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Kids walk through wooded area with nets

Nature Counts

Volunteers Tally Species at Raccoon Mountain BioBlitz

Maggie Jackson proudly displayed a plastic specimen vial containing her latest find.

She had some help identifying it.

“It’s a lady cricket – she's a girl,” the 7-year-old from Signal Mountain, Tennessee, said. “I’m going to let her go where no one can catch her.”

The idea on this particular outing was to identify a variety of living beings, but Maggie clearly had her favorites.

She already had a small collection, which included an insect she named Leafy.

“He kind of looks like a leaf,” she said. “So he can blend in, so predators don’t eat him.”

She had Stripey, too.

"Because his back is like a slug, but his legs are stripey,” she said. “I just like crickets and grasshoppers because they’re not scary. They can’t harm you and they’re just cool.”

Her twin brother, Danny, had other preferences.

“Twenty-two spiders,” he said. “They have eight eyes and eight little legs and they’re cool because they make webs. Oh, 23 spiders!”

The twins – along with their brother Charlie, 10, mom Betsy and aunt Ginny Close – recently joined dozens of people cataloging species along hiking trails at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Plant near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The 19th BioBlitz on TVA public lands drew 63 participants, setting a new attendance record.

Adults and children look for insects and plants.

Through hands-on discovery of plant and animal species, BioBlitz gives children and adults an exciting opportunity to learn about the Valley region. 

‘This is His Jam’

Participants used an app called iNaturalist to record their observations. For many, this was their first visit to Raccoon Mountain.

Over the past decade, the first 18 BioBlitzes on TVA lands recorded 2,410 different species: 893 plants, 34 mollusks, 785 arachnids, 25 amphibians, 22 reptiles, 139 birds, 21 mammals and 43 other species, said Jaimie Matzko, biodiversity program specialist with the nonprofit Discover Life in America, TVA’s BioBlitz partner.

The Raccoon Mountain event will add to those numbers.

Participants identified everything from slime molds and witches’ butter fungus to spiders and birds and beetles and ferns.

And a Junebug larva, which Danny scratched out of the dirt. “It looks like a queen termite,” he said, peering through his magnifying glass.

Thomas Hall, 14, of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, attends Ivy Academy, a middle and high school focusing on environmentally related fields.

He didn’t spot any snakes or other herps – reptiles and amphibians – as he had hoped, but he and his mother contributed 49 photos to the Raccoon Mountain species inventory.

“My son, this is what he loves to do,” Sarah Hall said. “This is his jam.”

Smartphone takes photo of box turtle.

A box turtle ready for its closeup at the Raccoon Mountain BioBlitz. 

Sounds Like a Ray Gun

Other participants, including Rhonda Ewing, brought binoculars to identify birds.

The longtime environmental science teacher drove up from Valley Head, Alabama, partly to take a break from cleaning up tornado damage, but also to connect with like-minded people.

“People who want to preserve places of biodiversity, enjoy biodiversity and study biodiversity, to capture the beauty and record it for future generations,” she said.

Naturalists from Discover Life in America helped participants with discoveries and identifications.

Matzko shared how she identifies birds by their songs, from the black and white warbler that “sounds like a squeaky wheel” to the scarlet tanager – “a robin with a sore throat.”

Vern Maddux, a serious birder and retired forester from Johnson City, Tennessee, attended the event with a friend from Chattanooga.

Maddux said he has trouble hearing higher-pitched bird calls, so he appreciated Matzko’s guidance and the use of apps like iNaturalist and the Merlin bird identification app.

Even with perfect hearing it can be hard to distinguish a northern cardinal’s call from that of a tufted titmouse, Matzko said.

But you can teach yourself memory tricks.

“To me, the cardinal sounds like a ray gun – ‘pew-pew-pew,’” Matzko said.

The tufted titmouse? "It’s that ‘peep-peep-peep-peep.’”

The ray gun analogy made an impression on Christina Steele, an electrician assistant and artist from Chattanooga.

“That stuck so hard – you have to come up with stuff like that for every bird,” Steele said. “It’s just so much more fun being outside when you know what things are.”

Christina Steel uses an app to learn about different species of plants and animals.

Christina Steele, of Chattanooga, said learning about species makes it more fun to spend time outdoors. 

Technology Meets Nature

BioBlitz helps TVA advance its core mission of environmental stewardship.

It draws people of all ages to appreciate public lands, Rachel Terrell, public outreach manager for TVA’s natural resources division, said.

“It’s a great way to get the public outside and onto our property to see all the wonderful things that Mother Nature has available,” Terrell said. “With younger generations that are very connected to their technology it's just a great way to combine Mother Nature and technology.”

Close, the Jackson twins’ aunt, plans to use the app at home in Lookout Valley.

“We have all sorts of stuff we can identify at my house now that we’ve got the app,” she said.

She also looks forward to returning to Raccoon Mountain.

“I live nearby. Now I’m going to come hang out more often.”

The event even inspired new naturalists.

Terry Burnett attended to entertain Maddux, her retired forester friend from Johnson City. The BioBlitz had been a way to fill out a busy itinerary of activities, alongside an orchestra concert, a minor league baseball game and some brewery visits.

But by morning’s end, Burnett found herself up and running on the birding app. She had started a life list for her first six species – and she plans to add to it.

“It’s an adventure for me,” the retired purchasing agent said. “A chance to be outdoors.”

Photo Gallery

Girl looks at cricket in a test tube.

Maggie Jackson, 7, of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, likes to collect crickets and grasshoppers. 

Boy looks at spider in plastic tube.

Danny Jackson, Maggie’s twin brother, is a big fan of spiders. 

Boy uses magnifying glass to identify species.

Clark Danielson, 10, of Ooltewah, Tennessee, uses a magnifying glass to help identify species at BioBlitz. 

Group shares tips on using smartphone app to count plants and insects.

From left, Terry Burnett, of Chattanooga, Vern Maddux, of Johnson City, Tennessee, and Rhonda Ewing, of Valley Head, Alabama, share tips on their smartphone apps. 

Boy walks through wooded area with net.

Thomas Hall, 14, of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, loves to search for reptiles and amphibians. 


Naturalists helped participants spot species hidden under fallen leaves and logs. 

People look through binoculars for birds.

Naturalist Jaimie Matzko, center, shares birding tips with Vern Maddux, left, and Terry Burnett. 

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: Charlie Jackson, 10, joins his brother, Danny, and mom, Betsy, for some insect-catching. 

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Visit the Trails page to learn more about TVA’s trails.

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Using app to take photo of fungi on a tree stump.

Register for BioBlitz

Visit the Discover Life in America page to register for the June 28-29 BioBlitz at Cherokee Dam on the Holston River in East Tennessee.