Google Photos as a natural history resource.

Most of these photographs were taken on what turned out to be a life changing trip to Dartmoor in March 2016. The Potwell Inn didn’t exist; we’d been through retirement and a major family crisis when our second grandchild was born with a still undiagnosed genetic disorder; we’d moved from a large vicarage to a small flat in Bath and the allotment was yet to come. Christmas had been a write-off and we had taken ourselves off to St Ives in the campervan in search of some respite – in the dog days of the old year just as a major Atlantic storm reached the south west.

January 1st 2016 – a stupidly hubristic resolution

The key photograph here is the one of the (at the time) unidentified little seagull. We were leaning on the railings above the harbour just down from St Ives lifeboat station and watching the gulls when I realized that this gull was very different from some of the other gulls and I had no idea what species it was. I remember feeling faintly annoyed with myself and later that day we went into the bookshop and bought the first bird guide we’d ever owned. It was about then that quite the stupidest resolution I’ve ever made began to form in my head. I would not – I resolved – pass by any plant or animal, without naming it. The picture I took that day was completely hopeless in terms of identification, even with an 80mm lens there was no detail that had any significance so far as I could see. Just for the record I now know perfectly well that the dark smudge behind the bird’s ear is all that remains of the Black Headed Gulls’ distinctive summer plumage on December 29th.

Before we retired (i.e when we had a bit more money), I bought an iPhone and a Macbook. Madame had already settled into the Apple ecosystem because she was teaching photography at the time and it made sense for us to share resources. For the first time I owned a mobile that would add location data to the EXIF file. At roughly the same time I started keeping a private journal using Day One software and this integrated seamlessly between the iPhone, the Macbook and a big desktop. But it wasn’t so long before we came up against Apple’s policy of abandoning their products by making it impossible to upgrade the software. Day One suddenly stopped talking to my Macbook and when I complained I was told that it was my fault for not upgrading. We struggled on for several years, but applications like Photoshop and Lightroom were less and less easy to run on our aging machines and in any case their memory hogging features were far beyond my own needs. I was using Microsoft Windows for work and so we landed up in the worst of all worlds, moving photographs between incompatible software. Heaven knows how much data was lost; but in the end I began a long process of ditching Apple and moved as much data as I could find into Dropbox as a security for the future.

It was our oldest son who broke the impasse by giving me an old Pixel 3 phone after an upgrade and I started using Google Photos. To be honest there was nothing about the iPhone that I particularly missed, and when – a couple of years later – he gave me a basic HP Chromebook that he’d acquired during another upgrade, and after he helped me with a fast and pretty seamless setup and data transfer, I put my agonisingly slow Macbook on a shelf and started enjoying an entirely new and fast cloud-based ecosystem.

Anyway, to get back to the photographs at the top of this post, they represent something of a sea change. My ludicrous resolution to try to name things brought about a move towards much more purposeful photography. As my interest in plants moved up a step, I discovered that well composed photographs of plants I didn’t recognise, meant I didn’t have to dig them up and take them home which is at best inconsiderate and at worst illegal. It’s taken ever since to refine the technique so that I remember to photograph the sometimes apparently insignificant details that make the difference between a correct and a wrong identification.

None of this particularly mattered, of course, as long as I was the only person ever to see the record. But then, as I wrote in a post last week, I began sending them for verification by the local BSBI East Cornwall recorder – which is when it dawned on me that my photographs were more akin to archaeological compost than a filing system. Looking for old photos meant trawling through thousands of them in the hope of alighting upon the right one.

By now I’d got myself a powerful little Pixelbook and I was beginning to understand that the originally utilitarian Google Photos has a few new tricks up its sleeve. One of Google’s most useful – although much feared – attributes is its formidable artificial intelligence software. If you’ve ever used Google Lens on the phone you’ll know that. It can be a curse as well as a blessing – this morning I had an email from someone asking what was the launching fee at Percuil. We were on holiday for the last two weeks and I mentioned Percuil several times in the blog and the odd request must have flowed from a bit of AI that was too clever for its own good.

Google Photos uses AI to do a lot of basic sorting and indexing of photos behind the scenes; so I can search on months and years, faces and places. But last week I wanted to start indexing keywords like genera, species, English and Latin names and various other bits of searchable data. I’d contemplated using some third party software but after hours of searching I couldn’t find anything I liked better. Any records I’d submitted or had accepted would be somewhere in one of a number of vast external databases, but I wouldn’t be able to access them in a simple personal list.

So here’s the exciting thing. After a bit of experimentation it seems that contrary to what I read on the internet, I can do keyword searches on terms that I type into the “details” column at the head of all the EXIF data. The only downside is that the AI facilities remain in play, so a keyword search on primrose might yield a few lookalikes as well – not the end of the world in my view. My guess is that some of the AI used in Google Lens is already being built into Google Photos. The software connects seamlessly to WordPress, so I can use my photographs in this blog; and I can easily forward diagnostic photographs to the referees for acceptance.

When we go out plant hunting I take the phone with a macro lens so I can take the necessary photos. I’ve got stacks of useful apps on the phone as well, including OS mapping, accurate National Grid references, altitude, and shortcuts to the BSBI plant distribution database. I’ve also got iRecord, I Naturalist and a link to the local list of plants which I download as a PDF before leaving home. Google Lens is surprisingly helpful in steering me in the right direction but it’s not infallible. Of course I will take a book along with me but I always take photographs because I can use them with my library of plant books at leisure when I get home. It doesn’t always work, and I often have to go back, look more closely and take more photos in order to do a full ID.

The upshot is that the more of this kind of intense work I do, the more my plant ID skills improve. Typing details into the software drills the English and Latin names into my memory very effectively too. I think the take-home point is that while for some people, staggering across a bog with a large camera and tripod, an expensive GPS unit and a copy of Stace 4 weighing in at well over a kilogramme is the only way forward. But for my purposes I can get it all into a pocket without my trousers falling down. I take a 6″ ruler, I use my walking pole as a 1.5 metre measuring stick. I take a plastic zip bag, just in case; a Rite in the Rain waterproof notebook and a pen that writes on it underwater and upside down – who knows when that might be needed! a scalpel and a couple of hand lenses. Total weight around 500g.

Maybe I’ll be forced to eat my words one day, but this seems to me to be the simplest and cheapest way – it’s free – of creating a searchable, automatically backed up photographic database for plant recording. No good at all, of course for insects, mammals and birds because they all race around too far away for a phone camera. But my subjects stand still – unless it’s very windy – and best of all the photos escape the dangers of being lost forever in my fallible memory. What’s not to like?

First fruits

It’s a bit of a cheat to call these first fruits I suppose, but the parsley has thrived in the polytunnel along with strawberry plants, peas, lettuces and spinach. I’m sure we could have done much better in the tunnel but it’s been our first season and it’s a steep learning curve. The rhubarb is one of the treats of the early season and we eat it greedily, but there’s not a sign of the sweet cicely yet but the faint sweetness and aniseed flavour of sweet cicely really is the cherry on the cake – and since it was planted it’s appeared regularly. We’re really quite a long way from its home in the north so there’s always a possibility that it will give up on us, but it’s always lovely to see it poking its head above the earth.

Here’s another sign from a different setting. Away from the vegetable gardens the more decorative ones are just beginning to gather strength. During our stay on the Roseland peninsula we walked from Gerrans down the field lanes to Place – yes that’s the name of the place – Place. One purpose of the walk was to look for flowering wild plants, of which more later, but as we walked the last hundred yards down the narrow road we came across the splendid sight of the lodge cottage surrounded by camellias in full flower. Trad english countryside on steroids!

Place has a rather lovely house which is now in use as a wedding venue – there’s a photo left – which is built in such a way as to have the high tide reach the retaining wall of the lawn twice a day. Apart from that it’s a mud flat with a stream flowing down the middle, but it’s where we saw our very first Little Egret some years ago. On Tuesday we saw two there with a heron and the usual cohort of more familiar herring gulls having occasional scraps with the local crows. There’s also a ferry here in the summer that will take you to St Mawes where, if you like, you can catch a further ferry to Falmouth. Great for South West Coast Path walkers who don’t want to get too fussy about walking every little creek up and back.

The third setting for enjoying the early signs of spring is to watch the emerging wildflowers, and that was the main purpose of our walk. The final tally of plants in flower was around twenty. I’ve already written about my travails with the iRecord system which is quite difficult to master. I have learned to successfully add single records and I’ve even figured out the little triangular warning signs that accompany some of my (either) fanciful or ( remotely possibly) brilliant sightings. I reckon a little four inside a triangle is a clue that there will be some tooth gnashing going on somewhere.

Cow Parsley

My biggest problem has been to submit a whole list of all twenty five species in one go. They are, after all, on the same footpath. But this time the system defeated me and I appeared to accidentally delete all of my list twice! Ho hum. I thought I bore it very philosophically but I dropped a mild email to the overworked minders of the scheme and although no formal reply arrived back, I noticed this morning that they had been restored. It was very kind of them but unfortunately their helpful gesture resulted in a bit of double entry which could make the whole lot pretty useless for researchers. So I think I’ll probably have to delete the lot again and start from scratch having learned the point at which the software can’t follow my random approach any more. I will learn it! I really will – because there isn’t a better way of putting something back into the community than recording its natural assets. I’ll always be a footsoldier in the enterprise but going out and doing some field botany is all the more absorbing if you happen on something a bit different. It’s no use anyone saying “stick to dandelions and you’ll be OK” because you need a PhD to sort them out beyond the wretched “agg (regate)” status. An acquaintance in the Bath Nats was one of the authors of the standard monograph on the blackberry whose promiscuous sexual habits have resulted in hundreds of subspecies. Sadly it is not mentioned which ones are the best to eat. For that you have to go blackberrying and find a secret spot or plant a delicious variety in your allotment. The most ordinary things are boundlessly fascinating.

As we walked down the lane I noticed a tiny white flower shining through the undergrowth. I knelt down to photograph it from half a dozen angles so I could ID it properly back in the campervan. It was hairy bittercress – a very common weed, you might say – personally I don’t believe in weeds – but blow me down when we went up to the allotment this morning there were hundreds of them. They’d obviously been there all along but until I’d taken the trouble to look minutely at a single one them they’d escaped my attention. Hairy Bittercress – very good for improving your eyesight, but not by eating it; just knowing its name.

Heligan – the return

Crossing the jungle

Last time we camped here at Heligan the campervan leisure batteries – (and therefore almost everything else) -gave up and we spent best part of the week (it was February) freezing cold and huddling in the sleeping bags with only head torches to see by. This time we crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s and after a lot of maintenance work the van is restored to its full glory. Sadly the weather has been awful, with almost continuous rain, and so it’s been obligatory wet weather gear. Nothing daunted though, we’ve been out and about to see the spectacular beginnings of the magnolia and camellia blossom. The kitchen garden looks a bit like the allotment at home – all dressed up with nowhere to go. What we need, of course, is a bit of decent weather. It’s all very well the Met Office determining that March 1st is the first day of Spring, but for gardeners and astrologers, not to mention traditionalists, the equinox is the real deal. Someone should tell them that nature doesn’t read books – however well indexed. Those extra three weeks make a world of difference. Today as we walked the perimeter of the Heligan estate we could see all manner of leaves pushing upwards but relatively few flowers.

Gunnera plants.

For sheer horror you could do worse than film these Gunneras unfolding in time lapse mode. They might well have been part of the background research for Aliens and if we had the gift of standing completely still and watching for a month we’d probably need psychotherapy! So just to balance things out a little, here’s a Magnolia bloom representing the acceptable face of gardening.

Magnolia

Still it’s true that sometimes the most memorable finds are not the show stoppers, but the ones that nearly got away. I brought a new field guide down with me to try and I was anxious to give it a test run. Weather being weather it would have been hazardous to give it a first run in the rain – the Collins Wild Flower Guide is not for the faint hearted. Before we set out I weighed copies of the Rose “Wildflower Key” which came in at around 800 grammes. The Book of Stace was about 1500 grammes and the mighty Collins swaggered it at 1700 Grammes. You really need some thew to carry it around in your bag ……… so I didn’t!

Anyway, as we were wandering alongside the stream in the woods at the southern edge of the estate I spotted something odd, lurking amongst the vegetation, in this case mostly primroses in leaf. At first glance these tiny (3mm) flowers looked as if they belonged to a sickly Veronica; the leaves looked yellowish and chlorotic. But after I’d walked past a couple of clumps I could see that they were in full flower except the flowers seemed to have sepals but no petals – rather like tiny euphorbias. So lacking the book I took a couple of photos and did some research back at the van where I found that they were golden saxifrages – specifically the opposite leaved form – Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. After confirming it in the Collins WFG and checking the distribution on the BSBI online maps I felt brave enough to record it on iRecord. It’s not showy, it’s not in the least rare but I’d never noticed it before. Sitting in the van and uploading the record with the rain beating down on the roof, felt like a vindication of the day. There are very few activities where a complete amateur can make a difference, and when it comes to the destruction of the environment we need witnesses. Witnesses that can put hard, verifiable records up against the magical thinking of the climate change deniers.

And that’s also why it’s worth recording even the humblest and most common of the plants. If I have a beef with natural history films it’s their tendency to stress the spectacular over the mundane and wrap every living creature into a homesy narrative overwhelmed by overblown musical scores. Natural history as folk religion.

When you think about it, rarity and scarcity are not quite synonyms. Living organisms first become scarce and only then do they become rare. How will we know when an old familiar friend is becoming scarce if we don’t record them when they’re plentiful? Ten thousand records for lesser celandines seems about right, against one for the ghost orchid. But if no one ever recorded the ordinary everyday plants we wouldn’t notice until they almost disappeared – like the cuckoo! Today, standing in the woods, we heard a woodpecker drumming. As a child on my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns, such a sound would have been commonplace; but today it made my spirits leap. In the 1950’s my squirrels were all red squirrels. My grandfather was doing his best to shoot the greys, for which he was paid a penny a tail, I think. It didn’t work, though, and now we have to travel afar to see them. After another rainy day here tomorrow, we’re off to a site on the Roseland Peninsula with a more promising weather forecast.

It’s been an additional pleasure to write this post because a couple of weeks ago we decided to lash out on a portable WiFi router that runs on a data SIM. It seems to be working very well with all our laptops and phones networked and able to stream video. I think it’s known as a MiFi system. Anyway it works for us – so no more standing out in the wet trying to get a signal. With campsite WiFi here costing £15 for three days and not even functioning very well, it’s goodbye to tethering and hello to happy days.

All tooled up!

Gosh we’ve been busy getting ready for the next trip. I think I’ve finally got the courage to start officially recording some of the plants we hope to find and so it’s been a rush to gather together all the tools and to figure out how to use them. So I hope you’ll forgive me for failing to find a ghost orchid or anything remotely rare but settling on an ubiquitous weed like couch grass simply to check on some ID keys and test out the macro extension lens on the phone; and I’m feeling ever so pleased.

There’s a bit of a knack to taking photographs for plant ID’s because they need to capture as much as possible of the kind of technical information you’ll definitely wish you’d recorded when you get back to base; things like grid references and what kind of soil and light conditions not to mention – in the case of grasses – all manner of obscurities concerning ligules, auricles, lemmas glumes, stolons, rhizomes and spikelets. So while we took a break from planting out broad beans I pulled a lump of the revolting weed out of one of the allotment beds and tried to remember all this stuff as I took the photos. I know it’s all a bit technical but there’s something very lovely about grasses because they hide their differences so completely. Half a millimetre can be important. This reminds me of one of my theology tutors who used to run what he called CAT sessions – close attention to text. We discovered that the really important understandings demanded time, attention and focus. Drill down hard enough and what appears to be a uniform field of grass can become a garden of delights. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

The other bit of plant recording I’ve had to learn is the software. There’s a mountain of data out there in databases which must have taken millions of voluntary hours of recording and checking. OK I’m a complete nerd but I think I’m happier growing and examining plants than I am frothing at the mouth while I scream at the television. So couch grass became a rehearsal for the really good stuff which I’m so looking forward to finding this season.

Later, just for fun, I dug into the herbals and discovered that however much we gardeners loathe the stuff there are people out their who are prepared to pay £10 for 100 grammes of the offending roots. By all accounts (and lacking any scientific proof as far as I could find out) couch roots have some healing properties. By my reckoning there must be many thousands of pounds worth of herbal remedy underground at the allotment site but the sheer agony of digging it up would need the price to go a lot higher than that. It is, however, the most tremendously vigorous plant. I read later about an experiment where 20 week old couch tillers grew 5 metres – 15 feet in a few weeks while throwing up over 200 buds. Oh to think that it’s an incomer brought in centuries ago. My mum was an inveterate smuggler of purloined cuttings from every garden she ever visited – perhaps it was an ancestor of hers that brought the wretched weed here.

Anyway, the kit is assembled, tested – and we’re ready to rock and roll this season. Fortunately while I crawl around in the dirt in lovely places, Madame will be bingeing on drawing with ink and bamboo pens; inspired by David Hockney’s latest book. In the background I can hear our waterproofs taking an interminable time to dry in low heat after being re-proofed. We’re optimistic but not reckless.

Some images just don’t work with a phone.

The greatest advantage of the phone camera is the sheer convenience I suppose but it’s not always the best tool for the job. The upper two photos were both taken with my Pixel 3 phone – it was a sunny day, the subject, a beautiful wooly thistle – Cirsium eriophorum was sitting still, and depth of field, the extent to which the photo remained focused throughout the whole depth of the subject wasn’t a great problem. I knew what it was and in the perfect conditions it was a useful aide memoire of our walk. My intention in taking the picture was also to have a sample for the iRecord software while I’m learning to use it. I don’t suppose for a moment the County Recorder would be thrilled to receive yet another record of a pretty common plant, but I’ve discovered over many years of failures that it’s better to learn to use new software before getting things right turns an opportunity into a panic. The other reason for using the phone was because we were out for a fairly long walk and the thought of lugging a camera, flash unit and tripod up a steep hill was a bit daunting. However, no matter – it all worked seamlessly and I was able to snatch the shot without making my companions wait.

The lower photo was a different kettle of fish altogether. Yesterday we met up with our grandchildren and their mum & dad in the Forest of Dean – two trips in a week. My secret plan (well it’s not secret any more because I’m writing about it) is to encourage our oldest grandson to get involved in natural history – he’s really keen, and if we can release just one more young naturalist into the world I’ll feel my efforts have been worthwhile. So we were doing a very informal session on the difference between sedges and rushes – you know the rhyme, sedges have edges, rushes are round. These little mnemonics are really catchy and useful and of course they make the task of identifying plants so much simpler. If you can get the family right you can jump start the process of finding the name, and nothing fires you up more than a few early successes.

But in the process, I noticed a Euphorbia lurking in the margins of the track. They’re unmistakable as a family, but getting down to the species or further needs closer observation which would have taken more time than I had. So I took a photo – it’s photo number three.

One of the most difficult lessons I’ve found, in identifying plants, is to evolve a modus operandi for looking at them. Field botanists who know their stuff (exactly like birdwatchers) talk about the “jizz”. As you get more familiar with plants there are many that some lucky souls can identify from ten feet away but which will tie me into knots as I plough through the keys. I say to myself that it’s like practising piano scales, it’s hard, repetitive work but it’s essential. When there’s no time to identify a tricky plant on the spot I could, I suppose take a small piece home and identify it but – and it’s a big but – unless it’s so common I probably know it already – there’s always a possibility that I’m damaging something precious and so a careful photo that embodies the key features is the better way of bringing some evidence home.

What’s wrong with the photo, then? Well, it’s not terribly well focused and not of sufficient quality to enlarge greatly. I didn’t take any measurements and so I’d have to guess how tall it is and how large are those very odd flowers. I didn’t scuffle around at the base to see what was going on there (stolons? rhizome? – all that kind of stuff) and also I didn’t get nearly enough detail on the leaves, how they were attached to the stalk, whether they were opposite or alternate, I didn’t make a note of the soil or the neighbours or where exactly it was (edge of wood, middle of footpath, deep shade, on the edge of a pond) and I didn’t think to take a grid reference from my phone. Once again, it’s not the end of the world because it’s almost certainly a wood spurge – Euphorbia amygdaloides – but let’s say it was a rarity, for instance, then if I presented it to the county recorder for verification they’d probably tell me (in the nicest possible way) to get lost.

So – message to myself –

  • 1. Take the tripod and camera etc.
  • 2. Make the notes
  • 3. Practice more

But finally, develop good habits. Habits – good ones, that is, are the foundation of all virtues because if you develop them well, you’ll do the right thing without having to think about it and that will keep you out of all sorts of scrapes – both botanical and ethical.

Enough! there’s just enough time to write about the journey home. We discovered that the old Severn Bridge was closed and so we were left with the choice between driving in the wrong direction almost to Newport and then heading back; OR driving up to Gloucester alongside the River Severn and along the edge of the Forest of Dean and back down the A38 with the Cotswold escarpment on our left. Well that was a no-brainer. Forest on the left, Cotswolds on the right and the glorious Severn between them, on a sunny day in high summer with the windows wound down in the campervan, tractors cutting and gathering silage in the fields all around and everywhere the delicious smells of summer and salt water and the joy of being out in it after weeks on lockdown.

Alleluia I say! And finally, some photos from the Bath Skyline walk.

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