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Pikes/Pines | How to be part of the City Nature Challenge on Capitol Hill

(Image: iNaturalist)

Spring is a time of wakefulness. A time to pull out of our winter funk, poised for the leaves and blooms bursting forth, pollinators and migrants winging back. Spring is the watchful season too.

Instead of anxiously staring at the vegetable starts on your windowsill, direct that nervous energy towards an upcoming opportunity to help monitor your local ecosystem. The City Nature Challenge calls for us to engage in the spirit of “nature, everywhere.”

Beginning in 2016 as a competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles aiming to engage community members in documenting as much urban wildlife as possible, the Challenge has become an international affair. In 2020, 244 cities across the globe participated and over 32,000 species were documented with 1300 of those being rare or threatened. The Challenge concept is simple: during specific dates, get outside and document nature with nothing more than a smartphone and curiosity.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed apps that can aid your naturalist pursuits and the City Nature Challenge hinges directly on one of the best out there: iNaturalist. Part social platform, part documentation tool and database for learning, I have relied heavily on iNaturalist to not only help with identification while branching out into invertebrates and obscure plants, but also as a way to connect me with experts. I am distrustful of gamifying naturalizing (such as through competitions and leaderboards), but I truly believe that the benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls and the various projects one can join in on (including the Challenge) feel truly collaborative.

Here’s how the City Nature Challenge works.

Step one: start an iNaturalist account either through your phone or computer.

Step two: go out between April 30 – Monday, May 3, 2021 and document wild plants and animals with photos. These don’t have to be amazing images, just good enough to see what’s in the photo. This might lead to you learning a new species, or documenting the first iNaturalist sighting of a plant or animal in your area.

Step three: From April 30th to May 9th sit back and watch experts identify contributions, and if you know a thing or two, you can collaborate by identifying observations too. Woodland Park Zoo has more information on the specifics here.

Seattle entered the challenge in 2017 under the leadership of Kelly Brenner, a local author and naturalist, and in 2018 the Woodland Park Zoo jumped in to help support the growing interest. In 2020, 552 people participated in the Seattle-Tacoma Metropolitan area, documenting over 1,000 species. Today both Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and Northwest Trek partner in the local Challenge as well, expanding to scope to all of Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties.

You might wonder why zoos would be interested in this subject, as they often appear primarily focused on the charismatic megafauna from distant locales.

I asked Katie Remine, Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest Conservation Coordinator and Seattle-Tacoma area Challenge point person, this very question. Her response was that zoos across the country are becoming more and more interested in urban ecology, and encouraging people to “conserve wildlife wherever they are, not just in far away places” This is evident in the many community science efforts that Woodland park runs, from documenting urban carnivores to monitoring amphibians.

Remine said that there’s special interest in filling in the missing areas on the map (iNaturalist is inherently map based), and encouraging people to observe in places that have gotten less attention. “This might be a wild area, because our counties are huge and remote, but they might also just be a place where people haven’t taken the time.”

Josh Morris, Seattle Audubon’s Urban Conservation Manager, agreed and is championing the City Nature Challenge as a way to also support his own iNaturalist project documenting species along the Capitol Hill Connections corridor. “I’d encourage people to not overlook the super urban places.” This is one of the most fun things about uploading observations to iNaturalist projects: you can support multiple projects simultaneously. If your observations are within the right window of time and place, they can bolster both the City Nature Challenge and the Capitol Hill Connections project.

Ultimately participation in this about you, the participant, and your feelings and behaviors towards local nature, as much as it’s about the data. Remine doesn’t expect you to become an expert or even begin participating with any knowledge at all, and in the end she just hopes that people come away having “learned one new plant or animal.” There is artificial intelligence software to help with identification, later verified by a host of enthusiastic iNaturalist users. As Morris puts it: “I want participants to foster connections with their neighborhood. Intentionally seeking out nature through observing and contributing.” So, just get out and snap away, and see what happens.

Now you might be asking, “Brendan, will you be participating in the City Nature Challenge?” Well, yes I will, thank you for thinking of me!

This post is a two-part series, and the second will be about my time getting out and documenting some of the Hill’s nature with a particular eye on the most paved over sections of the Capitol Hill Connections corridor. Morris even added an additional challenge: pay attention to cultivated plants, because in the pursuit of supporting urban habitat, everything counts.

Hope to see you out there, masked up, naturalizing!


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