As my plane descended toward the Cleveland airport I looked out the window and saw green. Lawns, trees. Lawns, trees. Repeat. As I pulled off the freeway and into Cuyahoga Valley National Park, all that were left were the trees (I’d find the lawns later).
My botanist eyes could decipher shades of leaves differentiating the species, but I was unable to speak the language of the land. It brought me back to my early days at Joshua Tree, when I would look out into the vast desert and just see shrubland; blurry without the contacts of knowledge. Buds, leaves, flowers, spanning the gamet of spring life.
Biodiversity. Often hidden from the lackadaisical glance at a landscape. We’re often looking for our favorite; the charismatic, the endangered, the bright and colorful. As a (semi-) trained botanist I light up at the the site of the minuscule, the little yellow composite, the hairs on a stem, leaf angle, shapes, and positions; but my ears are generally deaf to the birds, my eyes blind to the insects.
As I embark on my feet through the trails at CVNP, I conceptualize the task before me ad the citizen scientists who will descend on the park.
I am here for BioBlitz 2016, one of the cornerstone events of the National Park Service centennial celebration. 126 parks will be simultaneously inventorying their land not only looking for the unknown, but also connecting their local communities to the natural resources. We’re going to be opening thousands of eyes, ears, noses, and tongues to science!
The efforts are all coordinated through the phone app iNaturalist. I allows anyone to inventory biodiversity with zero knowledge of their surroundings (perfect for me this weekend). The pictures and locations are uploaded to “the net” where any experienced naturalist can help identify your discovery.
After a day in the field meeting park scientists and getting acquainted with the park, it was time to blitz!
CVNP was one of the seven NPS Showcase BioBlitzes. These were meant to highlight the resources of a region and attract larger participation through additional events such as a biodiversity festival, concerts, and performances. The well-oiled-machine of the CVNP BioBlitz started flawlessly on a frosty Friday morning; school bus after school bus was greeted by smiling scientists and a giant Smokey the Bear. Some kids started too cool to care while others were in their element; released from the confines of a sterile classroom and into the world they disappear in after hours.
Stationed in the data tent, I got to witness the observations stream in from across the park. Birds being banded at Oak Hill, wildflowers and pollinators from Howe Meadow, lichens from the Ledges. The map of the park slowly began to fill. First from the center of the five survey locations and then radiating out to the boundaries.
As scientists came back through the tent, I fed off their energy and quizzed them on their observations and experiences that I had voyeuristically been tracking all morning. They spoke of engagement, of wonder, of excitement. Then they said the kids were having a good time too!
Latching on to an inventory at the end of Day 1, I balanced my energy between observing and asking questions of my surroundings. The kids on the walk were beaming with pride with their trusty bug catching nets. They listened intently as our guide Doug displayed the proper technique to secure an insect in the net, then watched in awe as he bounded off mid-conversation to capture a Common Whitetail Dragonfly. The kids then tried to emulate his motions chasing everything that fluttered by. The kids were caught up in the critters, and I was entranced by the passion and knowledge. Listening intently as he described the ability to identify a species based on its flight pattern. Remembering back to identifying plants simply by gestalt.
In talking with the scientists through the weekend I heard a familiar tone in their voice as they described their interests and could feel the smiles and excitement radiating from their being as they explained their craft. The contagion spread through the event and was exemplified by a young girl, Jo, screaming with glee as her dad caught a swallow-tailed butterfly, then her lips touched her ears as Doug allowed her to be the one to gently remove it from the net with her hand and release it back home. Two different families on the hike changed their afternoon plans to continue as the answer to the questions “Do you want a little bit more?” was always a resounding “YES!”
Day 2 brought the rain, but didn’t slow the progress of observations. Back in the safety of the data tent I scrolled through the night observations exploring moths, bats, spiders, and more. Our observation count had surpassed 1000 by dawn’s edge and appeared to be skyrocketing as scientists added their species lists from the day before. The weather didn’t hold back the sampling or the enthusiasm of the participants. Some scientists just donned a little more PPE to protect them from the elements.
On my second survey I joined Doug and Sonia leading a group of retirees on a bird and plant hike. While the age gap from my last hike was significant the fervor was the same. Doug and Sonia’s ears and eyes scoured the forest and led us to the secrets beneath the mist. As a current office jockey for the NPS, it was fantastic to be reimmersed in the park experience. All divisions within CVNP were present and coordinated and working toward the success of the project. They welcomed me in with open arms and made me feel part of the team. Each sharing their personal stories of the park. The rain receded as the inventories ended and the clearer skies accentuated my heightened awareness to the world around me. The cacophony of bird songs, the flight patterns of the moths and butterflies, the squirrels snaking through the trees, and oh yeah, the rain glistening on the leaves of the plants. I wasn’t the only one enthralled by the event. As the numbers were tallied, we quickly shot up the leaderboard (it wasn’t a competition) and inched our way toward, and eventually by, Death Valley and Saguaro which had held their Blitzes early in the season during their spring blooms, a wave of pride swept over the park (again, it wasn’t a competition*).
In total, 4900 observations were made of 816 species by 316 participants using iNaturalist. These number will change as unknown species are identified, duplicates are removed, and more observations are uploaded manually, but needless to say, the biology was blitzed at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
A special thanks goes out to Meg Plona and Kelsey Voit who I had been working with in the coordination of the event and welcomed me into their plan with open arms, as well as Doug, Sonia, Ryan, and Andrew for including me in their surveys and sharing their knowledge with me. I came in questioning whether or not I would be able to Find My Park in the Midlands, but left without a doubt that another Park had been Found.
*but we won