Tuesday, 2 May 2017

What to do with all of your non-bird sightings?

eBird has become the go-to source for bird information after what was at first slow buy-in from the birding community. There are a few hold-outs still in Ontario but it's a great example of how powerful a community can be when they are organized...virtually every question about bird distribution and abundance patterns is now best answered using eBird data.

But if you're like me, you occasionally look at things that don't have feathers and beaks. Seems like a shame to just let all of that great data go to waste. Over the years I have tried a number of other citizen science portals to report butterflies, moths, invasive species, reptiles and amphibians, bumblebees and more but I usually just got frustrated that the systems weren't as good as eBird and that I really didn't want to use ten different apps/programs.

I'm happy to say that I think I have settled on a universal program for all of my non-bird sightings - iNaturalst - and I hope you'll join me in adding your observations too. After all, these programs are more fun and provide better data as more people join in.

Since I bet most of you haven't used iNaturalist but are familiar with eBird I'll outline some of the differences and similarities between the two programs. eBird by far offers many superior features that are geared towards birders and will certainly continue to be the platform of choice for other birders and myself.

Checklist or record based? A really important thing to know going in to iNaturalist is that it is focused on individual records, not site checklists like eBird. The argument is that birders are really unique (perhaps along with "honorary birds" butterflies and dragonflies) in that they think about things in a site list kind of way, whereas most other naturalist think about things one record at a time. This works pretty well for iNaturalist but means it is very tedious if you want to enter a list of every species you observed at a site.
Photos are key. In iNaturalist, photos are strongly encouraged for all records. That's not to say you have to have a photo, but it is strongly encouraged and your record won't be eligible for "research grade" without one. The plus side to this is that if you submit all of your photos to iNaturalist you are backing them up and iNaturalist will then let you search by species or locations, so it is actually a great photo organizer tool (same with eBird). Another difference from eBird is that you can set which type of copyright you want attached to each photo you upload.

All species. iNaturalist takes records of ALL species. Yes, that means fungi, plants, birds, insects, etc....so far in Ontario there are reports of about 4700 species.

Don't have to know what you saw! iNaturalist lets you identify a record to any level. So, if you know it is an insect but no idea what kind, you can just report it as an insect. Someone will likely come along and suggest a higher identification for you.

Simple app. The app for iNaturalist is really simple to use, since you are submitting one record at a time you just take a photo and iNaturalist grabs the location and date/time...then all you have to do is enter your identification.

Uncertainty distance. This is a feature I always have wished for in eBird; in iNaturalist, each record has a location but also the uncertainty distance.

Location obscuring. You can manually obscure a location for a record to a 27 km area, or you can even set it as private; both of these options keep the detailed location of the record on file but other people will either see an obscured location or just the province, unless you give them permission by adding it to their project. All records of rare species are automatically obscured.
For rare species like this, the sighting is somewhere in this rectangle. The dot is the randomized coordinates displayed.

Keeps all of your lists. Just like eBird, iNaturalist keeps lists for you - but unlike eBird these include all species and you can add to a list even if you don't have a record.

Community Review. This is a big difference from eBird and both a strength and weakness of iNaturalist. Review can be done by any iNaturalist user - just chime in and agree or offer an alternative ID of a record.

Places. In iNaturalist, places are defined with polygons - like eBird for Countries, States/Provinces, Counties, and IBAs. But in iNaturalist, anyone can create a place and define its boundaries. This is really handy because it lets you automatically collect all records that fall within that place.

Projects. This is a feature that eBird doesn't have (or need?) - it allows anyone to create a project which is basically a data aggregation tool. For example, you can have a bioblitz project to automatically collect records within a date/location or you can have a "standard" project like the NHIC's Rare Species of Ontario which collects records of provincially rare species (join it!).

Unlimited data fields. The bare minimum in iNaturalist is very simple, just date, location, and species but anyone can create a new data field and anyone else can add a value for it to an observation. Think things like insect life stage, breeding bird evidence, etc. It's very flexible if you want to track something in particular.

iNaturalist is by no means a perfect platform, but I think it is much better than any other system that takes records of all taxonomic groups out there. With the use of Projects, all of those other citizen science projects can grab your observations and add them to their databases. And, like eBird, it will only get better as more people use it.

By contributing your records to iNaturalist you're turning your observations into digital specimens making them available to inform our knowledge and contribute to conservation.

So please join the growing number of Ontario naturalists submitting to iNaturalist...let's make Ontario the powerhouse it is with eBird!

As always, I'm happy to help people if you have questions about getting started.


  1. Tracy Patterson2 May 2017 at 22:12

    I looked into this a bit a few months ago, will check it out again. Thanks, Mike! Hope I don't bug you as much as I did with bird ID questions! lol :)

  2. Do you have a camera with geotagging incorporated? That's what has been holding me back, it takes way to long to upload even a single day's worth of photos otherwise. I haven't found a reasonably priced camera comparable to my Canon SX40 that has GPS.

    1. Hi Reuven, I use a Nexus 6P phone which geotags my photos, otherwise yeah I know what you mean, the effort of entering a coordinate or choosing a point with 100m accuracy or something can be a bit tedious.

    2. I'm still figuring out my workflow, but here are some options:
      1.use the app on your phone to enter the sighting and then just insert the photo from your camera when you get a chance.
      2. enter your sightings using a spreadsheet and then insert the photo from your camera.
      3. run a GPS/app to do a track log for the day, then you can use a geocoding program like RoboGEO (http://www.robogeo.com/home/) to write the location data to the photo's exif.

    3. Here's a free alternative to RoboGeo: http://geotag.sourceforge.net/

    4. I tried logging on my phone last year but still found it's enough work that I never actually end up doing it. Personally I don't think its ever going to happen for me unless the gps data is incorporated automatically. I may just have to get a phone with a high quality camera next time around or wait until the camera I want exists.

    5. This doesn't directly answer your question but I tend to bulk upload photos which I can then edit all at the same time. I keep a note on my desktop with the longs and lats of favourite locations. This works great for a moth trap for example but not for a walk along a trail unless you wish to apply a general location with an appropriate uncertainty distance.

  3. Is it possible to sync iNaturalist with eBird so that new observations in eBird are automatically put into iNaturalist?

    1. Hi Caleb, I'm not sure whether you mean all eBird observation or just your own. You could download your eBird data and then upload it to iNaturalist but I'm not sure what you would be accomplishing with that, other than creating duplicate data. If it is just to update your bird list, you can actually just upload a list of species names to update a list in iNaturalist.

      But as far as an automatic sync, no, there is no such thing.

    2. Yeah, I was just referring to my own data. It sounds like from what you said that it would be better not to put birds in iNaturalist if I already have them in eBird, which I didn't realize. Thanks Mike!

  4. I'd be more interested in inaturalist.ca if Ontario's odonata records we put into it. Currently, Ontario records are scattered into OntOdes, the old defunct Odonata atlas, more recent but unpublished data for a possible new altas, OdonataCentral and inaturalist.

    I currently have a GPS with a bare bones camera in it. It is good for pictures of dragonflies in the hand and plants but it does have geotagging by default (it's a GPS after all).

    If I got into inaturalist.ca I would have a lot of records for it. In the last year I past a 1000 taxa in my overall lifelist.

    1. Hi Brent, sounds like you'd be a great person to get involved on iNaturalist...give it a try and I am sure you will like it!

      I don't want to presume too much but I suspect you'll see in the near future iNaturalist being used as a major (if not primary) data entry portal for the new Odonata atlas. The TEA Butterfly and Moth atlasses plus the Ontario Nature Herp atlas are all harvesting data from iNaturalist projects already.

    2. I've been trying to get my records loaded too. If you have your checklist in any kind of electronic form, I could walk you through (or even do for you) the steps to generate an upload file for iNaturalist, since it has a handy bulk uploader.

      I just have not figured out how to add pics for the bulk uploader, but you can also subsequently add them after the records are created.

      It has all the stuff needed for integration into something like a TEA Ode Atlas to match, including being able to record counts.

      The one challenge I've found on locations is if you walk a distance, for instance yesterday, I did a hike and saw maybe 30 Chalk-fronted Corporal. Some iNat zealots suggest I need to do a separate record for every single one. I'm not going to spend that time in the field getting co-ordinates, I'll just record as the location, a circumference as appropriate and a count

    3. Yes, I did what Chris did - upload a spreadsheet of data and then attached photos to the records manually afterwards.

  5. I think the suggestions tool should be turned off. It works incredibly well, at least for plant species. So well that it almost takes the fun out making identifications yourself because it will pop up before you can even type it in. Thats all good but I think it should be turned off for people to "suggest" or to make and identification. It could discourage people who don't really know from suggesting IDs that they can just guess on or pull out of the suggestion tool.

    And maybe turn off the Agree button and replace it with a like function. Having the button there seems to just make people want to click it.

    All in all though, I like it and I'm right addicted (probably more than eBird).