QR Affixed Nature Trails Draw More Than the Wildlife

Black and white against a background of green trees and blue sky. Until recently, the only thing like that you'd see on a nature walk were birds and animals.

But now with the popularity of QR -- or Quick Response codes -- the black and white matrix barcodes are increasingly showing up in parks across the nation, proving that nature and technology do mix.

By helping tourists to easily get information on attractions, the 21-century technology offers parks an inexpensive way to provide information and to lure Internet obsessed kids into nature.

Staffers simply create QR codes on stickers and attach them to exhibits or things of interest around the preserve --things like trees or geologic features. Hikers can use their smart phone to link to online maps, historic information and video and upcoming nature programs.

They have found that it's not only a hit with kids -- adults love it too.

In fact, at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida, rangers and the refuge friends’ organization designed the iNature Trail along Wildlife Drive with two sets of codes-- one set, that targets kids, has specially created interactive YouTube video links, and the other, for adults, has more informational video links.

Admission to the refuge’s Wildlife Drive is $5 per vehicle, $1 per cyclist or hiker. The QR tour is free after that.

“We believe we are the first to incorporate the You Tube video links in a QR code nature trail,” said supervisory refuge ranger Toni Westland.

“We wanted to make it fun for the kids because they’re the ones we want to get out here and the ones who are hooked on their cell phones.”

One code, for instance, shows kids how to flap their arms like an osprey; another how a family can resemble a mangrove tree with their bodies. The idea for the trail came from a college student who grew up on Sanibel and took it on as his master’s degree project.

“Luckily we were able to tap into the energy and expertise of volunteers for the knowledge of QR technology, professional film and editing skills, and ‘acting,’” said Birgie Vertesch, executive director of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge.

“The only true cost was the signage, coming to a total of $1,200,” Vertesch said.

So now you don’t have to wait for a ranger or naturalist when you take advantage of the QR codes at “Ding” Darling refuge’s or any of the following nature facilities.

Thea Miller Ryan, director of the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, began using the technology nearly two years ago by affixing printed QR codes to the facility’s Nature Center aquariums, which are open free to the public.

“I’ve always been a fan of ways to use technology in learning, and it’s a great way to help visitors who are interested in technology,” she said.

The codes take scanners to Web pages on the Northern State University site that identifies and informs about the eight aquariums’ denizens, such as the American toad, fox snake, tiger salamander, garter snake, and more.

“It’s been very well received,” Ryan said. “At first I’d go into the center, and people would ask ‘what are those funny little square boxes?’ Now I just see everyone scanning them. It’s become part of the technology culture.”

She added that she plans to use the codes in other areas of Outdoor Campus, including its museum and nature trails.

It started with cricket and katydid sounds at the University of Florida Natural Area Teaching Lab trails in Gainesville, Fla., which are also open free to the public.

Eight printed codes initially linked trail users to insect recordings already posted on the university's web site.

“We were taking advantage of a resource we already had,” said Dr. Jennifer Gillett-Kaufman, assistant extension scientist. “[It cost] dollars for an excellent return, and we’ve found it is interesting to the public, not just our scientific community.”

Since then, staff has grown the idea to 20 codes with 35 more to come. Some of them explain how to use the codes and tell visitors how to find the information on the university’s web site if they don’t own a smartphone. Newer implemented codes link to bird sounds or web sites and allow the university a “more organic and cost-effective” way to replace old signs, said Gillett-Kaufman.

“We are now making some special videos to link to signs to show insect predation, mammals, and birds caught on film in NATL,” she added.

Like “Ding” Darling Refuge, the Blandford Nature Center blandfordnaturecenter.org in Grand Rapids, Mich., implemented a more complex system, thanks to a pro bono source.

In Blandford’s case, a local businessman offered to initially create a smartphone app to draw people to the non-profit center as a model to show potential paying customers.

On the heels of the app’s popularity, he initiated a plan to replace the map signage on the facility's four miles of free trails with new signage embedded with QR codes.

The nine signs on the Wildlife Trail, a boardwalk trail past rehabilitated animals in cages, connect users to pages on Blandford’s web site that give specific information about the animal, whether it’s a great horned owl or a bobcat.

Again, those without the necessary tools can access the information directly from the web site at home. Fourteen codes on the other trail relay information either with web content or MP3 voice recordings about the habitat and different ecosystems within the park.

“It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt,” said executive director Annoesjka Steinman, adding that she has seen a marked increase in attendance since launching the program in late July. “It’s a way to attract a different audience.”