If you’re at all like me, whenever you see an animal or plant you’ve never seen before – be it a bug, bird, bat or begonia – you want to know what kind of living thing it is. You want to put a name to it. You want to know what to call it so you can tell your friends and family what you saw.
That’s my immediate reaction every time, and it’s not unusual. Everybody does it, though not necessarily always with wildlife. For some people, they react the same way when seeing a car they’ve never seen. They need to know what make and model it is. While I can’t tell the difference between most cars these days, I’m always impressed by those who can distinguish them by tiny characteristics like taillights or bumpers.
Where do you turn when you want to identify wildlife you’ve never seen before? Most of my friends turn to me. I get text messages and email messages almost daily from people who want me to help them identify something they got a brief glance at. If they send me a picture, I can usually help them. But often, the characteristics they claim to have seen don’t match up with anything that lives around here. Or they don’t notice the key distinguishing features of the specimen. With many species, you have to know what to look for to identify it correctly.
But now that’s less of an issue, thanks to some extremely helpful free smartphone applications and websites that have turned identifying wildlife into a relatively simple experience. Most of the time.
The Seek app is my favorite. Wave your phone over a plant or insect or turtle, for instance, and it quickly identifies it for you. That’s been a huge help whenever I see an interesting plant that I know I should know or a strange bug perched on my deck. It’s not so good for creatures that won’t sit still long enough for you to wave your phone in front of them, like birds and butterflies, or for animals you can’t get close to, like mammals. But for those that cooperate, it quickly solves the identification puzzle.
When I wrote in July about identifying more than 250 species of wildlife in my backyard in 24 hours, it was mostly due to the Seek app that I was able to do so. I can confidently identify birds and mammals and amphibians, but insects and plants have always been a challenge for me, and close to 200 of the species I identified that day were plants and insects. It wouldn’t have been possible without Seek.
For wildlife that you can photograph from a distance but can’t get close enough to use Seek, including birds, dragonflies, butterflies, bees and mammals, post your images to iNaturalist – either the website or app – and it will identify it for you. The Google photos app does something similar by comparing your photo to other online images (it will even identify cars).
You can also get identification help for certain categories of wildlife at eBird, BugNET, eButterfly, Odonate Central (dragonflies) and similar online sources.
Since I’ve started telling people about Seek and these other apps, I don’t get nearly as many texts and emails asking for my help identifying things as I used to. Now I seldom hear from anybody at all.
As one so-called friend jokingly said, “Now that I’ve got Seek, what do I need you for?”
This article first appeared in the Independent on Sept. 3, 2020.