As a kid, Natalie Rudkins and her family would pack up the car and drive two hours from her home in Barrie to visit a relative outside Bancroft, Ont. On her relative’s property was a pond where Rudkins spent her time squishing through the mud in search of leopard frogs, garter snakes, and crayfish. At night, she watched the curved wings of bats crest the dark sky. And sometimes, from a distance, she might spot a black bear stumbling through the nearby trees.
These moments sparked Rudkins’ interest in the natural world. During her environmental science degree at the University of Waterloo, Rudkins got into birding and botanizing; downloading apps to help her identify species. One of these apps was called Seek. The app challenged users to photograph different species to unlock achievements.
“It’s really gamified, and it’s a great way for people to find things,” Rudkins says.
This idea of gamifying wildlife spotting motivated Rudkins to create the Naturedex. Inspired by the Pokemon franchise, Rudkins, who now works for the Credit Valley Conservation Authority in Mississauga, created a nature guide that featured 151 different species from the Toronto area (the same number of species in the original Pokemon series).
“For this, I used species you could spot within 30 kilometres of Toronto’s city hall, which ends up being Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, and Vaughan,” she says.
On the Naturedex is a picture of each species with several stats, including whether they’re endangered, how difficult it is to spot the species, and which season you’re most likely to see them.
Each species’ endangered status is based on published lists from the Toronto and Credit Valley Conservation Authorities. To communicate the status, Rudkins used emojis. “I thought that was a really easy way to get the message across,” she says.
If the species has a smiley face, it means they’re thriving in the Toronto area and aren’t a conservation concern. A frowning face means the species is at risk in urban areas. A sad face means the species is trending towards endangered. An angry face means the species is non-native to the area. And a neutral face means the conservation authorities have yet to rank the species’ endangered status.
When giving each species a difficulty ranking for observation, Rudkins used a star system, with one star being the least difficult to find and three stars being the most. She based the ranking on the citizen science platform iNaturalist, where users post photos of wildlife they’ve seen. A species with fewer photos meant a higher difficulty ranking.
“It ranged from like 5,000 to 6,000 observations for something like a monarch or a pigeon, all the way down to less than 50 for things like loons,” she says.
To use the Naturedex, Rudkins recommends printing the guide out and hanging it on a wall or fridge. You can then check off each species you see on the guide. Some of the more difficult species to spot include the bald eagle, common loon, and gray tree frog. Others, such as the trillium, can be difficult depending on the season. And the fish are tricky unless you spend a lot of time fishing.
Rudkins estimates that she saw about 120 of the species on the list last year. One of her favourites is the Virginia ctenucha moth. “I put it on the list in an attempt to demonstrate to people that not all moths are these little brown, uninteresting things. Months can actually be kind of cool looking,” she says. “It has these dark black wings and its shoulders are a vibrant, shiny blue, and its face is completely furry orange.”
If you decide to take the Naturedex challenge, Rudkins suggests using the app Seek to confirm your sightings. She also recommends the app Merlin, which can record and identify bird calls. “It’s a lot easier to see birds if you know what they are,” she says.
According to Rudkins, the two main rules of the Naturedex are to respect wildlife by not disturbing them and to have fun.
“My main intention was to use it as a way to lure people into an activity that I find interesting and valuable,” she says. “I want it to be a resource for people to start recognizing the things that are around them.”
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