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This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

AUGUST 2011 (links updated 2014): You're out in nature (or the backyard) and spot a bird or a lizard or a wildflower. Don't keep it to yourself! The world wants to know.

Share Your Nature Sightings
Spot something? Document it. Who knew science could be this fun!

Late last month, an extremely rare bird was spotted at Coney Island by two novice bird-watchers, Sara Burch and Jacob McCartney, who reported their sighting on eBird, a bird "checklist" site run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. They thought it was a Black-headed Gull, which would have been unusual enough. But according to eBird reviewers, it was a Gray-hooded Gull, which is rarer still. The bird is native to the Southern Hemisphere and there is only one other North American sighting on record.

Sara and Jacob made this amazing find not despite their being new to birding, but seemingly because of it. They were counting a flock of Laughing Gulls when they noticed the oddball in its midst. Given how common Laughing Gulls are in the Northeast, few experienced birders would have bothered to look their way.

Enthusiasm and openness have ever been the assets of the amateur.

By reporting their sighting to eBird, and supplying photos when requested, Sara and Jacob not only became minor celebrities in the birding community, but actually expanded scientific knowledge.

This kind of success comes to few, but the chance to join and work with a community of nature-lovers to document wildlife is open to everyone. It is done through "citizen science" projects, and an interest in the natural world is all that's needed by way of credentials. At the same time, you won't find these projects beneath you if you do happen to have a science degree. The projects generally allow people to participate at their own level.

Perhaps the most accessible citizen science project with the broadest appeal is Project Noah, whose goals are to help people reconnect with nature and collect important ecological data that helps preserve global biodiversity. Originally a mobile app, it now has a full-fledged website as well. You sign up by iPhone, Android or computer, create as much of a profile as you like and upload your wildlife photos—either on the go from your mobile device or from your computer. Along with the photos, you supply observational details and pinpoint locations on a Google map. The more information you provide, the more scientifically valuable your sightings will be—but the only absolutely essential thing is the photos.

If you know what the animal or plant is, you identify it, with the scientific name if possible. If you don't, you click "Help me ID this species" so other users can send their suggestions. And here's the cool part—they do, often with references you can check out. It turns out this is an expectation of the community—that people will help each other identify their sightings. Those who help aren't necessarily any more expert than you, but they do their best and sometimes nail it.

As you might expect in this social media era, you can "follow" other community members and they can follow you. But, speaking for myself, that is less interesting than the lists of "related spottings" and "nearby spottings" that show up on each of your own spotting pages. The more you follow these links, the more you learn about the flora and fauna around you. There is also fun to be had contributing to "missions" and acquiring Project Noah badges.

Where Project Noah puts a premium on the citizen scientist's experience, the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) is more concerned with the final product—a comprehensive "online reference and database on all 1.9 million species currently known to science." While many have dreamed of such a resource before, this encyclopedia—the first of its kind—is the brainchild of scientist E.O. Wilson, who coined the word biodiversity and has authored many a beloved and engaging book for the general public.

There is no social media frou-frou connected with EOL, but you can upload your photos and short videos of wildlife to the EOL Flickr group and longer videos to the EOL Vimeo group. You can also share your knowledge about organisms via an EOL account, which is open to all. EOL curators will review your submissions and add vetted content to the site. If you are an experienced citizen scientist or naturalist or a scientist, you can apply to become a curator yourself. Visit the Help Build EOL page to learn more.

You might be interested in more rigorous data recording programs such as Audubon's Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's NestWatch and Project FeederWatch programs, all of which happen at particular times of year in registered locations. Then there's eBird, where you record details of every bird you see whenever you see it, anywhere in the world. The data you collect help answer such vital and interesting questions as how populations of particular bird species are growing or declining in an area, when migrants arrive and leave, and how climate change and other variables may be changing old patterns. It can also help to answer such pressing personal questions as when you can expect redwing blackbirds to return to your favorite haunts in the spring.

If none of these fits the bill, find a project that does at scienceforcitizens.net. The benefits of participating travel both ways—to the world of science as much as to those who get involved.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic


Project Noah
PROJECT NOAH. The screen shots above are from my recently opened Project Noah account. Join and follow me. I'll follow you back!

The top picture shows one of my wildlife "spottings"—a Pacific Madrone tree— along with its location (San Juan Island) on the map.

The bottom picture shows my homepage, which lists members' spottings as they are added to the site, commented on or favorited. It's like your Facebook wall, except the news is all about plants and animals, and your "friends" are all the other members. (They're nature-lovers like you, but you may want to keep your true identity to yourself.)


Encyclopedia of Life Flickr group
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIFE. Upload your photos to the EOL Flickr group to help this scientific effort to document all the world's species. You will need to assign your images a Creative Commons license, which preserves your copyrights while letting other people copy and distribute your work.


Gray-hood Gull in front of Wonder Wheel at Coney Island
ONE RARE BIRD. The sighting of this unusual bird on Coney Island by two novice birders created a stir after it was reported to eBird and there identified as a Gray-hooded Gull, only the second ever reported in North America.

The original of this photo is by Dendroica cerulea, some rights reserved.


Resources


Citizen Science Sites & Projects
Project Noah
Encyclopedia of Life
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Christmas Bird Count
eBird
scienceforcitizens.net




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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.