April 28, 2024

More Power with iNaturalist – Advanced Tips for Pilgrims

by Janet Wright (janetwright on iNaturalist.org), Spring 2024

This guide was written for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I assume you’re already familiar with using the iNaturalist mobile app. If you’re not, here’s a quick introduction: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/video%252Btutorials#add_mob.
Now, see what advanced power iNaturalist has to offer, on the mobile app and website!

Power #1: Log your Pilgrimage with the iNaturalist App.

• Make sure you have an account and are logged in. Check that geo-locating is turned on for your photo app
• Make an Observation using Camera or your Photo Library (you can submit multiple photos for one Observation). Fill in any info you want. Click the identification box for suggestions, and choose one. Now Share (iPhone) or Check (Android) to send it in! Check back to make sure it’s in your list. The more observations you make, the better your log.
• Try viewing your log on your “Me” or “My Observations” tab as a map, as a grid, and as a list.
• Next time you open iNaturalist, check your Activity tab to see who has ID’d or commented on your log!

Power #2: Preview a field trip.

On your mobile iNaturalist App: Go to Explore tab. In Map view, zoom in on an area of interest. Switch to Grid view, List view to preview the trip. Check out the “search” options to filter your preview.
On the iNaturalist.org website on your computer: “Explore," then zoom to target area, then use “redo search in map” button or use the rectangle to outline a search area. Use Species tab to make a hit list of the species most commonly observed. Hint: filter by “month” to make it work best for your visit! Then, Screen-shot to make yourself a bingo card of species to watch for.

Power #3: Track down a great find (yours or someone else’s) (Mobile app)

Example: This spring I found a persimmon tree full of green fruit and posted it on iNaturalist. I can go back for some harvest in the fall, and iNaturalist will show me where to go!
HOW TO DO IT (Mobile app):

Power #4: Get real-person ID help and meet biodiversity buddies.

People who share your passion for passionflowers, or your liking for nature hiking, are on iNaturalist! You can meet them virtually or even face to face.
On website iNaturalist.org, use Explore tab and Map mode.
• In the “Species” box, type a taxon (Salamanders, Orchids, Tiger Beetles) and in the “Location” box type a location (“Tennessee”). Choose the appropriate drop-down choice.
• Click on the “Observers” tab to get a list of the main observers of that taxon in that region. Click on their names to get their profile and learn more about them. Then “follow” them, or @tag them in a comment, or send a direct message to their inbox. (Be careful not to be a pest, of course.)
• If you want identifier help, click on the “Identifiers” tab and look at the identifier leaderboard. Choose one and @tag them in a comment asking for help with an ID. Next time you log in, look at your Activity for a response! Hint: don’t ask several IDers for help at once. Most like it better one at a time.

Power #5: iNaturalist “Projects” to further your interests

A “Project” brings together observations on a particular topic. iNat users have made thousands of projects. Try these steps to get a feel for what they are, then explore on your own
On Mobile App: Go to Projects tab.
Find a “Place” project: Search GSMNP. See all the relevant projects. Pick one trail project. Use “species” tab to preview what’s on the trail. Join the project (this will put it in your list on your Projects tab, for easy future finding). Also, search “Smokies ATBI” and join that project, so you’re contributing to our inventory of life in the Park.
Find a “Taxon” project: Search Squirrels of the Appalachians. What is there? Join if you like. (A “Taxon” is a named group, like beetles, squirrels, or oaks.)
• Those projects above collect their observations automatically, so they are called Collection projects. But there’s another category, Traditional projects, that you must join to add observations one at a time. Search for “UV Fluorescent organisms” and “Never Home Alone.” Only joined members can add to these. Join “Never Home Alone” and notice that from your Observation screen you can specify that project when you add an observation.
• Think about “What would be a good project for me?” You can make your own projects at iNaturalist.org! Go to Community --> Projects --> Start a project. iNaturalist.org is also a great place to explore existing projects.

iNaturalist has lots more ways to make you connect better with nature. Explore at iNaturalist.org!

Posted on April 28, 2024 09:57 PM by janetwright janetwright | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 19, 2023

Loving to Learn the Grasses (and other hard to ID groups)

If you want to learn wildflowers or trees, you stride forth with a field guide, or you use a plant app like Seek or iNaturalist to identify what you find, and you’re often successful. Sadly, not so with the grasses. The plant apps aren’t much help with grasses, and there are no illustrated field guides for many regions. With 11,500 species of grasses worldwide, nearly 1300 of them in North America alone, is there any hope to learn your local grasses?

Here I show how to use iNaturalist to generate a mini-field guide to the grasses you might be seeing right now in your neighborhood. As the seasons change, you can update your field guide to catch the grasses at their most recognizable stage. I think you’ll be drawn in by the intricate and subtle beauty you’ve been overlooking all this time. Grasses are great!

Here's an example of a guide I made for my county for spring grasses. They’re listed from the most-observed on down, so I’ve got the best chance of seeing the first several on the list.

In the guide, a pink “IN” in the corner designates species that are considered invasive, a good tip if you’re weeding your garden. The other species are natives. If you print out the guide and take it in the field with you (I put mine in a plastic sleeve with back-to-back pages), you can quickly identify a grass you come across, or at least narrow the possibilities to a few you can easily research.

So, ready to make your own mini-guide? Here are the steps.

  1. Go to https://iNaturalist.org on your computer (you can’t do this from the mobile app). Don’t have an iNaturalist account? This is a good time to sign up for one – it’s free!
  2. Click on “Explore” at the top of the page. This takes you to an “Observations” page with search blanks for “Species” and “Location.”
  3. Start typing “Grasses” in the Species blank and choose the Grasses option that comes up, and then do the same with your county or state in the Location blank. (Interested in a specific location like a national park? See the “additional hints” below.)
  4. Now click on the “Filters” button at far right. This brings up a Filters panel. On the right-hand side, choose “Months” and then check one or more months that are relevant. Click on “Update search” (blue button at bottom of the Filters panel).
  5. You’ll see a page of observations that fit your search criteria. Now click on the “Species” tab at the top of the display. Voila! You see a gallery of the species of grasses observed in your area in the time period specified. They are ordered from “most observed” on down.
  6. It would be nice if you could just print this out, but if you “Print,” all you’ll get from iNaturalist is a text list of links. Instead, I screen-shot the first 10 and then the next 10 observations and then paste the screen-shots into a Word document I can print out. (If you don’t know how to do a screen-shot, google it.)

That’s it! Let’s get out there and learn some grasses! They may become your new field favorites. And while you’re at it, add some grass observations to iNaturalist to make the local guides even better!


  • To customize your guide for a particular place that’s not in the “Locations” list, use the “Filters” panel, click on “more filters,” and try typing your locality in the “place” field to see if a match comes up. Many parks etc. have been named as “places” in iNaturalist and can be used for a search.
  • If you don’t get many returns for a search (just a few species observed just a few times), try broadening your search to a bigger area (like State).
  • Keep in mind that not all iNaturalist observations are accurate, and ones that claim to be an unusual species for an area need special scrutiny.
  • Of course, you can use this same approach to make a guide for sedges, bees, or other under-resourced groups. At this time there’s no way to narrow the search to a life stage like caterpillar, though. And for birds (like warblers or gulls), the gallery of species photos will probably be in breeding plumage, not the plumage of the month you choose.
  • I love to use this approach to make a “hit list” of plants to find when I go to a brand new region. It turns a hike into a scavenger hunt. What could be more fun?
Posted on May 19, 2023 04:28 PM by janetwright janetwright | 3 comments | Leave a comment

May 20, 2022

Branching out with iNaturalist - some favorite possibilities

by Janet Wright (janetwright on iNaturalist.org), Spring 2022

This guide was written for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I assume you’re already familiar with using the iNaturalist mobile app. If you’re not, here’s a quick introduction: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/video%252Btutorials#add_mob.
Now, let’s branch out to see what else iNaturalist has to offer, on the mobile app and website!

BRANCH #1: Discover Projects! at website https://www.iNaturalist.org

A “Project” brings together observations on a particular topic. iNat users have made thousands of projects. Check these samples out at iNaturalist.org, or find others by clicking on Community --> Projects. You can make your own project! The Project tab tells how. If you “join” a project, it will also show up on your mobile app (at Projects Tab)
Great Smoky Mountains Biodiversity Inventory: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/smokies-atbi
Pollinators of Virginia: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/pollinators-of-virginia
Georgia Grasslands Initiative: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/georgia-grasslands-initiative-ggi
Tracking invasion of Cuban Tree Frog: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/cuban-tree-frog-invasion
A small nature preserve in MS, saved with citizen efforts: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/lee-tartt-nature-preserve

BRANCH #2: Track down someone else’s (or your own old) find (Mobile app)

This spring I found a persimmon tree full of green fruit and posted it on iNaturalist. I can go back for some harvest in the fall, and iNaturalist will show me where to go!
HOW TO DO IT (Mobile app, iOS version):

BRANCH #3: Make your own preview field guide for your next foray.

Going to a new place? Use iNaturalist to preview the living things you’re most likely to see. With this list in hand as a field guide or scavenger hunt list, you’ll notice more and learn a lot!

  1. Go to website https://www.iNaturalist.org.
  2. In “Explore” tab, “Map” view, zero in on the area you’ll be visiting. Hit the “Redo search in map” button.
  3. If you want to limit your search to plants, birds, insects, etc., put that in the “Species” box (to the right of “Explore”), and hit return. (You can even make the guide seasonally relevant: Use the “filters” tab to narrow observations to one or two months of the year.)
  4. Click on the “Species” tab (the tab that shows number of species). The view changes to a grid with the most observed species shown first. That’s your field guide!
  5. I like to screen-shot the first 30 pictures (in groups of 15) and print them out for a guide or scavenger hunt list that I can use in the field and check off each species as I find it.

BRANCH #4: Meet your biodiversity soulmates.

People who share your passion for passionflowers, or your liking for nature hiking, are on iNaturalist! You can meet them virtually or even face to face. TO FIND PEOPLE WHO LIKE OBSERVING YOUR FAVE TAXON in YOUR FAVE PLACE:

  1. On https://www.iNaturalist.org, click on Explore tab and Map mode.
  2. In the “Species” box, type a taxon (Salamanders, Plants, Tiger Beetles) and in the “Location” box type a location (“Tennessee”). Choose the appropriate drop-down choice.
  3. Click on the “Observers” tab to get a list of the main observers of that taxon in that region. Click on their names to get their profile and learn more about them. Then “follow” them, @tag them in a comment, or send a direct message to their inbox. (Be careful not to be a pest, of course.)

There's a whole world to discover in iNaturalist. Start exploring!

Posted on May 20, 2022 05:12 PM by janetwright janetwright | 1 comment | Leave a comment

March 07, 2022

Common Sphagnum peatmosses of south Mississippi

I got a request for resources to identify Sphagnum peatmosses in the field. What could be easier? Practically anything, turns out, because all the key identification characters for Sphagnum are microscopic. iNaturalist, unfortunately, is no help as its Computer Vision has not yet trained on Sphagnum, and it has a tendency to suggest everything is Crome Sphagnum and Prairie Peatmoss when they emphatically are not.

But, we aim to please, so here is a bare-bones draft resource to get started. I took 10 of the most common Sphagnum species in south Mississippi (should work nearby as well), divided them into groups based on how branch leaves look (with a hand lens), and provided links to more information and a photo for each. The photos, at bryophyteportal.org, also have the species description from Flora of North America -- I suggest you skip to the last paragraph for hints to identify each species in the field.

Here are the suggestions, and I'll revise over time to improve it. Good luck!

Branch leaves are hood-shaped and big enough to be individually counted rather easily (subgenus Sphagnum):

Sphagnum perichaetiale (no common name), dryer microhabitats, teddy bear look

Sphagnum affine (imbricate bog-moss), dryish to wet but not inundated, often open

Sphagnum portoricense (Puerto Rico sphagnum), wet, shady, “little palm trees”

Sphagnum magellanicum (Magellan’s peatmoss), pitcherplant bogs, often purple

Sphagnum palustre (prairie peatmoss), shady wet seeps

Branch leaves are very long (over 5mm) and straight-tipped

Sphagnum macrophyllum (largeleaf peatmoss), wet and often inundated

Branch leaves small and not easily counted

Sphagnum lescurii (yellow peatmoss), wet to dry habitats, soft and shapeless

Sphagnum carolinianum (Carolina peatmoss), wet woods, bright green & a little spiky looking

Sphagnum cuspidatum (toothed peatmoss), inundated, “drowned kitten” look

Sphagnum recurvum (recurved sphagnum), wet, dainty looking

You can find lots of examples of each of these in my project "Peatmosses (Sphagnum) of the SE US" (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/peat-mosses-sphagnum-of-the-se-us)

Posted on March 07, 2022 05:19 PM by janetwright janetwright | 7 comments | Leave a comment

February 28, 2022

Things frequently confused with Smilax.

I've been building a list of plants that people on iNaturalist tend to call "Smilax" when they aren't. Here's what I have so far, and I'll amend it when I get other examples. These are good ones to consider if you think you've got a Smilax but aren't sure.

The top three candidates:
Carolina snailseed, Cocculus carolinus, https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/107521471

Wild yam, Dioscorea villosa https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/91003720

Autumn Clematis, Clematis terniflora https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/107062350 (notice it actually has 3-part compound leaves that are opposite on the stem).

Other foolers:

Bengal trumpet, Thunbergia https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/20442821 (Florida)

Viola, when first emerging, can look like Smilax herbacea or other non-woody Smilax.

Trillium https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/21396276

Elfin shoes Croomia pauciflora https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/47308078

Devil's walking stick, Aralia spinosa, https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/38480876

Stickseed, Hackelia virginiana (midwest) - https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/63222149

American Water-Plantain, Alisma subcordatum, especially young ones (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/119581242).

American plantain, Plantago rugelii (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/147341451. Notice the hairy leaf surface, which Smilax doesn't have. Also other Plantago (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/123674998).

Wild sarsaparilla, Aralis nudicaulis - https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/
(this doesn’t look like Smilax, but some people know the name “Sarsaparilla vine” for Smilax pumila and end up putting this label on it).

I've been fooled by some of these many times!

Posted on February 28, 2022 10:15 PM by janetwright janetwright | 7 comments | Leave a comment

January 10, 2022

Smilax in N Alabama (Trip)

Hiking at Monte Sano State Park, Alabama plus Ruffner Mtn near Birmingham

Posted on January 10, 2022 01:14 PM by janetwright janetwright | 362 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 18, 2021

The changeable life of Lance-leaf Greenbrier.

The greenbriers (Smilax) are infamously variable, but one species has what almost seems like a "larval" and "adult" form. Lance-leaf Greenbrier, Smilax smallii, grows primarily in woods. As a young plant (or what I assume is a young plant), it grows like a ground-cover low on the surface, with leaves designed to capture the minimal light that penetrates to the ground: large leaf surface, wide thin blades, and light color. I believe during its young years on the ground, it's storing up a large underground tuber. When the tuber reaches sufficient size, Smilax smallii sends up an amazing thick shoot that grows straight up, leafless but armed with prickles, toward the canopy. Once it encounters a branch it latches on with tendrils and then makes its way to the outer surface of the canopy, where it grows a dense covering of small, leathery, dark leaves, designed for high exposure.

One trail that I frequent has a large amount of Smilax smallii at ground level and in the canopy. Some canopy plants were recently felled in Hurricane Zeta. I took this opportunity to make observations to show the morphological variation.

(1) Ground-level S. smallii (large, triangular, variegated leaves with wavy margins; https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/156537778).

(2) Canopy-level (smaller, dark, lanceolate leaves, densely spaced; https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/102799377).

(3) The relatively rare intermediate low-climbing form (mid-size, slightly variegated, intermediate shape leaves; https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/68238365).

(4) Here is one of the spectacular "reachers" growing straight up from ground to canopy (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/41900217).

(5) And here is an example of the massive underground tuber that Smilax smallii stores as it grows (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/51459612)

Posted on April 18, 2021 01:39 AM by janetwright janetwright | 6 comments | Leave a comment

April 10, 2021

Identifying Smilax sprouts

Both Lanceleaf and Laurel-leaf Greenbrier produce thick, asparagus-like “reacher” sprouts in springtime that can grow two meters or more without producing leaves. I was interested in ways to distinguish the two species at this stage. I visited six known patches of each species and inspected the “reachers” The results at least in Jackson County Mississippi were pretty clear.

Lanceleaf (Smilax smallii) sprouts all had brown mottling or streaking.

By contrast, Laurel-leaf (Smilax laurifolia) sprouts all lacked the brown streaking and were plain green.

Sample observations

Smilax smallii:

Smilax laurifolia:

Posted on April 10, 2021 05:35 PM by janetwright janetwright | 1 comment | Leave a comment

January 02, 2021

The “Seedbox” Ludwigias in winter.

If you live in the eastern half of the United States, you may know and love “Seedbox,” Ludwigia alternifolia, with its bright yellow four-petal flower and its intriguing cube-shaped seed capsule that persists through fall to form a classic part of the winter landscape.

If you’re in the coastal-plain fringes of the southeastern states, though, things are more complicated. There you have no fewer than four different seedbox-forming Ludwigias, all with four-petal yellow flowers, and all with cube-shaped seed capsules that last through winter. Some details of flower and leaf structure distinguish them in the blooming season, but what about over winter?

(The ranges of the four seedbox Ludwigias are shown at
(http://bonap.net/Napa/TaxonMaps/Genus/County/Ludwigia). Look for L. alternifolia, L. hirtella, L. maritima and L. virgata.)

Ludwigia alternifolia, the widespread Seedbox, is a profusely branched plant with many seed capsules, each borne on a pedicel that is shorter than the capsule (the other species have longer pedicels). Each box-like capsule has a round pore in its top, surrounded by four flat nectary discs. The tiny seeds escape through the pore or are dropped when the capsule disintegrates. The combination of branching habit, short pedicels and flat nectary discs on the box-like seed capsule is usually sufficient to identify L. alternifolia in winter, even where other seedbox Ludwigias are present.

A second species, Ludwigia hirtella, Spindleroot, has a seedbox and stem covered with conspicuous long hairs that make it hard to confuse with any of the other seedbox Ludwigias. Spindleroot grows in flatwoods and bogs of the coastal plain from Virginia to Texas.

The real identification problem concerns the other two seedbox Ludwigias, L. maritima (Seaside Primrose-Willow) and L. virgata (Savanna Primrose-Willow), found near the coast from North Carolina to Mississippi and on the Florida peninsula. Both have smooth, box-shaped seed capsules borne on wandlike, relatively unbranched stems. In contrast to L. alternifolia, both have plump nectary discs that appear as lumps around the pore at the top of the seed capsule. As the range of these two species nearly coincides, and they are not clearly differentiated by habitat, I wanted to determine if there are characters that could be used to distinguish these species’ winter seedboxes.

Ludwigia maritima was first described as a species by Harper in 1904. He distinguished it from L. virgata on the basis of several characters, most of which were in the flower, but he described the seed capsule of L. virgata as “very slightly winged on the angles” and the capsule of L. maritima as “distinctly winged on the angles.” He also included a comparative sketch with showed the capsule of L. maritima as larger and more inflated than in L. virgata (Torreya 4:161-4).

Capsule size difference is mentioned in two widely used works. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (1964, Radford, Ahles, and Bell) notes that L. virgata’s capsules are “5-7 mm long, 3.5-5 mm broad” and the species is found in “bogs and low savannahs,” whereas L. maritima’s capsules are “6-10 mm long, 4.5-7 mm broad” with the species growing in “savannahs, ditches and low pinelands.” Both are described as cubical, 4-angled, and narrowly winged. Godfrey and Wooten (1981, Aquatic and Wetland Plants of the Southeastern United States) described the capsule of L. virgata as “hard, 5-7 mm long, 3.5-5 mm broad” with seeds 0.5-0.8 mm long, compared to L. maritima capsules “tending to fracture easily, 6-10 mm long, 4.5-8 mm broad, seeds usually not exceeding 0.5 mm long,” with habitats for the two species similar except that in addition to wetlands, L. virgata is found “not infrequently on well-drained sandy pinelands.”

So seed capsules of L. maritima are said to be taller, broader, and more distinctly winged on the angles than capsules of L. virgata. Can these characters be used for winter identification?

I had made a number of observations of both species to iNaturalist.org during the flowering season, when they were relatively easy to identify. In late December, I returned to sites of observations I’d made in Jackson County, Mississippi, to look for winter capsules, and succeeded in finding three stalks of each species (from different sites) that contained seed capsules. I measured 7 capsules on each plant (height including nectary discs, breadth) as well as the capsule pedicel length, and l looked for other characters that might help in winter identification.

The capsules of L. maritima were noticeably and significantly larger than those of L. virgata, with a small amount of overlap (Table 1). In general, L. maritima capsules had dimensions greater than 6.5mm x 5 mm, and L. virgata capsules measured less than 6 mm x 5mm. Although this may seem like a small difference, it was readily apparent when the capsules were side by side. There was no difference in pedicel length. Only one of the six plants had distinctly winged capsules, so that feature was not particularly helpful in distinguishing species.

Table 1. Capsule measurements
Ludwigia maritima

height (mm) width (mm)
mean 7.04 5.33
stdev 0.42 0.38
N 21 21

Ludwigia virgata

height (mm) width (mm)
mean 5.58 4.20
stdev 0.44 0.55
N 21 21

The capsules of the two species were also shaped differently, with the larger L. maritima capsules more bowed out on the sides like a barrel. When viewed from the top, the nectary discs of the smaller L. virgata capsules appeared to take up more of the top surface, and each disc was ringed by silvery hairs not seen on the discs of L. maritima.

Godfrey and Wooten’s observation that the small L. virgata capsule is “hard” and the larger L. maritima capsule “tends to fracture easily” was also borne out during handling of the seed capsules.

I conclude that it should be possible to distinguish the two Ludwigias from their winter capsules alone if they can be measured, and that they should also be able to be distinguished in photographs where the nectary discs are clearly visible and there is a good sense of scale.

The six plants used in this investigation:


Posted on January 02, 2021 12:01 AM by janetwright janetwright | 6 comments | Leave a comment

November 10, 2017

Mysteries on the doorstep - solved by iNaturalist

Here's a place where iNaturalist shines.

We live on a salt marsh, and after Hurricane Nate we had tons of old marshgrass spread across our yard. In the process of cleaning it up, we discovered two new creatures, a bizarre-looking grasshopper and a weird, extremely flat very small bug. The grasshoppers were astoundingly well camouflaged in dead marsh grass unless they moved. The bugs weren't camouflaged; they settled on walls. Though there were hundreds, or thousands, of both, they were completely new to us.

My insect ID skills are pretty rudimentary, so I entered photos of both into iNaturalist. The robo identifier got the grasshopper (Leptysma marginicollis, cattail toothpick grasshopper) right away. It couldn't ID the flat bug, which was hard to photograph, but within a couple of weeks someone had suggested family Blissidae, which was enough hint for me to find Ischnodemus falicus, a salt marsh chinch bug that lives hidden in the leaf sheaths of one of the major marsh grasses. Two lovely salt marsh specialists that we had never seen in 10 years living here! And which would have remained a mystery if not for iNaturalist.

Posted on November 10, 2017 08:35 PM by janetwright janetwright | 2 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment