Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

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California birding

2017-03-08 Sacramento NWR 9 Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, March 8, 2017: Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibises. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 30, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Coast comes through with great birds”

By Barb Gorges

If I added these bird species to my life list last month [March], where would you say I’d been?

Surf scoter, pelagic cormorant, western gull, band-tailed pigeon, Anna’s hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Nuttall’s woodpecker, California (formerly western) scrub-jay, California towhee, golden-crowned sparrow.

If you guessed California, you would be right. But it isn’t the birds with “California” in their names that is the best clue. That would be the Nuttall’s woodpecker, found entirely in the state and the northern tip of Baja California. We saw ours in the arboretum at the University of California Davis.

2017-03-05 Point Reyes NS-Western Gull-by Mark Gorges

Western Gull, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Five of the species new to me—the hummingbirds, pigeon, towhee and scrub-jay—were in the backyard of the bed and breakfast we stayed at in Olema, California. The host fills the feeders every morning at 8:15 a.m. just before serving breakfast and his guests are treated to a flurry that also includes numerous California quail, white-crowned sparrows and, just like home, Eurasian collared-doves.

2017-03-08 Olema-California Quail-by Mark Gorges

California Quail surveys feeding station at the B & B in Olema, California. Photo by Mark Gorges. 

The pelagic cormorant would tell you that we spent time at the ocean. Despite the “pelagic” part of its name, which should indicate it is found far offshore, this cormorant is a shore dweller. Mark and I saw it way below us, in the rocks, at the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore.

2017-03-06 Point Reyes Lighthouse 6

Point Reyes National Seashore Lighthouse, March 6, 2017. Photo by Barb Gorges.

At Point Reyes Beach North, we encountered signs warning us about the protected nesting area for the federally designated threatened western population of snowy plovers. The area of the beach to be avoided was clearly marked with 4-foot white poles and white rope. Mark and I, and our Sacramento friends, formerly of Casper, dutifully gave it a wide berth.

And then the birds flew up in front of us anyway. We watched as five or six of the little white-faced sand-colored shorebirds fluttered away and settled down again nearby—in human footprint depressions.

Snowy Plover close-up by Mark Gorges, and camouflaged on the beach by Barb Gorges.

The American Birding Association’s “Field Guide to the Birds of California” says that the snowy plovers breeding on beaches like to find depressions so they don’t cast as much of a shadow to avoid detection by predators. They like the depressions for nesting too. Makes me think someone should walk once or twice through the official nesting area to make some, but who wants to pay the fine for trespassing? Besides, human activity and loose dogs scare the birds and prevent them from breeding.

Snowy plover was not a lifer for us—our first ones were at Caladesi Island State Park, Florida [managed at the time by Bill Gruber, former Wyoming Tribune Eagle Outdoors editor]. There too, their nesting area was delineated and protected, though in Florida they are only on the state-level threatened species list.

Snowy plovers are more than oceanic beach birds. You might find nesting populations across the southwestern U.S. at shallow lakes with sand or dried mud.

One bird I wanted to see was the wrentit. California, western Oregon and northern Baja California are the only places to see it. At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, I found two cute little birds that seemed to match the field guide. Another visitor noticed them popping in and out of a two-foot-long hanging sack made of bits of vegetation woven together and a red flag went up in my mind.

2017-03-08 Sacramento NWR Bushtit-by Mark

Bushtit and nest, Sacramento NWR. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Didn’t this hanging nest remind me of one I’d seen before in Seattle? Made by bushtits? Well darn, those were bushtits. They are only 4.5 inches long, whereas wrentits are 6.5 inches long, and wrentits build cup-shaped nests instead. If you were to draw a line from Seattle to Houston, bushtits can be found south of it, anywhere brushy and woodsy.

This was our first trip to California as eBirders, recording birds we saw at eBird.org. As usual, it came about as the result of a family commitment, which almost all our traveling does. We might have seen more species had we been on a birding tour, like we’ve done in Texas and Florida, but I think we did well at 86 species. The birds just seemed to pop out and give us a good look. Or maybe you could say they took a good look at us. [Have you ever been scrutinized by three turkey vultures on three adjoining fence posts next to a trail?]

We’ll have to make a point of visiting our family and friends in California more often. There are 571 bird species left to see—and half would be life birds.

2017-03-07 Point Reyes Abbotts Lagoon 8 Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vultures roost next to a trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bird books worth reading

Published Mar. 12, 2017 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books worth reading.”

By Barb Gorges

If you are the books you read, here is what I’ve been this winter.

2017-3Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, c. 2016, Penguin Press

This was a Christmas present from my daughter-in-law, Madeleine, who teaches cognitive psychology. It’s an enthralling overview of the latest studies that show how much smarter birds are than we thought, sometimes smarter than us in particular ways. They can navigate extreme distances, find home, find food stashed six months earlier, solve puzzles, use tools, sing hundreds of complex songs, remember unique relationships with each flock member, engineer nests, adapt to new foods and situations. They can even communicate with us.

2017-3GoodBirds“Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, Passionate Birders Share the Joys of Watching Birds,” edited by Lisa A. White and Jeffrey A. Gordon, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The previous volume, in 2007, was “Good Birders Don’t Wear White, 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.”

One of my favorite essays is by our Colorado friend Ted Floyd, “Go Birding with (Young, Really Young) Children.” Having frequently accompanied him and his children, I can say he does a terrific job of making birdwatching appealing.

Many of the essays start out with “Why I Love…” and move on to different aspects of birding people love (seabirds, drawing birds, my yard, spectrograms, “because it gets me closer to tacos”), followed by tips should you want to follow their passions.

2017-3ABACalifornia“Field Guide to the Birds of California” by Alvaro Jaramillo, c. 2015

This is part of the American Birding Association State Field Guide Series published by Scott & Nix Inc. The series so far also includes Arizona, the Carolinas, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Each author writes their own invitation to the beginning birdwatcher or the birder new to their state.

While a few birding hotspots may be mentioned, the real service these books provide is an overview of the state’s ecological regions and what kind of habitats to find each species in, not to mention large photos of each. I’ll probably still pack my Sibley’s, just in case we see a bird rare to California.

2017-3PetersonGuidetoSong            “Peterson Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

While including the usual bird pictures and range maps, this book is about learning to identify birds by sound and corresponding audio files can be found at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Bird songs are charted using spectrograms, graphic representations of sound recordings.

You can think of spectrograms as musical notation. They read from left to right. A low black mark indicates a low-pitched frequency. A thin, short line higher up indicates a clear sound with few overtones, higher pitched and short-lived. But most bird sounds are more complex, some filling the spectrogram from top to bottom.

Pieplow explains how to read spectrograms, the basic patterns, the variations, the none-vocal sounds like wing-clapping, and the biology of bird sounds.

Once you can visualize what you are hearing, Pieplow provides a visual index to bird sounds to help you try to match a bird with what you heard.

Taking a call note I’m familiar with in my neighborhood, the one note the Townsend’s solitaire gives from the top of a tree in winter, I find that Pieplow categorizes it as “cheep,” higher than a “chirp” and more complex than “peep.” It’s going to take a while to train our ears to distinguish differences.

2017-3WarblerGuide            “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott White, c. 2015, Princeton University Press and The Warbler Guide App.

Spectrograms are a part of the 500 pages devoted to the 56 species of warblers in the U.S. and Canada.

The yellow warbler, whose song we hear along willow-choked streams in the mountains in summer, gets 10 pages.

Icons show its silhouette (sometimes it can be diagnostic), color impression (as it flies by in a blur), tail pattern (the usual underside view of a bird above your head), range generalization, habitat (what part of the tree it prefers) and behavioral (hover, creep, sally, walk).

Then there’s the spectrogram comparing it to other species and maps show migration routes and timing, both spring and fall. We can see the yellow warbler spends the winter as far south as Peru.

Forty-one photographs show all angles, similar species, and both sexes at various ages.

The companion app, an additional $13, has most of the book’s content, and lets you rotate to compare 3-D versions of two warblers at a time, filter identification clues and listen to song recordings.

This is a good investment for birding in Cheyenne where we have seen 32 warbler species over the last 20 springs.

Finding birds in California

White-tailed Kite

The White-tailed Kites we saw in California’s Coyote Hills were a treat for us. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 5, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to find birds in strange places.”

2014 Update: The best way to find where to bird at your travel destination is now www.eBird.org. Besides a map of hotspot locations, you can see lists of recent observations.

By Barb Gorges

Travel is a good way to add bird species to your life list. Conversely, birding is a great way to enrich your travels—even if it’s as simple as watching brown pelicans at sunset across the street from your nephew’s apartment in late October, and that street happens to run alongside San Francisco Bay (pre-oil spill).

Serendipity is nice, but birders like to improve their chances. Mark took a look at the map and noticed another park on the bay, Coyote Hills, managed by the East Bay Regional Park District. Water is always a good place to look for birds.

With Mark’s brother Mike showing us the way, we found the park and a bird list in the visitor center, but the list didn’t have any indication of species seasonality or abundance.

One of the rangers put us on alert for golden eagles. I suppose the white-tailed kites were too common a raptor for him to be excited about, but they made our day—and our life lists.

Another way to find birds in an unfamiliar locale is by recommendation from someone who has already been to the area. Taking the auto tour through the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge with our longtime friends Pam and Dave was a great way to spend the day together.

The refuge has the perfect bird checklist. After each bird name is a space divvied up by month and if a species appears on the refuge during a particular month of the year, there is a horizontal line. If it shows up in great abundance, it is a very thick line. It was easy to see that the thousands of ducks, geese and coots we saw were going to be spending the winter at the refuge.

Following another outdoor pursuit usually produces bird sightings. We chose to hike where one of the nephews is a ranger, the Sunol Regional Wilderness, also managed by the park district.

A hot, weekday morning left us pretty much alone with the cows as we trudged the water department’s access road. But it was inspiring to be in the middle of 6800 acres of hill country that wasn’t decorated with houses or other buildings, something the City of Cheyenne should keep in mind as it looks to “develop” its own ranch.

 

Acorn Woodpecker

The Acorn Woodpecker was one of the interesting birds we found in California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Our favorite observation was the seven acorn woodpeckers disappearing one after the other into the top of a dead snag. There was such a ruckus of squeaks before they popped out through side openings.

If you were traveling an area without the benefit of friends and family, you could look for a local to give advice. I am that local half a dozen times a year because I allow my phone number and email address to be published in the American Birding Association directory.

While some members indicate that they charge for giving tours, sometimes I have time to invite a birding friend along to meet the visitors at Lions Park, one of our local hotspots.

It’s always surprising what visitors get excited about. Two women from California were entranced by the only bird we could find on a windy day, a yellow-headed blackbird. The man and wife from Texas this spring were excited to see migrating birds in their breeding plumage–birds they otherwise only see in their dull-colored winter feathers.

People visiting the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society Web site, http://org.lonetree.com/audubon, make inquiries. A man calling from Britain asked if he and his friend could join us for the spring sharp-tailed grouse field trip the next week. Certainly. And so they did, and after ticking off that bird on their list of most wanted species, they drove off to find another.

Occasionally, travelers find the Wyobirds elist, http://home.ease.Lsoft.com/archives, and post a request for information on finding a particular species or birding a particular area. If I can be of help, I reply and invariably, I get a report later about what birds they saw and how much they enjoyed the trip.

Many states have a similar list. If you search “Wyoming bird” instead of “Wyoming birds” however, you may get references to the University of Wyoming coach’s recent notorious hand signal.

If you are too shy–or in a hurry–there’s another way to find birding destinations. Go to www.eBird.org. It’s a great place to store your personal birding records for free.  It’s also a great resource for planning a trip. Observer information is not available to anyone looking at the data, but the lists of hotspots and the corresponding bird lists are almost as good as meeting one of the locals.

While the list of 1400 names of hotspots in California is probably not meaningful to visitors, a new map feature does allow you to see where they are. At this time you can access the maps by pretending you are going to enter data and choosing the option to select a pre-existing hotspot. Those areas that are parks or sanctuaries probably have more information on the Internet about hours and access.

Since eBird is relatively new, the checklists generated may be a little sketchy, but at least you can see where the local birders like to go.

Many birds are great travelers themselves, some migrating thousands of miles. I wonder how they pass on information about good places for wintering, eating and breeding. With their bird’s-eye view of the world, perhaps it’s easier for them to recognize a bird-friendly spot than it is for us.