Van Cortlandt Park dominates city nature challenge


It was a busy few weeks for Van Cortlandt Park as city residents filtered through the greenery snapping photos of any leaf, bug or critter they could find.

The effort was in aid of the City Nature Challenge, in which, alongside cities across the world, New York competes to collect data about the biodiversity in its parks and greenspaces. This year, at the close of the challenge, Van Cortlandt Park and the Bronx won in their respective categories of Green Space Race and New York City’s Battle of the Boroughs.

In total, residents made more than 4,000 observations inside Van Cortlandt park.

The nature challenge originated in 2016 in California, on the first-ever Citizen Science Day, and, over time, grew to a worldwide contest encouraging people to make as many observations as they can while outside.

The challenge utilizes iNaturalist, a mobile app, to collect the data. Observers use the application to take a photo of what they see and are presented with suggested identifications based on existing data within the system and what has been observed in the neighboring areas. iNaturalist also has an online social network compnent, where people from all over the world can gather and share information on their local biodiversity.

Christina Taylor, deputy director at the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, said participating in the challenge every year is meant to generate excitement from the public about being in natural areas and participating in citizen science.

The City Nature Challende is the largest citizen science event in which the park participates. 

“The more people on the lookout the better. I mean, the park is 1,146 acres and we’re a small staff, so we definitely can’t reach every acre of it,” Taylor said.

After the citizen data is collected, it becomes part of the larger set park officials collect in the Van Cortlandt Park Nature Network, which currently has more than 45,000 observations.

Some of the more popular observations within the park include plants like garlic mustard, geraniums, ferns and poison ivy. Common wildlife includes the American Robin, Eastern Gray Squirrel, and Eastern Red-backed Salamander. Rare observations — which only had one sighting — were the Spotted Pink Lady Beetle, Smooth Land Slugs, and Cutleaf Coneflowers.

According to Taylor, the observations are crucial to alliance in keeping an eye out for invasive species in the dataset, as they can be a significant cause for concern.

Invasive species include any organism not native to an area, which can be harmful to the existing ecosystem by taking up resources and crowding out plants and wildlife that help the area thrive.

“The community are the ones who often let us know there’s a tree fallen in the park,” Taylor said.

This is information from which a big park like Van Cortlandt benefits when it gets involved with a project like the nature challenge.

While alliance officials said they do not often call on the public to participate in citizen-science projects, they hope to incorporate more in the future.

To wit, Taylor offered a tidbit about an upcoming project with the Bronx River Alliance. The two organizations plan to launch a water-quality program funded through an Environmental Protection Agency grant the Bronx River Alliance was awarded. Together, the groups will ask volunteers to help gather water samples for testing and a new dataset of water quality can be assessed.

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