July 07, 2020

Tech Tip Tuesday: Navigating Suggested Identifications

I forgot that July is one of my favorite months. I realized it as soon as I saw the doe with her delicate, spindle-legged fawn nibbling the long grass along the forested edge of my backyard. I remember a similar pair appearing around this same time last year, their footsteps careful and eyes wide as they paced through the short grass. I had seen evidence for weeks—cropped jewelweed near the stairs, angled prints in the soft soil along the garden’s perimeter—however, I had not laid eyes on them until recently. They must have heard the door open because by the time I was fully outside, they were nervously stepping into the shaded tangle of vines and limbs.

After a long dry spell, the forest has come back to life. Plants that were lingering, parched, now are vibrant. In the tangle of thorns and leaves underneath the back porch, Black Raspberries are creeping into view, fruits turning from white to rose pink and soon to inky purple. To me, July feels like a full expression of life in the Northeast. If you’re wondering what you can expect to see in July, check out this month’s Field Guide and Bees of July for some ideas.

This Week on Tech Tip Tuesday

Sometimes the ability of iNaturalist software to guess a species’ identification for us seems like magic. How did it know that the animal in the photo was more likely to be a Gray Squirrel than an American Mink? If we journey backwards a couple months through the Tech Tip Tuesday archives, you might remember that I wrote a piece about how iNaturalist uses a type of artificial intelligence (AI) called “computer vision” that is trained to recognize features in a photograph that help distinguish one species from another. Thanks to this technology, you can often get fairly accurate suggested identifications that help you better understand the plant, animal, or fungi that you’re seeing in the field.

The key phrase in that last sentence is “suggested identifications”. While it can be tempting to select the top species, genus, or family recommended, it’s important to think through a recommendation before choosing it. Although the AI often gets identifications correct, especially for frequently submitted species, it isn’t right 100% of the time. In some cases, it may provide incorrect suggestions, either because the photograph wasn’t clear, the species isn’t very common, or can’t be identified from a photo alone. But, don’t despair—think of this as a learning opportunity! By exploring the suggested species, you will learn features that will help you make your own identifications and you will become more familiar with other organisms that you might encounter in the future.

So, what should you look at when deciding whether a certain species, genus, or family might be a good fit?

  1. Think about it—one of the first things you can do to rule out an incorrect suggestion is to take a moment and consider the species on the list. Are any of them species you recognize and, if so, are they wildly out of place? Or, if you don’t recognize them is there anything in their name that might give you pause? Sometimes, the AI will suggest species from a completely different continent. If you’re in Williston and it’s suggesting a Springbok, I would say there’s a 99.5% chance that it’s wrong (about that last 0.5%—hey, you never know).
  2. Compare the photos—sometimes you can quickly tell that a suggestion is wrong by looking at the pictures for the suggested species, genus, or family. This can easily be done when uploading either by clicking on the two arrows next to the suggestion in the app or by clicking on “view” next to the suggestion on the computer. You may not always be able to say that a suggestion is incorrect based on the photos—sometimes species have multiple color morphs, like the Asian Lady Beetle. However, if you aren’t seeing any photos that look similar to your observation, it’s definitely a reason to pause before selecting it.
  3. Look for “visually similar/seen nearby”—when looking over the list of suggested species, it’s important to pay attention to which species are considered “visually similar and seen nearby” (this appears below the species’ name). This can help when deciding between two species who look fairly similar—if one is visually similar and one is both visually similar and seen nearby, chances are good that it’s the second one.
  4. Check the species’ distribution—besides relying on “seen nearby”, you can also find the suggested species on a map and see how your observation compares to the species’ range. If the suggested species doesn’t seem present in your area then chances are good that it isn’t correct. However, in some cases, a species may appear outside of its range, either as an introduced species or a misplaced migrant. If you believe that this is the case, choose the genus or family and add a comment asking for others’ input before selecting the species.
  5. Learn more—if you haven’t been able to rule in or out a suggestion by using the previous steps, take some time to learn more about a suggested species, genus, or family. Develop a better understanding of what conditions it needs to survive in an area, where it’s usually found, and if there are any key features to look for.

Sometimes, you can improve the suggestions by either improving your photo (if your observation is still nearby) or selecting a different photo. Many people don’t realize that, although you can upload multiple photos at once, iNaturalist only looks at the first photo to make its suggestions. So, if your first photo of a tree is the bark and it isn’t yielding any accurate suggestions, try choosing a leaf photo for the first picture. However, it’s still important to include the bark because it will help other users to confirm or contradict the identification.

There are also some species that the AI can’t recognize because there aren’t enough observations available for training. If this happens, other users will likely be able to help provide a more specific identification after you have uploaded the observation. In some instances, a definitive, species-level identification may not be possible. Some species’ identifying features are not visible in an ordinary picture and may require a microscope or a behavioral observation. If you’re unable to select a suggestion, it’s perfectly fine (and encouraged) to pick a broader category, such as “bird” or “fern”, or “animal” or “plant”. Other users will then find these observations and help narrow them down.

TTT Task of the Week

This week, take some time to evaluate suggested identifications before selecting them, if that’s not something you already do. Take some time to look up additional information about the suggested species, paying close attention to their ranges’ and life history traits that may help indicate a correct or incorrect suggestion.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for helping us map Vermont’s biodiversity, stay safe, and happy observing!

P.S. If you want to learn more about how computer vision works, check out these two articles:

https://www.inaturalist.org/blog/31806-a-new-vision-model

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/an-app-for-identifying-animals-and-plants/535014/

Posted on July 07, 2020 18:08 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 1 comment | Leave a comment

July 02, 2020

The Bees of July

As June fades into July, summer strengthens its grip on the landscape, bringing with it sweltering days and billowing thunderheads. It also means increased bee activity after a month with relatively little. In terms of diversity of genera, July may be the best month for bee watching in Vermont. In fact, all approximately 35 genera are likely flying this month. And unlike April and May, there are numerous species that are identifiable from photos, so there’s lots to look for!

You can read the full article and learn more about the bees that are active in July on the Vermont Atlas of Life website.

Posted on July 02, 2020 14:17 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 01, 2020

June 2020 Photo-observation of the Month

Congratulation to Charlotte Bill for winning the June 2020 Photo-observation of the Month. Charlotte discovered the cocoon on April 28 and was fortunate enough to see the Cecropia Moth emerged on June 5th. With more than 21,000 photo-observations submitted by 1,505 observers this month, it was extremely competitive. Click on the image to see and explore all of the amazing photo-observations.

This richly colored, nocturnal beauty is North America’s largest silkmoth. Zadock Thompson, Vermont’s first naturalist, described this species in Vermont as a “butterfly” when he found a cocoon in March 1840 in a “pine plain” in Burlington and watched it eclose in captivity. Females release an airborne pheromone that is capable of attracting males from miles away. Mating occurs during the early morning hours after midnight. Females lay rows of 2-6 eggs on both sides of the leaves of small host trees or shrubs. Eggs hatch in 10-14 days. Young caterpillars feed in groups on leaves; older caterpillars are solitary. The cocoon is attached along its full length to a twig; to escape predation by rodents and birds, the cocoon is usually constructed in a dark, protected area.

Visit the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist where you can vote for the winner this month by clicking the ‘fav’ star on your favorite photo-observation. Make sure you get outdoors and record the biodiversity around you, then submit your discoveries and you could be a winner!

Posted on July 01, 2020 14:57 by kpmcfarland kpmcfarland | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 30, 2020

Learn More About the World Around You With the Nature Now Series!

Want to learn more about mosses but don’t know where to start? Are you a veteran butterfly watcher but stumped by skippers? Wish you could tell a Confusing Bumblebee from a Half-black Bumblebee?

If any of these questions are true, or you are just looking for an enriching course on natural history in the northeast, then checkout the Nature Now Series run by North Branch Nature Center. Each class, taught by an expert naturalist, combines virtual content with your own independent study outdoors. And if you would rather not spend your precious summer free time in front of a screen, all the courses will be recorded and can be taken at any time - so bookmark them for those long winter evenings. Also note at the bottom of the page are three free botany classes taught by Jerry Jenkins!

For more information, visit: https://northbranchnaturecenter.org/naturenow/

Posted on June 30, 2020 19:57 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 0 comments | Leave a comment

Don't Forget to Fav Photos for the June Winner!

Cast your votes and be counted! You can 'fav' any observation that you like to vote for the Vermont Atlas of Life iNaturalist photo-observation of the month. Located to the right of the photographs and just below the location map is a star symbol. Click on this star and you've fav'ed an observation. At the end of each month, we'll see which photo-observation has the most favs and crown them the monthly winner. Check out awesome observations and click the star for those that shine for you. Vote early and often!

Check out who is in the lead and see a list of all of this month's photo-observations.

Posted on June 30, 2020 15:41 by kpmcfarland kpmcfarland | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 23, 2020

Tech Tip Tuesday: Dichotomous Keys and Other Identification Resources

I always find that in the summer it’s impossible to imagine the landscape in the winter and vice versa. Yesterday’s walk in the woods really drove this point home. Although spring’s lingering cold is a not too distant memory, it’s still hard to picture the days when I was worried about the vernal pools near my house freezing solid. Now, my afternoon forest explorations come scented with deep green foliage, the loud buzz of deerflies a persistent presence just one step behind. I try to remind myself that this is what I have dreamed of all winter long when the air feels like a hot, clammy towel draped across my neck.

The wildlife also takes pause in the heat, reemerging when the air cools and the sky begins to darken. Last week I was awakened late in the night by tapping and shuffling on my back deck. A porcupine had made its way onto the porch and was investigating the potted plants before lumbering back into the darkness. I hope that you’re all finding ways to stay cool and enjoy the natural wonders that summer has to offer.

This Week on Tech Tip Tuesday

If you’re escaping the heat by sheltering indoors, don’t worry, you can still enjoy iNaturalist. There are always plenty of observations needing identifications and you don’t need to be an expert to help out! I have explained before how you can simply add “animal” or “plant” to help an unknown observation move forward or help identify super common species that you already know. Either is a great way to contribute valuable information!

If you’re looking to challenge yourself and improve your skills as a naturalist, it may be time to learn identification skills through other sources. While iNaturalist is a great tool for helping to identify a species, it probably won’t help you learn identifying characteristics, unless you ask other identifiers what criteria they use. Field guides and other virtual manuals are great tools for learning a taxa’s identifying features. Field guide diversity is vast—you can find ones for specific regions and taxa, ones with color or black and white pictures, and ones with varying levels of written descriptions. Whatever your learning style and area of interest, there is a field guide for you!

While field guides are great tools for learning how to identify a species, they are by no means the only option available. Another resource commonly used by biologists is the dichotomous key. Dichotomous keys help you make an identification by providing a series of “either-or” choices that lead you toward a family, genus, or species. The choices usually start off broad and become more specific as you proceed, helping to narrow down the possible identifications. You can find a deeper explanation and example of dichotomous keys here.

If you look around, you can find dichotomous keys for many taxa. For starters, you can check out the keys on Go Botany, the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, or Discover Life. When using a dichotomous key, it’s always good practice to verify the identification in a field guide to make sure that the answer is correct.

If you’re looking for an extra challenge, you can also create your own dichotomous key as you study different field guides and other identification resources, both as a way to reinforce your knowledge and to create a tool to use for future identifications. You can find a basic set of instructions for creating your own key here.

I recommend checking out the resource list on the Vermont Atlas of Life website. There is also a link to the list on the right-hand side of the VAL iNaturalist homepage. If you don’t see your favorite resource on the list, please let us know. We’re always looking for new additions!

TTT Task of the Week

This week, I want you to pick a species that is fairly common but that you may not feel comfortable identifying. Try to learn the species’ identifying characteristics (maybe even make a dichotomous key that will help others identify it). Once you feel confident in your knowledge, help identify observations of it on iNaturalist. By taking part in this activity, you will both learn something new and help verify observations that can later be used in conservation projects.

That’s all for this week! Thank you for helping us map Vermont’s biodiversity, stay safe, and happy observing!

Posted on June 23, 2020 21:11 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 09, 2020

Tech Tip Tuesday: Using Seek

And, we’re back! After much consideration, the VAL team has decided to make Tech Tip Tuesday a bi-weekly post. This will help us better prepare and identify new topics for each article. As the weather continues to warm, it will also give us all greater flexibility to tackle the outdoor projects that patiently waited for our attention all winter long. We still encourage you to reach out, ask questions, and suggest new topics! If you need a refresher on a past TTT topic, you can find those on the VAL website.

This Week on Tech Tip Tuesday

A couple months back, I wrote an article about using iNaturalist as a teaching tool. To me, iNaturalist’s greatest strength is its ability to make teaching about nature accessible to everyone. Between its A.I. and other users helping with identifications, and its taxa info pages providing background information, iNaturalist can be used for creating a well-rounded educational experience in nature, regardless of the instructor’s experience level.

The one downside of iNaturalist is the age limitation—users need to be over 13 years old or receive parental permission to join. While there are still ways to use it as a teaching tool with younger naturalists, there is another program created by iNaturalist that is better suited to those under 13. This program is Seek. Seek is similar to iNaturalist, however its identification process is simpler and it provides greater security for young users. Just like iNaturalist, Seek is free, although it’s only available on your smartphone.

Seek’s primary function is identification. To identify a plant, animal, or fungi using Seek, you open the camera through the app and point it at the thing you want to identify. Before taking the photo, it will start giving you feedback about what you’re seeing by either identifying it or offering suggestions about how to improve your identification. Once the identification is as specific as possible, you can take a photo and it will get added to your Seek observations. Seek will also provide links to additional information about the species you’re observing, similar to iNaturalist’s taxa info pages.

While Seek does share these similarities with iNaturalist, there are also some important differences you should be aware of. Unlike iNaturalist, Seek will not store or share the data you collect, nor will it collect personally identifiable information. It automatically obscures your location, hiding your exact location while still allowing you to receive accurate species suggestions. You also don’t create an account when you get started. All these measures are in place to ensure safety, making this app accessible to children under 13. If someone over 13 is using it, they have an option to sign into their iNaturalist account from Seek and share their observations.

Seek also has some additional features that make it more engaging for children. On Seek, users can earn badges for the taxa they encounter and take part in challenges. The challenge topics vary, and all are geared towards helping young users learn more about broader concepts in the natural world.

If you’re interested in using Seek with a young naturalist in your life, I highly recommend reading through the user guide. What I provided above was a very brief overview and there is so much more that you can learn about this amazing tool!

TTT Task of the Week

This week, I want you to consider trying out Seek with a young naturalist in your life, whether that be for a class or just a fun family activity. You can download the app from whichever store you generally use. Read through the user guide and try out one of the challenges. I won’t be able to see any of your discoveries, however I would be interested in knowing what you think.

That’s all for this week! Thank you for helping us map Vermont’s biodiversity, stay safe, and happy observing!

Posted on June 09, 2020 20:22 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 03, 2020

The Bees of June

Spring often arises with a buzz in the air. After a winter devoid of humming pollinators, they suddenly seem to burst from every flowering shrub and clump of grass. Bees zipping among flowers must rank up next to bird song as one of the most celebrated signs of spring.

As spring begins to fade into summer, bee diversity shifts. In fact, June is a slow month for northeastern bee diversity—most of the spring specialists have come and gone, many bumble bee queens are underground laying eggs, and a majority of workers won’t appear in significant numbers until the end of the month.

Of course, there are still plenty of bees to find, and several genera appear for the first time in June. Visit the VAL website to learn more.

Posted on June 03, 2020 20:54 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 02, 2020

May 2020 Photo-observation of the Month

Congratulation to Kyle Tansley for winning the May 2020 Photo-observation of the Month. He captured this American Mink moving her kits from one den to another. "She was moving her babies from one den to another," wrote Kyle. "When I arrived, I was told she had already moved two. I saw her move two more."


With more than 25,000 photo-observations submitted by 1,636 observers this month, it was extremely competitive. Click on the image to see and explore all of the amazing photo-observations.

Mink dens typically consist of long burrows near water in banks, holes under logs, tree stumps, or roots and hollow trees. They are typically about four inches in diameter and may run 10 feet and reach 2 to 3 feet deep when dug by a mink. But, they also use burrows dug by muskrats, badgers and skunks. The nesting chamber is at the end a tunnel, and is about a foot in diameter and lined with grass and sedge stems and feathers. The dens are characterized by a large number of entrances and twisting passages. There can be up to eight exits. These kits will stay with their mother until fall when they will leave to establish their own territories. Learn more about American Mink and see a map of reported occurrences at the Vermont Atlas of Life.

Visit the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist where you can vote for the winner this month by clicking the ‘fav’ star on your favorite photo-observation. Make sure you get outdoors and record the biodiversity around you, then submit your discoveries and you could be a winner!

Posted on June 02, 2020 14:56 by kpmcfarland kpmcfarland | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 26, 2020

Tech Tip Tuesday: All About Accuracy Circles

Believe it or not, this week marks the 30th edition of Tech Tip Tuesday. To all those who have read along and commented, or taken pieces from it to apply to your own iNaturalist experience, thank you. Our goal in creating this series was to highlight different tricks that we have found helpful in our own iNaturalist adventures. As the weather warms and we all feel the urge to spend as much time outside as possible, I encourage you all to continue reflecting on the topics we have covered thus far. If you have questions or suggestions that you feel would make a good TTT topic, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

This Week on Tech Tip Tuesday

iNaturalist is undoubtedly a great way to keep track of your exciting nature discoveries while contributing to biodiversity monitoring. One feature that is key to both creating good data and keeping accurate records for your own reflection is mapping locations. If you have played around with your observation’s location at all, you may have noticed that it has two components: the location designated by coordinates and the accuracy circle around those coordinates given in meters. Today, I’m going to explain the importance of that accuracy circle and how you can change it.

The accuracy circle shows your location’s accuracy. Essentially, it draws a circle of a certain diameter around the area in which you most likely made your observation. It does this to account for any errors that might have occurred when assigning your coordinate location. The larger the circle, the larger the area you could have made your observation.

In general, you want the smallest accuracy circle possible while still encompassing your true location. If your location gets automatically added to your observation (often from your smartphone), then chances are the accuracy circle is optimally sized. It’s more likely to end up too large when you manually add the location. The optimal accuracy circle size varies depending on the area you made your observation in. For example, when I make an observation from a town, park, or other feature that is easy to recognize on the map, my accuracy circle can be fairly small (10-15m). However, when I make an observation in the middle of a forest that has relatively few identifiable features on the map, I create a larger accuracy circle (upwards of 200m). Ultimately, my goal is to have the smallest area while still keeping my exact location somewhere inside.

Besides improving a location’s accuracy, it’s also important to have your accuracy circle optimally sized because it can affect whether your observation gets added to places or projects. If you have ever wondered why an observation hasn’t shown up in a place even though the location qualifies, it’s likely because your accuracy circle exceeds the place’s boundaries. By making your accuracy circle smaller, you will likely find that your observation now qualifies for that place.

If you can, the easiest way to check an observation’s accuracy circle size is when you are uploading the observation. You can check this by clicking in the box that says “Location” and looking at the circle on the map. The center of the circle is the location that will get marked by coordinates and the size of the circle indicates the range of other possible locations for your observation. You can drag the sides of the circle to resize it so that it provides better accuracy. For example, if you know you made your observation in a park, don’t size your accuracy circle to include the parking lot nearby. Just keep it to the area in which you could have made your observation. You can then either click the back arrow in the top left corner of your screen (mobile phone) or click “Update observation” at the bottom of the page (computer) to save your observation and continue filling out other information.

If you want to check an observation that you have already uploaded, go to the observation’s page and click “Details” under the right corner of the map. You will see it as “Accuracy”. It’s difficult to say an exact distance at which your accuracy circle should be edited, however you will likely be able to gauge whether or not it’s the appropriate size based on the location. For example, if the observation was made in your backyard or town and the accuracy circle is over 300m, you may want to make it smaller. Just remember, the more certain you are about your exact location, the smaller the accuracy circle can be.

If you do notice an observation whose accuracy circle seems inaccurate, you can change it by clicking “Edit” in the top right corner of your observation’s page. On the editing page, you will notice three columns of information. The middle one says “Where were you?” across the top. The top box says the location name and below it there is a grey box with “Lat”, “Lon”, and “Acc(m)”. The Acc (accuracy circle) is what you need to change. In the top right corner of that box, there is an “Edit” link--click on it. You will now be able to edit the contents of the boxes.

Once again, the new buffer size depends on where you are and how certain you are of your location. In general, the only times my accuracy circle is 1km or above is if my observation is from a large, densely wooded area like a national forest that lacks features that may clue me in to my exact location. Usually, my accuracy circle ranges from 6-50m depending on the location. Once you edit your accuracy circle, you can scroll to the bottom of the page and click “save observation”. If you were trying to get the observation to qualify for a place, check if the observation is there. If not, you may be able to resize your accuracy circle a little more to get it to qualify while maintaining accuracy.

I realize that there was a lot of information here, so to summarize:

Your observation’s accuracy circle indicates the area where you could have made your observation (i.e. the location’s accuracy).
You want your accuracy circle to be as small as possible while still including the true location in it. This may look different depending on where you are (town or yard versus a national forest).
The size of your accuracy circle can affect whether your observation gets added to a place.
You can change your accuracy circle size either when uploading or by visiting the observation’s page.

TTT Task of the Week

This week, I want you to check out your accuracy circle sizes when uploading. I also recommend picking three observations from different locations and checking their accuracy circle size. If they seem too large, try decreasing the size, even just by 50-100m. Finally, if you have observations that should have automatically shown up in a place or project but didn’t, try resizing the accuracy circle and see if that helps.

That’s all for this week! Thank you for helping us monitor Vermont’ biodiversity, stay safe, and happy observing!

Posted on May 26, 2020 18:51 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2 | 0 comments | Leave a comment