Celebrating 10 Years of Nature Boardwalk

October 24, 2020

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Nature Boardwalk, the urban oasis just south of the zoo. Formally known as “South Pond”, this space was once a traditional, ornamental pond, surrounded by a concrete path, turf grass, and mostly non-native vegetation that supported few native wildlife species.

In 2009, Lincoln Park Zoo set out to re-envision this space as a high-quality habitat and a place for humans to connect with nature in the heart of the city. The result was a serene, prairie-style wetland, surrounded by a meandering boardwalk, native plants and trees, and equipped with many habitat elements to support Chicago’s urban wildlife. The Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI) at Lincoln Park Zoo uses this space as its living research center, monitoring the wildlife that live there and testing out research methods. Visitors can learn about UWI, as well as the wildlife and plants at Nature Boardwalk, by interacting with zoo staff and volunteers that manage this space or through the interpretive signage that surrounds the pond.

Since the debut of Nature Boardwalk in 2010, Lincoln Park Zoo staff have regularly monitored plant and wildlife species, and the diversity that has been detected is astonishing! Over the course of the last ten years, we have observed:

  • 160+ bird species, including a colony of the state-endangered black-crowned night heron
  • 40 dragonfly and butterfly species
  • 18 mammal species
  • 10 reptile and amphibian species
  • 5 fish species
  • 400+ plant and tree species

A BioBlitz Celebration

To celebrate this momentous anniversary, the zoo hosted a Digital BioBlitz. A BioBlitz is a team effort to record the most observations of plant and animal life (hence, bio) in a given area within a short timeframe (hence, blitz). Although scientific studies require repeated data collection over a long period of time, it can still be illuminating to track observations in a shorter window!

BioBlitz participants spent one weekend in August collecting data after receiving virtual training from the zoo’s Horticulture and Urban Wildlife Institute teams. The study area included the entire Chicago Wilderness region, which stretches out from downtown Chicago to southern Wisconsin and eastern Indiana. To ensure everyone’s safety, participants sought out green spaces near their homes rather than gathering together in one area. The team of naturalists included zoo staff, Chicago teens who participated in the virtual Zoo Club program series, and families from virtual summer camp.

All participants used iNaturalist, a free app that allows citizen scientists and professionals to observe and upload their findings to a worldwide database. This tool enabled the group to collect an impressive 960 observations of 447 species in the course of one weekend, including:

  • 34 bird species
  • 64 insect species
  • 7 mammal species
  • 3 reptile species
  • 2 fish species
  • 321 plant and tree species

A map of Chicagoland shows red dots wherever BioBlitz observations were recorded.

Overall, the group recorded 321 observations of plants! Teen naturalist William DeAllaume commented, “I was surprised to see how many observations there were of the same species, and most of the pictures looked very different from each other!” In addition to hostas seen on neighborhood walks, the group observed many of the plant species that can be found at Nature Boardwalk including common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

This photo observation from Nature Boardwalk shows a compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in bloom. Photo courtesy of Jessica Acevedo.

Observing flowers in bloom often drew attention to pollinators and other insects. The group noted 108 observations of more than 60 insect species. Teen naturalist Colleen DeAllaume reflected, “Most of the bugs I came across I would say were by accident. I usually found bees and flies on the plants I was trying to take pictures of…I noticed that after the BioBlitz I was constantly looking at the plants and insects in my neighborhood.”

This narrow-winged tree cricket (Oecanthus niveus) was spotted in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Adam El Orch.

For teen naturalist Matylda Lally, observing mammals was her favorite part of the BioBlitz, “Some [species] were easier to get photos of than others. Birds were the most difficult to get good photos of, since the birds were always flying around or up in high trees. I am very fortunate to live near multiple forest preserves, so I was able to find multiple different kinds of wildlife. I think the highlight of my BioBlitz was finding a 11-point buck! I have never seen a deer that large before!”

Motion-activated cameras set up by the Urban Wildlife Institute often capture shots of white-tailed deer, but Matylda’s photo is proof that you can also observe these magnificent mammals on a walk through the forest.

This white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was spotted near Des Plaines. Photo courtesy of Matylda Lally.

Biodiversity Year-Round

This fall, join the zoo in appreciating biodiversity all over the city. Insects and animals remain active, and plants start their fall color display or change from flowers to seed heads. Nature Boardwalk is open every day; take a break from screen time or snap some photos of the changing landscape (with facial coverings and social distancing, of course!). If you prefer to stay at home, take a few minutes to explore a virtual tour of Nature Boardwalk. These immersive summer scenes are loaded with information about the boardwalk’s renovation 10 years ago. You can also register to join us in November for our next Digital BioBlitz.

A visit to Nature Boardwalk or a BioBlitz weekend is sure to open your eyes to the beauty of biodiversity. As teen naturalist Colleen DeAllaume said, “I think overall, the BioBlitz has made me more attentive and appreciative to the organisms I see every day. I find more beauty in the gardens as well as the wild plants I find when I walk around outside.”

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