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

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!


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.


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.

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.


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.


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!


Like this one?


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!


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.


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…


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.


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.


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. :-)


It is easy to forget that iNaturalist is not, primarily, a citizen science platform. It is primarily an outreach platforn, that is, trying to help people to connect with nature, or perhaps even take an interest in nature when they hadn’t before. Any citizen science on here is an incidental side effect of that.

Now with that said, I always recommend learning to ID at least something, and spend time on here providing IDs for other observers. That is the crowdsourcing and contribuition – because if someone’s observations are never identified, they may lose interest. This is the reason why I always go in acsending order when providing IDs – that is, oldest observations first. I know the frustration of having an observation sit for a long time without any identification help, knowing that the older it is, the less likely someone will ever look at it again. Conversely, it is quite fine for those on here who go in descending order – newest observations first – because a new user, especially, would like to see a quick response to their observations.


Than you everyone for the kind welcome and the useful links! I am actually from Orange County, CA [not sure if there is a ‘Meetup’ or ‘Group Meeting’ extension with this site, but that would be great too! (after all, I don’t want to randomly message people. :) ]

I actually found this site from Seek App. It took me a time to get hold of it and get the broad overview how this entire orchestra runs, but my main purpose was digital collection. As a former, young, ardent stamp collector, I realize I am facing the similar conundrum. As I grew up, I realized since the topic is so vast, some people conserve energy and just focus on one topic… I mean just like anything in life such as academic pursuit.

Gone or those days of a polymath naturalist since Linnaeus and Darwin (by the way I absolutely feel like him him since my childhood curiosity and wonder has been awakened by a simple app be it the fact it hasn’t reached Hal 9000 like AI intelligence!)

As the Zen proverb goes: ‘The one who chases two rabbits catches none.’ That was my main concern (So I was thinking if I want to see all the turtles of the world or lichens, then I need to plan and strategize in a different way, rather than just catching everything like a trawler. Thiings is my interest is so vast.)

But on Day 3, I realized the Seek app itself acts as a self-corrective and self-teaching system. I mean as a beginner, it is very hard to use it to ID bees, insects, anything in motion let alone birds, moths and butterflies and of course the constaint of locality (I mean try as you may to observe a jaguar but if one is in Singapore, then it won’t matter.)

I guess the app will only ‘reveal’ what it allows due to the constraint of location and AI’s deep learning and the amount of effort one is willing to put. Having said that I really like the following answer from @pisum

I guess that is how I will approach. Consensus seems to be: start small and take everything you can get your hands on…lol. Afterall, if I was in desert and wanted to only ID pelagic birds or arctic botany, it would be waste of time had I only stuck to those goals.

Perhaps I am overthinking it!


I started at home, with whatever showed up. Bugs, birds, botany and butterflies were all game. The basement and attic were rich sources. But Home turned into neighborhood, parks and became part of other travel.

As a recovering bird lister I look less at the lists and more at remembering names and ecological relationships. It makes for a deeper understanding of the whole thing.


I think that the operative words in the OP are “as a beginner.” Think of it like going to college: your first two years, you take the general courses required of all students. Then you declare a major, and your last two years are more narrowly focused on coursework related to your major. If you go on to grad school, you specialize even more, evenually to zero in on the specific topic of your thesis.

There is a reason why a career academic usually has a long list of publications on a fairly small subset of the possible topics in their field.

What I’m saying is: when you’re a beginner, discover the breadth of life on earth. As you grow and mature as a naturalist, you will naturally find the aspects which interest you enough to dive deep.


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