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Birding – For Science! – at Prairie Ridge

January 18, 2014
Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the start of our Citizen Science Saturday walks at Prairie Ridge, it’s fun to reflect on some of the projects that we have trained our citizen scientists to do over the past year. Different seasons lend themselves well to different projects and, as you might imagine, it can be underwhelming to collect data on things like leaves or insects in the winter.  Our choices of walk topics are more limited in winter, though one project has proven to work quite well year-round: eBird.

eBird was developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithica, NY. Their team practically pioneered online citizen science projects and eBird has been popular with birders, wildlife enthusiasts, and others for over a decade. The goal of the project is to document bird distributions throughout the world in real-time, creating a database of bird sightings available for use by scientists and the public alike. The process is simple. Participants watch for birds in their area, record any they see, and submit sightings to eBird.org. From there, researchers use the data for their studies, bird enthusiasts use the database to tell them where to look for birds, and all participants can use the eBird website as a place to store their sightings and create a life list. eBird has, I think, two particular strengths. First, the data is constantly being used bird research, so participant sightings are genuinely useful to science. Second, no one is discouraged from submitting their sightings, whether beginner or expert.

European Starling

European Starling

The eBird project has been a successful addition to our rotation of citizen science walks.  People seem to get behind the idea of bird watching as citizen scientists.  It probably doesn’t hurt that birds are generally considered “pretty” or “cute,” but they’re also fascinating creatures to watch.  Spend enough time watching a bird feeder and you’ll see all sorts of dramas and amusing antics play out!  You might see an order of precedence form, with some species dominating the feeders while other birds wait their turn.  You might see inter-species conflicts and competition: sometimes the squirrel dominates the feeder, and other times the birds chase the squirrel from the pantry.  Or, you may see a whole community of animals go suddenly quiet and still, all eyes on the sky as a Bald Eagle or Cooper’s Hawk glides overhead.  Their interesting behaviors combined with their handsome looks make birds popular with a lot of people, including our citizen scientists.

Tutfted Titmouse

Tutfted Titmouse

Our birding walks are simple.  We meet everyone at the entrance gate, do some quick introductions, and briefly talk about the project so everyone knows how and why we’re collecting data.  Then we dive right into data collection!  We hand out binoculars and field guides and spend 45 minutes wandering the grounds, counting and recording every bird we can identify.  Some birds we’ll see every time we lead winter walks – Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmouses, White-breasted Nuthactches, and Carolina Chickadees abound!  However, on recent walks we’ve been treated to some less common birds, such as the American Bittern that has been overwintering at Prairie Ridge and a Bald Eagle that has been spotted on the grounds several times.  The group circles the Ecostation, watching, identifying, and recording as we go, then we complete the experience by discussing the data we collected and how to enter it on the eBird.org website.

Once we upload our data to eBird, it is available for everyone to see.  eBird users can designate locations as birding hotspots on the site, and Prairie Ridge repeatedly makes the list.  When we report rare or locally uncommon birds on eBird, people start to come to Prairie Ridge to look for them almost immediately.  We’ve recorded 154 bird species at Prairie Ridge on eBird so far, and several of those sightings were made by citizen scientists attending the Saturday walks for the first time.

American Bittern

American Bittern

By offering birding and other Citizen Science Saturday walks, we hope to inspire people to become citizen scientists and to appreciate the nature all around them.  We want to show people that with a few simple tools and a little information, they can make a real contribution to science.  As a walk leader, I enjoy leading all the walks, but I especially love watching people respond to the birds.  People light up when they see them and are excited to watch and learn about them.  One of my favorite moments at the Musuem so far came about a month ago when an 8-year-old boy and his father came out for a walk.  We visited the pond to look for the American Bittern.  I saw it immediately, but the bird is incredibly well camouflaged and the boy had difficulty spotting it.  He was determined to see it, however, so he spent close to 15 minutes peering into the cattails trying to find it.  When he did, he said, “I see it, I see it! Yessss!!!”  Then he started pumping his fist in the air and did a happy little I-saw-the-Bittern dance.  I know that kid’s going to remember that moment forever.  He and his father left determined to make their own bird observations at their own feeders in their own yard.  That’s exactly what we want at the end of these walks – people who are enthusiastic about the possibilities of citizen science, who want to see what amazing observations they can record on their own, and who want to share the amazing things they see with the world.  You CAN make a difference as a citizen scientist, and we want to show you how!

Want to join us on a Citizen Science Saturday walk?  Walks depart from the entrance to Prairie Ridge every Saturday from 10:30-11:30.  Topics vary by week, depending on who is leading the walk and the time of the year.  We hope to see you there!

Photos by Chris Goforth

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