The City Nature Challenge lets children help scientists around the world

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In 2020, a teenager photographed a “white-spotted slimy salamander” under a tree trunk in Arlington, Virginia. Although not endangered, this species had not been documented in that county for 45 years.

Finding a toad that was undiscovered for so long was valuable to researchers studying its habitat changes.

Between April 29 and May 2, the City Nature Challenge for the DC area aims to see how many plant and animal species the residents of the DC area can find and photograph. From May 3 to 8, participants will then help verify information and identification of images uploaded to the iNaturalist.org Web site. Once documented, these observations become “research grade” – recommended for use by scientists.

The United States is just one of dozens of participating countries.

“The City Nature Challenge is scientific research – global data collection – conducted by the general public rather than by professionals,” said Alonso Abugattas, a naturalist and environmental educator who writes the Capital Naturalist blog.

The nature challenge takes place wherever wild plants, animals and fungi live naturally. (Do not use your pets or garden plants.)

Explore your garden, around your strengths, in a favorite park or in a schoolyard. Find a place where you can sit still and watch and listen. Focus on finding things you love – insects, butterflies, plants with berries – but be open to finding the unexpected.

Daniel Morrisey, 10, and his brother Than, 8, participated in last year’s City Nature Challenge at Hidden Pond Park in Springfield, Virginia. “There were snakes everywhere!” Than said. Using Seek, a free kid-friendly app created by iNaturalist, they were able to identify the snakes they saw.

While exploring Kingman Island in southeast Washington, Faris Nunn, 8, and her brother King, 5, saw many plants and wildlife signs in a small area by the river. A snail shell, fungi, swimming skin footprints and woodpecker-drilled holes in trees were highlights. King spotted a large pod and used Seek to quickly identify it as an eastern black walnut.

Move slowly. “If you run along a path, you may miss something small like an insect, or slowly like a snail,” Faris said. She and King explored quietly along the shore so they would not scare away ducks swimming nearby.

Look under tree trunks or in dried leaves – but be careful. “Wear a sturdy stick and wear gloves when searching around such places,” Faris said, remembering how she and King once saw a black widow spider crawling in dead vegetation in their front yard.

Instead of including the actual animal, your observations may show signs of wildlife such as footprints, feathers, nests or feces. Gnawed tree stumps may indicate nearby beavers. Faris and King found snake skins, deer bones and fish heads on previous explorations.

Recorded sounds of wildlife can also be submitted, even if you can not see what is making the sound. For example, vocalizations of birds or deep-necked pods from bull frogs may tell scientists what was nearby.

Remember, it’s fun to explore with family or friends because everyone has different talents. Some are better at finding faults, some know bird calls, some are good photographers. Each one can contribute to the challenge in different ways.

For more information and Nature Challenge-related events, visit citynaturchallengedc.org.

Help gather information

A magnifying glass, binoculars, notepad and a small unbreakable mirror, which are good to see under mushrooms, can help with identification.

Photograph your subject from different angles and disturb as little as possible. Highlight the most identifiable aspects. For plants: leaf patterns, bark, flowers. For wildlife: habitat, tail or wings, legs, face.

Free apps to observe nature

Search: For those younger than 13. No login or account required, safe for kids, and the pictures will stay on your device. Does not count towards Nature Challenge unless a parent with an iNaturalist account uploads them to that app.

iNaturalist.org: Must be 13 years or older to have an account. Observers post their best photos for verification. Location information can be public with iNaturalist, hidden or marked as private.

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