Journal archives for December 2021

December 02, 2021

Personal Milestone Today regarding Identifications

During COVID times, I have gotten more serious about my share of responsibility to iNaturalist in the form of helping with identifications. I have developed a daily practice of aiming for at least fifty IDs each day. I try to check material in the San Mateo County BioBlitz, then in the wider Bay Area, and in a few taxa in which I feel confident.

I have been an active member of iNaturalist since 2012, and have always been willing to do some identifications. But this regular habit, which I started tracking in May of 2021, now accounts for fully 1/3 of all the identifications I have made.

I have made a total of 37350 identification, of which 12504 have been done since mid-May of 2021. The math is clear (33.478%) yet astounds me still. And I've improved over this time; I've come to better know my limits, to learn more about the range of diversity within species, and to see the need to help new participants. When I am feeling strong, I even target utterly unmarked entries, the "?" "Unknown" entries.

This practice is one I would recommend to every user. The search tools under the "Identify" tab have improved over the years. You will benefit, iNaturalist will benefit, and Community-Science will benefit.

Posted on December 02, 2021 05:38 by gyrrlfalcon gyrrlfalcon | 1 comment | Leave a comment

December 14, 2021

Defending BioBlitzes

Most of you who know me, know that I am slow to anger or to be triggered in any way. But there are a few "third rails" in my character which, if touched, will send me into a paroxysm of passionate prose.

The 'validity' of the BioBlitz is one of those triggers.

Twice this week, people whose work and contributions to our collective biological knowledge I respect (and, am frankly in awe of) unknowingly (or maybe intentionally) tripped that third-rail wire.

What one of these people asked is "Can you tell me what gets actually gets accomplished in a BioBlitz?
... I do not see how it really adds to a scientific understanding of the area being blitzed. A flora needs to sample all plants in all areas throughout the year, including boring or insignificant plants, if it is to add to the scientific knowledge. BioBlitzes tend to give you redundant photos of common showy flowers."

I think these are valid critiques in a sense, but I also feel they miss the larger point. Hence, I responded. Below is what I said. Your comments, critiques, and addenda appreciated.

A BioBlitz is NOT scientifically thorough, nor is it meant to be complete in any sense. It is a snapshot in time. No one - and I mean No One - in the BioBlitz movement thinks of BioBlitzes as replacements for scientific surveys conducted with agreed upon parameters and protocols. That is not their function in the scientific eco-system. I have participated in bird surveys that were tightly organized to produce a certain kind of data, or that were meant to discover additional sites where a threatened species lived, or to determine population fluctuations. None of these surveys would have been compatible with a BioBlitz.

BUT scientists cannot be everywhere. And we need more people invested in science as a method and as a joyous part of being alive in this world. So, the outreach-learning piece that you isolated already is a major rationale for BioBlitzes.

There are also expanding instances of the broad-range, parameter/protocol-free BioBlitzes pulling in surprise pieces of new information - the Isopod I found in Huddart at a BioBlitz that turned out to reveal a population that had been believed extirpated for half a century, or the change to a plant in the Jepson Manual based on a finding at a Blitz at Memorial Park. Much as Christmas Bird Counts often reveal vagrant birds in unsuspected places (because coverage is expanded and people are not all going to the same place(s) that particular day), BioBlitzes are compressed in time, and so can reveal/suggest some things that were previously hidden. There is a serendipitous element that, ironically, but with greater probability than a lottery ticket, comes to fruition often enough to be an inspiration. (I neglected to add how, in the first-ever BioBlitz in which I participated, at Fort Funston, we added species to the NPS lists!)

Third, this is a snapshot in time. As we do more of these, we will slowly construct a time-lapse glimpse into all taxa. This is already happening. The joint program for BioBlitzes with San Mateo County Parks is entering its ninth consecutive year. With climate change, even those duplicative “showy flower” entries you were rueing, could become valuable as they increase/decrease over time. Now, will the botanists have already noticed that? Most likely. But what of the California Slender Salamander? Or the Isopods? Or the lichens? Or the presence/absence of slime molds? Not every category gets equal consideration. The broad net of the BioBlitz gives us a chance, a small window to alert an expert to something happening at this or that park in the lesser-studied taxa.

Fourth, noisy data is still data. In my day job, I am a historian of the nineteenth-century, and when I come across specific bird references from the 19th century, I try to get those to the attention of local compilers (for instance, I found some notices of a Snowy Owl in Kansas in the 1880s, and an article about the decline of Greater Prairie Chickens there at about the same time). Now, this is, in a sense, anecdotal evidence - we have no precise location, nor time of day, nor know of the trustworthiness of the observers, etc. etc. But it is evidence of something - and of the fact that people were noticing. And it got me thinking - what if I said “I can magically get you all the bird records of every resident of Kansas from 1850-1890 who gave a damn about birds and knew their common names, but the data will be a bit messy and dirty - you want it?” I doubt there would be an ornithologist who would turn me down if I offered that treasure-trove. We are doing the same thing now with iNaturalist and eBird, and with the BioBlitzes, which are time-compressed snapshots of biodiversity in a given place. The data is messy and dirty - but WAY better than my imaginary 19th century example. It is all date-and-time stamped, location specific, and has a preliminary ID. Furthermore, the experience level and trustworthiness of the observers CAN be determined (I won’t bore you with how, but there are ways, and as studies of Big Data improve and move out of advertising, there will be even more sophisticated mechanisms developed - for instance, I foresee quite easily how a scientist working with BioBlitz data 100 years from now could figure out that among participants, I had the best birding skills, and you had the best plant skills, and JJ the best lichen skills, and that my plant IDs shouldn’t be trusted for anything beyond Coyote Brush!),

Fifth, and back to climate change, submitting this somewhat messy data at a large outreach event like a BioBlitz is a concrete way that people are doing something for the environment, and getting engaged with it. I firmly believe that, as Jack Laws says, you won’t save what you don’t love, and knowing something intimately - spending time studying and photographing it and discussing it with others (both on scene and later, virtually), does create a bond. There are so few tangible, non-self-denial things we can do to contribute to monitoring and reversing (or halting) climate change, but a BioBlitz is one of them.

So, sixth and finally, the place of BioBlitzes in the ecosystem of science is as an invitation with oomph. The BioBlitz has no entry requirements. It is an invitation to science at whatever level a person feels they are ready for and can commit to for that day. Everyone starts somewhere. But even if participants don’t take up the invitation and become more involved in science, what they did at the BioBlitz is still there, still their small contribution that day, in the record.

In sum, BioBlitzes are valuable because

  1. They serve as outreach and learning opportunities
  2. They might produce small surprises and new knowledge
  3. They function as a catch-all (albeit messy) longitudinal record
  4. The fact that the data gathered is “noisy” or “dirty” is secondary to the fact of there being more data (and it can be dealt with by increasingly efficient means by researchers)
  5. They are a concrete way to do something about the environment
  6. They serve as an invitation to science that creates some data even while being an invitation

And, to repeat what I said at the beginning, no one is confused about the difference between formal scientific surveys by experts and grassroots bioblitzes. When everyone is a scientist from the moment they can walk and talk, there will be no need for bioblitzes (maybe!).

Posted on December 14, 2021 20:18 by gyrrlfalcon gyrrlfalcon | 7 comments | Leave a comment