Making a Difference as a Citizen Scientist While Simply Enjoying Nature!

Making a Difference as a Citizen Scientist While Simply Enjoying Nature!

Posted: March 28, 2024

With its forests, rivers, coves, and beaches, our town offers a unique diversity of opportunities to enhance our lives by enjoying nature. Whether paddling on the Agawam River or walking through the new trails of the Red Brook Trail Network, the feeling of calm and serenity is often accompanied by curiosity and wonder about the plants and animals that also call our community home.  

In our ever-connected world, it is easier than ever to learn more about the environment around us in real time through the many naturalist apps on our phones or by participating in guided walks and events hosted by the Wareham Land Trust and other local naturalist organizations.  Several smartphone naturalist apps use observations and location data to build an ever-growing database of observations that help scientists better understand our natural world and changes in species distributions and behaviors in response to our changing environment.  Crowd-sourcing observations allows scientists to gain a much more comprehensive picture of our natural world in real-time than would ever be possible with just targeted data collection during specific periods by a small team.  Combining captured images and geolocation metadata in identification apps provides robust validation for the collected data, especially when coupled with the scientists’ targeted surveys.  Those of us simply out enjoying nature, from inquisitive kids to curious adults, can be active contributors to the scientific community, becoming true citizen scientists by simply enjoying what we love!

Walking through the woods or even watching the birds at your backyard feeder, many of us use the eBird or Merlin ID apps created by Cornell University to identify the birds we see or hear.  eBird is an ever-growing global database of over 70 million observations.  By using the apps, users can quickly and accurately learn to identify birds by sight and song and simultaneously add to the scientific database, helping scientists get a clearer picture of how birds in our town and around the world are affected by climate change, habitat loss, or other factors both natural and man-made.

The iNaturalist app expands your observations beyond just the avian world to include the whole spectrum of plants, animals, and fungi all around us.  Just like Cornell’s birding apps, it can help you both identify any plant or animal while also learning brief facts about its ecology and distribution.  It also has a companion app called Seek that can be linked to iNaturalist for fast identification and contributions.  Seek has challenges and allows you to earn virtual badges/achievements, making exploring the natural world (or even your own backyard!) fun and interactive.  The Seek app is kid-safe and perfect for families to explore nature together as no registration is required or user data collected.  You can also help the Wareham Land Trust document the biodiversity on our publicly accessible properties using the iNaturalist app. All iNaturalist observations from any of WLT’s properties are automatically entered into our property Projects, so there’s no additional work on your part to contribute. If you want to see the compiled results, take a look at our Projects here. As the iNaturalist website states, “Every observation can contribute to biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard weed. iNaturalist shares your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data. All you have to do is observe!”

Have a beach trip planned to the Outer Cape or a boating adventure in Cape Cod Bay on the horizon?  You can use the Sharktivity app to learn about the growing Great White shark population in our area and contribute to data for scientists at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.  Researchers, town officials, and users uploading photos for confirmation contribute to the real-time distribution data of the sharks.  As their website states, the Sharktivity app is  “effectively crowd-sourcing critical data points on where sharks are spotted so as to reduce encounters and promote safety.”

Being a Citizen Scientist is not limited to just using your smartphone!  The Buzzards Bay Coalition’s Baywatchers program has collected data and observations on the water quality of Buzzards Bay for over three decades and running.  Approximately every five days from late May to September, volunteers measure water clarity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and salinity at their sampling sites.   In the morning hours between 6am and 9am on those sampling days, volunteers around the Bay from Westport to Woods Hole are beginning their day serenely connecting with the Bay and being citizen scientists!  Baywatchers also collect additional water samples about four times during the season that are delivered to the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole where scientists analyze the water samples for nitrogen, phosphorus, and algal pigments.  The BBC’s website states that this data forms the foundation of all the Coalition’s work to restore and protect Buzzards Bay.  Data collected through the program has been instrumental in protecting Wareham coastal waters by helping to secure funding and support for our wastewater treatment in the last couple of decades and looking to the future.

Citizen science is a two-way street between those of us who are curious about the natural world and devoted scientists working to understand and protect it. Participants contribute valuable data while gaining knowledge, skills, and a sense of purpose. It’s a win-win for both science and all of the people involved!

Written by: JC Weber, WLT Director

(C) Wareham Land Trust ~ provided by New Bedford Internet