What are some ways y'all use to remember how to identify things in the field?

I do a lot of field work with animal tracks & signs so it is required for me to know how to quickly identify and potentially follow said animal.

Some methods I use are:

  • Reading field guides before I go to sleep, during breaks in work, during commercials or whenever I have free time.

  • Identifying on iNaturalist

  • Using keys and scientific papers

As I’m writing this I am printing out track photos and laminating them to keep with me (like math quiz cards) to aid with memorization. What are some methods y’all use?

P.S. Here is my iNat account: https://www.inaturalist.org/people/3911628 if you would like to see more info about the cards lmk and I’ll make a journal post abt it.

P.P.S This is for any taxon, not just tracks.

Are you asking just about tracks and signs? Or about all taxa?

Everything, sorry I didn’t specify that.

Well, in that case…

When I was beginning to learn plants, decades ago, I would write them down as I found them. On paper, with a pen - this was pre-cellphones (pre-Internet, come to think of it). That helped cement the names in my head. In the winter, I would go through a regional flora (an actual book) and write out the names of species that were possibilities in my immediate area.

I learned birds by keeping written daily lists. Ditto odonates. I think plants, birds, and odonates were the only taxa where I actually wrote names out by hand. Nowadays, I just photograph them and upload them to iNat, where lives my auxiliary brain that keeps track of all the names (I’m being sarcastic).

Let’s see … I also took classes and workshops whenever I could. Field guides lived (still live) on my bedside table and the back of the toilet. I bought lots of field guides and manuals. I went walking with friends who were interested. I certainly used keys for plants and dragonfly exuviae, and I’m using them nowadays to try to learn bryophytes. I do lots of IDing on iNat, but frankly, I concentrate on Unknowns and easy-to-ID species I already know, so I don’t learn as much from iNat as I could.

And after 50 or 60 years of all that, I STILL don’t know anywhere near enough.


Thats amazing and it is certainly more than enough as very few other people can (or perhaps a better way to word it would be, have taken the time to learn how to) identify more animals than they can count on their fingers or identify animals that aren’t in zoos.

I still keep field notes, but not of as many things as I make observations for :D.

1 Like

Repetition. As an example, I just spent a few days trying to learn a lot of new plants in beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California. I already knew most of the dominant shrubs but the wildflowers were mostly new. New common names, new genera, new species. So with a few plant guides in hand, as soon as I’d identify (and document) a new species, I’d say it to myself five or ten times, then continue my desert walk and repeat the name(s) each time I encountered a new individiual. I made a point of documenting (and naming) many of the same “Lifer” plants multiple times just in order to have multiple examples in my iNat observations to study later. In the evenings, internet connection permitting, I’d go back over the finds of the day, once again making sure I could blurt out the name of each species. With my diminishing number of neurons at my advanced age, this method is not a sure thing, but it helps!


I read Euell Gibbons’ ‘Hunting the Wild Asparagus’ waaaaay back in my teens; he described learning to identify them by sitting and just looking at them, in detail, for a good 10-20 minutes. Then, when he stood up and looked around, suddenly more asparagus plants he had completely overlooked just popped out of the landscape.

I absolutely rely on keys, references, etc. for ID as needed, but my first reaction is always image recognition - that looks like x, or it’s kinda like x but something’s off. And I’m almost always right. I think it’s because I’ve been stopping to really look at new plants when I find them (and hours of mindless browsing of field guides & plant books.)

That said, this method works way better for plants than for, say, butterflies.


I think that it depends on anyone’s hability in remembering things and associating a name to a shape. This may be also related to how much seriously people take the search for wild organisms or how deeply such activity is part of their life.
Apart this, at least for plants, in some cases collecting a specimen (maybe just a small part of a plant) is necessary for a reliable identification at home or in the lab.

As the saying goes you can tell because of the way it is
I both love and hate when a target plant I have been searching for weeks now appears everywhere after seeing one individual. The way the brain and eyes work is amazing.


Yes - or taking clear photos of essential ID characteristics.

Field notes, with pencil and notebook, and sketches, although I don’t do that as much as I used to. Photos are better and easier nowadays. Notes can be added to your iNat records to supplement the photos.


Easier, yes. Better, not necessarily. Sometimes, taking the time with pencil, paper, and hand lens can fix characters in mind that a photo does not capture well.


That’s true, although it depends on your time, patience, and artistic skills. I’ve been able to ID organisms from features in a photo that I would not have looked for if I’d drawn it and therefore might’ve failed to capture in a sketch. But if you’re already knowledgeable about what characteristics are important for an ID, a drawing can indeed be better and can help fix that information in your mind. The act of writing or drawing can be very helpful with memory.

1 Like

I add an obs for my lifelist. I try very hard to capture the relevant field marks. And leave notes. That is an easy way for me to go back and check - which sp - but why that one, not the other ??

Which reminds me - Maurocenia frangula leaves apparently snap when you break them. Not going to attack my little sapling - but when I hike past an established plant … will try snap?

This topic was automatically closed 60 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.