How to best contribute to identifications? Looking for advice

First time posting on the forum. I’ve been using iNat for a few years now mostly to contribute observations, but I’m starting to wonder how I can best contribute identifications. My specialty is birds of Eastern North America. I’ve been an East Coast birder for 20+ years, but I find that lots of birders are on iNat and very quickly contribute IDs to bird sightings. Birds don’t seem to need as much help as other taxa. If I want to start a regular identification practice on iNat, how can I be most helpful?

–Should I stick to birds since they are my specialty and look for a geographic area that needs help with IDs?
–Should I stick to my local area but branch out to another taxa that I can learn and contribute to IDs?
–Should I ID by geographic location in an area that is underrepresented for IDs overall?

Thanks for any advice!


any/all of those are good options. Goodness knows I’ve learned a lot from getting ID’s on iNat and I look for a lot more non-herp/non-bird animals and plants than I used to. And learning about animals in exotic places I’ll never go has been fun as well but I’m leery of making ID’s without ever having seen said animals in person myself, I just can’t feel confident


Welcome to the forum! I have been on iNat for less than three years so I don’t have any answers for you, but I admire the questions! I do think that it’s important that whatever you choose is something that you like enough that you can sustain your interest in it, so it doesn’t become a chore to you. I started with IDing unknowns in my area, but since my observations have been mostly birds and arthropods, and most unknowns in my area seem to be plants that I am not familiar with, I was not able to sustain my interest. I will try again, with, perhaps, a different focus sometime.


Yes, that feeling of confidence (or the lack of it) is a major motivating factor!


Welcome to the forum!

Two previous topics that may be of some interest:

  1. Help me identify (non-experts welcome)
  2. Useful iNaturalist Tasks for Non-Experts

Thank you!


You could stay with your chosen taxa, but broaden the location.
Or try helping with another country - birds get IDs, but arthropods would appreciate attention.


All of what you said are valid ways to contribute. Another way to contribute to ID’s is to get observations out of the “Unknown”. For such cases an ID to a less specific classification eg. Plant, Frog, Beetle etc. would aid in the observation getting a more specific ID.


With @jeanphilippeb 's projects, one can ID pre-sorted unknowns for maximum efficiency.


Like others have said, all of those options are good avenues to go down when you want to start IDing! I just wanted to mention that although many birders are super quick with IDs and that area might not need as much help, I don’t think it would hurt to add your IDs to those same posts. For me personally, when I have an observation it is nice when more than one person adds an ID, as it ensures that we are all on the same page, etc.
In all I think any avenue of IDing is worth it, as long as you’re confident in your ID. Even if repetitive. Best wishes :)


Definitely agree with this. Find a group that interests you, do some research on it until you feel comfortable enough to ID species in a particular region, and then start IDing. The hardest part is getting started.

Also, there are plenty of experts that you could message on inat who would be happy to provide resources such as keys and guides.


I always thought birds go identified relatively quickly too. While clear, sharp pictures do, others do not. A few days ago I found a Ring-billed Gull that need an ID in unknowns. I then looked at Larus delawarensis and found 100’s of pages waiting for confirmation. As usual some are easy, some a challenge, and some I wasn’t sure. I suspect if you looked just at Larus genus you would be busy for a while. Do the same with most species or genus and I suspect you will see the same.


Bird observations have a large number of (often older) observations that could get to research grade if they were accurately annotated to stay at genus level. The DQA has a marker for things that can’t be identified past a certain level (it says something like ‘as good as it can be’, I think) since some species can’t be distinguished just by visuals alone.

I’m not a bird expert but I do know there’s some debate over these things, so this might not be the best example. I’ve heard, however, that you can’t confidently ID a meadowlark down to eastern vs western just by looking (although you might assume a region that only gets Westerns in winter won’t have one in June or August)… but there may also be nuance there that I’m missing; I’m not very well-informed on the issue with that particular species, but if you are, then that’s something you could use IDs to help with!

You may also run across some that just can’t be identified past a certain level due to the image quality or the angle. Getting those out of the Needs ID category helps people taking the more forensic approach of trying to identify challenging but possible observations, like @norwichtim brought up.

Just make sure that you’re marking the DQA to reflect that it couldn’t be identified by anyone and not just that you couldn’t identify it-- some people seem to misunderstand that a little bit. The function is best used when you know, for example, that separating a bird into one of the 2 possible species requires seeing the tail (and that no other markers are reliable) but that tail is not visible at all in the photo.

Hopefully that makes sense. Happy IDing!!


Setting the Low end of rank in the filter can be helpful. In areas you know something about and want to learn more, setting it high can give you an opportunity to refine some and then follow it further. In areas that you know well, you can set it to something closer to species. This will often bring up disagreements that advice coming from years of experience may help settle.
If you are good at birding by ear and can listen, there is a lot of bird and unknown audio in NeedsID.


You can do any of the options you mentioned. My only advice would be that if you want to branch out, don’t use iNat alone as your means of learning new taxa. It’s a valuable resource, but just as you likely didn’t learn to ID birds using iNat alone, you wouldn’t want to do so with other taxa either. iNat is getting better as a stand-alone tool over time, but there are still taxa that kind of develop a life of their own on iNat and spiral out of control, leading to many misidentifications of similar taxa.


There’s other bird species that have this problem. Realistically, Carolina Chickadees and Black Capped Chickadees are extremely hard to ID down to the species unless its an extremely good picture. They do have different ranges, which is probably the main saving grace when it comes to species level IDs… but they also hybridize between the ranges, so in some areas I’m sure that makes it difficult to impossible.

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I was telling a friend recently: If you wanted to find exciting new taxa, I bet focusing on gnats would get you there.

Or, more generally, if you want your contribution to be uniquely valuable because otherwise there’s a good chance no one is going to do it, compare what you’re seeing in your local environment, and therefore are in a good position to learn about and develop expertise in, to what’s being observed frequently on iNaturalist. If there’s a group of organisms that you encounter often but the broader community seems to ignore, that’s your best option.

There’s a good chance it’s gnats. It’s definitely not going to be a taxonomic group that is intrinsically appealling to humans.


There’s a fine balance between the photogenicity of a taxa and the ability to capture necessary traits for ID. Even with plants that aren’t running away - snap a flower picture and keep walking, right? Most of my gnats are stuck at family or subfamily level, even with my macro lens.

One of my favorite identifiers who can do incredible things with all levels of photo quality is Kevin Williams, the velvet ant guy. Always helpful and friendly and check out these numbers!

Back to the original question, there’s several overall approaches (not a complete list).

  1. "I want to make a dent in ‘Needs ID’ so I choose something with many unconfirmed species-level observations. For example, Helianthus has 42,000 ‘Needs ID’ by 25,000 users waiting for help at species level (65,000 total genus or below).
  2. “I want to move observations from high to low” - working with Unknowns, Life, and Kingdoms
  3. “I want to become the gnat guy/gal” - specialize on one group and learn the species inside and out, like the hoverfly experts

When you need a break from from the ID mountain (whether Unknown or Needs ID) annotations can be easy - caterpillar, flower …


The other day someone asked me how many observations were listed Unknown. I checked and it was about 315,000. So the the only species on iNat that has more observations than Unknown is Mallard (340K). And my heart weeps for Kingdom Plantae identifiers (more than 600,000 at Kingdom level).

But I would say (echoing @norwichtim ) that just because “Birds” get ID’d quickly, doesn’t mean all birds do: very likely if you go and check shorebirds, Gulls, fall waterfowl or Warblers, Raptors, fledglings, ect. you’ll find a number that need help.

Also bear in mind, that just because it’s an “easy” ID doesn’t mean there aren’t mistakes in Birds. So if there’s a group that you’re particularly good at, tossing a few ID’s that way periodically might filter out an occasional error.