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Fourth annual City Nature Challenge begins Friday, but isn’t a challenge in Covid-19 era

By David Pendered

This year’s City Nature Challenge isn’t a challenge at all, but a shared opportunity for citizen scientists to watch and record species in an urban environment. Fernbank Museum is, for the second time, coordinating the event across metro Atlanta.

Fernbank salamander

Salamanders are the types of critters that some folks are likely to encounter during the City Nature Challenge. This one resides at Fernbank. Credit: Fernbank

“The City Nature Challenge provides a healing escape from many of today’s stressful circumstances, encouraging both individual and family exploration that connects participants to the natural world that is thriving all around them,” Fernbank’s ecologist, Eli Dickerson said in a statement.

Dickerson’s comment reminds of the central purpose of the program, which is to encourage average folks to go outside and take pictures of signs of life. He explains the program in a video posted on YouTube.

These photos, taken by citizen scientists, are uploaded through the free iNaturalist app, where they are reviewed and documented. iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

The program even has its own name – bioblitz. Citizen scientists are encouraged to take and upload photos of any form of life, be it animal, insect, plant, tree, even animal footprints.

Fernbank notes in a statement that folks who want to participate from the safety of their home can identify and verify the observations that are uploaded. This advances the status of the data to “research grade,” provided that two or more iNaturalist participants verify the information through the app.

The idea is for citizen scientists to enjoy nature and add to our understanding of life forms that exist in urban areas. Dickerson portrays the program as a way to ease the stress of living with the cornoavirus pandemic.

“Nature has been proven to reduce stress and improve mood, and when combined with a fun exploration of the new and awakening life that is bustling during the spring, we all can experience that the greatest show truly ‘is’ earth,” he said.

Fernbank, forest

The wooded areas of metro Atlanta are a treasure trove of species that can be photographed during the City Nature Challenge. This forest is at Fernbank. Credit: Fernbank

This year’s event is the fourth annual City Nature Challenge. Like so many events in these pandemic times, the sponsors altered the program to serve what they see as their project’s greater purpose. As the folks at the challenge observe in a description on their website:

  • “[W]e want to embrace the healing power of nature and encourage the collaborative aspect of the CNC. This will allow people to safely document biodiversity in whatever way they can, even from the safety of their own homes if necessary.”

The remark is followed by the requisite reminder of personal public safety:

  • “We urge all participants to carefully follow public health guidelines provided by your local governments, as they are changing in real-time. Individual safety and public health are our utmost priority. Please refer to our COVID-19 FAQ page for more information.”

This will be the second year metro Atlanta has participated in the program. The city got off to a good start in the 2019 competition. The region placed in the top fifth of cities worldwide, in terms of observations and participants, and in the top 15 percent of all first-time participant cities, according to Fernbank’s statement. Metro Atlanta participants submitted 8,920 observations submitted by 423 individual participants. A total of 1,483 unique species were documented.

Forsyth County has formally joined the program this year, bringing the list to 10 participating entities. Forsyth joins the list of returning entities – Atlanta, and the counties of Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.

Fernbank’s partners in hosting this year’s event include: The Amphibian Foundation; DeKalb County Parks and Recreation; Frazer Center; Park Pride, and Clayton County Water Authority’s Newman Wetlands.

Note to readers: For more information visit Fernbank Museum and City Nature Challenge.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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