My personal interest in the countryside came from a yearning to know more and more about what I was seeing. Stemming from birds I have branched into many different taxa, from botany to the occasional dip into terrestrial molluscs. This is a skill and interest that I realise I take for granted. It seems that once you’re hooked on identification there’s no getting away from it.

These field and identification skills form an often fundamental element of ecologists’, naturalists’ and conservationists’ knowledge but why are they so important?

Why bother?

If there were nobody who could identify bumblebees, would the current decline have been noticed? Would anyone have been aware of the huge impact that Himalayan Balsam Impatiens glandulifera has had on our native flora and ecosystems? Would the Marsh Tit Poecile palustris and the Willow Tit Poecile montanus have been separated into two different species? There are so many reasons field skills are important, but as an ecologist or naturalist it is essential to understanding how the natural world works.

On top of this, it is important to anyone wanting a career in ecology, this includes consultants, rangers, conservationists, to name but a few. Currently there is generally a lack of field skills in graduates, with few having adequate field knowledge to be noticed by an employer. In fact, employers test people in interviews to check whether their field skills are up to a sufficient level so it is important to be competent in this area (I should also stress that not all ecology jobs require field skills and testing only occurs in the ones where employees will be actively identifying species). Young people need to fill the role of the current field ecologists, otherwise there’s going to be a lot of things we won’t know.

Finally, it can be very rewarding. I know it’s not just me that gets a thrill from identifying or discovering something new, whether it’s a new fern on my patch or a rare breeding bird for the county. There are always new things to be found in the natural world, it’s impossible to run out of new learning experiences.

Finally seeing a target species is very rewarding. In this case Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is a scarce species in some parts of Scotland

Finally seeing a target species is very rewarding. In this case Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is a scarce species in some parts of Scotland

How do you start out?

If you have never ventured into the huge world of identification before then it may, or probably will, be quite daunting. Species, scientific names, plumage, tracks, dentition, what are these and how are you supposed to remember any of them?

I started out with birds, as many people do. It started with just looking out the window, telling a Coal Tit from a Great Tit and just enjoying myself. This was quite easy to start with as I had an interest. It is usually much easier to learn something if you find it interesting, so find a group that is of interests you!

Birds are a very popular taxa to start out with. They are accessible, obvious, but still offer a challenge. If you were to start off with alga then you’d have thrown yourself in at the deep end but if that’s what interests you then go for it! Once you’ve got one taxon under your belt, why not broaden your knowledge? A broad knowledge of various taxa can be very appealing to an employer, but so can a specialism in one particular area. In fact those who can identify some of the more obscure invertebrates, or have excellent botanical knowledge, can find themselves in demand.

Also, learning something new can be just as uplifting; nailing the ID of that bumblebee as it buzzes past you, keying out a new wildflower or moss, discovering a set of tracks. Always having these targets set to become better and learn more means field skills can be very rewarding for the field ecologist!

There’s help out there

There really is, you just need to know where to look.

Other people can be great sources of information. When you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and listen to what people say. One very good place for asking for help is on social media; there’s a Facebook group for a lot of taxonomic and interest groups (e.g. botany, spiders, birds, and general natural history), but sometimes it can be better to learn for yourself. There are times when a big deal is made of simple IDs, usually due to a picture that doesn’t accurately portray the specimen. Also, don’t fall into the trap of relying on others to do it for you, ask for pointers as opposed to a definite ID, and once an ID has been given go back to the books and check it for yourself.

There are loads of books out there, and once you start to get into field skills then you’ll probably start to build up a library of ID books for various taxon. This library will no doubt continue to increase in size as you become more and more intrigued to learn more about nature.

The Internet helped confirm that this is a Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee, (Bombus bohemicus), as opposed to Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee

The Internet helped confirm that this is a Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee, (Bombus bohemicus), as opposed to Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee

In the modern world we are lucky enough to have extremely easy access to information, whether this is through a computer, phone or tablet. The Internet is a brilliant resource and can come in handy when you don’t have your field guide at hand, or if you don’t have a field guide that covers the species you are looking at.

However, be careful using sites such as Google Images as these will often bring up results that are incorrect. Listed at the end are some recommended sites for identification of some plants and animals.

There are mobile apps out there to aid identification, however I have not made use of them myself. Popular guides such as Collins Bird Guide are possible to access on your mobile and can be very helpful in the field as you can effectively carry 400 pages of information in your back pocket.

Get out there!

When out in the field, whether identifying bees or camera trapping badgers, just make sure you are enjoying yourself. It makes the whole process of learning identification a lot easier when you enjoy and appreciate what it is you’re looking at, whether it’s a species you’ve always wanted to see or a species you’d never heard of.

Myself photographing Capercaillie droppings, captured on trail camera

Myself photographing Capercaillie droppings, captured on trail camera

To Recap

Field identification skills should be a very important part of most ecologist’s knowledge. Without them it can be near impossible to understand how the natural world functions.

On top of this, many careers in ecology or conservation will require a good level of identification skills (some roles do not require in-depth identification knowledge though). A field ecologist with limited ability will not be capable of identifying many of scarce species or those infrequently encountered, which can be the ones of greatest importance.

Finally, field skills can be one of the most enjoyable parts about being an ecologist or conservationist! It gets you outdoors, can be exciting and very enjoyable, and there is always something new to learn or a way to delve deeper into a previously explored area.

Recommended Sites

RSPB Bird Identifier – Gives you all the British species, and has a tool for working out what you’ve seen

Bumblebee Conservation Trust – Clear illustrations on all UK bumblebee species, makes it reasonably simple to ID bumblebees

British Dragonfly Society – Good quality pictures of every UK dragonfly and damselfly species with distribution maps

NatureSpot – Covers all taxa, only species of Leicester & Rutland but many are common across the UK