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Descanso visitors, staff conduct citizen science in first BioBlitz

Descanso visitors, staff conduct citizen science in first BioBlitz
Visitors photograph a red-eared slider turtle laying eggs at Descanso Gardens during BioBlitz, a hands-on field study where they upload wildlife photographs through the app iNaturalist, which catalogs them into a database for access by scientists. Saturday, June 2, 2018. (Mike Mullen / La Cañada Valley Sun)

A group of citizen scientists scoured La Cañada’s Descanso Gardens Saturday morning with cellphones in hand, peering into bushes and scanning hillsides through their display screens to catalog a diversity of plant and wildlife species during the garden’s first BioBlitz.

Visitors of all ages toured sections of the 165-acre garden’s Oak Woodland, lake and surrounding foothills, snapping photos of native and invasive plants and looking for signs of animal life.

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The day’s photos were to be uploaded to the cellphone app iNaturalist, which lets users track the times, dates and locations of on-site observations and compiles results in a searchable list that can later be used by researchers.

Emi Yoshimura, Descanso’s education programs manager, explained the objective was to search less cultivated portions of the garden to get a clearer picture of the area’s natural biodiversity. Citizen science lets people get involved in collecting data that can be used by scientists who wouldn’t otherwise have the same exposure to the area.

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“People without special training can still conduct science that is meaningful,” Yoshimura said. “There’s a lot that is unknown about wildlife around the world, especially in urban centers. To add observations of wildlife at our site helps scientists understand how Descanso is part of a larger story.”

Earlier surveys going back to 2013 amassed 1,125 observations of 305 species. Saturday’s goal was to add at least 160 more observations to the data bank.

Up for the challenge, 40 residents and Descanso employees trekked out to the garden’s lake, where they formed small groups tasked with exploring distinct areas. Before they’d headed out, a young deer was spotted grazing yards away — a propitious sign.

Some observers investigated the lake for bird and insect species, while others headed through the Oak Woodland and past Descanso’s perimeter fence to find evidence of life in the surrounding hillsides.

La Cañada resident Cameron Hall, who leads yoga classes and healing walks at the garden, focused her attention on plant species while husband Doug Spitznagel crouched down low to get a close-up of a convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens), one of nine observations and five species he’d record that day. The pair came with son Kyle Spitznagel and daughter-in-law Laura Male of Pasadena.

“I’ve come here for the past 40 years, and every time I come here I see something new,” said Hall, later pointing out Artemisia californica, a sagebrush plant called “cowboy cologne” for its refreshing aroma.

Burbank resident Anne Curran thrilled at discovering Aphelocoma californica, a Western scrub jay, high atop a hillside tree after hearing its piercing call. Soon after, she and 14-year-old La Crescenta resident Rachel-Ann Arias spied a shy Cnemidophorus tigris, a Western whiptail lizard, in a bush. They leaned in gingerly, cameras poised for a good shot.

“I think it’s cool you can help researchers find out more,” Arias said of citizen science treks, which she’d previously done elsewhere. “And it’s fun.”

After more than an hour, the groups convened to pore over findings and upload their geo-tagged photos to iNaturalist. With hawks, wasps, ants and a California pink glow worm in the mix, they blew past the day’s goal of 160 observations, cataloging 554 entries and 172 species.

“It far exceeded our hopes,” Yoshimura reported Monday. “Very exciting!”

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