4 easy steps to using iNaturalist to become a citizen scientist, featuring Birmingham’s Kiwanis Vulcan Trail

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
A common Eastern bumblebee drinking from a bear’s foot flower along Kiwanis Vulcan Trail. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

For the past year, I’ve donned my citizen scientist hat and used iNaturalist to identify all sorts of bugs, plants and birds in Birmingham. If you love nature and science, if you have kids and want an educational way to integrate tech and the real world—or if you just want to know what the H is that bug clinging to your window—iNaturalist if for you. It’s free and easy, and I’m going to walk you through your first ID.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Eek, what’s that? We’re going to use iNaturalist to find out. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

I found this guy hanging out on a leaf while walking on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail in Birmingham yesterday. You can access this trail from the Kiwanis Centennial Park Plaza, on the north side of Vulcan Park and Museum.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018
Kiwanis Centennial Park Plaza and trailhead. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

The trail is fairly urban. The WBRC sign overlooks the kudzu-covered hillside above you.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
We all know this is kudzu, and my iNaturalist app confirmed it. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

As you walk along the trail, breaks in the trees reveal vista after vista of downtown Birmingham.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018
View of downtown from Kiwanis Vulcan Trail. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

Keep your eyes peeled because you’ll see lots of interesting flora and fauna along the trail. That’s where your iNaturalist app comes in. Let’s get started.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Silver-spotted skipper ID’ed on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail using iNaturalist. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now
1. Understand The Basics 

At its core iNaturalist is crowdsourcing. Participants range from amateur nature enthusiasts to professional scientists, and everyone works together to document biodiversity locally and worldwide.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018
Wild potato vine, a woodland plant native to North America, ID’ed on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail using iNaturalist. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

iNaturalist works on a two-thirds majority. When 2 of 3 users agree on an ID, an observation is tagged as research grade. That means your observation can be used as a data point in all sorts of scientific studies, making you a certified boots-on-the-ground citizen scientist. Cool beans, right? 

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
This green bristle grass growing along Kiwanis Vulcan Trail originated in Eurasia. It’s known to grow in disturbed habitats worldwide. (See how smart you can sound when you use the iNaturalist app?) Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

Do the best you can (it’s okay, you’ll get better), and rest assured the iNaturalist community will eventually correct any errors you make before your data ends up in a research study.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Southern green-striped grasshopper ID’ed on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail using iNaturalist. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

iNaturalist identification software helps novice citizen scientists make IDs, and you learn so much in the process. Teach your own young grasshoppers how to use it, and they’ll be the rockstars of science class.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
American pokeweed ID’ed on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail using iNaturalist. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now
2. Set Up Your iNaturalist Online Profile And Download The App

After you set up your profile, check out iNaturalist’s features, such as “Explore.” It allows you to check out others’ observations on interactive maps. Look at all the observations logged by your fellow citizen scientists in Birmingham and Jefferson County in the map below.

Jefferson County map via iNaturalist
3. Log Your First Observation

Remember Mr. Insect from the top of this post? Let’s identify this Birmingham bug.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now
  1. Open the iNaturalist app. Then choose the camera icon that says “Observe.”
  2. Next, take a photo through the app, or upload one from your library. You can upload multiple photos for one observation—for instance, one of a flower and the other of leaves of the same plant. The extra visual information aids the software and other iNaturalist users with identifications.
  3. Next, you’ll see the screen below. We’re going to fill it out, then share our data. 
Screen shot via iNaturalist
Tips And Tricks: The Observation Form
  • Location: the location function works similarly to Google Maps. Zero in on your location and save it.
  • Geo Privacy: leave it open if you’re in a public space. If you’re at home, obscure it for privacy. As a safety measure, you may also want to obscure your geo location if you visit the same trail at the same time of day on the reg.
  • Captivated / Cultivated: ask yourself, did man put this here? It matters because only noncaptive/noncultivated observations can be used for scientific research by others. You can still log captivated or cultivated species for your personal research.
  • Projects: Don’t worry too much about projects in the beginning. Biodiversity of Alabama is a good one to tag in your observations. Others may add your observations to relevant projects, or you might look for relevant groups yourself, such as eButterfly North America or Fauna of Ruffner Mountain, as the case may be. 
  • What did you see? This is where the identification software comes in. Click “What did you see?” Next, you’ll see the screen below.
Screen shot via iNaturalist

Voila! iNaturalist suggested a genus and possible species. Now it’s time to use your noggin.

  • Compare and contrast the software’s suggested identifications against your own photos. Do all the details match?
  • Think about the context: Where are you? What’s the time of year? Does everything jibe with the information in the suggested ID? 
  • Now make your ID and share it!

For this example, I chose the end-band net-winged beetle. Sometimes it takes a while, but in this case, another iNaturalist user confirmed the ID within the hour.

Our Mr. Bug is a research-grade observation of an end-band net-winged beetle in Birmingham. Boom!

Here’s what a research-grade observation looks like. Screen shot via iNaturalist
Tips And Tricks: When You Can’t ID A Species

Sometimes it’s easy to identify a species. Other times, it’s harder. The software can still help you drill down to the genus, family or further up the taxonomic line.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Family Asteraceae, ID’ed on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail using iNaturalist. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

Notice how in the photo above I was only able to ID the family? You can even be as vague as “flowering plant.” Just know that the more specific you are, the more likely it is a researcher or fellow citizen scientist will look at your observation.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018
Graffiti and kudzu cover a brick pillar on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now
4. Give Back By Identifying Others’ Observations

Crowdsourcing works by everyone joining in. Once you get the hang of iNaturalist, check out others’ observations that need an ID, and see if you can help.

Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, August 2018, iNaturalist
Cutleaf groundcherry, ID’ed on Kiwanis Vulcan Trail using iNaturalist.

I only chime in on others’ observations when I’m sure. But I promise, once you use iNaturalist for a while, your identification powers will surprise.

Got it? Good. Now get to it, Birmingham, you citizen scientists you!