More than 100 volunteers fanned out across City Park over the weekend for something called BioBlitz. It was an effort to document all the plants and critters that call the park home, and meant to help the park plan for the future.
Sean Augustine may be eight years old, but he knows how to prepare for a day in the woods. He’s got a big hat, multi-pocketed cargo pants, and boots. He’s also got a raincoat on hand because he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the day’s mission.
“I hope everyone else brought raincoat,” he says, “so if rains we don’t have to stop census.”
The census is today’s mission. City Park wants to build a master list of everything living here: plants, animals, insects -- everything. Augustine is just one of the volunteers who showed up early in the morning to comb the woods.
He has a secondary mission, too: to find some Golden Apple Snails.
Everyone breaks into groups. One each for birds, reptiles, plants, and insects. Augustine and his mom end up in the amphibian group, which is looking for toads and frogs, and make their way into the forest.
They find their first specimen near a shallow pond, just off the main trail. It’s a toad.
Dr. Jennifer Lamb is a biologist at Southeastern Louisiana University. She crouches down to pick it up. It’s dark brown, and not much bigger than a quarter. She gently pins its back legs between her pointer finger and her thumb, demonstrating for Augustine.
Gentleness is key, she says, “like you’re holding a soft berry.”
Lamb says it’s a Coastal Plains Toad, and a volunteer jots the species' name on a clipboard. First on the list!
“Having a list like this allows us to look at the kinds of plants and animals that are here,” says Dr. Bob Thomas, “and how we enhance the habitat to attract those animals.”
Thomas organized the BioBlitz. He’s the director of Loyola University’s Center for Environmental Communication and a City Park board member. The park wants a strong variety of plants and animals and insects, and Thomas says knowing what’s out here now will help them figure out how to increase biodiversity in the future.
City park is a public-private partnership. The land is owned by the city, but it’s run by a private board. It doesn’t get any public money from the city, and it has to serve lots of different people to raise that money.
“This is a city park, Thomas says. “And every decision that this board makes is based on what’s best long range for the park, and presents the best park activities for humans.”
Park officials say they care about biodiversity, but have to balance that with the needs of golfers, soccer players, and bird watchers alike.
The BioBlitz will help them decide how to balance those things. Maybe there’s a way, for example, to increase Coastal Plains Toad habitat on the golf course without damaging the course in the process.
Right now they’re trying to figure out what to do with an old part of the course. They could build a marsh, plant trees or wildflowers -- depending on what species they want to help.
Back on the trail, precocious Augustine dips a net -- which is a little taller than he is -- into a pond. He’s fishing for tadpoles. Dr. Lamb combs through the muck. No tadpoles this time, but he scoop up a couple Golden Apple Snails. Well, sort of.
“I’m pretty sure that was a shell,” he says, “not the actual Apple Snail.”
Snail or no snail, by the end of the trip Augustine says he’s happy with the progress the amphibian team made. All in all they identified four different species. And he says he learned a lot -- like how to differentiate between male and female Coastal Plains Toads, and the fact that most toads are mildly toxic to humans.
He’s not one to dwell on his success though -- he’s already thinking about what’s next.
“Right now I’m gonna go look for things that don’t have bones in ‘em!” he exclaims.
And with that, Augustine runs to continue the blitz -- this time with the insect group.
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.