Suggestion: Should I focus on one category or all at once as a beginner?

Hello there,

I am completely a newbie when it comes to being a naturalist. I just found the app yesterday and since I am still at the…budding (embryionic?) stage, I was curious if I should focus on one single category (such as plants) or branch out to other categories as well?

As a beginner, I find it eaier to focus on one category and it helps me to organize. But suppose, I skip other fauna, then maybe years later if I start a new category I would be ruing the fact ‘oh I saw a rare insect back in the days, now that I remember, but I didn’t include it in my database’.

Anyone else faced similar dilemma when starting out? (Also would love to connect anyone near my area who can help me as a guide and mentor!)

Thank you.

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What do you like to look at? Start with those.

The purpose of this site isn’t to be an exhaustive list of every creature anyone has ever seen. It’s for people to record nature observations, to help them connect with nature better.

Personally, I tend to photograph whatever interesting animals or plants I come across. Nothing in particular, just whatever catches my eye. I’m biased, like everyone, but I don’t know that I could enjoy any other way of doing it. Someone else might like to only photograph insects, or focus on wildflowers, or one specific genus of bird.

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Unless it is! As has been discussed countless times, some people like recording specific species or groups over and over and others want to document every plant in their area.

For me, iNaturalist is all about learning. I try to photograph and upload as much as possible, especially if I don’t recognize the animal/plant/fungus. It also serves as a biodiversity catalog for my pollinator garden.

By all means, go slow starting out and you’ll be addicted before you know it.

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You bring up a good point regarding the purpose of this site. Honestly, I was thinking more from a ‘selfish’ angle for my reason to contribute:

  • helps me learn
  • helps me double check my findings
  • helps me organize and track the findings
  • more importantly gives a broad view of the database as to where pieces fit
  • as well as a tertiary level to store all my final data

I was looking from “what’s in it for me?” angle rather than crowdsourcing benefits and contribution.

[And yes I am already addicted! :) ]

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I would agree that it’s a case of ‘whatever takes your fancy’, as that will probably suit your learning style. You may even want to do different things on different days.

The more you observe the less you will be able to identify yourself - purely from time constraint. But you can still observe everything, concentrate on learning to identify e.g. the trees as well as you can and upload everything else at a high level like ‘winged insects’ - then you learn by osmosis from the IDs other people give you. You can’t learn everything at once.

You may wish to explore one tiny patch exhaustively, or just walk and snap what catches your eye. You may wish to say ‘today is a tree day, tomorrow is a bug day, next week is for birds’. Totally up to you.

You’ll have to get used to missing stuff though. The number of cool critters that fly off as you are pressing the shutter…

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In observing, it is great to be broad with your observations! Even if you are personally unable to ID them at first, getting IDs from the community will slowly grow your awareness of organisms around you. If you see it and you can get an observation or it particularly interests you, snap a shot!

I recommend looking on the iNaturalist forums, reading the articles iNaturalist publishes about observations and observers, or even joining a community to get a taste for all kinds of naturalisting. I learned much more about UV light luring bugs after getting into iNaturalist! That way you can see if there is a group you are more attracted to pursuing… and how to pursue them!

I wish you the best, have fun with iNat!

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If you are observing, observe all and everything that you see (until it gets boring, then focus on things that interest you :).

If you are identifying, I would definitely recommend starting from the ground up. Begin with a genus or even a species, then learn to identify the group above that, and above that. Once you get bored, or complete a goal you set for yourself, move on to the next group.

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welcome to the forum.

i guess everyone likes different things and has different ways of learning, but i think this is the way i would encourage most people to start:

  1. subscribe to observations in your area. check the dashboard in the website to see what others are posting in the area to get a sense what’s out there, where people are visiting, and who’s doing a lot of observing and identifying.
  2. identify some of the observations from your area. you don’t need to be an expert, and you don’t even need to be able to identify down to species. just make some identifications, and then check back when others make identifications on those observations. ask questions (in the comments) if you’re not sure how someone arrived at a particular identification.
  3. as you start to get more comfortable identifying and find a particular organism that’s interesting to you, find some keys to help you understand what really distinguishes that organism from related organisms in your area. use that key to do a little more identifying. then go out and try to observe the organism, making sure you capture all the key distinguishing features of the organism.
  4. once you’ve mastered a particular organism and how to capture good identifiable observations, i think you have 2 logical paths:
    • visit a particular place (or a few places) frequently, and just try to document everything you can find there. when you’ve exhausted that place, move on to another place.
    • focus on a particular taxon (or taxa), and make observations at a lot of different places. at some point, if you’re focusing on, say, just sunflowers, sometimes take some time to also observe all the different insects that visit the different sunflowers to better understand all the different connections between organisms.
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I am particularly interested in/knowledgeable about birds, so that ultimately serves as my motivation to get outside as well as influences the locations I visit. But once I get out there I usually end up getting distracted by everything else (plants especially!) and I just take pictures of everything I see. This is to say, go after what you’re particularly interested in, but don’t be afraid to document everything you find along the way! This is only one way of going about it, but if you’re not interested in what you’re observing, it eventually becomes a chore, which increases one’s likelihood of stopping entirely. Even just a few observations about what you’re interested in is better for science than no observations at all.

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Just want to chime in to say that there are some excellent answers and advice here.

A side note- This could be an absolute powder-keg of a topic where ereryone comes to share how they come at it… Which would be awesome to see!

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just do whatever you are interested in! if you’re into fungi or reptiles or plants or insects or birds or whatever, do that! i only do animals, for example, with a particular focus on fishes and birds, just because those two groups are what I am most interested in. I don’t do plants or fungi, because I’m just not interested in them.

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For observing, photo and post whatever interests you. You don’t need to know what it is. Just post it with an accurate location and date, and it can be useful.

For identifications (and I hope you will do identifications!), start with the organisms or location you know best, then spread out.

Have fun!

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Like this one? https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/how-do-you-decide-whether-something-is-interesting-enough-to-observe/33511

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Some forum topics that might be helpful:

I tend to agree most with those folks who have already suggested observing whatever you already gravitate towards and are most interested in.

I’m not sure how generalists do it, but if you pick one category to focus on, like only plants, only birds, only bugs, etc. it makes it easier to find a book/field guide on just that subject.

Edit: Copied @egordon88’s link from above, good topic too!

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Once an obs has 2 IDs, and a Community Taxon - if you click What’s This - you get the whole taxonomy tree (scroll past the paragraph of blah blah). Which I use constantly to see, and Where does This Fit in??

Follow your notifications. Find the people who tell you why it is, or isn’t. A gentle and kind learning curve on iNat.

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I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to focus on one category, but I certainly regret not trying to record much more broadly when I first started out.

For example, recording more plants would have been very helpful to me later on when I started to search for certain insects that depend on a particular host. Quite often, I’m the only recorder in my area for many groups of organisms. So it can be quite frustrating to know that I once saw a certain plant, but I can’t remember exactly where!

To begin with, I think I may have worried too much about my lack of knowledge and the effect this might have on the quality of my records. But I can now see that it often isn’t so important to identify something precisely - what matters more is just knowing where you’re likely to find it. If you don’t get a perfect record now, you can always go back later and try again. Life has its habits. A little familiarity with those habits can go a long way…

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Observing everything you can that is idable is the best, you will miss many species, so observing everything is not panacea, but it will give you more knowledge and more species, I think most observers skip from one main group to another (also depends on what machines you have), so if you can do that, you will be happy in the end, try not to overwork!

I would simply photograph whatever organisms happen to appeal to you when you find yourself out in the field. I think it is unnecessary to be so organized as to say I will only photograph plants, or insects, Or whatever.

And if you tell us where you are, then maybe someone will respond to you who lives nearby. I live in NYC and I am always glad to go out iNatting with someone else,whether they are a beginner or an expert.

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Based on your observations, it looks like you’re in the LA area. You’re lucky - iNaturalist started out in California, so there are likely tons of fellow naturalists in your area.

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I don’t indulge in this kind of thing often but if I, at my current elder age, could recommend something to myself at a younger age, I would say: be more willing to do what you want, follow your instincts, follow your heart - not only in what you do but how you do it and when you do it and where you do it. You’ll get where you need to be in the end.

As a beginner, I find it easier to focus on one category and it helps me to organize.

That’s the the thing. Each of us are different in how we learn, process, organize, etc. This site is a powerful tool but, at its heart…

iNaturalist describes itself as “an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature”, with its primary goal being to connect people to nature.

For me, I use it to access joy. I get lots of other stuff from it, too. I’ve increased my knowledge base in all sorts of directions. I’ve become more passionate about saving regional areas of natural habitats. I’ve made friends. I’ve found solace walking in nature while the world (sometimes literally) burns around me.

But, at the heart of it, I access joy. And I let that drive me.

If focusing on one area fits your learning/organizational style, why not allow yourself the comfort of that? I would predict that, as you move around your comfort area and areas of interest, you’ll find that those areas will expand. And it will be joyful moments (‘who knew that ladybugs lay eggs on stalks!’). Approaching an endeavor with some set of proscribed expectations kind of sucks the joy out of it for me. But then, I’m retired and I’ve reached a point where I can say and truly believe (for the most part) ‘I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to’ and I run with that.

It’s been a tough world out there the last few years but, in this way, I’ve never been happier.

Follow your heart. :-)

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