In May last year, I ‘won’ a BioBlitz at the Crazy & Ambitious Biological Heritage Challenge conference – all it took was a blurry selfie in front of a BioBlitz poster! Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (MWLR), who first introduced and have since run many BioBlitz events throughout NZ, donated the prize, then to be donated to an organisation of my choice.
A BioBlitz is a public science event: scientists, helped by the public collect and identify as many different species of flora, fauna and fungi as they can within a limited time frame, at a specially selected site. A BioBlitz takes science out of the lab and makes both science and scientists accessible to the public.
Selecting a site
I immediately nominated the National Wetland Trust (NWT) as the recipients of the BioBlitz. Rotopiko (Lake Serpentine) is earmarked as the location of the future National Wetland Centre. It’s one of the more than 30 peat lakes scattered along the former course of Waikato River. The lake complex (formerly one, now three separate lakes, unimaginatively named North, South and East) is also one of the best preserved in the region.
For a BioBlitz, the site is easily accessed from Hamilton, Te Awamutu and Cambridge and offers aquatic, wetland, lowland shrub, kahikatea forest ecosystems. At 30 ha, it’s of manageable dimensions, with well formed tracks and signage. The Basecamp marquees and Info Hub caravan were set up on a generous area of open pasture with great views over the surrounding landscape. I’m also a former NWT trustee, know the Trust’s EO Karen Denyer really well, and know the site well, having set up an experiment with Bev Clarkson (Wetland Ecologist, MWLR), to translocate some rather intriguing endemic rushes (Sporadanthus ferrugineus, cane rush) some years ago. Event timing was designed to with World Wetlands Day.
A set of simple objectives
Early on, a set of simple objectives were agreed on:
- Collect baseline data on flora, fauna and fungi inside the pest-proof fence
- Provide a learning opportunity for the public about the site and what inhabits it
- Build bridges between the science community and the public
- Celebrate World Wetlands Day and raise awareness of NWT
Running a BioBlitz is no mean feat
The event ran over two days (February 16 and 17), with the Basecamp, Info Hub and pest animal and aquatic exhibitions set up on the Friday morning. A session for schools and the public running from 12pm – 7pm. Saturday was public open day, from 9:30am – 3:30pm. I had some insight into the logistics of BioBlitz event coordination, having participated the first Waikato BioBlitz in 2006 (directing an art project!), setting up a meeting of BioBlitz coordinators, and attending a symposium session dedicated to running BioBlitz events at last year’s American Citizen Science Assn. conference. However, coordinating an actual event is a different matter. The logistical considerations were considerable. Rotopiko has limited shelter, no electricity, no drinking water, poor mobile coverage and a google maps address that sends you to a local milking shed. The pest-proof fence surrounding the reserve means limiting vehicle access and putting rodenticide in vehicles beforehand – mice and rats are notorious hitchhikers.
Partnerships, partnerships and more partnerships
Partnerships based on a foundation of goodwill and shared objectives are critical – most equipment was sourced by borrowing, more borrowing, and at last resort, hire, with partners covering costs. See end of blog for a full list of contributors.
As a multi-layered event running across different ecosystems, much shoulder-tapping was needed. While MWLR provided the science expertise and event promotion bringing a drone and video equipment onsite, many others contributed time, energy and equipment. Staff from DOC took care of the aquatic ecosystems, collecting eels for display and sharing knowledge on pest fish species, while EcoFX covered pest monitoring. Tracking tunnel cards with animal, insect and reptile footprints were on show along with some very smelly cat food filled chew cards designed to attract any mammalian pests. Several independent scientists donated their time including the energetic Peter Maddison, entomologist and veteran BioBlitzer and wetland ecologist Keith Thompson, who extracted peat cores. Epiphyte ecologist Catherine Kirby and expert tree climber Andrew Harrison (NZ Tree Project) donned their climbing kit and explored the kahikatea canopy. ‘Bugman’ and science communicator extraordinaire Ruud Kleinpaste rummaged through leaf litter, chopped up rotting wood to hunt for small creatures and entertained us all with his live radio show on Newstalk ZB.
Volunteers were invaluable: digitising data, making sandwiches and cups of coffee, checking bags prior to the people entering the fenced area, sharing their knowledge with the public, setting up and taking down basecamp.
Engaging the public
Ngati Apakura arrived early to bless the site and the event. And then… it all took off. Set up on the Friday morning took time – there is lot of equipment to manage as well as ensuring a good, safe power supply (a bank of inverter generators) and adequate internet access for using tools such as Naturewatch NZ. Four schools and afterschool groups, the Kirikiriroa Explorers and Kiwi Conservation Club arrived on the Friday. Students chatted with scientists, peered down microscopes, checked out drone footage, explored the forest and wetland trails and collected bugs to ID. For most students, teachers and parent helpers, it was their first visit to the site and their first BioBlitz. In contrast, Ohaupo School, just 4km up the road, knows the site well and has worked with NWT to answer research questions including “Which lure is most effective for attracting mice?” This study and another to design a tracking tunnel that excluded hedgehogs while inviting mice, were winning entries in last year’s NIWA science fair. They were on a mission to come up with new ideas to test… and clearly to clean up awards in this year’s competition.
Saturday was open to the public, with a steady stream arriving in the morning and tailing off in the afternoon – February is a busy time with multiple events running most weekends.
Communicating science effectively
Scientists and other experts came armed with a desire to share their knowledge and the necessary equipment to provide the public insights into their area of speciality: nematodes, spiders, exotic pests, insects, giant worms, fish, weeds, native flora, fungi, soil and water bacteria, decomposed plants (ie. peat). Many had been involved in other BioBlitz events, including MWLR Mycologist Peter Buchanan, the first to bring the concept to NZ.
Some species observations were directly uploaded onto Naturewatch NZ, under the Rotopiko BioBlitz project. Other observations were handwritten (coverage onsite was patchy), then digitised by volunteers. Spreadsheets will be finalised once species ID has been completed, with all data eventually uploaded on Naturewatch NZ. As a national (and international) hub for observational data, any data uploaded are automatically in the public realm.
The species tally
A whiteboard showed a running species tally. Although a BioBlitz isn’t all about numbers, they are still important. What is onsite? Are there any new species or pest/weed species that may need special management? Have any desirable or undesirable species disappeared? With a diversity of ecosytems and expertise on board, we could take a literal cross-section of the landscape: from high up in the trees to below ground as well as view findings on a temporal scale: what lives onsite now, to the partially decomposed plant remnants in peat cores.
The preliminary numbers (still more to be identified): Flora 193; Fungi 52; Bacteria 11; Spiders 28; Earthworms 12; Insects 191; Moths 54, Birds 26; Reptiles 1; Mammals 1; Amphibians 1; Nematodes 42…
Total number of species: 612 (Feb 17)
Making the #RotopikoBioBlitz a success: Contributors
MWLR: sourcing, setting up and running inverter generators along with H&S around electrics and technical equipment, science expertise, research equipment, funding for a coordinator (myself) and food for staff and volunteers and event promotion
NWT: Health & Safety plan and staff time for event promotion and coordination, NWT display and wetland-themed games. Their new French intern was thrown into the thick of it having just arrived in NZ just 5 days before.
Waipa DC: Marquee, chairs and tables; liaison with Transit NZ for a traffic management plan (thankfully not needed), safety cones for the car parking area. An unexpectedly luxurious caravan, courtesy of Tony Roxburgh (Waipa Heritage and Museum Manager), meant a kitchen for catering and a comfortable place to sleep – there needed to be people onsite overnight for security.
DOC: Marquee, staff, equipment necessary for aquatic survey, pest animal and fish display. DOC administers the wetland area surrounding East Lake (the rest is Waipa District Council) and required species collection permits were generously waived on the proviso that species lists are shared, and notice given of what specimens were taken offsite (e.g., for ID and/or lodging in plant collections).
EcoFX: Staff, pest animal management and monitoring display material
Waikato Regional Council: Chairs, tables, whiteboards and help with catering
NZ Landcare Trust and Greenspace: Signage, catering equipment, whiteboards and writing materials
And yes, although pretty hot, the weather remained amenable!