Halifax thrashes Calgary

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The spirit of competition is a wonderful thing, a magic ingredient which turns speed skating with sticks into a game of hockey, pushing people to lengths they couldn’t otherwise justify and toward milestones we wouldn’t otherwise notice. Except I don’t play hockey, and the last time I sacrificed my shoulders in contact sports was high school rugby. No, the competition in which I now revel requires a special obsession with the natural world as well as physical fitness, bending me over field guides in the depths of some sleepy forest, hoping to identify the obscurest of flowers. I speak, of course, of bioblitzing.

This is when a group of people charge into a designated wilderness and try to identify as many living things as possible, keeping track of their progress by way of the smartphone app iNaturalist. I’ve done this a few times, in Nova Scotia as well as Prince Edward Island, and nothing gets the heart pumping like a bird you don’t recognize, or spending precious seconds distinguishing between a white and red spruce. This might seem like an esoteric sport, but it’s no longer fair to say it’s obscure, not anymore… not since the weekend of April 26-29.

The City Nature Challenge is, to my knowledge, the largest organized bioblitz in the world, where urban centres across the planet enter stiff competition for a solid 96 hours. The original City Nature Challenge took place between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2016, but the next year 16 cities participated across the West Coast. Last year there were 68 cities taking part internationally. Last I heard there were over 170 this year, including three from Canada – Richmond, BC, Calgary, AB, and Halifax.

We compete in three categories – the number of overall observations, the number of individual species identified and the number of people participating – and obviously this stacked the deck for certain cities. It’s a lot warmer in San Francisco this time of year, for example, so the City Nature Challenge was organized into smaller, regional heats, not unlike weight classes in boxing. Here in Canada, we Haligonians were pitted against Calgary.

I began this competition at first light on Friday morning, April 26, forsaking the demands of my desk and hiking through the York Redoubt National Historic Site on Purcell’s Cove Road, exploring first its maintained portions then heading seaward, climbing into its abandoned concrete structures, scaling its spectacular lookouts and exploring some caves pulled straight from a Tolkien novel.

With a devious sneer I travelled from there into downtown Halifax, snatching the species I knew no other city on Earth would have the privilege of counting. I chuckled my way through the halls of Dalhousie’s Life Sciences Centre to tag the Atlantic whitefish (found in only two places on the planet) and through the greenery of the Halifax Public Gardens, caressing the branches of purebred American chestnuts.

By Friday evening I was blissfully unaware of my progress, uploading observations and photos with pleasant routine until the heat of the competition found me. That night was marked by a lichen walk, put on by the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in which several of the city’s champion naturalists took part. I learned there that we weren’t just competing against Calgary, but also against each other, a nuance which lit a fire in my belly.

As we walked through the stunning wood of Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area and bent over the bizarre lichens we had come to identify, our banter was mixed with taunts, jeers and other well-meaning admissions of opposition. Not only were my opponents numerous, but some could identify Platismatia tuckermanii without batting an eyelash. By some miracle I was keeping up with these people, and wanted to stay abreast as long as possible.

The next day we were hit with vindictive rain, but I went out anyway, carrying with me a dry bag for my camera, several layers of clothing and a can-do attitude, marching into my favourite urban wilderness of all – Hemlock Ravine.

Halifax is blessed with more untamed wilderness than is common. While much of its wild spaces are still, to this day, under threat, or else isolated by encircling suburbs, the results are still spectacular, and there’s no better example than Hemlock Ravine. This park has a maintained trail system to the southeast, but many of its trails exist on no map, leading, as they do, to the most stunning hemlock groves, enduring in relative secret. They can only be found by people who are lost, a privilege I have enjoyed several times.

On the Saturday of this competition I took a long trail I’d never before explored, plunging deep into this park’s towering trees, bound together by a thick fog and roaring wind overhead. The atmosphere was fantastically spooky even in the early afternoon, and the sounds of wildlife came only by way of echo. In this fog I found deer, bold in the fowl weather, and then, to my astonishment, a Pileated woodpecker.

This is my favourite bird, and while not exactly rare, it’s hard to find when you’re looking for it. This gorgeous specimen was pounding away on a dead tree far into a swamp bordering my trail. So perfect was the scene I might have been in the backcountry of Kejimkujik or the Cape Breton Highlands, out of reach of civilization. For the sake of a decent photograph I stepped into the swamp and accepted its wetness, getting closer to this magnificent bird than I’d ever been. I got my picture, and then rain came down so heavily I could not hear this woodpecker’s ethereal farewell as it shot into the swamp.

My part in the competition ended on Sunday, April 28, when the demands of life ushered me out of the city, after a quick hike through the soon-to-be Halifax Wilderness Park. By then I held a respectable place on the leadership board; in the end pegging 75 species across 100 observations. Some of our regional naturalists doubled those numbers.

Halifax as a whole managed almost 900 species over 7,000 observations made by 231 contestants, besting Calgary and Richmond both by a wide margin. I’m grateful to possess a city of such towering wilderness in this day and age, and hope victories this sweet will remind us of the value such untamed spaces hold, for the stressed hiker, the overworked biker, and the competitive naturalist.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. He can be reached at zack.metcalfe@gmail.com

Shown above is a pileated woodpecker.  (Zack Metcalfe photo)