List of Recommended Nature Projects

Spring is here! We've made it through the cold days of winter and 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.

By amassing data from users across the country researchers can learn many useful things from the data.   Are endangered species recovering or declining? Are plant populations shifting from area to area? What are the migration patterns of different animals? Is climate change impacting nature in a local area or in the world overall? All these questions require extensive observational data, and citizen scientists like us are in a perfect position to provide it.

All through March and beyond OpenScientist(blog) is highlighting 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.

Below is a summary of the projects I've described so far.  I hope you take a look and click over to any that may appeal to you.

Nature Watching Programs
  • Track Blooming Flowers: 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).  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.
  • Watch for Backyard Squirrels: Project Squirrel is a University of Chicago initiative to understand the populations of grey and fox squirrels. The squirrel's ability to live in both urban and rural areas makes this a highly accessible project for citizen scientists across the country; squirrels can thrive in both. 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. 
  • Listen for Frogs and Toads: Frogwatch USA is a program sponsored and run by zoos and aquariums that provide hands-on training about local frogs and how to identify their mating calls. They also organize volunteers into self-supporting chapters that provide a community of like-minded citizen scientists you can interact with.  The best part is  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.

Nature Watching Tools
  • Tracking Nature Wherever you Are: Nature Notebook lets 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.
  • Observe Bird Behavior and Build your own Bird's Nest: 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.  It's a great family or school project and even comes complete with instructions for building a nest specific to each arget species. 
  • Share Your Birdwatching with Science: eBird is a project that takes observations birdwatchers already make for fun and uses them to advance science.  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.
Other Nature Projects:
  • Bring Old Birdwatching Data into the Future: The Bird Phenology Program has a bursting collction of over six million old birdwatching records sitting in their warehouse that need to be digitized. 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 transcribe these records and make them more usable.

I've included these projects to let you advance science, enjoy the outdoors, and help save the planet. All from the comfort of your own backyard.