The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is connecting people with nature through technology and friendly competition in the Texas City Nature Challenge on April 30-May 3. The challenge documents plant and animal species in each competing area and gives people an excuse to go outside.
“It’s really a great way to link people to nature,” said Craig Hensley, a biologist with the department’s Nature Trackers program. “You can do it in your backyard, in your local park, or even in one of the state parks as long as it’s within one of the metropolitan areas in the challenge.”
Burnet and Blanco counties fall within the Austin City Nature Challenge area.
The four-day “bioblitz” is happening around the globe, not just in Texas, and uses the iNaturalist smartphone app, which is available in the App Store and Google Play. Challenge registration is through iNaturalist.
All you do is snap photos of different species of plants and animals. The app helps identify them and tallies the count in each competing area. At the end of the four-day challenge, the area with the most documented species wins.
But the real win is getting people outdoors.
“As more people are living in cities and those types of areas, they may not have a connection with nature like we once did,” Hensley said. “I think one of the things you have to keep in mind is if you don’t have a personal connection with something, you don’t really care about it. Once you get people connected to nature, whether it’s a youth learning to hunt with their dad or their mom or exploring the outdoors in something like the challenge and iNaturalist, they start to care about it. If they care about it, it leads to (them becoming) conservationists.”
And the technology part of the challenge makes it more attractive to young people.
You don’t need access to wild swaths of nature, just your own backyard, community green spaces, or local parks.
You might even uncover a species long thought lost to an area.
In 2019, a Texas City Nature Challenge participant in Dallas County snapped a photo of flower that a botanist identified as an Engelmann’s bladderpod, a rare Texas plant. Biologists thought the plant no longer existed in the area.
Hensley said the challenge is a true community-scientist effort as participants provide valuable information for researchers, scientists, botanists, and biologists. The scientists can access information through iNaturalist and use it to determine where species are as well as where they are not.
“We have a (Texas Parks and Wildlife) biologist for every county in Texas, but they can’t see everything,” he said. “That’s where community-scientists can really help us out.”
Community-scientists, or citizen-scientists, are just people lending a hand in the pursuit of scientific knowledge through their observations or assistance in science-based projects. Following the February winter storm, TPWD officials asked Texans to report wildlife deaths through iNaturalist. Hensley said people documented 3,000 observations of animals that died during the brutal cold snap. While those observations might not give a complete picture of the storm’s effect on wildlife, it did give biologists a better idea of what had happened.
The Texas City Nature Challenge is similar — minus the deaths.
“It’s a great way to connect people — even reconnect some — with nature,” Hensley said. “And it gets you outside.”
For more information, visit the Texas City Nature Challenge webpage.