This last weekend I participated in National Geographic's BioBlitz 2014. It was tons of fun and, by all accounts, a big success despite some poorly timed rain (though any and all rain in California is welcome right now!). This was the eighth BioBlitz, and this year it was held in the Golden Gate Park National Recreation Area of the Bay Area in California, a parks system made up of 80,000 acres and 91 miles of shoreline. With dozens of inventories each featuring a different aspect of wildlife, from birds to plants, from insects to bats, from tide pools to the redwood canopy, participants and volunteers got their full share of wildlife sightings. It was my first time participating and I came away with a few great lessons.
First, the event hammered home that even the most familiar of places will reveal new and interesting species, surprising you at the level of biodiversity in any one, seemingly empty location. I arrived to the Marin Headlands in the early morning before many people were up and about. During a quiet stroll by myself over some familiar trails, I spotted only a handful of bird species and some deer. Everything seemed exceptionally quiet despite it being an active time of day for many species.
Later that day, I'd realize that it was only because I wasn't paying close enough attention. While walking with a small group for the "Birds big and small" inventory, we spotted over a dozen species of birds on a single trail! We were spotting more species faster than we could record the species we had just identified — all because we were paying close attention to our surroundings and keeping eyes and ears open for hints of any feathered friends.
Of course, it helps to have a bird specialist pointing things out, but with a little practice, it didn't take long before I was also easily hearing the chatter of phoebes, the squeak of hummingbirds, or spotting the flittering of a dust-colored sparrow 20 yards away. It was amazing to walk over the same trails again, but with a totally different awareness of the wildlife around me, and it made me realize how often I'm oblivious to this very thing as I hike along.
The second take-away from the event was that we don't have to take part in something like BioBlitz to get the same fulfilling experience. We just have to slow down, and look and listen carefully. In fact, you can have your own one-person BioBlitz any time you want.
How to do your own one-person bioblitz:
Go somewhere familiar. It's a great idea to go somewhere you're already used to. This way you won't be distracted by navigating a new trail, or wondering if you're going in the right direction. It also means you're opening up the chance to see a familiar place in a whole new way, and make it an exciting new experience. There's nothing like the thrill of spotting a species you've never seen before on a trail you've walked many times!
Move slowly. There's no rush when you're enjoying the discovery of new things. When you pause to identify a species, feel free to spend some time watching, wondering, looking up more information, or taking photographs. The more time you spend with a species, the more you'll discover about it even by accident — and perhaps more importantly, the more you'll remember about that species for next time.
Use iNaturalist to record your sightings. You can of course use a field guide and notebook as well. But what's great about iNaturalist is that even if you don't know what the species is, you can still record it by taking a photo and asking the iNaturalist community to help you name it. You can also look up a lot of additional information about the species, and see where else it was spotted. Another good reason to add your sightings to the database is because by doing so you're helping the science community learn more about the locations, behaviors, and numbers of different species in certain areas.
Other great apps for recording your sightings include Project NOAH (for iPhone and Android devices), and SciSpy (for iPhone). And in fact, here are 19 apps that are great for helping you identify and learn more about nature while in the field.
Record everything. Even if you think it's a common, boring species you see all the time, jot it down. When you record everything, you start to realize the sheer amount of biodiversity in your area, which has an irresistible way of making you feel amazed and perhaps even awestruck by the ecosystem in which you are standing. Also, when you take the time to record something — especially noting down little details like age, sex, and behavior — then you may begin to see the species not as common or boring, but as familiar, understood and something you're connected to.
Use your ears. We're a species that relies a great deal on our eyes, but many other species like birds are better at being heard than seen. Keep your ears peeled for bird song, insect calls, the scurrying of feet over leaves, and other sounds of wildlife. Here's inspiration from this year's BioBlitz, through recordings of creature sounds in Muir Woods at night. It's amazing the diversity you realize is all around you when you listen to it, rather than look for it!
Look everywhere. Don't forget that you can find a wealth of species under rocks and logs, in the water, amid leaf litter, hidden among branches and camouflaged as bark, leaves or sticks. Who knows what you'll find when you start looking in places other than at eye level.
Don't forget the plants. Fauna is awesome, but so too is flora, and you may be surprised at the sheer number of plant species along a trail. Plus it's a chance to learn a lot about native and invasive species, and how different plants are utilized by different wildlife species.
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