12 Jun
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Wood Thrushes and Big Brown Bats: BioBlitz is 24 hours of natural wonders

Matt Schenck looking over what will turn out to be a Cherry-faced meadow hawk.

Matt Schenck looking over what will turn out to be a Cherry-faced meadow hawk.

It is early evening on a cool early summer night. Ten people stand in the woods, peering through the dense vegetation. Dan Berard, captain of the Birding Team, shines a green laser pointer on a tree twenty feet away. “Now, if you’ll look to the right and behind the tree where my laser is pointing, you can see a female Wood thrush sitting on a nest with several babies in it.” The group trains binoculars on the area noted. “I got it!” they cry, one after another. “Do we have that one on the list yet?” someone asks. “Yes. I wrote this one down earlier,” Berard says.

This is one snapshot of BioBlitz 2016, where hundreds of volunteers with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS) descend on a piece of property and attempt to find and positively identify every living thing, all in a 24-hour marathon. This year, Hopkinton Land Trust hosted BioBlitz at their Kenyon Crossroads Preserve in Hopkinton. To give an idea of the scope of BioBlitz, last year over 200 people gathered in Little Compton to count 1200 species, from ducks to dragonflies, from fungi to ferns, flies, and fish. The volunteers are botanists, microbiologists, and ornithologists. Yet there are also artists, writers, and students, all bringing a blend of passion and curiosity for the outdoors to the event. Berard’s walk takes place several hours into this year’s blitz, and there are already dozens of species on “the list”.

BioBlitz volunteers attempt to identify a variety of freshwater creatures.

BioBlitz volunteers attempt to identify a variety of freshwater creatures.

“The list” is comprised of page after page of species names posted on free standing bulletin boards. The sheets note which species are found, along with who found it. It’s a bit of a competition to see who can be the first to “get” a species, along with trying to get as many as they can. “The list” resides under a large white canopy of the place called Science Central.

Science Central is a maze of tables, chairs, microscopes, fish tanks, nets, and an assortment of other scientific equipment. The grass floor is a tangle of wires leading from a droning generator to lights, computers, and cell phone chargers. Throughout BioBlitz, a steady stream of people will gather around “the list”, some kneeling, others on tiptoe to update themselves on the latest discoveries. Dozens of tables are covered in samples of plants and other found items awaiting identification. One tray contains a pile of sticks, leaves, and composted elements taken from the forest floor, known as leaf litter. The team tasked with sorting through this ignoble looking mess call themselves the Litter Bugs (punning is a favorite past time of BioBlitzers), and the team will spend much of the entire time sifting through that one pile again and again, each time with finer screening methods that require initial use of the naked eye, then magnifiers, and ultimately microscopes to identify every living entity in one square foot of earth. This type of research has been going on for over a decade.

Since 2000, RINHS has organized this frantic event. BioBlitz is “designed to bring the community of naturalists together, to demonstrate the biodiversity that surrounds us on even the most mundane-looking land, and the value of these species to the quality of our lives,” according to their website. It serves at least two purposes: for RINHS, it is a way of gathering large numbers of volunteers together to obtain information about various species for its own records. For landowners such as Hopkinton Land Trust, they end up with specific scientific information that they can use in developing policies for land use as well as protection of living species residing in those areas.

Back on the trail, Berard’s group moves through the darkening forest. The hope is to hear, and perhaps see owls, but thus far they have proven elusive. No matter: this is BioBlitz, and BioBlitz is about being outdoors and noticing the diversity of life that is everywhere. That’s why the group pauses to ooh and ahh over the sight of fireflies dancing over thickets of multiflora roses. The rest of this particular walk (there will be many others) will not produce owls, but the crew will stop and appreciate the sight of a Wood cockroach near the forest floor, along with a Big Brown bat swooping in circles through the wood canopy above. Life in the woods is never dull.

Baby Black Racer.

Baby Black Racer.

The next afternoon finds Kira Stilwell stacking armfuls of bedding into a van. She’s exhausted, and it’s no wonder: as Program Administrator for RINHS, she has spent nearly 24 straight hours greeting volunteers, answering a constant stream of questions, giving directions, and generally commanding this army of science warriors. “Just don’t ask me anything that requires thinking,” she says with a weary smile. From an administrative perspective, one of Stilwell’s greatest reliefs has come with the comfortable temperatures and mostly clear skies. BioBlitz goes on rain or shine, and some years have brought miserable conditions. “Not being worried about the weather has really allowed participants to relax and concentrate on their work,” she says. Poor weather conditions are not only uncomfortable; they greatly reduce the number of species found (dragonflies seem to disappear in bad weather, for example), and volunteers are forced to spend chunks of time protecting sensitive gear from the elements. This year, the weather is near perfect.

With the annual event drawing to a close, Stilwell pauses to reflect on the philosophical impact of an event like this one. “BioBlitz gives us a snapshot of biodiversity that proves that ‘it’ is here. That you don’t have to go far to find intact ecosystems and a tremendous diversity of life. Not to the Amazon, not to the Everglades. You just have to look, and ‘it’ is here.”

Sometimes critters are especially cooperative when it comes to identification.

Sometimes critters are especially cooperative when it comes to identification.



  • Thanks for the write-up! Sorry I had to work! Looks like a great success!

    • I hope you will have a chance to join us next time; it was a blast!

  • Great job Matt, Mark and Uncle Rick!!

  • Well the Bio Blitz was as usual an excellent event. 2 freshwater mussels were identified which I believe is a record for the RI Bio Blitz, also collected were 2 aquatic snails, one fingernail clam, plus a terrestrial snail and yellow slug where identified by the Mollusk team. Also 2 species of leech and Rhode Islands most common crayfish were identified.

    The fact that small juveniles to large adults of the Common Elliptio, Elliptio complananta, and small juveniles to adult Eastern Floaters, Pyganodon cataracta, mussels were found indicates that the river and pond are relatively free of toxic un-ionized ammonia pollutant, which then allows these 2 species of mussels to reproduce successfully. Small to large Eastern Elliptos were found in the Tomaqua Brook while only large Easter Elliptios were recovered from the Solitude Springs lower pond. However small to large Eastern Floaters were found in the deepest part of the lower pond.

    Another good indication of clean water of both the brook and lower pond was the fact our largest native RI freshwater snail Campeloma decisum was found in both the brook and lower pond.

    A Helisoma snail was found but the specimen was lost as were a couple of Sphaeriid clams were also found and lost. The lost freshwater snail and clams were lost due to their very small sizes.

    2 terrestrial mollusks were found the common a small yellow slug, and a large wood snail that has yet to be fully identified.

    The weather was cool to warm with almost no rain until the last 2 to 3 hours of RI Natural History Survey Bio Blitz which is I believe was also a rare event, of having almost no rain in a 24 hour period. It was an excellent event of re-meeting old friends, and seeing the younger members of the event, be they novices to experienced members. A special thanks to the Hopkinton Land Trust, as well as to Land Trust member Cynthia who was brave enough to get wet with me, and was avid learner to go for a 2 to 3 hour, afternoon collecting trip up Tomaqua Brook on Friday June 10th.

    June 10th was also my 62 birthday, and as usual I try to celebrate by Birthday by going to almost every June Bio Blitz for 9 out of the last 12 Bio Blitz’s here in RI. To me this is the best and most fun way for me to celebrate my birthday with like minded friends and fellow biologists.

    Most of all thanks to Kira, David and Hope of the RI Natural History Survey for doing the bulk of the work to see that there is a Bio Blitz every year, in which we all can have an outstanding time pursuing our interests collecting and studying invertebrates, vertebrates, plants and Fungi and sharing this information with so many like minded people and friends.

  • My web site is more like a FB site it is the Rhode Island Nature, Biology, Geology and Photography FB site… If you enjoy nature of RI, Southern New England or New England as a whole by all means you are welcome to join the group…!

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