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Building a Species List with Citizen Scientists

September 5, 2015

The Museum’s outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation, is a 45-acre parcel of land nestled between the NC Art Museum and NCSU’s Schenck Forest.  Part public outdoor space and part research field station, Prairie Ridge is home to a surprising number of species, especially given its proximity to town. We also participate in over 40 citizen science projects at the site and data is collected by a wide range of staff, volunteers, and program participants. We keep a species list of the things found at Prairie Ridge and it’s comprehensive for some groups, especially birds, mammals, and butterflies. However, every now and again our citizen scientists will come up with a new species to add to the list. Let’s explore some of these species list additions!

The last two winters, we’ve been lucky enough to play host to an exciting bird, an American Bittern:


This bird isn’t normally found in Raleigh in the winter, so he (or she – we’re not sure) was a very exciting addition to our species list! We first learned that it was here when a local birdwatcher visited the pond, spotted the highly camouflaged heron, and reported it on eBird. Over the next few weeks, dozens of birders started dropping by Prairie Ridge daily, asking about where to find the Bittern, and reporting it online. The first winter, the bird drew hundreds of people to the site and you’d often see large groups at the pond on weekends, watching the Bittern through binoculars and snapping photo after photo. (I would bet that this particular bird is THE single most photographed bittern on the planet!) Last year we learned it was back when local birders once again spotted it in the cattails and reported it online. We’re able to track its appearance and disappearance each year fairly accurately with eBird data.  We are thrilled to have a Bittern at Prairie Ridge and it’s great that citizen scientists discovered it here!

Last winter, we had another special visitor to Prairie Ridge, a Bobcat:

Bobcat on camera trap

No one ever spotted the Bobcat in person, but it showed up on our eMammal camera traps in several locations over three months. It was definitely a first for Prairie Ridge, but eMammal data from a 6 state area suggest that Bobcats prefer rural habitats, making a Bobcat at Prairie Ridge a very special find. We don’t get to add mammals to the species list very often, so the discovery through a citizen science project was very exciting! The volunteers who process our eMammal data had a fun three months looking out for the Bobcat in the footage and we managed to gather data that suggests that the Bobcat was roaming throughout most of the grounds once a week or so during the months that it was visiting the grounds. We haven’t spotted it on the cameras for several months now, but we’re hoping it will show up again sometime!

We offer weekly citizen science walks at Prairie Ridge that teach participants local natural history as they collect data for a citizen science project. We’ve recently begun offering butterfly walks as part of our Citizen Science Saturday rotation and they have proven to be popular. We typically see the common butterfly species that everyone sees at Prairie Ridge on these walks, but just last weekend we came across a new-to-Prairie Ridge butterfly:

great purple hairstreak

Great Purple Hairstreaks are gorgeous butterflies, so the group of walkers that discovered it were very excited. They were even more excited when we looked up the Prairie Ridge species list and discovered that we were going to add a new species to the list. It might not have exactly the same thrill that discovering a new-to-science species might, but being the first people to ever see a species at Prairie Ridge still makes for a good experience.

Our citizen scientists might not make new bird, mammal, or butterfly discoveries every single time they help collect data, but it’s great fun when they do. It adds an extra little element of excitement to a volunteer’s day or a program participant’s experience and keeps people coming back looking for more. So far we haven’t found an entirely new species at Prairie Ridge, but if we keep looking with enough citizen scientists, we just may come across something that no one has ever seen before. You never know what you’re going to see or what discoveries you will make as a citizen scientist!

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