Would you like to help researchers monitor local frog populations, document the breeding status of area birds, count fish returning to spawn, or tag horseshoe crabs as they lay eggs on Long Island Sound beaches? Then you should become a citizen scientist.
Opportunities abound for active individuals – and even inactive ones – who can devote some of their available time to supporting the work of scientists seeking a better understanding of wildlife populations, water quality, climate change, pollution and many other topics. And it doesn’t take an expert to contribute valuable information.
More and more, scientists at state agencies, universities and nonprofit groups are finding that volunteers can collect far more data than the scientists can collect on their own, enabling the researchers to learn much more in a shorter period of time and less expensively than ever before.
“Citizen science is really a modern rendition of what has been done for as long as humans have been around – observing, noticing, and taking part in nature – but it has been gradually used as a tool since the environmental advocacy boom to help conservation projects and research get completed,” says Lena Ives, a naturalist at the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center in Hampton, who is compiling a list of citizen science projects around the state.
Some national programs, like the Great Sunflower Project, The Lost Ladybug, Firefly Watch, and Project Squirrel allow you to participate in your own backyard simply by following directions on a website and submitting data online.
Locally-based projects invite participants to attend nearby training sessions or join scientists in the field for data collection and scientific investigations. It’s a fun way to contribute to answering pressing scientific questions while also meeting others with similar interests.
The following local projects are in need of additional citizen scientists, and a quick internet search will find plenty more.
Since 2014, Connecticut Audubon has managed a statewide effort to monitor the health of osprey populations. A network of Osprey Nation volunteers monitors nests in their local area by collecting data about arrival and departure dates and nesting success. They also regularly observe the condition of the nests and supporting poles to make sure they are safe and secure.
Osprey numbers have been growing steadily in Connecticut for several decades after they declined in the 1960s and 1970s due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure. Last year, 314 volunteers monitored 603 nests that produced 725 fledglings, more than double the number of fledglings from just three years ago. Osprey nests are especially abundant along Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River.
More than 5,800 miles of rivers and streams traverse Connecticut, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection needs volunteers to regularly monitor the health of each water body. One program involves the use of data loggers to monitor water quality by recording stream temperature year-round, though most activity takes place in spring and fall. The data is used to inform DEEP water quality assessments, help develop state water temperature standards, identify cold water fish habitat, and determine the impact of water pollution mitigation projects.
Volunteers are also needed for a river bioassessment project whereby volunteers are trained to document the state’s healthiest streams by identifying aquatic macroinvertebrates. Other opportunities to monitor water quality are also available.
Amphibians are important indicators of healthy environments and a vital part of the food chain. In many parts of the world, frog numbers are declining and many species are on the brink of extinction.
While the situation is not nearly as dire in Connecticut, Mystic Aquarium coordinates the FrogWatch program to encourage residents to keep an eye on the health of local populations of frogs and toads in neighborhood ponds and swamps. During a training session in early spring, volunteers learn to identify frog calls and then spend 10 minutes each week in spring and summer visiting local ponds to listen for calling frogs and toads. Data is collected and shared with a national database on frog populations.
Breeding Bird Atlas
In the 1980s, birdwatchers undertook a comprehensive effort to document the breeding status of every species of bird in every corner of the state. By visiting each of 596 blocks – each 10-square miles in extent – they documented the breeding status of 188 species.
The second Connecticut Bird Atlas is now underway to repeat the process, and it is due to be completed in 2021. In addition to identifying which birds breed where, atlas volunteers also collect information about the abundance of each species during summer, and they will repeat the effort in winter to assess bird distribution and abundance during the non-breeding season. The resulting data will be used to document changes since the first atlas and to identify priority areas for bird conservation and land protection.
The Connecticut Fund for the Environment and the Alewife Cove Conservancy this year launched an effort to monitor the presence and absence of alewives (river herring) during the spring fish run in the area around Alewife Cove. The fish, which spend most of their lives at sea but return to local rivers to spawn, have been blocked from reaching their spawning waters in Alewife Cove and Fenger Brook due to a dam, which is due to be removed next year.
Volunteer monitors are performing visual scans at predetermined locations before and after the dam’s removal to provide baseline data about how many fish are in the area and to assess the success of the restoration effort.
Mystic Aquarium leads an effort at Bluff Point State Park in Groton to count and tag horseshoe crabs at high tide on full moon nights from May to July. The Watch Hill Conservancy does something similar at Napatree Point in Westerly.
The projects aim to collect data about population numbers and spawning abundance of the once-common marine creature that has declined in recent decades due to overfishing and collection for use in the biomedical industry. (The crabs’ unusual blue blood has properties that are used to ensure that medical devices are free of harmful bacteria.) The monitoring takes just a few hours after dark, and it helps provide insight into the natural history of this ecological oddity.