Posted June 14, 2020
Written by Kyla Isakson
Safety notes: Be aware of your surroundings! Watch out for poison ivy, check for ticks, do NOT taste anything, avoid disrupting animals and plants, and don’t touch things with which you are unfamiliar.
With summer right around the corner, animals are becoming more active and plants are popping up everywhere. The ecosystems in Massachusetts have a high diversity of wildlife, and sometimes it can be hard to distinguish different species. To help you identify and learn more about the plants and animals that you encounter, I encourage you to download the free app called Seek by iNaturalist.
Seek is an app created by iNaturalist to help people identify plants and animals by using photos and information collected by others in the community. The app accesses data submitted to iNaturalist, where people have shared observations and photos, and others have provided feedback on posts to aid with confirming identifications.
When you open the app, the home screen shows your current location (if allowed), a list of common species in your area, challenges available, and a bar at the bottom of the screen showing an icon with three horizontal bars, a camera icon, and a bell icon.
Three Horizontal Bars: If you click on the three horizontal bars, you will see a list of pages that you can visit to see what challenges are available, the badges you have earned by completing challenges and identifying species, your list of observations already made, and the option to learn more about iNaturalist. I encourage you to explore each of these options and check in on them as you make more observations and become more comfortable using the app.
Bell Icon: The bell icon brings you to your notifications. This is where you will get updates on what challenges you’ve completed, what new challenges are available, and your progress. I like to start all of the challenges at the same time so that species I identify count for more than one challenge, but you can start one at a time to push yourself to find more species.
Camera Icon: When you click on the camera icon, a reminder screen will pop up to provide safety tips while using the app in the natural environment. After accepting this reminder, you have the option to use your camera or access your photos to identify a species. If you use your camera, you can scan your surroundings and focus on the plant or animal in question. Depending on the species, you may have to move closer, zoom in, or change the angle of view to complete the identification. Seek can classify the species based on taxonomic level, from kingdom to species. Fill up the meter at the top of the camera screen to get a more specific identification. Click on the question mark (?) to learn more about how the camera works and ways to make better observations.
If you choose to use a photo you’ve already taken, be sure to allow the app access to your photo library. Choose a photo to identify, and click “Identify Photo.” This step might seem simple, but if your photo has a cluttered background, is blurry, or the subject is too far away, Seek will tell you “We weren’t able to identify this photo.” Unfortunately, this can also happen to photos of things that you had previously identified. I suggest uploading your photos to iNaturalist soon after identification, and you can also ask for help on iNaturalist if you are unable to identify the species. Read more about this below and check out the iNaturalist website for more information.
Poison Ivy: A common plant that you can identify using the Seek app is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). This is a very important plant to become familiar with because it is considered a noxious weed, and its oils can cause an itchy rash. A good rule of thumb is “leaves of three, leave it be,” which refers to the three leaflets that make up each leaf on the plant. Poison ivy can also grow as a vine with no leaves up the trunk of a tree or along the ground. This plant grows in many forms, so it is critical to be cautious while walking along a trail.
Eastern teaberry: Another common plant you will find in the area is Eastern teaberry, also known as American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). This plant is an evergreen found in the understory of hardwood forests, and it can grow to be groundcover and reach up to 6 inches tall. In the past, the leaves were used to make tea, and the oil from the leaves and fruit were once used as medicine, in candies and chewing gum, and in toothpaste. Now, the berries should be left for the wildlife, as many birds and small mammals rely on the fruit for food. After adequately identifying Eastern teaberry, crush a leaf in your hand and smell its minty fragrance.
Sharing Your Observations
In addition to logging your observations in the Seek app, you can post to iNaturalist from Seek, or from the iNaturalist app, when you make an identification or later on by uploading your photos and observations. When you make an identification, there is an option at the bottom of the page that allows you to post to iNaturalist. This will fill in information about what you observed, where you were, when it was, and if it was a captive or cultivated species. It is required that you create an iNaturalist account and link it to your Seek app, but it is free to sign up.
It is important to remember that this app may not be 100% accurate, as it identifies the species based on the angle and quality of the photo and the characteristics it can view. Many plant species have very similar features, and sometimes a plant or animal can be identified as another species that is found in a different region. In addition, common names vary within regions, so if you come across a plant with a different name than what you thought it was, double check the other common names. If you are really interested in identifying the species, I recommend doing some research, utilizing field guides, and asking someone you know that might be more familiar with local species. You can also post a photo or observation to iNaturalist to get feedback from others in the area.
Visit the iNaturalist website to learn more about Seek!
Take time this summer to slow down and notice all of the unique species in your area. A walk that would typically take less than an hour can easily turn into an entire afternoon when you focus on the environment around you. Since I started using Seek and iNaturalist, I have become much more observant and appreciative of nature. You’ll be surprised by what you notice when you take the time to be mindful, embrace the beauty of the natural world, and find a deeper connection with the environment.