In need of your mentorship & knowledge - coaching new members

Hi everyone,

Beginner / Newer member here!

I have always been a nature lover at heart but have only recently come into the habit of IDing what I come across. I know basic knowledge in a few topics but certainly not the vast plethora of information specific naturalists know about their niche groups. I have started by IDing “unknown” categories such as “plants”, “spiders” “birds”, “butterflies & moths” into their broad categories. When someone of more expertise comes along they label it & I learn from it. When I feel more confident on an ID I’ll make the best educated guess, sometimes I am right & sometimes I am wrong. I am the new kid on the block I humbly request for your input in YOUR area of expertise.

So this brings me to the point :

  1. Is there anyone willing to mentor beginners like myself into the tips & tricks for their species / suggest resources to explore ?

  2. What are your “bibles” that you go by / gold standard to procure your best educated guess?

  3. Is it OK to guess?

  4. How do you feel about IDing the unknowns into broader categories? Is it annoying or helpful?

Thanks in advance for your time & input,

Humbly, Rachel


There’re topics specifically about guesses, if you have knowledge in the group, it may be ok to id something if you’re more than 90% sure, but something is missing from the photos, generally, especially as you’re new, it’s better to stick to higher taxon and write your guess in the description of that id.
Sure unknowns can be ided to any level you can.


Identifying Unknowns is a HUGE help! It gets everything moving towards the more specialized people, who then can focus on what’s relevant to their specialty instead of sifting through pages of blurry sidewalk photos.

Don’t get discouraged if you get a few aggressive comments from new or uninformed users though, there’s always a few who don’t understand how the system works and go “Duh, I KNOW it’s a plant!” It happens.

I’d recommend starting out just IDing unknowns, or refining things into slightly more detailed categories (“Plants” to “dicot” or “monocot” for example), and keep a general eye on your notifications. As you see how people refine the ids, you’ll pick up a lot of knowledge without even really trying. If you want to start making more detailed IDs, I’d recommend limiting yourself to a particular region or species - it’ll be much easier to familiarize yourself with the options.

Guessing on IDs is generally discouraged, unless it’s along the lines of “I"m pretty sure it’s this, but not 100%” - I’d say that’s okay, but leave a comment to that effect along with the ID so other users (hopefully at least) won’t just blindly assume you know for certain.

Feel free to ask me if you have any other questions!


thank you this is encouraging , I appreciate your input! :grin:



1 Like

If you’re new to identifying, pick something that you’ll either enjoy learning about or think is easy. For example, go look at all the observations identified as common sunflower. Is it in a garden or wild? See one with narrow leaves - is it prairie or stiff sunflower? Now you’ll start learning related species, so once you finish common sunflowers you move to another and learn more common misidentifications.

  1. When learning, I personally like to restrict myself to a specific taxon in a specific region, say, oaks of Pennsylvania, and then move on to the next group once I’m satisfied with my ability. This could be done using field guides as well.

  2. Each species usually has at least one dead giveaway that it’s that species and nothing else. Sometimes they’re tedious, like counting scales on a fish or costal grooves on a salamander, and sometimes they aren’t visible, like a tree having a very specific smell when you crush a leaf. Usually, a google search of something like “species X vs lookalikes” gives good results though.

  3. I think it’s okay to guess, but instead of making the guess the ID, ID it to as specific of a broad category as you can and put your guess in the comments or reasoning. And don’t be afraid to withdraw an ID either. Initially, it felt kind of weird and embarrassing to withdraw, but that wore off when I realized I was only withdrawing probably ~1% of my IDs.

Here’s an example. Like, I know how to identify a sweetgum tree, right? Done it so many times before:

But a few days later, this happened:

Coincidentally, the lesson to learn from this is probably don’t rely on those dead giveaways so much that you develop tunnel vision and forget the basics, like opposite vs alternate leaf arrangement. :sweat_smile:

  1. I think I’m most useful categorizing the unknowns and things at kingdom → order level. I can usually only nail ~10% of newly uploaded unknowns to genus/species level in my state, but at least I’m getting the rest in front of somebody who probably knows more about them.

I’m new to this too. The Tips I’ve found so far…
When you see an Image of an organism or a plant on the computer, (1) With the cursor on the image, right click on the mouse. (2) choose - Search Image with Google Lens. (hopefully, it is available in the computer.)There will be some Possible suspects. Now, you’ll have to search them all for more details, taking into account their natural Range, the scientific name, synonyms, and several other factors. For plants, their Family is a clue eg Asteraceae, ferns, grass…For ferns , you need to see the patterns of the sori. In Google, there is an Image tab. Use that to view more Images of the organisms. Google must have been doing the same Big data collecting over many years, it can be quite accurate for the more common species on earth. But not accurate for the least known species. btw, maybe don’t tell anyone you use Google. I like Google Image, and wikipedia.

I’ve one guide book on my local plants. There is a local government website from the university that has a list with pictures of the plants and animals that local researchers have known. It is available online, so I’m not getting anymore guidebooks. There is a local butterfly website which is quite complete. There are bird watchers groups in Facebook. Some people might ask for ID in local facebook groups and repost pictures in iNaturalist.
I was using The Plantlist for check plant synonyms or species status. Now it seems Kew Garden’s list is - Plants of the World Online. I don’t use it that often, perhaps there is a use for that. It is a very accurate but unfortunately too technical, I don’t have the patience to read plant descriptions.
I try not to ID an organism on the other side of the world. I was able to get a few strikes, but mostly I can’t or didn’t make the ID.


Just in case you’re interested in flies, I would recommend starting off with learning how to identify one genus on or another good resource, and once you have mastered that, move on to higher levels.

This method can also be translated for other taxa, I just didn’t do it that way.


Some folks have put together guides for specific taxa and lists of such guides. I’ve got links to several of them from my profile page. Some folks stick to things within their local area while others stick to a few taxa that they’ve come to know well.


I’d reiterate what others have said about the value of IDIng unknowns. If you can get them down to order or a similar level this is very helpful to getting them IDed. Don’t be discouraged if you get snarky responses!

I think it’s ok to ID when not certain within reason. My personal cutoff is at about 95% sure, I feel like I can ID. If I am less sure, I often leave a comment explaining my thoughts and maybe tag others that can ID. You can also ID at a higher level you are sure of. Regardless of whether you’re 100 or 95% sure, it is important to follow up with notifications on observations - at some point, you’ll be wrong (we all are!), even if it is just via a misclick or typo. Following your notifications allows you to withdraw an ID that is an error or one you’re just no longer sure of. Don’t feel bad about withdrawing either! It’s just part of the learning process.


Guessing is permitted, whether you are an observer or an identifier. There is nothing to stop you from guessing (except perhaps loss of reputation).

You’ve probably already realized this, but guessing at the species level often leads to errors. I strongly believe that the system should do more to discourage species-level guessing, but that is perhaps a topic for a different day…

As you mentioned, that is not only helpful, but it also represents a learning opportunity. IDing the unknowns is very worthwhile activity, I think.


You have made the best first step - ask! If you don’t understand why an organism is identified a certain way, ask. If you need help with an ID ask for help by tagging - use @username in the text. There is a leaderboard of the top dozen or so identifiers in every level of taxon. Keep in mind that the top ones may be very busy, and may not reply. Personally, I like to teach, so if I change an id, I usually explain why. Some people don’t - they aren’t being rude. Different styles.
There are two main types of iNatters - observers and identifiers. My identifications outnumber my observations 23:1. You’ll find which mix you prefer. I’m rambling on here so:

  • find what you like to do, which taxons you prefer, and keep your focus narrow at the start.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and to ask for help
  • Identifying ‘Unknows’ is helpful and a good way to learn.
  • It takes a long time to learn how iNat works, the shortcuts, and the general culture.
  • The forum is a good place to learn and ask stuff.
  • Most people are fine. I know that some folks here have had problems with others, but I haven’t experienced that.
  • Resources tend to be specific for each taxon, and you will find them.

Also feel free to contact me if you want any help/advice. I’m a Noctuid moth guy, but I’m always willing to help. I’m not always right, but I’ll give it a shot!


Rather let iNat do that work. Then you benefit from Seen Nearby.

Google Lens is very broad - and quite determined that it’s right - even when I go from my blog photos, which are named files with alt text.

@rachel_likes_nature find the set of filters that works for you. What you can ID. And what you enjoy poring over. Somewhere among your notifications, you will find the sweet spot that you want to concentrate on.
Maybe clearing Unknowns in a quiet neglected corner of the world (the Rest of Africa for me)
Or something local that you are already interested in (what is blooming on the Cape Peninsula today for my next hike)
Or join a project and learn more about … so you can give back and help to keep up with that slice in future.


THANK YOU everyone for your contributions & feedback - lots of helpful tips & advice. Thank you for making me feel welcome & not gatekeeping. Everyone starts as a beginner, and the only way to learn is to either fail or ask. I appreciate you all!


Lots of solid advice here too How do you expand your knowledge of different taxa?

Being wrong about IDs is a natural and normal part of learning, there’s no shame in it. If Cunningham’s Law is right, I’ve found that ID comments are more helpful and constructive when I’ve mis-identified organisms than when I’ve correctly IDed.

If you do end up getting snarky comments about general IDs, just point commenter to:

I typically write:

@username, I was narrowing the ID so that it ends up in front of more people for better identification since leaving it unknown is discouraged, see:

Just pasting the link will make it clickable in comment. If the comment is very snarky, rickrolling is an option:


Note: Obviously joking about rickrolling, but putting URLs into comments, like shown above, makes it possible. I think the general consensus is to assume that even the snarkiests comments aren’t meant maliciously.


By the way, if you’re still wondering about the usefulness of IDing unknowns, I just checked the numbers and there’s currently 12,991 pages of them, at 30 observations a page, that’s about 389,730 observations - that should be enough to stay busy for a while ;)

Also, it’s so much fun when you pull something out of the unknown pile and it then ends up getting identified as a very interesting or rare species:

Edit: Forgot to add, there’s another easy-to-do task that’s super helpful, which is adding annotations to observations that are missing them, even the research-grade ones. You can search for observations that need them under the “more filters” section of the identify window. Examples would be Plant Phenology (Blooming, budding, fruiting, no sign of flowers?), evidence type (actual animals vs observations of their tracks or scat), life stage (adult insects or larvae?). Not many people add them but they’re so useful for anyone trying to search for observations.


Sometimes picking something “easy” and common in your area is a fun way to start! Ex around here we get so much loblolly; and every student or new user takes a pic of one but it often gets labled pine at best. Finding something like that for your area that is usually easy to id from photos and theres a lot of can boost confidence quick! I like learning things in my region so I stick with my state and am working thru backlog of un-IDd things. This also makes it nice to see seasonality of things coming around again working backward through the years!

Id like to add - take time for comments with IDs. Nothing bothers me more than users making a higher level ID esp if tricky, or especially disagreeing, without saying why. Sometimes it may be extra known info sometimes not. I keep a notepad open when IDing with commonly used info so Im not always typing it out. Usually things like “this genus needs lab tests to get to species” or “these have been combined into a complex based on x and y (links) data”. Maybe the user never sees it; or maybe theyre like us and want to learn so taking the time to provide info is nice. Or, things like For my state there is a general tree ID guide free online with a really nice flow through to get to ID of common trees, so if Im seeing someone uploading a ton of “tree” i will link them in comments to that guide to encourage them to try to ID. At least it will show better what photos people need to ID trees! Or if I cant get to an ID or i know more knowledgable would need more even if I cant, ill leave in comment like “fyi we need more views typically to ID these” and thats another prewrite I have for different things to paste in. So im not always writing fresh xD


Oh and another thing I learned about from here: there are state based (if you are in the US) Master Naturalist programs. Really good to get a broad start into IDing things and i hope to be doing my states this year (its just getting rebooted for Alabama). Ours will have field trips as well as online lectures so its a mix. Not sure how other states work.


There was a pilot program last November for ID mentorships:

I don’t know if there are plans to repeat. It would be cool if there was a program for matching folks more generally, but I gathered from the above discussions that it would be challenging technically.

I have done a little bit of informal mentoring in the past, and enjoyed it. Limitations: a) I’m not great on follow-through, and b) my knowledge is strongly limited to northeastern US plants and moths. But if you, or anyone, would like some assistance, I’d be happy to do so.