[NOTE: long and nerdy read!]
When I was a kid, my family home was on a lake shore. The property was bounded by a brook and forested on three sides. I knew the names of wildflowers, trees, insects, birds, fish and frogs, and I thought everyone did. Lady’s slippers, bluet damselflies, bullfrogs, otters and osprey were easily spotted every year. Imagine my surprise when my high school biology teacher brought our class outside and asked every student to observe and name three plants: most students could name only grass, clover and dandelions!
Throughout my adult life I have observed and taken casual photos of wildflowers and anything else in nature that caught my eye, usually so I could look it up later. Cardinal flowers in Maine! Prairie pasqueflowers in Saskatchewan! Eventually I bought a few field guides for my area to confirm things I’d seen. They alerted me to things I might see someday. It was always exciting to see a new species of bird, and the occasional snake or turtle.
In Spring, 2020, I was taking daily walks during our first lockdown (where permitted), taking photos of plants coming into bud, leaf and blossom. I remembered seeing ads for an app that would identify plants. I installed the Seek app and began by snapping pictures of plants I was sure I knew, to see if Seek was accurate. It’s perfect for beginners because it offers certainty – it won’t identify beyond the plant family unless it is sure (or appears so). The app also urges you to keep getting new angles of the plant until it can be identified. This taught me what features the AI was looking for, such as leaf shape and arrangement.
Soon I had logged 50-100 local plants at various levels of identification and the app invited me to check out the iNaturalist app. I found out that Seek is a “lite” version of iNaturalist, which has more features and more complexity. One benefit was that iNat offered you a list of suggested matches, from which you could choose. For people with a bit of knowledge and a willingness to research, it offered the chance to learn in a supportive environment. I liked the idea of comparing similar-looking matches and determining which was correct.
In the early days, iNaturalist would suggest plants with a similar appearance from anywhere in the world, leaving me (and many other Nova Scotians) thinking we had identified Magellan’s sphagnum simply because we’d seen a red-coloured sphagnum moss. I wanted to learn enough to avoid mistakes like that, and to develop a habit of doing at least a little research before clicking on a match. iNat now prioritizes suggestions local to the observer and previously seen by others.
I had passable photography skills and had used a good digital camera before I took my cell phone everywhere. Now I take many photos with a digital camera and upload them to the website, without using the app at all.
In the early days, I picked up some basic terminology through browsing the site: vascular, dicot, genus. I continued to refer to my field guides where I learned some essentials, such as leaf, flower and berry shapes. Obviously I noticed that some plants had characteristics in common, such as tufted vetch and seaside peas – they are both in the legume family Fabaceae. I don’t know the names or characteristics of many plant families yet, but I look forward to learning them.
The next level for me was getting my observations confirmed by another person, that is, having them labelled as Research Grade for citizen science. When I “knew” the name of a plant I wasn’t concerned, but when I was in doubt about my proposed identification, I was very keen to have someone else confirm it. Was my ID right or wrong? My process was:
- Upload photo and location
- Look at iNat suggested IDs
- Compare two or more options, at minimum by viewing a few photos
- Choose only suggestions that had already been seen locally
- If iNat was “not sure,” do some online or book research
- As a last resort, label something plant, bird, insect, etc.
I thought if I didn’t follow those steps, I was causing work for others who might feel compelled to correct me. A few times I have proposed an ID that has been proven not just wrong, but embarrassingly wrong. It has all been a part of the learning experience. I try to recall enough to avoid similar mistakes in the future – but I have made a couple of them twice!
I was delighted to find other iNaturalist users who spend many hours identifying or confirming others’ observations, so I started wracking up lots of Research Grade. For a while I felt like I failed if they didn’t all get to RG! Before long, I started identifying observations for others, too. On one hand, you don’t need to be a botanist to identify a plant. On the other hand, sometimes you do need to be a botanist to identify a plant! There was so much I didn’t know, for example, some common plants (such as blackberry/brambles) are hybrids or the subspecies have “micro” differences and can’t be told apart by novices. I have accepted that I may never have the time or skills to identify one wild willow species from another!
As a newcomer to iNat, I was relieved that using local common names was an option. I am gradually remembering more and more scientific names – but you don’t have to.
The single most effective learning tool I use is to follow local botanists and other nature enthusiasts in my area. All their observations show in my feed. This helped me to learn the range of species that are available to observe locally. I would sometimes make a goal of finding the same species myself. If rare, I simply enjoyed knowing it exists and that someone out there can identify it!
Lots of people spend their time gently educating newcomers. I didn’t know the parts of a plant (or other organism) that are required to identify it. If photographing a flowering plant, it is easiest to identify when it’s flowering, as opposed to its dead remains in the winter. If I’m taking pictures of a mushroom, I need to show not only the cap and stem, but the underside of the cap and preferably even a cross-section. For a tree: the branch, leaves, needles, bark, and overall shape of the tree. And so on. I so appreciate that other iNat users have brought me up to speed on these things.
To further my own research, I have downloaded lots of full-text reference works specific to my area such as Nova Scotia Plants (complete flora), eBird Checklist for Nova Scotia, and Invasive Species Halifax.
I became obsessed with identifying plants last summer and could hardly walk 10 metres without taking and uploading photos. This has probably only calmed down because I can now name so many common local species and I don’t feel compelled to record new observations of all of them. I participated in a couple of nature challenges during which all observations in my area get automatically contributed to an inventory of local species.
I have also realized that being able to name things is not the only reason I like plants (or nature generally). I like knowing what appears in each season, how the flora change after a rainy week, what can only be seen in a certain microclimate, or which plants are generally unwelcome. I like having a big picture of what lives in my area, what I’m likely to see and what might be once-in-a-lifetime. I avoid some areas that I now realize are fragile. I created a map of a 5 mile/8 km radius from my home and I have a growing knowledge of what is included and excluded. I have come to know the features of the land – such as the elevations, bodies of water, forests, and rock formations.
This has been an especially glorious hobby during the Covid-19 pandemic when we’ve all been unable to travel far. It is not an exaggeration to say that iNaturalist has been life-changing for me, because it gets me outside again after years of worshipping the Great Indoors 😊