Top Five Online Resources for Naturalists
1. iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org)
The concept is simple: download the app on your smartphone, or visit the website and set up an account (no smartphone necessary, though you do need a decent camera). Photograph what you see when you're out exploring: plants, insects, birds, fungi, protozoans, whatever lifeforms catch your eye. Upload the photos and tag your location. Others will be able to see your photos and help with identifying what you've found if you're not able to do so. All of your observation data is collected in one place; or you can sort by taxa. You can also participate in individual projects; for example, I contribute to a project titled Central California Biodiversity. Any observations I upload within the designated geographic range of the project contribute to that data set. Since iNaturalist is all about photos, the key to using it effectively is to learn how to take decent pictures; your photos don't have to be stunning, but they do need to be recognizable.
|Sample iNaturalist page|
2. eBird (www.ebird.org)
eBird is, as it sounds, just for birds. I much prefer it over iNaturalist for birding as it doesn't require a photo for each entry, and the website organizes all of your data into personal "life lists," sorted by region. It's a very efficient way to keep track of all those species!
Again, the concept is simple: go birding, or just identify a random bird sighting (Northern Mockingbird in the backyard, anyone?) and record it on your eBird account. Tag your location, provide a few details such as time of day, and simply check the corresponding boxes, indicating the number of individuals you observed of each species. The website pretty much does the rest. If you're curious if other birders have seen a certain species in your area, use the species maps. Type in a species, and zoom in to your area; markers will appear on the map indicating recent sightings of that species. Another great feature eBird offers is the "hotspot" tool. This feature lets you discover and explore "hotspots" in your area - places other birders have had success! Find species maps and hotspot maps under the "Explore Data" tab on the website.
3. Calflora (www.calflora.org)
Calflora is a resource just for those of us in California, and just for plants. It's sort of like eBird for botanists.
Like iNaturalist and eBird, you can search regions (by county) for certain species to get an idea of what's out there, contribute data, or get help with identifying a species. Calflora allows you to enter your observations, like iNaturalist, but doesn't require a photo (though you're welcome to upload one). I use Calflora mainly for narrowing down tricky ID's; I might enter the genus if I know it, or just select what category the plant falls into (grass, herb, shrub, etc.), indicate the county, and scroll through the photos, then read the descriptions to find a match. It looks a little more scientific (read: complicated) but it's pretty user-friendly once you get a feel for it.
|Calflora Homepage and search engine|
4. Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.allaboutbirds.org)
An absolute favorite. I use this site almost daily. It is the go-to resource for a wealth of bird-related information, access to the Macaulay Library of bird songs and calls, and the platform for other citizen science projects, like Nest Watch (www.nestwatch.org) and Project Feeder Watch (www.feederwatch.org). It is also directly linked to eBird.org.
Cornell's All About Birds is a well thought out and beautifully designed resource: everything you need, in one easy location. From the homepage, scroll through the latest fascinating articles pertaining to birds, or type a species into the search bar and be on your way to all you ever wanted to know about North American birds. From the bird species guides, you are able to listen to sounds of each species, compare photos of similar species, read about life histories, or browse though bird taxonomy. The range map for each species is a little small, but below the map is a convenient link to eBird (which we already learned about), allowing you to zoom to your exact location to find out if a particular species has been seen recently in your area. This tool is especially helpful during migration, when surprise visitors stop by unannounced!
|All About Birds Homepage |
(Aside: In my opinion, Plover chicks, including killdeer, are the most adorable baby birds out there.)
This wonderful resource is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they have done a great job of creating a user-friendly database that anyone can access. The easiest way to use the site for identification is to select the "Identify Feather" tool, and enter some information about the feather you found, like pattern and color. You'll also need to measure the feather's length. The results of your search will be a page of photos of feathers that match the description you provided; you can scroll through them to find the best match, based on size, shape, color and pattern. Pay close attention to the scale along the left, looking for a feather that matches in size as well as pattern. I've found the Feather Atlas to be quite easy to use, almost always providing an undoubtedly positive identification!