Why I Track the Animals I See and How I ID Them
The main reason why I do this is that I love wildlife and especially spotting critters that I have not seen before. I grew up in northern NJ in a suburb of NYC. I always saw backyard birds, squirrels, chipmunks and the occasional raccoon. I always thought to see "real nature", one had to go deep into the woods, jungle, desert, arctic or some other place far away from human habitation. It was only once I started paying attention and trying to identify down to the species, that I realized how many species I was surrounded by every day. For example, I always thought a sparrow was a sparrow, but I soon learned that there are over a dozen species of sparrow that could possibly be spotted in NJ. This new knowledge combined with learning to scuba dive around the same time, giving me the opportunity to see many species non divers may never see in the wild, is what gave me the idea to compile lists and set me on the mission to see how much I could find.
I started identifying species by purchasing a few field guides. The most helpful field guides for species identification, concentrate on a type of animal ( mammals, birds, saltwater fish ) in a certain area of the world. Keep in mind, guides that cover a smaller area are more likely to be more thorough and have a more complete list of species for that area. Especially if you are looking for a guide on a type of animal that has many species (ex: birds, fish). If you are looking for a guide on a type of animal that has less species (ex: mammals, freshwater mollusks) a book that covers a larger area is fine. Most field guides have the type broken down into sections for each family. In the beginning of each section there is usually an introduction that will tell you the general characteristics of the family. Read this intro!!!! It will save you a lot of time later if you can recognize that the bird you are looking at is a warbler and not just a cute small bird seen in a tree.
Binoculars are also a big help. This will help you get a really close look at the finer details of the animal. Even some of the larger animals are sometimes difficult to differentiate due to variations within the species. For example, sometimes red fox have a very grey coloring, especially when they are kits it can be hard to differentiate.
My favorite tool for the field is a quality camera with a decent zoom. I use a Nikon P7000 with 100-300mm lens. I realize that this is a significant investment which I struggled to purchase myself so use what you have, but if you are purchasing, keep in mind a good zoom and quality pics can be a huge help. If you are snorkeling or diving a waterproof camera is always a part of my gear. For diving and snorkeling I have been using a go pro on a telescopic rod. The reason for my love of pictures when identifying is because, if I can get a halfway decent shot, I can then sit at home in front of my computer, with all my guides and the internet. This helps because I can zoom in on certain features of the animal. Also in the photo the animal is not running, swimming or flying away from me. It was frustrating to be looking at a live animal and a guide at the same time, reading in the guide that I should look for a tiny feature that will be the surefire key to the species ID, look up and find the critter has gone away, or coming up from a dive and not remembering if I noticed there was a single or double dorsal fin.
Even if you use all of these tools, there may be a time that you are undecided whether it is one species or another. This brings me to my most recent discovery and ID tool, the website inaturalist.org . I learned about this site during a bioblitz in Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn, NY. On this site there is information and links on any species you can imagine from all over the world. The best part is that you can upload your pictures to the site, attach your ID to the photo as well as where you saw it and see if the inaturalist community agrees with you. If someone does not agree with your identification and you agree with that persons assessment, you can change your identification. If other people on the site agree with your identification, it becomes a "research grade" identification. At this point, your spotting may be used in actual scientific research. The advantage to this site is that there are not only hobbyists and amateurs like myself, but there are scientists and people with a ton of experience in identification. I have found the members to be very friendly and have also commented as to why they disagree with my identification. This has helped me really pick out the details that I need to look for in the future as well as correct or help me ID some species that I was unsure on. It also is nice to know that my spottings, which I do for fun, may help in research that will hopefully protect and conserve wildlife.
Other key things to consider when identifying wildlife is behavior and location. Both of these can definitely help you differentiate between two species when you are undecided. Movements, feeding behavior, type of home can all help with identification. Location is also big as there are similar looking animals whose territories never cross. Also location could be where in the same ecosystem. For example some fish never come above a certain depth, while others never go below a certain depth. Some birds are usually found in the tops of trees while others are mainly seen on the ground.
I hope this post helps with your identification and inspires you to find what is living around you. I encourage all to learn about and protect the wildlife that you see. Most negative interactions, with species that some consider "dangerous", can be avoided with a minimal amount of education on that species. Read warnings on hiking trails, pick up a pamphlet, talk to a ranger about any concerns or do your own research from reputable sources before you go. Happy spotting and don't forget to create an account and upload your pics to inaturalist. Happy Spotting!!!!