A Big Year, Botanist Style

Known to all birders, a “big year” is a competition to spot the most bird species within a given area in one year. Competition areas can be as large as the entire world to as small as a city park, but the popular competitions are country-(e.g. ABA), state-, or county-wide.

And so, why not a similar competition for plants?

Verbena hastata, blue vervain
Verbena hastata, blue vervain

In 2016, the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS) hosted the first Illinois Botanists Big Year. The website and mobile app iNaturalist made the competition possible. iNaturalist enables anyone, from professional botanist to plant ID novice, to upload photographic proof of their plant1 sightings to a public, online database. The user enters their identification of the plant, along with GPS location2, date of sighting, and any field notes, and others from the community may agree with or provide an alternative identification. Users may also choose to retain control over their identification, though that is not the default setting.

Capturing an observation of a plant for documentation on iNaturalist
Capturing an observation of a plant for documentation on iNaturalist

A level of quality control is built into the contest – observations must be “research grade” in order to count toward the contest. That is, it needs to be wild/naturalized (i.e. houseplants, landscape plants, and botanical garden specimens won’t count), it needs to have a photo, date, and location, and at least one additional person must agree with the identification of the plant. If there is a disagreement about the identification, additional users must weigh in their thoughts and the community must come to a majority consensus on the identification in order for the observation to reach research grade. Because the community can help with identification, users need not be plant experts and can learn quite a bit about plants by participating in the contest.

In 2016, four people in Illinois really took up the challenge and set out to find as many plants in Illinois as they could. The 2016 Illinois Botanists Big Year winner was Evan Barker with 877 species. It was a close race between the top four: Barker (evan8), Erin Faulkner (elfaulkner), Mark Kluge (sanguinaria33), and Corey Lange (coreyjlange) were each in 1st place at some point during the year. In total, there were 11,203 observations of plants added by 395 people (stats as of 1/23/2017). Of those, 9,360 observations reached research-grade. A total of 1,365 species were identified, including subspecies. At least one, Stellaria corei (Tennessee starwort), was the first documentation of that species growing in Illinois.

Illinois Botanists Big Year 2017

The Illinois Native Plant Society is running the contest again in 2017. In order to count toward the 2017 contest, observations must fit the following rules:

  1. Must be a plant (bryophytes and vascular plants – native and non-native species are accepted)
  2. Observation must be within Illinois
  3. Must be observed between the dates of January 1st, 2017 and December 31st, 2017
  4. Observation must be “research grade.” That means it must be “wild/naturalized” and that you need a photo, date, location, species identification, and for someone else to confirm your species identification’s accuracy

View the current leaderboard on the INPS website and join the Illinois Botanists Big Year group on Facebook.

Why not start a competition in your own state or county? The setting up portion would include a webpage with the contest rules and a link to or an embedded contest leaderboard. A few tips:

  • I have the leaderboard set up on the INPS website as an embedded iframe3 of the following page: http://www.inaturalist.org/observations/stats?place_id=35&taxon_id=47126&d1=2017-01-01&d2=2017-12-31&quality_grade=research&hrank=species&lrank=subspecies. The place_ID is restricted to Illinois (place_ID 35). You can also see the date (January 1st, 2017 through December 31st, 2017), taxon (plants, which is # 47126), quality grade (research), and taxon rank (species or subspecies) are included in that URL. For Wisconsin, for example, the link would just change to place ID 32.
  • Of the 4 people who really went all out with the 2016 Illinois Botanists Big Year this year, 3 had extensive previous experience using iNaturalist. I would recommend looking at the top iNaturalist users in your area and informing them of the contest.
  • It takes quite a bit of effort to ensure observations get verified by another person. Reach out to iNaturalist users and regional experts to get their help to confirm (or refute!) the identification of plant species. iNaturalist’s Identify page makes it really easy to go through many observations quickly to identify and/or mark as reviewed. First filter the page by plants, location, and date observed, then use the keyboard shortcuts to identify, mark as cultivated, or mark as reviewed.
  • It took a few days of combing through data in January 2017 to ensure there weren’t cultivated/landscape or obviously incorrectly identified plants included in the results. I compared the species found in 2016 to a database of known Illinois native or naturalized plants. One is able to export all of the observations after the end of the contest in order to look for those types of errors and get the most accurate numbers.
  • Here is a Getting Started guide on iNaturalist.
  • iNaturalist also has a great Help Forum.

Feel free to contact me with any questions: cassisaari@gmail.com

1. iNaturalist is actually for recording observations of any life forms, not just plants. Plants, animals, fungi, protozoa – everything!

2. Obscuring the location of rare species is built into iNaturalist – the GPS location of threatened, endangered, and many rare species is automatically obscured from public view. Users may also mark their locations as completely private. This isn’t without flaw, as if one uploads 50 observations in a day with 49 public location observations and 1 obscured/private location observation, others can make a pretty good guess as to the location of that obscured/private rare species. Other websites like Herpmapper solve this problem by making all observation locations visible only to the county level, which protects rare/poached species, but at a significant cost to the amount of data available to the public, the vast majority of which have good intentions.

3. If you are able to hire or know a developer who could volunteer their services, the iNaturalist software is actually open source, so one could find a prettier way to incorporate the leaderboard statistics into your website. I lack those skills, so I just have that embedded iframe for the leaderboard for now.

Kankakee Mallow (Iliamna remota) in Fruit

On a quick trip to Langham Island in Kankakee River State Park west of Bourbonnais, IL this past August, I had the chance to see the rare Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) in fruit . (And in flower!) I was surprised at the fuzzy chestnut brown fruits, having never seen them in person or photos online. The land steward of Langham Island, Trevor Edmonson, gave me a tour to the spot where they are most abundant. For those unfamiliar with the great story of the Kankakee mallow’s disappearance and return, here are a few links:

As habitat restoration volunteers cut, piled, and burned the invasive brush that was out-shading this rare species, baby Kankakee mallows popped up around the burn scars! Volunteers then began to construct “rolling burn piles” to maximize the perimeter of the lightly burned area for optimal baby mallow habitat and minimize the soil sterilization that occurs under extremely hot fires. Look at all this Kankakee mallow growing around the burn pile (above). Recognize it by its palmately lobed leaves, similar to a maple leaf. For now, volunteers like Trevor are caging larger populations to prevent deer from chomping the flowers. But the future looks good for this mallow should management continue. View my other observations from my brief visit to Langham Island.

I had never seen a photo of the fruit of a Kankakee mallow. I only recently discovered that the citizen science slash nature observation-logging website iNaturalist has a great feature along this line. In addition to cataloging millions of photos of professional and amateur expert-identified organisms in one place, the site sorts and shows each of those species at different life stages.

Anyone can help populate the database by adding the flowering phenology to your own or even other user’s observations. The option is below each observation’s description (see below). It is a bit muddled as any user can create their own “field.” And so, there are a few dozen different fields for phenology. The “right one” to populate this photo page on the site is called “Flowering Phenology.” Get to it.

Do you have photos of rare plants in flower, fruit, or leaf that are missing from the internet? Share them on iNaturalist!

Virginia Waterleaf vs. Great Waterleaf

How do you distinguish Virginia and great waterleaf plants in the early spring? Swink & Wilhelm (1994):

1. Leaves predominantly pinnately compound or lobed, divided into 5 to 7 lobes or leaflets. . . . . Hydrophyllum virginianum
1. Leaves predominantly palmately lobed, or some with a small pair of pinnae at the base:

Calyx lobes copiously pilose, with conspicuous, reflexed processes in the sinuses; stems usually densely pilose or pubescent; biennial. . . . . . . . Hydrophyllum appendiculatum
Calyx lobes glabrous or sparsely hispidulous, without processes in the sinuses; stems glabrous or nearly so; perennial. . . . . . . . . . . . Hydrophyllum canadense

Welp, turns out the early spring rosettes of Hydrophyllum appendiculatum are pinnately compound, not palmately compound. So, that key’s only helpful for mature plants. Never fear, here are a bunch of comparison photos:
The early spring, basal leaves of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) and great waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum), side-by-side:

Singular leaves of Hydrophyllum virginianum (left, view on iNaturalist) and Hydrophyllum appendiculatum (right, view on iNaturalist).
Look how much more rounded the edges are in great waterleaf, how much fuzzier the stem is, and how much more variegation there is.
hydrophyllum-virginianum-virginia-waterleaf hydrophyllum-appendiculatum-great-waterleaf
In situ rosettes of Hydrophyllum virginianum (left) and Hydrophyllum appendiculatum (right)
hydrophyllum-virginianum-virginia-waterleaf-close hydrophyllum-appendiculatum-great-waterleaf-close
Hydrophyllum virginianum (left) and Hydrophyllum appendiculatum (right)

Hydrophyllum canadense is not really found in my area (northcentral Illinois), so I don’t have any photos of that at all, much less in a rosette stage. If this photo can be believed, it looks like it has significantly wider lobes even as a rosette, and a more geometric appearance overall. I’d guess its petioles are not as fuzzy as H. appendiculatum as well (see key above).

This post inspired by my error – mistaking a basal H. appendiculatum leaf as H. virginianum.

Bunker Hill Forest Preserve Bioblitz (9/14/2013)

NOTE: The statistics on page will be occasionally updated as we add more observations and make further species identifications.

Bunker Hill Bioblitz Fall 2013
Bunker Hill Forest Preserve Bioblitz Participants Hard at Work (Play)
Jane Balaban & Erin Faulkner Botanize
Inspired by the San Francisco McLaren Park Bioblitz organized by Nerds for Nature, Save McLaren Park, iNaturalist, and Bay Nature Institute, we (Habitat 2030) decided to have our own event a bit closer to home. Habitat 2030 is a group of 20-30-40-somethings in the Chicago region who are dedicated to the understanding, preservation, stewardship, and general nerdy appreciation of the natural areas that form the beautifully diverse Chicago Wilderness region.

Bunker Hill Forest Preserve is a Forest Preserve District of Cook County site consisting of open savanna, woodlands, and wooded riparian area through with the North Branch of the Chicago River runs. We chose this site for its proximity to Chicago and for the fact that one of Habitat 2030’s members is an assistant steward there. The bioblitz took place on Saturday, September 14th, 2013 from 9AM to 4PM, with a break for lunch inbetween (grilled pineapple! Nutella pastry! bruschetta!). Emeritus stewards extraordinaire John and Jane Balaban led us throughout the site, pointing out this or that rare or unusual plant or creature, in addition to the common species. Many thanks for their assistance.

So, what did we find?

symnov As of 10/01/2013, we had 592 observations contributed by 9 participants. A total of 12 people participated – some used smartphones and others used cameras and haven’t yet uploaded their observations. We have identified 231 unique species to species level. That means we had many duplicate species, species only identified broadly (e.g. Insects, Carex, etc.), and 102 uncategorized observations. The most observed species (with 5 observations each) were New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, left), wild leek (Allium tricoccum), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), and bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii).

Observations as of 9/16/2013
All Our Observations: Green = Plants, Orange = Animals, Blue = Fungi, White = Unclassified
Observations per Taxonomic Group (as of 9/15/2013)

Taxonomic Group % of Total Observations
Plants 66.3% (339)
Unclassified 18.2% (93)
Insects 7.2% (37)
Arachnids 2.5% (13)
Birds 1.8% (9)
Fungi 1.4% (7)
Mammals 1.0% (5)
Other Animals 1.0% (5)
Mollusks 0.4% (2)
Fish 0.2% (1)

Become a citizen scientist and help us out by signing up for iNaturalist to identify our unknowns or confirm our observations. Research grade observations will automatically be added to the Bunker Hill Species Guide, a nice way to explore the biodiversity of this urban forest preserve.

View all the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve observations on iNaturalist here: http://www.inaturalist.org/observations?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=&search_on=&quality_grade=any&place_id=57796&swlat=&swlng=&nelat=&nelng=&taxon_name=&taxon_id=&day=&month=&year=&order_by=observations.id&order=desc&site=&tdate=&filters_open=true&view=map

fuzzy oak gall
Cataloging an as-of-yet unidentified oak gall (view the observation on iNaturalist).
brain egg sac
We have no idea yet what this is yet either (view the observation on iNaturalist).
tiny spider
Our youngest participant proudly shows off a tiny spider she found (view the observation on iNaturalist).
Bunker Hill Forest Preserve
Thanks to everyone who participated! We hope to host more of these events in the future.