In search of new species at Howard County Conservancy’s ‘BioBlitz’

For The Baltimore Sun

The chance to view nature up close and potentially discover a previously unrecorded plant or animal species is what the Howard County Conservancy is offering to the public for the first time at its free Family BioBlitz event on Saturday, Aug. 12.

As many as 30 naturalists will be on hand to examine participants' finds, and perhaps identify them on the spot, from 9 a.m. to noon as part of a three-day event during which scientists will conduct an extensive search of the conservancy's 232-acre Woodstock property at Mount Pleasant Farm.

"There is real power in citizen science, and a phone camera and enthusiasm are all you need," said Meg Boyd, the conservancy's executive director, about the effort to catalog flora and fauna for an online database in collaboration with the Maryland Biodiversity Project.

"We are hoping families come together and learn to be more comfortable experiencing nature and being outside," she said.

The first bioblitz was organized in Washington in 1996. The term has come to describe an intensive event that brings together scientists, naturalists and volunteers to scour a property for unique biological specimens by turning over logs, peeking under bushes and generally investigating a site from top to bottom.

In July, a natural resources technician with the county's recreation and parks department submitted a photo of a moth she didn't recognize, an amber-colored insect whose wings at rest mimic the triangular shape of a stealth bomber.

Sue Muller's curiosity was rewarded last week with a state record for the bisected honey locust moth, a North American species that had never been recorded in Maryland.

"This is the kind of thing you hope for," said Muller, still amazed by her good fortune.

The objective for the field study at the conservancy will be to augment a growing online database of living things being maintained by the Maryland Biodiversity Project, a nonprofit co-founded in 2012 by Bill Hubick, a Pasadena resident, and Jim Brighton, who lives in Easton.

The organization has compiled a list at marylandbiodiversity.com of more than 17,000 species across the state.

Mount Pleasant, a 300-year-old farm that serves as the headquarters of the conservancy, has its own list of more than 700 species and counting.

Hubick said the conservancy's impressive tally is "a testament to the people in Howard County," some of whom have archived their decades of personal data on the nonprofit's website.

"We've never gone in anywhere [for the first time] that already has 700 species; that's unprecedented for us," he said.

Hubick cited the extensive files shared by Bob and Jo Solem, a North Laurel couple "who are knowledgeable and active mycologists who have been instrumental in building out the fungi section" on the project's website.

Jo Solem said the bioblitz concept "is a marvelous way to get a lot of data in a short period of time."

She also said that holding the event at the conservancy gives organizers a distinct edge.

"The Howard County Conservancy is a sizeable property with a diverse population [of living things] since it's more undeveloped meadow and open space," she said.

Volunteers with the Howard County Bird Club and longtime naturalists, the couple is consistently awestruck by the number of species that live on the conservancy's property.

"You never know what you're going to find. There are gardens and wetlands and the property adjoins Patapsco Valley State Park with all of its diverse population," Jo Solem said.

Hubick also noted the photo contributions of Bonnie Ott, an Ellicott City resident, and Richard Orr, an expert on dragonflies and damselflies who lives in Columbia.

Boyd said that though the event is aimed at families, all are welcome.

The morning will kick off by organizing participants into groups that are assigned a zone in which to focus their observations with the assistance of a guide. These might include a defined meadow or forested stream.

"So much of the environment is mowed and manicured, but insects, for example, like the open meadows we have here," Boyd said.

Guidebooks and observation sheets will also be available to participants.

In addition to on-site experts, the event will have the support of dozens more scientists in museums and labs, Hubick said.

"My best advice for [getting a shot at] contributing something new is to crouch down to see the smaller bugs and to look at the less-showy plants," he said. "You can't protect things from loss that you don't even know are there."

Hubick said it's irresponsible of mankind that species are being allowed to fall away.

"Volunteers often ask me why in the national capital region of the most powerful city in the world there aren't paid personnel already doing this job," said Hubick, a software engineer. "The Maryland Biodiversity Project is a response to that epiphany."

There are currently four other subsites on the project's website: Andelot Farm, located in Kent County, with a list of 1,005 recorded species; Chino Farms, Queen Anne County, 1,065 species; Jemicy School, Baltimore County, 309 species; and Rocky Gap State Park, Allegany County, 644 species.

Muller said another advantage of the conservancy's property is that it lies in two quadrangles on U.S. Geological Survey maps, permitting discoveries to appear on both lists.

"We can only hope we set more records at the conservancy event," she said.

Boyd believes that's likely.

"We're planning on up to 100 people attending," she said. "There's always a good chance that something else will be identified."

janeneholzberg76@gmail.com

If you go

Family BioBlitz: Search for Animals and Plants is a free event for all ages that will be held rain or shine from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 12 at the Howard County Conservancy, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock. Information or to RSVP: hcconservancy.org or 410-465-8877.

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