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Citizen Science Saturday’s eBird: A Firsthand Experience

August 31, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

For nearly 10 years, Museum staff at Prairie Ridge Ecostation have conducted public citizen science eBird walks and submitted their sightings.  eBird was developed as a way for birdwatchers, or birders for short, to provide information on where and when specific species of birds are found.  This information is then used by scientists and researchers to, among other things, track the migration of birds around the world and to see what impacts climate change has had on birds.  eBird now receives millions of sightings each year, many of which are generated through citizen science programs.  Along with eBird, Prairie Ridge also organizes various other citizen science programs such as Natural North Carolina, Lost Ladybug, and many more.

The eBird Walk was the first Citizen Science Saturday event I had ever attended at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Being new to bird watching, I was quite worried that my limited knowledge of native birds might make it difficult to enjoy and assist in identifying birds for the eBird data.  However, within a few minutes, it became apparent to me that this program was built to bring people in, whether new to birding or seasoned in the field, and that I was not the only person there that could at best recognize a Northern Cardinal.  I was also about to find out why this location is so popular for birders!

After a short introduction about Prairie Ridge Ecostation (I had no idea just how large this place was!) and the purpose of Citizen Science Saturdays, we moseyed down to the birdfeeders to find out what granivorous (seed/grain eating) birds we would find.  At these feeders, I saw Red-winged Blackbirds, Carolina Chickadees, a Pine Warbler, and lots of Northern Cardinals.  I was also excited to see a few Purple Martins hanging out around hollowed-out gourds.  Everywhere I looked there was a new bird to identify!  The only difficulty was that we had to make sure they were properly identified before marking them down in our datasheet.  Marking down improperly identified birds will provide inaccurate information to eBird.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Next we wandered off towards the pond counting murmurations of European Starlings and trying to figure out if we were seeing Song Sparrows or Chipping Sparrows.  A good way to find this out is to look for patches of black on the head.  Song Sparrows have some black lines near the eye and a black spot on the head, Chipping Sparrows have only brown. At the pond we looked for birds in and around the water.  I was able to spot a few Hooded Mergansers.  Someone spotted a Canada Goose and another Chipping Sparrow.  After identifying all the birds we could find, we then headed back to the bird feeders to see if any more birds had come out in our absence.

The popularity of Prairie Ridge Ecostation for birders is due to the vast variety of bird species found during each month of the year.  Just in the first hour of Citizen Science Saturday, we saw and identified over 20 species!  I have never seen that many birds in a week!

At the end of this session I felt like I had a better grasp on identifying birds and that I learned quite a few things about their characteristics.  For example, Eastern Towhees preferred to forage on the ground under the feeders and the Blue Jay intimidates all the other birds off the feeder.  I also had no idea what a challenge it was to tell birds apart while they are flitting around the ground.  Oftentimes birds will stick in pairs or groups, such as female Northern Cardinals staying close to the males or the Mourning Doves hanging in groups of 2-3.  This actually made it easier for me to count them.  Did you know that the European Starling was brought here by Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays?  I did not.  Now the starlings are highly invasive and have been negatively affecting our crops and local nesting birds.

It is very easy to fall in love with Prairie Ridge Ecostation and to become interested in the various events that are held here.  I was originally supposed to complete only 10 hours of Environmental Education volunteer experience for one of my classes at NCSU, but I enjoyed this so much that I continued volunteering after the 10 hours were finished.  I hope you will come join us and appreciate this program as much as I have!


Birds of Prairie Ridge (Part 1)

July 7, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On the dim, early morning of June 23, I arrived at Prairie Ridge Ecostation at 6:30 AM to observe that week’s bird banding. I thought I was up early, but, upon reaching bird banders John Gerwin and Holly Ferreira, I learned that banding leader Keith Jensen had arrived long before to set up the mist nets. Former NCMNS intern Hanna Rogers wrote a great primer on how mist nests are used and bird banding is done at Prairie Ridge, which can be read here.

Once all of the expected banders arrived, regular rounds were made to check on all of the mist nets scattered around the prairie and arboretum. The first bird found was a beautiful male Indigo Bunting at a net near the lake. Further along, a Red-Bellied Woodpecker was also picked up during the round.

Male Indigo Bunting held in a photographer’s grip. This Bunting had a previous band, indicating it had been caught and banded before. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

Here, in its breeding plumage, this Indigo Bunting is an iridescent blue, an indicator that it’s a male. Female Indigo Buntings, on the other hand, are a light brown, although some do have a tinge of blue. A juvenile will look similar to a female, with the addition of faint white streaks on its back and breast. Once breeding season is over, this Indigo Bunting will molt for the winter until it becomes predominantly brown again. An interesting thing to note is that there is no blue pigment in the feather of these birds; the bright blue you see is actually created by a refraction of light. If it’s cloudy, an Indigo Bunting may appear black instead!

Left: Bander Holly Ferriera posing with the woodpecker.  Right: Checking the molting of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

Where the Indigo Bunting remained calm during the health measurements, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker was feistier. The red patch on the woodpecker’s head indicates that this young bird is most likely a male, as female Red-Bellied Woodpeckers usually just have red on their napes. A closer look at its abdomen would show a small patch of pale reddish-orange feathers that give the bird its name.

Around thirty minutes after the first round, another round was made. This round brought forth a northern cardinal and a brown thrasher.

Brown Thrasher being held in a bander’s grip for health measurements. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

This surprised looking fellow is a Brown Thrasher. These birds are reddish brown and the adults, like the one above, have yellow eyes. These birds eat acorns, wild fruits, and berries, but they also dine on lots of beetles and caterpillars. Although acorns are a significant part of their diet, the thrashers’ beaks are not well adapted to shelling them, so they often dig the acorns into the ground to break them open, just as if they were using a tool!

A Northern Cardinal getting its wings measured (left) and being prepared for release (right). Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably seen a Northern Cardinal before (or twenty!). Northern Cardinals are the state bird of North Carolina and a common permanent resident. These are our only red birds in the Carolinas to have a prominent crest, which are the feathers on the top of its head, like a funky hairstyle. The one captured above is a male, which have brighter, redder feathers than the brownish females. Listen carefully when you see one! They’re calls are often found to sound like “pretty-pretty-pretty,” which, when you see one, you can’t disagree!

These weren’t the only birds banded that morning! Make sure to keep your eyes out for Part 2 of Birds at Prairie Ridge, and, as always, keep up with the things happening at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on our Facebook or the Museum’s event page.

Catching Ladybugs for Citizen Science

June 8, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On some Citizen Science Saturdays, you can find kids and adults alike bending close to the ground, reaching down into the milkweed, and raising their hands in triumph when they finally capture the little red beetle that caught their eye. Those are the mornings where we’re participating in the Lost Ladybug Project here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.

Ladybugs that you could potentially spot at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Photos by Chris Goforth.

The Lost Ladybug Project begin in 2000 with a coordination between Cornell researchers and 4-H Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners to survey ladybug populations across New York. Graduate students and elementary schoolers came together to search for ladybugs and, in 2006, a major discovery occurred: 10-year-old Jonathan and 11-year-old Jilene found a rare nine-spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata). This nine-spotted ladybug was the first seen in the eastern U.S. in 14 years and was proof of the power of people coming together for science! Thus, in 2008, the National Science Foundation granted the Lost Ladybug Project funding, and citizens begin spotting and uploading data about ladybugs all around North America.

nine spotted ladybug

Endangered nine-spotted ladybug. Photo by the Lost Ladybug Project.

We’ve been doing it here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation since 2013. On one recent Citizen Science Saturday where we participated in the project, our group ended up collecting over 80 ladybugs! Most of these ladybugs were the Seven-spot Ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata), a non-native species from Europe. A keen-eyed participant, however, did spot a Convergent Ladybug (Hippodamia convergens), the only native ladybug we found that day! After we picked up and collected all the ladybugs, volunteers and staff here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation took pictures of them all individually and uploaded them to, the website that keeps the aggregate data of ladybugs surveyed. Then, we released all of them back into the environment.

Ladybugs that you could potentially spot at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Photos by Chris Goforth.

What does the Lost Ladybug Project do with all of this data? There are over 5,000 species of ladybugs around the world, and each one has its own significance to the ecosystem it exists in. With ladybugs particularly, the fewer the species, the more vulnerable ecosystems can become to the pest insects that ladybugs eat. The Lost Ladybug Project allows for researchers to know how common some ladybug species are in areas, how rare others are, and even how to reintroduce some rare ladybugs, like the Nine-spotted Ladybug, back into the environment.

Catching ladybugs is thrilling way to connect with nature while contributing to a citizen science project. Come join us at Prairie Ridge Station next time we go searching — or grab a jar and catch some ladybugs in your own backyard!

Which Fish Are in the Prairie Ridge Creek? (What Time is it in Nature)

June 6, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

A few weeks ago, a group of volunteers and staff members went electrofishing at the stream at Prairie Ridge Ecostation (read more about that on the post Electrofishing at Prairie Ridge Ecostation!), and we ended up snagging quite a few fish before letting them go. Below are some of the great fish species that can be found in the stream:

Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)

Creek chubs found in the stream (male, female, juvenile from top to bottom)

Creek Chub found in the stream (male, female, juvenile from top to bottom).  Photo by Richa Patel.

The stream was bristling with Creek Chub.  The ones pictured above were just some of the Creek Chub that we were able to capture that morning. These fish have a dark spot on the front of the dorsal fin where the fin attaches to their body and a dark stripe that runs across their body. Juvenile Creek Chub have an even darker stripe; this stripe can be very light or absent on large adults. Breeding adult males have an orange-red color down their belly and cheeks, a dark bar behind its gills, and large horn-like bumps, or tubercles, on top of their heads that differentiate them from females (you can see one on the top of the male’s head in the above picture!). The ones found in our stream ranged between 3 to 5 inches, but Creek Chub can reach up to 12 inches.

Bluehead Chub (Nocomis leptocephalus)

The only bluehead chub we were able to find that morning.

The only Bluehead Chub we were able to find that morning.  Photo by Richa Patel.

This chub has a gorgeous blue head, which identifies it as a breeding male of the keenly named Bluehead Chub. Bluehead Chub are olive-colored on their upper side with a dusk yellow stripe down their backs. They, too, have large tubercles on their heads (check them out in the picture above!). This was the only Bluehead Chub we were able to find, but it did signal that there was a nest around. Male Bluehead Chub create nests from pebbles, which can be more than 2 feet long, that not only attract female Bluehead Chub, but also other minnows and chubs. It’s a beautiful, productive fish to have in our stream!

 Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Museum volunteer Brynn Tracy showing off a caught bluegill.

Museum volunteer Bryn Tracy showing off a caught bluegill.  Photo by Richa Patel.

Bluegill is a native sunfish here in the stream; Prairie Ridge does have some introduced sunfish, like the Green Sunfish, but we didn’t get our hands on any of those when we sampled. Bluegills are tall and flat with a continuous dorsal fin, the front part of which is spiny and the back part of which is soft. The fish are an olive green with a yellow undertone and blue and purple colors on the cheek and gill cover (thus the name Bluegill!). This Bluegill was around 5 inches (they can get to be up to 16) and one of three Bluegills we were able to identify that morning.

Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis)

A well-fed yellow bullhead from the Prairie Ridge creek.

A well-fed yellow bullhead from the Prairie Ridge creek.  Photo by Richa Patel.

This catfish was the largest fish we found! It was around 8 inches long and, as seen above, had to be held very carefully so that volunteer Bryn Tracy avoided getting hurt by the Bullhead’s serrated teeth along its pectoral spine. Yellow Bullheads are differentiated from Black or Brown bullheads by the base of their chin barbels (or ‘whiskers’), which are white or yellow, and by their longer anal fins. This fish locates prey by brushing the bottom of the stream with its whiskers.  The one above in particular had a nice, round belly that indicated it had just found a meal. Check out the whiskers on this one!

These are just some of the fish swimming along in our stream, and we’re always excited when we find more.  Head down to the creek to see what you can find!  However, please note that Prairie Ridge has a strict no collecting policy.  You’re welcome to look at the fish (and plants, insect, birds, mushrooms, and other wildlife) that call Prairie Ridge home, but please leave them where you find them before you leave.

Want to participate in other cool citizen science projects and learn more about the wildlife that lives in Prairie Ridge Ecostation? Keep up with our events on the Museum’s event calendar or our Facebook page!

Electrofishing at Prairie Ridge Ecostation

May 26, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On the beautiful, warm morning of May 23, volunteers and staff gathered at Prairie Ridge Ecostation for an exciting event: it was time to survey the creek! Prairie Ridge is home to a small stream that, thankfully, despite the past day’s heavy rain, still remained accessible and rich with fish.

This morning, staff members who work in the Ichthyology (or fish studies) Unit, Gabriela Hogue and Lindsay Abrams, helped lead the event. After we all switched into rubber boots and walked down to the stream, their intern Connor Neagle put on an impressive looking battery backpack. This, they explained, was to help us catch fish.

YAOI Intern Connor Neagle wearing backpack generator for electrofishing.  Photo by Richa Patel.

This super cool technique involved using the battery on Connor’s back to create a current that passed through the positive (anode) and negative (cathode) electrode rings on the end of the rods he’s holding. Those rings are placed into water and, when the battery is turned on, the field of electricity the device creates in the water causes fish to swim towards the anodes before becoming stunned and floating belly up. No worries! This paralyzation only lasts for a few seconds, just enough time to nab the fish, before the fish are up and swimming again.

(Note: Don’t try this at home! Our staff members are trained professionals with the proper permits to legally electrofish.  Recreational use of electrofishing is both illegal and dangerous.)

A fish is netted in the water.

A fish is netted in the water.  Photo by Richa Patel.

Quite a few fish were snagged during this event, with Gabriela and volunteer Bryn Tracy (the creator of the aforementioned backpack battery) doing an excellent job teaching us about each type of fish, key identifying factors, and interesting sets of behavior. Citizen Science Unit staff member Chris Goforth, our resident aquatic bug expert, also wowed the group with bugs she found during the expedition: mayflies and damselflies and even her first dragonfly at the creek!

Paralyzed fish are collected from the stream when the generator is turned off.  Photo by Richa Patel.


Gabriela Hogue, the Museum's fish collection manager, shows off a creek chub.

Gabriela Hogue, the Museum’s fish collection manager, shows off a creek chub.  Photo by Richa Patel.

The fish are so interesting, they deserved their own post. Want to know more about some of the fish living in the Prairie Ridge Ecostation stream? Make sure to check our next blog post: Which Fish Are In the Prairie Ridge Creek?

Thank you to all of the volunteers and staff members who came out and made it a fun, educational morning. Cool stuff is always happening at Prairie Ridge Ecostation!  Keep up with events on the Museum’s event calendar or our Facebook page.

Scouting Exploration through Citizen Science

March 13, 2018

Research & Collections

The newest merit badge, Exploration, encourages Boy Scouts to discover new things about their world through hands-on research, be it fieldwork or lab work. This mission is shared by the citizen science movement, where scientists partner with citizens to collect data and run research projects. If scouts start teaming up with citizen science projects we could not only check-off a lot of merit badge requirements, but also make important contributions to a range of scientific questions.

The key requirement of the Exploration merit badge is to plan and carry out an expedition. While the term “expedition” brings to mind dog sled teams marching towards the North Pole, there are plenty of options close to home, and the citizen science community is a great way to find the right project.

As a scientist and Assistant Scout Master, I saw the Exploration merit badge as a perfect opportunity to bridge the gap between…

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City Nature Challenge 2018 is coming soon!

March 1, 2018

CNC18_SecLogo-FULL smallIf you’ve been following along with the citizen science program at the NCMNS, you likely heard a lot about the City Nature Challenge last year.  In 2017, the event was a national event with 16 US cities competing against each other to see who could document the most species on iNaturalist over a 5 day period in April.  While the Triangle Area unfortunately didn’t win, we did take 6th place overall and took home the gold for the eastern US.  We finished with 200 participants, close to 8000 observations, 1335 species, and three local prize winners.  Not bad for a metro area with 1/10th of the population of the top 5 cities!

We’re taking part in this fun citizen science event again this year, and the stakes are even higher!  The competition is going international, so we’re up against over 60 cities this time, some located in the hyperdiverse tropics.  This means we need all hands on deck for this event – we likely need over 20,000 observations to win!

Eastern worm snake

Eastern Worm Snake, photo by iNaturalist user @caroline322

How can YOU help?  It’s easy!  Take photos of any living creature you see (avoid pets and people please!) in the Triangle Area from April 27-30, and submit them to iNaturalist via their smartphone app or their website.  That’s it!  Any photo taken with the Triangle Area during the event will automatically contribute toward our totals, so no need to specify the project for this one.  Note also that the “Triangle Area” for this event is quite large and includes Henderson in the North, Fayetteville in the South, Rocky Mount in the east, and ends just shy or Burlington in the west.  Not in the Triangle Area?  Cabarrus County is also participating in the City Nature Challenge and has a lot of fun activities in the works!  They’re competing against us, yes, but don’t we all win if one of the North Carolina teams wins?

Ruffle lichen

Ruffle lichen, photo by iNaturalist user @coatlicue

You can participate in the City Nature Challenge in the Triangle Area solo by visiting any outdoor area during the event, but we’re also planning group walks and other activities to help get you involved.  We’re working on scheduling biodiversity talks and a few downtown nature walks at the NCMNS on Friday, April 27.  Visit our City Nature Challenge table at the SciTech Expo on Saturday, April 28 or take a walk with a naturalist at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Sunday, April 29, we’ll have outdoor activities at Prairie Ridge where you can get to know the local wildlife a little better as you participate.  Other non-Museum outdoor sites are planning CNC activities in the Triangle Area as well.  We’ll list them all as they’re finalized on the Museum’s event listing and on the City Nature Challenge Triangle Area project on iNaturalist.

So, get those camera lenses cleaned and your batteries charged.  The City Nature Challenge 2018 Triangle Area will be here before you know it!