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Erin Kinnetz

Tips for Making an ID on the Trail

Many times when we are out on our nature explorations we come across a small mystery. A flower you’ve never seen before, a beautiful insect, a mysterious animal track leading into the water. These curiosities keep us coming back to nature over and over. But a mystery asks us to solve it!

Here are some tips for taking photos and gathering info when you are trying to ID a nature mystery either by asking an expert, using a field guide, or using an identification app like iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, or Seek.

Add a scale item.

When taking a photo, place a scale item close to your track, bug, or skull. A ruler works best, but you can also throw in a standard-sized object like a key or a pen for a rough scale. If you can’t add a scale item, like you are taking a picture of an insect that you think might sting you or a bird that might be frightened by movement, make an estimate of the size from afar.

Trail ID - scale

Take a couple photos.

Snap a few pictures either from different angles or of different features such as the flower and the leaf shape, or tree buds and the bark, or the top of a skull and a profile with the teeth, or a track from above and the track from a side angle. Make sure to avoid direct contact with any plants that you do not recognize.

Trail ID - leaves

Take Field Notes.

Where was this taken? What was the date? Many of our plants and animals have strong seasonality. What type of habitat and features are around you? Things to note would be water features such as a creek or a lake and dominant plant type like trees vs. grasses. If you are using an ID app, a lot of this information is automatically captured.

Pictures are a great help with practicing Leave No Trace principles while still allowing us to capture a lot of details about special nature objects. While not all of our mysteries get solved, (what would be the fun in that, after all?) following these tips will help you to better research your mysteries once you leave the trail.