Ontario BioBlitz 2013: Report from the Field

Posted: September 19, 2013 - 11:18 , by royal
Nature, Biodiversity, From the Field, Research | Comments () | Comment

What do you get when you gather more than 400 avidly curious citizen-scientists in a 40-square-kilometre park to count species for 24 straight hours? Well… you get more than 100 different types of bird, 80 different spiders, hundreds of insects, approaching 600 plants… and a tonne of fun!

In other words, you get the 2013 Ontario BioBlitz, held at Rouge Park outside Toronto, September 14 and 15.

The story begins back in 2011 when I was having a burger at the famous Scarborough lunch locale, Shamrock Burger, with Tom Mason, then curator of invertebrates and birds at the Toronto Zoo.  Just a few months earlier I had left my position at the zoo to take up my current role as Managing Director of the Centre for Biodiversity at the ROM and Tom and I were considering ways in which our two organizations could work together to increase awareness of the importance of biodiversity.  We settled on one very ambitious idea: bring together as many of Canada’s top biologists as we could to survey life in the proposed Rouge Urban National Park.

In June 2012, with partners Toronto Zoo, Ontario Nature, Rouge Park and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Tom and I led a team of 200 volunteer scientists and completed the first ever bioblitz of Rouge Park – and it turned out to be the biggest one ever completed, anywhere.  We documented 1,440 individual species in 24 hours, many of which had never before been observed in the park, some of which had never before been documented in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Ontario BioBlitz Program was born.

For 2013, the Ontario BioBlitz at Rouge Park included all the partners from last year plus two new ones, the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario and Parks Canada. Together with our hosts at the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, we welcomed biologists from across the province – including some of Canada’s leading experts on animals, plants and fungi to work in tandem with citizen scientists to document life in the park.

Befitting an event of this size and importance, it began with an opening ceremony that included local MP Corneliu Chizu and MPP Tracy MacCharles, along with ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding and local Parks Canada Superintendent Pam Veinotte.  Among the other participants were a general museum studies in biodiversity class, and a fungi specific class – both from UofT, and at least 40 kids and teenagers.

A loud speaker with the sound of a red-tailed hawk “scream” marked the official start at exactly noon on Saturday and the event closed exactly 24 hours later at noon on Sunday. At “Base Camp,” a full suite of programs was on offer, all weekend long, including expert-led hikes and workshops, live animal appearances from Toronto Zoo, and a full festival of outreach by partner organizations – including photo ops with Parks Canada mascot Parka.  In total, over 600 people joined in. Participants enjoyed a BBQ finale to celebrate the enormous effort, and energy we had all expended.

While all the data will take some time to be fully analyzed and compiled (it is being updated live to the Ontario BioBlitz website in real-time at www.ontariobioblitz.ca), initial results suggest the team surpassed last year’s numbers.

Highlights include:

  • At least 80 spiders, 7 of which have never before been documented in the park;
  • A first-ever observation in the park of the nocturnal bird-of-prey, a Nightjar species;
  • Many plant, insect and fungi species never documented in the park before, including a rare plant I found while canoeing at the mouth of the Rouge River;
  • A Smoky Shrew (Sorex fumeus), never before seen in the Park, was found dead along a road;
  • 60 painted turtles were observed, the most abundant reptile during the survey.

The future of the Ontario BioBlitz Program is bright: a core group of partners will bring the Blitz to the Humber Watershed in 2014 as we welcome site hosts from the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg and the Kortright Centre for Conservation on the TRCA properties.  In 2015, we will move into the Don Watershed with Base Camp located at Evergreen Brick Works and coordinated with the beginning of the Pan American Games.  While the site host and location for 2016 is still undetermined, we know we will be returning to the Rouge Park in 2017 in concert with celebrations for Canada’s 150th birthday.  The Program will then circulate back through these sites which will increase our understanding of changing biodiversity patterns, and allow us to include more and more citizen scientists.  It is our goal to remain the largest bioblitz program in the world, and to inspire other jurisdictions to join the cause.

Lunch with Tom at Shamrock Burgers was always one of my favourite things to do over the five years I worked at the zoo. Over burgers we came up with some good ideas and a few that were pretty hare-brained. I’ve no doubt though that the Ontario BioBlitz Program will go down as the best idea, one that will continue to grow and get better over time.