SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. – “Well, this is Mormon tea, it’s ephedra.”
Elizabeth Fabry snapped a photo of the spindly green plant with her smartphone and logged her find on an app called iNaturalist.
Fabry isn’t an ecologist or a botanist. She’s a nurse practitioner from Bisbee, and she’s one of more than 1,000 people all across the U.S.-Mexico border who took part in the second-annual Border BioBlitz. It’s a binational event that lets scientists and the public get together to collect information on plants and animals in this region.
“I’m hoping to see some interesting species of birds. I’m hoping to see a bug that’s really cool,” Fabry said. “On this app I’d like to get the species of the day, but I don’t think I will.”
Unless she happens across a jaguar, she joked.
“But I don’t think so. Maybe an ocelot.”
Fabry continued down the Murray Springs trail near Sierra Vista pointing out whitethorn acacia and sacaton. It’s winter, she said, but there’s still plenty to see here.
“The desert has lots of life. It’s not a dead place,” she said.
Not a Wasteland
Bringing attention to just how alive ecosystems on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are is one of the driving reasons behind the Border BioBlitz, said Ben Wilder, director of Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, the group that organized the event.
Some people see the border as a wasteland where building a wall might not have much impact, he said. But by collecting data on what’s really here the Border BioBlitz can help tell another story.
“Towering mountains and jaguars roaming, with trogons flying in and out across the border and ocelots popping up. That’s the borderlands for sure,” Wilder said.
The Border BioBlitz is also a way to fill in data gaps here, he said.
Nearly two dozen groups of experts and citizen scientists explored trails, parks and wilderness areas during the blitz, and they made more than 14,000 observations, logging upwards of 2,300 species along both sides of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Back out at Murray Springs with Fabry’s group, her husband Jim Mahoney told everybody about the site.
“This is a unique and priceless place that’s irreplaceable,” he said.
Mahoney, a retired recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management, has spent years building and hiking the trails out here. He tells the group they’re at an ancient Clovis site. Remains of mastodons, woolly mammoths, sloths and the people who hunted them have been found out here.
“If you wander around here and imagine that you’re being tracked by a saber-toothed tiger. Oh, I got chills just now!” He said to laughs from the group.
But it’s not the historic creatures that roamed this area that they came out for. They were documenting what’s in the area now.
“To give scientists everywhere a really good idea of how biodiverse this part of the world really is,” said Mark Apel, with the University of Arizona Cooperative-Extension in Cochise County.
He organized the 15-person group of hiking boot-clad high school and university students, amateur naturalists and professional scientists that wound their way through rough shrubs and yellow grasses toward the San Pedro River.
One pair of students from the University of Arizona trudged along the trail logging observations here and there.
“It’s been mostly creosote, mesquite,” said Joe Black, a senior studying ecology.
“I’ve seen a lot of coyote scat,” added wildlife conservation student Maya Stahl.
They both laughed.
As university students studying the Sonoran Desert, they’re pretty used to cataloging plants and animals in the area. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get stumped.
Leaving the shrubby area to get closer to the river, they walked through tall grasses Black said he didn’t recognize.
“This might be one people would be able to figure out,” he said, pushing his way closer to get a picture, then loaded it into the iNaturalist app.
iNaturalist is a database of plant and animal observations where anyone can add a photo, even if they don’t know what they’re looking at. Then someone else can go in and name unidentified species.
A few minutes later, the rest of the group arrived in the same area. They recognized the mystery plant.
“Oh Johnson grass,” Mahoney said. “I’m sure somebody got that.”
That’s the benefit of the Border BioBlitz, Apel said, everybody’s learning something.
“I think the makeup of the group was wonderful because we really did have some plant experts and bird experts and people who knew this area very well,” he said.
And aside from having a fun weekend of scientific exploration, he said, they group also did their part to illuminate biodiversity in the borderlands.