California BioBlitzin’

BioBlitz 2014 surveyed the north shore of Lake Hodges in Escondido, California.

BioBlitz 2014 surveyed the north shore of Lake Hodges in Escondido, California.

What has at least 670 species of plants and animals across 350 acres (140 hectares)? The North Shore of Lake Hodges in southern Escondido, California, that’s what!

A team of scientists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, working with hundreds of other San Diegans, discovered this huge wealth of biological richness during the first-ever San Diego Zoo Global BioBlitz (see BioBlitz photo gallery). The event—BioBlitz 2014—took place on April 25 and 26, 2014, was a 24-hour nonstop ecological survey to catalogue as many species as possible. Although coordinated by the Institute’s Conservation Education team, researchers from all of the other six divisions of the Institute volunteered their time and knowledge to help design and lead the field surveys.

Table 1: BioBlitz Species Richness Results
Taxon/Number of species
Plants/262
Fungi/4
Birds/77
Reptiles/15
Amphibians/2
Mammals (terrestrial)/17
Bats/5
Arthropods/294*
TOTAL 676

*The Arthropods (insects, ants, spiders, butterflies, etc.) are still being identified to species, so this result may change, likely increasing in number!

Lake Hodges

Lake Hodges is part of the San Dieguito River Park

The BioBlitz surveyed the open spaces of the north shore of Lake Hodges (see image above). Lake Hodges is a reservoir that was created by the City of San Diego by damming the San Dieguito River and is now one of the gems of the 92,000-acre (37,000 hectares) San Dieguito River Park. Encircling the lake are steep slopes of coastal sage scrub and maritime chaparral, punctuated by eroded creek channels that contain riparian and live oak vegetation. Willows dominate the shoreline, except in the more marshy areas filled with reeds and sedges. Other portions are covered by nonnative grasses and annuals, such as black mustard with its blazing-yellow flower. Go figure, crazy botanists!

We chose this area to survey because it represented several of San Diego’s major habitat types and included a site where the botanists at the Institute are restoring the native cactus. About a quarter of this area burned in a brush fire in 2013, allowing us to investigate lingering effects from the fire. In addition, a section of the 71-mile (114 kilometers) Coast to Crest Trail bisects the study area. This is a heavily used trail enjoyed by bikers, hikers, runners, and equestrians. In short, a diverse, fascinating, and dynamic area.

A coyote is snapped by a camera trap as it saunters by.

A coyote is snapped by a camera trap as it saunters by.

San Diego is magical both for its people and places. It proved it once again. So many wonderful collaborators and partner institutions joined us for our BioBlitz: City of San Diego Water Department, San Dieguito River Park, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural History Museum, UCSD, UC Riverside, San Diego Tracking Team, Palomar Audubon, International Barcode of Life, North American Field Herping Association, San Diego Mycological Society, High Tech High North County, High Tech Elementary North County, Explorer Elementary, Conservation Corps, McCloud Media, and Stephanie Nowinski Illustrations, San Diego Zoo Global volunteers, and community members. All told, 232 people from 4 to 80 years old came out and surveyed for plants and animals, helped ID specimens, and entered data. Collectively creating a party-like atmosphere, it was a true Festival of Conservation.

A house mouse is cataloged and released. Although not a native, BioBlitz participants did trap and release native rodents such as the San Deigo pocket mouse, California vole, and North American deer mouse.

A house mouse is cataloged and released. Although not a native, BioBlitz participants did trap and release native rodents such as the San Deigo pocket mouse, California vole, and North American deer mouse.

There was, however, one snag in the festivities: typhoon-like conditions over night! My background is in field biology, most specifically, reticulated giraffes. So, while others wisely sought shelter as the wind and downpours began, a colleague and I were out in the field until 2.30 a.m. traversing steep slopes closing out our Sherman traps so as to not endanger the small rodents we were capturing. (We had put out 150 of these small, baited rectangular traps. As a rodent enters, the door closes. We then can check the trap, ID the rodent, and set it free.) Quite an adventure! But we all made it slightly damp and disheveled through to the morn. Whereupon generously supplied coffee and baked treats set us all up for the final leg of the BioBlitz. And what a scene awaited us!

balloons to help

A balloon is prepared to get an aerial survey.

Scientists, volunteers, students, parents, toddlers, and retirees working together side-by-side, uncovering the glory of San Diego’s plants and wildlife. There were drones from UCSD (fixed wing and balloon) flying overhead mapping and measuring vegetation coverage, wildlife camera traps, tent-like malaise traps sampling aerial insects, pitfall traps, and baited ant tubes. People with binoculars surveyed bird life, others looking for butterflies, still others finding and recording mammal tracks. A team with large nets was capturing bees! Another specially trained team studied reptiles (including snakes) and amphibians. Not to mention people identifying and recording the hundreds of plant species, even a sub-team looking for fungi (mushrooms). There was a small group focusing on bats, using a special sensor that could record the ultrasonic calls of bats and identify them based on their voice alone! All these data were being recorded on traditional clipboards as well as the newly developed SDZG BioBlitz smartphone APP.

Everywhere you looked there were people respectfully uncovering and recording nature, astonishing themselves and us, and inspiring interest and recognition of the value of the diverse life surrounding and enriching us. In total, we recorded almost 800 species! This incredibly high number would likely have been even higher had it not been for the storm that kept many animals and insects inactive and sheltering.

San Diego is a biological hotspot and arguably the most biodiverse county in the entire country. Understanding and protecting our glorious open space is vital, not only because we are wards of this internationally important hotspot but also because we live here. We are lucky to have this magnificence on our doorstep, which we can step into and explore and stroll or bike through. And by working together at events like these, we learn a little more, we care a lot more, and just by looking at the kids’ wonderment, know that all this will be in good hands for years to come. Thank you all so very much for your support and for participating in this fantastic event and collecting so much vital information that will help inform our conservation efforts for years to come!

David A. O’Connor, M.Sc., is a consultant with the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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