Kent and Medway Biological Records Centre

Identification Tips

Green-winged OrchidGreen-Winged Orchid (

Orchis morio

Steve Smith
Being able to identify a species is obviously key to recording wildlife! As with most things, some species are easier to identify than others. We certainly don't expect everyone to be able to identify each species they see first time - frankly this would be impossible. However, we are available to offer encouragement and support for those people who are keen to further their knowledge about species identification and improve their recording skills in general. All we ask in return is that you share your records with us, so they can be made available for others to use in Kent.

An accurate identification is one of the 4 vital components of a 'record' and it is paramount to be able to provide useful records either for your own use or to share with others. Hopefully these few pages will provide you with some useful hints and tips. If you read this page and have more questions about identification, please get in touch.

The team at KMBRC are all keen recorders and many are members of local recording groups and take an active interest in species identification, indeed, some of us have particular interests, others are generalists. We will do our best to help you to identify species. However, some species need to be seen by someone with more experience than we have. As such, we do rely on a network of local people that we call upon from time to time to help us out.

Species identification can be a complex issue. With some species being obvious from a basic description or a child's drawing. Other species can only be identified through a microscope. Whenever you are looking to identify a species yourself, there are a few key points to bear in mind:

Know your limits

If you're a beginner don't start trying to identify a group like ground beetles, hundreds of species exist, some of which can be easily confused. Limit your recording to a small species group or genus which you are interested in. Most people (often unwittingly) begin recording birds as most of us are able to see them regularly and many of the species we see in gardens and parks are very easy to identify. Some other good starting groups are:

Odonata (Dragonflies)
Orchidaceae (Orchids)
Coccinellidae (Ladybirds)
Native Trees

Know the limits of your books

There is a wealth of literature available to help with species identification, ranging from children's and absolute beginners guides through to checklists and keys used by experienced recorders and professionals. Most people will have a few identification guides, but very few, if any, are comprehensive.

Once you feel you have identified a species, what most books don't tell you is that there may be three or four other species which look very similar but are less common, and as such not included in most ID guides. The KMBRC has a wide selection of books for all levels which you can use to help with identification.

Often guides are general for Great Britain or Great Britain and Northern Europe, these books don't give any detailed distribution for Kent, for you to use to help verify your identification.


Try to get as much detailed information about the species as possible, this will help you later when you are looking it up, or if you are asking someone else. One of the best ways of doing this is digital photography. If possible collect a specimen (only if you know you can easily take it somewhere to be identified quickly). Always let species go where you found them, unless itwas found trapped indoors, or something similar.

Defining features

One of the key things to learn is to locate the defining features of species. For instance, in some species the leg colour can help with identification - if you don't know this you may not take any notice of leg colour, then you're unable to make a positive ID. This comes with practise so stick with it - many people at the KMBRC can offer advice and help on the things to look out for.

Species Lifestage

Remember many species display multiple lifestages, often called instars. During these they can look rather unlike the adult and juvenile/larval stage. Examples of this are Shieldbugs, Caterpillars, Grasshoppers.

In addition to this many species have stages in their lifecycle where they are difficult or at least harder to identify. For instance, grasses without flowers/seeds, other plants without flowers. Consequently, you may find you need to consider the time of year if you want to record a specific species group.


The golden rule of recording - if you're not 100% sure of an identification, get it checked by an expert or don't record it. This is important - the KMBRC is custodian of vast quantities of data. Those who use the data require it to be as accurate as possible as the information forms part of people's decisions.


To verify an identification, check the ecology of the species. This can provide vital clues. For intstance, if the species is found on moorland and you saw it along the coast then you can rule it out. That is unless is was coastal moorland!


You do not have to know this, but it can hint towards families and connection of species' names e.g. rufipes, meaning red-legged or red-footed. Some Latin names can be helpful, but others can be confusing. One interesting example is that of gulls. The Latin for Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus) means 'black-headed gull', whilst the Latin for Black Headed Gull is Larus ridibundus, which means 'laughing gull'. The Latin for Laughing Gull is Larus atricilla, which means 'black-tailed gull' (the black tail is apparently only seen in immature Laughing Gulls). It can all get very confusing!

There's always a first time! So get your records verified. Remember, if you think you've seen a species away from it's usual habitat e.g. an Adonis blue in the Weald get some concrete proof as it may be an important discovery. We are always learning new things about species behaviour and distribution, the more people who record accurately the more we can learn.