Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category

How Many Can You Spot with Celebrate Urban Birds

By May 29th, 2014 at 9:36 am | Comment

In ten minutes, record the number of urban birds you observe in your neighborhood; your observations can improve the bird habitat in your community.

Want more birds and bees citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Baltimore Oriole  (Photo: David Brezinski)

Baltimore Oriole
Photo: David Brezinski, for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Spotting birds in an urban environment not uncommon and these feathered friends have certainly found a place for them in the city. But how are they coping with an environment that is less green and more concrete? This is exactly what a citizen science project from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology is set out to find out.

The project — Celebrate Urban Birds – started in 2007, after consultations with community organizations across the US, as well as scientists and educators. From the start, the objective has always been to develop rigorous protocols to provide reliable scientific data, but also to encourage a strong educational and engagement component to make it happen in communities which citizen science wouldn’t normally reach.

Participation is simple: all you have to do is see how many birds from a list of 16 you can spot in 10 minutes and submit your results online. Not surprisingly, the team has been inundated with submissions across the country and beyond, from Canada to Mexico, and from Boston to Portland.

Despite this overwhelming response, the team has so far been a bit shy about showing their results, as they feel the project needs enough data to allow a reliable analysis. The good news is that, according to ornithologist Karen Purcell, the driving force behind the project, they are currently deep in analysis and we should expect some news in the upcoming months. “This is an exciting year” says Purcell, “because of the fact that we can take a look at the data and we’re going to be able to really understand what’s going on”.

The interesting part is that they’re not just looking at birds. “We’re looking at both the people factor and the community factor, in addition to the bird factor”, says Purcell. This is exactly what differentiates this project from other citizen science projects, as it is as much about the science as it is about the participants and their communities. In fact, although participants can join as individuals, it is through the links with community partners that the project thrives. “We work a lot with organizations that have community events, and that engage participants in the citizen science component, so that’s a big way in which we reach out”, says Purcell.

Very generously, “Celebrate Urban Birds” awards mini-grants to participating organizations, not only to help them develop ways for their members to learn about bird identification and submit their observations, but ultimately to improve bird habitat in the community. This approach “lets us reach a big variety of ages, people that have not participated in this kind of thing before, and the idea in terms of making it appealing towards that audience, is to create something that is useful in the community”, says Purcell.

Ruby-throated hummingbird.

Ruby-throated hummingbird.

Nothing was left to chance and this community focus is also strongly reflected in the list of 16 focal species which participants need to spot. They’re characterized by a strong urban presence throughout the US and further afield, but most importantly as the project deals with novice bird spotters, it includes some species people are likely to see, allowing them to engage with the project.

The list also contains some species chosen for conservational reasons, such as orioles and brown-headed cowbirds, and the team hopes to add more to the list. Top of the wish list at the moment is the hummingbird, which is both a great urban bird to get people to fall in love with bird spotting, and it’s also an important species due to their impact as pollinators.

The project is ongoing, and you can submit your results at any time. So, why not grab your binoculars and see how many birds you can spot in your neighborhood?

Resources: Celebrate Urban Birds Official Site

Images: Wikimedia Commons (Baltimore Oriole, Hummingbird)

Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

Learn how climate change affects plant life with AMC Mountain Watch

By May 19th, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Comment 1

Track phenology events in Appalachian mountains and contribute to climate change research with Mountain Watch!

Want more spring citizen science? We’ve got you covered through April showers and May flowers.

There is nothing more rewarding than taking in the view from above tree-line. A challenging hike always seems like a distant memory after gazing upon the landscape below, especially if it’s the White Mountains of NH. Now, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is calling on visitors of these Northeastern peaks to help them observe plant life through the Mountain Watch program. This citizen science initiative aims to investigate how the life cycles of alpine plants are affected by climate change.


View from the Franconia Ridge Trail, one of the alpine sites on the Mountain Watch list.

To do this, Mountain Watch asks participants to record plant phenology, which is the study of how plant life cycle events, such as flowering or producing fruit, are affected by changes in environmental conditions, including temperature and precipitation. Plant life cycles are very sensitive to small variations, so even subtle changes across seasons can be observed. For example, a dry summer might cause the leaves on trees to change color earlier in the fall. When recorded over many years, these phenology records can start to uncover long term trends in the climate and help scientists to model the effects of climate change in a certain region.

Diapensia, one of the sensitive alpine flowers being monitored.

Since the AMC is based in the Northeastern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, the focus of Mountain Watch is on alpine plants that are found exclusively at high elevations in the north. The program is targeting these alpine species specifically because they have adapted to survive only in harsh, low temperature conditions and cannot thrive in warmer climates. As such, they are especially sensitive to climate change. Georgia Murray, a scientist a the AMC, describes that the Mountain Watch observations help to make up “really rich mountain data sets” that, paired with temperature observations from the Mt. Washington observatory, help to understand how climate change has affected the environment in the Northeast.

This year, the Mountain Watch program is joining an exciting new collaboration called A.T. Seasons (A.T. for Appalachian Trail), which is working to develop sites for citizen scientists to collect plant phenology data all along the Appalachian Trail. Mountain Watch joined this project to get more people involved, and as Georgia explains, to “utilize the A.T. as a north-south corridor in understanding phenology in climate change.” The goal of A.T. Seasons is to monitor the same type of plants along the whole Appalachian Trail to better understand the interplay of climate and phenology across geographical regions, as well as in relation to climate change. As alpine species only grow on the northern section of the A.T., they will not be included in this portion of the program; however, Georgia notes that Mountain Watch will still maintain the “alpine focus that is unique to the AMC and our region in the northeast” in addition to the A.T. Seasons plant list.

The incorporation of A.T. Seasons into the Mountain Watch program allows more citizen scientists to be involved, as the new initiative provides options for different levels of commitment – there is an Android app for easily making one-time measurements and more in-depth training courses for people who want to make long-term observations. The alpine flower portion of the Mountain Watch program does require more “dedicated volunteers,” as Georgia says, who can commit to regularly visiting the remote mountain sites, but there are many educational tools on the website for those who just want to learn more.

So grab those hiking boots and get outdoors! Spring and summer are the best times to observe plant phenology, and the sweeping views of the White Mountains await.

Top image: Sean O’Brien via Flickr

Bottom image: AMC Mountain Watch 

Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase,


Track Lilacs and Loons with Nature’s Notebook

By May 19th, 2014 at 10:59 am | Comment

Observe and collect data to learn how climate and habitat affect plants and animals with Nature’s Notebook.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Observing a tree in Tucson, Arizona.  Photo credit: Brian Powell

Observing a tree in Tucson, Arizona. Photo credit: Brian Powell

Most North Americans are relieved that spring has finally arrived, especially after a winter when ice storms, snowstorms, frigid temperatures or droughts were regular occurrences. For many, winter was not only harsh, but it was also longer than expected. How could a plant grow and survive with cold temperatures or dry conditions? How would the animals that depend on these plants be affected by these changes? These are a few of the numerous questions the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) investigates. The organization studies phenology, the study of the seasonal plant and animal life cycle events. Consisting of staff members, an advisory committee, and partner organizations (such as the U.S. Geological Survey), the USA-NPN collects and analyzes phenology data in order to address scientific and environmental questions.

Recording observations in Tucson, Arizona.  Photo credit: Sara N. Schaffer

Recording observations in Tucson, Arizona. Photo credit: Sara N. Schaffer

Unfortunately, the USA-NPN has a small staff that cannot observe the wildlife of the entire country by themselves. They decided to enlist the help of citizen scientists so they could gather as many pieces of data as possible. In 2009, the USA-NPN established an online monitoring program for over 200 plant species. The following year, they recognized the need to include animals in the monitoring process; as a result, they added animals to the observation program and formally named it Nature’s Notebook (official site).

This year, the USA-NPN hopes to collect 1 million observations through Nature’s Notebook, and invites anyone who wants to participate. To become an observer, set up an online account; then, you can learn how to observe with aid of a detailed handbook or instructional videos. Nature’s Notebook has also created a mobile app (for iOS and Android systems), where observers can enter observations into the database while they are outdoors. The data is readily available through the Phenology Visualization Tool, where you can look at the data of a particular region or species.

Flowers at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, Arizona. Photo credit: Lorianne Barnett

Flowers at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, Arizona. Photo credit: Lorianne Barnett

The observation process might be overwhelming for someone who is new to it. With over 900 plant and animal species in the database, what should you observe? Theresa Crimmins, the Partnerships & Outreach Coordinator for USA-NPN, recommends that you “start small; pick 1 or 2 plants that are familiar to you. Make it low-effort and fun! Observe plants you know and are familiar with.” You can also join a regional campaign, and focus your observations on a particular species, such as the campaign to track cloned lilacs. For educators who want to incorporate Nature’s Notebook into their curriculum, the USA-NPN has educational material available. Crimmins recommends that instructors incorporate the program around the same time each year, in order to contribute to the long-term record of particular species. While there is a time commitment involved for this citizen science project, repeated observations are necessary to notice the long-term changes of a particular species.

USA-NPN and Nature’s Notebook have definitely made an impact on phenology in the United States. It has partnered with almost 200 organizations, contributed to many peer-reviewed publications, and is collaborating with government agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see how the data can be used to inform decisions about wildlife refuges.  This year, Nature’s Notebook is excited to offer an opportunity to learn and interact through their webinar series. Their next webinar, on June 10th at 11am (PST), will be “A Summary of Spring”; a fitting way to celebrate the season and everything that happens within it.

References: USA-NPN 2013 Annual Report: Taking the Pulse of Our Planet

Images: USA-NPN

Rae Moore has a BS in Chemistry from McMaster University and studied Bioinorganic Chemistry as a PhD student at McGill University. She has also been a cheerleading coach, yoga teacher, and preschool science educator. Now she focuses on science education and advocacy, and blogs about scientific job searching on her blog,

Citizen Science for Lovers of Birds and Bees!

By May 16th, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Comment

Let us tell ‘ya about the birds and the bees — for citizen science, that is! Here are just a few buzz-worthy projects to get you started.

Also, don’t forget to stop by DISCOVER Magazine and SciStarter’s online Citizen Science Salon; look for our new collaboration in the pages of Discover starting this month; or listen to beautifully produced citizen science stories from our partners at WHYY radio!



The Great Sunflower Project

Help researchers create a national bee population map to study the decline of bees. Simply plant sunflowers and watch for bee visits a few times a month. Get started!


Celebrate Urban Birds

Help ornithologists learn about 16 key species of urban birds by tracking up to 16 species of birds for just 10 mins in a small area near you. Get started! (Photo: Louise Docker)


Bee Hunt

Use digital photography to help provide a better understanding of pollinators’ importance in growing food and maintaining healthy natural ecosystems. Get started!



North American Bird Phenology Program

Millions of bird migration records have been scanned. Care to illuminate almost a century of migration patterns and population status of birds? Transcribe records so they can be included in an open database for analysis. Get started!


The Zombie Fly has been found parasitizing honey bees in California, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington. Where else in North America are bees infected by Zombie Flies? Help solve the mystery by collecting honey bees and reporting easy-to-spot signs of infection. You’ll know it when you see it! Get started!

On Sunday, 5/18 at 9:26 am ET, the Space X Dragon Cargo will be released from the International Space Station to return to Earth. The Cargo will splash down into the Pacific Ocean returning our very own citizen science research project, Project MERCCURI, to Earth! You can watch this all take place, LIVE, on NASA TV: May 18, Sunday 9 a.m.

Learn more about Project MERCCURI at

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact

First Leaf, First Bud, First Fruit: Project Budburst

By May 9th, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Comment

Record plant observations and learn how changes in climate and habitat affect a plant’s lifecycle with Project Budburst.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ward, of Project BudBurst.

Gardeners worldwide have their favorite sayings about when to plant, when to reap, how much rain is going to fall, or how dry it will be.  For example, according to one proverb, “If the oak’s before the ash, then you’ll only get a splash; but if the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak.”  Typically tested by time, and cast over generations by people who till the land, they identify the prime time to sow or harvest. According to an English folk-rhyme, “After a famine in the stall, (bad hay crop) comes a famine in the hall, (bad corn crop).”  Endemic to regions around the world, the words often identify both the geographic locale and the season. Gardeners have not only learned the sign for a wet spring or a dry summer, but they also know that there is a connection between the first leaf, the first flower, the first fruit and the corresponding season. Scientists call the study of this timing phenology, and it is the primary concern of a public participation project called Project BudBurst (official site).

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst.

Project BudBurst  is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data about plant phenology. The project makes the data freely available so that others can make discoveries from it, and publish and write about what they find. Rather than looking for the next “big” thing, the team focuses their efforts on developing and building new and better tools, and opportunities for people across the spectrum, from educators and scientists to students and the public, to explore and engage with the data so that they can make their own discoveries. According to Sarah Newman, a citizen science coordinator with Project BudBurst, “Project BudBurst participants have been sharing their observations of plants with us since 2007. Most climate change studies need about 30 years of data to really start saying something concrete about the effects of climate change, so we have many years of data collection ahead of us yet. That being said, we are starting to see trends for some plants that show they are blooming earlier than was historically true.” One example reported in an American Scientist article records how a group of researchers modeled the timing of cherry-blossom peak bloom for trees in the Washington, DC region under various scenarios of climate change. Project Budburst data has also been used in a number of regional historical studies. Take for instance a 2012 study, in which data collected in the Chicago region was compared with records accumulated by botanists Floyd Swink and Gerry Wilhelm. “Swink and Wilhelm collected phenology observations from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. Of the 15 local species for which we had good contemporary and historical data,” said the authors, “13 had an earlier first flower in one or more years between 2007 and 2012 than was ever observed by Swink and Wilhelm.” Operating within these timescales, the data begins to reveal the effects of climate change on plants.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

An important element of Project BudBurst is science education. Dr. Sandra Henderson, the project director, enjoys working on Project BudBurst because it allows her to combine her background in biogeography and experience in developing climate change educational programs. When questioned about data verification—a common bugbear for volunteer-collected data, she said, “Traditionally, we had an annual ‘clean up’ of the data base by plant scientists associated with Project BudBurst. These subject matter experts helped in making decisions of what data would be shared each year. As our program has grown, this has proven to be somewhat inefficient. For future campaigns, we will be exploring online approaches to data verification.” Newman is also excited about Project BudBurst’s education initiative, which will facilitate data collection. “Just this week we announced our first cohort of Certified Instructors who will be able to offer presentations and workshops about Project BudBurst in their communities and local areas. Because our program is entirely online and we have a small staff, we are thrilled that these instructors will be able to create personal connections and offer in-person opportunities to engage with Project BudBurst across the country.” (You can learn more about these instructors here) A folk saying used in the Midwest goes like this, “When maples flower and woodchucks dig up the hillsides, ducks are scouting for nesting sites, and onion sets can be tucked into the garden soil.” As Project Budburst collects data to inform climate change studies, what happens to these sayings as phenology keeps pace? Do they migrate with the warming spring? Will this become a northeastern quote, or will it just fade into the mists of time?


Chung, U., L. Mack, J. I. Yun, and S.-H. Kim. 2011. Predicting the timing of cherry blossoms in Washington, DC and mid-Atlantic states in response to climate change.
PLoS ONE 6: e27439. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0027439

Images: Project BudBurst

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