How to spot birds, planes, and maybe even a superhero with your iPhone

tracking overhead

Sometimes we get so caught up in connecting to each other on various social networks, we often forget that we are surrounded by an entire universe of objects that are flying, gliding, spinning and whirling all around us. Some are alive, some are man-made, and some we don’t fully understand. Here are a few iOS apps in the iTunes App Store that you can download to help you locate and identify what is passing you by each and every day.

Birds and Clouds

Birds and Clouds

eBirds – All sorts of creatures occupy the space about our heads and yes, there are even apps that track the very birds that are flying around you. In a more crowdsourced manner of gathering information, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society launched what is known as the eBird service back in 2002. It is a website used to track bird sightings all around the world. Birds In The Hand created the BirdLog ($9.99 Universal) app that makes it real easy for anyone to input information about a bird sighting. Using Audubon Birds Pro ($9.99 Universal) you can access eBird data to see recent bird sightings near your current location by using the app’s FindBirds feature.

If you are new to bird watching, the Merlin Bird ID (Free iPhone) app uses the same eBird data to help narrow down your bird identification list. Rather than give you a list of all birds, it uses local bird sighting data to help narrow down the list of what species of bird you are looking at. This helps identify what species of bird you are most likely viewing. It is a great way to participate in the next Great Backyard Bird Count event early next year.

NOAA – What is likely the most used (and most replaced) app on my home screen is my favorite weather app. It provides ten-day or hourly forecasts, alerts and current conditions, and I have yet to find one app that keeps my attention longer than a couple of weeks. The one weather app that has remained on my home screen longer than any other has been Radar Cast Elite ($2.99 Universal). While it does have additional weather based information, I pretty much use it exclusively as my go-to weather satellite app. I also like being able to combine the radar and satellite images so I can see the cloud coverage in addition to the precipitation.

Another weather radar app that I use more as a utility weather app than something on my home screen is Base Velocity’s RadarScope ($9.99 Universal). It takes a little getting used to and is not quite as fast at getting you a complete picture of what weather is affecting larger geographic areas. But it does offer a pro subscription that adds higher resolution imagery and real-time lightning strike information. It does this by allowing you to choose exactly which weather radar you want to view.

Planes and Satellites

Planes and Satellites

FAA – If you know the specific location and destination information of a plane in route, you can use almost any travel app to check the status of a particular flight. But what if you just want to know what plane is flying overhead in the sky right now? One of the simplest ways is to just ask Siri “what planes are overhead right now?” Siri uses WolframAlpha to access ADS-B from nearby airplanes.

FlightAware Flight Tracker (Free, Universal) on the other hand provides a more interactive and visual experience. In the app there is a “nearby” function that shows all of the flights overhead. You can tap on a plane and see who owns that plane. And its not just commercial passenger flights in the list; you can even track shipments of your packages from around the globe.

NORAD – A little higher up in the sky are the satellites that circumnavigate the globe. The most useful satellites are typically locked into a geostationary orbit, which makes them visible throughout the day. GoSatWatch ($9.99 Universal) can be used to track each and every satellite in orbit today. One cool use of this app is that it can be used to determine the best direction in which to point your satellite dish.

You can even add your own favorite satellites to the database. There are web sites that keep updated Two Line Element (TLE) data that you can access from within the app. This is one way NORAD tracks and shares the location information of all of the debris orbiting the planet. This is for those whose favorite satellite (or piece of space junk) of the nearly 100 million objects orbiting the earth is not included among the 200-object database included with the app. You just never know when the next tool bag will come crashing down to earth.

Planets and Stars

Planets and Stars

Star Walk – There really has been just one star-gazing app that has kept my interest over the years, and that is Vito Technology’s Star Walk ($0.99 iPhone, $2.99 iPad). One of the most interesting aspects of the app is its ability to show you how the stars move across the sky with the passage of time. You can gently spin the clock forward to create a perpetually moving night sky. At one time I dialed back the calendar to the moment I was born and even updated the location to the place on earth I was born. I just wanted to see how the universe looked when and where I first came into the world.

Equally as mesmerizing — and much more useful when identifying objects overhead — is the apps augmented reality mode. When in this mode you can line up the night’s sky with the database of celestial objects in the app and quickly identify every point of light in the sky. It even ties in nicely with the device’s compass and gyros to track the stars as you move around.

Upcoming Events – Sometimes things overhead get more interesting when you know they are coming. That way you can make a point to be in a good location to maximize your opportunity to view the spectacle. Sky Live ($0.99 iPhone) is a companion app to Sky View that does just that. It provides information for celestial events near your present location.

Sky & Telescope Magazine also has an updated list of online events that are happening each week. They even have a Newsstand app that you can use to manage your subscription to the magazine. Astronomy Magazine also has a weekly update of events that you can observe as well as a Newsstand app of their own. Between the Sky Live app and the two magazines, you will not miss out on much.

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