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Become a Naturalist - Learn to identify what's around you

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Learning to identify the plants and animals around you is fun, intellectually challenging, and will lead to new friendships and community connections. There are many ways to get started, including joining local conservation organizations, attending workshops, checking out online resources, and using new phone apps.

By far the best way to expand your knowledge is going outdoors with someone skilled in identifying certain plants or animals and who is knowledgeable about the natural history of a particular geographic area. Many organizations offer field trips; take advantage of those opportunities!

If you are a landowner, learning to be a naturalist will enhance your enjoyment of your property and help you monitor your land's health. Here are some tips for how to get started.

Handy phone apps identify plants and animals for you!

You no longer have to carry around bulky field guides to identify birds, plants, and other species in the field. These phone apps allow you to take photos of what you see and even record audio to help you identify birds by their songs. Here are some of the apps that I use the most. (Most of the free apps encourage donations.)

  • Seek by iNaturalist (free). Found a mushroom, flower, or bug, and not sure what it is? Open up the Seek camera to see if it knows! Drawing from millions of wildlife observations on iNaturalist, Seek shows you lists of commonly recorded insects, birds, plants, amphibians, and more in your area. Add different species to your observations and learn all about them in the process.

  • iNaturalist (free). Keep track of your own observations of plants and animals by capturing photos with your phone and posting them to iNaturalist. If you don't know what it is, the iNaturalist community will identify it for you, thus helping you to learn! Your phone records the geographic location. The photo and the location, along with the name of the species is documented and may later be used by scientists investigating the distribution of certain species.

  • PictureThis. I've found that this app provides highly accurate plant identifications, but you do have to pay around $30 / yr. for it. The free version is pretty limited. But, if you want to identify plants (both native and horticultural) quickly and often, it's worth it. The app also provides a lot of additional information about the plant that you've observed. For only occasional use, stick with Seek, which is free (see above).

  • Minnesota Wildflowers (free). Once you know what plant you have, this app is very handy for verifying that your id is accurate or for differentiating species that look alike. For example, two plant species may only differ in the types of hairs or glands on the stem, which must be examined closely. There are lots of good photos and the Notes section is very useful in figuring out if this is a plant you want to encourage or discourage on your property. Most states have similar apps that cover plant species for that geography.

  • Merlin (free). This app will help you identify birds, by what they look like and how they sound. The sound id tool is a breakthrough in technology; the alternatives are to memorize audio tracks (tedious) or learn from an expert in the field.

  • eBird (free). This app allows you to record your bird observations as you walk in the fields or woods. It also keeps track of your path and how long you walked. However, you do need to know your birds and make accurate id's to use the app. The eBird database is used by researchers to learn about bird distributions and migration patterns; it is one of the most widely used and important ways citizen scientists can document the birds they observe.

  • There are many more phone apps to help you identify bees, butterflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, bird nests, etc. These are pretty easy to find in your app store, but read the reviews because quality varies widely.

Join a local conservation organization

This is a great way to meet new friends and connect with the conservation community in your area. Most communities have a local nature center, a land trust, an Audubon club, or a Friends group with a focused mission (watershed, refuge, or park). You will find that many people belong to more than one of these groups. Field trips, lectures, farm tours, and work days are great ways to meet people and learn more.

You can never learn it all...

Learning about nature is a lifelong journey. Every day I learn something new. You'll never be bored if you learn to be a naturalist!

"There’s a whole world out there, right outside your window. You’d be a fool to miss it.”― Charlotte Eriksson, You're Doing Just Fine



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