Nature Observation and the Power of Citizen Science

Nature observation is important to me.  It’s an activity that I practice every day, whether as simply as glancing out the window to note the weather and what animals may be active in the yard, or in a more involved way, such as by going on a nature walk, taking photographs, or working to identify an unknown species.  But lately I have felt like doing more.  While my observation skills remained very important in my personal life, I also wanted to be able to use these skills to provide what services I could to the wider more-than-human community.  As I pondered how I could do this, I began to think about citizen science.

Citizen science is a movement where ordinary people help to gather data and make observations that can be used by scientists in their studies.  In the fields of ecology and biology, citizen scientists may submit photos to online databases, participate in annual bird or butterfly counts, or note the time when plants first leaf out or bloom, for example.  Scientists can use this data to understand the distributions of species, the sizes of populations, and how events such as the flowering dates of plants may be changing over time.  Because this data is collected by relatively large numbers of people over large areas, scientists can base their studies on larger sets of data than they might have been able to collect on their own.

And participating in citizen science also benefits the individual observers.  Participants can improve their observational skills, spend more time in natural environments, and become more educated about environmental issues.  I also feel that citizen science helps to make science more accessible and fun for ordinary people.  Science is not just a body of knowledge that only experts and nerds can understand, but a process and a method of learning about the world that can be practiced by anyone.  Most importantly to me, participating in citizen science helps me to feel a sense of connection with other observers and to know that my observations are important not just to me, but to the entire more-than-human community.

NatureWatch

You will need to do some searching on the Internet to find citizen science programs available in your area.  Programs may be international, national, provincial or state-wide, or regional.  I first started to become aware of citizen science through Project Budburst, an American program where observers track important phenological events (such as leafing, flowering, and fruiting) of different plant species.  When I started searching for a Canadian equivalent, I came across NatureWatch, a suite of four nature observation programs including PlantWatch (observing the flowering times of plants), FrogWatch (listening for the numbers of frogs croaking at night during spring), IceWatch (observing when rivers and lakes freeze over and thaw during the winter), and WormWatch (sampling the soil to count and identify earthworms).

I plan to participate in both PlantWatch and FrogWatch.  The plant species that I plan to observe are saskatoon, wild strawberry, and dandelion.  I will also try to observe sagebrush buttercup – one of the earliest-blooming spring wildflowers in my region – if I can find a patch of these growing close by (within walking distance, because I will need to visit the patch every day).  I am excited to know that I will not simply be continuing my personal observations, but actively collecting data and sharing it with scientists and other observers around Canada.  While these activities will be fun to do, when I practice them I will also know that I am directly contributing to the understanding of ecological issues in Canada and, less directly, around the world.  This will in some small part help scientists and managers make better decisions in the future.

I can’t wait for spring so I can get started with my observations!  (I’ll write more about my experiences once I start.)  Have you participated in any citizen science projects?  (And if you know of any other projects in Canada, especially in British Columbia, please let me know!)

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4 Responses to Nature Observation and the Power of Citizen Science

  1. Alison Lilly says:

    If you’re not already on iNaturalist (http://www.inaturalist.org/), you need to get your ass over there and sign up! (Every time I see you sharing photos of mushrooms or butterflies, I think this, actually. :)

    iNaturalist is primarily a way of recording nature observations and species sightings, but one of its great benefits is that when you include a photograph and location with your observations, they get added to a growing database that allow scientists from all over the world to track phenological data. It also allows independent organizations to set up “projects” to track specific places or species — for instance, I follow a project called “Puget Sound Naturalists” which tracks sightings of native species in my region.

    • Heather says:

      Thanks for telling me about that site, Ali! It looks great. At some point this winter, I want to go through all of the photos I’ve taken, so that would be a great opportunity to submit some. It didn’t look like there were many observations in my region, so there would definitely be a potential for my observations to fill some gaps.

  2. Treeshrew says:

    Citizen science is brilliant! I’m a member of the RSPB in the UK and take part in projects like their ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ as well as my University’s annual ‘BioBlitz’ to monitor species of migrant and native birds and invertebrates each year. It’s a great way of combining a love of nature with learning, and contributing to the body of scientific knowledge. Your projects all sound like fun, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

    • Heather says:

      Thank you, and I certainly agree! Birds are a group that the NatureWatch programs sadly don’t cover, but I would love to be involved in counting and observing them as well. I think I should start small, though… I don’t want to get too overwhelmed by things to do.

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