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Amateur Naturalist Part 2: What the Heck Am I Looking At?

June 22, 2020

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.

  • Amateur Naturalist Part 2: What the heck am I looking at?

    Velvetbean Caterpillar Moth (Anticarsia gemmatalis), according to insectsofiowa.org

    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.

  • bugguide.net allows you to upload a photo of an insect for identification by volunteer experts. Depending on the insect, it may be identified quickly or can take weeks or months for an ID.
  • iNaturalist.org allows you to document your outings by uploading photos along with the location. Volunteers will suggest IDs for your submissions. Another nice feature is that you can search for a species, narrow the location filter to your state or county, and see other species with which if may be commonly confused.
  • Facebook groups! If you are on Facebook, there is almost certainly a group you can join that is dedicated to native plants, birds, pollinators, reptiles, or whatever critter you are interested in. Be sure to review the group’s guidelines before requesting an identification so you don’t run afoul of any rules (though most people are generally very nice and happy to help). These groups are also helpful with passive knowledge absorption: as you see and learn about what other people are posting, you can watch for them in your own outings. Look for Iowa Wildflower Report, Pollinators on Native Plants, your local bird club, and many others.
  • Other forums: Dave’s Garden has a forum for plant IDs; sites like reddit have several subreddits dedicated to helping identify things (r/whatsthisplant; r/whatsthisbug; r/whatsthisbird for a few). When venturing into forums beyond local Iowa resources, be sure to include your general location to help with the ID.
  • Another excellent and informative site is illinoiswildflowers.info, which has tons of detail about plants found in Illinois and at the bottom usually includes similar species and how to distinguish them. I will refer to this frequently when I have an idea of an ID but want to confirm it. This is also one of the primary resources I use when writing about the plants that can be found on the Greenway.

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.

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Melissa Serenda

A transplant from the suburbs of Chicago to the south side of Iowa City. I enjoy spending time on the Sycamore Greenway, picking up trash around my neighborhood, and the occasional game of cribbage.

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5 responses to “Amateur Naturalist Part 2: What the Heck Am I Looking At?”

  1. Richard Baker says:

    Very helpful information Melissa…thank you.

  2. Melissa says:

    Thanks Richard! It’s wonderful how many resources are available to us, to help learn about the world around us.

  3. Gary Sanborn says:

    Excellent collection of publications and resources, Melissa. One of the best Bur Oak posts to date!

  4. Melissa says:

    Thanks Gary! This is the result of many years of trying to figure out “what the heck I’m looking at.” I hope it’s helpful!

  5. Best view in the town !

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