How to Improve Your iNaturalist Photos to Better Help Scientists

Photo courtesy of Barbara J. Saffir

By FMN C.E. Hike Coordinator Barbara J. Saffir
(iNat username: DMVphotographer)

WHY USE INATURALIST? 

If you want to contribute to citizen-science while exploring outdoors, iNaturalist’s free, user-friendly app and website provides the best virtual toolbox. Your data will actually get used. Real humans are available to respond to problems. You can join projects and interact directly with other observers around the globe. Plus, it’s downright fun! And iNat is powered by a world-class team of experts at the National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences.

But before you start snapping pictures, learn how to improve your photos so your observations can be identified easier by iNat’s artificial intelligence, which, in turn, helps scientists more. Some helpful camera tips follow. But in some cases, it also helps to learn when you need to photograph specific parts of some critters or plants to identify them.

CAMERA

Whether you use a cell phone camera, a DSLR, a mirrorless, or a point-and-shoot, its best to learn your camera’s capabilities by practicing and by studying its manual.

APP OR WEBSITE?

Most of the time I photograph and upload directly from iNaturalist’s app because it’s faster, easier, and it’s the sole photo app I allow to use my location, due to privacy. Also, if I have cell service, I can identify observations in the field and upload them immediately — though I usually wait until I’m connected to a power source since those functions use a lot of “juice.”

However, instead of relying solely on unaltered photos uploaded directly from the app’s camera, your photos will be better if you tweak them first with a third-party processing program like Photoshop. In less than 60 seconds, you can often improve the composition (via cropping), lighting, sharpness, and more before uploading them to iNat. If you upload using your computer, you can batch-edit the dates and locations. The website is also better at identifying critters and plants because it gives you ranges and can confirm if observations of your organism have already been made in that county, adds a local science teacher who identifies thousands of iNat observations. She also recommends that you should only identify what you, yourself, can confirm. For example, she says if iNat suggests a “two-spotted bumble bee” but you’re only sure it’s a “bumble bee,” stick with that. Of course, beginners and/or casual users have to rely on iNat’s suggestions until they learn more.

BASICS FOR IMPROVING PHOTOS:

 1.        IN FOCUS:  Look at your photo right away and if it’s not in focus, take another until it’s sharp.

 2.      SUBJECT SHOULD TAKE UP MOST OF THE FRAME:  Get as close as feasible.  Crop your photos to cut out major distractions, such as other species, weeds, and sticks.  Don’t crop too much or it will result in poor resolution. Also, don’t waste your time using “digital zoom” on a camera because of its poor quality — unless you’re far away and you spot the Loch Ness Monster or Brad Pitt.

 3.      WELL-LIGHTED:  Keep the sun behind you.  Use flash or a flashlight if needed.

 4.      ADDITIONAL VIEWS MAY BE NEEDED FOR ID:  Sometimes a close-up detail of an organism’s features, such as its underside, bark, leaves, head, etc., is needed. (See below for iNat’s ID tips.)

 5.      ADD SCALE IF NECESSARY:  Use your finger, a ruler, a penny, etc.

 6.      NOTES:  You can add notes to your observations, such as the number of plants or critters observed.  You can also add that you shot a video if anyone wants to see it.

7.      MISCELLANEOUS:  Clean your lens before photographing. Check your battery.  Use your foot, your chest, a tree, a fence, or another solid object as a makeshift tripod to prevent the camera from shaking.  For plant photos, bring a piece of cardboard for a backdrop and to block the wind. Join iNat projects to share your finds with people who care about them most.  Join local bioblitzes, such as City Nature Challenge each spring and Fairfax County Park Authority’s occasional bioblitzes.

INATURALIST’S PHOTO TIPS:  To pinpoint certain species, such as mushrooms, flowers, turtles, snakes, and birds, it’s best to learn about those subjects independently to know what kind of details are required to clinch an ID of specific species.  For example, with birds, it helps to photograph the entire bird, and to document important details, such as its color, shape, size, beak, behavior, habitat, and feather field marks (such as an eye ring or bars on its feathers) with photo(s) or in notes. https://www.inaturalist.org/guides/2465

PHOTO TIPS FROM RUTGERS UNIVERSITY:  The photo below shows how a plain background works best for identification purposes.  Click here for Rutger’s full presentation: https://botanydepot.com/2020/07/27/presentation-how-to-photograph-plants-and-more/

Lena Struwe and Peter Nitzsche, Rutgers University

DISCOVERY TIME:  So now that you’re prepared to contribute better photos to help citizen-science, the only question is: “Where should I go hunting for nature today?”  You don’t even have to venture far from home.  Fairfax County has more than 400 parks along nearly 1,000 miles of paved and dirt trails. Maybe you’ll even discover a whole new species.  This year, Virginia Tech discovered a new species of millipedes on its own campus.

Review of A Most Remarkable Creature, by Jonathan Meiburg

Review by FMN David Gorsline

Musician, traveler, and nature writer Jonathan Meiburg begins his book with a mystery: who — or what — killed bird G7? Eventually, he answers that question. Along the way, into his story of caracaras living and extinct, he packs 16 pages of excellent color photographs, a magpie’s collection of 50 pages of end notes, and a challenging trip up Guyana’s Rewa River.

We naturalists of the mid-Atlantic rarely encounter caracaras on our home turf. Only one species of these birds of prey, Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus), has a range that extends into Texas and Florida (older authorities recognize this population as C. cheriway). But the group is extensively represented in South America by five genera, occupying a variety of habitats. Meiburg describes the general body plan as “ten separate attempts to build a crow on a falcon chassis, with results falling somewhere between elegant, menacing, and whimsical” (p. 9); caracaras share with (not closely related) corvids intelligence and curiosity. In short, an engaging subject for Meiburg’s equally engaging book.

The book’s coverage of these ten species is a bit uneven, with emphasis on the wild birds found where Meiburg was able to travel. Readers might regret the material devoted to captive birds in aviaries in the United Kingdom, but with a bird so adaptable to living with humans, perhaps these are pages well spent.

The book’s strengths are that trip up the piranha-laden Rewa to see “bush auntie-man” (Red-throated Caracara, Ibycter americanus), involving a waterfall portage, columns of army ants, and crab-sized Theraphosa spiders; a visit to minor islands of the Falklands archipelago to find “Johnny rook” G7’s killer; and Meiburg’s introduction of 19th-century Anglo-Argentine naturalist William Henry Hudson. Hudson was closely observant, and more than a bit romantic.

Depending on your taste, your reaction to Meiburg’s anthropomorphizing may vary; it’s mostly endearing, and maybe unavoidable when a Black Caracara (Daptrius ater) peers at you with affable opportunism.

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg, Knopf, New York, 2021, 336 pages

Fewer Inputs to your Landscape, More Butterflies and Birds

Photo: Plant NOVA Natives

As more and more people buy native plants to beautify their yards, control stormwater and attract birds and butterflies, they are discovering additional opportunities to harmonize their property with the local ecosystem while maintaining a beautiful landscape. They are dropping some of their standard yard chores in favor of a slightly more relaxed approach.

Maintenance of native trees and shrubs is little different from maintenance of non-native ones, but chemical fertilizers are not generally recommended, and of course pesticides would be counterproductive, as they destroy the very ecosystem that the native plants were installed to enhance. The value of the native trees and shrubs is greatly increased if their fallen leaves are left in place. Within that leaf layer is where fireflies, butterflies, and many other interesting and beneficial insects complete their life cycles. Leaving the leaves where they lie has the added benefit of eliminating the chore and the incessant racket of gas-powered leaf blowers that disturb humans and songbirds alike.

Flower gardens with native plants also can be treated much the same as any other, as long as the gardener recognizes that most of these plants are perennial and not annual. The advantage of perennials is that they only need to be planted once. The disadvantage is that weeding will be needed, along with the ability to distinguish emerging weeds from emerging desirable plants, a task made easier for beginners by limiting the number of different species planted to three or four or by sticking to native groundcovers. These gardens cannot be handled the way maintenance crews typically deal with the plantings in public spaces. That method requires no knowledge of plant identification and consists of removing all the plant material each season, installing new annual plants, mulching heavily, then spraying any bare mulch with herbicides to kill everything else. (This practice explains the expanses of empty (and chemical-laced) mulch beds that we see in so many business areas.)

Of course, leaf mulch can be used in flower beds without applying herbicides and is a valuable addition to new plantings, cooling the soil and adding organic matter. In time, though, as the plants fill in, mulch becomes unnecessary and just an aesthetic choice. The plants themselves will shade the soil, and their dead foliage and stems if left over the winter add habitat for frogs and nesting areas for native bees. The days of “cleaning out” flower gardens in the fall so that only empty beds remain are rapidly fading away, as gardeners are learning that this is an unnecessary and somewhat harmful practice.

The watering requirements of native plants are generally light, if appropriate plants are chosen for the site. Unlike turf grass, which evolved in Europe and is poorly suited to Virginia summers, and annuals which start out the summer with very few roots, well-established native plants are adapted to our climate. Watering is needed right after planting, and for the first year or two in the case of trees larger than seedlings, depending on the size. Native plants in medium or large pots will need continued watering primarily when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. Beyond that, supplemental watering may actually be bad for some plants.

Details on low-input yard maintenance can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. For those who don’t want to do the gardening themselves (which is most people, after all), there are landscaping companies that specialize in maintaining naturalized landscapes and who have workers who can identify the native plants and protect them. The website has a list of Northern Virginia companies that have self-identified as having the requisite expertise. Manuel Rivas, the owner of one of these companies, volunteered to be interviewed to explain the process in English and in Spanish. Three versions of that video are available on YouTube, in English alternating with Spanish and in the two languages separately.
English and Spanish version
Spanish only
English only

Thieving Foxes

Photos by Celia Boertlein

By Celia Boertlein and Mary Ann Bush

FMN Celia Boertlein has a beautiful story. It involves some new neighbors of the four-legged variety. Celia says, “This past winter, the foxes had moved their den over to the neighborhood pool which is adjacent to my yard. They were in and out of my yard from March through May.  This past year, I was never really sure how many there were.”  This was not Celia’s first encounter with the fox family neighbors. She goes on to say, “They actually had dens under my shed and screened porch during the previous two years.  Spring of 2019 they had 4 pups, Spring of 2020 there were 5.” 

According to the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1325, the fox breeding season in temperate regions occurs during January and February. A litter size may correlate with the availability of food resources. Most litters consist of 3 to 7 kits, which are born in early to mid-Spring. In the early weeks after the kits are born, the female fox also known as the vixen stays in the den to nurse and care for the kits while the male fox procures food for his mate and offspring. The kits depend on their mother’s milk till they are about 8-10 weeks old. At three weeks old the kits start to walk and start to emerge from the den with their mother.

Celia goes on to talk about a particular fox behavior that is both curious and fascinating. The foxes have acquired quite a stash of some interesting items. She states, “Their stash has included tennis balls, hockey pucks, dog pull toys, frisbees, single flip flops and tennis shoes, and a LOT of Washington Post newspapers in their plastic bags. On one day, I collected 4 newspapers in my backyard. Never did figure out all the neighbors involved. Funniest part was my newspaper was always left alone in my driveway.”

Why would a fox procure such objects? Celia is watching a growing family with apparently healthy, active kits. There is some speculation that the kits, like puppies, need something to chew on as their teeth come in. The parents could be choosing items because of the smell, or they prefer squishy objects with a leather-like texture for chewing. Another theory was more basic, a toy is a toy whether the youngster is a child, a puppy, or a baby fox.

Celia tried to contact her neighbors about the items, “Many of the dog toys were not retrieved by their dogs’ owners after they found out that foxes had stolen them. The hockey pucks and frisbees went back to their amused neighbors. Most people were amused and didn’t want their items back when they found out foxes had gnawed on them. The only upset people were my next-door neighbor who expected their newspaper in the driveway at 5:30 a.m. and the WP delivery person who got several irate phone calls that their papers were missing. The only downside to having a fox den in my yard was finding squirrel and other decaying animal parts left behind. “

The fox family season is drawing to a close. One final observation from Celia, “The foxes had moved out of my yard by late April, but we have adults and what I think of as the juveniles out and about year round.  Early morning and late evening I see them a lot.”

Celia says she has been sharing this wonderful experience with her grandson, “My 3-year-old grandson FaceTimed me to see them.  We now exchange wildlife photos on a regular basis.”

One last note: Celia is enjoying the exciting experience of watching the foxes grow up naturally and taking photographs from a distance. This is the most positive way to interact with wildlife. Foxes are naturally fearful and skittish around humans. We should never feed or habituate any wild animal to human contact. We don’t want to take away the most important skill these beautiful creatures can possess: their ability to survive in the wild on their own!

Mini Grants to Beautify Neighborhood Entrances with Native Plants

Water’s Edge planting plan by Hands Dirty; Image and article courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

This spring, Audubon at Home partnered with Plant NOVA Natives to invite homeowners’ and civic associations to apply for funds to beautify their neighborhood entrances using low maintenance native plants. The mini-grant program was funded by Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation’s Environmental Education and Stewardship Grants Program.
 
Interest in converting entranceways to native plants was high, and 35 groups completed the application process which included obtaining authorization from their Boards. Choosing between them was not easy, as they all had good plans. The decisions were made based on the suitability of the site, ready methods to communicate with residents, and the visibility of the new plantings to residents and the public. Six matching grants of $2,350 apiece were awarded to Auburn Village Condo (Arlington), Park Glen Heights HOA, Civic Association of Hollin Hills, and Water’s Edge at Fairlakes HOA (Fairfax County), Cascades Community Association (Loudoun County), and Dominion Valley Owner’s Association (Prince William County).
 
The Audubon at Home organizers are looking forward to working with the communities to design low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly, and beautiful landscaped entrance plantings. Completed installations will receive a high-quality sign that says, “Native plants support birds and other wildlife.”
 
The funds will be used to cover costs of a landscape designer to create a design, recommend native plants, purchase and install the plants, and remove any invasive plants present (such as English ivy, Japanese Barberry, Periwinkle, etc.) Matching funds or sweat equity are required from the neighborhood association to cover part of the costs. Community associations will be conducting educational outreach on the habitat value of native plants to their residents and must commit to maintaining the plantings for five years.
 
It was heartening to see the number of neighborhood associations responding to the call to beautify their neighborhood entranceways with native plants. Whether or not they received a mini grant, all communities are encouraged to invite an Audubon at Home Ambassador to visit and provide advice on suitable, low maintenance native plantings. Residents of Arlington/Alexandria, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, and Rappahannock counties may submit a consultation request at https://audubonva.org/aah.

Review of World of Wonders, In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and other Astonishments, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Review by FMN Janet Quinn

A collection of 28 essays on topics ranging from catalpa trees to fireflies, reading this book did indeed fill me with wonder! I Googled a photo of a Southern Cassowary, listened to the call of the Potoo, and researched more about the delightful axoloti. Nezhukumatathil‘s prose is full of fascinating particulars about the creatures and plants of which she writes. For example, migrating monarch butterflies flying over Lake Superior still veer around a specific place where a mountain previously, but no longer, rose out of the water thousands of years ago. Anyone who has ever wondered about the natural world will learn from and appreciate these essays.

The double delight in this book is the beautiful, poetic writing of Nezhukumatathil through which she weaves stories of her childhood, growing up as a “brown girl” in western Kansas, meeting her husband, and sharing nature with her two sons.

She likens her friends who played outside with her in Arizona to the Cactus Wren, which lives in the saguaro cactus. “We were tough. Each of us so thin and small boned with spines strong and ready for a fight in case we ever needed to stand and face a shadow lurking over us.” She recounts the time when she moved between her sophomore and junior years of high school and was the new girl. She called it her “cephalopod year” when she would disappear as quickly from social situations as the vampire squid could from danger.

She knew her husband was “the one” when he did not shy from her description of the corpse flower and actually volunteered to take her on a road trip to see one with her. She ties their wedding to the colors of the Superb Bird of Paradise when her Indian relatives dance the “Macarena” with her husband’s relatives from Kansas.

Oh! I could go on and on, but you would enjoy it and learn so much more if you read it yourself.

Illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura
Milkweed Editions
184 pages

Using Virginia’s Natural Community Research to Guide Stewardship Activities

Article by FMN Joe Gorney, photo by J. Quinn

As Master Naturalists, we sometimes help reclaim vegetated areas from the clutches of non-native invasives. At the end of this process, we’re often confronted with a degraded and/or blank slate in need of enhancement. But deciding what to plant can be a challenge. Optimally, we’d use a mixture of upper-story trees, mid-story trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to create a well-balanced plant community. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation maintains a publication entitled “The Natural Communities of Virginia: Classification of Ecological Groups and Community Types,” which includes information regarding the more than 300 natural communities that cover Virginia: https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-communities/. While the publication is an amazing resource, navigating all of that on-line information to find the appropriate community and then deciphering said information to decide what to plant can be a challenge, so much so that people might be tempted to either: a) give up; and/or b) default to the “TLAR” method of plant selection (That Looks About Right).

Faced with that scenario and motivated by some long-term restoration work in Arlington County, Glenn Tobin, an Arlington Master Naturalist since 2016, worked with ecologists and biologists from Arlington County, DCR’s Division of Natural Heritage, and several other groups.  He led a year-long effort to translate DCR’s publication into readily-accessible and practical guidance for people engaged in ecological restoration efforts. The original publication was pared down to the nine plant communities endemic to Northern Virginia. The resulting guidance has been published in a website entitled “The Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia.”  
(see: https://www.novanaturalcommunity.com/). 

The website contains a list of the nine forest communities we might encounter, key concepts to identify those communities, a dichotomous key for community identification, downloadable summary descriptions of each community, Excel spreadsheets with more detailed information, and a list of some natural community misfits. Species are included within each community and categorized by abundance (sparse, rare, restricted, common, dominant).

The website is intended as a guide, and not a “cookbook,” a guide that can help us formulate planting recommendations to enhance the ecological health of an area. The plant communities were selected to establish a desired end state for restoration. The information does not address edges or meadows, although the Clifton Institute in Warrenton is developing some information regarding meadows (https://cliftoninstitute.org/). If you’d like to see a presentation regarding the new website, log onto the VMN Continuing Education Webinar Series webpage and click the link from May 7, 2021. (Continuing Education Webinar Series – Virginia Master Naturalists)

For further information about integrating plant communities into your landscape, I also recommend the following books:

  • Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.
  • The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke & Doug Tallamy.
  • Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher.

Other valuable resources include:

Summer would be the perfect time to explore this information, so that you’ll know what to plant come Fall. Happy reading and good luck creating healthy landscapes throughout our communities and within our backyards., photo by

Planting for the Picky Eaters

Photo courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

Many insects are picky eaters, only able to eat the plants with which they evolved, meaning the plants that are native to their region. Butterflies are a good example, since although the adults can sip nectar from non-native flowers, their caterpillars depend on specific native plants.The majority of bees are more flexible than that, able to eat the pollen and nectar from a variety of species. They are known as generalist species, although even in their case they have their own favorites. The European Honeybee, for instance, is a generalist but chooses certain flowers in preference to others.

Of the approximately 400 native bee species in Virginia, about a fifth are plant specialists. Examples include the Spring Beauty Bee and the Blueberry Bee, which (unsurprisingly) depend on the flowers of Spring Beauties and Blueberries. These bees are short lived as adults, emerging when the plants they depend upon are in bloom, and quickly gathering the pollen they need to store in their nests for their larvae, thus pollinating the plants while they are at it.

Our local ecosystem requires the full spectrum of plant/animal interactions to flourish. It is easily knocked out of balance when too many native plants are displaced by introduced species, something that has happened in many of our yards. We can restore that balance by planting a lot of native plants. One strategy could be to start with flowers that feed various specialist bees from early spring to late fall, because they will also supply food for the generalist bees. Since many of these flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds as well, they make a winning combination. A list of popular native garden plants that feed specialist bees can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. It feels good to help the bees, whose numbers are in decline.

One of the many charms of native bee species is that they are highly unlikely to sting you, assuming you don’t try to grab one or otherwise threaten it. While they are foraging on a flower, you can get your face (and your camera) right up to them, and they will almost certainly ignore you. Gazing at bees brings surprises, as they come in many sizes and colors, including metallic blues and greens. It is particularly mesmerizing to watch bees on plants such as White Turtlehead, where they pry open the flowers and crawl inside, then back themselves out again, butt first. You can get a peek at those and other cute native bees on this two minute video, filmed in Fairfax County.

EnviroPod: Fairfax County’s Nifty Podcast on All Things Environmental

Adapted from the Public Works and Environmental Services website

The Department of Public Works and Environmental Services helps residents learn how to support the county’s environmental efforts. In 2019, DPWES launched monthly EnviroPod episodes, which air from Apple Podcasts.

Scott Coco of Communications Productions, Fairfax County has now interviewed county leaders on 27 topics of interest to naturalists and gardeners. Here’s a selection of particular relevance to the Fairfax chapter:

Episode 22 – Food-Scraps-to-Compost Program with Christine McCoy

Fairfax County’s EnviroPod

Christine McCoy, Education and Outreach Specialist, Solid Waste Management Program, talks about the new food-scraps-to-compost program. Residents are welcome to bring their food scraps to two locations in the county: the I-66 Transfer Station on West Ox Road; or the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton. More information is available on the county website.

Episode 19 – Stream and Watershed Health with Shannon Curtis

Fairfax County’s EnviroPod

Shannon Curtis, Chief, Watershed Assessment Branch, Public Works and Environmental Services, talking about human activity on the land and how that affects stream and watershed health.

To send topic ideas to the county, email SWPDMail@FairfaxCounty.gov.

Cicadas! Cicadas Everywhere!

Article and photo by FMN Ana Leilani Ka’ahanui, also of Capital Nature

What’s that late spring, early summer buzz, that loud chorus in the trees, all over the DC metro area? The 17-year periodical cicadas have made their entrance, to the fascination and delight of nature lovers in our region. While some may fear the emergence of a billion insects, many are reveling in this natural wonder, as evidenced by the explosion of cicada photos on social media. There’s even a phone app for reporting sightings. Cicada Safari will record and track your discoveries on a live map, and help scientists collect valuable data.

Want to learn what the fuss is all about? Visit Cicada Mania for everything you need to know about the 3 periodical species of Brood X: Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula. And great radio programming by WAMU’s environmental reporter Jacob Fenston. While most cicadas have red eyes, did you know that some have white, gray, blue, or multi-colored eyes? Learn more fun facts like this by playing Brood X Bingo.

As the ground is now well above 64 degrees, Brood X is emerging to climb trees and plants to molt, then head to the treetops for some raucous partying to mate. Females lay their eggs in trees and the nymphs will later drop onto the ground, where they will burrow down and live till the next emergence party in 17 years. Their life cycle is a short 5-6 weeks and has been documented in this Return of the Cicadas video.

Dr. Michael Rapp is an entomologist at the University of MD and an excellent local authority on cicadas. Check out his media appearances at The Bug Guy. The New York Times covered all things cicada in great detail in this article. USDA entomologist Dr. Sammy Ramsey explains the science behind their loud calls. If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s a Washington Post article about recipes for cooking them.

Cicadas can be artists too. During the recent global City Nature Challenge, Teresa Leonardo discovered that cicadas had burrowed tunnels under some tarps in her yard in West Falls Church, VA in their effort to emerge. See their intricate patterns on iNaturalist.

According to the National Wildlife Federation: “Cicadas are mostly beneficial. They prune mature trees, aerate the soil, and once they die, their bodies serve as an important source of nitrogen for growing trees. When cicadas come out, they’re eaten by just about anything with an insectivorous diet.” As nature’s grand buffet, these curious creatures are providing entertainment and education for all ages.