Citizen Science – iNaturalist

The internet and digital photography have opened up wonderful opportunities for ordinary people to get involved in citizen science as observers of the natural world. Online meeting places and forums come and go but the best at the moment seems to be iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org.

It’s a global project and the numbers are huge: 54 million observations by 1.4 million observers from nearly every country in the world when I looked recently. That presents a management problem, of course, which is solved by having countries run independent branches, e.g. https://inaturalist.ala.org.au/

Anyone at all can browse the content of the site but people have to sign up to participate. When that’s done (at no cost and very little trouble) they can upload their observations, help with identifying others’ observations, and join the discussion forums.  It’s a big and complex site but not too difficult to negotiate because it is exceptionally well planned and because there is no need to use most of its functions until you want to. (I have to admit there are some that I haven’t bothered with in the year I have been a member.)

And ordinary people can make very useful contributions to the project, especially if they (we) are outside the big cities. It’s obvious, looking at a map of Australian observations of butterflies and moths, that any life outside the big population centres is under-represented. Zoom in on North Queensland and the pattern is even clearer – and it’s the same for birds, and will be the same for all other life forms.

iNaturalist observations
iNaturalist observations – Butterflies and Moths

This means that if you visit Mount Fox, Undara, Einasleigh, or even Ravenswood and submit an observation of any species at all it is likely to be a ‘first’ for the location. We really don’t know what’s out there – and how can we look after what we don’t know?

Other projects

Encyclopedia of Life is a similar but older project. It welcomed citizen scientists from the outset but was almost overwhelmed by them for a while and now is primarily an inter-organisational data sharing project.

Atlas of Living Australia was a founding partner of EOL and now collects observations from iNaturalist. It is an open-access data resource, oriented more to the professional community than to citizen science.

BowerBird was founded in 2013 as a citizen science project of Museums Victoria and ALA but was folded into iNaturalist about 2019.

flickr is a photo-sharing platform which hosts self-managed Groups, some of which are wildlife-related. I joined (years ago) so that I could easily contribute to EOL (which collected sightings via one such group) but also enjoyed the Field Guide to Insects of Australia and the similar Australian Birds and Spiders groups. Each of them had (and probably still has) enthusiastic, knowledgeable members willing to encourage and support newcomers.

There’s no need to be bored!

Weevil or beetle?

Let me begin by admitting that my title question is misleading: weevils are different from most beetles in a very recognisable way but they are in fact still beetles, a family within the order Coleoptera which includes longicorns, elephant beetles and all the others.

Wikipedia informs us that Curculionidae, “the “true” weevils (or “snout beetles”) … are one of the largest animal families, with 6,800 genera and 83,000 species described worldwide.” It’s not surprising, then, that, “with so many species, a spirited debate exists about the relationships between subfamilies and genera,” (Wikipedia’s polite way of saying that the experts are still arguing).

CSIRO’s invaluable site says that weevils are, “Highly variable in form, but usually moderately to strongly convex, robust, heavily sclerotised and often clothed with scales or bristles. Head always more or less produced [i.e. extended] in front of eyes to form a rostrum, which is usually much longer than broad; antennae always geniculate [elbowed] with long scape and more or less compact club.” Many of those features can be seen in my photos of an individual I found in my garden recently:

weevil
Weevil on a frangipani branch

Continue reading “Weevil or beetle?”

Counting birds

screenshot-birdcount-sThe Aussie Backyard Bird Count is underway as I write and still has a few days to run, so there’s still time to get involved. It’s an annual event but this is the first time I have been organised enough to take part.

The procedure is simple enough, so long as you have a smartphone:

  • Download the (free) app from the homepage or your usual Android or Apple app store.
  • Sign in.
  • Mark your location on its map. You can do it manually if the app can’t find your location. (This happened to me a couple of times and was only resolved when I went to ‘Settings’ and enabled high-accuracy location services.)
  • Hit ‘Next’ and your 20-minute counting session begins. When you see a bird, type in the species; if you see another, just hit + on the list you’re building up.
  • When the timer has counted down to zero, you will be asked to submit your count.
  • If you’re like me, you will then wonder whether you should have counted the bird you heard but didn’t see, or the one you weren’t quite sure about, and will consult the FAQs hiding behind the ? at the top of the home screen.
  • Then do as many more counts as you like, in any locations you like.

The Bird Count is a project of Birdlife Australia and Birds in Backyards. Visit its own homepage to get started or find answers to any other questions about it. It’s a great citizen-science project and the bird identification section of the app will be useful for year to come – unless you’re one of those super-keen birders who already has such a thing on your phone.

If you are one of those people, you may well be interested in the National Twitchathon at the end of this month:

Every year, hundreds of passionate birdwatchers race around the great Australian bush competing in a unique sporting event called a Twitchathon. The aim? To see or hear as many bird species as possible, and in the process help protect our birdlife for years to come.

In 2016, the BirdLife Australia National Twitchathon is back, bigger and better than ever. Whether it’s your first time spotting or you’re a fully-fledged twitcher, the Twitchathon is now a nationwide competition that caters for all birders. …

This year there are three different event options to choose from. Choose an event, form a team, and start planning a route and fundraising strategy!

As always, the 24-hour race will be a marathon of maximum habitat coverage, yielding massive species totals – winning teams regularly see over a quarter of all Australia’s birds, driving hundreds of kilometres and stopping only to twitch. This year, a system for calculating the national winning team has been created using statistical analysis of BirdLife Atlas data found in our new Birdata web portal.

For those with less time, the 12-hour ‘Champagne’ race gives teams half a day to spot as many birds as they can. This more relaxed event avoids the need for teams to drive overnight, and even includes an optional lunch break.

The ‘Birdathon’ targets everyone, young and old, experienced and novice. Each team has three 1-hour blocks to birdwatch over the course of the day, which they can choose to use at any time, and in any place. …

Good luck – and have fun! – at whatever level suits you.

Nature photography online

I have been having such a good time outdoors lately that I am welcoming this wet day (our first for a very long time) not just for the much-needed rain but for the chance to catch up with my photos and my blog. My visits to Alligator Creek on Boxing Day and Magnetic Island (blog post to come) have reminded me how often I use several online reference collections to help me identify the wildlife I come across. I think they deserve to be featured in their own right, both to thank all the people involved with these excellent sites and to help any readers looking for wildlife identification guides. Here they are:

  • The Flickr group Field Guide to Insects of Australia is the hub of a community of interested and helpful folk with varying levels of expertise in entomology. With 600+ members and 22 000+ photos it covers a lot of bugs!
  • Graeme Cocks’ Wildlife of Townsville is unrivalled as regards insects of my local region and has smaller sections covering spiders, birds and other animal life.
  • Brisbane Insects and Spiders is a very big site which is great for SE QLD and very good for most of the East coast.
  • Spiders of Australia is Flickr’s counterpart to Field Guide to Insects of Australia. Very useful if you want help with ID, or if you think you know what you’ve got but want to look at lots of photos of it.
  • Arachne.org (Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson), Spiders of Australia (Ed Nieuwenhuys) and Find-a-Spider (Ron Atkinson) are all large, authoritative photographic catalogues. The third is focused on SE Qld (although of course many of its species have much broader ranges) but the other two are national.
  • When it comes to birds, Birdway (Ian Montgomery) is my first, and usually last, click but Birdlife Townsville (formerly the Bird Observers’ Club) is well worth a visit.

Most of my readers will have already visited Flickr, the online photo-sharing service, by now, if only because my links have taken you there. One of their ancillary services to users is the option of tagging other people’s photos as ‘Favorites’ to be able to return to them with a single click. My own favorites album, containing nearly 80 photos, is (unsurprisingly) full of nature photography and has a good proportion of macro work. Please click here to visit it … but only if you can remember to be kind about my own less-polished efforts afterwards.

Natural history in the digital age

Graeme Cocks has been my mentor in entomology since I started taking more than a casual interest in the small creatures which share our lives. Last week he told us about an incident which beautifully illustrates the power of shared knowledge:

There was a ship at anchor 1 mile off Dampier, WA, yesterday, the Mermaid Vantage. One of the crew found a large insect on board and, concerned about quarantine, the ship’s Master sent a picture of it off to the ship’s agent in Perth.

The agent happened to have a Dad who knew a bit about insects, so he sent the picture to me. I recognised it and also happened to have the right book in my library, on water bugs. So within about half an hour the ship had a name, Lethocerus distinctifemur, and a long waffle about the insect’s habits and distribution. Pretty cool.

As he says, pretty cool. But it gets better: just as easily, I can share with you his photos of the bug, a much more dramatic photo and description from someone I’ve never heard of before, and an overview of the insect’s family from Wikipedia:

Lethocerus is a genus of the hemipteran family Belostomatidae, known colloquially as giant water bugs, distributed throughout the tropical, subtropical and temperate areas of the world. The greatest diversity of species occurs in the Americas. It includes the largest true bugs with species reaching a length of over 11 centimetres.

I can easily go further and show you where museum specimens of the bug have been collected (see EoL) but that is not really the point. The point is that we have access to far more information, far more easily, than any previous generation. We should enjoy it (I know I do!) and make good use of it.