A girl takes a photograph of a species of plant to upload to iNaturalist.
Bioblitz A girl takes a photograph of a species of plant to upload to iNaturalist. © Devan King/TNC

Stories in Maryland/DC

City Nature Challenge

Discover and document the biodiversity of our urban spaces.

Deborah Barber Director of Land Management, Maryland/DC Chapter


What kind of wild species can you spot at one-minute past midnight on a rainy spring night?

That’s the question DC-area citizen scientists were recently asking themselves. There’s stiff competition to be the first person to post a photo of a wild organism to the iNaturalist app, and become the first observer in the Washington, DC City Nature Challenge.

The City Nature Challenge is a fun, friendly competition that encourages people to discover and document the biodiversity of our urban spaces. Held each year among metropolitan areas worldwide, the aim is to find out which city can spot the greatest number of wild species, find the most diversity of species, and engage the most observers. 

The event has grown by leaps and bounds since it began in 2016. 159 cities took part this year, reporting 963,773 observations--more than double from 2018!

Zoom In, Zoom Out

iNaturalist, like The Nature Conservancy itself, is both deep and broad, highly local and powerfully global.  Zoom in, zoom out, you’ll see amazing things at every level.

(Harmonia axyridis) pupae on plant in Lyon Park, Maryland native plant garden.
Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) pupae on plant in Lyon Park, Maryland native plant garden. © Deborah Barber / TNC

Zoom in: I posted a photo of a ladybeetle larva in my garden, then learned from other users that the Asian species has forked bristles; the natives’ bristles are single-tipped.  Now I know what to look for! Zoom out from any observation and you can see the global distribution of that species.

With a few more clicks, you can see how each organism fits into the entire taxonomical tree of life. Likewise, with TNC, I can spend a morning at work monitoring a plant found only in one small patch in Maryland, then in the afternoon share conservation strategies with Conservancy colleagues from Mongolia, China or Indonesia.

iNaturalist and TNC are both constantly learning and evolving.  iNaturalist’s computer vision, added in 2017, becomes smarter as users identify photos of organisms.

When I started working at the Maryland/DC Chapter, one of my first plant monitoring projects was documenting the steady decline of a rare wildflower, Canby's dropwort (Oxypolis canbyi). Now we have learned that it needs fire to thrive. We are burning its habitat and watching it multiply, and we are working with partner organizations to develop regional strategies to develop a more fire-friendly culture for natural area managers.

Friendly Competition

I’m not normally a competitive person, but when this year’s City Nature Challenge began, I was out at midnight helping the DC area make the best possible showing. This year we ranked 5th for both number of observers and number of research grade observations and 11th for number of species.

So, what observations have DC-area iNaturalists submitted in the moments past midnight?  Photos of a flashlight-illuminated ichneumonid wasp, a shield lichen, raccoon tracks on a trash can, a kitchen pantry moth and an audio file of a mockingbird singing its late-night song all have contributed to our picture of the diversity of life in Washington, DC.

How You Can Take Part

What began in 2016 as a friendly challenge between Los Angeles and San Francisco, organized by the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County,  has now grown to an international event.  And it's never too early to start honing your observation skills!

It’s easy to get involved using the iNaturalist app (free on the app store). Just take a picture of a plant or animal and upload it to the app.  Our photo gallery of local TNC preserves and partner sites below will help get you started, but you can also explore your own backyard or neighborhood parks.  There's nature all around you!

2019 Results

  • CNC 2019 Infographic.png

    (1.25 MB PDF)

    Top line global results from the 2019 City Nature Challenge.


Deborah Barber is the director of land management for Maryland/DC, supporting efforts in two key areas where the chapter's outcomes can have the greatest impact: protecting clean water and tackling climate change.