It's a brisk morning during the very beginning of fall in northern New Hampshire. Right before the first signs of daylight, people start to wander up a meandering woods road to meet and gather.
"I've never been to a BioBlitz before," someone mentions.
"I've never done anything like this before," someone else adds.
These intrepid early risers are ready to spend the first two hours of the morning learning about and identifying birds as part of the Stratford Town Forest BioBlitz. The goal of the one-day event? Find and identify as many species of plants, animals, mushrooms, insects, and other species on the property as possible. It's a big task, but these volunteers are not alone. They'll be guided by expert naturalists throughout the day to help discover and map the different species found on the 104-acre property.
The BioBlitz was hosted by the Town of Stratford Conservation Commission, with support support from UNH Cooperative Extension. The Commission is just a few years old, one of the newest in the state, and they are trying to get a handle on what natural resources they have in town and how to best conserve and manage them. Additionally, they're hoping to get community members involved in conservation and make them aware of the resources that Stratford has to offer, like the Town Forest property. “Few people know where our town forest is, and this will be a fun way to explore the property and learn what’s out there," Conservation Commissioner Chris Caron reported before the event.
After the morning exploration for birds, participants gathered back at 'basecamp' to reconvene and break into groups focused on shrubs and wildflowers, or fungi and lichen. Group leaders Dave Govatski, an expert naturalist and retired 30-year US Forest Service employee, and Rick Van de Poll, ecologist and mushroom expert, provided an introduction and identification tips before heading back out to traverse the property in search of their focal species. These explorations were followed by a well-deserved lunch break, and afternoon groups focused on trees, led by UNH Cooperative Extension Coos County Forester Brendan Prusik, and insects, headed up by UNH Extension entomologist Anna Wallingford.
Over 30 volunteers joined in the exploration - some stayed for the entire day, and others came and went for the parts they were most interested in. Most of the participants were from Stratford, having heard about the event from word-of-mouth or flyers in town. Others traveled from nearby communities like Colebrook and Milan, hoping to learn more about the species they might find on their properties or in their town.
Participants collected data using iNaturalist, an online platform and app that keeps track of all the species found. In total, community volunteers and naturalists catalogued 211 observations of 131 different species. This included 13 different bird species, 7 mammals, 51 plants, 24 species of fungi and lichen, and 28 insects. Cedar waxwings greeted the birders first thing in the morning and exciting discoveries continued throughout the day. An American toad was carefully caught and examined, an Eastern brook trout was found swimming in the stream, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit was spotted beneath the forest canopy. Thanks to some help from NH Fish & Game Department in the weeks before the event, trail cameras set up on the property showed use by both white-tailed deer and bobcat.
At the end of the day, volunteers and leaders left tired from a long day outdoors, but satisfied knowing that the many goals for the day had been met. The group inventoried all of the species they could find and identify. The Conservation Commission learned more about the natural resources on the property and in their town. And community members left with a new connection to conservation land.
The Town of Stratford partnered with UNH Cooperative Extension to implement the event through The NH BioBlitz project, which assists communities in learning more about town-owned lands and is funded by the U.S. Forest Service, Landscape Scale Restoration Grant. To learn more about the NH BioBlitz project, visit extension.unh.edu/programs/nh-bioblitz. To learn about future BIoBlitz events or other outdoor volunteer opportunities, visit Nature Groupie at naturegropie.org.