Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category

WildObs: Instagram for Nature Lovers

By April 10th, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Comment

Collect and share pictures of memorable encounters with nature using the WildObs app.

Want more citizen science? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that.

Gopher Snake

There are nature lovers, wildlife photographers, hikers, kayakers and birdwatchers who pursue their passion every day, and most of them do so in the hope of spotting an osprey, or catching a glimpse of a mountain lion or bear. As rewarding as these sightings are, there is an equally fulfilling joy to be found in identifying a clump of apple snail eggs, butterfly or a nighthawk chick. This is what WildObs (official site), a crowdsourced program that partners with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) does—it serves as a portal geared for enthusiasts rather than naturalists or scientists—users who want to gather, share and comment on their day to day sightings.

Adam Jack the creator of the program launched it in 2008. “As a nature lover with a glorious number of encounters, and a reasonably technical iPhone user, I wanted to be able to remember wildlife I saw; what, where and when I saw the wildlife, and ideally try to build a community database to identify good places to find critters,” he said. The idea to build WildObs came in part from Goodreads; the system for books you’ve read, books you’d like to read, and book discovery. “Why not be able to record what wildlife you’ve seen, mark species as favorites, and so on. Given that knowledge the system could inform you about what has been seen recently around you, educate you with the wildlife you might not know existed, and bring you local news from other wildlife lovers.” The idea was to connect people, places and wildlife.

You can record your encounters for your own studies, or enjoyment, use the records you produce to develop a personal wildlife calendar for the year, or maintain a life list as you learn about new species. The NWF uses the program as part of their Wildlife Watch initiative, to track the occurrences of natural phenomena. In addition you can share wildlife Stories online and join the NWF Flickr group. All of this is available to both first timers and professionals.

Western Snowy Plover Family

As a wildlife community, WildObs participants help each other find the nature (for a photograph or close encounter) and users learn about the species in their neighborhoods, so the app essentially offers a collaborative wildlife experience—it helps people connect people to wildlife. When asked if the project plans to publish any findings related to the user collection, Jack says, “The database only has tens of thousands of records to date. WildObs has become more a system of ‘interesting encounters’ than every encounter. It doesn’t have bioblitz-type data, but rather more individual sightings—a Moose here, or a Bobcat there.” There are currently a few thousand users.

WildObs Android

There is always at least one exciting thing about a participatory project—something that enthuses users or that sparked the first idea for it. For Adam Jack and WildObs that would be how the app shares encounters amongst the community. “The app send its users custom notifications tailored to their interests, location and species encounter history. The ultimate goal for WildObs is to connect and engage people with the wildlife around them, and to excite them to go explore and enjoy,” says Jack. It actually sounds a bit like Instagram for nature lovers, which seems to be a pretty neat idea. Join the WildObs community via your Android or iPhone and use technology to help you connect with nature.

Images: Ian Vorster

Android App:
iPhone App:
WildObs on Flickr:

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at

Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Spring Projects!

By March 20th, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Comment


Illustration by Tony Auth

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas highlights some spring projects that you can get involved in this season.

Spring is in the air, and so it citizen science! As SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier told WHYY, ”Springtime is the time for citizen science [...] So you can find, in our project finder, everything from collecting information about precipitation to checking out bird nests and looking for incubating eggs.”

Listen to a teaser of the piece below, then read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more about the variety of projects you can get involved in. You’ll find the full audio there.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to



WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) Friday on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

Spring is Here!

By March 20th, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Comment

The equinox is upon us. Budding trees and baby birds will soon greet us. As the weather gets warmer, be ready to Spring into action with these five springtime citizen science projects!

Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 4.04.55 PM

Project BudBurst

Help scientists understand the impacts of global climate change! Report data on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants in your area. To participate, you simply need access to a plant. Get started!


Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 4.04.59 PM

Camel Cricket Census

The Your Wild Life team needs citizen scientists to share observations and photos of camel crickets in your home! Many keen citizen observers have reported a preponderance of camel crickets, and interesting patterns in cricket distribution have emerged! Get started!


Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 4.05.04 PM

Where’s the Elderberry Longhorn Beetle?

This beautiful beetle species lived throughout eastern North America but in recent decades it’s all but disappeared. To help solve this mystery, a Drexel University researcher wants you to be on the lookout for this beauty of a beetle now through June. Get started!


Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 4.05.09 PM

CoCoRaHS:Rain, Hail, Snow Network

When a rain, hail, or snow storm occurs, take measurements of precipitation from your location.Your data will be used by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, and more! Get started!


Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 4.05.13 PM


Help scientists understand how environmental change and habitat destruction affect breeding birds. Visit nests once or twice each week and monitor their progression from incubating eggs to fuzzy chicks to fully feathered adults. Get started!


See how WCVE’s Science Matter’s is also jumping for  citizen science this spring with FrogWatchUSA!

Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found.

Calling hackers and developers! SciStarter is organizing pop-up hackathons to develop open APIs and other tools to help citizen scientists. Contact the SciStarter Team if you’d like to join us in Boston, Philly, NYC, or Washington, DC in April! Email

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact

Why Did the Salamander Cross the Road?

By March 5th, 2014 at 11:00 am | Comment

Count and protect migrating amphibians. Help salamanders cross the road at night with the Salamander Crossing Brigades.

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.


A spotted salamander spied on one of AVEO’s volunteer nights. Photo courtesy of Brett Amy Thelen.

Springtime means that love is in the air. Bees are buzzing, birds are chirping,  animals are mating–and salamanders want to do it too. That is, if they can reach their breeding grounds safely. Salamanders, known for their permeable skin and their capacity to regenerate limbs, make use of rainy spring nights to trek from their underground forest habitats to nearby ephemeral pools to lay eggs. In their travels, salamanders often have to cross roads, and yet so far, they don’t have crosswalks.

To help ensure salamanders’ safe passage to their breeding grounds, the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory (AVEO), the citizen science arm of the Harris Center for Conservation Education in New Hampshire, trains citizen scientist volunteers as crossing guards for the northeast’s amphibians every spring. Salamander migrations are highly threatened by automobile traffic- rates of deaths on roadways are predicted to be high enough to lead to local extinction of spotted salamanders in the next 25 years according to a study published in Wetlands Ecology and Management. Citizen scientist volunteers are trained to safely usher amphibians across roads and enumerate the species that they see. Through efforts over the last six years, AVEO’s collaboration with citizen scientists has prevented over 15,000 amphibians from being victims of roadkill.

In what AVEO calls, “Big Nights” as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigades project (official site), citizen scientist volunteers work collectively at crossing brigades for wood frogs, spring peepers, and salamanders, including the protected Jefferson and blue-spotted salamander species. Hundreds to thousands of amphibians can cross in one night depending on temperature and precipitation conditions. AVEO studies snow melt and weather patterns, among other variables, to predict nights of maximal amphibian movement on which they schedule their crossing brigades. Salamanders generally prefer rainy nights when temperatures rise above 40, but unpredictabilities arise making designating Big Nights the most challenging, yet critical, aspect of the project. This year AVEO anticipates that early to mid-April will be salamander crossing season this year in southern New Hampshire.

View Amphibian Tracker 2014 in a larger map

AVEO also trains citizen scientists to help protect the salamanders of New Hampshire by identifying new road areas which salamanders traverse to reach their breeding grounds. “We add new crossings to our map every year, all based on the knowledge of our citizen science network. Our volunteers are essential. We simply wouldn’t have a Salamander Crossing Brigade program without them,” says Brett Amy Thelen, science director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education. According to Thelen, one of the project’s biggest accomplishments was inciting the City of Keene, NH to purchase a parcel of conservation land encompassing multiple amphibian crossing sites identified by citizen scientists. “The land was originally slated for development, and the City’s decision to purchase it was based in large part on the data collected by our volunteers, which demonstrated that the site was an important migratory amphibian corridor in Keene.”

AVEO leads another citizen science project, the Vernal Pool Project, where citizen scientists help locate new vernal pools, the ephemeral breeding grounds of salamanders and other amphibians. Breeding in permanent bodies of water is hindered by resident fish populations which prey on salamander eggs. As a result, the transience of vernal pools provides salamanders with a safe breeding location that they can return to each spring. The Vernal Pool Project has identified 130 vernal pools in southwestern New Hampshire, enabling AVEO to implement forestry practices designed to protect the pools from the potential negative effects of timber harvests. Because vernal pools are generally within 1000 feet of salamanders’ normal habitats, protecting the surrounding forest areas is also important for salamander conservation.

Want to participate in a night of helping hundreds of colorful and noisy critters get to the other side? Salamander Crossing Brigade volunteer training sessions will take place on the evening of Thursday, March 13 in Keene, NH and the morning of Saturday March 29 in Hancock, NH. To find out more about salamander migrations, you can check out University of Connecticut Professor Mark Urban’s “amphibian tracker” on his lab website.

Image: Courtesy of Brett Amy Thelen (top), Urban Lab (map)

Sheetal R. Modi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University where she studies how bacteria develop and spread antibiotic resistance. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and when she’s not growing her bacterial cultures (and repeatedly killing them), she enjoys science communication and being outside.

Loss of the Night: Stargazing and Citizen Science

By February 28th, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Comment

Contribute to light pollution research with the Loss of the Night Android app!

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.

Effects of Skyglow due to artificial light on star visibility

Effects of skyglow on star visibility (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

I’m going to take a quick bet and guess that every one who is reading this post has at least once gazed up at a clear sky and been fascinated by all the stars out there. If you’re out walking in the night with your friends or family, stargazing is probably the cheapest way to entertain yourself for hours on end.

Now, what if you could have all that fun, learn about constellations and contribute to science at the same time? There’s an app for that.

The science that we are talking about here is research on light pollution. Light pollution is the excessive artificial light that is added by sources such as poorly designed street lighting and over-illumination (imagine Times Square, Las Vegas or empty offices with the lights on all night).

Though we associate the increased availability of artificial lighting as a measure of human progress, it has unintended consequences. Birds misdirected by illuminated structures often suffer fatal collisions and freshly hatched turtles die because they wrongly migrate towards illuminated lands instead of the sea. Light pollution also significantly affects the diurnal or nocturnal nature of animals. As humans, our internal body clocks are also very tightly linked to the rhythmic changes in light between day and night. Artificial lighting can disrupt this rhythm leading to consequences to our health such as disorders associated with poor sleep patterns. So more light is not always good. Now that I’ve made you sufficiently concerned about this issue, I’m going to tell you how you can help!

Identifying stars in the night sky is one way by which we can measure light pollution. In a setting with lots of artificial lighting, the number of stars that are visible will be less. By gathering large amounts of information on star visibility from different locations around the world, citizen scientists can contribute extremely valuable data to the research effort on light pollution. Since not all of us are adept at identifying stars and constellations, several initiatives have come forward to help citizen scientists participate. One if them is the Loss of the Night (official site) (Verlust der Nacht in German) research network funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The app was built in partnership with Cosalux. It investigates the causes and consequences of light pollution with the goal of developing improved and sustainable lighting concepts.

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

The data collected is sent to a larger international citizen science project called ‘GLOBE at Night’ which has been collecting and mapping this data since 2006. Over the past 8 years, more than 100,000 data points have been collected by Globe at Night from citizen scientists in 115 countries. Around 10,000 (and counting) of these data points have been contributed by the Loss of the night app. For 2014, the Globe at Night project plans to collect data about specific constellations at defined windows every month of the year. To start adding your own observations to this effort, I’ve come up with a simple guide below.

[Note - This month's Globe at Night campaign is ending on 2/28! Send in your measurements whenever you can! Don't worry, you can still participate outside of the campaign dates.]

A how-to guide for Loss of the Night

  1. Be safe, and be aware of your surroundings. Find level ground with room to move around. Always have a companion with you to watch out for potential hazards when you are walking around with your eyes to the sky. Wear appropriate clothing to protect yourself from the elements.
  2. Download Loss of the night on your Android phone. When using the app for the first time, you may optionally choose to enter information about yourself such as your age, whether you wear glasses and your email address. You can also create a username if you wish to track your observations on the GLOBE at night map. (Don’t have an Android phone? Check out the Dark Sky Meter iOS project or Globe at Night project for other ways to contribute!)
  3. Go out on a night when the sky is clear. If you’re in North America use the Clear Sky Chart to find out sky conditions close to where you are. Alternatively if you’re just out at night with friends, family or a significant other and see a clear night sky get cracking!
  4. Whip out your smartphone, fire up the app and point the camera at the night sky. You will see a red circle with an arrow. Note: If it’s not dark enough outside, the app will prompt you to measure at a different time.
  5. Move your phone in the general direction of the arrow. The app uses the electronic compass in your phone to identify your direction. When you are in the right position to identify a star, the screen will freeze and the circle will enlarge.
  6. If you can see the star identified on your screen in the sky select ‘Star is visible’. If you cannot or youre not sure, select ‘Not visible or unsure’.  Congratulations! You’ve made a measurement!
  7. In order to get a reliable reading of how dark the night sky is, you will need to take at least 7 measurements. If you’re feeling particularly curious, you can always keep going and take more than 7. The success of the project depends upon getting as many readings as possible so keep measuring!
  8. (Optional but definitely recommended!) If Scistarter helped you get started, tell us how it worked out. Give us a shout out on Twitter or Facebook! If you haven’t already, sign up to learn about cool projects in the future.

Check out the detailed guide for more information and help using the app.

Images: Courtesy of Loss of the Night

Arvind Suresh graduated with his MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn or at his Website.