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Milwaukee's First BioBlitz Uncovers Species at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

In 1996, USGS scientists embarked on a 24 hour inventory of a park in Washington D.C. Their aim was to identify every plant and animal species on the grounds, and the term BioBlitz was coined.

Ellen Censky, now Senior Vice President and Academic Dean of the Milwaukee Public Museum, participated in her first BioBlitz in 1997 in Pittsburgh, PA. When a job took her to the Univeristy of Connecticut she initiated a BioBlitz there. It received national attention.

Censky decided to write a handbook at the time “because I was getting calls from all over the country.”

Fast forward to 2015, Censky received a phone call from a Schlitz Audubon Nature Center board member.

“Margarete Harvey called me and she was saying we need a survey of the Audubon,” Censky says. According to Harvey surveys had been done in the 1970s and nobody could find the information any more. “And the (Milwaukee Public) Museum was very much involved in the original surveys,” Harvey says.

That led, pretty quickly, to August 21, 2015.

Forty-nine people from nine universities and a few conservation groups volunteered their time and expertise to take account of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center’s 185 diverse acres.

At 3 p.m., the BioBlitz commenced. Joshua Kapfer led the amphibian and reptile team.

Credit M Maternowski

  “Okay so we’re going to set traps in each of the quadrants and then we’re just to search for stuff and then come back here,” Kapfer says.

The UW-Whitewater biologist admits that late August is not prime time for reptile and amphibian sightings.

“The best time would be earlier in the spring when they’re coming out hibernation – they tend to congregate around their hibernation location, they tend to move a little bit slower. And so you usually have better luck with amphibians and reptiles earlier in the season,” Kapfer says.

The season doesn’t stop Kapfer from trudging deep into the soupy pond to set turtle traps…. “These little minnow traps I’m hoping will give us some Amphibian larva so we get some idea about things that haven’t metamorphosed yet or maybe are getting close to it,” Kapfer says.

He carefully turns up log after mucky log in hopes of spotting an unsuspecting salamander or snake.

Suddenly Kapfer dives into a soppy patch of fallen leaves and branches. He emerges with a broad smile on his face and, a giant green frog in his hand.

Marilyn Bontley identifies and counts bird species.

Thirteen hours later, at 5 a.m., Marilyn Bontly sets out in search of birds, carrying only binoculars and a pad of paper to scribble on.

Bontley heads out in search of a screech owl. “A screech has been hanging out here, unfortunately he hasn’t been there lately. But we thought we’d just check. And then the area we’re supposed to cover is down along the lakeshore. So that’s where we have to go when it gets lighter,” Bontly says.

Bontly and her birding partner Norma Zehner quietly pad along, ears perked. Finally their screech owl sings.

Dawn comes. The seasoned citizen scientists’ inventory increases – first a single robin then more. The duo spots warblers and chickadees and Bontly proudly proclaims, “Great crested flycatcher!”

The sun streams now across Lake Michigan, ahead of us Jennifer Callagahan and Chris Yahnke’s laughter fills the air.

Yahnke chairs UW-Stevens Point biology department. He tracked bats late into the night.

Credit C Yahnke
Map shows different bat species along a nighttime route scientist Chris Yahnke walked during BioBlitz. There were 5 different species including the federally endangered northern long-eared bat (MYSE is short for Myotis septentrionalis).

“Little brown, northern long-eared – which is the federally endangered one, so we had a few of those, hoary bats, which are the biggest bats in Wisconsin, silver-haired, red bats – a lot of them – and big brown bats. So we had six species, all of the species you would expect to find in this part of the state, we found flying around here last night,” Yahnke says.

Now the two are checking mouse traps they set hours earlier. There’s a friendly rivalry going on – who will harvest most. “Let’s put it this way, every things she’s caught, I caught nothing,” Yahnke says.

Before the mice scamper to freedom, the team weighs each and measures their ears – the length determines if they're native woodland deer mice or recently-arrived white-footed variety.

Credit Jennifer Callaghan
The meadow jumping mouse have really large feet and a really long tail.

“Because the white-footed are moving north with climate change, so we’re interested in being able to distinguish them,” Yahnke says.

Surveyors and scientists gather at base camp as the 24th hour arrives.

UW-Oshkosh biologist John Dobyns reports his findings - 42 different species of spiders.

“We would probably find another 100 if we kept coming back every week which I think is a good idea. The most interesting find in terms of the spider fauna here is there are quite a few what are called Mimetus. They are pirate spiders. Their entire life is to take other spiders’ lives. If you’ve walked into the trails, you know that there are webs everywhere. There are a lot of web builders here there and the Mimetus focus on the other web builders; so there is a lot of spiders killing spiders here, which is pretty cool,” Dobyns says.

The crowd cheers Milwaukee Public Museum’s Ellen Censky announces the final species tally…

“Eight hundred twenty! Alright so the Schlitz Audubon BioBlitz so what we found was 820 species in just 24 hours,” Censky says.

Welcome and unwelcome species appeared on the list.

Credit S Bence
UW-Oshkosh's John Dobyns and Milwaukee Public Museum's Ellen Censky as species counts are announced.

For instance, a Bioblitz team dug up an invasive earthworm – known as the jumping worm. It’s been found in five Wisconsin counties and threatens forest floors and therefore their ecosystems.

On the positive side, botanists discovered an endangered native plant called blue-stemmed golden rod, the first ever spotted in Milwaukee County.

Schlitz Audubon’s long-time conservation director Don Quintenz stands among the crowd.

He’s tramped nearly every inch of the center and had never spotted the endangered golden rod.

“What amazes me, these botanists found it when it wasn’t in flower. It looks very much like some asters, and it was 15 feet off the trail. We’ve got six miles of trail and how in the world they found all of those plants – was it 320 – and they found that plant. I’m very impressed,” Quintenz says.

He says the BioBlitz volunteers have handed Schlitz Audubon a once-in-a-lifetime snapshot to help fine-tune its stewardship plan.

Credit S Bence
Among the 49 scientists and surveyors who volunteered were PhD students from Purdue University - not pictured, Stevens Point native Tim Anderson.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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