Vera Markham

Pictured is a white-winged dove, which is one of the species that is a part of this month’s Eco-Blitz Program. Using iNaturalist’s app or website, citizens can upload photos of species observed in Maricopa parks, and the data collected can be used by staff to better manage the parks

Maricopa County is looking for citizen scientists to gather and upload photo observations of saguaro blooms and white-winged doves for its June Eco-Blitz program. Participants can join by creating an account at iNaturalist’s website.

Once registered, search for “Maricopa County Parks Eco-Blitz” through the app or website, select the join option, and upload captured photos of saguaro blooms or white-winged doves when visiting any of the 12 parks managed by the county in June. 

Participants can attempt to identify the species themselves or, if they are unsure, the app or an iNaturalist expert will suggest the correct species based on the photos uploaded.

“If participants get it wrong, that’s OK. There are a variety of regional experts in the Valley that are willing to review photos, identify them, confirm and suggest the actual species. This is all part of the learning process of the program,” a Maricopa County Parks spokesperson stated in an email.

According to Maricopa County Natural Resource Specialist Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg, the app’s suggestions are often accurate if the photos uploaded contain high resolution, lighting and display identifiable characteristics. 

She also suggests asking rangers at their nature center if someone is unsure of the species identification.

“This is a fun, fantastic way to learn about native species,” Armstrong-Ullberg said. “The more people know, the more people care.”

She said the staff chose saguaro blooms and white-winged doves for the June Eco-Blitz because the bird’s breeding season is synchronized with the reproductive cycle of the saguaro. 

“Saguaros are a keystone species in the Sonoran Desert and provide nesting, shelter and food for many birds, insects and bat species,” she said.  “These birds rely on saguaros almost solely for nutrients and water during the breeding season.”

Saguaro blooms can be a little challenging to photograph because they are so high off of the ground, and Armstrong-Ullberg suggests either bringing a lens attachment for a smartphone or a camera with zoom for this month’s observation. Otherwise, most species are easily captured on a phone camera.

Her tip for citizens scientists trying to capture a photo of a saguaro bloom, “Go to a park that has a trail that goes up above the saguaro. … Cave Creek is a good spot to go.”

She suggests that participants take photos while visiting the parks but upload them from home because it provides more opportunity to identify the species and it’s often faster to upload photos. 

However, if someone wants instant feedback, they can upload the image in the field.

Eco-Blitz was launched in February by the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department and is designed to help educate participants about native species while increasing data collection on each park’s biodiversity.

The data collected will help wildlife managers make more informed decisions when it comes to protecting these areas.

The scientific data can also be used by universities and students conducting research for school projects and possible future studies, as iNaturalist allows others to download the data.

Each month the parks offer a different challenge to participants that joined Eco-Blitz, and the featured species highlights the animals and plants that are most active during that month. The monthly challenge will be featured on Maricopa Parks social media, and an email is sent to registered participants.

There are 45 Eco-Blitz participants officially registered, with 3,102 observations and 564 species identified, and the department is excited to see more people join the Eco-Blitz program as well as increased data collection, according to the department.

“It is going really well, and obviously the more people we get involved the better. The goal is a few thousand people registered, but I would be happy with a few hundred,” Armstrong-Ullberg said. 

“The more people that are doing it, the better data that we are going to get.”