Clellie Lynch: SEEKing the goldenrod

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"A local habitation and a name."

William Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Act V, Scene 1

When overgrown fields turn to a sea of goldenrod, when bursts of white snakeroot bloom along the roadsides, when spikes of fading lavender loosestrife inhabit damp ditches, then we know autumn is a'comin' in. The mornings are fairly quiet as most birds migrate at night at this time of year and come to rest and feed during the day. These avians are leery of announcing their presence to any and all enemies in unfamiliar territory.

The pale and nearly quiet September morn is cloaked in shadow. A pair of crows caws to one another; the resident phoebe perches on the wire and feebees to himself; the red-shouldered hawklets loudly shriek as if they are expecting Mom or Pop to deliver breakfast again. A lone spring peeper peeps and peeps perhaps thinking the other equinox is looming.

These mornings are September spectacular as the sun slowly rises turning the sky the bluest of blue and revealing the lush green trees spotted here and there with an orange leaf. With few birds to listen to and even fewer birds to see along my road, I slip my iPhone out of my pocket and tap on my new App: SEEK from iNaturalist, a free identification program devised by the California Academy of Sciences along with the National Geographic Society.

Not only does this educational program identify plants and mushrooms, it can identify birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fish and mollusks, insects and spiders. I take a photo of Danny and he's ID'd as human. I'm glad he's human!

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I am very curious to see how well this works and whenever I am walking along the road there are many familiar and unfamiliar plants for the App to identify. The machine easily picks out eastern white pine, white oak, northern red oak. Common wildflowers too are quickly identified: purple loosestrife, bird's-foot trefoil, chicory and spotted knapweed, which I note is neither spotty or knappy.

For each species, the phone screen displays a page with a wealth of information about that particular plant or animal beginning with the common name and then the Latinate name and whether it's native or not. It tells you the date you took the picture, and shows a map with a marker of where you took the picture. After the descriptive paragraph that includes the plants range, the taxonomy follows: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. Then it tells you how many id's of this species were made locally and then worldwide. The page concludes with a seasonality bar graph and a display of similar species for comparison.

The nearby observations can be telling. For purple loosestrife there were 182 nearby sightings and 21,182 worldwide, while for showy goldenrod: only one locally (me?) and 1,100 worldwide. The flat-topped goldenrod looks to be more common with 24 nearby sightings and 5,115 worldwide. With all the goldenrod fields around us, I would have thought there would be many more sightings.

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Sometimes, though, especially with goldenrod, the program is unable to commit to a particular species. I focus on the blossom, the stem, the leaves and still all it tells me is `goldenrod.' Frustrating since there are more than 15 species within Columbia County and although they resemble one another, the sprays of flowers, the leaves and stemming are different.

Some have pyramidic tops, some are like firework displays, others have a series of smaller and smaller sprays that all point in one direction like a golden arrow. Yet others are flat-topped with clusters. So if the program cannot identify a specific species, the nearby numbers would be quite low for a specific species.

For those who like to play games (the app lists that it is appropriate for those 4 years and older), there are challenges for which you may win a badge. If you take the Backyard Challenge you must find: Five plants, two insects, one arachnid and two birds. Sounds easy, right? Well, taking photos of birds perched on branches or wires, of flying insects or of near-enough animals is definitely challenging. The app, even with enlarging the photo which wreaks havoc with the focus, could not identify a chipmunk as other than in the squirrel family. A stock-still rabbit was identified as a marsh rabbit.

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I wander along the road and snap photos. You must hold the camera quite close to a particular plant. If it is not immediately identified, move the camera back and forth. A series of clear circles turn green as the program picks up more details. What I haven't worked out yet is why the program sometimes shows the plant out of focus when it finalizes the identification.

I discover the two grape vines around here are the summer grape and the riverbank grape and that these are related to Virginia creeper and the thicket creeper (a new one on me) which is also known as false Virginia creeper, though the thicket creeper has its own name, whereas there are some that don't: the false solomon's seal, false hellebore, false holly. But fortunately they do have individual Latinate binomials.

A small tiny white wildflower is identified as arrow-leaved tearthumb, related to both smartweed (obvious) and knotweed (not so obvious). When I open the App the next day the program asks me if this is the correct identification. Huh? why is it asking me? I click yes for want of anything else.

In the swampy area near the end of my road, I observe a large whitish mushroom. I take a photo using the SEEK App. Quickly it tells me this fungus is an eastern North America destroying angel in the amanita family and it is quite poisonous. Nearby a smaller mushroom is identified as a blushing bride amanita or the blusher, called this because when the flesh is cut it turns pink. The mossy maze polypore, little flat semicircular fungi climbing up a tree trunk is appropriately named, a dusty green as if covered with moss.

There's so much to learn out there even in the smallest portion of the woods. With this App there's no need to collect the specimen, go poring through field guides or books, flipping pages back and forth to determine the species. One can find "the local habitation and a name" for what lives and dwells around us with the amazing App, SEEK, except for those beautiful and plentiful goldenrod species.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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