The State We’re In 4/12: Nature Spotting

By Michele S. Byers

Nature is all around, even in cities and towns. Birds, butterflies, bugs, flowers, trees, mushrooms and even weeds.

The idea behind City Nature Challenge is to get folks out looking at nature. It’s an international competition in which citizen scientists search major metropolitan areas for diverse plants and animals over four days – Friday, April 26, through Monday, April 29.

“Cities around the world will be competing to see who can make the most observations of nature, find the most species, and engage the most people,” according to the 2019 City Nature Challenge website.

So far, the only New Jersey city on board is Hoboken, but residents of the southern half of the state can still get in the game. That’s because Philadelphia is in, and three New Jersey counties adjoining Philly are considered part of the Greater Philadelphia Metropolitan Area.

The City Nature Challenge is run like a “bioblitz,” an event that inventories as many species as possible in a limited time. But instead of just one location, there are hundreds.

City Nature Challenge started in 2016 as a friendly competition between the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The two museums capitalized on the rivalry between their home cities to encourage residents to document urban biodiversity.

The first event was a huge success, with over 20,000 nature observations made by more than 1,000 people in one week. Citizen scientists spotted approximately 1,600 species in each location, including new records for both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In 2017, City Nature Challenge expanded to the entire United States, and in 2018 it went global. This year, about 160 metropolitan areas around the world are participating, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Zagreb, Croatia.

It’s easy to take part in the City Nature Challenge. First step: download the iNaturalist app to a smartphone or tablet. When users take photos using iNaturalist, the app pinpoints the location and automatically helps to identify insects, plants, trees, birds, reptiles, amphibians, flowers, mushrooms and even animal scat.

During the four days of the City Nature Challenge, participants take as many photos of nature as possible. After all photos are uploaded to iNaturalist, experts across the globe help make sure species are identified properly. Once a species is confirmed, it becomes part of a database available to scientists around the world.

A good way to participate is by joining an organized nature walk.

In Hoboken, nature challenge organizers will lead volunteers on the waterfront at the Hoboken Cove Beach on Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They also plan to provide family-friendly “catch and release” activities.

In South Jersey, four guided walks are planned. The first is on Saturday, April 27, at 7:30 a.m., at the Glassboro Woods Wildlife Management Area in Clayton, Gloucester County. On Sunday, April 28, at 7 a.m., identify birds at the Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve in Tabernacle, Burlington County; at noon, identify plants at the Franklin Parker Preserve in Chatsworth, Burlington County; and at 2 p.m., take a nature walk at the newly-opened Gateway Park in Camden.

The beauty of the City Nature Challenge is that everybody can contribute. If solo is your style, you can stroll along city streets, observe nature from a park or playground, or even look in your yard to see what’s growing, crawling and flying. (Note: humans and pets do not count)

So why not join the City Nature Challenge this year? Grab your smart device, binoculars and magnifying glass and choose a city or metropolitan area. Who knows … you may spot a rare species or discover a new population of an animal or plant that scientists are studying.

In last year’s City Nature Challenge, San Francisco was the champion in all three categories: most observations, most species and most participants. But there are plenty of new challengers in 2019 looking to take over first place.

For more information on the City Nature Challenge, including a full list of participating cities, go to http://citynaturechallenge.org/.

To learn about events in the Greater Philadelphia Metropolitan Area, visit https://cncphilly.org/. To find out about the Hoboken challenge, go to www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-2019-hoboken.

To find out more about the Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve, Franklin Parker Preserve and Gateway Park, go to www.njconservation.org/find-nature/.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including parks and nature preserves – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.