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What the hell is a BioBlitz?

If I told you I was going to attend a BioBlitz, what would you think I meant? Part of me thinks it sounds like a hurried bowel movement, but I’m sure I’m alone there. Outside my twisted imagination in the real world, a BioBlitz is an awesome gathering of scientists and citizens that should happen much more often.

Broadly, a BioBlitz surveys as many species and individuals, of as many taxa as possible, within a prescribed area with the help of the general public. The counting of various taxa is an important task and quite honestly could never cover all the bases, no matter how many citizen scientists got on board. The real goal is to (re)introduce people to their landscape and give them experience as citizen scientists, while also connecting them with taxonomic experts (who often rarely have an opportunity to champion the species they study). Pretty cool right?

I’ve been wanting to attend a BioBlitz for years, something seems to always come up. So, when a friend asked if I’d like to help with one where she works, I had no second thoughts. Her place of work being Mt. Rainier, it didn’t hurt that there was potential for me to see some new areas and feed my obsession with the mountain. I was going to be leading a group of birders, meaning I wouldn’t be learning about other taxa, but I knew I’d still have plenty of fun.

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Alpenglow on Rainier.

The first BioBlitz was in 1996, when a group of government scientists got together with the idea of accounting biodiversity in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. Their survey found roughly 1000 species in this 700 acre park operated by the National Park Service. The idea was born, and now the concept has spread, building on a theme of public engagement (which again, I think is the actual important part).

August 25, 2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service, so it only made sense that in celebration they planned a nationwide effort. All over the country parks set out to see what they could find on their land with the help of the public. With luck they’d inspire some new stewards and scientists at the same time.

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Alder and lichen on a rock. A double exposure.

I drove out to Rainier the night before and camped at my friend’s house. This being a community building opportunity, she was hosting a potluck, and a place to gather before heading out for a bat survey along the Nisqually River. I was dazed from Friday night traffic and a week on the job, so I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into a gaggle of students, biologists, and natural history enthusiasts. Before the night was out I’d made some friends and felt energized about natural history (which, admittedly happens easily). Knowing rain was in the forecast, I curled up under the drooping limbs of a huge Western red cedar and drifted off to the sounds of the forest.

Rain came in the morning, and though I was optimistic, the forecast didn’t look good. Here we were, getting ready to hold a BioBlitz and the weather wasn’t cooperating. Typical.

This is the reality of a field biologist, citizen or otherwise. There are just plain old miserable days, when you can’t get data and you have to suck it up and deal with it. This being a national event with a crowd of people ready to go out and explore with local experts, we didn’t have that luxury. Thankfully I was decked out in rain gear and buzzing off of the previous night’s gathering. This was going to be fun.

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The road to the other side of the Nisqually.

At Longmire, I admired the sturdy, one lane suspension bridge to the other side of the Nisqually River. Crossing over, I pushed through a thicket of damp alder and looked across the boulder strewn river bed and into the clouds where the peak of Rainier was hidden. A steady mist swirled about me and only a Common Raven honked from the treetops.

Behind me was the community building where we were meeting, a place I’d never taken the time to notice. Most visitors to Paradise hardly realize there’s another side of the Nisqually River. The campground there has slightly forgotten feel, but the community building was quite cozy and people began crowding the space.

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The bridge, the river, and the misty mists.

I chatted with familiar faces before we got seated to hear the lowdown. Federal land meant federal rules, so there was a fair amount to discuss. By the time we’d broken down into groups, mine somehow the largest, (probably because no one wanted to hike and like me wanted to explore other places besides the road to Paradise), I was anxious to get going. Birding is an early morning activity and it was almost nine AM by the time we were ready to go. The destination was the Ohanapecosh Entrance to the park, which we’d get to by highway 12 and a back road accessible to us as volunteers to the park. I won’t lie, I was pretty excited to get to travel down a dirt road no one else had access to.

Somehow, we ended up with a convoy of five cars, and I drove on my own because I wanted to be in control of leading the group’s stopping places. Maybe this is silly, but being an environmental gathering, it bothered me that no one would ride with me and wanted to stay in their own vehicles. Sure, I was doing exactly the same thing, but I was the leader.

After traveling along National Forest Road 52 to where it meets Packwood at Highway 12, and then driving up to the entrance, another hour had passed. Heading straight toward the Grove of the Patriarchs, we started down the trail with our ears open and our eyes wide; completely missing the sign that said the bridge across the river was closed. The rain was still steadily, but I was trying to be optimistic and cheery despite feeling a bit hopeless about our prospects. It was mid-May at 4000 or so feet, and it was raining. The climax forest of Western hemlock seemed to close in on us, dampening sound, light, and spirits.

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The Ohanapecosh River in the glory of a gloomy day.

Near the Ohanapecosh river, we started hearing our first birds, Hammond’s Flycatchers calling overhead in the mid-story. At the river itself we looked across to see several Western Tanager, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and several more Empidonax flycatchers. A quick flash of pumpkin wing bars, almost brilliant in the gloom, a flyby Townsend’s Solitaire. Pacific-slope Flycatchers sang their sweet song up in the dripping foliage.

Then we finally discovered that the bridge to the Grove of the Patriarchs, a famously enormous group of Douglas firs, was closed. I half considered forging across, but the thought of being the asshole who led a group of volunteers to plummet into a river stopped me. Later, one of the park staff told me I could have done it. Bummer.

As the day progressed, I started to feel like a broken record. I’d hear something few of our group initially heard and call out a bird, with no hope of seeing them. Rain and cold diminish activity, so I knew we were missing a fair amount of individuals and species, I had to take anything we could get and tried to teach the hardest part of birding, identification by ear. This takes years of practice, so it was a crash course, and for the uninitiated beginning birder, probably not as exciting as seeing the bird. Nevertheless, people were attentive and excited to learn.

After visiting the  nearby campground, which had almost nothing moving, we headed up in elevation. I decided that we might as well get up to Cayuse Pass, where Highway 123 and 410 meet on the East side of the mountain. My hope was things would get better with a bit of a rain shadow, despite elevation.

The ponds by the Ohanapecosh entrance were one of the most productive places on the trip. Efforts to see as many species as possible make Mallards exciting (we saw one) and other less expected birds, like a Belted Kingfisher, melted us with glee. It seemed insane we hadn’t seen an American Robin till noon, but here we also picked up the common Turdus as well.

On up, I kept stopping just to listen, but with five cars, it was hard to find places to get off the road. A creek crossing finally revealed an American Dipper, something I expected to be a gimme. Another pull off had a Townsend’s Warbler singing (which I’d heard at Longmire, but that didn’t count). Before long we were approaching the subalpine and the snow started to build up.

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Birding at Cayuse Pass. Basically standing on the side of the road.

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Sub-alpine forest. There were actually birds calling back in there.

Cayuse Pass, a confusion of East and West slopes, mid and high elevation trees, had a lot of snow and surprisingly, traffic noise. However, there was no rain, and the birds were relatively active. An Audubon’s Warbler flew from tree to tree calling. A Red-breasted Nuthatch yanked away in the tress (get your mind out of the gutter) and a Norther Flicker called in the mountain mist. Somewhere a Sooty Grouse boomed, difficult to hear over cars speeding by.

My group was in pretty good spirits considering the weather and the low numbers, and I tried to be informative about the birds and the ecosystems we passed through. On the way back down, I made one final stop at a burn, hoping for some woodpeckers and other birds who use old woodpecker nest cavities. From working in burns for two years, I knew there was good potential here, and despite only finding a Hairy Woodpecker and Steller’s Jay, I wasn’t wrong because we hadn’t found either of these common forest species elsewhere. We stood at the edge of these giant burned spires, enjoying the company, the bunchberry flowers, and the brilliant green clusters of vanilla root. Despite the rain, we’d had fun, and I couldn’t help but mention to everyone that the forest was more spectacular in dreary weather than full sunshine. What a Pacific Northwestern cliché I am.

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Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). It’s a ground cover, but it’s also a dogwood! Pretty crazy, right?

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Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla). It’s hard to believe this is in the same family as Oregon grape.

Driving back to Longmire I thought about the trip and if I’d impacted anyone or taught them much about birds. I wasn’t exactly sure, though everyone seemed pretty happy by the time we parted ways. Over years of teaching people in professional and casual settings, you never know what people will pick up on. You can never assume that all was for nothing. I’ve been continually surprised to find, hours or even years later, what someone took away from a learning experience.

Back at the community building, the groups tallied and presented their findings. While I’d felt like we’d had low numbers, with 28 species, this was actually the record for the day. The wildflowers group had the most species period, with 65 flowering plants recorded on a small section of the road to Paradise. A group looking for Cascade fox scat had been successful, but hadn’t actually seen any of the animals. Other groups found both native and invasive species, valuable information in an assay of biodiversity.

Grabbing snacks and some hot coffee, I remembered that I’d collected a bit of moss for another quest for species. Have you ever heard of a Tardigrade? How about a moss piglet or a water bear? Well I won’t judge you if you haven’t. One in the same, they’re microanimals that are incredibly durable (I’m talking surviving the vacuum of space and extreme high and low temps), and are mostly found of wiggling around in moss or lichen. As it so happened, my sample of moss was the only one that revealed a little one, wiggling around in the stuff washed into a petri dish. Having wanted to see a new species as part of my time at the BioBlitz, this was the perfect send off.

I had to hurry back to Seattle and I was physically tired from a long day, but still happy about the outcome. Again I was reminded of why I love nature, and why I want to continue to communicate through writing, teaching, and photography how important birds, plants, rocks, Tardigrades, and so many other parts of the world are. Maybe we didn’t see a lot, but that’s part of being a scientist and an enthusiast, not every day can be spectacular. And besides, my group learned a few things despite the weather. In my mind the BioBlitz was a success, because it connected people, not because we made major discoveries or saw the most. So in the end, I Blitzed and it was good. (Gross).

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The author getting very close to some columbine.

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