Like many of you, my family treasures our four-generation ownership of a small patch of forest. Each summer, we watch a rufous hummingbird sitting on a lichen-cup nest, listen for the sound of squirrel-cut western larch cones bouncing off the roof, and await the July ripening of the first huckleberries, hoping we beat a bear to the crop. Our private stewardship also helps protect habitat and supports conservation beyond our property boundary. We actively work to maintain forest health that ensures the continuation of excellent habitat for nesting songbirds, burrowing mammals, and a host of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.
We live in an exciting time where the internet has birthed a new field: citizen science. The Oxford English Dictionary recently defined citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” Rapidly growing world-wide, public participation in research enables all of us to engage in the process of scientific investigation, right in our own backyards.
Citizen science tools allow observations made on private lands to aid the scientific community to learn about habitat needs and population trends of our native flora and fauna. People like us use websites or phone apps to collect and report data—easy as pie! In this article, I’d like to share several programs that can help Washington forest landowners identify and learn about plants and animals who share their land.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird makes it easy for citizens to report bird observations so scientists can analyze movements, distributions, and numbers of bird through time. Individuals can use eBird to view barcharts, range maps, and time period and location for any given species in a given region. eBird data supports Merlin — a bird identification learning app-that allows an observer to enter a few observations about an unknown bird and offers limited choices so the user can say “That’s my bird!” and immediately see its range map, photos, and key ID traits.
Similarly, the University of Washington Burke Museum Herbarium helped launch a low-cost phone app to help users identify Washington wildflowers. The app includes images, species descriptions, range maps, bloom period, and technical descriptions for more than 850 common wildflowers, shrubs, and vines that occur in Washington. To identify an unknown flower, users enter a series of observations and are then offered a small subset of possible matches, based on location. Getting to say “That’s my flower,” takes just a few minutes and doesn’t require an internet connection.
Have you ever seen milkweed or a monarch butterfly on your land? The Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife invites you can join an exciting new citizen science project, the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper. This project is the first-ever effort to document locations for both monarch adults, larvae, and eggs found on milkweed, helping WSU researchers learn about monarch migration from Washington to coastal California over-wintering sites.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is an international nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. They offer several citizen science programs for pollination species, including Bumblebee Watch. The website offers detailed species identification guides so the user can say “That’s my bee!”
The Xerces Society also offers landowners resources to improve habitats for native pollinators. Their book, Attracting Native Pollinators (2003), is packed with information about natural history of bees, butterflies, flies, beetles and wasps. Book Sections include ways to take action to create nest and foraging habitat in all kinds of landscapes. You can purchase and post their attractive Pollinator Habitat sign, to inform neighbors about your conservation efforts.
It is personally rewarding for me to share what I’ve learned on my own property with the wider community of scientists. The websites and phone apps make it easy and fun to both learn and share while I enjoy my family’s forest patch. Consider becoming a Washington citizen scientist today!
By Susan Ballinger, conservation fellow with the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, educator and active citizen scientist advocate. Her website is Wenatcheenaturalist.com