With the help of staff and volunteers at Dripping Springs Natural Area, a full day of fun and activities marked this year’s BioBlitz.
Written by Cheryl Fallstead
When people think of a desert, they often envision someplace devoid of anything but cacti and cottontails, but those who spend time exploring the fascinating ecosystems of our area know that while both are to be found, there is so much more to discover. The staff and volunteers of Dripping Springs Natural Area recently organized a citizen science project to prove just that during their April BioBlitz.
In a day packed with special activities led by experts, including reptile, plant, bird, and butterfly hikes; mammal, moth, and reptile presentations; art projects, and more, the 120 participants could choose to simply learn and enjoy or actively record sightings of plants and animals in apps like iNaturalist or eBird. iNaturalist now has 185 observations recorded for the BioBlitz, listing 125 species of plants, birds, butterflies, insects, and reptiles.
Park Ranger Daniella Barraza, one of the event organizers, says, “Many people are interested in learning about nature, the ecology, or the biodiversity of Dripping Springs. Citizen science is a way to engage those people and widen the definition of who a scientist is and who can collect scientifically-viable data. That’s why we were inspired to organize the BioBlitz because visitors want events like this, and there are many benefits to the community and the environment.”
Daniella Barraza, Park Ranger “The BioBlitz is for individuals who identify as ‘nature nerds’ at whatever level, whether beginner or expert.”
“iNaturalist and other great citizen science apps such as Nature’s Notebook or eBird open the doors of ivory tower science to the rest of us,” Daniella adds. “The BioBlitz is not just for kids and not just for adults who are already naturalists. The BioBlitz is for individuals who identify as ‘nature nerds’ at whatever level, whether beginner or expert. On the iNaturalist app, for example, the person with the highest number of observations was one of our experts, the botanist, but the person with the second highest number of observations is a sixth grader with no botany training!”
Photos can be uploaded to iNaturalist and identifications will be suggested automatically. Others can review and approve the postings, making them research-grade information.
A life-long nature lover and birder myself, I arrived early that chilly morning to first take part in bird banding. Mara Weisenberger, BLM planner and acting manager of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, had set up eight mist nets that are hard for birds to see, so they fly into them and are safely trapped to be removed, measured, weighed, and banded. When I arrived, Mara was in the process of banding a chipping sparrow, one of many that were recorded. Also banded were juncos, hummingbirds (a hummingbird expert was in attendance and handled the banding of these delicate creatures), a feisty Pyrrhuloxia, a Dusky Flycatcher, and others. By banding the birds and recording their weights, level of body fat, and other details, researchers who may catch these same birds later can compare the data and see how far they have traveled.
I tore myself away from the bird banding to head for La Cueva, where presentations on mammals were being given by NMSU Wildlife Management and Ecology students Riley Etcitty, Albert Renteria, and Kevin Stewart. They displayed animal pelts that are part of the school’s collection, as well as a couple live rodents that had wandered into their traps, including a kangaroo rat. They shared fascinating facts about the animals with visitors.
By then it was 10am and time for the butterfly hike with Rob Wu, an environmental consultant and illustrator who does much of his scientific work at White Sands Missile Range. He was, I found, a fount of knowledge about the butterflies, plants, and birds we spotted during the several hours we spent hiking to the springs and back, counting every butterfly and bird we spotted.
Rob says, “People who are citizen scientists can contribute quite a lot. Amateur enthusiasts have digital apps that give people more access to information and the ability to contribute.”
As the day warmed, we saw small butterflies with fanciful names like Sleepy Orange, Spring Azure, Funereal Duskywings, and Marine Blue. By the end of our hike, I had recorded 11 species of butterflies and 20 species of birds into iNaturalist. So much for a desert devoid of wildlife!
The day wasn’t over, however. As we returned from our hike, an art activity was taking place, led by artist Gabriella Banegas. She was teaching adults and children to create prints using materials they might have at home, such as foam trays, pencils, and blunt objects with interesting patterns, printed with washable paints.
In the meantime, Eric Metzler, a retired entomologist who has discovered and documented dozens of species of moths unique to White Sands National Monument, was sharing photos and information inside the visitor center.
Later in the afternoon, Richard Quick, the naturalist from the Las Cruces Museum of Nature and Science, showed an engrossed audience of youngsters and adults insects, amphibians, and reptiles common to the area.
That evening, another group joined BLM intern and NMSU graduate student Rachel Burke for an adventure in acoustic bat monitoring at La Cueva. Using specialized equipment to monitor the sounds made by the bats, which our ears cannot detect, they were able to identify both the species of bats and when they were homing in on prey. At first, they identified mostly Mexican Free-tailed Bats, but later Yuma Myotis and Canyon Bats made their appearance. Daniella says, “I have been at Dripping Springs countless times, but never got to see the dark side. Now, I know that somewhere in the trees and the rocks, there are sleeping bats.”
To indulge your inner nature nerd and contribute to science, download the free iNaturalist app. Daniella says, “It helps to keep track of species that were seen during the BioBlitz, but users can then go on to use it year-round wherever they are. They can use it in the city or on hikes in the forest. It excites them about plants and animals in the world around us, and motivates people to identify them. This contributes to science.”
Practice with iNaturalist and you’ll be ready for next year’s Dripping Springs BioBlitz!
W I L D W O N D E R S
Can’t wait for next spring’s BioBlitz event? Use this fun facts guide to learn more about the native animals, then try your hand at finding the wildlife on these checklists.
Mammal Fun Facts
• Mountain lions have 40 names in English.
• Cottontails and jackrabbits will eat their own feces for hydration and nutrition.
• Rock squirrels will throw rocks at snakes to keep them away.
• Jackrabbits can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour. Their long legs and ears help them stay cool.
• Coyotes will follow badgers to get their escaped prey.
• Javelinas can often be found by the water and won’t both you unless attacked or injured.
• Our largest rodent, the porcupine, has over 30,000 quills.
• Gray foxes will bury leftover food and then urinate on the soil above it to save it for later.
o Marine Blue butterfly
o Two-tailed Swallowtail
o Spring Azure
o Orange Skipperling
o Golden-headed Scallopwing
o Henry’s Elfin
o Echo Azure
o Sleepy Orange
o Funereal Duskywing
o Sleepy Duskywing
o Mournful Duskywing
o Say’s Phoebe
o Loggerhead Shrike
o Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay
o Canyon Wren
o Bewick’s Wren
o Ruby-crowned Kinglet
o House Finch
o Hermit Thrush
o Broad-tailed Hummingbird
o Black-chinned Hummingbird
o Chipping Sparrow
o Black-throated Sparrow
o Dark-eyed Junco
o Canyon Towhee
o Rufous-crowned Sparrow
o Black-chinned Sparrow
o Spotted Towhee
o Ladder-backed Woodpecker
o White-winged Dove
o Mexican Free-tailed Bats
o Canyon Bats
o Yuma Myotis