Wednesday, January 16, 2019

City Nature Challenge DC 2019!

 
     "Citizen Science" is scientific research and data gathering that is conducted or assisted using public participation, often amateurs and nonprofessionals. Such public interest and wishing to contribute to science is a growing trend, providing many chances to tap into volunteers and collect data. All these extra eyes and ears (and photos) the public can provide can greatly expand how much certain forms of data can be collected. This is what citizen science is all about, with regular people providing useful data, but it also can provide great opportunities for education and public events.    
     Bioblitzes are probably the best known natural history citizen science events. These are typically periods of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. Groups of scientists, naturalists and public volunteers conduct intensive field study over a continuous time period (usually 24 hours) and record what they find. A Bioblitz provides a snap shot in time. While it is certainly not a complete record of what lives in the location, if you take enough snap shots over different times and seasons, you can get a good picture of what is going on there. 


     The free iNaturalist app is now more-or-less the standard way for bioblitzes and other citizen science projects to record natural history observations. The beauty of the app is that with a simple uploaded photo, crowd sourcing can then help identify the organism and the observation is recorded so that worldwide any researchers can data mine the info they need. You never know what piece of data you could be providing some researcher somewhere in the world. Here’s a link to various tutorials on how to use the free app: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/video+tutorials.
     You don't even need to know what you're reporting (though the iNaturalist app has a neat suggested identification feature to provide likely ID possibilities as well). Thanks to crowd sourcing, other, perhaps more knowledgeable, people can provide their ID skills. The suggested ID feature also means that you can basically have a virtual field guide of sorts to use, though it is much better at some taxa than others. The iNaturalist platform can also help users setup different projects to provide ongoing check lists and biotic inventories of parks and other surveyed locations, large and small.  For a great summary of iNaturalist and its use in a bioblitz, setting, please check out this article and video by Steve Baragona of "Voice of America" which features a bioblitz we ran: https://www.voanews.com/a/forget-butterfly-nets-today-naturalists-capture-specimens-on-their-phones/3888031.html.

     The City Nature Challenge is another citizen science event, a friendly global citizen science competition to see which city can have the most people observe the most species of wildlife and plants and record them over a 4-day span of time. Last year 68 cities world-wide competed with many more planning to participate this year from April 26-29. These cities tallied 441,888 observations by 17,329 people. Think of it as a 4 day bioblitz in multiple cities across the globe which is planned to be repeated yearly.
     The next big opportunity, and it is repeated yearly, is the global City Nature Challenge April 26-29, 2019. So mark your calendars and give it a shot, either personally, as part of one of the many planned events, or perhaps to run an event yourself. More information can be found here: http://citynaturechallenge.org/ though there are many cities with their own individual websites as (here’s the Washington, DC one I’m taking part in again for example: https://citynaturechallengedc.org/).
     The DC Metro Area did very well indeed in this global event last year, hosting over 40 events. Its 22,809 observations was 5th place overall among all participating cities, behind San Francisco who originally started the competition 3 years ago (41,737 observations), Dallas/Fort Worth (34,218 observations), San Diego (33,448 observations), and Klang Valley/Greater Kuala Lumpur (25,287 observations). Just behind DC were Houston and then New York. Interesting to note was last place Palmer Station, which is perfectly understandable given its in Antarctica (!) with only 3 people posting 36 observations of 27 species. Just ahead of them was Buenos Aires (170 observations of 96 species by 18 people) and San Salvador (220 observations of 52 species using only 6 people). Worldwide, 124 new species were added the iNaturalist data base that had been present before, with Hong Kong providing 57 of them.

     As far as participation, the DC region again did wonderfully! It came in 4th place overall with 876 participants who recorded observations. This was behind San Francisco (1,532 observers), San Diego County (1,211 observers), and Boston (992 observers), while being ahead of Los Angeles, one of the original cities starting the competition with San Francisco, with 855 observers. With over 40 planned organized events, these group events really paid off.
     The DC Metro area also did remarkably well with its species counts, considering some of the tropical places have so much more potential biodiversity. The DC region came in 8th overall with 1,855 species observed.
     So join the fun this year! There are over 100 cities currently planning to participate during the April 26-29, 2019 Challenge. So save the dates as there will be many chances to participate, either on your own or with one of the myriad of events planned.  Learn more at https://citynaturechallengedc.org./
     Arlington events include a Barcroft Park Mini BioBlitz on Friday April 26 10am-1pm. Moe event info and to register, contact NaturalResources@arlingtonva.us or call 703-228-7742. There will be several other Events that the Capital Naturalist will be involved with, including a repeat of the fun trip I will lead to Thompson Wildlife Management Area in Linden, VA on Saturday April 27 featuring the wonderful botanical discoveries and so much more that location has to offer. More to come on that later.
     On a personal note, the Capital Naturalist was proud to be a City Nature Challenge partner (and to be one again this year!) and to have led multiple events in the DC Metro Area. I’m even prouder to have had a good showing overall, with my 533 observations putting me in 5th place on the DC area leaderboard overall, and my 282 species identified placing me in first place in that category for the region. Better yet, it allowed me ample time outdoors with like-minded people making nature discoveries. What's not to like about that? So here's to the City Nature Challenge again this year, hoping to make even more observations, conducting some citizen science and showing the great diversity of the DC region! So save the dates (April 26-29) and plan on participating! if everyone makes just a few observations, we will surely win this friendly global competition, while having fun, contributing to citizen science, making some wonderful discoveries along the way, and showing the that the DC area has great diversity and interest in citizen science!

  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Citizen Science as Interpretive Events: Of Bioblitzes and City Nature Challenges

 
     "Citizen Science" is scientific research and data gathering that is conducted or assisted with public participation, often by amateurs and nonprofessionals. Such public interest and wishing to contribute to science is a growing trend, providing many chances to tap into volunteers and collect data. All these extra eyes and ears (and photos) the public can provide can greatly expand how much certain forms of data can be collected. This is what citizen science is all about, with regular people providing useful data, but it also can provide great opportunities for interpretation and public events. 
     Bioblitzes are probably the best known natural history citizen science events. These are typically periods of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. Groups of scientists, naturalists and public volunteers conduct intensive field study over a continuous time period (usually 24 hours) and record what they find. A Bioblitz provides a snap shot in time. While it is certainly not a complete record of what lives in the location, if you take enough snap shots over different times and seasons, you can get a good picture of what is going on there.



     The free iNaturalist app is now more-or-less the standard way for bioblitzes and other citizen science projects to record natural history observations. The beauty of the app is that with a simple uploaded photo, crowd sourcing can then help identify the organism and the observation is recorded so that worldwide any researchers can data mine the info they need. You never know what piece of data you could be providing some researcher somewhere in the world. Here’s a link to various tutorials on how to use the free app: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/video+tutorials .
 


This Great Pondhawk Dragonfly was photographed by Arlington Regional Master Naturalist volunteer David Howell during the Arlington, Virginia 2018 Bioblitz. It was identified later by several people and led to quite a bit of discussion in dragonfly circles. as it turns out it was a state record and has never been seen this far North in the East before.
  
     You don't even need to know what you're reporting (though the iNaturalist app has a neat suggested identification feature to provide likely ID possibilities as well). Thanks to crowd sourcing, other, perhaps more knowledgeable, people can provide their ID skills. The suggested ID feature also means that you can basically have a virtual field guide of sorts to use, though it is much better at some taxa than others. The iNaturalist platform can also help users setup different projects to provide ongoing check lists and biotic inventories of parks and other surveyed locations, large and small.  For a great summary of iNaturalist and its use in a bioblitz, setting, please check out this article and video by Steve Baragona of "Voice of America" which features a bioblitz we ran: https://www.voanews.com/a/forget-butterfly-nets-today-naturalists-capture-specimens-on-their-phones/3888031.html.
     The City Nature Challenge is another citizen science event, a friendly global citizen science competition to see which city can have the most people observe the most species of wildlife and plants and record them over a 4-day span of time. Last year 68 cities world-wide competed with many more planning to participate this year from April 26-29. These cities tallied 441,888 observations by 17,329 people. Think of it as a 4 day bioblitz in multiple cities across the globe which is planned to be repeated yearly.
     Bioblitzes and similar citizen science events such as the City Nature Challenge offer a lot of interpretive opportunities. To begin with, different teams and their leaders can serve as natural history walks and short programs. Indeed, by getting well-known experts and naturalists to lead groups, you can attract a nice group of interested people, some of which you may discover have great skill or knowledge in certain areas and thus might be recruited as potential long term volunteers.
     The central meeting location which many bioblitzes use can also be places for environmental groups to man booths, activity tables, conduct short presentations, games, and distribute information. Some activities can be geared for younger audiences and the novice or general audience who may just want to see some potential program or show. But the area can also serve to show people unique activities or to have unusual specimens brought back for ID and to show others. Indeed, having people bring back invertebrates for an expert to ID can prove to provide neat discoveries for the public to make. If you stagger teams and activities, people may show up interested in one thing, but be introduced into others they may not have thought they were interested in but are willing to try out. Many people my want to take advantage of an opportunity to be part of expert teams and learn from them in the field. Take for example this short look at a fungi ID team during a bioblitz and the process they used which fascinated many people who had no idea about this wonderful group of organisms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLrn51pBzus. Many expressed interest in learning more about these organisms and were fascinated by the myriad of fungi they were introduced to in their local parks.
     In preparation for some the bioblitzes I’ve organized and some of the biotic inventory events I’ve been lucky enough to participate in, we made several preparations that were also good permanent or temporary habitat improvements. This included not only placing of strategic habitat logs and creating stream caves for wildlife, but we also often place "snake boards ". The boards form artificial cover (and can house much more than just snakes!) and are setup in areas we then continue to use to record findings and as part of nature observation programs and walks. We’ve also used bee cup traps, a Malaise flying insect trap, live box traps, nets, seines, black lights, and different baits in the past as well, depending on what taxa we were surveying. Each offered their own program and interpretive opportunities.


Artificial cover, such as these "snake boards" can be placed in advance of a bioblitz or as part of any biotic inventory, and can be left permanently or moved about as places to check during walks or providing additional habitat features.

         The power of people making these “discoveries” themselves cannot be overestimated. Good interpreters understand the importance of the “wow” or “teachable moment” when something comes up and makes an important impression with the individual(s) who found it. Well, when people are out with a leader or on their own and make these discoveries themselves, it can make a real impact and offer a unique interpretive moment. Every outing can have the potential for such impactful “finds”. These discovery moments also help people become aware of what lives in their parks, which hopefully leads to appreciation, wanting to understand more, and wanting to take care of the places where they’ve made these discoveries, what some will note are the social continuum steps towards stewardship. That people make these discoveries themselves and in their neighborhood parks makes the stewardship experience even more powerful.
 

An electro fish shocking team of colleagues from Fairfax were of great interest to people during the 2017 Arlington Bioblitz.


     These type of biotic survey events can also offer great networking and public relations possibilities. Staff from neighboring jurisdictions and environmental groups have often assisted and provided their expertise for events. I myself have also assisted many other jurisdictions and groups in their bioblitzes, City Nature Challenge, or other events. This allows for good networking opportunities, sharing of knowledge, good will, and unofficially "talking shop." Media often take great interest in these of public events, as shown in the Voice of American video linked above and much coverage of ongoing citizen science events. 
     So citizen science special events have great potential as interpretive and media events. They are rewarding to participants while providing potential data for researchers.  The next big opportunity, and it is repeated yearly, is the global City Nature Challenge April 26-29, 2019. So mark your calendars and give it a shot, either personally, as part of one of the many planned events, or perhaps to run an event yourself. More information can be found here: http://citynaturechallenge.org/ though there are many cities with their own individual websites as (here’s the Washington, DC one I’m taking part in again for example: https://citynaturechallengedc.org/) Your own interpretive moments may help to provide valuable data to researchers while helping you and the public discover the wonders of the natural world all around their parks.

 Alonso Abugattas
The Capital Naturalist on social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, & Blogspot) CapitalNaturalist@gmail.com            Cell: 571-274-7403


 
 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Redhead Ducks





An aptly named Redhead Duck drake (male) on an inland lake in Alexandria, VA.


     Redhead Ducks (Aythya americana) are medium-sized (18"-22") diving ducks which visit the mid-Atlantic region in winter. Weighing between 1.5-3lbs, these are considered bay ducks, or pochards, members of the duck tribe called Aythyini. We have 5 species of bay or freshwater diving ducks locally that are all winter visitors (Redheads, Canvasback, Ring-necked Ducks, and both Greater and Lesser Scaup), though there are some 16 species globally.  
     Redheads are aptly named, the drakes (males) having a bright red head, along with a bluish bill with a black tip, and a black bib. The females are much drabber. They are sometimes confused with their slightly larger cousins the Canvasbacks, but they have a much more rounded foreheads. Like all members of the Genus Aythya, none have the metallic colorful wing feathers referred to as a speculum and have their feet (much more webbed than many other ducks) placed well back on their bodies. This makes them superb divers, but awkward on land. Like other diving ducks, Redheads need to run or patter along the water's surface before they can take off.

A partial raft of Redhead drakes and hens near Dyke's Marsh on the Potomac River.

     While considered diving ducks, they often do not dive very deeply and sometimes just dabble or feed on the surface like Mallards and other "puddle or dabbling" ducks. Aquatic vegetation makes up a good portion of their diets, but they will also feed on animal matter such as mollusks and crustaceans. This is especially true during their breeding season when they consume the most animal protein.

Aquatic vegetation, particularly in winter, makes up a good portion of a Redhead diet.


     Like other diving ducks, these do not normally nest around the DC region. The vast majority of them nest in the northern prairie pothole and Great Lakes regions. More of them nest within the U.S. as opposed to Canada than all the other diving ducks. They choose treeless wetlands with lots of emergent vegetation.
     Redhead nests are basket-like and lined with down. They are usually anchored to the surrounding vegetation. The hens lay between 9-13 pale buff eggs which take between 24-28 days to incubate. The drakes leave after incubation starts, hanging out in small bachelor groups where they molt and are flightless for a period of time. The young ducklings fledge from 56-73 days later, but the mother hen often leaves them before the young can fly, sometimes 2-4 weeks prior to obtaining flight.
     Redheads are well known for brood parasitism. This is an unusual reproductive practice where hens dump their eggs into other birds nests. While other ducks may do this, none to the extent of Redheads. These are usually other Redhead nests, but up to 10 other duck species have been documented as serving host to Redhead egg dumping. They've even been known to lay their eggs in such completely different birds such as American Bitterns and even raptors such as Northern Harriers (Marsh Hawks)! Now this is not always a successful strategy, and those who lay their eggs into nests that are not even ducks rarely survive. In some locales 50% of the eggs are dumped, often by young females who may not even build their own nests. That these ducks nest so close to each other facilitates this behavior as well.
     Redheads who dump into other Redhead nests have the best chance, and some of them don't dump eggs at all or dump only part of their brood. But those that dump into other duck nests may only have 30% success rate if at all. One abandoned nest had 87 eggs in it. The favorite host to dump their eggs into other than another Redhead are their close cousins the Canvasbacks. Perhaps partially due to the chance of being raised in a foster nest, Redheads may hybridize with other ducks, especially other divers like Ring-necks and scaup. If they hybridize with Canvasbacks, the young are actually fertile and can mate as well.
     We see Redheads during their migration. They spend the winter in the interior parts of the country more so than any other diving duck, though they can range as far south as Guatemala and the Caribbean. While we get some in our area, 80% of all Redheads winter in the Laguna Madre region of Texas and Mexico, where  winter flocks of hundreds are the norm. In our region, they tend to be mixed flocks with other ducks, especially other diving ducks, sometimes in small numbers and sometimes in very large rafts.

A Redhead swims away from a Canada Goose intent on stealing the food it just brought up during a dive.

     Populations of Redheads overall have been relatively steady since 1955, though these are well below historical levels. Population numbers tend to be over a million birds, making up about 2% of the duck numbers in North America. However some areas have had greater declines than others. The worst regional declines seem to be an 87% decline in the Great Basin region, and even worse a 99% decline in Idaho, but overall the populations seem to have been steady and readjusted to other areas.
     These declines are usually considered to be due to habitat loss and changes such as droughts. Hunting pressure on them is relatively low, as they make up less than 1% of harvested ducks. This despite their widespread nature and their mild taste (due to vegetable matter making up such a large portion of their diet). This is also surprising as they decoy very well, earning a nick name in some places as Fool Ducks, being easily tricked into hunting range. But game laws and conservation practices seem to make hunting losses negligible to the overall population.

A Redhead Duck drake preens its feathers among some of its Ring-necked duck cousins.

     In our area, look for Redheads mixed in with other ducks in large open waters. I seem to bump into good numbers mixed in with Scaup ducks along the shallow stretches of the Potomac. They may reach the age of 12 years or so, and the accepted record so far from a banded bird is 22 years. So when you're near open freshwater (though again they can tolerate salty bays and such as well) keep an eye out for large rafts of diving ducks. If you search those groups, you may be rewarded with seeing Redheads among their numbers before they head back to their normal breeding grounds in the late spring. I'll leave you with a short video clip from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel of a Redhead drake that showed up in Kingstowne Lake in Alexandria:




Monday, November 26, 2018

Great Pondhawk

A Great Pondhawk, photographed and posted to the Arlington Bioblitz and iNaturalist by David Howell.

      Bioblitzes are always neat ways for people to contribute to citizen science efforts. The second one ever conducted in Arlington Virginia was scheduled for September 15th as a much smaller scale effort to document the natural history of Glencarlyn Park on that particular day. The results were quite encouraging and help not just add to the biotic inventory of the County and park, but help staff know a bit more about their efforts at natural resource management, add data for the upcoming revision of the natural resource management pan for the County, and help people realize just how wonderful the natural treasures in Arlington, as developed as it is, can be. A brief summary of the event is available here:
while information on bioblitzes in general can be found here: http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2018/09/arlington-bioblitz-2018.html    
     As the information as posted is crowd sourced and open for people to help identify and confirm observations, it can sometimes take a while to get all the results back. While bioblitzes always provide good information and data, this last one provided a bit more of a last surprise. After one of the photo observations made by David Howell which he posted on iNaturalist started making the rounds, several people noticed what they thought was something quite interesting. The photo was sent to several experts and dragonfly discussion groups and the consensus was that what had been photographed was a Great Pondhawk Dragonfly (Erythemis vesiculosa).
     This appears to be a new state record for this mostly tropical dragonfly. While it is a very large and powerful flying dragonfly, it rarely strays North of Florida in the East, with the only previous record I could find of the next northernmost record being of one being near Savanah, Georgia back on September 18th of 2013 (interestingly 3 days and 4 years earlier). In fact, while it's been known to go as far north as Kansas in the West, it is never common anywhere in the USA.
     The Great Pondhawk, as its name suggests is a large and powerful dragonfly, often eating other large insects including other dragonflies. It is not uncommon in Mexico and has a range into South America as far as Argentina. It is such a strong flyer that it often ends up on Caribbean islands, even being featured on a few island's postage stamps. But it rarely strays north in the East, even in Florida.
     Some are theorizing that it was carried along with the strong storms over a week earlier and found a safe habitat in Arlington. Regardless, it adds to the knowledge and range of this species. It also shows that sharp eyed volunteers can add to the collective knowledge of our natural world, the value of events such as bioblitzes, and now adding a new species not only to Arlington County, but to Virginia as well. If you'd like to help citizen science and maybe make some interesting discoveries of your own, I encourage you to do so using, for example, the free iNaturalist application. Also, please join us for the next big biotic inventory event, the City Nature Challenge scheduled for April 26 - 29 of 2019. The DC Metro area has done well in this event in the past and we hope you can join our team to make next year's even better, while providing much needed observations and making your own discoveries of the natural world. For a wrap-up of last year's fun event, please check this out: http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2018/05/city-nature-challenge-2018.html 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Arlington BioBlitz Summary


     The second ever Arlington Bioblitz scheduled for September 15th of 2018 had always been planned as a smaller and more focused event than the first one conducted last May 20, 2017. It was planned to be done at one park rather than several and over a shorter period of time. But it became an even smaller event when predicted stormy weather ahead of the day caused several team leaders to reconsider and less people to sign up. However, 38 people divided in several teams did participate. You can read more about the lead up to the Arlington BioBlitz and why these bioblitzes are conducted here: http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2018/09/arlington-bioblitz-2018.html
 
Part of the 2018 Arlington BioBlitz team.
 
     Luckily, the weather held for us, and these folks tallied 762 observations of 362 different species, representing some interesting biodiversity for Glencarlyn Park where all the activities took place. While some observations still need to be added and some identifications still need to be confirmed, we do have some initial numbers.
 
The Arlington BioBlitz herpetology team with a Northern Ring-necked Snake.
 
     An early morning bird watching team saw 26 bird species, including some migrating warblers such as both Tennessee and Chestnut-Sided Warblers. Botany teams recorded 166 different plant species. While only two amphibians and 4 reptiles were seen, one was of a Ring-necked Snake under a snake board placed out there as habitat and to make surveys for wildlife easier. This snake is fairly uncommon in Arlington and had not been recorded in Glencarlyn before, so was a very good find.
 
Northern Ring-necked Snake found under a snakeboard in Glencarlyn Park
 
     Seventy-six insects species along with a dozen arachnids were also noted. These included two unusual butterflies for Arlington, the Fiery and the Ocola Skippers, which only are seen late in the season when they move through as they cannot survive our winters. The Ocola was a first for our Arlington County records.
 
Ocala Skipper on Pickerelweed taken by David Howell during the 2018 Arlington County BioBlitz

     Another insect, the Mile-a-Minute Weevil, is a recently introduced beetle that was released in an effort to manage numbers of the terribly invasive Mile-a-Minute Vine. It wasn't even an option to pick from in the iNaturalist application used to record and crowd source identifications, though after we pointed this out, it has since been added. Several years ago, Fairfax County had gotten approval for its release as a test biological control. When some showed up in Arlington, we purposely did not treat the Mile-a-Minute Vine where it was seen to let it get established. That seems to have worked quite well and we are finding it now wherever the invasive host plant is found.
 
Mile-a-Minute Weevil on Mile-a-Minute found during the Arlington BioBlitz.
  
   The mycology team of fungi hunters had a very successful search, finding more than twice as many mushroom species as the previous year, likely due to all the wet weather leading up the BioBlitz. They tallied 66 species. This along with last year's results will be used by them as the baseline for a "Fungi of Arlington/Alexandria" project they've been working on. For an interesting look at how they conducted their search, please check out this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLrn51pBzus.

A Beefsteak Mushroom, oozing in its classic way that helps identify it.
The strange looking Dog-nose Asphalt Fungi, another Arlington first.
 
      All in all, a fun and hands-on way to collect a survey of the natural world. While it's only a snap shot in time, by doing enough of these snapshots using the observations of citizen scientists, we get a better picture of the natural world for that location. This is just one method of getting biotic inventory to get a better idea of what animals and plants live in Arlington. Knowing what we have of course is necessary for us to better manage what we have left of the natural world, as well allowing us to compare if what we're doing is working. This is all leading up to the next update of Arlington's Natural Resources Management Plan which will hopefully take place over the next year or more. If you'd like to contribute observations, please try the iNaturalist app at https://www.inaturalist.org/  and if you'd like to see more results for the Arlington Bioblitz, search under Projects for the 2018 Arlington County BioBlitz.
 
The BioBlitz Mycology (Fungi) team discusses a discovery.