Detroiters Do Science: What we found (so far) in o...

Detroiters Do Science: What we found (so far) in our urban neighborhoods

orange flowers in a field

Since the Detroiters Do Science project began in May, citizen scientists across Metro Detroit have recorded nearly 2500 observations (and counting!) through the iNaturalist app as part of our Nature in Your Neighborhood project. That’s 27 observers and 313 identifiers, who have come up with 990 species so far.

Participants have shared the wide range of species they found in their yards, neighborhoods, and local parks—from the zebra jumping spider (9 observations) to the osprey (4 observations). Among the most common observations were the black swallowtail butterfly (16 observations), common milkweed (13 observations), and chicory (14 observations).

Detroiters Do Science observations on iNaturalist.

And we’ve decided it would be silly to quit now. There’s still time to get involved with Nature in Your Neighborhood.– we’ll be continuing through the fall.

Here’s how to get involved.

The Midtown naturalist

Detroiter Adam Kranz has recorded more than 702 observations as part of the project–the top observer for June (and winner of a Planet Detroit–Detroiters Do Science t-shirt!). Kranz has been taking pictures of insects, fungi, and plants to identify them for about a decade, and he started using iNaturalist last year. 

Adam Kranz

“It was kind of amazing,” he tells Planet Detroit. “I would always be collecting pictures of interesting organisms I’d find and thinking, ‘OK, one day, I’ll eventually figure out what all these things are,’” but identifying all of them was difficult.

iNaturalist’s machine-learning algorithm, which identifies organisms from photos, made it much easier.  “It’s not perfect, but it gives you suggestions that are either accurate or close enough that you can skip most of the work of finding out what something mysterious is that you saw out in the wild.”

(Photo: Adam Kranz)

Kranz has also leaned on the app’s social network to help identify the things he’s seen.

“Once you get close enough from the algorithm, you can find other people who do actually have that expertise and connect with them,” he explains. He has focused mostly on plant galls, which are abnormal growths on plants.  

Kranz has been observing nature mostly in Midtown.

“There’s a lot in areas where you might not think that biodiversity is very high, or that you might not be able to find beautiful, interesting things to look at,” he says. Even in “weedy lots and yards and little ornamental flower pots and stuff like that, there’s a ton of biodiversity here.”

Photo: Jewell Oak Gall Wasp (Acraspis macrocarpae) in Shelby Township on July 13 Adam Kranz via iNaturalist

Biodiversity on Belle Isle

Erin Parker is nature centers manager at the Belle Isle Nature Center/Detroit Zoological Society, and her work involves helping people connect with nature. She participated in Detroiters Do Science and was especially interested in the diverse moths and butterfly species she noticed on Belle Isle, but hadn’t known much about.

She also saw gray fox on Belle Isle for the first time. Red foxes are common in Detroit, but the gray fox is native to the area. 

“The gray fox has some really unique adaptations that make it really successful out here,” she says. They are small and catlike, and “they climb trees. That’s a really neat adaptation that you don’t think of in the dog family.”

Photo: Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) at Belle Isle on June 13, 2020 Erin Parker via iNaturalist

Belle Isle is also home to a plethora of birds. ”I think people are really surprised at the bird diversity we have out here. We have nesting warblers—these tropical migrant birds that come up just for the summer,” Parker says. 

She says projects like Detroiters Do Science help her slow down and pay attention a little bit. Aside from Belle Isle, Parker notes that area cemeteries are significant biodiversity hotspots. 

“Cemeteries tend to be biological hotspots because they tend to have older trees, and those trees get left alone,” she said. “Trees are really important for birds. They’re really important for pollinators, and they’re host plants for a lot of things. So any cemetery that you can find tends to be biologically diverse.” 

Parker appreciates how iNaturalist makes it easy to identify organisms without “a whole library of field guides,” and says it can open the door to more exploration.

“The power in this is that anyone can be a scientist and participate, and you don’t need any special skills or knowledge.”

Photo: Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) at Belle Isle on July 5 2020 Erin Parker via iNaturalist

Holding down nature in Eliza Howell Park

Leonard Weber is a self-taught naturalist who has been observing nature and leading nature walks in Eliza Howell Park for about 15 years, mostly focused on birds. He writes a blog about what he finds, because he likes “sharing my love of nature, and the reality of what is out there, particularly in an urban setting.” 

“This is butterfly season,” Weber ays, noting that he recently saw a Baltimore checkerspot—a butterfly he sees only about once every five years. He hasn’t been leading many nature walks lately because of COVID-19.

But, he said, “if I were doing a nature walk today, I would focus on wildflowers, because they are now coming into the summer blooms,” and they attract butterflies and other insects.  

Courtesy photo Leonard Weber at Eliza Howell Park.

Baltimore orioles are finishing up nesting now, so they are becoming less visible, Weber says. The most common hawk in the area is the red-tailed hawk, which has a distinctive screech. 

“Hollywood has always used the red-tailed hawk’s scream for whatever kind of raptor they want to show. Even if it’s a bald eagle or something like that, the scream is always that of a red-tailed hawk,” because the other birds’ calls don’t sound as threatening.

July wildflowers in Eliza Howell park, courtesy Leonard Weber

“Nature is very cyclical, and so about the same time every year, I see the same things,” Weber said. “And there’s something very satisfying about that. There are long-term changes—climate change is definitely having an effect on it in the longer perspective, but you don’t see that really much year to year.”  

Nature in Rouge Park

After Peggy Dankert bought a house near Rouge Park, she got interested in gardening and learning about native plants, in part through Wild Ones, an organization that advocates the use of native plants in landscaping. Then she started spending more time observing nature in Rouge Park, eventually becoming a member of the Board of Directors of Friends of Rouge Park.

This year, she joined Detroiters Do Science and set out to find five or six new species every day. 

Dankert has seen at least 50 nesting pairs of Great Blue Herons along the Rouge River, and a few different types of herons. She has also seen bald eagles there. Recently, she has spotted a cormorant, nesting wood ducks, and nesting hooded mergansers.

“We’ve got cedar waxwings, tree swallows, barn swallows, and kingfishers. We’ve got turtles and frogs, we’ve got dragonflies and damselflies,” she says. “And it’s a natural highlight of the city that hardly anybody knows about.”

Photo: Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) at W. Fort Street, Detroit on June 12, 2020 Photo by Feral Detroit via iNaturalist.

“I just want to capture as many different plant species as I could, because the birds depend on the appropriate plant species being there, and the insects depend on the appropriate plant species there,” Dankert said. “I also wanted to get a better picture of what invasive species were there.” 

Where else to find biodiversity

Along with the parks mentioned above, many other areas in and around Detroit are biodiversity hotspots. Yu Man Lee, a conservation scientist/zoologist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI), noted that the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is rich in wetland biodiversity, including birds, amphibians, reptiles, American lotus, and wetland plants.

She added that some other good spots for wetland biodiversity include Pointe Mouillee State Game Area, some of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, and Grosse Ile Land Conservancy.

In general, places with water are good spots for biodiversity.

“Any kind of stream corridor is going to be important. And then any place that has older, larger, established trees and native trees are important,” Parker explains, adding that trees like or willows are more important for biodiversity than some trees that people plant. “Callery pear is an example of a tree that’s really commonly used as a street tree, but it doesn’t have a lot of value to wildlife here, because they’re not adapted to it.” 

Biodiversity is everywhere. “Maybe you’re in an apartment building with a little window box. I bet if you look at that window box planter, you’re going to find a surprising amount of biodiversity,” Parker said.

Kranz agreed. “It’s just a matter of the closer you look, the more things you find.”

Some common and lesser-known species

At this time of year, turtles are nesting, many songbirds and wetland birds are nesting, several frogs are breeding, and many insects are emerging, said Yu Man Lee, a conservation scientist/zoologist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI). Part of the Michigan State University Extension, MNFI conducts research and field surveys of plants and animals and provides scientific information to guide conservation of Michigan’s biodiversity.

“A lot in the natural world happens in June!” Lee says. “Snakes that lay eggs lay them in late June-early July, including eastern milk snakes and eastern fox snakes.”

Here are some species people might find in and around Detroit at this time of year:


Common: snapping turtles, painted turtles, northern map turtles

Rare: Blanding’s turtle (state special concern)

Frogs and toads

Common: green frog, gray treefrog, spring peeper, wood frog, American toad, northern leopard frog 

Rare: pickerel frog (state special concern)


Common: eastern garter snake, northern ribbon snake, eastern milk snake, northern water snake

Rare: eastern fox snake (state threatened), Butler’s garter snake (state special concern)

Wetland birds and waterfowl

Common: red-winged blackbird, great blue heron, great egret, green heron, black-crowned night heron, mallard, blue-winged teal, Canada geese, Virginia rail

Rare: marsh wren (special concern), American bittern (special concern), least bittern (state threatened), osprey (special concern), bald eagle

Other birds

American robin, black-capped chickadee, mourning dove, Baltimore oriole, eastern kingbird, gray catbird, red-tailed hawk, cardinal, blue jay 


Monarchs, cabbage white, black swallowtail, eastern tiger swallowtail, eastern tailed blue, little wood satyr, common wood nymph, Baltimore checkerspot, clouded sulphur, pearl crescent, summer azure, red/white admiral, American copper, eastern tailed blue

Other insects

fireflies, bumblebees, dragonflies, damselflies 

Flowers Black-eyed susan, common milkweed, butterfly milkweed, chicory, daisy fleabane, red clover