All right. So you’ve been out botanizing, birding, bugwatching, and you’ve got your specimen to identify via photos. Now what?
The old standby was generally a printed field guide, with photos or illustrations and descriptions. Over the years I’ve collected several guides to help identify plants; second-hand bookstores can be a great place to find guides, and your local library should also have a variety of resources. Books are helpful to page through quickly to see if any photos match up; even if you don’t find your exact specimen, you might find something similar enough to point you in the right direction, a genus or family that you can take to an online resource to refine your search. Look for guides as local to your location as possible, to ensure you aren’t spending time looking at species that don’t occur in your area.
For birds, one wonderful online resource is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its allaboutbirds.org guide, which includes North American species with tips for identification, similar species that it might be confused with, and general information about its habits, diet, range, and lifestyle. Of particular note are the Lab’s “Celebrate Urban Birds” and “Project Feederwatch” programs, both of which include materials like posters and PDFs that show some of the most common birds you will encounter.
The Iowa DOT has a series of Jewels of the Prairie posters that illustrate many common prairie plants. The Iowa DNR also has a series of posters illustrating many of the common species that can be found in Iowa, which, while not exhaustive, are helpful to see several species found in our area at a glance, and compare similar species. The available posters include butterflies, turtles, bats, dragonflies and damselflies, and many others. Although the posters are listed as being available for a cost, you can often find them given away free from the DNR table at events.
Which brings us to that lovely, amazing internet: repository of all the world’s collected knowledge at our fingertips. My first step, if I have no idea what I’m looking at, is a google search. Describe the flower or bug as closely as you can, include your general location (for example, “green blue damselfly iowa”, and then browse the images that are returned looking for a match, or something close. I feel it necessary to point out that this can be a very time-consuming and often not-very-fruitful method of identification, though it helps me feel a little less lazy when I move on to the next resources.
There are dozens of websites or forums whose explicit purpose is to help people identify birds, plants, insects, and almost anything else you are interested in. Most simply require you to register with a username and password before allowing you to submit identification requests.
insectsofiowa.org has a neat tool that uses AI to match a photo of a butterfly, moth, or other insect you upload to its species database, returning a list of possible species and a probability of match. It was trained extensively on butterflies and moths, and so is quite effective at identifying those images. I have had poor luck with bees, though other insects have been a little better.
Although it can be incredibly rewarding to identify a new plant or animal on your own, there is certainly no shame in relying on experts for an assist. I try not to make the online ID requests my first stop, if only to allow me to feel the occasional sense of accomplishment when I do find something on my own!
Originally published on Sycamore Greenway Friends.