BioBlitz: Identifying plants and wildlife at Thorn Preserve

Woodstock Day School students exploring stands of mugwort, an invasive species. (courtesy of Woodstock Land Conservancy)

At last June’s  BioBlitz organized by the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC), scientists and expert naturalists worked with local residents to identify 280 species of plants and wildlife at the Thorn Preserve in Woodstock. On July 28 and July 29, the third annual BioBlitz will again bring citizen scientists and volunteers to the 60-acre preserve for a search through meadow, forest, stream, pond, and wetlands, in an event that is free and open to the public.

“Last year we got so much data from just two days of people coming out and helping us,” said Kate Berdan, program and outreach coordinator for WLC, which manages the Thorn Preserve for its current owner, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville. “We’re hoping to use the data to take a good look at what’s at the preserve, if there are species we should be focusing on and protecting. We’re also looking at the data over time to see what changes are occurring in habitat and climate.”


I participated in the first Thorn Preserve BioBlitz in early May of 2015, when unseasonably cold weather limited the accessibility of species. Nevertheless, we found a number of salamanders in the woods and wetlands: a redback, a leadback, a spotted, a northern slimy, and an incredibly tiny red eft. Our guide, herpetologist Jason Tesauro, also showed us quivering, jelly-like masses of salamander eggs. Having little experience of salamanders, I found the expedition fascinating and educational.

Last year, the event was moved to June, partly to hit better weather. Berdan said the strategy is also to cycle through the seasons and get a picture of what species are out at different times of year.

The first BioBlitz was held in Washington DC’s Kenilworth Aquatic Garden in 1996. Since then, the concept has expanded into an international movement. An estimated 250 BioBlitzes were held around the U.S. in 2016, according to the website of the National Geographic Society, which co-sponsored BioBlitz events in national parks for ten years. While not considered a rigorous means of scientific monitoring, the expeditions help an organization identify subjects for further research and provide an overview of population patterns on a given property, without having to invest in hiring scientists over a long period of time.

In addition to collecting data, the BioBlitz is designed to engage and educate the public about the natural environment. “It encourages people to check out their own yards and see what’s there,” said Berdan. “That really connects them to the place they live. I recently tried to learn to identify wildflowers, and now whenever I’m out, I’m noticing more and more. It’s a great way to get involved in the outdoors.”

If you find it hard to tear yourself away from your electronic devices, don’t worry — you can bring your smartphone into the field to take photos for identification purposes and to notate your discoveries on an app called iNaturalist. “It’s a forum where you can see the different species people have catalogued in your area,” said Berdan. “It’s a great research tool.”

This year’s BioBlitz will feature a scavenger hunt, part of an effort to encourage families and summer camps to get out in the field and learn about species. Younger kids will be given pictures of plants —milkweed, an oak tree, for instance — to find and check off and match up with their common names. At a second level, older kids and adults will learn Latin names and specific facts about species. There will be prizes.