Counting Critters

Virginia rail (Rallus limicola)

Virginia rail (Rallus limicola)

By Todd McLeish

BioBlitz is my favorite day of the year, better than Christmas and my birthday and almost every vacation trip. And it’s coming up again on June 7 and 8. If you’ve never been, make a plan to be there; and if you’ve been even once before, you know the fun of spending the day with 100+ naturalists counting every living creature they can find.

I’m a birder, and my official role at BioBlitz is to count bird species. I’ll be scouring the fields and forests and scanning the shorelines looking to tally as many birds as I can on Friday afternoon – and because I’m competitive about it, I want to be the first to see everything. I’ll also be hunting for owls in the middle of the night and, after too few hours of sleep, up again before dawn to listen for the early-rising songbirds.

But an intense day of birding isn’t why I like BioBlitz so much. What is especially exciting is the opportunity to watch and learn from so many other naturalists. I love watching the small mammal team setting their box traps in hopes to finding as many mice and voles and shrews and other critters as they can, then heading over to whatever body of water is available to see the fish people use their electro-fishing gear to tally aquatic species. That’s about when the herp team returns from their first forays in search of frogs and snakes and salamanders and the like, and they usually bring back a few live creatures for the rest of us to observe. My very first sighting of a milk snake in Rhode Island happened just that way.

Better than that, though, is the nightlife at BioBlitz. No, there is no music and dancing – well, there is occasional dancing in celebration of a great observation, but that’s not what I mean. BioBlitz nightlife starts off with the bat guys setting mist nets at dusk to capture local bats, followed by the bug guys setting up their illuminated traps to capture beetles and other flying insects that are attracted to lights. But if you do nothing else at BioBlitz, make sure you stay up late enough to hang out with the mothman, who puts up a white sheet in the woods and shines bright lights on it to attract moths. Most people think moths pale in comparison to butterflies, but that’s only true if you haven’t spent a night at BioBlitz watching the dozens of species of intricately patterned moths arrive to be counted.

Saturday morning always brings out the dragonfly hunters and the bee team and the mushroomers and the plant people by the dozens. That’s also a great time to hang out at Science Central to watch the tally rise and to look over the shoulders of those staring through microscopes to note the identifying characteristics of a wide range of invertebrates that most of us have never heard of before, let alone seen. It’s an amazing education to just watch and listen to the action, even if you don’t actually count anything yourself.

This year’s BioBlitz is at Canonchet Farm in Narragansett, a setting that has a great mix of terrestrial and marine habitats. It’s going to be a wildlife party that you’re not going to want to miss.

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