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Citizen Science Opportunities: Landowners Contributing to Research

Posted: September 20, 2013

Are you a keen observer and inquisitive about things outdoors? Maybe you should become a citizen science supporter. More and more scientists are benefiting from data provided by people who take the time to share their observations through various websites.

What is that insect? Haven’t seen that plant before? Is it early for frost? Is that bird more common in the south?

Are you a keen observer and inquisitive about things outdoors?  Maybe you should become a citizen science supporter. More and more scientists are benefiting from data provided by people who take the time to share their observations through various websites.

Observational data is a tremendous research tool. It can tell scientists about extent and spread of populations (both floral and faunal). It can tell scientists about timing of occurrence or appearance. In the case of non-native species, it can help scientists understand introduction and conduits of travel. And in light of continuous change to landscapes, climate, and our forests, whether anthropogenically or ecologically driven, observational data can tell how species react to change.

As a forest landowner, or someone just interested in the forests, you have the ability to contribute to research through citizen science. If you are a birder, or know someone who is, you’ve likely heard of, or participated in, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://www.birds.cornell.edu) with their Citizen Science program hosts the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and several other programs around bird species, populations, and extent of range. These are great citizen science programs and it is easy to contribute to the data.

There are two other citizen scientist opportunities that help scientists understand landscape level response to change. The first, the National Phenology Network’s Nature’s Notebook program, tracks the calendar of events – when trees bloom, when birds nest, the last frost, the first snow – through observations of plants, animals, and weather. The second, the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System, records observations of invasive plants and efforts to mitigate their presence. Both programs generate long-term and widespread data useful for research and practice.

National Phenology Network: Nature’s Notebook (https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook) is a national, online program where naturalists record observations of plants and animals. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events and how these may be influenced by weather and habitat.

Participating in Nature’s Notebook requires weekly visiting a site you select for about ten minutes and observing specific species that you choose from their list. For Pennsylvania, there are 444 species of plant and animal available to report on. You would spend about two minutes observing on your chosen plant or animal (or multiples thereof), making note of weather, etc., and recording the data according to the programmatic guidelines. You then enter the data via the website or your smartphone where it is aggregated with other reports to understand timing of emergence, nesting, fall color, egg laying, hibernation, and myriad other activities and how that changes over time and landscape.

Monitoring invasive plants, their spread, and control is vital, no matter the invasive species. One way that many landowners and resource professionals are monitoring the extent and spread of invasive plant species is through the use of online, citizen-science reporting tools. The Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS) is one such tool (http://www.eddmaps.org/). This web-based (with apps available for your smartphones) system for documenting distribution of invasive species is easy to use. EDDMapS documents the presence of invasive species. A simple, interactive Web interface engages participants to submit their observations or view results through interactive queries into the EDDMapS database.

To use, simply enter information from your observations into the standardized on-line data form, which facilitates adding specific information about the infestation and images. Data entered is immediately loaded to the Website, allowing real time tracking of species. EDDMapS also encourages users to participate by providing Internet tools that maintain their personal records and enable them to visualize data with interactive maps. As invasive species become more widespread, and new species make their appearance, monitoring and action become even more important. Anyone with an interest can help advance the knowledge of species range and spread in hopes of mitigation and control.

Citizen science lets the average interested individual contribute to the larger understanding of our natural world. As our actions impact the world around us, either at a local or global level, recognizing the extent of change helps determine practices to mitigate or adapt. Through these citizen science tools you learn about the place you care about and inform the larger community. These are just a few of the offerings out there. There are many more tailored to your own interests and passions. Have fun and thanks for contributing!

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 234 9473 (toll free), send an email to RNRext@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Natural Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in Partnership with Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.