Top Observers On The Site

Whenever I look at the People page on the iNaturalist site, I am always amazed at the number of observations that the top observers manage to rack up for the current month and the year. It invariably leads to a question I ask every time: how do they do it? A secret technique? Being touched by the nature gods? Black magic?

Whenever I go observe, on my best days I might manage 50-80 observations, and rarely up to around a hundred. Whenever I check the calendar of these top observers, they often have daily observations of over 200 and even up to 500!

How do they find the time to observe all that and then process & upload the photos? And for many, they maintain this for months on end. It’s something I wonder whether I could do it myself, and the bigger question: SHOULD I even try to go for such lofty goals?! Haha.

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Well, first off, you should aim for a level of observing and contributing that is comfortable and satisfying for you. Don’t try and compete for the sake of competition.

Sure, some of it is a time investment (having a camera with a built in GPS really speeds up doing the entry).

Some of it is being willing to accept help with identifications. When I started on the site, I was always trying to do a species level ID for everything I submitted, which can really add up on time required. Now I’ve learned to leverage the knowledge out on the site, and if I know it is in family X, leave the ID there and wait to see what happens. If no response comes, then start researching it.

A lot of the observing volume comes from just slowing down when in the field. Taking the time to notice the smaller things, not just the big charismatic stuff. Five minutes standing still at a flowering plant can bring a surprising amount of diversity into view.

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It IS impressive! We each have different circumstances that affect our ability to get out and observe, so don’t feel bad if your high of 50-80 observations doesn’t stack up compared to some mega-observers. Do what’s right for you and your life.

Some factors that may affect a person’s ability to get lots of observations:

  • Employment status: Somebody working full time won’t have as much time as someone who’s retired, post-time, or a student. A few also use iNat as part of their job, which facilitates higher numbers of observations.
  • Personal health & ability: folks in good health may find it easier to go out and explore than those battling injury, illness, disabilities, etc., though this thread does have strategies for folks facing those challenges.
  • Resources: Good internet speeds, GPS-equipped cameras, etc. make it easier to upload lots of observations. Access to local parks and good transportation options for farther green spaces also make it easier to access biodiverse areas. Having the money to buy pre-made food, hire a housekeeper, etc. means more time to do other things.
  • iNat habits: What do those users choose to observe? Some clades of life (e.g. plants) are a lot easier to find than others. Do folks get every individual of a species they see? That’s one way to rack up lots of observations.
  • Knowing where and how to look for different kinds of life: As cmcheatle, the smaller stuff isn’t always as noticeable, unless you know to look for it.

I can attest to this. There’s a daisy patch, maybe about a square meter in size, on my way into work, and I’ve seen about 20 species of insects and spiders hanging out on just the flowerheads.

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I don’t know, but it would seem fairly easy to do if you recorded every common species you saw without caring too much about the quality of the resulting photos. I probably looked at several hundred flower-heads yesterday whilst searching for insects. If I’d taken a photo of every one of them and then duplicated it for each identifiable insect, I could have easily generated several thousand observations. Personally, I would find that kind of exercise crushingly boring, though. To me, quality is much more important than quantity, as I find the process of identification by far the most rewarding aspect of recording. The measure of a good day is how much I eventually learn from that process, rather than the number of observations per se.

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This definitely appears true for some, but other top observers seem to achieve both quality and quantity… so I’m curious about the workflows of these people. I would also struggle to capture more than about 100 different obs and have time to edit and upload in one day. It’s the uploading which is the time sink though, more than the observing. If anyone has tips to gain more time in the field and less time uploading then it’s always good to hear :)

But yes, certainly not difficult to find 100s of things to capture within a small area.

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It may sound backwards in terms of the ‘interestingness’ of the records, but I try to upload the stuff I am positive on the ID, and have no intention of keeping the photos first. Get them out of the way, out of the queue for processing etc.

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As it was mentioned before, GPS is the thing that saves most of uploading time, nothing else can take as much of your time as finding spot where you saw it. Of course there’re users that are ok with general location, but I’d you don’t like big circles it’s a pain to do manually.
To original question, taxa means everything, plants are the easiest to get many observations, no need to photograph each individual, but even one of each species will be more and faster than any other group (maybe microscopic samples would provide more, but I’d there is harder).

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Some folks, like me, prefer to identify, rather than observe. I have a daily walk, and take photos whenever there are things I can find. But I prefer to identify, and don’t take trips to look for life forms. Individual preference.

An addendum: There is a fellow on iNat with zero observations, but over 340,000 identifications. Again, individual preference.

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I find that taking photos for iNat via the iNat app on my cellphone (iPhone X) makes creating large numbers of daily observations possible.

I do try to put at least a rough ID on the obs while I am still out, or while I am traveling back home from where I went.

Then I press the upload button and let it all upload automatically.

Then later that day I go through the obs and try to fine-tune the IDs as best as I can, letting the Computer Vision help me in the cases where I know nothing, or next to nothing.

I don’t have a car, but some people live out in the suburbs where they have a lot of access to interesting different biomes, and they drive a lot, and have time each day to go out somewhere, well, they often do sort of mini-bioblitz each place they go and rack up a lot of obs that way.

As for me, often during summertime, in the morning I am able to make 10 or 12 observations right here on my city block, where there is a garden outside my building, tree pits right here on my block, and a small garden in a traffic island on the avenue, all of which I take care of. And then, I am often able to add a whole bunch more observations if I am lucky enough to go out on a nature outing somewhere during the day, usually via taxi, like to a park that is a mile or a few miles away. And errands or doctor’s appointments sometimes take me to other blocks in other areas, where I can add a few more observations.

I also have a bird feeder on my window which often allows me to capture a few images of cool birds.

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I usually take photos with a camera that I can then download to my phone and upload via the iNat app, which probably isn’t the most efficient way, but it’s the only way I’m really that familiar and comfortable with. For me, actually finding and photographing a very large number of organisms and different species isn’t difficult, but uploading them takes a really long time and is really exhausting mentally. For the 2021 City Nature Challenge, I ended up making over 1,700 observations over 4 days, and was able to post them all over the next 6 days. I had been dealing with a lot of other stressful things (not-nature-related stuff) as well, and I had been getting really burn-out. Something about posting that many observations over such a short period of time (compared to what’s usual for me) took a toll on my ability to even muster up the willpower to post many more observations. As a result of that, I haven’t posted many iNat observations since early May, even though I’ve been out observing at least as much as usual and have probably several thousand photos to post to iNat. It’s just something that I couldn’t keep up anymore. I’m sure I’ll get them all posted eventually, but I have no idea when, but right now posting so many observations so intensively would not be good for my mental health. Maybe I just need to find a better way of uploading that many observations that isn’t as time consuming.

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What criteria did you use to assess the quality? Do you know what is required to reliably identify all the subjects you looked at, and how commonly recorded they are within a given region?

The iNat App makes recording certain subjects very easy (some might say, almost too easy). No expertise is required: all you need to do is take a picture with your phone, then “identify” it with the CV and tap a button to upload it. This will usually produce a perfectly valid observation that can often achieve RG status almost immediately.

But what will be learnt from such a process? I suppose repeating it thousands of times might make the user a better recorder - but will it necessarily also make them a better naturalist?

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What can we learn from this? Spots of distribution of those species in date and time, we will learn we have another sould interested in what lives around us, there’s nothing inferior in being a good recorder, and it qualifies under naturalist term pretty well. I don’t think we need anything more, but we can also see from it where users are/were active and where we need more study, both in urband and “wild” settings, both changing rapidly and in need of attention right now. Quality for iNat is identifiable photo, not just thousands of blurry ones where you can’t id anything (which everyone will make from time to time under challendging circumstances, but they shouldn’t be all like that).

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I just meant photographic quality in this context…( the top observers at present are not active in taxa or geographies I’m particularly familiar with ).

It’s certainly visible in a few of the top observers that (rightly or wrongly) they are sort of gaming the system by making multiple observations of the same species in close proximity as you mentioned. But there is at least one high observer at present ( @reiner) who seems to have high quality photography, and doesn’t seem to be doing this. I have also seen @alexis_orion on the leaderboard previously, a user who has consistently high quality obs of mesofauna. ( hope you folks don’t mind me tagging you in! - I’m curious to know about how you optimise your workflows if you are open to sharing )

I do think the gamification aspect of having a leaderboard within iNat should promote quality over quantity though, as I’ve said. I have attempted the 1000 species in 1 sq km challenge for two years running in different locations - the great thing about this objective is that it forces you to step outside of taxa you are familiar with and to increase quality and detail in observations in order to attain it. I believe there is potential benefit both as a naturalist and a recorder to push yourself to attain a goal like this. But I accept that’s not for everyone and of course there are many other ways to develop your skills as a naturalist too :)

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I’d be curious to hear from “power observers” what their hardware is. One of my biggest limitations in observation speed is my mediocre phone. There is delay between each step of the process: unlocking phone, new observation, from photo, try to focus image, still focusing, try capture, select retry, repeat, select okay, review observation page, (sometimes manually trigger gps location), (sometimes attempt ID), complete observation. Processing delay or data lag all contribute to the length of each observation. I’d be curious if a nice phone clicks thru those steps quickly and would enable fast observations.

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rather than upload each photo/observation as you take it, just photograph everything using the normal phone camera, and then upload everything when you get home; this will dramatically cut the time taken

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The site is called “iNaturalist”, not “iRecord”. The primary focus is on the observer, not the data. What third-parties may learn from the data is only of secondary importance. Becoming a more efficient recorder won’t necessarily make you a better naturalist. The two aspects are orthogonal to each other. It makes no sense to claim that one might be “inferior” to the other, so I don’t understand why you are suggesting that.

There’s much more to iNaturalist than merely accumulating data. In the UK, I use a site called iRecord for that specific purpose. Its primary focus really is on the data, so I know that, in the long run, it will make much better use of my observations. I mainly use iNaturalist as a learning tool. In that role, it has certainly helped make me a better naturalist, and I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, it has helped some other users do the same.

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I am by no means a power observer, but I have many of the same problems with my DSLR. Even when the camera is out, zoom, focus, exposure, etc. all create a delay in which time the organism can vanish. Getting the camera out of the bag just makes it all worse, something you would think I should have learned by now.

I don’t think photographic quality has much relevance at all. It is certainly nice if an observation includes some artistic and/or technically accomplished photos. But if you can’t reliably identify the subject from them, the observation will obviously lose a lot of value. As an identifier, I don’t much care if the photo is blurry, badly exposed or poorly framed, so long as i can see all the relevant characters.

In the context of scientific nature recording, the informational quality is what matters most. This is where the two aspects of recorder and naturalist intersect. If you don’t know how to identify things, or what can be identified, that will significantly reduce your chances of taking good quality photos (i.e. ones with high informational value).

Creating records in that kind of way is entirely valid, and can produce lots of perfectly good RG observations. My point was simply that it doesn’t necessarily require any kind of super-human effort or unusally efficient workflow to generate lots of observations. This may sometimes result in a somewhat lower signal to noise ratio (which is why I asked how you assessed quality), but that isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. Some people just enjoy the process of recording for its own sake, and don’t mind too much if their efforts don’t always produce RG observations.

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Because there’s nothing orthogonal in that, our top observers are not just recoders, you really can’t be just a recorder if you spend your time with nature, it’s impossible to not learn things. Focus is on observer, that’s why the question of how someone becomes “recorder” is illegitimate, everyone observes the way they like. It’s unfortunate that you think that focus on data means better use of it, but it’s your deal and not other observers, if you use it as learning tool it’s great, but others can do their own thing, including photography of each plant they meet, what’s your problem with that?

Why all the hostility? Please read my posts more carefully before jumping to unwarranted conclusions.