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Archive for the ‘Citizen Science’ Category

Two things I love the most about citizen science are:

  1. science starts with an observation.
  2. Humans spend a good percentage of time “observing.”

That means average citizens might be observing phenomenon that scientists are looking for every day. Tapping into non-scientists’ observations has great potential to advance science and lead to interesting questions.

amy Whale, breaching, Stellwagen Bank National...

From Wikipedia

Case in point: When Freddy Johansen, a tourist on a whale watching boat, took a photo of a humpback whale off the coast of Madagascar in 2001, he had no idea it would break a record for these long distant travelers. Because back in 1999, researchers had photographed the same whale. However, that photo was taken off the coast of Brazil. That’s a 9,800 kilometer journey at least and more than twice the distance of the typical seasonal migration! The previous record sat near 9,400 kilometers.

Additionally, this whale was a female. This is surprising because female whales travel much shorter distances than males, and the only other humpback known to travel from the South Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean was male.

This new record has researchers questioning how much we really know about whales. Some scientists are wondering if this indicates that migration patterns are changing in response to the previously endangered species’ recovery. From Nature News- Humpback Whale Breaks Migration Record:

Daniel Palacios, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says … Behaviours often change as population densities grow; for instance, animals may disperse to avoid competition for food…

The female could have been following prey, exploring new breeding habitats, responding to distant calls, or simply wandering astray. “We generally think of humpback whales as very well studied, but then they surprise us with things like this,” Palacios says. “Undoubtedly there are a lot of things we still don’t know about whale migration.”

Now you might be wondering why everyone is talking about this now when the photos were taken in 1999 and 2001. Are scientists really that inefficient? Not quite.

Spot patterns on whales' tails can be used like human fingerprints to identify individuals. Photo taken by Freddy Johansen

Back in 2001, Freddy Johansen didn’t know about the Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog that researchers use to compare photographs of spot patterns on whales’ tails and determine if they are of the same whale at different locations. However, he did recently upload his photo to Flickr where one whale researcher (Gale McCullough of Allied Whale: see her comment below!) often checks for such photos. Connecting these two photos lead to this record-breaking discovery and Freddy Johansen becoming a coauthor on a scientific paper.

Pretty cool if you ask me, and if you have any clear photos of whales’ tails like the one above, you can also submit them to the Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog. I wonder what other types of photos could be floating around the internet or in someone’s scrapbook with the potential to change what we know and make a scientist out of an unsuspecting citizen.

Quick Update 2:

Not only did the internet allow Gale McCullough to find Freddy Johansen’s photo, it allowed Freddy and Gale to find what I wrote! They both commented below, so be sure to check out the link to Freddy’s photo on Flickr with his retelling. Also, take a look at the comments on his photo and get a glimpse of how the story unfolded!

Gale also provides a great background story and explains how all the pieces fell into place for this discovery (read the first comment on the photo).

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Male (right) presenting grasshopper to female

Image via Wikipedia

 

Kestrel Watch of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center is trying to solve a mystery:     

Since about 2000, The Raptor Center has seen a precipitous decline in the number of kestrels admitted to the center; from 107 admissions in 2000 to only 22 last year (see chart in Statistics).  At the same time, admissions of Cooper’s hawks have doubled, from 54 admissions in 2000 to 114 last year.  At this point, no one knows whether these findings are correlated, or even whether the reduction in kestrel admissions represents a decline of the species in the wild…     

Graph From Kestrel Watch

    

Through Kestrel Watch, The Raptor Center hopes to decode the rapid decline in American kestrel admissions.  To join Kestrel Watch, all you need to do is brush up on your observation and reporting skills.  When you see a kestrel, record the day and time of your observation.  Make note of what the bird was doing.  Was it hunting? Perched? Feeding?  How many kestrels were there?  If you feel comfortable identifying the bird’s gender, report that, too.   

You can submit your observations and photos on the Kestrel Watch website. They also have great information on identification and natural history. You can even see on a map where others have spotted Kestrels.    

    

I checked out the HawkCounts for Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, and it looks like Kestrels should be migrating through that area until early November. Kestrels also stay year round in southern Minnesota. But you don’t have to be in Minnesota to participate. Observers have been reporting in from all over the Midwest.     

  

While I was at the Hawkcount website, I also checked out the number of Kestrels seen migrating through Hawk Ridge since 2000. I even made a quick line graph because I’m a dork cool like that.    

   

From the graph, it seems that the number of observed American Kestrels migrating through is decreasing. However it is variable and dependent on the number of hours of observation, weather, ect. Their data goes all the back to the 70’s, but I wasn’t feeling that ambitious (all the data is online though if you are interested).  I was going to also graph the number of Cooper’s hawks observed to compare with the Raptor Center’s data. However, Cooper’s Hawks don’t  migrate much to the north of Lake Superior so they only see up to a couple hundred per year at Hawk Ridge.   

  

So, Are American Kestrels being taken over by Cooper’s hawks, or are Cooper’s hawks just becoming more accident prone while Kestrels are getting smarter? What do you think? Whatever the case, The Raptor Center doesn’t know and needs your help to find out.    

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On Saturday, I went to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge to help with their annual, open to the public duck banding. The refuge is on flat terrain and is mostly wetlands because it lies on the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz (named after Louis Agassiz: the original glaciologist).

Banding programs for waterfowl help scientists and managers make decisions on hunting regulations and estimate survival rates, migration routes and other biological information. Because of the wet conditions in the region, there was an above average number of ducklings hatched this year. Agassiz is one of Minnesota’s Important Bird Areas with 294 species of birds.

 

Overlook at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge- very flat

 

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On Saturday, September 18th from 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm, I will be helping band waterfowl at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge . Jealous? Well you can join too as the public is invited to help! It is free and you do not need to pre-register. Just arrive on time to the refuge headquarters to take part. Click here for more information.

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eBird

Over Labor Day weekend, I headed south with the Monarch butterflies (not far south enough though). Now that I am back, it appears they have all left as I have not seen one over the last two days.

While I didn’t get to catch any butterflies it seems I did catch a cold over the weekend. But there is good news! Laying around has given me plenty of time to find a new project: eBird.

eBird is a citizen science program where you can report your bird observations online. It is an online checklist of birdwatching activities where you record the presence of birds at a particular place and time. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society put together this program to investigate questions on bird populations, geographic ranges, migration routes and timing, and the impact of climate change from everyday birdwatchers’ observations. In addition, all of this information is accessible to you, the user. I spent a couple of hours today making graphs, maps and bar charts. You can do anything from create species range maps to find out all the different bird species that have been observed (and reported) at a particular site. It also does a great job of keeping track of the data you input and making it useful to you. eBird will even send you sighting alerts for rare birds or species you haven’t seen in an area.

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I recently decided to take on some citizen science projects while I’m here, because it would simply be a waste not to do so considering how much time I spend in and enjoy the outdoors.

Tagged Monarch

Image by steveburt1947 via Flickr

I really wish I had jumped on this sooner though for the citizen science project Monarch Watch. Over the last few days I haven’t been able to go outside for more than ten minutes without seeing at least one Monarch butterfly traveling south for the fall migration to Mexico. One way to participate in Monarch Watch is to tag Monarchs so researchers can gain information about survival, migration routes, etc. To participate, I had to first buy a tagging kit. However, based on my latitude, peak migration rates and the number of Monarchs I have seen recently, I don’t think I will get a kit in time. Until I receive one though, I plan to start a journal with my observations on their migration.

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