It’s a typical spring afternoon in Montana’s Glacier National Park, and the wildlife is buzzing. Grizzly and black bears have awoken from their winter slumber and are feeding on grasses and the carcasses of elk and moose that have not pulled through the season. Mountain goats are grazing high up on mountain slopes, while smaller animals such as hoary marmots and beavers are active in the alpine meadows and along creeksides. Bighorn sheep, mountain lions and tiny pikas also make their home here, along with snowshoe hares, red foxes and caribou. With at least 30 species that are endemic to this northern Rocky Mountain region, along with thousands of plants, hundreds of birds and dozens of mammal species, Glacier is a prime example of a richly biodiverse place in which flora and fauna work together to maintain a healthy equilibrium, and more importantly, survive.
According to Science Daily, there are an estimated 15 million different species living on our planet, “but only a small portion of which is known.” We cross paths with many of these species daily, often without giving them a second thought. There’s the squirrel that runs across our lawn, the woodpecker knocking on our tree, and the pigeons that sit upon our roof: each of them part of an elaborate ecosystem that forms its own unique life bubble. To help shine a spotlight on these life bubbles, members of the Nat Hab team came together to compile an Earth Day species count, chronicling the range of wildlife they encountered from sun-up to sundown on April 22. Field guides and in-house staff alike got outside and started recording what they saw, from the streets of Boulder, Colorado, to the almost mythical Galapagos Islands. The list was truly impressive: a documentation of birds, mammals, bugs and reptiles (not to mention a domestic dog or two) that not only showed how diverse and varied our ecosystems can be, but was also fun to create.
The Importance of Species Counts
Species counts are important for several reasons. They’re a form of conservation, helping to determine how the richness and distribution of particular species change over time, especially in the wake of global warming. They also help to establish which species exist in a specific area at a given time. Once scientists are aware of what species are residing together in the same overall community, they can better determine how that particular community functions. Which of the species is competing with one another for food? How do these species fit together to create a healthy ecosystem and a functioning community? Healthy ecosystems rely on a biodiverse range of animals, plants and microorganisms, and biodiversity (e.g., bees pollinate crops, which leads to reproduction, and reproduction then creates food that’s essential to our existence). If an ecosystem isn’t working, it’s important to know why.
Nat Hab’s Earth Day Species Count
Per company style and tradition, Nat Hab always likes to do a little something special on Earth Day to help its employees enjoy the day. This year, it meant inviting them to participate in an informal “What Nat Hab Saw on Earth Day” wildlife count. Chief Sustainability Officer Court Whelan encouraged the entire Nat Hab staff to get outside on April 22 and take note of whatever wildlife they spotted, from the tiniest ladybug to the most gigantic of tortoises. Whelan then pulled together their submissions, which highlighted a range of regions, ecosystems and time zones, including counts from a few active Nat Hab expeditions. One expedition, Nat Hab’s Himalayan-based Land of the Snow Leopard, was in the midst of their own stellar search for an incredibly elusive and oh-so-rare cat when they paused to participate. “I’m not sure how my Florida pigeon sighting is going to stack up against a snow leopard,” wrote Whelan, referring to the 10-day alpine adventure. “But hey, it’s all nature in its glory.”
Along with a compilation of the snow leopard’s supporting characters (while a snow leopard had recently been spotted at close quarters, it was a no-show on Earth Day), including the sheep-like bharals, which live on the Himalaya’s upland slopes, and the wild Ladakh urial, counts also came in from other active expeditions. These included Nat Hab’s The Cotswolds: Exploring English Nature, an eight-day ramble through the ancient beech forest and along the trout-filled streams of Britain’s classic countryside, and one of Nat Hab’s multiple Galapagos Islands tours. Other Nat Hab participants paired with fellow co-workers and friends to count species together closer to home, tagging their social posts with #NatHabEarthDay to share with the world whatever wildlife species they encountered. Counts came in from throughout the US, including places like Florida and Seattle and a bevy of Colorado locations such as Boulder, Golden and Longmont.
On April 22 alone, the Nat Hab team counted dozens of species ranging from tufted ducks and black-tailed prairie dogs to tree swallows and great blue heron. They saw Santa Fe land iguanas sunbathed lazily on volcanic Galapagos rocks and curious sea lions bellying their way across sands while cactus finch and yellow warblers flitted through the skies above. Around the world, participants spotted wood pigeons, Himalayan snowcocks, common buzzards and golden eagles, as well as a plethora of sheep and smaller avian species such as corn buntings and dark-eyed juncos. Amid Florida’s coastal waters, rivers and springs, one Nat Habber even glimpsed a manatee mother and baby!
In fact, a large percentage of the Nat Hab Earth Day species count came from the “spotting grounds” of England’s Highgrove House, the residence and garden of Charles, Prince of Whales. Just another reminder that nature really is everywhere.
When Whelan asked the Earth Day count’s participants, “What was the best thing you experienced from the day?” their answers were both intriguing and delightful. In addition to the communal aspect of seeking out and recording species together (even if it was doing so in a vastly different place but on the same day), many of their responses spoke to nature’s everyday beauty: an unusually clear blue sky in Seattle, a school of golden rays swimming among blacktip sharks and a chorus of blackbirds singing their fluted song at the slow break of daylight. One participant even caught sight of an osprey diving into the water feet-first to catch a fish (unfortunately, the participant was unable to identify the type of fish!).
As Whelan noted, the count was a way to “appreciate the critters big and small” and a continual reminder about “how amazing this world is we share with one another and nature at all levels.”
Citizen science, which is basically scientific research done by nonprofessionals, helps monitor biodiversity. It’s also both fun and easy. By downloading a citizen science app such as iNaturalist, you can record and share your wildlife observations, whether it’s a common water snake or a red-headed woodpecker, and contribute to science in the process. The platform also connects a community of more than a million scientists and naturalists who can assist you in identifying the fauna (and flora) in your own backyard.
Another good app is eBird, a form of avian-specific citizen crowd-sourcing. Simply spot a bird, and share your sighting. You can also explore maps pertaining to different bird ranges and bird migrations. One especially cool finding: scientists actually used the eBird database to confirm the long-held belief that India’s bird migrations and monsoon rains are connected.