Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Amateur Naturalist and Citizen Science

One of my greatest pleasures is spending mornings on the patio in front of my little garden pond. I usually go out between 8 to 9 AM, when the dew is still heavy and not much is moving around, except a few birds. I bring a towel because the patio chairs are not immune to dew.

The first order of business is to count the frogs in the pond. I've had as many as 15 at once, though 8 to 10 is more normal. There are mostly green frogs, with one or two bullfrogs. Occasionally, a toad stops by and, if I’m really lucky, a wood frog. Fortunately, frogs are mostly ambush hunters, so they stay still while you count them.

Bull frog
Wood Frog

By the time I've taken the frog inventory, the birds start showing up. Mostly little brown birds with the odd rock star, a blue jay perhaps, or a rose-breasted grosbeak. Chickadees are always flitting between the feeders and whatever shrubs are closest.

It’s not unusual to see a dew-covered bumblebee still dozing on a flower when I first come out, but once the birds have started their shenanigans, other flying critters have warmed up enough to begin searching out nectar and pollen for their breakfasts. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are up and buzzing around between 9 and 10 on warm, sunny days.

I started keeping track of all the critters that stopped by while I was lounging, just for my own enjoyment. First, I made a note in the text of the journal – “saw a bluebird today!” After a while, I started leaving space at the top of the entries to list off everything I saw. The next logical step was a separate notebook just for listing assorted beasties.

Naturally, all this observing led to sightings of things I couldn't identify, especially birds. Off to the intertubes for assistance and the first site that popped up was All About Birds, a Cornell University treasure trove of all things avian. After 3 minutes, I answered my identification question. After 3 hours, I became aware of the outside world again.

One feature which caught my eye somewhere in the second hour was a link to something called eBird. Being the curious sort, I clicked and discovered there are people out there who actually want to know what birds I've seen on any given day. For science. Who knew?

After reading through their requirements and going through a very simple registration process, I can now provide data for on-going bird research and generally be a boon to science.

eBird led me to other reporting efforts hosted by Cornell University. FeederWatch was the next logical step, especially during the winter when all the other creatures are gone. This year, I also intend to participate in NestWatch, if the Eastern Bluebirds decide to setup housekeeping in one of my boxes again. Several other bird-related projects run by Cornell are listed at this site

This effort to involve the public in scientific endeavors is known by the term “citizen science”. One of the earliest organized efforts is the famous Christmas BirdCount (CBC), sponsored by the National Audubon Society. The CBC has been held since 1900, making it the longest running citizen science project.

Researchers, usually associated with an educational or scientific research institute, use the data to investigate things they would not normally have the funds or personnel to try. Can you imagine the cost of trying to replicate the collection of data received by eBird or the CBC? It couldn't be done.

Luckily, birders tend to be a curious and generous mob and data for this project comes in from around the world. This is allowing scientists to track bird migrations in far greater detail than ever before, seeing in real time shifts that previously might have taken years to notice.

It’s not just birds, either. Many other nature-related citizen science efforts are underway. National Geographic sponsors FrogWatch USA under its FieldScope projects. FrogWatch is exactly what it sounds like; a place to record frogs and toads, viewed or just heard. One of the great things about this site is the amount of information available about these amphibians. Even if you don’t want to record your sightings (or hearings), you can use the site to learn about them. Each species has a page of information, complete with a recording of their song.

Nature’sNotebook is a place to record observations of phenology, “the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events” (per Wikipedia). Pick the plants and animals you want to observe out of their lists and note the dates of certain events, like the first flowering of a plant or the return of certain migratory birds. While I have made notes of the flowering of plants in my journal, this will be the first year I will be keeping a deliberate record of specific phenophases (pdf warning) of my garden plants.

With the decline of the honeybee, pollinating insects are also of great interest to scientists. Numerous citizen science projects can be found to report sightings. BumblebeeWatch is a collaborative project aimed at identifying populations of bumblebees across the country. It does require the participant to have a digital camera and the ability to upload photos. It even gives you tips on the best methods of photographing bees.

As we move further and further into the unknown realms of global climate change, this information is more important than ever. For example, bird migration schedules are changing and other animals and plants are moving to higher latitudes in response to climate change. These changes are yardsticks scientists use in order to gauge the effects of climatic shifts. More data points mean more usable and reliable data. 
If you’re like me and keep lists of everything and anything that catches your eye while you’re outdoors, there is almost certainly someone out there who would like to see your data and put it to good use. I've included a list below of other citizen science projects that you might find interesting. This list is limited mostly to things I personally found interesting but there are literally hundreds of projects out there - SciStarter is a great place to start. Please add your favorites in the comments and, if you haven't yet, participate in a project this year!

Lists of Projects:
SciStarter (you could explore this for days; hundreds of projects)
Zooniverse (many astronomical projects)

Specific Nature Topics:
PondWatch (The Xerces Society – dragonfly migration; has a really cool 3-D imager of dragonflies)
Lost Lady Bug Project (a collaborative project, kid oriented)
Hummingbirds at Home (The National Audubon Society)
eButterfly (a Canada-based project, open to everyone)
Project BudBurst (another site sponsored by Nat Geo - phenology)
The Great Sunflower Project (pollinator sightings)

Other Citizen Science Links:
Old Weather (review of WW1 naval records for weather tidbits)
CoCoRaHS (weather watchers across the country)
Notes from Nature (transcribe museum records)


David Truland said...

A great bunch of resources. For me, 8-9AM is late in the day. :)

BTW, first hatch today at the Decorah Eagles nest site. 3 eggs in the nest. Live cam at

TSG said...

Hey, Dave! Thanks for stopping in! Glad you enjoyed and thanks for the heads up on the eagles. One of them hatched this AM!