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Anita’s Blog – Photos for Success

For the upcoming annual City Nature Challenge BioBlitz April 26 - 29, 2024 – check out this link so this blog post makes sense:

Here’s the fun part of the City Nature Challenge, if you're just getting started – What to photograph!

Plants, shrubs, trees

Animals, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish


Insects, beetles, bugs


Butterflies and moths

Fungi and lichen

Sea shore, surf, beach and dune life: shells, beached creatures, sea beans, sea grasses, coral, fish, things swimming in the surf, dead fish on the beach, birds, crabs

Signs of life: scat, roadkill, feathers, snake skins, bones, skeletons, animal tracks, pond scum, dead bugs

Geological formations? No

Water? No

Here are some of my random observations about photographing observations to upload:

Consider including blooms, buds, leaves, whole plant, thorns, seedpods, bark. Three or four photos of an observation can be uploaded together, under the same observation, if images are of the same plant. Sometimes, where the thorns or prickles are on a branch or how they are grouped are important. For instance, tenaza has paired spines; retama thorns are in groups of three.

American Nightshade bloom and leaves. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Tenaza tree bark and spines. (Photo by Anita Westervelt

Don’t forget to look at the plants coming up between the cracks of a sidewalk. You may have to separate them if there is a group in one spot. Sometimes, a piece of white cardboard about the size of copy paper, placed between plants, allows a clear photo for better identification. Or take the photo from a position that shows a single plant. Below, from left, three crack plants growing together, middle photo taken from the advantage of only showing the Ruellia nudiflora and photo on right observation of snapdragon vine.

Too bright sunlight may wash out detail. Position your body to shade the object or conversely, move to allow a modicum of light on the subject to show detail.

The best identification opportunity for bugs shows their back side, like this splendid Texas Bow-legged bug.

Texas Bow-legged Bug. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Perspective is sometimes important. A six-inch ruler fits nicely in a pocket.

Purple Groundcherry. Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The wind can work against us when trying to take a sharply focused photo. Sometimes it helps to grab a plant with one hand and frame, focus and shoot with the other – right – not impossible, though. Multiple shots may be required; crop and upload your best take. On the other hand, the wind may dislodge things like lichen or bird nests. Some bird nests are easy to identify, many are not.

American Basketflower. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

There is a note section when uploading observations. For caterpillars, it may be helpful to note what plant the caterpillar is on, which may indicate its host plant and help with identification.

Moonseed Moth caterpillar on Snailseed Vine. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

For a bird’s nest that was woven into a Mexican fan palm branch or flowering stalk that has blown to the ground, annotate that information briefly in the notes section. In South Texas, hooded oriole nests are often woven from palm or yucca fibers on palm fronds; nests are the shape and size of a tea cup.

Hooded Oriole nest on Mexican Fan palm frond. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Hooded Oriole nest on Mexican Fan palm flower stalk. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Butterflies are more easily photographed when approached (slowly) from the back, not front or side, where they can see. Be careful not to have your shadow fall over them – that also alerts them to fly away. In my experience, butterflies are incredibly skittish and harder to photograph in the spring. During fall, they seem to be more interested in nectar than wary of threats and you can get closer to them in the fall. In the spring, take a shot when you first see the butterfly, then take a step closer and another shot and continue until you get a workable image; close crop it before uploading it.

Monarch Butterfly on Pink Mint. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Check out what might be on the side of a building. Lately, early in the morning, I’ve found moths, spiders and snails near the barn door from where the light of our downward shining security light is trained during the night.

Approach dense shrubs slowly and quietly and scan them for moths, bugs, flies and other things resting on or hiding amongst the leaves and branches. A lot of moths and night-flying insects take shelter once the sun comes up but are still on the alert to flee. Daytime critters are doing daytime activates on and in plants, too, like the robber fly that jetted off the bristle thistle when I got too close. Luckily, it stopped close by on a slim tree branch. I took two photos of the robber fly and I would upload them both in the same observation. The bristle thistle has gone to seed but still useful as a species to upload.

Scat is always fun to find. As are tracks. Coyote scat is tapered at the ends. It can be gray and furry looking, like the below photo on the left, if the coyote had eaten a lot of small animals, birds and insects, especially during winter; it can look entirely different after a summer diet of seeds and berries, like in the photo on the right -- note that it is still tapered at the ends. The middle photo is armadillo scat.

Canine tracks are longer than they are wide, while feline tracks have more of an equal length and width. Canine tracks show the claw imprint, feline claws are retracted and do not show in a track.

Canine track, most probably domestic dog. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Owl pellets are generally found at the base of trees.

Owl pellet. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Try not to categorize an observation as “life,” even if you have no earthly idea what something might be because it may not get looked at by the reviewers. Reviewers usually specialize and look for the species in their expertise. Type in a “placeholder” like Plants or Butterflies and Moths or Lichen or Fungi.

The most important thing is to have sharp, clear photos. Camera shake is the top culprit causing a photo to look unfocused. When pressing the “photo” button, be sure not to jar your phone or camera.

Ideas to consider when using the camera on your phone:

•       Know your camera’s subject to lens focus range; most are 6 inches between subject and lens, any closer than the optimal range and the camera cannot focus

•       You can’t get macro close-up images with a phone camera, unless you have an attachment like Xenvo (available online)

•       Close crop the image prior to uploading to iNaturalist for maximum visual of your subject

•       Hold phone/camera straight onto subject for maximum depth of field

•       Hold phone or camera completely still but not so tight your hand trembles; again, camera shake is the number one cause of out-of-focus or fuzzy, blurry photos – wind is second

•       Take several photos in different positions/angles and for best selection

•       Move close to your subject and not use the phone’s telephoto option to bring the subject closer, it causes pixilation and the photo will not be sharply focused

•       You can shoot either horizontally or vertically and crop before uploading; iNaturalist uses the square shape as most of my examples show

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