City Nature Challenge encourages safe outdoor plant, animal observation

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Ryan Donnelly, main organizer and junior in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, uses the iNaturalist app to observe and identify the Amur honeysuckle plant. (Sean Schaper | Collegian Media Group)

Ready, set, observe!

The fifth annual City Nature Challenge will expand to more than 400 cities across six continents. Kicking off April 30 at midnight in each time zone, the challenge runs through May 3 at 11:59 p.m.

This is the third year Manhattan will participate in the challenge. The Kansas State student chapter of The Wildlife Society, in collaboration with Sunset Zoo and the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education, helped bring the City Nature Challenge to Riley, Clay, Geary and Pottawatomie Counties.

The goal is to observe and submit pictures of wild plants, animals and fungi using the free mobile app iNaturalist, Ryan Donnelly, organizer and junior in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, said.

For both budding and veteran citizen scientists, participating only takes four steps:

  1. Download the iNaturalist app or visit www.inaturalist.org
  2. Observe wildlife April 30 to May 3 within the borders of Riley, Geary, Clay or Pottawatomie Counties
  3. Upload sightings to iNaturalist
  4. Watch as your observations are identified

Wildlife can be any wild plant, animal, fungi, slime, mold or any other evidence of life — scat, fur, tracks, shells, carcasses.

“It’s a great way to get outside and learn about nature,” Donnelly said. “iNaturalist hosts a broad network of both amateurs and experts who can identify the organisms you find. … I’ve done the City Nature Challenge four times. The first time I did it was in Los Angeles where I grew up. I did a mini-bio blitz hike. … I enjoyed it so much that I decided I wanted to start it here in Manhattan. … I’ve done it since my freshman year here.”

In 2019, the area had 29 observers and around 200 species documented with 350 observations, Donnelly said. The next year, it bumped up to 43 people observing, about 300 species and about 450 observations.

Donnelly said his hope for this year is to have at least 75 participants and 1,000 observations.

“People ask me a lot of the times why I do this, and I don’t really have an answer,” Donnelly said. “I’m not required to do this at all or anything like that, it’s just I enjoy it so much that I want other people to kind of share the experience.”

Donnelly will explore Fancy Creek State Park, Konza Prairie, Pillsbury Crossing and other natural areas.

“Maybe even some neighborhoods, too, because there’s a … surprising amount of biodiversity in people’s lawns,” Donnelly said.

Melissa Kirkwood, marketing and development officer for Sunset Zoo, said she is excited and thankful to participate in the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge.

“This is the third year we have helped with [the] challenge,” Kirkwood said. “Participating in a citizen science bio blitz is a fun way to safely observe nature, enjoy quality family time and contribute to real scientific research pertaining to the wildlife in your backyard, local parks, trails, neighborhood and community.”

Later this year, Sunset Zoo’s accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is challenging all zoos to help their communities learn about iNaturalist.

“We know people want to feel safe exploring, and this is a way that families and individuals can learn and log data on their app for the greater good,” Kirkwood said.

As part of ongoing efforts to celebrate Party for the Planet and World Oceans Day, AZA and Sunset Zoo will be collaborating on ways for people to connect with nature.

“We will be open during the challenge dates for [participants] to come observe,” Kirkwood said. “Come capture all you can at Sunset Zoo. Those who also come to capture data — if you show your iNaturalist app to the gift shop — we will have a special surprise for you.”

More information on both the Manhattan City Nature Challenge and about upcoming events at the zoo is on the Sunset Zoo Facebook page.

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My name is Sean Schaper, and I'm the news editor for the Collegian. I’m a junior in journalism with a secondary focus in film studies. I grew up right outside of Kansas City in Leawood, Kansas. As a first-generation K-Stater, I look forward to leaving behind accurate coverage for the current and future Wildcat community.