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"Bioblitz" Aims to Catalog All The Species In Two Square Miles In 24-Hours

Sam Evans-Brown

One of the state’s biggest environmental organizations is finishing the fundraising for a 1,300 acre conservation deal in North Conway. Once it’s finished, the land will be added to the 4,000 existing acres of the Nature Conservancy’s Green Hills Preserve, where it will provide recreation for people, and habitat for plants and animals.

But before the conservancy closes the deal it wants to know what it’s getting, and to figure that out it assembled plant and wildlife experts from all over the state for a sort of naturalist marathon.

It’s called a “bioblitz,” and for a few of the biologists it actually started in the middle of the previous night started the night before.

Related: Read the story behind this story from the perspective of NHPR intern Austin Cowan.

“You gotta see some of these things man, look at these guys,” says Rick Van der Poll, showing off  some of the large Saturniid moths – like the iconic Luna moth – which he collected the night before. Van der Poll, who has an encyclopedia of Latin names in his brain, was out until the wee hours of the morning, catching the scaly-winged insects in black-light bucket traps. “We had them literally swarming our clothing and landing on our face and jumping inside shirt pockets,” he says.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Moths are captured using black lights and buckets, and killed by the fumes from ethyl acetate, so they can be preserved as specimens.

He has 710 New Hampshire moth species mounted and identified at home, but even he can’t name all the species he’s netted.

“They all have a story to tell,” says Van der Poll, “and if you had a couple of days we could go through all 200 species that we probably collected, and tell stories.”

What’s in a Bioblitz?

For the event the Nature Conservancy assembled more than a dozen teams of naturalists – all volunteers – who for one day will catalog as much as they can about what lives on this land.

There’s a team that started at day-break that found 70 something species of birds on the property: warblers and vireos and thrushes. There was a team that went out early to do fish counts by electrifying the water, temporarily paralyzing brook trout so they can be counted.

But the lion’s share of the work is identifying plants, and individual micro-ecosystems. Some of them are pretty deep in the woods, and to maximize productivity, the bioblitzers dash up the ridge in an ATV.

Much of the work is done on iPads, with photos and observations loaded into the cloud using an app called iNaturalist.

A team consisting of the Nature Conservancy’s director of stewardship Jeff Lougee, Tom Lee – a UNH conservation biology professor – Malin Clyde with the UNH Cooperative extension checks a spot that infrared satellite images identified as maybe having a rare type of forest.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
While many of the biologists stick with pen and paper, others are using a program called iNaturalist for everything from navigation in the field to cataloging their findings.

  They tromp through the trees and go through a long dichotomous key with, trying to ID the forest, which won’t fit neatly into the boxes other biologists have described in field guides.

“39A: community dominated by hemlock or hemlock and white pine, hardwood species absent from the canopy or in very low abundance,” Lee reads.

We have hardwoods here,” responds Lougee, and they continue deeper into the classification.

In the end, this spot doesn’t fall into one of the tidy natural communities defined in the big book of forest archetypes. They decide it’s basically one of the state’s most common forest types called H-BOP – Hemlock, Beech Oak, Pine – but something’s not quite right.

“There’s a little bit of sugar maple here, mainly red maple, a little bit of beech and no yellow birch, so there’s some unhappiness in the lack of some of these species,” says Lee.

He jokes that there are around 230 defined “natural communitiies in New Hampshire, and “maybe there should be 231?”

It’s a tiny window into the meticulous slog of science.

At the same time there are teams gathering information on signs of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, wetland habitats and little spots that gather water in the spring called vernal pools.

Why a Bioblitz?

The whole idea is to get enough information to have a game plan for maximizing the amount of habitat in the preserve.

Once the Nature Conservancy starts to manage this land, it doesn’t want to do something silly like put a mountain bike trail right though some rare patch of plants, just because no-one knew it was there.

Rick Van der Poll spots one such species on a low, rocky ridge above the Pudding Pond conservation area.

“Back’s Sedge,” he calls out to his surveying partner, “I’m on a roll! That’s my third population in two weeks!”

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
There's no shortage of habitats to survey on the Green Hills property, and even with more than a dozen teams, there are areas in the 5,300 acres that are rarely seen by humans.

Running on only a few hours of sleep, Rick Van der Poll has spotted a grass – carex backii or Rocky Mountain sedge – that is only known to be in about dozen spots in New Hampshire, and is on threatened and endangered lists all over New England.

Everything these two-dozen or so experts found will need to be tabulated for weeks, and the Nature Conservancy still has a few hundred thousand dollars left to raise toward the $1.4 million it needs to buy the land.

In the mean-time, naturalists all over New Hampshire will be trying to catch up on their sleep.

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