Out & About: App helps identify nature

  • Area organizations have started to encourage the use of the app iNaturalist to help people learn more about the flora and fauna in the Upper Valley. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Liz Sauchelli. Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Calendar Editor
Saturday, March 16, 2019

As spring approaches and we wait for mud season to end, I know I am one of many who is eager to start hiking again, sans snowshoes.

This time when I take to the trails, I might bring something new: iNaturalist, a free app that area outdoor-based organizations are starting to adopt to give “citizen scientists” an opportunity to participate more directly in the research process.

“It’s really good for keeping track of where species are abundant,” said Nathaniel Sharp, who works for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and is leading a free tutorial from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturday about iNaturalist at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Park in Woodstock.

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies has been using iNaturalist to help compile its “Vermont Atlas of Life,” which aims to compile the many species that live in the Green Mountain State.

“Before iNaturalist, unless you were working with a specific citizen science project, there weren’t many things you can do with those observations,” Sharp said. “There really wasn’t any place to put that data.”

The app is fairly simple: People take photos of various fauna and flora, upload it to the app and try to identify it. If a user cannot, other people who use iNaturalist might be able to.

“In a way, it crowdsources the identification,” Sharp explained. People use it to record vernal pools and amphibian crossings. It also allows the organization to keep track of vulnerable populations including wood turtles, which could assist in conservation efforts. “It’s a really simple to use app that even if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can still post observations.”

Ana Mejia, an intern at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, said she relied on the app when she started her internship to help her become more familiar with the region.

“It really has taken off here in Vermont,” Mejia said. “It’s something that I think a lot of people are seeing the benefits of. It’s user-friendly; anyone could do it.”

For example, a user can photograph a maple tree and ask others for help figuring out which of the many varieties it could be.

“You can just identify to the genus and then leave up to the other experts out there,” Mejia said.

Another organization that has used iNaturalist is the Upper Valley Land Trust. Last year, the nonprofit organization hosted its Chestnut Challenge, which encouraged people to go search for the chestnut trees at Smith Pond Shaker Forest Conservation Area in Enfield.

“It connects people to nature, and it connects them to each other,” said Alison Marchione, programs director at the Upper Valley Land Trust. “It’s a fantastic tool for organizations.”

While people can go out in the field with guidebooks to identify different species, it might seem a little daunting for beginners.

“That is why we have been really pushing to use iNaturalist more: It helps people to learn,” Marchione said.

The land trust also has used the app during a bioblitz, where a group of people visit a particular site and find as many species as they can in a certain amount of time.

“Once they get the hang of it, we get a lot of good responses,” Marchione said. “We’re always looking for volunteers.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the tutorial or to register, contact Mejia at 802-457-3368, ext. 222, or e-mail ana_mejia@partner.nps.gov. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.