How physically arduous is observing?

This could be a general nature question, but I am putting it in general instead of in nature talk, because I am thinking specifically about observing to take records for this website.

How much physical effort and strain is observing for inaturalist?

To me, it is a difficult thing, when I am going out to get many diverse observations and to really survey an area. Obviously, if I am taking pictures of birds in a city park, less so. But when I go out to get observations of mammals, birds, plants, insects, fungi from an area? It is a lot of effort. I also ride my bicycle and spend a lot of time outside, but really observing is a lot more effort than that.

Some of the things that can make observing difficult to me are: kneeling, stooping, and in general contorting myself to take pictures from the right angle, moving over rocks or uneven ground, and lifting up and shifting rocks and logs. Staying still, and moving slowly, to take photos of birds is also pretty difficult. Sometimes I get eyestrain from trying to see birds or other animals in light and shadow.

So I would say that for me, observing is pretty physically difficult. What has been your experience?


It can be difficult. I often go to difficult to access parts of beaches and look in difficult to look areas where I will army crawl into large crevices that hardly get any light where I often get cut and wet and squeeze myself (One of the perks of being very skinny). In these places species which may live in deeper water live very shallow. This becomes a lot more difficult if snorkeling. I usually avoid caves when snorkeling if I cant see the other side, or I just stay within a few meters of the entrance. Usually though it is much easier, overturning rocks, sieving and washing algae.


It’s as easy or hard as you decide to make it.

You can gear up with your high-end full-frame camera and large lenses and go looking for observations in remote places that are extremely difficult and dangerous to get to if you want, or you can use your smartphone take observations of the arthropods that fly by and land on the arm of your chair while you’re sitting in the backyard reading a book and having a glass of wine.

Both are equally valid ways of observing.

I do both and don’t really have a preference. They are both enjoyable and I can get good images either way.


I used observing as way to build up my strength after surgery, gradually exerting myself more and more. On the other hand, when I have sick days and I am literally unable to get out of my chair, I’ll sit by the window and shoot birds or sit on the front step and shoot anything I can see. It’s all in how you look at things.


Notes others here are making (which I’d agree with) that observing often involves very diverse movement reminds me of the exercise philosophies promoted in arenas like the “ancestral health” movement. While all big health fads seem to develop a certain load of questionable mythology, I think the notion that while high-intensity or endurance cardio exercise can be great, longer periods of low-to-medium-intensity highly variable exercise/movement are really most beneficial to maintaining good health and mobility likely does have a real basis in the biology of human evolution. It’s what most human bodies would have been conditioned by and selected for through most of our evolutionary history. So sure, you could sign up for some jargony “MoveNat” type paleo exercise training with some buff shirtless french guy, or you could just go out and let the “exercise” get lost in a practice of obsessive biophilia facilitated by iNaturalist. Technology bringing us back around to the exercise style of our ancestors! And it does adapt across a wide range of physical ability or disability because it’s not about performing a specific exercise- it’s about figuring out how to get the observations in a way that works for you.

(or something like that)


I am in my 70s, but in general I find it physically easy to make observations. And even when it is a bit more difficult, the pleasure I get from making the observations greatly outweighs any difficulty I might have encountered while achieving those observations.

I guess I don’t push myself in situations where I think may not easily be able to balance on rocks and so on, but I can usually work out a way of getting whatever observations I really want.


I definitely assess observing in cost/benefit terms. Like, if I can’t get a shot of that organism without wading into poison ivy, I’ll wait till I see that organism some other time. But, if an observation opportunity gives me an excuse to get within reach of a handful of black raspberries, I’m certainly going in after it! :)


For me, making observations can range from hauling a relatively heavy camera backpack full of gear I likely won’t use for miles to get a handful of observations - to - taking pictures of squirrels and birds out my window laying in my bed using my iPhone. So, I guess it kind of depends. With the right gear (i.e. telephoto lens) and the right situation, it can be super easy. During the Great Texas Deep Freeze of 2021, I got so many great bird shots while sitting at a table and shooting out a window (due to the weather and all the feeders outside).


To give a couple of anecdotes. For me one of the best places to get rails involves wading through knee deep water because the trail is always flooded and then standing there in freezing cold water waiting for them to start calling. But I know a guy who consistently finds rails for the Spring Bird Count in a drainage ditch by a mall.
I have spent hours in the summer heat looking for Bees, and when I get home, there’s a Rusty-patched Bumble Bee in my flower patch.
So while I love spending all day out by myself in some conservation area no one’s heard of, there are some amazing things hiding out in easier places that you might not think of.


I think the diversity of naturalists really needs to be taken into consideration. Wrangling a full-grown Macrochelys temminckii from the bottom of an endless, blackwater swamp miles from “civilization,” or backpacking for three days and climbing a cliffside to see an unusual lichen or salamander, is a much different experience than photographing finches at a birdfeeder through the window or insects on a stroll through the park.

In my opinion, the beauty of iNaturalist is that all types of observers can equally contribute. A birder with a fancy camera can photograph ducks on a distant reservoir, and a casual hiker can take a smartphone photo of a wildflower, with minimal effort. Someone setting up mist nets, moth lights, KOH tests on mushrooms, etc. has some additional “trouble.” While not necessarily physically strenuous, sometimes techniques of trapping, finding, and positively identifying different species certainly takes a considerable amount of effort; sometimes bordering on insanity.

I’ve been deservingly bitten, kicked, scratched, sprayed, poisoned, envenomated, etc. from a wide variety of wildlife I’ve intruded upon; sometimes to dangerous extents, so there’s always that chance. I think you can gauge how much effort you want to put into observing. Do you want to see a storm-petrel so badly that you can justify standing on an exposed vessel or shoreline in the middle of a hurricane? Is finding one of the last lynxes in an area worth succumbing to hypothermia? What about accidentally scaring it back into the woods and causing it to get hypothermia, or at least lose integral fat reserves? Those are the kinds of questions I think naturalists have to ask themselves.


Reading the title of this post made me chuckle. I’ve been sitting at my computer sometimes reaching for the camera to photo Pine Siskins. Easy peasy!

Nothing I personally do is difficult, but I’ve been sedentary for the past year so long walks on the flat tire me out. Bending down to pick things up is a strain. (I often use the camera’s zoom feature to photo plants by my feet!) Getting up if I sit down – the edge of the possible! So I’m glad observing for iNaturalist is getting me out more to loosen up and rebuild a minimal amount of strength.


For me, it is only arduous if the air quality is poor, as I have COPD. Unfortunately, Houston, Texas has pretty poor air quality most of the time.
I am 63 and not quite as spry as I once was, so I rarely will attempt to place my physical body in jeopardy just to get a shot. Kneeling and squatting are both difficult for me, so when possible I bring a small step stool to sit on to get closer to the ground.
I try to get an overall impression of an area I am shooting in, which means looking up, down, and all around for various signs of life. Sometimes I will focus on just the little things close by, and other times primarily the birds and other creatures that are abundant and easily seen.
I do find myself identifying, more than submitting observations lately, but Houston has had an unusual and awful set of disasters lately, which have made going further away from my abode more difficult than ever. I look forward to the Spring and Summer with hopes of being able to roam further away from my base home. :)


Love this! Absolutely. I think that is the appeal of iNaturalist.


I’m definitely sore after the first full day of fieldwork in the spring, even if I’ve been walking on the treadmill every day in the winter. There are a ton of little muscles that help with balance on uneven terrain and climbing over rocks that just don’t get worked in the gym.


Exactly! Quite often I come home after hanging around a local wildlife park with only common and much already identified species, only to find something interesting in my own yard.
I recently found a goldmine of observations in my Ex’s back yard (with his permission, of course), which is, for the most part, wild and unkept - perfect for attracting everything!

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I would say being out in nature in general requires some level of physical exertion. I think I speak for many here: there are broadly two kinds of physical activity when inatting: getting to the location, and photographing the specimens. iNatting for me typically requires me to be hiking for a few hours, in addition to public transport travel. And then when you are panting and tired and then find a really cool insect etc, then that’s gonna be hard since being tired and hard breathing would cause you to be unsteady when taking pictures, the insect may detect the CO2 you breathe out and fly away, the insect is also constantly moving so thats annoying too since you may have to contort your body into different configurations to get the right angles etc.

But there’s no physical location requirement to make observations. I could stay at home and turn on the porchlights to see what comes in the night, and there you have another equally valid way to document wildlife.


I am somewhat fit (as in, fitter than the average person, but not as fit as people who do 100 pushups/squats in one go or run up mountains daily), so I have had no real difficulties in observing, even when lugging around a camera while hiking or walking. The only time I have been slightly physically uncomfortable is when I have to try to position myself in awkward places to get that shot, haha.

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My issue is that usually I am with a hiking party, that are interested in exercise, peak bagging or getting home for the rugby, tea or some other appointment. So the two arduous things are deciding what not to photograph, and remembering that each ‘decent’ photo (I take lots “on the fly”) is about 20-50m of catching up, so an insect or lizard can be 100m, an a special plant 250m of running to keep with the party. So long as I am in sight, I generally dont get into too much trouble. It is a great way of keeping fit, but typically I only hear about the animals that ran away, and get the sedentary stuff.


Things I have done that make observing less arduous:
-I focus on plants and those animals that hold still. If it runs away I don’t chase it.
-I take photos for ID not for art, so I don’t get down on the ground for the perfect side shot of something. I don’t worry about excellent lighting.
-I use my camera on “intelligent auto” setting, I do not worry about not having the perfect focus (and sometimes it’s terrible and yet still identifiable).
-I don’t use a tripod and I don’t wait forever (or really at all) for the bird to get where I want it to be.
-I bought a long (55-210) lens for my camera so that I can clearly shoot the ground without bending. It’s big enough to get a duck on the water well enough for ID or a vulture in the sky.
-I got a wrist strap for the camera and my thumbs are very thankful. Many people like neck or backpack-style straps as well; I didn’t.
-I set up a bird feeder outside my office window and keep my camera there, so I can take 20 seconds and shoot an interesting bird without any effort at all.
-I do very little photography while walking with people who are not naturalists; trying to pause for a photo and then catch up with the group is exhausting. Birders are fine, though (even though I do plants).
-I generally walk about 1/4 mile when taking photos, just a little ways into whatever park I’m at. I get dozens of species a day even so.


I don’t find it arduous. But probably that is because I stay active in general, e.g. why drive when the errand is within walking distance? So I’m really not pushing myself any harder than I am used to.

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