Cover Photo Credit: Talley Garey
By Stacey Lee Kerr
Snow is falling gently outside my home. The seasonally migrant flock of slate-coloured juncos are enjoying the bird seed tossed out on the back deck. With them, are roving
bands of chickadees who flit in and out of view – the constant avian fidgets of winter, who don’t stay still much longer than it takes them to cry out their cheerful,
distinctive call. All of the bird diversity in my own backyard even during the middle of winter (I’d say we average 6 or 7 species most days) makes me feel restless. It
reminds me of the pile of field guides that are sitting in my office with dog-eared pages and post-its; the binoculars tucked safely away in a drawer, and the hiking boots now
used for snowy walks. I peruse inaturalist observations on my phone and my computer, adding a few here and there when I can get photos of non-blurry birds. But it doesn’t
quite scratch the itch. I am ready to bioblitz – but peak species observation season is still months away.
No, I’m not a diehard birder; you will very rarely find me up and out before dawn, unless I was already awake to begin with. My heartbeat does quicken when I spot the soaring
figure of a hawk, but it also alights with glee at the delicate flap of a moth’s wings, the silver flicker of fish scales in a stream, or the treasure trove find of a rare
orchid in the woods. I love them all in equal measure, and I work with a number of fellow naturalists, scientists, and members of the general public through the Ontario
BioBlitz program to help more people discover this love. Bioblitzes are a great way for current and future nature nerds like me to go out and explore local biodiversity.
Sounds amazing, right? But I’m sure the biggest question on your mind now if you are not already in the know, is what on earth is a bioblitz?
At its most fundamental level, a bioblitz is when a group of people with a range of expertise in natural history and species identification get together to try and document as
many living things as possible in a set location, within a set period of time. It’s a type of citizen science project being undertaken by groups around the world where you can
hone your skills or learn something completely new, and contribute real scientific data to ongoing projects. A bioblitz can survey any area, for any length of time – for
instance, a local park for a four hour outing, or a whole national park for a week. Most commonly in Ontario, bioblitzes take place for a 24-hour period and cover parks,
protected areas, and urban watersheds. Some blitzes document all the different kinds of species in an area to get a total count of what everyone finds, and others are more
specific and will only look at certain types of species, like the reptiles and amphibians, or just the insects found in an area. Bioblitzes can be huge celebratory events with
hundreds or thousands of participants, or they can be small and focused with a handful of dedicated people joining in. Whatever the parameters, a bioblitz usually has three
- Getting a data snapshot of what species are living in an area at a given point in time
- Providing an event where different scientists can mingle with each other and the public, and learn new things from each other (and have a good time!)
- Engaging local people in the biodiversity that is all around them and providing new ways to observe and connect with nature
We’ve had a program called the Ontario BioBlitz in the Greater Toronto Area since 2012, and in the last six years we’ve documented more than 3,600 species and have grown a
veritable army of bioblitz enthusiasts across the region. From this experience and enthusiasm, BioBlitz Canada 150 was born. This past year, the Canadian Wildlife Federation,
in partnership with organizations like the Royal Ontario Museum, Ocean Wise, Parks Canada, Bird Studies Canada, and thousands of people across Canada, presented more than thirty-five bioblitzes as a Canada 150 Signature Project. Some of the species counts are still being finalized as the harder-to-verify species are being identified, but as of
the writing of this blog the project documented more than 5,700 species [http://inaturalist.ca/projects/bioblitz-canada-150]. This includes plants, animals and fungi from
dozens of different habitats nationwide – including marine and freshwater environments too, because bioblitzes don’t just take place on land. In Ontario there were a number of
bioblitz events, including community events in Hamilton, the Oak Ridges Moraine, and at the rare Charitable reserve in Cambridge. There were scientific events in Thunder Bay
to the North and the Norfolk Forest Important Bird Area in the South, along with one of the major Flagship bioblitz events in Rouge National Urban Park, where more than 500
participants documented (so far) 1,324 species. Some observation highlights included:
- Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) – an iconic and charismatic Endangered species of the Rouge Watershed
- Slimy Sculpin (Cottus cognatus) a small fish species that was last documented in the Rouge 26 years ago
- Black Purse Web Spider (Sphodros niger), a member of the tarantula family which was documented for the first time in the GTA at the 2013 Ontario BioBlitz in Rouge Park
If you ever have a chance to participate in a bioblitz either locally or while travelling abroad, you should definitely join in. Learning about the species we all share this
planet with can change the way you look at the world. Suddenly, critters that you previously thought were creepy, or slimy, or scary, might suddenly become endlessly
fascinating or beautiful to you once you become more closely acquainted with them. Learning the names of species, and even the smallest snippets of information about how and where they live, are key elements of taking steps towards feeling like we are part of the picture too. It might not seem like much, but think about how you feel when you show up to a meeting or a party with people you don’t know. Without the necessary introductions and name exchanges, you probably don’t feel invested in the group – there isn’t a sense of belonging with them or anything more than a superficial connection. Once introductions are made, and group members’ identities become clear, you can start to figure out where you fit in this group, and where the connections and similarities lie.
The same is true with finding out and reconnecting with our own place in nature. When we are properly introduced, we can find where we fit amongst all the other amazing
biodiversity around the world. This process of reconnecting with the natural world begins with the myriad of species we can find right in our own backyards.
A Bioblitz is like the icebreaker games you played on the first day of school or summer camp – a fun introduction that opens the door for deeper engagement. This is true in
relation to the species surveyed, but also applies to the people who join in too. Scientists meet young professionals and students in their field along with members of the
public, all of whom are excited to develop new skills and have fun learning and interacting with species and citizen science. Plus, it all happens in a uniquely experiential
and intimate way – feet in the dirt, hands holding nets and field guides and binoculars, experts and novices working together on the same team. Real, tangible data that anyone
can participate in. This is the sort of science that inspires career choices in kids, develops a rooted sense of place for residents of an area, and keeps seasoned experts in
love with their work. Bioblitzes are like field work celebrations, and everyone’s invited – including you!
For more information about bioblitzes in Ontario, visit www.ontariobioblitz.ca, and join us as we blitz in the Durham Region in 2018. You can also make every day a bioblitz by
making and recording your own observations with iNaturalist!