What to photograph when counting the wild

Why photos, and audio recordings, are useful, even of common and easy to identify things

written Oct 29, 2020 • by jonsullivan • Category: Wild Counting

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Just about everyone has a digital camera these days (on their smart phone), and that can be super useful for counting the wild. How do you decide when should you take photos to support a wild count, and when not to bother? Here are four reasons why you should get out your camera, or open your camera app. And, before that, there’s one important reason why you shouldn’t.

Why not just photograph everything?

Digital photos are free to make and online sites like iNaturalist will store all your photos of species for free. If something is important enough to count, surely you should always take a photo of it? No, not at all.

Counting the wild means deciding in advance that you’re going to record every individual of your chosen species that you see or hear in your survey. That makes data that can be used to reveal trends and patterns. It is difficult, and very slow, to attempt to photograph every individual you see, for anything but the rarest and most sedentary species.

It is important to collect evidence to support your identifications of the species that you count. That evidence could be photos or audio recordings, or, if you’ve got the right permits, it could be a specimen for a museum, or a tissue sample for DNA sequencing. However, once you’ve demonstrated that you can reliably identify a species, how much more evidence do you need?

For example, if you’ve proved to the world that you can reliably identify New Zealand fantails, then you don’t need to photograph every fantail you count. You’ll count many more fantails if you’re not committed to photographing every one of them. It takes time to stop and photograph a fantail (sometimes they’ll move so fast that you’ll be lucky to get a photo at all) and then labelling and uploading your photos take more time. To reveal patterns and trends in a fantail population, it’s much better to get many more counts, without photos, than fewer counts all with photos.

NZ fantail in Christchurch
Here's a piwakawaka/NZ fantail I saw in Ōtautahi-Christchurch, which will make it a South Island subspecies of the NZ fantail. They're a distinctive bird that's easy to hear and see, but quick moving and often hard to photograph.

When you’re counting the wild, you’ll count a lot more if you don’t collect evidence for every count you make. More counts are better then more photos, once you’ve shown that you can reliably identify a species.

Additionally, when your doing wild counts, youkre committing to count every individual (or patch) of your predetermined species during your survey. That’s not every individual you can photo. It’s every individual, regardless of whether or not you manage to take a photo.

So, if you don’t need to take photos of everything, when should you take photos?


Let’s get the obvious reason out of the way first: you should take photos whenever you’re not 100% certain of your identifications. You should learn to be brutally honest with yourself, since 99% is not 100%.

To have a good chance of getting a correct identification, you should take photos of all the various features of the thing you’re counting. The less sure you are of your identification, the more photos you should take. Leaves, flowers, tentacles, claws, wings—photograph whatever distinctive features you can see. Post all these photos of an individual organism on iNaturalist, as one observation. Others can then correct, or confirm, your identification.

Even when you’re sure of an identification, there’s sometimes a small chance that you’re wrong. Without photos, or other evidence, your identifications cannot be revisited later and reassessed. For example, if an Australian Rhipidura species, or subspecies, that looked similar to a New Zealand fantail, blew off course and reached New Zealand, I might well glance at it and identify it confidently as a New Zealand fantail. With a photo, a closer look could later correct my identification.

Grey fantail in Melbourne
If I got a quick look at this bird in NZ, it's quite possible that I'd confidently say I saw a NZ fantail. I'd be wrong though, as this is an Australian grey fantail, seen here near Melbourne by Anthony Kurek (@a_kurek, CC-BY-NC).

This happened with the first known arrival in New Zealand of the European Polistes wasp, Polistes dominula. A photo taken in 2013 was uploaded to iNaturalist NZ and at first was identified as the very similar looking Asian paper wasp Polistes chinensis, which was already well established in New Zealand. This identification was corrected, a few years later, after an entomologist took a closer look at the photo. That’s now the first record of this species in the area. Without that photo, this reassessment would not have been possible, and we wouldn’t have known that this species had been in New Zealand for several years.

This means that, even when you’re confident of your identification, it can still be worth taking occasional photos. In general, if you know the species, but you find it in an unusual place, or at an unexpected time of the year, or doing something odd, or looking a bit different, then that warrants a photo.

Life stage and condition

Even when there’s no doubt in your identification, it can still be worth taking some photos. That’s because photos can reveal other useful things, besides a species’ identification, like the state and condition of the individuals you’re counting. For example, experts could use your photos (or audio recordings) to tell you things like an individual’s age, sex, reproductive state, and health.

You may know what species of caterpillar you’ve counted, but a photo (with a scale) could let an entomologist say exactly what moult (instar) you’ve found. Together with other such observations, that would be useful for figuring out the timing of that insect’s development, and how it might change in different places and in different years. That would not be possible without photos supporting your counts.

The same thing applies to plants. You may know the species with certainty, but a photo will also capture its reproductive state. You could have written down whether or not it was flowering or fruiting, and not taken a photograph. I do that a lot. However, by taking photos of some of your counted plants, someone could also estimate how heavily a plant is flowering or fruiting. The intensity of flowering and fruiting can vary a lot among years and have a big effect on other species sharing the habitat. It’s also time consuming to accurately estimate this visually, but it can be done later with good photos.

If you’re particularly interested in plant phenology (the timing of flowering and seeding and leaf loss, and how that’s changing), then also consider photographing the same selection of individual plants each time you survey them. That’s what I do on my standard run routes.

For plants that have different sexes on different plants, close photos of the flowers on a plant will let a botanist work out its sex. Knowing the sex of plants is important for rare plants, as well as weeds. In both cases it’s important to know where the females are, since only they can set seed.

Flowers of a male Chilean maytenFlowers of a female Chilean mayten
Flowers of a male and female Chilean mayten, Martens boaria. This species has separate male and female trees, with only the female making seed. In Ōtautahi-Christchurch, NZ, initially only males were planted in gardens, but later females were also sold through the nursery trade and it was then that it became a weed. Now, knowing where the females are is particularly important.

Information can also be gleaned from photos of birds. In many bird species, males, females, and juveniles have different plumage, and birds in different stages of breeding can also have different plumage. You may know the species you’re counting, but including a photo will also let an ornithologist work out more information about your bird’s age, sex and breeding state.

Your photos can also show the health of individuals. Some animals may be unusually thin, and fewer may be in breeding state this year than normal. Plants may be growing less this year, and fewer may be fruiting. These things can become obvious from a set of photos, but you might overlook them while you’re counting.

All of this information is additional to the species’ identification, and can be extracted from photos. So, even if you’re 100% certain of your identification, taking photos of some of the individuals you count (preferably a random/haphazard selection) can bring a valuable extra layer of information to your wild counts.


Another thing that can be figured out from photos are the species that your counted individuals were interacting with. What plant is that caterpillar feeding on? What flower is that fly visiting? What fruit is that bird eating? Photos also quickly capture the context of the other species, and environmental conditions, at the place where your counted species was living.

You may know the species you’re counting, but you might not be sure what species it’s interacting with. Often, photos are all that’s needed to reveal these additional stories in your counts.

All of this information can be invaluable for understanding the likely causes of trends and patterns that emerge from your counts. For example, if your counts reveal a population in decline, a look through your photos, and those from other people, could show whether this could be the result of changes in the species it commonly interacts with (for example, an increase in a competitor).

A NZ common tussock butterfly
A NZ common tussock butterfly, Argyrophenga antipodum. This photo can not only be used to confirm my identification of this species, but also provides evidence that it feeds from flowers of the European yarrow, Achillea millefolium. At the time of writing, this observation is the only evidence of this species interaction in the Global Biotic Interactions database. Photos of species interacting with other species are useful evidence of how ecosystems are connected.


Thinking longer term, all species are evolving, forever changing to better match their changing world. Most of these changes go unnoticed, but only because nobody is watching carefully enough. Evolution is happening all around us, all the time.

Researchers who have looked through long-term datasets and museum specimens have found plenty of evidence of species changing, noticeably, within just decades to a few human generations. They have found leaf shape and flower size changing in plants. Beak dimensions and relative wing length and clutch size are changing in birds. Colour patterns and markings are changing in insects. If you look hard enough, you’ll find changes. We can expect a lot of this evolutionary change over the coming decades as environmental change accelerates.

If you’re counting the wild to reveal trends, you’re already thinking about the longer term. As you uncover which species are increasing and which are in decline, you’ll also be wanting to help uncover which species are changing the most, and how they’re changing.

The most powerful way to do this is with detailed measurements, and DNA sequencing, of lots of vouchered museum specimens collected from formal surveys. If you have the permits, budget, and storage to contribute to this, that’s great. However, do not underestimate the usefulness of many clear and consistent photos (with a scale) for revealing evolutionary changes.

While museum specimens are the gold standard here, we can take thousands of photos for every one specimen collected and curated and stored. Photos with wild counts have the potential to reveal the evolutionary changes underway in many more species, and places, than can be done with the relatively few specimens collected for museums.

In conclusion

I can imagine a time, in the not too distant future, when we’ve all got gadgets that can record everything we see and hear. Social implications aside, such technology could well make it feasible to easily record every species you count. In that future world the tech will likely also be able to automatically identify and count everything you see and hear. Wild counting will be very different.

We don’t live in that world. It takes time to get out our mobile phones or cameras, it takes time and skill and luck to get good photos of a species we’ve seen, and it takes time to label and upload our photos. In our world there still is a cost to taking photos, and that makes a trade off between taking more photos and making more wild counts.

It’s your choice where exactly you draw the line, to find the right balance for you. What’s important is that more photos usually means fewer counts. Once you’ve got good at identifying a species, in general you’ll learn more from making many more counts, and many more surveys, than you’ll learn from taking more photos.