Sunday, July 16, 2017

Become an (i) Naturalist

If you're like me, you're always wondering what plants and animals you're seeing.*  In the good old days we had books.  I still keep a dozen or so field guides** ready at hand to look for the odd grass, wildflower, bird or dragonfly, but I've begun to supplement my resources online.  I joined the twenty-first century and got my smartphone two years ago.  Birds--which I am a perpetual novice at--were my first foray into identification apps.  I played with several, but Audubon is the one I really use.  Since I can hear birds that are hidden from my eyes, I long for a good app that can narrow the choices by analyzing a bird's song.  I don't think we're there yet, though.

Still a mystery, though probably a kind of barnacle.

Another app I downloaded awhile back as a lark is iNaturalist.  I understood you could upload photos and ask the community to help you identify them, or identify photos posted by others.  I didn't really try it, though, until I came upon a curious creature washed up on a Martha's Vineyard beach a few weeks ago.  With a real mystery on my hands, I recalled the app, and uploaded the "observation."  The very next day I was delighted to find that two people had taken a stab at identification, and had partially agreed.  And I was flummoxed to find they were both in New Zealand.

Female and male Comon Whitetails.

 Immature male Common Whitetail.

One naturalist has weighed in so far: this dragonfly is probably a Blue Dasher.

 Silver-spotted Skipper.

 Some sort of Fritillary--maybe an Aphrodite Fritillary.

I began uploading other photos: a butterfly I wasn't sure of, a couple of dragonflies.  Again, in only hours, a couple of naturalists put in their two cents' worth, and were clearly right.  Playing around on the site, I found the map listing other people's observations, narrowed it to eastern Massachusetts, and was able to identify several plants posted by others.  This was fun!  I was contributing!  (This turns out to be a bit addictive: I've spent an hour at a time going through plant observations posted from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, making identifications in as many cases as possible--forty-eight so far.)   In addition, an observation whose identity is confirmed by several community members can be listed as "research grade," and be used by bona fide scientists in their own work.

Slug of some sort.

 Maybe Common Garden Snails--need IDs from someone who knows.

Within an hour or so I had an ID from a naturalist on this Newport bird: Song Sparrow.

In the weeks since I first began using it, I've also posted observations of a garden slug and snail, and birds and plants photographed on our recent outing to Newport.

Of the fourteen observations I posted more than a couple of days ago, half have been identified to species, and several more have less specific identities.  Not bad for creatures I could not identify on my own.  And now the dragonflies in my yard are old friends.  Just goes to show what happens when you can put a name to a face.

You can do much more than getting your own critters identified, and helping others with theirs.

Instead of simply adding your observations to the general pool, you can instead add them to specific projects--dozens of which are active.  Many projects are devoted to a community or region, others to a specific group of organisms, such as dragonflies.  A good many are related to Bioblitzes: one-day events in which communities of naturalists gather in a place to list everything that lives in a particular place.  There are projects to collect observations from summer campers, and students in particular school programs.  

You can look at the observations of others indexed by species, or go to a particular region on a world map and zoom in to see observations made there.  It's cool to see other naturalists at work in your own area.  

Finally, the naturalists themselves are searchable.  You can see the person who identified your species, and see what else they've been up to.  You can find out who is most active in identifying species of a particular group.  You can even email folks.

iNaturalist has becoming my favorite nature app.  You can use it too.  And its free!

 Postscript: Only hours after I posted this blurry image of a bird in flight over a Newport beach, two different birders had confirmed that it was a barn swallow.  Birders rock!

*Naming things is not an end in itself (although there are those who "collect" identifications of birds, etc., in a "life list"); it's mainly about putting names to faces--the first step in getting to know coworkers or neighbors--human and otherwise.

**The most often used are:
Sibley Field Guide to Birds, Eastern North America
Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (accept no substitute)
A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs by George Petrides (Peterson Field Guide Series -- PFGS)
Grasses by Lauren Brown
A Field Guide to the Ferns by Boughton Cobb (PFGS)
Manual of Aquatic Plants by Norman C. Fassett  (older than  I am, but still very useful)
Dragonflies through Binoculars by Sydney W Dunkle
Butterflies and Moths, and Caterpillars (both Peterson First Guides)
I have others, some technical, and some for specific environments such as the seashore, or deserts.

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