My last blog entry was devoted to my first experience trapping and banding hummingbirds. This project was conducted by amateurs (citizens) with data being recorded and published so that it might be used by professionals (scientists).
Of course, the world wide web has connected us all. Amateur naturalists like me, who observe nature and share our observations, can now contribute our experiences to science. Zoologists and other professionals, who are trained and paid and although not "citizens" in this context are presumably citizens in some respect elsewhere, can utilize data recorded by an networked army of eager contributors around the globe. The observations of the untrained and un-degreed and unpaid individuals like myself might be disparagingly referred to as "anecdotal data" and disregarded by intelligentsia snobbery of the past, but there was nothing "anecdotal" about the data recorded by Lee during our five hour Sunday morning following Hummingbird Monitoring Network guidelines.
iNaturalist.org began as a Master's final project of students of U.C. Berkeley's School of Information. It grew to become a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society. Its primary goal is to connect people to nature. More than three-quarters of a million amateur and professional naturalists are linked by a website and app that allows everyone to learn and share. As the website states, "...by recording and sharing your observations, you’ll create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature." Research quality data. Observations, usually photographs of a plant or animal taxon accompanied by locality information that includes in most cases GPS coordinates, are posted. Some posters do not know exactly what they have seen. The community identifies and by successive confirmations of identification and other parameters referred to as "data quality assessment" an observations becomes "research grade".
I just surpassed 300 observations submitted to iNaturalist. What I am most proud about is that of my current 304 observations there are 221 unique species. Some know me as a "snake guy", others as a "spider guy", but in truth I am an opportunistic observer and generalist naturalist with wide-ranging interests. I may sound wisest when I am discussing snakes or spiders, but I can form intelligent sentences when talking bird or bat or wild cat. In a single day I might submit an observation of an agave plant, a paper wasp, a burrowing owl AND a rattlesnake. In addition to my own observations on iNaturalist, I have currently contributed 2654 identifications of other member observations. I limit those to my expertises, and the majority are snakes especially rattlesnakes, although I also have it set up to show me all observations in the Chiricahua Mountains. Using the website or app you can "follow" taxa of interest and my "dashboard" only shows me daily observations of rattlesnakes, other vipers, colubrid snakes, horned lizards and any plant or animal from the Chiricahuas.
I have only been active on eBird for a week. It is something like iNaturalist but, obviously, devoted exclusively to birds. Birding is a much different pursuit, and observations on eBird include birds that are heard but not seen. Also, instead of photos accompanying the majority of observations, it is based on checklists. You submit species seen or heard, whether you were traveling (moving, hiking) or stationary (sitting, bird feeders), and time of start and duration of "tracking". You then note whether your submitted checklist records all species you were able to identify or whether it is a partial list and more species were observed (seen or heard) than noted on the checklist.
eBird is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. From their website, "eBird began with a simple idea—that every birdwatcher has unique knowledge and experience. Our goal is to gather this information in the form of checklists of birds, archive it, and freely share it to power new data-driven approaches to science, conservation and education. At the same time, we develop tools that make birding more rewarding. From being able to manage lists, photos and audio recordings, to seeing real-time maps of species distribution, to alerts that let you know when species have been seen, we strive to provide the most current and useful information to the birding community". eBird is the world's largest biodiversity-related citizen science project.
I first only used the website version, and the initial reason I began looking at eBird to fill in the whiteboard I maintain in the VIC (Visitor Information Center) listing all observed bird species observed in our section of the Chiricahua Mountains, from Portal to Paradise, through Cave Creek Canyon and up to high elevation at Onion Saddle and Rustler and Barfoot Parks. Laura, who taught me loads about birding and is a volunteer that has now pushed on to Oregon, used to take care of our bird lists but now that duty has fallen to me. I am officially now an avid birder, but I don't have her network of birding friends who share everything via Facebook. I'm not so friendly and I don't Facebook. So, to expand our lists to beyond what I personally observe or learn of from birders I interact with at the VIC or on the trail, I use eBird checklists from our area.
I soon wanted to submit my own lists, especially since I set up my own array of feeders at the corral where my Wheelhouse stands. I have an ever increasing menagerie dining in my campsite, and I now sit with iPhone in hand using the very handy eBird app to record observations in real time. I select location from a list of birding hotspots or my own personal list (you can create a new location), press start and it records start time and duration as I count numbers of birds of a number of species. If I am hiking it can record distance traveled, but I have limited WiFi when out and about and I usually record my hikes only using the GAIA GPS app and submit the checklists when I return to Internet.
The tools I use as a naturalist are only just two examples of citizen science. Volunteering to assist a real research project is an excellent way anyone can contribute. Just learning more about how citizen science works is a first step. Harvard Magazine has an interesting article I recommend those interested in "popular science" read. eBird's own Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a superb primer on PPSR or public participation in scientific research. The latter article mentions how volunteer-collected data has contributed to over one hundred peer-reviewed scientific articles in recent years.