Exploring Urban Nature in South L.A.

February 28, 2017

Please enjoy this week's blog, by guest writer Olivia Chambliss. We met Olivia at our recent Community Wildlife Hunt in South L.A.. When she told us she was an aspiring science blogger, we offered her a guest writing role. We're excited to share her words with you today, and please share your words of encouragement with Olivia in the comments below or on social media @NatureinLA. 

It was a gloomy Saturday morning in South Los Angeles as I made my way to Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park for the wildlife hunt coordinated by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The park lies ensconced in a neighborhood filled with abandoned factories and old warehouses. On that damp, granite gray morning AFH Nature Park stood out like a sore, green thumb.

Blog author, Oliva Chambliss, walking with other participants as they look for urban wildlife. Photo by Deniz Durmus.

It's hard to believe that this verdant 8.5 acres of park land once was a water and sewer pipe storage yard for the Department of Water and Power. The park was dedicated in 2000 and was named after the first African American congressman elected west of the Mississippi, Augustus F. Hawkins.

Just past the park entrance is the Evan Frankel Discovery Center, an interpretation center that resembles a mini natural history museum complete with taxidermy California fauna (think bobcats and coyotes), a display on the life cycle of the yucca plant, and cases of rocks and minerals. On the morning of the wildlife hunt it was bustling with the activity of NHMLA staff and volunteers as they rushed to set up their own animal specimens for display.

Inside of the Evan Frankel Discovery Center. Photo by Deniz Durmus.

The wildlife hunt at AFH Nature Park is part of an effort by the NHMLA citizen science team to include L.A. communities not yet reached by the program. According to Lila Higgins, an educator and manager of the Museum's citizen science team, the wildlife hunt served as a sort of vanguard for future citizen science projects. This morning the goal was not so much to collect data for any given project but to get to know the community and be influenced by the community’s needs.

Though the event was supposed to kick off at 9 am, participants slowly began to trickle into the Discovery Center around fifteen minutes after the hour. A gaggle of young children raced into the meeting room and were followed by their parents. Some adults arrived alone, curious about the event after spotting a sign up table outside. The new arrivals browsed the tables set up by the staff. There were preserved lizards in glass jars, live snails in little containers, the pelts of small native mammals, a display case containing butterflies of Southern California, and one stuffed squirrel.

Mammal table with specimens from NHMLA and staff from UCLA. Photo by Deniz Durmus.

After a group of about fifteen participants had gathered, two NHMLA staff members, Lisa Gonzalez and Miguel Ordeñana, introduced themselves and informed the group they would lead the hunt. We were told to be on the lookout for any type of wildlife that included insects, fungi, and larger living creatures and to alert the group to our find. Once Miguel and Lisa explained some basic guidelines for the wildlife hunt (i.e., take only pictures, leave only footprints) we were off!

The nature hike was straightforward and surprisingly casual. Lisa encouraged us to turn over leaves and rocks for bugs and to dig through the soggy earth with our hands. The children participating in the hike were especially zealous and thorough in this process, excitedly calling out “I found something!” whenever they happened upon an insect, worm, or spider. One child pointed to every mushroom he found and proudly declared he had found a “marshmallow." The enthusiasm was contagious.

Wildlife guide, Lisa Gonzalez (center), helping people to make new nature discoveries. Photo by Deniz Durmus.

Miguel and Lisa were attentive guides. They identified the wildlife that the participants discovered along the hike and brought our attention to things we may not have otherwise noticed. They validated each find the adult participants uncovered and cheerfully engaged with the energetic younger ones. It was an excellent opportunity for the community to hang out with a scientist in an informal and fun environment. One boy breathlessly explained to Miguel that he loved bugs and wanted to be an entomologist when he grew up, his eyes shining with a passion that would make anyone listen.

Miguel Ordenana pointing out slugs found in Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park. Photo by Deniz Durmus.

As the walk wound down I wandered back to the Discovery Center where a fresh group of participants had arrived. Here, I had the chance to speak with some of the other staff involved in the event. Richard Smart, a coordinator for citizen science at NHMLA, had his laptop set up to show off iNaturalist, a platform (and free app) that crowdsources photos of wildlife and plants that anyone can upload. Scientists can then use these data to map out the distribution of wildlife in urban areas. This seemed like a no brainer way for people of all stripes to become part of the scientific process. Indeed, when I later spoke with Miguel he said that this app has proved useful in collecting data for NHMLA’s SuperProject and has connected local communities with science. 

Blog author, Oliva Chambliss, visiting with Richard Smart to learn more about the iNaturalist website and app. Photo by Deniz Durmus.

By the end of the program the group recorded 45 species in the park, and they were all on iNaturalist for people to see! In addition, 21 year-old Jose Luis Sandoval created a bird list that had 18 species of birds that he saw!

Group photo from the day! Photo by Augustus F. Hawkins volunteer.

Citizen science projects around the world – like the ones coordinated by NHMLA – as well as the presence of nature parks in urban areas are both important ways to inspire people to get involved in science. Additionally, outreach to local communities by scientific and research institutions creates a space for youth to get excited about their interests and meet professionals that work in that field. So when a child says, “Hey, I really like bugs, and I want to learn more about them!” they can point to someone they know who studies insects for a living. It can be difficult to imagine yourself in a role if you do not know that the role itself even exists. Miguel summed it up best himself when he said that the wildlife hunt was “… a way to bring the Museum to the people.” And in the same way that a natural space can be coaxed to grow out of a former pipe yard, communities can be transformed when given access to the right tools.

 

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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