The City Nature Challenge: A New Way to Discover Kentucky

This multi-county community science event, involving sanctuary staff, state residents, and retired and current Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet biologists, yields new discoveries

By Beverly James

Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves aquatic zoologist, Mike Compton, discusses the life history traits of the Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum) with participants of the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge 2022.. Photo by Josie Miller, Floracliff.

In April, more than 300 Kentuckians in Fayette, Jefferson and Madison Counties participated in this year’s City Nature Challenge — an annual, four-day global bioblitz  established in 2016 by the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

What started as a friendly competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles, mobilizing people to find, document and learn more about the wild nature in their cities, has grown this year to include 445 cities in 47 countries.

 In Kentucky, participants made over 7,000 observations documenting more than 1,500 plants, insects, birds, mushrooms and more.

At Floracliff Nature Sanctuary in Lexington, former and current EEC biologists led programs with sanctuary staff and volunteers to find and document nighttime insects, aquatic life and other wildlife in the sanctuary. Participants used the iNaturalist app during the event to learn more about the wild nature in their cities.

The app offers a user-friendly way for anyone to photograph a species, record its location and identification, and share it with a network of fellow naturalists who will confirm its identification or suggest an alternate identification.

A young visitor at Floracliff Nature Sanctuary with an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), affectionately named “Marvin.” Photo by Amy DiCarlantonio

In addition to being the main platform for the City Nature Challenge, iNaturalist has also become an important tool for the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves (OKNP).

“Citizen scientist observations from iNaturalist are a valuable source of data for Office of Kentucky Nature Preserve’s (OKNP) rare plant program,” OKNP Botanist Vanessa Voelker said. “This data helps us better understand the status and extent of rare plants in Kentucky and how we can work to conserve them.”

“Over several years, numerous Kentucky iNaturalist users have contributed important population and location information for rare plant species that they’ve observed while exploring their own property, hiking in natural areas or while simply noticing an interesting roadside plant that they hope to identify.”

In 2021, Kentuckians helped OKNP make over 140 updates to its rare plant database.

At the event, visitors got a close-up look at common residents of the sanctuary like rosy maple moths, eastern milksnakes, rainbow darters, and American toads. Additionally, the programs resulted in three new discoveries for Floracliff.

State Threatened yellow-crowned night-herons (Nyctanassa violacea) were observed in Louisville during the City Nature Challenge. Photo by Lee Payne, Jr.

OKNP Aquatic Zoologist, Mike Compton identified a stonecat fish, which marked the 30th fish species recorded in Elk Lick Creek. OKNP Terrestrial Zoologist Shelby Fulton recorded a pale-veined Isturgia moth during the nighttime program and Floracliff volunteer, David Lang, recorded the first iNaturalist observation in Kentucky of a golden-winged x blue-winged warbler hybrid.

Important discoveries were also made in Louisville during the City Nature Challenge.

Olivia Wagner submitted an observation of an aquatic plant in Floyd’s Fork that caught Voelker’s attention. Voelker identified it as Java water-dropwort (Oenanthe javanica), an invasive plant that was previously unrecorded in Kentucky. Land managers throughout the state are now on alert for this new threat to wetlands and streams.

Java water-dropwort (Oenanthe javanica); OKNP Botanist Vanessa Voelker identified this new aquatic invasive plant for Kentucky that was observed during the City Nature Challenge by Olivia Wagner.

On a more positive note, participant Betsy Ruhe recorded the first iNaturalist observation of a showy orchid in Jefferson County and Lee Payne Jr. observed a nesting pair of yellow-crowned night-herons, a threatened species in Kentucky.

Dr. Margaret Carreiro, an urban ecologist and the organizer of Louisville’s City Nature Challenge, said, “This bioblitz raises awareness among the conservation community that cities can not only serve as canaries for new invasive species, but also support biodiversity worth saving.”

Of the 343 Kentuckians who participated in this year’s City Nature Challenge, Tina Marie Camp Scheff impressively contributed more observations (443) and recorded more species (226) than anyone else during the event.

Stonecat (Noturus flavus) – a new fish record for Elk Lick Creek at Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, identified by OKNP Aquatic Zoologist Mike Compton. Photo by Dan Patrick.

“This was so fun,” Scheff said at the end of the event. “All of my observations were from one acre in Berea near the interstate. It’s amazing how much life is out there.”

For those interested in joining this fun and friendly competition next year and helping document Kentucky’s biodiversity, the 2023 City Nature Challenge is scheduled for April 28 – May 1. All participating cities require a local organizer. Sign up to organize the City Nature Challenge for your Kentucky city or county here:

Beverly James is the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary Preserve director, and organizer of Lexington’s City Nature Challenge.

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