The iNaturalist Interlude

American Hazelnut flower – Northfield, Minnesota – March 20, 2015
American Hazelnut flower – Northfield, Minnesota – March 20, 2015

A single post in the last six months. One might wonder what’s been going on. Certainly winter puts a stop to the insect sightings, but it should also free up time for reading books, and writing blogs. This winter, however, much of my free time was spent preparing and submitting photo observations to iNaturalist. This sight is an online community and data hub for naturalists across the world—from professional scientists, to citizen scientists, to casual outdoor types, to rank beginners. I began in October with photographs from a recent trip to southeastern Arizona. And only recently have I come close to being caught up, having submitted over 1,500 photo observations spanning six years of field observations. A lot of dragonflies. A lot of moths.

So what’s the big deal? And what possible good can come of such obsessive effort? Fair question. First off, it’s allowed me to organize a large amount of data, in effect creating a personal guidebook for a lot of local species. Secondly, iNaturalist has some very useful tools for creating checklists and guides for locations. Thirdly, it was a way to share data, to transfer knowledge from a personal collection into the public domain. Once a given observation is submitted, it can then be confirmed by other members of iNaturalist. These verified observation become “research grade” data, imparting some scientific value as part of a range map and supplying general information about that species. Also, if there’s a flower or insect I can’t identify, it’s easy to upload a photo to iNaturalist and ask for ID help—odds are pretty good some one will know what it is. I’ve learned a whole lot of natural history by simply keeping an eye on the constant variety of observations—animals, plants, fungi—submitted from all across the globe. Its really a great method of learning and sharing information and I’d recommend giving it a try.

Henry David Thoreau, whose journals I’ve been reading again, survived without iNaturalist…or a digital camera, but he did document his days in a similar manner—supplying dates, species names, and locations. Occasionally, he would add a simple sketch to the pages. His journals, stretching from 1837 to 1861, consistently log the timing and occurrences of flora and fauna around Concord, Massachusetts, in rich detail. And those volumes of elegant prose are one difference between his efforts and that of most active members of iNaturalist, a product of pen and candles and memory, not keyboard and digital image. Here’s an excerpt from the pages I read this morning:

“The hazel is fully out. The 23rd was perhaps full early to date them. It is in some respects the most interesting flower yet, though so minute that only an observer of nature, or one who looked for them, would notice it. It is the highest and richest colored yet,—ten or a dozen little rays at the end of the buds which are [at] the ends and along the sides of the bare stems. Some of the flowers are a light, some a dark crimson. The high color of this minute, unobserved flower, at this cold, leafless, and almost flowerless season! It is a beautiful greeting of the spring, when the catkins are scarcely relaxed and there are no signs of life in the bush. Moreover, they are so tender that I never get one home in good condition. They wilt and turn black.” – Henry David Thoreau, Journals, March 27, 1853

Having planted several hazelnut trees in our back yard, it was easy to be the “one who looked for them.” I walked into the back yard, camera in hand. Late summer, the squirrels go for the nuts well before they’re ripe, so we’ve never had more than a handful of homegrown hazelnuts. Early summer, I often stop to admire the leaves and enjoy the feel of their felt-like texture. And each year I notice the catkins; today with the branches absolutely bare of leaves they are especially noticeable. However, until reading this passage by Thoreau, I’d never thought to look for the flower.