On the morning of April 26, I gave my students a challenge that I knew they would embrace enthusiastically. Showing them a world map with real-time data, I explained that just past midnight on April 26, citizens of cities all over the world had begun to photograph and identify their local species in a global competition called the City Nature Challenge.
The goal is simple: Observe and identify as many species as possible between April 26-29. Upload them to iNaturalist where they will be counted toward your city’s totals. Observations are approved by others in the iNaturalist community, which acts as quality control for the data coming in. As residents of Baltimore County, Jemicy’s totals would count for Baltimore, which competed in the challenge for the first time in 2018. Last year, out of 68 participating cities, Baltimore came in 24th for the number of observations made and 22nd for total species identified. We looked at the stats that were already coming in, from countries in eastern time zones: Christchurch, NZ already had 2500 observations, while Capetown, South Africa showed over 5,000.
“Well?” I asked. “Do you think we can help Baltimore out?” The kids answered by racing for the door, fanning out over designated areas and calling to me to photograph whenever they found something that they thought would count as a new species. Because of our affiliation with the Maryland Biodiversity Project, spotting and identifying unique species has become second nature to the Jemicy lower school students.
In the space of only a few hours, we made over 100 observations of plants, animals and fungi, most of which were able to quickly be identified to species. This placed us momentarily at the top of the Baltimore leaderboard, which itself was just more incentive to keep hunting. Ringneck snake, phantom cranefly, common angle moth, jack-in-the-pulpit. By the time school was over, I had shared the app with numerous kids who were clamoring to keep looking, encouraging them to continue hunting at home over the weekend.
By the time Monday came, I had added observations from my own backyard and local excursions. It was unseasonably cold, and many of the expected invertebrates remained hidden. Still, we continued to observe species at school: eastern bluebird (with a nest of new hatchlings), crayfish, dryad saddle mushrooms, a tiny eastern tailed blue butterfly. Most of these were species that we had already added to our MBP checklist in the past, but some were welcome newcomers.
When the observing part of the challenge was over, we took a look at the thousands of observations others had made to see if we could help verify their identifications. Many were beyond our capabilities, but others were identical to species that we had seen and studied on our campus: white oak, red maple, garlic mustard, American robin. It was exciting to see other people jumping in to help verify our sightings or to steer us to more accurate identifications.
The final totals from the 2019 challenge will arrive on May 6, after images taken during the challenge window have been uploaded and as many as possible identified. So far, Baltimore appears to have increased its number of observations by several thousand since last year, while the global total is nearing 1 million.
The City Nature Challenge was exhilarating on several levels. Joining a worldwide effort with thousands of other citizen scientists bolsters our sense of belonging to a global community. Every observation made, regardless of which city it belonged to, supported a joint effort to recognize and document biodiversity through direct engagement. Considering Jemicy’s small size in terms of numbers of observers and physical geography, we were still able to provide an inordinate impact on our region’s total observations. This image of our sightings from the challenge makes two facts clear: 1) Our campus is loaded with biodiversity, and 2) Jemicy kids are some of Baltimore’s keenest spotters.
We can’t wait until City Nature Challenge 2020!