Enjoy the outdoors, increase knowledge with citizen science!
There's nothing new about non-scientists working together to contribute to scientific knowledge. The Audubon Society began its Christmas Bird Counts more than 100 years ago, for example. Recently, however, technology has made it easy for people to report and pool many observations, filling in knowledge of the natural world. The Internet, digital photography, GPS, powerful personal computers, and smart phones all contribute. The result is an explosion in the number of “citizen science” projects, focusing on anything from galaxies to ants.
The value of these projects isn't just the information you contribute. You also learn about, enjoy, and become involved in science and the natural world!
Here are a few projects related to our local environment that you can join in any time. These have solid, ongoing backing able to make use of the data you collect:
- What lives on Albany Hill and Cerrito Creek; What lives in the El Cerrito Hillside Natural Area; Track the Turkeys Join our projects -- share photos and sightings to learn more about the wonderful urban wild of Albany Hill and adjacent Cerrito Creek, the El Cerrito Hillside Natural Areas,and the whereabouts of our ever-growing flocks of wild turkeys. Help build up knowledge that will help in managing the areas, and contribute a worldwide database on biodiversity! Upload a photo if you have one. Tell us where and when you saw the animal or plant and what it was doing. You don't have to know the name! The community at iNaturalist will help you identify it.
- Where the birds are: EBird, a joint effort of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Audubon Society, and PRBO in California, gives birders an easy and efficient way to store their observations online. The data is “crunched” to provide useful information on bird numbers, movements, and changes over time. The project also is a great tool for birders, beginners to expert. You can compare sightings with other reports, find out what birds to expect when, and get alerts.
- A lookout for Sudden Oak Death: Oakmapper is part of efforts to track spread of the pathogen that is decimating California’s tanoaks and magnificent coast live oaks. This UC Berkeley project asks you to submit photos and data on suspected instances of sudden oak death or infected carrier trees, such as bay laurels. (The pathogen kills oaks, but is spread by many other carrier plants.) You can use an online form or download an iPhone app. See below for the spring “bioblitz” efforts that Friends of Five Creeks helps to organize!
- Redwoods and global warming: Redwood Watch, sponsored by Save the Redwoods League and the California Academy of Sciences, aims to track effects of climate change on redwoods. Our magnificent Coastal Redwoods and Giant Sequoias once had a much larger range, but survived our latest Ice Age only in a narrow band in California. This project aims to track the actual ranges of the trees and some associated forest organisms, by asking people to submit photos and information online. There’s even a free I-phone app you can download, making data submission even easier!
- River otters are back! The return of river otters to the Bay Area is a sign that environmental efforts can succeed! Information is needed to know where these playful predators need more help! If you spot a river otter, report info and share photos to the River Otter Ecology Project.
- A stitch in time to stop invasives: Calflora and the Bay Area Early Detection Network have a great project for people reasonably good at plant identification (they can't check accuracy of everything submitted). Calflora accepts reports of plant occurrences throughout the state, with the focus on natives. Most useful to them are reports of rare plants or plants outside their known ranges. BAEDN aims at a “stitch-in-time” approach to stopping new plant invasions before they spread widely and do serious harm to ecosystems. After you sign up with Calflora, you can help by reporting where you see the new invaders on their list. A smart phone app, too.
- Contribute to a global citizen-science effort measuring light pollution. Skies that are too bright mean you can't see the stars. They also waste billions of dollars in unneeded energy, adding to global warming. Too much night lighting increases sleep disorders in people, and disrupts the lives of wild animals, from migrating birds to baby sea turtles.
- Measure the effects of urban light pollution with your smart phone. If you have an i-Phone, download the Dark Sky Meter app. If you have an Android , download the free Loss of the Night app. (Both give you nice maps of constellations that you can use any time, and use your phone's camera to measure the brightness of the sky. It's best to calibrate you phone's compass in advance. This is a simple procedure, worth doing anyway. You'll find instructions on line.) If you don't have a cellphone, check out the mother project, Globe at Night. You can make the same measurements using charts and a flashlight covered with red cellophane (so your eyes stay dark adapted.)
- Track the effects of changing climate on plants with Nature's Notebook, part of the U.S. Phenology Project. Sign up, observed specified species as they go from seedlings to flowering https://www.usanpn.org/nn/connect/project
Many other projects are listed on web sites including Scistarter.com, Scientific American's Citizen-Science page, and iNaturalist. Take a look!
Projects with specific seasons or dates:
Here are citizen-science opportunities that come around each year at specific seasons. Look for this list to grow!
- Monitor growth of native oysters: At suitable tides in spring and fall, help The Watershed Project count and measure oysters settling on constructed reefs at several Bay locations.
- Photograph threatened shoreline at year’s highest tides: The California King Tides Photo Initiative seeks citizen photographers to document winter’s highest daytime tides, on different dates each year November - February. With sea levels projected to rise as a result of global warming, these high tides show what is likely to be the "new normal". Photos are shared on the group’s Flickr site, and made available to agencies and the public. For added background and ideas on places to photograph in the East Bay, see F5C's page on King Tides.
- Sudden Oak Death "Bioblitz": April or May are the times for the East Bay's big weekend survey for carriers of Sudden Oak Death, the pathogen that is decimating tanoaks and our beautiful Coast Live Oaks. One-hour trainings held in Orinda and on the UC Berkeley campus. Find out where to sign up here Afterwards, survey for infected leaves of Bay trees (the main carriers to oaks) on your own time. Survey where you like, or we will recommend routes for you! Return suspect samples to a drop box on campus by Sunday evening. Great way to help out and enjoy nature!
- Survey rare species at National Wildlife Refuges: At Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, in remnant sand dunes along the San Joaquin River, normally closed to the public, help with spring surveys of endangered Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Contra Costa wallflower, or August – September counts of endangered Lange’s Metalmark butterflies at Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. At the Alameda Point colony of endangered Least Terns, also normally closed to the public, keep a lookout for predators from your car, May - August. Contact Fish and Wildlife biologist Susan Euing, firstname.lastname@example.org (she also works with Antioch Dunes volunteers). At Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, survey for rare salamanders on rainy winter nights, sometimes past midnight.
If you are willing to make a somewhat ongoing commitment and/or undertake significant training, there are other excellent projects, such as Point Blue's November shorebird survey or the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory’s Hawkwatch, monitoring raptors as they migrate across the Golden Gate.