Baltimore Steps up to the City Nature Challenge

Charm City residents put up record numbers as part of an international bio-blitz centered on urban wildlife observation

Baltimoreans love their city, their wildlife, and a good challenge. For the past three years, citizens have hit the streets, combing through lots, yards, and parks to discover Baltimore’s wildlife as part of the City Nature Challenge.

The City Nature Challenge is an international effort for people to find and document plants and wildlife in cities across the globe. “It’s a bioblitz-style effort among cities to see who can make the most observations of nature, who can identify the most species, and who can engage the most people,” said Maura Duffy with the National Aquarium and Regional Coordinator of the City Nature Challenge for Baltimore.

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 challenge was all about collaboration instead of competition,” she said. “We viewed it as an opportunity for people to connect with other others across the nation — and the globe — while safely exploring the nature found in and around their homes. This year’s City Nature Challenge highlighted the healing power of nature as volunteers documented their local biodiversity.”

Interested participants simply downloaded the iNaturalist app and, from April 24 through April 27, went out and photographed wildlife, including plants, animals, fungi, or any evidence of life, such as tracks or shells. Participants then uploaded photographs to iNaturalist where experts verified the species. All observations made in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne’s Counties counted towards Baltimore’s City Nature Challenge totals.

This year, 663 community scientists made 10,961 observations and documented 1,501 species across the Baltimore region. This is the highest number of observations and species identified in Baltimore since the region began participating in the challenge, and is significantly higher than the global average of 3,340 observations per city for this year’s effort.

The four most commonly reported plants included garlic mustard, flowering dogwood, mayapple, and Jack-in-the pulpit and the top four reported animals included the northern cardinal, American robin, white-tailed deer and gray squirrel.

But residents reported many other species of trees, flowers, fungi, mammals, bird, and insects, including Eastern prickly pear, leopard slug, bald eagle, and Northern red-bellied cooter. To see all of the Baltimore region’s 2020 Nature City Challenge results, visit: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-2020-baltimore-area

In addition, 50 percent of Baltimore’s verifiable observations — those with photo or audio evidence — obtained “research grade” status, which means that this high-quality data will be shared with larger databases where it can be used for research projects, helping science long after the challenge has ended.

“Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in an urban area”, said Nick Long, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member at the National Aquarium. “Our citizen scientists play an important role in local conservation. Knowing what plants and animals live in our city and where they are helps scientists and land managers understand and protect them. By participating in the City Nature Challenge, not only do we learn more about local nature, but we also make Baltimore a better place — for people and wildlife.”

Genevieve LaRouche, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, pointed out that the city of Baltimore has always been at the forefront of connecting people with nature. “The nation’s first Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, a program developed by the Service to help connect urban communities to the outdoors, was designated at Masonville Cove in southeast Baltimore in 2013,” she said.

It began as part of the restoration of an abandoned area near Baltimore Harbor. The Service partnered with Maryland Port Administration, the National Aquarium, and Living Classrooms Foundation to create wildlife habitat and support environmental education. Prior to the City Nature Challenge, the Service and its partners held multiple one-day Bio-Blitzes, first at Masonville Cove, then at other sites around the Baltimore. Citizens and families flocked to these local green spaces to discover, identify and learn about their local and migratory wildlife including butterflies, bees, frogs, turtles, fish, birds, and mammals.

Given the initial success, the Service expanded its efforts to communities outside of Baltimore’s city limits. Collaborating with community-based organizations, other agencies, and other institutions, the broader Baltimore Rivers to Harbor Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership continues to provide environmental education opportunities, create green corridors, build stronger connections to nature, and enhance wildlife to improve the social and economic vitality of Baltimore region.

But it’s the people of this region who are stepping up to the challenge to document, protect, and celebrate the wildlife that share their home.

Kathryn Reshetiloff is a science writer with the Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

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