By Amy Crumpton – Extension Master Gardener
Is your cell phone a ubiquitous tool in your gardening efforts and education? Do you record spring ephemerals, leaf branching patterns, fleeting insects, roaming wildlife and indeterminate opportunistic flora? Then download iNaturalist to your cell phone, if you haven’t already, and contribute to citizen science in the upcoming City Nature Challenge, April 26 through April 29.
During the City Nature Challenge, cities around the globe compete to see who can make the most observations, find the most species of plants, animals, reptiles, and fungi, and engage the most people in the process. Last year, among the 68 cities participating in the challenge, the DC Metro Area placed fifth overall in observations (22,809), fourth in participants (876), and eighth overall in species observed (1,855).
This year, over 160 cities are expected to participate. After the challenge, identification parties for volunteers to verify observations will take place April 30 to May 5. Results are expected Monday, May 6.
Extension Master Gardeners will be leading City Nature Challenge events Sunday April 28 at Simpson Park Gardens from 1:00 – 3:00 pm (420 E. Monroe Street, Alexandria 22301 -parking in the YMCA lot) and at Glencarlyn Library Community Garden from 3:30 – 4:30 pm (300 South Kensington Street, Arlington 22204). Arlington Regional Master Naturalists (ARMN) will also lead events during the four day challenge at a number of area parks. For those event times, check ARMN Volunteer Opportunities/. These events are open to all ages.
The primary purpose of the City Nature Challenge using iNaturalist is to engage the public in observing nature. The City Nature Challenge began in 2016 as a friendly, citizen science competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles organized by staff from the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. One outcome from this effort is that more eyes have helped to document rare, endangered or threatened species. In 2018, there were 599 such observations.
Another outcome is that the volume of observations on iNaturalist can assist scientists studying ecological issues on plant and animal biodiversity. For example, a graduate biology student studied over 13,500 observations of blue dasher dragonflies on iNaturalist that document that males in the eastern North America have darker wing patterns than males in the West. The researcher then investigated how dragonflies adapt wing color to temperature to maximize their sexual selection and fitness. His findings could have useful implications for understanding color patterns and temperature in other species as well.
The key to iNaturalist is that it is a crowdsourced data collection and verification system. Participating volunteers make observations and provide identifications. Another group of volunteers, known as identifiers, verify those observations. The goal is for 2 out of 3 identifiers to agree on the taxon or species for the observation to be Research Grade, a signal to researchers who may want to use it of its quality.
Some tips to get you started:
Download the iNaturalist app (https://www.inaturalist.org/) to your cell phone. The app will direct you to create an account with user ID and password, which you will use to log into your account on the iNaturalist. You do not have to join a project on iNaturalist to participate. Since this is a timed global challenge, all data taken in by iNaturalist from April 26 to 29 will be counted toward the challenge.
Conserve your iPhone battery. Open iNaturalist. Click on the Settings cog icon in top right corner of screen. Under App Settings, turn off Automatic upload. This will help conserve your battery while in the field and prevent your phone from searching for WiFI signal to upload photos as you go.
Saving a photo observation. Click on Observe (camera icon) in middle bottom of screen. Take photo. Click on Next. This takes you to the details for your entry. If you click on Save at bottom of screen, the observation will be saved for you to upload to iNaturalist later when your phone is connected to WiFi. You can also upload photos through your account on the iNaturalist website via your home computer. You are not required to make a specific number of observations while participating in the challenge. Do your best to get focused photos. If you determine later that the photo is just not that great, you can delete it and not upload it.
Adding more than one photo to an observation. Before you click on Save, click on the square box with the + sign in it. This sends you back to the camera where you can take a second photo of the plant or insect. Try taking multiple photos capturing different aspects of the plant (flower, leaf structure, bark if tree) or insect (from above, head on, wings spread, if possible), particularly if you are unsure what it is.
More tips on taking useful photos with iNaturalist. Naturalist Katja Schultz has kindly shared a wonderful powerpoint, Photography for CNC Observations.
Identification. After you have a taken a photo, click on “What did you see?” to bring up suggestions. Choose the option you think best, but if you do not know, write in a very general identification such as flowering plant or spider.
Geoprivacy. All observations taken through iNaturalist include GIS tags to locate the photo to a specific place. If you click on Geoprivacy while in the observation entry you have made, you may select from Open (exact GIS location appears as a teardrop shaped marker on a map), Obscured (a circular marker without a stem suggesting a general area but not exact location), or Private (no marker appears on map, coordinates are hidden from public view). The Private setting is usually reserved for observations of threatened or endangered species. Obscured is a good setting if you don’t want the address where you are making observations to be easily identifiable.
Captive/Cultivated. This setting signifies whether the observation you are making is of a plant or animal that was not specifically planted or introduced by humans. Insects, wildlife, invasive plants, and opportunistic naturalized plants (weeds!) or even native plants that come into your yard can be considered to be “wild” or not captive/cultivated. In our home gardens, many of our plants will likely be ‘Captive/Cultivated –Yes’ meaning that you planted it. Taking photos in parks and natural resource areas near you, selecting ‘Captive/Cultivated – No’ may seem like the better choice.
However, this line can be blurry. You may have native trees that grew in on your property without your assistance. In our local parks, trees and native plants may be planted intentionally. Use your best judgment as to whether a plant you are photographing is ‘Captive/Cultivated – Yes’ given the context of the landscape you are in.
Uploading photos. This can be done through your cell phone or through your account on the iNaturalist website by clicking on a cloud icon next to the observation. You may receive feedback over time from volunteer identifiers to verify or suggest the observed species. All photos must be uploaded by 11:59 pm April 29 to be added to the challenge.
Check out the Frequently Asked Questions on iNaturalist for more information.
No cell phone? Sharp eyes can make observations for others to document. Remember that iNaturalist is a tool that you can become more proficient with over time. Give it a try and join in the 2019 City Nature Challenge!