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How to identify flora and fauna

How to start learning to identify flora and fauna... anywhere and everywhere you are! Wherever you’re at in your journey with species identification, whether you’re dabbling in plants and starting to notice what’s around you, or deep diving into hardcore botany – read on.

Learning to identify the plants and animals around me with clarity and ease has been such a crucial step in my journey as an ecologist for 3 main reasons:

  1. It became the way I satisfied my fascination with understanding the natural world around me;
  2. It created a deeper connection to, and more intimate knowledge of, the natural world;
  3. Just trying, and showing up with what I see now as an entry-level knowledge of the plants and animals around me, gave me social recognition as a competent ecologist

For this reason, I always fully endorse learning to identify flora and fauna as an important step to starting and sustaining your career with wildlife – it’s fun, it’s free and a step that literally anyone can take!

I should warn you though, the process of plant identification can fast become a bit of a gateway drug to hardcore botany – and can fast consume so much time you didn’t even know you had!

After all, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know and often, the more you learn, the more fascinated you become, and the more obsessed you become with finding rarer plants and filling the gaps in your knowledge at least that was my experience!

How to identify flora and fauna | #itsawildlife

Don’t be discouraged by the challenge

There is often a social expectation of knowing your flora and fauna as an ecologist – and while you shouldn’t feel pressure or inadequacy when reflecting on your own knowledge gaps in this space, knowing your plants – or at least, knowing how to identify these plants will always be a positive thing – and make you a much more hireable candidate, especially in the field ecology and consultancy space!

With such a diversity of plants and animals around us, the idea of starting your journey of plant identification can be daunting to say the least. And I get it, the undertaking feels so massive! But try not to feel discouraged and instead, challenge yourself to grab the bull by the horns and make a start.

It’s ok to not know everything and with a little bit of initiative and consistency, you’ll be surprised how much progress you see yourself make! What might also surprise you is how far knowing something will get you.

So the first step I would recommend is to just start. Take the leap and challenge yourself to start learning one new plant every week. Starting is the hardest step so if that feels hard – know it’s the hardest part, and it’ll all feel easier from there.

5 steps to lmastering flora and fauna identification

  1. Consistency is key

Like so many things in life, consistency and dedication is the difference between success or not – finding regular time for plant identification is the key to building your knowledge of the natural world around you. Start with the most common things you see around you and build from there. You might be surprised at how many cross overs there are once you get into it.

Personally, when I decided to become a competent ecologist, I realized that learning plant identification was an essential step to take. For me, this looked like 15-30min a day spent studying a species list of the plants and animals found around me, and then photographing and identifying every species, especially the plants, I encountered. While this may sound extreme, it served me well.

Creating a habit and making something a part of your daily or weekly routine is a sure way to make it a priority, and incorporate it as a part of your identity. Play around with what works for you.

2. Get familiar with your local environment

One of the best ways to do this is by getting your hands on a copy of a local field guide or printing a species list from Atlas of Living Australia, eBird or other location-filtered databases. Put some names to faces and spend regular time in nature practicing this – schedule a weekly 30 min slot to walk in nature and identify plants or other species.

Start to build an understanding of what’s around you – what’s common and what’s more cryptic – and effectively, what are the possibilities when looking to identify the local species in your area.

When it comes to plants, I started with the species that were more charismatic, more common and more unique in appearance. For me, this was the tree species and plants in flower – rather than starting with the smallest annual hybrid that happened to be on the first page.

Starting with the species you see most regularly will help to reinforce that knowledge.

And to do this, there are a bunch of resources out there to help – use regional field guides, iNaturalist, Google Lens (in some cases) or herbarium-linked databases like FloraBase (WA), PlantNet (NSW), eFlora (NT), VicFlora (VIC) or Flora.SA (SA).

3. Shoot for the moon.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying – shoot for the moon and even if you miss, you’ll fall amongst the stars. Would you believe it applies to plant identification as well?

While in an ideal world we can identify anything we encounter to species level, realistically that’s not always possible (hell, the natural world and species concepts more broadly aren’t always that clear cut!).

So, aim for species but be accepting if it’s just not possible for some taxa without DNA testing or a PhD in botany. Sometimes, more taxonomic work is required and that’s ok.

4. Record your progress.

This is my secret sauce to not just learning to identify plants – but also retaining that information. But disclaimer, this is a great way to make lots of work for yourself and sink a lot of time into the creation of amateur field guides!

I photograph every plant I encounter and then upload them all to my laptop. When we discover the identification of a plant, I copy the image into a working document with the name, sources I used to identify the plant and any other information.

Sound like a lot of work? For sure, it can fast become a wormhole – but as a kinetic//visual learner with a brain like a sieve, I haven’t found a better method for remembering the plants.

5. Hot tips and other tricks.

I also have a whole bunch of other random tips that I wasn’t sure how to group. So, here they are –

  • Volunteering in weeding, tree planting or other grassroots environmental activities is a great way to spend time paying attention to plants
  • Join a group – Field Naturalists, local BirdLife branches, catchment councils, friends of your local wetland or wild space, National Park rangers and other environmental interest groups often run regular talks or guided walks which are great opportunities to ask questions and be in the same space as other local enthusiasts (or experts!). And if you can’t find one, what about starting your own?
  • Buy a pair of binoculars – at some point in your journey with birds specifically, an investment in a decent pair of binoculars will become a no-brainer. If you’re looking for amazing, mid-range recommendations – email me hello@itisawildlife.com
  • Get comfortable with Latin. It will take time but the sooner you embrace this next step as an ecologist, the sooner you will make gains in taxonomy, species identification and familiarity with the natural world.
  • Take the pressure off yourself and enjoy your journey!

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