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Introducing the Houston Naturama Challenge

March 31, 2020

Yesterday evening, a cardinal stuck himself at the top of a tree down the street and blasted the end of the day. His song was sparse. One descending note over and over. I don’t know if he knows only this much song or if he chose to give an abbreviated performance. Either way, it was a joy. I have heard cardinals sing up the sun and sing it back down as long as I’ve been alive. Hearing him made the world seem almost right.

I’m not alone in finding solace in nature. An influential study found that viewing nature made people happier than viewing urban scenes. Looking at nature increased subjects’ sense of wellbeing, lowered stress and improved recovery. This is why hospital halls are lined scenes from nature. Interestingly, the study that produced these findings selected their “natural” scenes to greatly over-represent scruffy nature such as weedy lots. They were trying to measure the benefits of real nature, not awe-inspiring nature. 

So, in light of our collective need for wellbeing and amusement, I’m proposing that we play a game in nature. Of course, we are all on lockdown. But that’s the beauty of nature. It is everywhere. 

Introducing Houston Naturama. 

I am going to challenge you to find plants and animals that you should be able to locate within a few blocks of your home. 

So if you didn’t win “yard of the month”, or you have a weedy lot around the corner, or a median strip that perhaps isn’t well-tended, you’re perfectly positioned.

Rule #1 of Naturama is you don’t break social distancing/stay at home rules. I will endeavor to make all challenges doable everywhere in Houston, but there are no prizes and it is not worth going anywhere you weren’t headed to anyway just to find a plant or insect.

But, as long as you are out and about, you might as well take the time to look for a plant or critter. You will be surprised how absolutely everywhere nature is. 

In order to play Houston Naturama, you will have to create an account on iNaturalist ( and download their free app. If you are the sort of person who enjoys this blog, you either already have iNaturalist or you are in for a real treat. You can use the app to identify plants and animals by snapping a photo of them and uploading them to the site. It also uploads the location and time of the photograph (not snooping, good reason coming up).

It has robust artificial intelligence that often tells you the name of what you submitted right off the bat, but each sighting is checked by human volunteers of great wisdom. At least two of them must agree for the report to be validated.

That sounds like a lot of effort by a lot of people to tell you that you saw an elm. But there is a much larger agenda at work, and by submitting photographs for identification, you get to be part of it. iNaturalist is a vast citizen science project run by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic society. It is mapping the incidence of plants and animals around the world. Each time you enter a plant during the Houston Naturama, you are adding a data point to the world’s knowledge of the quantity and distribution of plants and animals.  

The information collected is publicly available on the site for anyone to see or use. iNaturalist is what makes this blog possible. It’s how I identify what I’m seeing, and if I want to know how common or uncommon something is around the Park, I look at data collected by iNaturalist.

Rule #2 of Naturama is don’t limit your sightings to the plants and animals I send you to find. Report anything that interests you. The world is fascinating and I’m inviting you to the party!

That seems to be the end of rules. Here’s how to play:

Each week of the corvid-19 lockdown, I will post a list of five plants or animals that you can find near your house.




  1. Snap a photo of each finding (or follow special directions)
  2. Upload your sighting to iNaturalist
  3. Once you have found and posted at least three out of five, use the email feature on iNaturalist to send me an email with the subject line “Houston Naturama” and tell me which challenge you finished (week 1, week 2, etc.). My email address on iNaturalist is abkline.

The email feature on iNaturalist is in no way intuitive. I’ve taken screenshots that will help walk you through the steps:


Step 1: Click on email box. You can find this at the top of every page of iNaturalist once you’ve logged in.


Step 2: Once you click on that little icon, a drop-down menu will appear. Click on View your inbox


Step 3: Click on New messages, which will take you to a blank email form


Step 4: fill out the email. To: abkline; Subject: Houston Naturama; Body: please include which week’s challenge you are submitting. You can submit more than one week at a time if you get to this late.

I will confirm your entry on iNaturalist and you will be listed on the blog honor roll the next week and recognized on Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s Facebook.

The pandemic is terrifying, but it does have a grim silver lining. Pollution has dropped significantly around the world. Swans and porpoises are swimming through Venice and mountain lions have been seen wandering through Boulder, Co. My sister in Boston had a fox in the middle of her street this morning.

The skills we learn getting through COVID-19 are going to serve us well as we deal with the challenges climate change is surely going to present. Think of this as a dress rehearsal.

By the way, the photos illustrating this blog post are photos of this week’s challenge. Of course, I don’t expect you to be able to find them just by this, click on this link and it will take you to the first week’s challenge in the Houston Naturama.

If you need help or have something to say, please email me at

Good luck!