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  • HDT Team

Water & Birds Spotlights of Citizen Science Projects

Are you a naturally curious person? Do you pay close attention to detail? Do you WISH you paid better attention or hope to develop your curiosity? Do you just love nature and being outdoors? Well, read on–there might be a citizen science project that is right for you. Several HDT staffers participate in volunteer projects, collecting data on things in nature that interest them. This is part two in a series on how observations become data.

Aquatic Invasive Species Detector

A few years ago Quinn went through a training to be an Aquatic Invasive Species Detector. Aquatic invasives may be plants, fish, or invertebrates (snails, mussels). Periodically throughout the open water season, Quinn "throws a rake" at particular locations whether from shore, a dock, or from the water. The rake looks like (and is!) two garden rake heads affixed together so that the tines are facing opposite directions that way whichever head lands down will rake material as the rake is pulled back. The rake head is connected to approximately 12 feet of rope.

Black rake heads on a blue rope, wrapped up
Two-headed rake

Once the rake is pulled out of the water, the material it brought up is analyzed. The analysis is simply sifting through the plant material looking to identify native vs. invasive. Interested in dabbling in AIS Detecting? Each year there is a day-long state-wide search for an invasive Starry Stonewort called Starry Trek. Last year Quinn participated. Paired with a fellow Detector, they went to 5 area lakes to "throw the rake." The local (to Cass County) departure and return location was Hackensack, MN in 2024. Starry Trek sites start the day with an invasives primer for volunteers. 

Training to become an AIS Detector is available through the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center and consists of a self-paced portion as well as virtual (or in-person) portion. You must live in Minnesota and be at least 18 to participate. Registration fees are often covered by the host county and/or lake association. Learn more about Wisconsin Aquatic Invasive Species here.

If you live in the Northern Lakes area and starry stonewort sounds familiar, it may because it was recently in the news, having been discovered on Cullen Lake in Crow Wing County. The next Starry Trek event will be Saturday, August 10, 2024. Learn more about volunteering for it here and a chance to dip into AIS work!

Birding (and Much More) with eBird

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, founded in cooperation with the Audubon Society, is supported entirely by grants, sponsors, and donations, including the National Science Foundation. One of their most famous projects is Merlin Bird ID, a free app that helps identify birds by photos or sound. CLO’s website is a wealth of resources about birds including beginner articles on bird identification, online courses and five (5!) citizen science projects. 

Happy Dancing Turtle program specialist Nora Woodworth has participated in many of CLO’s projects and recently became a fan of eBird, a free mobile app that allows offline data collection anytime/anywhere. That data is then used to document bird distribution, abundance, habitat use, and trends. As one of the world’s largest biodiversity-related projects, it captures more than 100 million bird sightings around the world per year. 

“I was hesitant to get involved at first,” said Nora. “Although I'm an avid birder, logging all the birds I see on my hikes felt more like a chore than a passionate way to contribute to a globally important data set. However, after seeing all the cool things they can do with that data, I've become a much more willing participant!”

  • Track Bird Migrations

Green Heron surrounded by green shrubs
Green Heron in Cancun. Photo by Nora Woodworth

Based on eBird reports, you can get a variety of migration maps to show when birds will be moving through. If you're looking for a particular species, you can sort by that species and a certain time frame, to see where they are. “A while back, I was in Cancun and watched a Green Heron. Curious, I looked at the eBird map and saw they were as far as Missouri in their migration. Later, I saw them back home here in the Driftless!”

  • Rare Bird Alerts

Silver gray bird perched on piece of driftwood.
Nora spotted (and photographed) this Northern Potoo in Canun.

“I've become more and more passionate about keeping a life list of birds.  When birds show up in a spot they usually aren't–it's a pretty big chance to see something exciting! A storm blew in some Flamingos to Wisconsin?! Sign me up to see them!” You can now get alerts to rare or unusual birds in your state/county, in case you want to chase those rarities.‘’

  • Sightings in Your Area 

“This might not sound that cool at first, but again, I was just recently in Cancun and I didn't know the first thing about Mexican birds or what I should expect to see at that time of year.” So Nora logged into eBird, checked out the local "birding hotspots" and voilà–she had a map of destinations with recent sightings at each, including how many birds I could expect to see at that location.

  • Shareable Lists! 

“I had no idea this was a thing until I went birding with a man named Lugo in Puerto Morales. He watched me frantically trying to write down all the species we were seeing on our trip and asked, ‘Are you on eBird?’ Trying to look like a better birder than I am, I told him ‘Of course!’ He told me not to worry, he was tracking everything we saw and could share the list with me later.” Nora reported putting her notebook away and enjoyed the moment of looking at each and every one of those birds! 

Small owl perched on branch surrounded by leaves.
This Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, recorded on eBird and photographed by Nora, was an addition to her life list.

  • Life List Automatically Created

It makes a life list for you! In birding, a life list is recording all the species you’ve seen over your lifetime. With eBird, every time you record seeing a new bird, it automatically puts the bird on your life list. “When Lugo sent me our list of 53 species, it automatically put 16 of them on my life list! Now I just have to upload 10 years of bird records to get my list to be accurate!” Nora mused.

The amazing thing about citizen science projects is the variety of topics/tasks/time commitments. For more examples, be sure to see Part One of this series! In the coming weeks, Part Three of the series will feature precipitation monitoring (aka reading the rain gauge!) and reviewing fabulous videos taken by someone else (sounds like scrolling social media, but with the bonus of potentially contributing to science research).


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