeter
Cyclemeter is fantastic. It’s also free for the basic features, which are all I need. It’s built for the fitness crowd, especially cyclists, as the name suggests. However, after trying out a few GPS apps, this is definitely my favourite.
You can set the kind of motion you’re doing (walk, run, cycle, drive, etc). It doesn’t drain my battery as much as other GPS apps I’ve tried. I can have Cyclemeter tracking me walking all day on one charge of my iPhone’s battery (if I’ve got data turned off).
Also, I can download my tracks as GPX files. I use those files to auto-geotag all my observations and DSLR photos based on their date and time stamps. Cyclemeter is great.
There are plenty of other GPS apps available to try. I also often carry my Garmin GPS unit, for more accurate and more frequent GPS points than my iPhone is capable of (regardless of the app).
I use MyPlaces and Apple Maps
I have two frequent uses for maps. One use is looking up site names or street names along routes. Apple Maps is fine for this, especially in and around cities. I always name my site/route in case something goes wrong with the GPS. Redundancy is good when recording data. (Also, I use exactly the same name each time I repeat count a site or route, so I can quickly search for these later.)
My second frequent use for maps is looking up a coordinate for an observation that I enter after I’ve made it. For example, when I see something notable while I was driving, and I later need to look up the coordinate for that observation while it’s fresh in my memory.
The Apple Maps and Google Maps apps don’t let me copy a coordinate [2023 Edit: I think Google Maps now does this]. They’re both heavy handed with their sign in/cloud shenanigans. I just want to copy a coordinate from a map app into my database app. Thankfully, there is a great app for this: MyPlaces.
MyPlaces is also fantastic for storing and labelling pins on maps. You can even add photos with your notes for a pin. You can also export everything out whenever you want. Plus, you can copy the coordinate of any pin and paste it in another app.
Alternative Avenza Maps
Avenza Maps deserves a shout out too. You can use it to download/purchase topomaps, you can place points and GPS tracks over topomaps, and you can do other fancy map things. It’s one of those apps, like Theolodite, that I really like but find myself never using.
I used to use an app called Randomator but that got killed by a software update so I switched to Random. Both apps do just one thing: make random numbers. Random looks stylish too.
Why would I need a random number generator app? To add random sampling to my surveying. For example, if I’m laying out one metre square plots to count wild seedlings, I use Random to choose random angles and numbers of paces to locate each plot. Also, when I do my alternative bike routes each month, I use Random to decide which order to do them in.
Most statistical analysis techniques assume that data is collected in a random manner. This means that if you want to generalise your counts to a wider area, you should be sampling random places within this area. Random is handy.
There are lots of other ways to get random numbers. There are several other random number apps. You could also use a calculation in a spreadsheet app like Numbers. Or, at a pinch, you can use the last numbers in people’s phone numbers. The important thing is to survey at random places when you can.
I use (My brain)
I don’t usually identify species directly on my iPhone. I’m too busy counting things! If I already know what it is, I use its name in my counts. If I don’t know what it is, it won’t be a focus of my wild counts. I will take a geotagged photo and/or audio recording, and figure out what it is later with my computer, bookshelf, and iNaturalist.
Alternative iNaturalist app
The iNaturalist app is great for casual nature watching. If you find something interesting, you can snap a photo (or several) on the app and get an identification. You can add observations to the app even if you’re offline and upload them later when you’re connected. If you’re online, the app will use its machine learning cleverness to immediately suggest the name of your species. Later, real naturalists will confirm or correct the name. It’s amazing.
I don’t use the app much myself though. I count too many things when I’m outside to have the time to make an observation on the iNat app for each one. I find it quicker to batch add my photos from a trip to the iNaturalist NZ website from my laptop, when I get home.
I use Darktable on my laptop
I caption my photos with the species name(s), place name, and ecological tags like habitat (e,g, on fallen log), life stage (e.g, adult) and reproductive state (e.g., flowering). The two sensible options for doing this are by editing the IPTC information inside photo files, or editing an XMP sidecar file associated with each photo. Editing the IPTC info makes the caption a permanent part of the photo file, although not altering the image itself. Editing an XMP file has the advantage of not altering the original photo file.
Apple’s Photos app for iPhone has been perplexingly and diabolically incapable of captioning photos, a design decision I don’t understand at all. [Update: to my great surprise, Apple finally added a simple caption feature to Photos in iOS 14.]
I currently caption all my photos on my laptop, in the free open-source app Darktable. That adds the caption information to an XMP sidecar text file, one for each photo. Darktable is also great at geotagging photos using GPX files from GPS apps like Cyclemeter (or from real GPS units). The photos I export from Darktable are all tagged up ready for batch uploading to iNaturalist.
My dream workflow, which I’ve not got working (yet), is to have my computer take all my WildCounts Shorthand from a trip and generate all photo labels automatically, just like I geotag all my photos automatically from my trip’s GPX file. While I’m dreaming, that workflow would also automatically upload those tagged photos up to iNaturalist. I think all of that is possible, but there’s no off-the-shelf solution that will do it so I’d have to build it myself.
Alternative Adobe Lightroom
I’ve read that the latest version of Lightroom on iPhones has some ability to add captions to photos.
At the moment, I download my counts, photos, and recordings from my iPhone onto my computer at least weekly. They then get backed up onto two hard drives in two locations (one at home and one at work) and all my count data also gets backed up on my iPhone and onto a 40 TB NAS at home which uploads everything to Amazon Deep Glacier for long-term backup. I’m backed up.
Well done if you made it this far! I hope you’ve find something that’s useful for you. Let me know if there are some great tools that I’ve overlooked.