Rio Grande Valley ready to defend strong showing in City Nature Challenge

HARLINGEN — One year removed from a 10th-place finish worldwide in the diversity of species category, Rio Grande Valley naturalists are gearing up for a repeat performance in the 5th Annual City Nature Challenge.

Valley residents participating in the most recent challenge numbered 194, and nature centers across the region are urging more observers to hit the wild spaces for the next challenge this upcoming weekend from Friday through Monday.

The Lower Valley is entering as its own entity this year. The geographic area considered the Valley’s “city” for this challenge ranges from Falcon to the Gulf of Mexico and includes Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties.

“The Valley is species-rich,” said Quinta Mazatlan’s Urban Ecologist John Brush. “We would like to see more community involvement. Residents who would like to submit photos to iNaturalist as observers.”

City Nature Challenge 2019 tasks naturalists, scientists, adults and kids with recording observations worldwide and uploading them to the free iNaturalist app. Whoever scores the highest total in both number of entries and diversity of species, wins.

There are three competition categories: total observations (with photos uploaded to iNaturalist), species diversity (the number of different species recorded) and the most people engaged in the challenge (number of individuals photographing and uploading photos).

Last year, the Lower Rio Grande Valley placed 10th as the “city” with the most diversity of species.

“We encourage participation in the challenge during the four days of the event,” said Elizabeth Perdomo, South Texas Border Chapter vice president of the Texas Master Naturalists. “Anyone in the Valley with a phone capable of taking photographs, or anyone with a camera and access to the Internet, is encouraged to learn about this opportunity and enter the challenge.

“We’d really like to see an increase in the number of observers this year,” Perdomo added. “It’s easy. All that’s involved is downloading an app onto your phone — or using a camera and computer — then taking photos of native plants, birds, critters, bugs, insects, caterpillars, sea/beach/dune life, fungi, any of the things that make up the Valley’s native diversity. Anything that shows life or anything that was formerly alive. It’s that easy.”

The best way to enter species in the challenge is to download the free iNaturalist app onto an Android or iPhone, and create an account using the provided prompts.

Observers don’t have to know the name of the species they are photographing. The iNaturalist app allows an option for posting without that knowledge, or allows selection from a database of like subjects.

Trees and plants do not have to be in bloom to be included. There are options for geo-privacy for those shooting on private land. Without opting for privacy, geo coordinates are available to anyone using the program. The app also allows opportunities to correct mistakes.

Beyond the competitive aspect of the competition is some real science. The iNaturalist collects valuable habitat information and users of the app can connect with experts who can identify the observed flora or fauna.

“Species only count for the Valley’s tally that are in our geographical parameters and during the four-day challenge timeframe,” said Brush. “Team up, pair up, use the buddy system. Make it an adventure.”