The Washington metro area has seen more than our share of rain lately. But, when the call to BioBlitz is sounded, rain or shine, our local citizen scientists and naturalists in training come to Kenilworth Aquatic Park to learn more about the biodiversity of the Anacostia Watershed.
Never heard of a BioBlitz? It is a designated period of biological surveying to record all the living species within a designated area. On Saturday, September 8, 2018, the Anacostia Watershed Society along with a number of other sponsors, including the US Park Service, local Audubon chapters, and the Maryland Native Plant Society, organized a BioBlitz. Of course, it rained that morning but not for too long, and about 20 girl scouts, and 25 local residents came together to be trained on how to record observations by using cutting edge technology — the INaturalist app.
Growing a community of Citizen Scientists
Jorge Bogantes, the leader of the Kenilworth Aquatic Garden BioBlitz, said the event encourages educators, students, and the general public to become familiar with plants, animals, birds, and other members of the rich biodiversity area of the Anacostia. “By demonstrating and signing citizens up to use the new INaturalist app, we hope to keep growing the database of the watershed,” says Jorge. His goal was to have 100 new citizen scientists added, but the rain probably kept some away. The Anacostia River Watershed survey is ongoing and anyone can join it at any time.
Jorge said one interesting outcome of the new database is that artists are using it as an inspiration and resource for their art. “We knew that it would be used by teachers, researchers, and scientific types, but the artists were a surprise,” he said. The Anacostia watershed is so plentiful in different species, because of it’s coastal plain, tides, and wetlands. That makes it an excellent designated area to study.
The INaturalist App and Tool
If you are a beginning birder, fisherman, or plant lover, it can be a challenge to know what you are looking at. Backpacks can get weighed down quickly when you load up your tree book, bird book, and native plant index. Besides, it takes time to flip through pages to find the right picture.
We can forget all of that now that the National Geographic Society and California Academy of Sciences have teamed up to give us an artificial intelligence tool called iNaturalist to help identify wild plants, animals, including birds, and fungi.
How does it work? A user downloads the free INaturalist app onto their smart phone. The user can either use the camera built into the app or the camera on their phone to snap and submit a photo to the digital field guide. The app will suggest possible identifications for that plant or animal. Sometimes, the database needs more information to provide an exact identification and it will give a list of possible IDs. For each of these suggestions, there is information that can be called up to help you narrow it down. For instance, a plant on the list may only grow in Africa, so that means it probably isn’t what you are seeing.
The INaturalist system has learned to recognize more than 24,000 plants and animals by analyzing over 6.5 million photographs uploaded by non-scientists around the world. You can choose to share your observations, or not. If you do share, your photos can be used by scientist and conservation managers to see how climate and land use are changing the diversity of our world. And, sometimes, a citizen scientist even discovers a new species, just like Colombian INaturalist user Luiz Mazariegos did by finding a red and black frog in a rainforest.
Observations are not posted to the international database until they are verified by at least two other observers, which helps verify sightings, and quite frankly takes some of the worry away for new citizen scientists. Using the app can also be helpful if you just want to identify that backyard weed you think might be Poison ivy.
Kids can also use a family friendly version called Seek, found through INaturalist. Kids can collect wild plants and animals while taking a local treasure hunt, and the app lets them earn online badges as they gain the skills to become citizen scientists. Girls from Troop 42052 sponsored by People’s Church in Washington were part of the BioBlitz and, with help of parents and volunteers, the girls were using the INaturlist app to photograph fish, worms, trees, and plants. One scout said she wished she could wade around the lotus ponds, while others were happy to be the photographers rather than holding the wiggly worm.
We all love-taking photos, and now we can do it and be networked with 10.5 million users around the world. The Anacostia Watershed Society hopes we all help them continue to grow our local watershed database. It is just a click away.
For more information: www. https://www.anacostiaws.org or check out /https://www.inaturalist.org/
Rindy O’Brien enjoys spending time each Sunday morning at the Aquatic Gardens. Contact Rindy at [email protected]