During each annual Rhode Island BioBlitz, David Gregg stands under a tent designated “Science Central” and sounds an air horn to start off as many as 200 volunteer biologists, naturalists and other nature enthusiasts counting as many species of wildlife as possible in 24 hours on one parcel of land. Last June, they tallied 1,127 kinds of plants, birds, mammals, insects and other creatures at Roger Williams Park in Providence, and in 2018, they counted 1,190 at Camp Fuller in South Kingstown.
As the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, which hosts the event, Gregg is in charge of all of the program details, from making sure property maps are printed and scientific equipment is available to providing food and bathrooms. And after not sleeping for close to two days, he is exhausted when it’s over. But he also calls it his favorite day of the year.
“We go to new places every year and we get to wander around and find cool stuff. I like the discovery part of it,” said the Wakefield resident. “But I also think it’s terrific to see people who you haven’t seen in a year and go for a walk with them to look for things. The people are just so interesting.”
BioBlitz is the signature event of the Natural History Survey, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a series of monthly citizen science activities and a scientific conference focusing on how climate change is affecting Rhode Island’s ecosystems.
Gregg, 54, describes the Survey as somewhat like a social organization, a way for people interested in wildlife and natural history to meet others with similar interests.
“Most people would say that they support the survey because they want to do what they can to improve environmental management or save rare species or spread awareness about biodiversity,” he said. “But they also want to meet new people to talk about what we like to talk about.”
Gregg became interested in wildlife as a teen in Falmouth, Mass., when a butterfly landed on his shoe. It inspired him to make an insect net out of cheesecloth and start a butterfly collection. In the ensuing years, he switched his focus to moths, then beetles, and then grasshoppers.
The lure of insects was their endless variety and interesting physiological adaptations, he said. “You can go out and discover something new all the time. Every time I got bored by a taxon, I’d pick up another one. It was like I had the ADHD of entomology.”
When it came time to pick a college major and career, however, Gregg picked archaeology, one of his other interests. But after earning graduate degrees from Brown University and Oxford University and working at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology – and later as director of the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History – he found himself yearning for insects again.
He became director of the Natural History Survey in 2004, and in the last few years he developed a new passion – ants. A team of researchers from Harvard University and Providence College sought out Gregg’s knowledge of Rhode Island’s habitats and protected lands for a statewide survey of the many species of ants found in the region, and he was quickly hooked by the creatures’ curious life cycle and diversity.
“So I went out and collected ants from all around my farm, I went into my workshop and made an ant sifter like the experts use, and I studied them until I knew a lot about ants,” Gregg said. “I’ve collected and studied moths since I was 14 years old, and in all that time, I still struggle to identify the moths. But in three years, I’ve learned more about ants than I did about moths in 35 years. Something about ants clicks for me so much more than it did with the moths.”
As much as he enjoys counting and studying insects and other wildlife, the job of executive director of the Natural History Survey requires much more than that. He calls his role a balancing act between the poor-paying-but-interesting work of collecting data about rare and invasive species to support the needs of conservationists and the better-paying job of administering complex ecological monitoring projects involving multiple partners and stakeholders. This year’s major projects involve studying coyote ecology to figure out how people and coyotes can live safely together, and an effort to help government agencies devise a rapid and inexpensive way of assessing the condition of wetlands.
At the end of the day, Gregg goes home to his 23-acre former dairy farm, a place he says is “emblematic of what’s left of Old South County,” where he learns as much as he can about its ecology while doing his best to live a life in harmony with nature. He grows more fruits and vegetables than his family can consume, so he trades some to his neighbors.
“The guy who hays the field also hunts deer here, so we get venison in trade for the hay,” he said. “Or we give them popcorn and they give us ham steaks. It’s part of having a community. It’s part of the experiment of living closer to the land.”
It’s an ethos this natural historian with a passion for bugs pursues with great enthusiasm.