By Alison Pollack
It’s a freezing January morning in the nation’s capital and I clutch my coffee mug tighter for warmth. Despite the cold drizzle, I’m crouched under a pine tree, pushing away dirt, and thumbing through an old, worn field guide while trying to make sense of undergrowth as passersby are surely trying to make sense of me. It’s freezing, it’s wet, but I am completely engrossed. As the rain picks up, I finally figure out that I’m staring at and trying to identify kudzu—the prolific and noxious invasive weed of the east coast, and it’s everywhere around me. I have a lot to learn.
I just moved to a new region and area, and while I was once so familiar with identifying birds, plants, and trees in the Pacific Northwest, Washington DC’s urban ecology is completely alien to me. I wanted to improve my understanding of the local ecosystem, so, with the bit of spare time I could muster, and a fierce determination to learn as much as possible, I set about to a personal, mini-Bioblitz in a neighborhood park. The goal was to identify as many creatures, plants, and trees as possible and make a list. When I encountered specimens I couldn’t identify, I took a picture, along with some notes, for later identification. After grabbing a few field guides from the library and some strong coffee from my new favorite cafe, I was ready to identify and learn.
Traditionally, a Bioblitz is an intensive, all-encompassing inventory of a space, involving scientists, experts, and volunteers. Usually, it takes place over 24 hours, involves many people, and is rarely in the dead of winter as I have (for some reason) chosen. The idea is to survey an area to learn about its biodiversity. One of my ecological heroes, E.O. Wilson, is a proponent of the Bioblitz as a way to survey and understand biodiversity. He has said it is “one of the best ways of bringing people joyfully into a wild environment.” I was first introduced to the concept a few years ago when I participated in a mushroom and fungus Bioblitz, resulting in dizzying piles of mushrooms and lots of information on mycology. It was a great way to learn about mushrooms with other enthusiastic volunteers and inspired my personal understanding of how to best learn about an ecosystem. Even thought my recent excursion lacked partners, the 24 hour time frame, and pleasant weather, I was able to collect a surprising amount of information and species names within two hours.
A Bioblitz in the winter presents an especially interesting challenge due to hibernating plants and wildlife. Although daunting, plants and trees can be identified through traits other than leaves and flowers, such as shape, buds, texture, and color. While my beat-up field guide worked perfectly fine for me, there are also a myriad of apps that help with plant identification. Audubon released a collection of mobile field guides, and my favorite, leafsnap is a great way to identify trees with a picture (when they’re leafed out, of course).
National Geographic, along with the National Park Service, has been conducting a Bioblitz every year since 2007, leading up to 2016 in honor of the National Park Service Centennial. This year, a Bioblitz will be occurring in Golden Gate Park in March. According to the website, opportunity to sign up for citizen participation opens in February, so keep your eyes peeled for that incredible opportunity. In the past, NPS Bioblitzes have occurred in areas ranging from Saguaro National Park to Biscayne National Park in Florida (the first all-marine Bioblitz).
If you want to get involved in a Bioblitz or start one formally in your neighborhood, there are many good resources out there. You can always complete a brief neighborhood survey informally like I did, this might be a good resource to get started:
It’s also possible to arrange and organize a larger bioblitz: http://www.wheatbeltnrm.org.au/projects/biodiversity/bioblitz/organising-your-own-bioblitz/
If you’d like to participate in a large, local BioBlitz, mobilizing one is definitely worth the effort and easier to complete with the assistance of neighbors, community members, and local non-profits and civic organizations.
Although I am still very, very much a novice naturalist for this region, I learned a lot and had an enjoyable time outside. I’ll definitely be completing more neighborhood surveys in the future, and will participate in larger-scale, community Bioblitzes whenever possible. I later learned that the very first Bioblitz occurred in Washington D.C. almost 20 years before I found myself squatting in kudzu on a rainy morning.
Here’s the list of everything I saw and was able to successfully identify: