Posts tagged ‘citizen science’

January 30, 2015

Backyard Connections: Help Scientists by Joining The Great Backyard Bird Count

by Melissa Harding

Are you ready for some science? It’s been a whole month since the most recent citizen science challenge posted here and it’s time for another one! The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, is another chance to help scientists gain a better understanding of overall bird health around the world. Taking place February 13-16, 2014, the GBBC is an annual four-day event that asks bird lovers to create real-time “snapshots” of where birds are. Birders count the number of birds that they see in their backyard, area park, or local green space and submit this information to scientists, who combine it with data from the Christmas Bird Count and other sources to get a more complete picture of what is happening to bird populations.

Why have two bird counts so close together in time? Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux. Birds are always moving from place to place in search of food and shelter, especially during the winter months. Scientists need citizen help because no single team of scientists could ever completely document the complex distribution and movement of so many birds. The longer and more frequently bird populations are documented, the more useful the data becomes, especially as scientists begin to assess trends over time. Having so much data also helps scientists to ask more difficult questions, such as why bird diseases affect different regions or why the phenology of migration patterns changes from year to year. Even better, the February GBBC used to only take place in the United States and Canada, but now that it is a global count, birds are counted in all seasons. This gives scientists even more useful data!

The GBBC is such a great program because it is accessible to everyone, even beginning birders and families. Anyone can participate for as little as 15 minutes or as long as each day of the event. It’s easy to get started – simply create a free GBBC account to submit your checklist. Once you have an account, tally the number of individual bird species that you see during the count period and then enter those numbers on the GBBC website. If you decide to count on multiple days or in multiple locations, just be sure to submit a separate checklist for each day and/or location. You can also send in photos of your backyard birds, the best of which will be posted on their website as part of a photo gallery.

To learn how to participate in the GBBC, visit the Cornell Lab website. Get comprehensive instructions here, as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

New to bird watching, check out Cornell’s excellent resources for identifying difficult birds, using binoculars, and more!

Learn more about citizen science projects to do with your family on the blog!

The above video is used courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

December 8, 2014

Backyard Connections: Join the Christmas Bird Count!

by Melissa Harding

bird countIt is almost time for one of the most fun and exciting winter naturalist traditions: The Christmas Bird Count! The Christmas Bird Count, or the ‘CBC’ to those in the know, is the longest running citizen science project in the world. From December 14 to January 5, thousands of volunteers, armed only with binoculars and bird lists, will head out into their local wilderness areas to count birds. Scientists, birders, families and students all take part in this adventure, some even heading out before dawn to get the most accurate count possible. Counting the birds, number and species, in any given area provides data about population trends that help scientists to better understand overall bird health around the globe.  This is a huge contribution to science and helps guide conservation action.

The data that is collected by the CBC is used by researchers to learn more about the long-term health and status of birds in North America. This data is then combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Project Feeder Watch to create a fuller picture of how bird populations change over time. Scientists can look at the effects of things like pollution and habitat fragmentation; the count can also show scientists where environmental threats exist that may not have yet been identified, like ground water contamination or pesticide poisoning. Not only is this good for birds, but it can be good for people as well. Birds can act as environmental indicators that show us potential threats to our own well-being, including climate change.

Luckily, there are far fewer species of birds to be found in the winter than in the spring. This is because many of the birds that we take for granted in the summer, such as warblers and flycatchers, are actually only visiting. In fact, at least two-thirds of North American birds migrate some distance each fall. Most of these migratory birds are predators, feeding on insects and worms. These birds need to migrate in order to find food; many travel to tropical locations near the equator. Most of the birds left behind are seed-eaters, such as cardinals and sparrows, and can find food all winter long. Since the variety of species is reduced during the CBC, many of the birds left are well-known backyard feeder birds or larger waterfowl and raptors. This makes it easier and lot more fun to bird in the winter – you can be sure that you will know the birds that you see!

Getting involved in the Christmas Bird Count is easy, but does require a little bit of planning. This is not the kind of citizen science project that you can do on your own, since it is a true, scientific census. There is a very specific way that the count is organized, so registration is required. Each count takes place in a 15-mile diameter circle and each circle has a count compiler. There are multiple count compilers in an area, so there may be several counts going on near you.  If you are new to birding, your area count compiler will put you in a group with more experienced birders. Even if you are not great at identifying birds, you can still participate in the fun! If your home is within one of the 15-mile circles, you can even bird from your backyard! To get started, check out this list of counts near year on the Audubon website.

Want to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count? Check out the Audubon Society website!

New to birding? Check out the Audubon Society’s online bird guide.

Think the CBC is fun? Learn more about other upcoming Audubon citizen science projects, The Great Backyard Bird Count and Hummingbirds at Home.

The above photo is courtesy of the National Audubon Society, by Geoff LaBaron.

November 12, 2014

Backyard Connections: Celebrate Urban Birds With Citizen Science!

by Melissa Harding

dove

Even though Phipps is located in the heart of the city of Pittsburgh, our visitors and staff are always reporting interesting animal sightings – from deer standing on the hill to hawks swooping down into the fields around the Conservatory. Urban areas may not seem at first glance to be a hospitable home to wildlife, but in reality there are many animals that have adapted well to the built environment. More than just a haven for squirrels and pigeons, the city is home to a variety of beautiful birds, deer, foxes and many other animals that are more commonly associated with woodland areas. People who live in these areas may not know that they share their space with such a wealth of critters, which is where citizen science comes in. Celebrate Urban Birds (CUB) is a project developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology whose primary purpose is to reach urban audiences who do not already participate in science, as well as to collect data about birds living in these environments. Birds are a perfect animal to study; they are attractive, plentiful, and easily spotted in any place.

Fall is a great time to think about birds, specifically helping them find food and shelter during the winter, as well as to provide safe and nourishing stops for them during migration. The more you are conscious of the bird populations that live near you, the better able you are to protect them from threats and encourage their habitation of your backyard or neighborhood. Additionally, participating in citizen science programs gives bird researchers useful information that they can’t collect on their own.

Why track bird populations? Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux. Birds are always moving from place to place in search of food and shelter, especially during the colder months. Scientists need citizen help because no single team of scientists could ever completely document the complex distribution and movement of so many birds. The longer and more frequently bird populations are documented, the more useful the data becomes, especially as scientists begin to assess trends over time. Having so much data also helps scientists to ask more difficult questions, such as why bird diseases affect different regions or why the phenology of migration patterns changes from year to year.

Celebrate Urban Birds is a great way to participate in citizen science; the project focuses on just a few focal species, many of which are commonly sighted birds, and can involve as much or as little commitment as you desire. All you need to do to get started is to sign up and purchase your CUB kit from Cornell, then you are all set to start observing the birds around you. Here’s how you record your data:

  • Beforehand, pick a date, time, and place for watching birds.
  • Watch an area about the size of half a basketball court for ten minutes.
  • Record which of the focal birds you see and don’t see in your birdwatching area.
  • Send your data to CUB either online or on your paper form

Easy peasy, and you have just helped both birds and the scientists who study them! In addition to just watching birds and collecting data, CUB also supports related community programming in the arts, neighborhood greening and  habitat restoration. They offer mini-grants to support community festivals and really want to help people connect the importance of birds and nature to all aspects of their lives.

This project is great for scout and youth groups, homeschoolers, school classes, or any other group, as well as for families. To get started, check out the Celebrate Urban Birds website – there are resources to help you learn good observation skills, identify focal species and more! Even if you are new to birding, CUB is an easy way to dip your toe into the water of citizen science. Check it out today!

To learn how to participate in bird-related citizen science, visit the Cornell Lab website. Learn more about the Celebrate Urban Birds program here!

New to bird watching, check out Cornell’s excellent resources for identifying difficult birds, using binoculars, and more!

Learn more about citizen science projects to do with your family on the blog!

The above photo is copyrighted to Maria Corcacas and used courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

July 21, 2014

Help Scientists to Find Lost Ladybugs

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education 69

If there is one sight that gardeners love to see in the summer, it is a ladybug. Spotting a ladybug on a branch near the garden is always a good sign. These little red beetles are truly garden friends; instead of snacking on plants, like many other insects, ladybugs would rather eat those culprits responsible for the most damage – aphids. Aphids are soft-bodied insects that suck the juices out of tender, young plants and new growth; aphids target the sick and weak, making quick work of them as they feed in large groups. Ladybugs charge in like the cavalry and help to remove these pesky critters from the garden. Unfortunately, all is not right in the world of ladybugs. Species distribution across North America has been changing; over the past twenty years, several species of native ladybugs that used to be quite common have become very rare. This is partly because non-native ladybugs have been taking over their habitats and making it harder for them to compete for resources. Scientists are studying this phenomenon because the effect that these new populations will have on plants is unknown. They are trying to determine the impact that these changes will have on the control of plant pests both in the wild and at home.

This is where you come in; The Lost Ladybug Project, run out of Cornell University, is a citizen science program designed to help scientists gather data about ladybug distribution.  Citizen science programs, in which regular people collect data about the plants and animals in their communities, help scientists to have eyes and ears all over the country. These particular programs are not only important for data collection, but are also a great way to spend some time outside with your family and practice your observation skills.  In the case of the Lost Ladybug Project, entomologists at Cornell are really good at identifying ladybug species, but are unable to sample in enough places to find the really rare ones. They need you to be their legs, eyes and cameras! Send them in pictures of the ladybugs that you find and they can learn more about  the area where you live. Participating in this program is especially fun, since it involves catching and studying your specimens.

Here is how the Lost Ladybug Project works:
1. Go out into your backyard, local park or other natural area and look for ladybugs. Collect them in a jar.
2. Photograph each insect
3. Upload your photos to the project website, along with information on where and when you found them.

Sounds easy, right? You can choose to participate every day, or just one time; every data point is useful! The project website includes helpful hints for catching, collecting and photographing your finds.

Need convincing? Check out this wonderful video from PBS NewsHour about the Lost Ladybug Project; this work is a really effective way to engage children in science:

This is both an exciting project for your family this summer and a way to help scientists at the same time. It is also great fun for church groups, scouts or even adults. Head outside and give it a try today!

The above picture was taken by Julia Petruska.

May 7, 2014

Home Connections: Raising Butterflies Indoors

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_ Butterflies (1)You may have noticed that the butterflies are back for the summer. Cabbage whites are fluttering around your broccoli, looking to lay some eggs, and tiger swallowtails are looking for nectar in your flower beds. Butterflies are out of hibernation and looking for a good time. Adult butterflies spend their days doing two things – drinking nectar and laying eggs. These eggs are the start of the butterfly life cycle, which is both exciting and easy for even young children to understand. Beyond that, the life cycle has an air of mystery about it: What is really happening in that chrysalis? How does the butterfly get in there? While it is very enjoyable to watch them flutter around your backyard and to look for eggs and caterpillars on your plants, it can be even more fun to raise butterflies indoors. This is a great way to practice scientific thinking; your child will learn about the butterfly life cycle while utilizing his deductive and observation skills – and have a good time doing it!

To begin with, you will need some caterpillars. There are multiple online resources that provide you with both caterpillars and a butterfly habitat. It is best to purchase a butterfly species that is native to your area so that you can release them after you are done. Each kit come with care instructions to help you give your caterpillars a comfortable experience. Make sure to follow the directions regarding feeding and when to put your chrysalids in the larger butterfly habitat. You will also need magnifying glasses, a nature journal and any butterfly resources that may help your child learn more about butterflies. (See the bottom of this post for resource ideas).
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Learn about Larvae
Begin your butterfly experiment by observing the caterpillars; set aside a set time each day to observe your critters together with your child. Caterpillars have interesting bodies; they have both “true” legs and little suction cups called “pro legs”. They also have an assortment of spines and patterns to confuse their predators. Take some time and observe your new friends. What colors are they? What end is the head and what end is the tail? Encourage your child to use his magnifying glass and learn about caterpillar anatomy. Caterpillars also engage in some pretty weird behaviors. Watch them walk upside-down on plant stems and use their jaws to gnaw away at leaves. The caterpillars you receive should go through several stages of molting, so see if you can catch them in the act! There are many exciting behaviors that your child can observe and record. Some of these  are so strange that it may prompt your child to start asking questions; this is a good time to give them resources to help fill the gaps in their knowledge, while encouraging them to wait and see if they can discern the answers by further watching.

Chrysalis Count-down
One of the most mysterious parts of the butterfly life cycle is the pupa stage, or the chrysalis. Before your caterpillar molts for the last time, it will hang in a “J” shape off one of the branches in its container. This is a great time to keep an eye on your caterpillar, as you may be lucky enough to watch it shed its skin and turn into a pupa. The skin that makes up the chrysalis is very different from the skin of the larva; it may be a completely different color. Often, this is to camouflage the vulnerable pupa from predators. Once your caterpillar is in the chrysalis, create a chart in your journal to count down the days until it emerges. It can often take up to two weeks for this to happen and there is very little else to observe during this time, so counting down the days is a fun way to keep your child engaged in the process.

butterfly phipps unplugged technology petruskaBeautiful Butterflies
Soon you will notice the chrysalis begin to shake. This is caused by the butterfly inside wiggling its way out! If you can catch this in action, it is an incredibly exciting sight. The butterfly will emerge slowly, covered in a sticky, red liquid; this is meconium, the remnants of the metamorphosis process. For the next several hours, the butterfly will flap its wings to dry them and fill them with blood. This is a very vulnerable time in the life of a butterfly; it is unable to fly until the wings are dry. Make sure to have a source of nectar in the habitat for your hungry butterfly to drink once it is ready. Have your child record this process if they are able. This is a rare opportunity for your child to get incredibly close to a butterfly; observe it carefully, maybe even drawing or painting it. Watch it unfurl its proboscis to drink nectar and use its antennae to smell. Count its legs and talk about the qualities of an insect. What an exciting time to observe!

Time to Fly
When you are done observing, it is time to release the butterflies. They will not be happy in their habitat for very long, nor will they be able to complete the butterfly life cycle without a mate. Releasing your butterflies can be a special occasion; reading a poem, sharing observations or even going to a special spot that you think the butterflies will like are all lovely ways to celebrate the life cycle. Slowly open the habitat and gently shoo the butterflies out into the open; they may falter a bit at first, but will quickly find their wings and soar away to find food and mates.

Here are some resources to help you get started on your butterfly raising journey:
Live caterpillars:
InsectLore and Carolina Biologicals are reputable places to get started; you can find a kit to match any price point. Try to purchase your caterpillars from a site that sells them for education, as opposed to weddings or events.
Taking care of your critters: This resource will give you details on how best to raise your new friends.
Butterfly gardening: Make your yard friendlier to all pollinators with these tips.
Monarch tagging: Monarch Watch is a citizen science program that helps scientists to track the migration movements of monarchs.

Phipps Science Education 71Field guides and other butterfly resources for all ages
Check some of these books out of your local library and learn more about your pollinating pals; check the card catalogue for related titles!
Butterflies through Binoculars by Jeffrey Glassberg
Butterflies of North America by Ken Kauffman
Kids Look and Learn: Butterflies! by Becky Wolf
A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston
Backyard Books: Are You a Butterfly? by Judy Allen
National Geographic Readers: Caterpillar to Butterfly by Laura Marsh
National Geographic Readers: Great Migrations Butterflies by Laura Marsh 

Watching this process gives children a sense of the complexity of the life cycle and makes them feel like they have been a part of helping their caterpillars to grow. A wonderful activity, growing butterflies can connect children to nature on multiple levels; if it peaked your child’s interest in butterflies, spend some time observing the ones that visit your yard. You can also go to your local botanical garden or children’s museum; these informal learning institutions often have pollinator gardens to attract butterflies of all kinds. Some even have butterfly rooms, like at Phipps, where butterflies are cultivated in large numbers. If your child’s interest in butterflies continues over the summer, consider raising another species of butterfly at home or taking part in a monarch tagging program at your local nature center. The sky is the limit!

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry and Julia Petruska.

April 7, 2014

Frog Watching for Fun and Science

by Melissa Harding

Molly Steinwald Photography (4)

If you live by a pond or a stream, there is a certain sound in the air that says spring has sprung –  the call of a frogs and toads. Frog and toad calls are not the notorious ‘ribbit’ sounds of children’s books, but rather a rich symphony of calls that are each as distinctive as the creature that makes them. Each species of frog has a different call for mating than for defending territory; some are high-pitched peeps and others sound like the low tones of a banjo. Stand by a pond at night in the Pennsylvania spring and you will hear a raucous chorus of American toads, spring peepers, wood frogs, green frogs and bullfrogs. This spring sing is not only fun to listen to, but is also important to science. Frogs and other amphibians are considered indicator species; they are very sensitive to environmental change and their presence or absence can tell scientists valuable information about the health of an area. In short, it is very good idea to keep an eye on our frogs and toads.

This is where you come in. The North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (NAAMP) and FrogWatch USA are citizen science programs that are designed to help scientists gather data about the health and well-being of the amphibian population. Citizen science programs, in which regular people collect data about the plants and animals in their communities, help scientists to have eyes and ears all over the country. These particular programs are not only important for data collection, but are also a great way to spend some time outside with your family and practice your observation skills. Participating in these two programs are especially easy, since all you need to do is listen.

Molly Steinwald Photography (2)Frog watchers don’t need to see the frogs (although that is half the fun), but rather identify them by their mating calls.  Learning frog calls is fun and easy, since each one is so unique. There are only a handful of amphibian species in most areas, so there aren’t that many to learn; this is made even easier by a host of online resources that allow you to listen and learn from the comfort of your home. Pick a location that is easy for you monitor, such as a pond near your home, and this will be the spot that you monitor all season.  You can sign up with either organization, both of which provide training sessions if you are so inclined.  You will need to monitor your spot weekly and record your data in the manner that your organization suggests. Once you are signed up and know your calls, you ready to be a citizen scientist!

Frogs and toads mate at different times of the year, so participants need to monitor their locations all spring and summer. Frog monitoring happens mostly at night, since frogs are more active then, but you can complete your monitoring during the day as well.  If you are dedicated in your data collection, you will also reap the benefits of coming to know your area and watching it change through the seasons. You may start to notice birds that nest in nearby trees, the blooming of different flowers and tracks from animals that use your water source for drinking. You may also notice masses of frog and salamander eggs stuck to plants in the water and even baby tadpoles swimming along. Frog monitoring is a great way to experience nature and feel connected to your community.

This is not only a fun project for a family, but also for a scout troop or school class. Training classes are going on now all over the country, so get connected! Here are some helpful links to get you started:

FrogWatch USA: Learn where your local chapter is based, get training, and find helpful ways to learn frog calls.
North American Amphibian Monitoring Project: Learn survey protocol, find your state’s coordinator and take a frog call quiz.
List of Frogs and Toads by State: There are over 100 species of frogs and toads in the country, but only a few near you. Learn which ones live nearby.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Learn your frog calls (and even some birds if you want!)
AmphibiaWeb: Frog calls and natural history information for the curious frog watcher.

Interested in other citizen science programs? The Citizen Science Alliance has tons of great projects for people of all interests, from here on earth to outer space!

The above photos are copyrighted to Molly Steinwald.

January 24, 2014

Backyard Connections: Help Scientists by Joining The Great Backyard Bird Count

by Melissa Harding

Are you ready for some science? It’s been a whole month since the most recent citizen science challenge posted here and it’s time for another one! The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, is another chance to help scientists gain a better understanding of overall bird health around the world. Taking place February 14-17, 2014, the GBBC is an annual four-day event that asks bird lovers to create real-time “snapshots” of where birds are. Birders count the number of birds that they see in their backyard, area park, or local green space and submit this information to scientists, who combine it with data from the Christmas Bird Count and other sources to get a more complete picture of what is happening to bird populations.

Why have two bird counts so close together in time? Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux. Birds are always moving from place to place in search of food and shelter, especially during the winter months. Scientists need citizen help because no single team of scientists could ever completely document the complex distribution and movement of so many birds. The longer and more frequently bird populations are documented, the more useful the data becomes, especially as scientists begin to assess trends over time. Having so much data also helps scientists to ask more difficult questions, such as why bird diseases affect different regions or why the phenology of migration patterns changes from year to year. Even better, the February GBBC used to only take place in the United States and Canada, but now that it is a global count, birds are counted in all seasons. This gives scientists even more useful data!

The GBBC is such a great program because it is accessible to everyone, even beginning birders and families. Anyone can participate for as little as 15 minutes or as long as each day of the event. It’s easy to get started – simply create a free GBBC account to submit your checklist. Once you have an account, tally the number of individual bird species that you see during the count period and then enter those numbers on the GBBC website. If you decide to count on multiple days or in multiple locations, just be sure to submit a separate checklist for each day and/or location. You can also send in photos of your backyard birds, the best of which will be posted on their website as part of a photo gallery.

To learn how to participate in the GBBC, visit the Cornell Lab website. Get comprehensive instructions here, as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

New to bird watching, check out Cornell’s excellent resources for identifying difficult birds, using binoculars, and more!

Learn more about citizen science projects to do with your family on the blog!

The above video is used courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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