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Documenting biodiversity in urban settings

Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal

The City Nature Challenge would like to know if you’ve seen a fungi in your neighborhood.

The two-part event calls on citizen scientists to help document biodiversity in urban settings. The observation portion of the challenge runs from midnight April 30 to the end of May 3, with participants taking photos of plants, animals, fungus, insects and even protozoa.

“We’ve had crazy people, myself included, who go out right at midnight to make observations,” says Laurel Ladwig, co-organizer Albuquerque’s City Nature Challenge and partnership coordinator for the Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program.

And while the focus is the “wild” in wildlife – sorry no people or domesticated animals – plants have a caveat.

“Because we’re doing urban habitat we want to know what animals are interacting with,” says Ladwig. “So if a yard has non-native plants we want to know that. We want to know where the wildlife is.”

“You can also make audio recordings and submit those,” says Ladwig. “Tracks and signs of animals, in addition to the photos of the animals themselves.”

Using the iNaturalist app, participants can then upload the photos to the challenge. The Bernalillo County Open Space will be hosting a online Zoom event to teach how to use the iNaturalist app, and to learn more about the City Nature Challenge, from 9-10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 24. The class is free and registration closes on Friday, April 23.

For those who wish to participate without a smartphone, photos can be taken with a digital camera and uploaded via the iNaturalist website. “Just know where and when you took the picture,” says Ladwig. “You can upload with that info.”

The second portion of the challenge, which runs May 4-9, is where participants can help each other identify any mysterious wildlife they took photos of.

“You don’t have to know what you are looking at to participate,” says Ladwig. “You just take a picture and there is an enormous community of naturalists and scientists will help ID.”

Most of the unsolvable photos are due to bad photo quality Ladwig says. Birds tend to be underrepresented because its harder to get good quality photos. But Ladwig says birds can often be identified by their shape, so even if your bird photo is bad, submit it.

Created in 2016, the City Nature Challenge started as a friendly competition between the residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The next year the challenge went national, and in 2018, it went global.Albuquerque first entered the challenge in 2019.

“We had great success that first year,” says Ladwig. “We actually ranked in the top five in seven different categories worldwide, that was exciting.”

In 2019 and 2020, Albuquerque was represented by Bernalillo County. Last year Albuquerque logged over 5,000 observations of 970 different species. The most observed species in 2020 was the black-chinned hummingbird.

This year, the Middle Rio Grande Valley counties of Bernalillo, Sandoval and Valencia will represent Albuquerque.

“We can make observations north of Alameda now,” says Ladwig.

While the pandemic shifted the focus of the challenge from competition to collaboration, this year might not be without the opportunity for bragging rights.

“Phoenix challenged us (Albuquerque) this year,” says Ladwig.

This is Phoenix’s first year participating in the event and Tucson has also joined in, making it a three-city friendly competition. The ABQ, Greater Phoenix & Greater Tucson challenge will have its own dashboard for participants on the iNaturalist website.

“Whatever beating Phoenix means, we want to do it,” says Ladwig. “In a gentle way.”

Ladwig says one of the goals of Albuquerque’s City Nature Challenge is to create a map that shows where wildlife is around the city, and encourages people to keep recording observations of wildlife in Albuquerque beyond the challenge.

“We have such a wealth of urban nature,” says Ladwig. “Eventually our initiative with the (University of New Mexico’s R.H. Mallory Center for Community Geography) is to build an urban biodiversity map.”

Because the challenge focuses on urban wildlife, participants need not go far to take part.

“Get outside with a purpose. Contribute to science,” says Ladwig. “Even if you can only stick to your backyard.”

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