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Monitoring Environmental Change with Picture Posts

December 5, 2017

The Museum first opened Prairie Ridge Ecostation on the west side of Raleigh in 2004. The grounds used to be a part of an NCSU cattle pasture, so the site was nothing like what you see today when the Museum took it over!  Over several years, the prairie was planted, the Outdoor Classroom was installed, the Nature Neighborhood Garden was planted, the pond was created, and a variety of other features were added to make the grounds what they are today.  Prairie Ridge is now a haven for wildlife in Raleigh and attracts things that might not make much use of the area otherwise, such as Bobcats, Painted Buntings, and River Otters.

It’s fun to look back on the development of Prairie Ridge over time and see how much the facility has changed. Happily, we’ve been involved in a citizen science project since 2007 that allows us to do just that!  Picture Posts is a project that monitors environmental change in an area.  The project asks people to place posts topped with a octagonal guide on their grounds, then use the guide to photograph the site in a standardized way.  A Picture Post submission consists of 9 photos, one taken on each side of the octagon (in landscape format, zoomed all the way out), starting on the side facing north, and one photograph taken by laying the camera on top of the post and photographing upwards.  These 9 photos give you a good idea of the area over 365 degrees as well as the canopy cover at the site of each post.  By taking photos of the same area in the same way over and over, you can get a really great idea of what a site looks like and how it changes over time.

Prairie Ridge has four Picture Posts, one on the Forest Trail, one on the deck of the Outdoor Classroom (currently out of commission due to recent repairs), one in the Jesse Perry Arboretum, and one in the prairie. By including four very different habitats in our Picture Post submissions, we’re able to track the changes that have occurred as new features are built, attendance patterns change, and management is applied.  Volunteers collect the data about once a week (with some gaps here and there as staff and volunteer changes have occurred), so we have a really excellent series of photos illustrating Prairie Ridge as it’s grown since the posts were installed.

So just how HAS Prairie Ridge changed since 2007? Let’s take a look at some photos!

The Nature Neighborhood Garden was quite new in 2007, and Prairie Ridge had no solar panels or wind turbine yet, and the area around the garden was treeless. Today, we generate our own power and the garden is a thriving demonstration of how you can plant native plants and have a gorgeous garden that also attracts wildlife:View from the classroom picture post

The forest has matured! In 2008, when the photo on the left was taken, the trees were a lot closer to the post than they are now:

Forest picture post, looking upward

It’s amazing the trees have grown so quickly near the post! Other areas of the Forest Trail were more mature when this post was installed, but this area is clearly one of rapid growth.

The Arboretum was newly installed in 2008, and many trees have been added to the area since. It’s a site of very obvious change between then and now:

Arboretum picture post view

The trees that were present initially have grown significantly, many more trees have been added to the Arboretum, and the whole area is a lot greener than it used to be.

The prairie also shows a lot of maturation between 2008, when the photo on the left was taken, and 2016, when the photo on the right was taken:

prairie picture post view

The prairie started off slowly and needed a lot of help in the first several years to get it going. Now, it’s a thriving community of grasses and wildflowers that supports a wide variety of wildlife!  Prairie Ridge has a growing list of species that make use of the grounds as the prairie, the Arboretum, and the forest continue to mature and change.

Though we haven’t used our Picture Post data ourselves to answer any research questions yet, these data are useful to a variety of researchers who are studying landscape changes, management, phenology, greenness indices, and other topics. We hope to correlate our data with the increase in bird species spotted on the grounds and how the management of the prairie (mowing and burning) influence our mammal populations.  In the meantime, we’ll keep collecting and uploading our Picture Post data and look forward to the interesting questions these data will help us answer soon!

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