Citizen Science

Wild choose-your-own adventure challenge pits Austin against the world

Wild choose-your-own adventure challenge pits Austin against the world

Rebecca Ferguson in Reminiscence
Austinites are encouraged to log nature finds around Waller Creek — and throughout all of Austin. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Beginning April 27 through April 30, Austin joins more than 75 cities competing in the worldwide, choose-your-own adventure 2018 City Nature Challenge. The "bioblitz" event offers Austin residents and visitors a chance to practice citizen science — and learn more about the wild side of the city.

Each city hopes to tally the most observations of nature, find the most species, and engage the most people. Participants in the challenge contribute to the study and management of wildlife and wild habitat by helping identify types and locations of species in the competing cities.

Anyone can join in by downloading iNaturalist, an app for recording observations of plants and animals, from the App Store or Google Play. Then, follow these three simple steps:

  • Find wildlife. Any plant, animal, fungi, mold, or other evidence of life, even scat (aka poop), fur, tracks, shells, or carcasses count. (Just don’t touch!)
  • Take a picture and note the location.
  • Upload your findings to the iNaturalist app.

“This is a way to get to know wildlife right outside your backdoor and contribute to science, too” says Kelly Simon, a Texas Parks & Wildlife urban biologist. Simon reports that more than 100,000 observations were uploaded during last year’s challenge.

Since its inception, citizen scientists have used iNaturalist to identify more than 500 species in the Waller Creek watershed, which covers almost six square miles of Central Austin. Common observations include Great-tailed grackles — no surprise — as well as pond slider turtles, wood ducks, and fox squirrels. Some of the less common creatures reported include least grebes (a kind of small water bird), blue dasher dragonflies, Gulf fritillary butterflies, and even a gray fox.

Austinites can even make the event a social experience at the first-ever Waller Creek Bioblitz, a nature challenge kickoff on April 28 from 9-11:30 am, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy in Texas and Waller Creek Conservancy. Expert naturalists will be on hand to help people get started on the app and to answer any nature-related questions. Look for a tent near the Forever Bicycles installtion on the hike and bike trail near Alta’s and the boathouse.

Several improvement projects underway in this watershed aim to increase diversity of its native plants and animals, remove invasive species, improve water quality, and create more opportunities for people to connect with nature along the creek.

TNC also is working with Waller Creek Conservancy and other groups to document the ecology of the watershed and track social benefits of these improvement projects. “The Texas population is increasingly urban,” says Laura Huffman, Texas state director and founding director of TNC’s North American Cities Program. “Cities are a critical component for solving global natural resource challenges.” Citizen science such as the City Nature Challenge is an important part of these efforts.

The challenge announces results on May 4. Get out there and observe, Austin.