After being closeted indoors for most of a year, we’re now emerging into a season when the rest of the natural world is astir.

Walter Poleman, senior lecturer in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, thinks it’s the perfect time to get out into nature and see what’s there.

He and a team of community collaborators are behind Burlington and Winooski’s entry into the 2021 City Nature Challenge that runs for four days April 30-May 3. The challenge originated five years ago between San Francisco and Los Angeles and quickly evolved into an international competition that now includes 400 cities around the world. Burlington/Winooski is the first urban center from Vermont to join. Participants use the app iNaturalist to share their sightings and photographs which are recorded on the City Nature Challenge website.

“It’s a friendly competition to see which city can make the most observations of nature, and who can find the most species,” Poleman explains. “It’s a great way to get family or friends to be together outside—in COVID-safe ways of course—and make observations about what they see.”

According to Poleman, the four-day “bio-blitz” also performs an important scientific function. Data collected through the iNaturalist app is useful to researchers interested in tracking natural activity in real-time and creates a massive, citizen-generated database that can lend insight into the long-term impacts of climate change.

“You can monitor the data from year to year and see how climate change is impacting phenophases—those are stages or phases in the life cycle of a plant or animal—like the leafing out of trees, the arrival of migratory birds, or emergence of insects.”

One of Poleman’s personal rituals is venturing out on his birthday, April 10, to try to record as many bird sightings as his age. “I turned 60 this year,” he said, “so it gets more challenging all the time.” Last week he recruited some help from family members and friend and UVM colleague Allan Strong, a birding expert.

Now he’s working with the communities of Burlington and Winooski to get involved in a big way. Local teachers in both cities plan to take their students outside to record sightings during the City Nature Challenge. The 145 students in Poleman’s Natural History and Human Ecology class will also be involved—they have been using the two cities as an outdoor classroom throughout the year and will be sharing their observations during the four-day challenge.

“It’s important that we link Burlington and Winooski together in this effort,” Poleman said. “Nature knows no bounds and our landscapes are closely connected, especially by Winooski River corridor.”

Local Celebration

With cooperation of many other community partners including Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront; the Intervale Center; the Winooski Valley Park District; and Burlington Wildways, Poleman is also planning other local events and celebrations around the City Nature Challenge.

The wider Burlington/Winooski City Nature Celebration 2021 includes a speaker series taking place on three successive Thursday evenings at 7 p.m. The series launches on Earth Day, April 22, with an overview of wild local places by Burlington Wildways Coalition director Zoe Richards, and city of Burlington field naturalist Alicia Daniel, followed by a presentation featuring City Nature Clocks by Burlington asset manager coordinator Gustave Sexauer.

The series continues on April 29 with “Insects and Pollinators” with Rubenstein School senior lecturer Amy Seidl and naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer, and culminates with “Birds of Winooski and Burlington,” May 6 with UVM ornithologist Allan Strong.

Each session will be live-streamed to local access television by Burlington’s Media Factory.

"It’s about partnership and the synergy that can happen when you bring partners together in service to the diversity of life in the urban landscape,” Poleman said. “That enhances the quality of life for everyone.”


Kevin Coburn