Guest Blog–Citizen Science: Changing Lands, Changing Communities

Noah Rosenberg is Schoodic Institute’s 2017 Acadia Scholar and Communications Intern. This summer, Noah recorded and communicated Schoodic Institute research and educational programs. Noah regularly contributed content to the Institute’s  various social media platforms and website. He used a variety of mediums such as video, photography, text, and information design to convey the science and experience of conducting field research in Acadia National Park. Noah is a rising senior at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Shell Earthwatch volunteers, Blue Hill Heritage Trust, Island Heritage Trust, and Schoodic Institute Staff and Field techs gather for a day of field work and discussions about environmental stewardship.

 

Every fall, millions of songbirds migrate thousands of miles south along the Northeast coastline of the United States. Although some species, like the Blackpoll Warbler, can travel from North to South America in 72 hours, others need to stop along the way to rest and regain energy levels through consumption of fruits and insects. Conserved land, like the Hundred Acre Wood Preserve in Brooklin, Maine, produces these two food sources in abundance and are vital habitats for birds during the fall migration.

Trailhead at Hundred Acre Wood in Brooklin Maine. This was the first property acquired Blue Hill Heritage Trust. Its uses include hiking, educational programming, and hunting.

These fall migrations have been occurring since the withdrawal of glaciers in the Northeast, which occured around 22 thousand years ago and by no coincidence line up with the fruiting of fall plants, trees, and shrubs. However, this relationship between migrating birds and fruits is sensitive to climate change–specifically the warming temperature that is occurring in the Northeast. Dr. Richard Feldman, a research scientist in Mexico and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts and Schoodic Institute is studying the fall bird migration in the Downeast region of Maine. Dr. Feldman fears that the regions warming climate may be creating a mismatch between migrating birds and fall fruit production, leaving little food for birds during a time when they need it most.

To better understand this potential impact, Dr. Feldman began a research project that will record the different phases of plant life in seven forests that migratory birds use as a sort of respite in the Downeast region. The project will track and record these plant phases from leaf out and flowering to fruit production and when they drop their leaves. This study will allow Dr. Feldman to not only follow them through time, seeing when these events occur, but enables him to spot and examine any changes. This field is called phenology, and it is the study of how the natural world and all its elements synchronize or link up with each other. To better illustrate this concept, we turn to the US National Phenology Network, which states “Phenology affects nearly all aspects of the environment, including the abundance, distribution, and diversity of organisms, ecosystem services, food webs, and the global cycles of water and carbon.” This concept is reflected in the fact that– “many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings…farmers and gardeners need to know when to plant to avoid frosts, and they need to know the schedule of plant and insect development to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides”.

The metal ID tag hangs from a black huckleberry shrub. This allows volunteers to locate it on the trail and track its phases over time.

For Dr. Feldman’s phenology study, he needs to record a tremendous amount of data over many acres. To maximize effectiveness, he has teamed up with citizen scientists from Earthwatch and local stewards from Blue Hill Heritage Trust and Island Heritage Trust to help gather and record data throughout the year. Dr. Feldman’s decision to utilize citizen scientists and local stewards in his phenology research reflects a trend that has recently risen in popularity but also has deep historical roots.

For centuries, a majority of the observations and records of the natural world were taken by laymen and naturalists, many of whom were self-trained, curious, and fascinated enough by the natural world to explore and record its many species and phenomena. But as formal education and scientific pursuit became more regimented through academia, these observations by ‘non-professionals’ began to lose weight. The result was significantly fewer people recording their sightings and a large gap in data that has widened over the last 150 years, until recently. Now, with innovative apps like naturesnotebook, eBird, and Inaturalist, the public is once again contributing to scientific research and providing valuable information that can be used by researchers and natural historians for generations to come. Examples of this can be found here; a geographical image showing the advance of spring across the U.S.

Locations across the U.S. where Spring has arrived earlier than scheduled since 1981. source: https://www.usanpn.org/data/spring

Thousands of participants across the country recorded local data, contributing to an image that tells a massive story about how seasons are changing. Similar to the advances reflected in the map pictured above, the data collected from Dr. Feldman’s project, will be added to a national database and ultimately help form a larger story for him to further contextualize.

Utilizing citizen scientists not only increases the scale and diversity of a body of knowledge but accomplishes the very goal that science for the public good should strive for. Chrissy Allen, Development Director for Blue Hill Heritage Trust described the importance of this while walking along one of the trails at the Hundred Acre Wood Preserve during a citizen science phenology walk. Allen stated, “when we get them out here and engage them in data collection and seeing it for themselves then they can start to form their own more informed thoughts and opinions”. Allen continued “getting people to slow down, to take in, and investigate their environment is really important. It makes them feel more connected to that piece of forest, coastline, or blueberry field and it makes them feel like they have a little more responsibility towards caring for it and stewarding it in the future”. With the monumental challenge of mitigating climate change, it not only matters that we have the knowledge to solve it, but that we all have the will. Citizen Science awakens, encourages, and inspires that will to take action and paves the way for a sustainable future. In its best form, conducting Citizen Science allows all participants to have a voice, to ask questions, to work together, and to make a united and more informed community.

Shaded by Wild Sumac bushes, Shell Earthwatch Volunteers hike along a trail in the 24 acre Scotts Landing Preserve, a piece of land conserved by Island Heritage Trust.

On Thursday, August 3rd, Dr. Feldman’s 10 day Citizen Science initiative took this form at the Hundred Acre Wood Preserve. It became not just an opportunity to contribute to a growing body of knowledge but a powerful moment where 10 Earthwatch participants from around the world gathered to share and learn more about climate change and how global issues can connect communities thousands of miles apart. The participants were employees of Royal Dutch Shell and volunteered through the Shell Earthwatch Partnership, a nearly decade long environmental initiative between major energy and petrochemical resource companies. This initiative was a unique opportunity where honest and open learning, reflection, and discussion transpired between participants, facilitators, and local stewards. Allen reflected on the experience by stating, “the involvement of folks from Shell being here is a really good way for them to be educated on environmental issues but also a really good opportunity for those of us in the environmental field to be educated about them as people…who they are, where they come from, what they believe in, and what they’re doing to make the planet a better place in their own way”.

A jumping spider (Salticidae Family) takes cover underneath the leaves of a Winterberry Shrub. In addition to recording plants, the volunteers were also tasked with spotting and identifying insects.

As anyone who has ever conducted field based research will tell you, much of what happens in the field is left out of the published journals and in the case of citizen science, the value of what is learned by the participants can sometimes equal the value of the research itself. Speaking on this subject, Steve Thomas, the Shell Earthwatch facilitator from the UK stated “there’s a mix of two things that are going on here, there’s the data collection and whilst that is happening conversations are occurring, they’re asking questions, they’re asking well why isn’t this fruiting now? why isn’t it later? and that gets into a totally different conversation which is not necessarily just about that particular plant that they’re looking at. You’re now going into something else and that’s where the connection starts to come, they can start seeing that this is real, this is happening, and they can start asking the questions that they need to be asking to clarify it for themselves”. Continuing Thomas said “and when they say something that I’ve never even thought about, you know then that that door is a little more open, the understanding is starting to increase, and that’s exciting and you can see it with these folks here. Each and every one of them has grown in this area.”

On a pebble beach at Scotts Landing Preserve the group stops to discuss interpretations of sustainability, change, and conservation.

Reflecting on the experience, Vishwa, a chemical engineer for Shell from Mumbai, India stated, “I have been reading about climate change for a while, and it is a sensitive topic to talk about. But here at the expedition, everyone is like-minded and that has given me this whole open arena to discuss it–to get the stuff out, voice my opinions and ask all the questions I have regarding the subject and that has been really relieving. One of the aims I had from this expedition is to return home with some kind of platform in mind to start the conversation around sustainability and climate change. My experiences and interactions here have given me some ideas on how to approach folks back home and at work with whom I was hesitant to talk about this subject”. Continuing, Vishwa said, “A lot of us [Shell Earthwatch participants] didn’t know what kind of research goes on linking various phenomena to climate change. Some of these ideas are new to us altogether, so there’s a lot of learning. For instance, the project we are working on right now with Dr. Richard involves us (EW participants) gathering data on the quantity and ripening stage of fruit from different locations in and near the Schoodic Peninsula, which he will subsequently use to observe whether there is any mismatch over the years between fruit phenology and the yearly migration of birds, how that mismatch links to changes in warming cycles of the earth and how that links back to the warming caused by humans. This is something that we wouldn’t have just thought about, and it has been an eye-opening experience.” As part of the Shell Earthwatch initiative, each participant tries to develop and refine an action plan that they can bring home – from considering and mitigating the environmental impacts when making business decisions to getting their friends, family, and community involved in local stewardship opportunities. Although on the surface these two examples may differ in scale, they are equally important and necessary to bring about human change on a global scale.

By looking at the wider impacts of Dr. Feldman’s phenology research, we can see a way forward where scientific research and education combine to become a more inclusive process. One where the rigorous scientific method is used to not only pursue a research question but to inform, empower, and engage the public and inspire generations of stewards.

Through the partnership between Schoodic Institute and Blue Hill Heritage Trust, Dr. Feldman is doing just that. In Blue Hill, Maine, Dr. Feldman will be including students from the town’s Kindergarten through 8th-grade classes in his research. Speaking on this partnership Allen from Blue Hill Heritage Trust stated, “it’s a fabulous opportunity to be able to Skype with a scientist in Mexico who’s using the data they collected on their trail to learn more about the environment and what’s happening on a global scale”. Fifty to sixty students are expected to take part in his phenology work this fall. Although the goal of Dr. Feldman’s research has remained the same, the lasting impact it had and will continue to make on participants, their families, and their communities, reaches across the globe and it is why we at Schoodic Institute make advancing this sort of science our mission.

 

Photos by Noah Rosenberg

Sources:

USA National Phenology Network, https://www.usanpn.org/about/why-phenology

Satus of Spring Map, https://www.usanpn.org/data/spring

A Brief History of Citizen Science by Caitlin Kight,  http://www.science20.com/anthrophysis/brief_history_citizen_science-93317