In need of your mentorship & knowledge - coaching new members

And some of them are really that good. If they know what birds are found in your neighborhood and have been bird watching for many years, they really can tell a hawk species from something that looks like a smudge to me. I have been on walks and asked how they knew, and they actually could tell me what the possibilities are and why they know it is a particular species.

  • Is it OK to guess?
  • How do you feel about IDing the unknowns into broader categories? Is it annoying or helpful?

It is very helpful to ID unknowns into broader categories, since many specialists will search for something they know about. E.g., if you’re a specialist on tropical birds, you might not want to have to scroll through thousands of plant and invertebrate observations about which you know too little to make an ID with confidence. So these people might limit their search criteria to certain regions and to certain groups of species, e.g. birds. If you find an unknown observation of a bird and ID it as a bird, this may seem trivial, but it helps to make this observation visible to experts who are interested in identifying birds.
Now, if you make a guess, it might also make the observation visible to experts; however, there may also be other inexperienced naturalists who know little about your level of expertise and might simply accept your ID. This could cause propagation of errors until some expert finds the observation and clarifies the problem. So if you are uncertain, it might be better to ID to some higher level. E.g., if the iNaturalist AI suggests multiple species and all of them look very much like the organism in the observation, it might be better to find the lowest level that comprises all of these species. This may often be a genus or a family. So if you cannot decide between two species, it might be helpful to look up whether there is a higher level that is correct for both and suggest this as an ID. Of course, nobody is infallible and even experts may make wrong IDs sometimes and maybe you’re only 85 % certain sometimes. So you’ll have to simply stick around and get a bit of a feeling for how much detail you can “risk”. In some genera, there may be many species that are very hard to distinguish while in others, there are only few or they are easily distinguished. iNaturalist helps with this by usually suggesting multiple species or, if you click on “compare” after somebody suggested an ID, you’ll usually see not only the suggested species, but also images of similar species.
However, this might not always work, since for some species there are simply too few observations. If you want to suggest some species you think you know but are not confident enough to ID, you could e.g. google whether there are more species of that genus occurring in the region and see if you can find images with sufficient detail to distinguish between them. In general, I’d say it is a good practice to suggest a higher level instead of guessing the species or even subspecies without any specific reason. A reason (in my opinion) to suggest some species or subspecies would be if you have matched the traits you’ve seen on the images with traits listed in the literature. E.g., some book about identifying trees states that you can distinguish species A from other species of the genus through dense hairs on the petiole. If you see the hairs on the image, I think it is ok to suggest the species. If uncertain, you might prefer to only suggest the genus.
Now that we arrived at the literature: there is no single “Bible” that solves all problems. Here in Germany, we have e.g. very accurate plant identification literature (e.g. Rothmaler, 22nd ed.) which helps to identify almost all plants in the country if sufficient detail are known. In other countries there may or may not exist books that cover the entire area and/or comprise almost all species. So for each region and each kind of organism, there might be specific books or websites which can be used to identify the respective organisms.
No book covers everything. And nobody is expert for everything everywhere.
Hence, my suggestion would be: Don’t try to become an expert about everything all at once. Focus on some specific area you’re most interested in. Then find out what books/websites are relevant for the region you live in. Maybe also find out whether there are organisations in your area that offer field trips. Try to go outside as often as possible and to observe your “niche group”. If possible, go outside with people who can teach you something. It will be a more efficient kind of mentoring than online. Then try to identify species in your home region. As you start to learn how to distinguish between the species in your area, you can go to iNaturalist, see if other people observe these species nearby and ID those. This would be a good start, in my opinion. Once you know your backyard, you can go elsewhere, observe and identify, and then bring your new knowledge back to iNaturalist. Post the observations you’ve made and see whether other people agree. It is not all about how many IDs you put on other people’s observations in a day. First try to confidently know a few species and ID them. If you know only 3 species but you know them by heart, this is better than 10 species about which you have only some vague idea and might confuse them with similar looking species.
Main take-away messages of this endless comment:

  • Focus on a small area at first (geographically as well as taxonomically)
  • Try to learn by observing in real life
  • Use iNaturalist to confirm IDs you’ve made in nature (using books, the internet, and people’s knowledge)
  • Focus on IDing these species on iNaturalist
  • Identify always to the most exact level you can, but only as far as you’re reasonably confident in your ID
  • Slowly widen your area of interest and the species you ID on iNat as your knowledge grows and you get a feeling for when you are able to make an “educated guess” and when your ID might be more of a “wild guess”

Newer member here too technically! Started iNaturalist in 2019, only recently started getting involved in the community. I don’t have much to add to your questions, but I really appreciate you asked them since they’re the same ones I have. Going through unknowns and putting them into broad categories for more experienced people to find has been so satisfying, but I got a little worried it might be an annoyance. It’s a relief to know it’s usually appreciated by so many. :sweat_smile:

Personally I think making a guess is alright. Even a wrong guess can still lead to learning something and the correct ID being found! When I’m unsure about something I like to see what the computer suggests, read a little into it, and then make a higher taxon based suggestion from that. There’s been a couple times where the computer suggestion has seemed correct on a species level, but since I don’t know enough about what I’m IDing, I’ve gone ahead and used genus/family/order instead depending on what it is. So far that’s worked nicely for me and I’ve seen other people go in later to make the correct species ID.


Thanks so much for asking this question, it has really cleared things up for me as well.


Thank you so much! I found it!

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It looks like I am getting those emails (for the ones I “identify”, anyway). I will have to look into setting up emails for ones I just want to follow. Thank you!