Salmonberry /Sally James

by Sally James

Sometimes, when I’m walking down a trail, I stop suddenly and point my cell phone at the ground.

Maybe I saw an ant, or a caterpillar. Maybe I saw a flower. Whatever I saw, by uploading a photo to a special app, I’ll get an identification. In my pocket, I’m carrying thousands of scientists and volunteers. They are all part of, a powerful community that you can carry in your pocket.

The button on my phone is of a green bird flying, and when I click, it asks me if I want to share my observation. I’ve shared 548 times and found 310 different species – from lichens to sea worms to coyotes. You can visit the website and click “how to get started” and begin right now. You don’t even need a cell phone. Any camera will work, as long as you can upload to the website after you return home.

Join the City Nature Challenge

What makes this even better is that each spring, you can join a special annual event celebrated around the world called the City Nature Challenge. In cities from Detroit to Seattle and Tacoma to Atlanta, volunteers will take photos, upload them, and try to count as many living things as possible. These observations are a treasure trove for serious scientists who use data like this to track climate change, among other things.

The critters or plants you count can be swimming in a swamp, flying in the air, tunneling through the dirt, or crawling on your window screen. In fact, urban wildlife, whether it’s in your home or on your sidewalk, is very important. All ages can join in. No science knowledge is needed.

Let’s use as an example a flying insect you might see inside a flower. Is it a bee, or one of the flies that pretend to be bees and have stripes? Because of my picture taking, I’ve found out about globetails (a family of hoverflies) and the Greater Bee Fly, and some other pollinators.

A small insect with striped body on a yellow flower


Greater Bee Fly 

Backyards, and even small spaces around our streets and sidewalks, can be homes for many species. Think of the moss that peeks out at you from between bricks or cracks in concrete. Think of lichens that you might see hanging from a tree limb.

Making Connections for Wildlife

Joshua Morris is one of the leaders on a project in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood called “Capitol Hill Connections.” The project is supported by Seattle Audubon, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, and the Seattle Bird Conservation Partnership. The nonprofit hopes to enhance habitat areas, and discourage pesticide use, to make connections healthier for wildlife using 11th Avenue East as a connection between Volunteer Park and Seattle University. The project has its own project space on iNaturalist, so that observations get collected there.

Volunteers will look at a photo you take and decide whether a bird or slug or ant is one species, or another. It may happen the same day you take a photo, or it may take weeks, but at some point all observations have to be validated by a person who agrees, or disagrees, with the label. Once a photo is identified by enough people, it may be given the green stamp of “research grade.” These observations can then be used by scientists studying butterflies or meadow flowers or city birds.

I’ve thought my photo was a bee, and found out it was a fly. I’ve identified a sea worm at low tide at Carkeek Park, and watched comments come in from volunteers who re-identified the worm a few times. Once, an author, Merrill Peterson, who wrote the book “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” identified my Seven Spot Lady Bird Beetle photo. I had a fangirl moment.

Down the Rabbit Hole with iNaturalist

Each photograph must have the location and time of day, usually details our cell phones capture for us. If you ask the iNaturalist software “what did I see?” it will search its libraries for the most common plants or animals that have been reported near your same location recently that match your photo. In my case, I uploaded a photo of a salmonberry flower that I saw at Magnuson Park wetland. The software said – “Rubus spectabilis” was the most likely identification.


There is a delightful rabbit hole to jump down with every observation you make. I took a photo of a lichen, which was living on a tree.

Farinose Cartilage Lichen

First, the software told me the lichen was probably Bristly Beard Lichen. But when a volunteer told me it was likely Farinose Cartilage Lichen, I wrote to that volunteer in a comment and asked how I should tell the difference in the future. They told me to pull on the lichen, and the texture would help me identify it next time. If you want to go deeper, iNaturalist lets you “follow” experts in all sorts of fields on the app itself. You can see their observations.

Digging beneath the top layer of soil is another great adventure if you know a natural area where you could disturb the soil just a bit. Find and photograph an earthworm, a ground beetle, a jumping spider or a centipede. Find some rotting wood and look inside for molds or fungi. Watch moths fly around your porch light and perhaps gently stop one long enough to take a photo.

Kids Can Count

Children can enjoy this “counting” as part of the City Nature Challenge. They can watch in real time as various cities “count” more and more living creatures. If your family uses social media, you can also see hundreds of posts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram about the nature challenge as it unfolds.

Children with cousins in San Francisco or Chicago or Boston or Tucson could compete with their cousins who might also enter the CNC.

For older children, there is plenty of fascination in the process of identifying.

If you travel with your family to places like Olympic National Park or Mount St. Helens, you can make observations there and witness what projects or which scientists eagerly identify your photos. It is a window into the ways they are trying to study and the projects they have for tracking different creatures.

Tune Into Spring

Spring is an especially exciting time of transition for plants and wildlife. There are flowers blooming or eggs hatching or mating behavior that may not happen at any other season. There is an entire science known as phenology about the seasons. Maybe your children would love to know whether salmonberry flowers are blooming earlier or later this year than last year. You can see that on iNaturalist.

If you have a high-school student who needs to write about climate change, seasonal differences are a critical way that scientists track climate shifts and temperature changes. Many of you may know that the cherry trees in Japan bloomed earlier than they have for more than 1,000 years of logged observations this year. Does your teen want to know if salmonberries are early or late here?

Close observation is how naturalists from ancient times until now made all their discoveries. Close observation also begins to build an appreciation for wildlife. We care about living things more when we understand something about them and their lives near us. Jane Goodall, the famous naturalist, wrote: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.”

The City Nature Challenge is a fun weekend of friendly competition, but I hope iNaturalist may become a permanent part of your adventures outdoors.


Sally James writes about medicine and health mostly. Her recent work appears in the South Seattle Emerald, Medscape, Seattle magazine and other places. Find her at or on Twitter as @jamesian