Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring into Citizen Science get's its own Page!

Enjoying all the "Spring into Citizen Science" posts from the last week?  Have they helped you find fun ways to get involved with science?  Wish you could find them all in one place?  Well no need to worry.

Starting today I've put all the recent nature posts onto a new "Spring into Citizen Science - Nature Projects for You!" page.  Short blurbs on all our featured projects are there and I'll continue to update it as new ones come around.  I want this to be a place where nature-lovers can go and see all the project available to them, regardless of  experience level.  Consider it your one-stop shop for joining nature-based projects.

So check it out at Spring into Citizen Science - Nature Projects for you.  And I'll keep building it out and providing you with all the information you need to enjoy the season.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Feather your Citizen Science Nest...with Nestwatch

Photo Courtesy: LawrieM
The last two weeks of "Spring into Citizen Science" have focused on the very popular world Birdwatching projects. This has always been a popular hobby and a perfect fit for amateur scientists to join. So we continue with one more today with some new added twists.

Nestwatch is one of the simplest projects around and a perfect way for parents and teachers to get their kids involved in science. Participants pick a popular nesting site for birds, observe when it is first inhabited for the season, and track the nest's activity as the season goes on. Over time you can watch feeding, breeding, and egg-laying activities all while helping scientists better understand  the populations of these important birds.

Admittedly the project is only interesting in watching certain common target birds.  But the best part is you don't even if these target birds aren't already nesting near you, just build one for them!  The site comes complete with instructions for building a nest specific to each species and it's a great family or school project.  And not only do the get to build the nest, but watch as birds flock to it and learn all about the life cycles of these amazing animals.

Getting Started is Easy:
That's all there is to it!  Just put up a bird nest, register it online, and watch it a few times a week.

Since this is a great one for scientists of all ages I'd love to hear your experiences.  I expect this will be quite popular so let me know about your experience in the comments below and I'll happily add them to my future posts on this topic.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Birdwatching with the Pros

Photo Courtesy: Alan Manson
No "Spring into Citizen Science" initiative would be complete without discussing some of the large bird census programs that have been around for years.  These long-standing birdwatching projects organize volunteers at a very specific time to coordinate observations and get a scientifically reliable count of bird species.  Some are set for a specific day, others for a specific month, and others require observations along a very specific route.  But all are designed to provide reliable data obtained consistently from year to year.

None of these three programs is up and running right now but I wanted to give you a taste of each as something to look forward to.  Hopefully you'll stay tuned throughout the year as the project dates get closer and closer.  Then I'll have much more to write about and will help you get started with each.

  • Great Backyard Bird Count: For four days in February each year participants are asked to spend just fifteen minutes counting birds in their area.  The project is open to beginners and experts alike, and can include watching  the birds outside your office of taking a nature walk and recording all the birds seen en route.  Some nature centers even host special walks where experts teach newer volunteers about the various species encountered.  There is even a photo contest for those wishing to add an extra challenge.
  • Christmas Bird Count: This is the longest-running ongoing bird project, starting in 1900 by Frank Chapman of the Audubon Society of America.  Opening at the end of fall (each year between December 14 and January 5) birdwatchers organize in groups of ten that are assigned a 15-mile diameter "counting circle".  They are then responsible for counting all the birds in that circle, following specific routes that often vary little from year to year.  This is a great benefit for novice birdwatchers; in groups of ten beginners will be paired up with more seasoned birdwatchers and can learn the techniques from seasoned pros.  Just remember that it's Christmas-time so make sure to bundle up and stay warm!
  • Project Feederwatch: Although not a spring project I couldn't neglect to add Project Feederwatch which track winter bird activity. Lasting from November to April participants commit to two consecutive days of observations every two weeks. All you need is an observable area with available feeders and some extra time, but that's it. So it's another easy project for new citizen scientists to get involved in.
  • North American Breeding Bird Survey: Begun in the 1960s to understand the impacts of pesticides (like DDT) on bird populations, the project continues each June and culminates in a yearly "State of the Birds" report based on the collected observations. But the whole thing is built on individual birdwatchers walking over 4100 well-established routes and stopping each half-mile to identify local area birds. Given the individual nature of the bird routes the work is done primarily by highly-experienced volunteers, so I recommend this one mainly for more experienced birdwatchers out there.
Hopefully these descriptions will whet your appetite for next year's census.  Many allow you to sign up well in advance, but I'll also be watching and will have more on each as the start date approaches.  And let me know in the comments if there is anything you'd like me to focus on directly when the time comes.  I'm here to help!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Listen up for Frogs!

Photo Courtesy: Steven J. Dunlop
Today's "Spring into Citizen Science" post is a little bit different.  We'll be looking at Frogwatch USA, a program sponsored and run by zoos and aquariums from across the country.  This is very similar to the birdwatching projects we've discussed that track populations of a target species to better understand their health and the local ecology.  But the main difference is the active involvement of local zoos that provide hands-on training,  They also organize volunteers into self-supporting chapters that provide a community of like-minded citizen scientists you can interact with.

The Frogwatch web site also includes lists of native frogs and toads in each state with links to eNature.com descriptions for each. So someone like me can find lists of frogs in the Maryland area, see that the American Bullfrog is native to the area, and learn all about it. I can even listen to examples of the frog call right on the site in case I forget it after taking the training course.

Most chapters have an introductory program that teaches participants about local frogs and how to identify their mating calls.  So you don't even need to hunt around for frogs...just sitting on your back porch listening for a few minutes a week is all it takes.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the http://www.aza.org/frogwatch/ was page to learn more about the project.
  2. Click on Frogwatch: Become a Volunteer and join a local FrogwatchUSA branch at a zoo or aquarium near you.
  3. Take a short introductory course with the chapter, learn all about frog identification, and meet some new friends in process.
  4. Brew a cup of coffee, take a notebook outside, and listen to the sounds of all the frogs in your area.  That's it!

 Admittedly I haven't had a chance to actually start this project myself, breaking my own rules about working through all projects before blogging about them.   I just haven't had time for the class yet.  But if you've tried it out I'd love to hear from you.  Let us know about your experience in the comments below, and I'll be happy to include that information in future posts about this project.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From Creating New Birdwatching Records to Dusting off the Old

My last "Spring into Citizen Science" post looked at Nature Notebook and the USA National Phenology Network's project to record bird observations worldwide.  By collecting these records in a systematic way, scientists are building a reliable database for use in analyzing bird populations and understanding any changes that occur.  But this only creates a new database...what about everything that happened before the project started?

Fortunately the Network has an answer with a bursting collction of over six million records sitting in their warehouse.  Inspired by bird enthusiast Wells Cooke back in the 1880s, over 3000 people devoted themselves to collecting data worldwide up through World War II.  Though these paper records are available and usable if you go through the stacks by hand, scientists are asking for our help to help digitize these records.  The record cards are being scanned now...all that's needed is a minute (or less!) of your time to transcribe the information and make it more usable.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the main Bird Phenology Program and About the BPP web pages to learn about the project and bird phenology in general.
  • Click on BPP: Become a Participant to register with the program.  Just provide your name and contact information, and click on the confirmation e-mail that will be sent shortly afterward.
  • View the 15-minute videos on transcribing bird records.  Don't let the video length scare you off...the process is actually quite simple.  It just takes time to provide examples of the 5-10 various types of cards you may see.  But once you watch the first few it should become pretty intuitive.
  • Once the video ends the first card will show up.  Just provide the observer's name and location, dates of the sighting, bird type, and any additional field notes.
  • That's it!  Each card should take less than a minute and you can quickly move through them in very short time.
Regular readers may think they've heard this before.  Well, it's very similar to the OldWeather project previously described on this blog and involves a similar transcription process.  So try them both out and let me know what you think in the comments below.  I'm interested to hear your thoughts on how they compare.

With any luck science will one day be able to combine the data sets and discover some meaningful correlations.  And they'll have us to thank for it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Observations for your Nature Notebook

Last week "Spring into Citizen Science" looked at eBird (an online nature observation journal) and Project Budburst (which watches plant changes over time). Today we look at combining these two ideas with Nature Notebook, the flagship project of the USA National Phenology Network.  All of these work toward a very similar goal...understanding the lifecycles and growth phases of plants and animals.  With this information scientists can learn which species are thriving, discover the causes of those changes, and research how those species fit into the local ecology and climate.

With Nature Notebook you pick a site and track local plants and animals through an online project space. The web site remembers the location data and plants/animals you've seen before, and you just update with that days observations. You can even add previous observations from records made before you joined the site. As long as you can identify what you saw and where you saw it, the site (and scientists) can use the data.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the USA National Phenology Network web site and click on USANPN: Participate to learn about their citizen science observation programs. 
  2. Register with the site by providing some basic personal information (name and address).
  3. Identify the location you want to watch on a regular basis...preferably at least once a week.  You can use the USANPN: How to Observe web page for guidelines on appropriate sites and tips on providing the most accurate, consistent, and scientifically useful data.  You can also use the How to Observe Field Handbook available here.
  4. Log on to the Nature Notebook with your registered account and describe the site you will be observing.   Now this information will be available and connected to all your future observations from this site.
  5. List any plants you will be oserving and any animals you expect to see in that area.  These will pre-populate each time you log on and prompt you to provide information.  This way you don't have to re-enter the target species each time.
  6. That's it!  Nature Notebook makes organizing and submitting the information easy.  All that's needed is for you to make the observations.
Okay.  That isn't all. The Network has also collected observations from thousands of nature observers from before World War II and even into the 1800s. But they need our help to digits the data and make it useful for 21st century scientists. So consider this a preview of tomorrow's Coming Attractions. And in the meantime, let us know your thoughts on these Notebook projects...I'd love to see your comments below!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Make your Birdwatching Count with eBird

Part of "Spring into Citizen Science" is helping you fully enjoy the season.  It's not just new projects...but helping make the most of your existing activities.  So today I've been looking at eBird, a project that takes observations birdwatchers already make for fun and uses them to advance science.  Of course it's also a useful way for new birders to take up the hobby too!

One of the best parts of eBird is it doesn't get in the way of what you are already doing or dictate any specific style of birding.  So whether you are part of a coordinated bird census, keeping track of birds in your backyard, or even if you just seen an interesting bird while on vacation, eBird welcomes your data. The program can even utilize data collected from the many different birdwatching programs already on the market you might already be using.

Once collected there are a wide variety of useful things scientists can learn from the data.  Are endangered species recovering or declining?  Are bird populations shifting from area to area?  What are the migration patterns of different birds?  Is climate change impacting birds in a local area of in the world overall?  All these questions require extensive observational data, and birdwatchers like us are in a perfect position to provide it.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the eBird homepage and Learn About the program.
  2. Complete the brief Registration required to set up a birdwatching account and get credit for the data submitted.
  3. Click on the eBird: Submit Observations tab to start the quick 4-step data process.  The data being colelcted is actually quite simple...just the location of your observation, the style of birdwatching (organized birdwatch, local observation, etc.), the species of bird, and how it was identified (by sight or by sound).  That's it!
As an added bonus, after submitting your observations check out the analysis tools also available on the site.  Just click eBird: View and Explore Data and look through the graphs and maps your data fits right into.  Currently you can look at bird observations for any given area on the map, see charts of bird activity for any particular area, or view migration patterns as inferred by worldwide bird observations.  There is even a section for understanding how the recent Gulf Oil Spill has impacted ecologically significant birds in the area.

So for all you birders (and soon to be birders) out there...don't just fill a bird logbook for bragging rights.  Share it with the rest of the world and help advance our understanding of the creatures we love to watch.  And most of all, have fun!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Citizen Spots Squirrel, Springtime Science Succeeds!

"Spring into Citizen Science" continues today with a look at Project Squirrel, a University of Chicago initiative to understand the populations of grey and fox squirrels. 

While squirrels seem to live everywhere in the United States, previous data from this and other projects has shown that squirrels have more difficulty in some areas than other.  Nobody really knows why; are there local prey animals nearby?  Has human encroachment caused problems?  Are there environmental or diseases limiting squirrels in certain areas?  Science needs your help to find out.

The squirrel's  ability to live anywhere also makes this a highly accessible project for citizen scientists across the country.  People in both rural and urban areas can participate; squirrels live in both areas.  And even if there are none in your backyard, take notes at work or while you are driving; both regular and occasional observations are welcome.  All it takes is five minutes or less to start contributing.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Project Squirrel web site to learn about the project and check out the Project Squirrel: Grey vs. Fox page to learn the difference between Grey Squirrels and Fox Squirrels.  And don't forget, inmost areas a black squirrel is actually a grey squirrel for the purposes of this project.
  • Click on the "Become a Citizen Scientist - Record Your Observations" button on the Project Squirrel: Participate page.  Or
  • Answer the quick 14-question web-based survey on the zip code and location characteristics of the squirrel sighting.  You can also fill out a paper version of the survey (available at http://projectsquirrel.org/Project%20Squirrel%20Mail-in%20Form.pdf) and send it in through the normal mail.
  • That's all there is to it.  But if you have any good Squirrel Pictures or squirrel stories, send 'em in!
No matter where you live this is a fun and easy project anyone can enjoy.  So start looking at your backyard and taking notes.  I'm sure you'll spot a squirrel soon enough!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring into Citizen Science with Project Budburst

The start of spring is often marked by the first blooms on your favorite plants. And so we mark the first "Spring into Citizen Science" post with Project Budburst, now in it's fifth year of tracking these markers of warmer weather.

As part of the government-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Project Budburst asks users to collect information on seasonal changes (called phenophases) of plants in the area they're observing and report to the central website.  You can watch an area for an extended period (such as your backyard), or perform only occasional observations for areas you don't frequently vist (such as during vacation).  By amassing data from users across the country researchers can get a snapshot of the climate as nature feels it and track changes over time that are actually impacting the natural world.

Besides data on budding, local weather, and geography, the project also collects a lot of information on the actual species of plant you are studying.  Extensive nature guides of indigenous grasses, trees, wildflowers, and herbs have been put together for important plant identification purposes; they also provide a wealth of knowledge about the plants you observe.  So not only are there scientific benefits to the projet but fun, educational ones as well.

Personally, I have some wild strawberries and common lilac in my backyard I'm planning to keep an eye on.  Won't you join me?

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit Project Budburst for an overview of the project.  You can also click straight to the Project Budburst: Get Started page and decide whether you are an "Occasional Observer" or are ready to fully commit as a "Budburst Obesrver".
  2. After registering online with the project, download the appropraite 1-page Field Journal for recording your observations.  It will guide you through the weather and location data you need to collect, as well as the phenophase data (remember that one!) being collected as well.
  3. Share your observations through the Project Budburst website.  You only do this manually at the moment though a mobile app for collecting and reporting information is coming soon.
That's all there is to it!  So find a nice shady spot, check the local temperature, and wait for the flowers to bloom.   Have fun!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spring into Citizen Science!

Welcome back everyone!  We've made it through the cold days of winter and now the weather is getting warmer.  Soon migrating birds will return, hibernating animals will wake up, and flowers will start to bloom.  So it's also time for new citizen projects to be born and old favorites to return.

All this month OpenScientist will highlight the many nature and biology projects most active in the spring and summer.  Help document nature waking up through Project Budburst.  Learn about birdwatching and help build a census of our high-flying friends.  And watch the activity of frogs, squirrels, fireflies, and other creatures as they wake up for Spring.

So watch this blog over the next few weeks for the new "Spring into Citizen Science!" campaign.  Advance science, enjoy the outdoors, and help save the planet.  All from the comfort of your own backyard.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Staring Directly at the Sun

Your mom told you enver to do it, but GalaxyZoo promises that staring at the sun can be educational, scientific, and fun.

Solar Stormwatch uses satellite data of the sun's outer atmosphere to identify solar storms and hopefully predict any impact on Earth.  Although formed 100 millions miles away these storms can wreak havoc on navigation systems, earth-orbiting spacecraft, and our power grids.  One solar storm knocked out all the electricity in Quebec.  So no only is this scientifically interesting, but it helps save dollars and even lives.

An interesting part of this site is how well they've combined the best teaching and educational aspects of the various zooniverse projects in one place.  There are the video tutorials and cheerful explanations.  There are the step-by-step instructions and quizzes at each step to ensure you understand the concepts.  And there are a number of background pieces and interactive media explaining the science behind the project.  Everything one looks for in a first-rate citizen science project. 

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Visit the introductory Solar Stormwatch: Background and Mission Briefing web pages to learn about solar storms, the overall project, and why the project scientists need your help.  You can also watch various short video lessons on these pages that walk you through each step of participating in the project.  Including the full details on how to spot and track storms.
  2. Create an account or sign in with an existing Zooniverse account.
  3. Walk through the Solar Stormwatch: Spot and Track tutorials that explain each step and quiz you on what you've learned.  Each step adds new difficulties and moves you closer to becoming a full-fledged storm watcher.
  4. Complete all the steps and start watching. 
As an added bonus, the solar satellites providing the project data are also great for discovering new comets.  If you're lucky some may fly right into your view and you'll be able to discover that little bit of the universe through Solar Stormwatch.  So I encourage you to sign up soon and start sharing in the fun!