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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Schlag

How Tech Increased My Enjoyment of Nature: Insights from the Merlin App

I was never a bird person. I remember a hike I took in the Canadian Rockies with a group of birder friends. I wanted to cover some miles, not gaze at the treetops through binoculars. I didn’t understand the appeal.


Things changed in March of this year, when I attended a week-long training with the National Association of Interpretation (NAI). To improve our interpretive planning skills, the 20 participants were split into four groups of five to develop plans for our host site, the Walker Nature Center in Reston, VA.


I was grouped with four avid birders, and together, we planned a bird hike for visitors in the Center’s surrounding forest lands. It was at this workshop I first learned about Merlin. For those of you unfamiliar with this mobile app, Merlin helps users identify bird songs and sightings easily. It’s like Shazam for birds.


As our group hiked the trails that week, most of my classmates had Merlin open on their mobile devices. Their commentary on bird sightings was rapid and exuberant. I downloaded the app myself and hit “record,” watching in fascination as bird identities appeared on my screen within seconds of their chirp.


Since returning home, I frequently whip out my phone to identify bird song while walking my dogs. I set my phone on my office windowsill to identify birds in the tree outside. I email screenshots from the app to my husband with exclamations – “Look, an osprey! That’s a new one!”


Which led me to a question: Did the Merlin mobile app actually spur my interest in birds? In short: yes, it did.


The debate about using technology in the great outdoors is hotly contested. Given nature’s restorative properties, most people agree it is best to be fully present and unplugged in nature.


I have largely subscribed to this belief myself. But I admit, I really enjoy watching each bird identity pop up on Merlin.


What is happening is that the mobile app is providing me an easy path of entry into a pastime that was overwhelming to me. There are thousands of birds and learning to tell them apart seemed too challenging.


Suddenly, I have Merlin telling me that a Gray Catbird is singing outside my window. I don’t have to figure out what bird it is myself – Merlin makes the identification for me, lets me click into more information about the species, and mark that I identified the species in my neighborhood. The app makes it easy and fun.


This has led me to pay closer attention to birds even when I don’t have my phone. I now look at their body shape and coloring and try to identify their bird song myself. I still have a long way to go, but Merlin started me on the path.

Museums and parks constantly wrestle with the question of how to incorporate digital techniques into their interpretation. As I complete my Certification in Interpretive Planning with NAI over the next year, I hope to blog about this topic, along with many others. Stay tuned!




Check back soon for a look at how my group incorporated Merlin into our bird hike!


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