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Puttin’ on the Blitz

More than 145 biologists and naturalists embark on round-the-clock species count in Potomac Gorge this weekend.

Saturday night will be psychedelic and wild for John Brown. He’ll be down by the Potomac River with a black light, ready to fire it up when the sky gets dark. With any luck, he’ll catch hundreds of moths — and dozens of species of them — with the black light trap. He’ll know how he made out soon after sunrise on Sunday.

"You pick them up in the morning and it’s like Christmas," said Brown.

Brown will lead the lepidopterist (butterflies and moths) team, several of more than 145 biologists and naturalists who will participate in the Potomac Gorge BioBlitz. The BioBlitz will mark a 30-hour round-the-clock orgy of species counting led by the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 24, through 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 25.

The BioBlitz will take place on national parkland on both sides of the Potomac River throughout the Gorge, the 15-mile river corridor between Great Falls and Key Bridge.

The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service hope to use the results from the BioBlitz to learn about the management needed to protect the ecosystem in the Potomac Gorge. The Park Service and Nature Conservancy collaborated on a conservation plan for the Gorge in 2001, but determined that the plan lacked information on some plant and animal species, such as invertebrates and non-vascular plants.

"There are certain [species and groups] that are not well-studied," said Stephanie Flack, Potomac Gorge project director for the Nature Conservancy. "They could have a very important role for water quality and air quality."

Flack says the objectives of the BioBlitz are twofold. They hope to increase the base of knowledge of species in the Potomac Gorge, especially those that were traditionally understudied; and to raise local awareness about what an extraordinary area the Gorge is, and the way the plant and animal species depend on one another.

THE 145 BIOBLITZ researchers will each join one of 17 field research teams that will survey a number of species groups. Throughout the 30-hour period, they will search for flora and fauna that include the unknown (algae and flatworms), the known (butterflies and reptiles), and the rare (the Allegheny woodrat and the Eastern small-footed bat, neither of which have been observed in the Potomac Gorge since the 1920s).

Researchers hope that some of the overlooked species will get their 30 hours of fame this weekend. Brown could spend his time looking for swallowtail butterflies, but many of the moth species he’ll count are smaller than a thumbnail. "They’re teeny little bastards," he said.

Heading the beetle team is Art Evans, an entomologist who is also the BioBlitz coordinator. There is no "holy grail" species for Evans. "I just don’t look at it that way," he said. "Common, rare, and in between … It’s more like a race against time to find as many species as possible."

Some of the beetle species are nocturnal. "Unfortunately, it’s a 24-hour job," Evans said. That is true for many of his colleagues in the BioBlitz.

"Some people won’t sleep at all. It’s sort of like the all-nighter back in college," Flack said. Others will catch a few winks at Glen Echo, or at other shelters set up on Sycamore Island or the Marsden Tract.

Both Evans and Brown agreed that the bulk of their research from the BioBlitz will happen after this weekend. Both deal with insects that often must be collected and put under a microscope. And yes, said Brown, that sometimes means pinning a moth and researching it after it has died. "Trust me, I've got to put a pin in them," Brown said. "The thing is with most insects is that they’re so plentiful. … Collecting [these] insects has absolutely no impact on any population."

The concept of a BioBlitz is not a new one, but this is the first time that a BioBlitz will be conducted throughout the Potomac Gorge, Flack said.

TO A CERTAIN degree, the BioBlitz is a spectator sport. While the biologists and naturalists in the field must be left alone as they study, there will be a range of family-friendly activities at Glen Echo Park on Saturday and Sunday. The study has a public education component, and some of the biologists will chat with visitors about their project when they’re back at the base camp in Glen Echo.

"We’re just interested in finding as many species as possible," Evans said. "Who knows what we’ll find?"

BY GORGE!

Below are a few of the species likely to be counted at the Potomac Gorge BioBlitz:

* Stemonitis — a common slime mold that looks like a log growing hair. It can’t truly be classified as either a plant or an animal, because it is both, undergoing a plant stage and an animal stage through its lifespan.

* Lobster mushroom — a costly and delectable parasitic mushroom that uses an otherwise worthless gilled mushroom as its host.

* Bryophytes — more commonly known as mosses, they are the second-largest species in the world of plants; there are more than 10,000 species of bryophytes. They are important in reducing erosion along stream beds.

* Cobra clubtail dragonfly — males wag their tails in the air to warn others of their presence.

* Black widow spiders.