Botany professor Christopher Hardy of Millersville University scrambled up the wooded slope, then stretched himself out on the ground, eye level with with the Monotropa uniflora that had attracted his attention.
He snapped a few shots with his camera, then examined the results.
Monotropa uniflora is commonly known as “ghost plant” or “Indian pipe.” It’s a parasite, feeding off other plants rather than photosynthesizing, Hardy explained. It has devolved to stop producing chlorophyll, since it doesn’t need it, he said.
“It’s cool when you have parasitic plants,” Hardy said. “It adds biological interest.”
Hardy was leading a team at the 24-hour Fall BioBlitz 2014. He helped organize the event, which was hosted by Lancaster County Conservancy.
From noon Saturday to noon Sunday, dozens of researchers, students and members of the general public converged on Climbers Run Nature Preserve in southern Lancaster County to learn about the flora and fauna there and to identify and catalog as many species as they could.
They took photos and notes, collected specimens and entered the results in an online database.
The hunt was supplemented with presentations on animal behavior, specimen preparation and identification techniques.
The nature preserve is the former Camp Snyder, which was owned and operated by the Boys and Girls Club of Lancaster.
The conservancy acquired the site on Frogtown Road a couple of years ago.
Over the past year, the organization remodeled a barn on the property into the new Susquehanna Riverlands Research and Education Center, which served as the BioBlitz central command.
The preserve is a “fabulous habitat,” said Barbara Hunsberger, president of the Lancaster County Bird Club, which had several members on hand.
The bird team saw or heard 55 species, including a bald eagle.
The mammal team set up box traps and cameras triggered by infrared sensors. The yield: 12 species, roughly one-fifth of the 60-some found in Pennsylvania.
“We found a lot of mice,” said Keely Skroly, a Millersville University student helping conservation biology professor Aaron Haines.
One camera captured a “potential weasel,” Haines said, but the animal moved quickly, so the image will need additional verification.
Hands-on experience like this is terrific for his classes, he said, as Skroly and fellow student Angela Fetterolf nodded agreement.
“It’s active learning and service learning,” Haines said.
The plant team had by far the largest count: 235 species. Cataloging plants is comparatively easy because they don’t run away, Hardy noted.
A few participants camped overnight. Steve Rannels, a Bird Club member from Hershey, set up a screen lit with mercury vapor and UV lights to attract flying insects, especially moths. He woke up at intervals to check on what turned up, he said.
Everyone shares what they know, whether they’re professors, high school or college students, amateurs or beginners, Burcin said.
“It’s a great blending,” he said.
Initiatives like BioBlitz are vital, Hardy said. Climate change and land development are causing rapid changes in habitats and species distribution patterns. It’s happening faster than professionals can track by themselves.
By pooling data on wikis and other social media, professionals and amateurs can help each other close the information gap, he said.
At Millersville, students taking Hardy’s Plant Systematics course are required to post at least 10 online records of their finds in the field and prepare specimens for Millersville’s James C. Parks Herbarium, which Hardy directs.
A century from now, those will be invaluable records for future researchers, Hardy said.
Lydia Martin, conservancy education specialist and land steward, said the BioBlitz was a lot of work to set up, but tremendously rewarding. The next one is planned for May 16-17, she said.
The conservancy plans to open Climbers Run officially later this fall, Burcin said. Until then, groups interested in visiting are asked to call the conservancy to make arrangements.
Once it’s open, the conservancy envisions the preserve hosting a full slate of activities, fulfilling its mission of bringing people into closer touch with nature.
“It’s exciting to see this facility being used,” Burcin said of the education center. “This is just the beginning.”