Imagine working with local scientists to monitor bats this summer as the animals emerge from their breeding colonies at dusk to go in search of food. Or counting herring as they climb fish ladders so managers at fisheries know how many are likely to spawn in local rivers. Or capturing and banding Canada geese during their three-week flightless stage so scientists can keep track of the state’s non-migratory population.
These activities, all coordinated by wildlife biologists at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), are among an increasing number of citizen science projects sponsored by state agencies, universities and non-profit groups that are designed to engage the public in collecting data that can be used in scientific studies.
“For us, the volunteers provide hands-on support in the field and help us collect volumes of observations and data that we wouldn’t be able to compile on our own,” said Jennifer Brooks, DEM’s volunteer program coordinator, who noted that 300 to 400 Rhode Islanders assist with DEM projects each year. “It’s also very rewarding for the volunteers because it provides them with unique opportunities and experiences and a fun way of contributing to environmental science in the community. Everybody walks away learning something from every project.”
If the DEM opportunities don’t appeal to you, there are plenty of other nearby citizen science projects to join. Here are just a few:
The longest running citizen science project in Rhode Island, Watershed Watch is a water quality monitoring program that uses hundreds of volunteers to track the factors that affect water quality in ponds, lakes, rivers and coastal waters around the state. The data is used by watershed conservation organizations and state and local officials to make decisions that improve and protect the health of area waters. Sponsored by the University of Rhode Island, the project involves weekly data collection and testing for water quality indicators at a designated water body from May to October. Training sessions are March 21 or 30.
Horseshoe Crab Monitoring
The Watch Hill Conservancy leads an effort at Napatree Point in Westerly to count and tag horseshoe crabs at high tide on full moon nights from May through July. The project aims 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, vaccines and intravenous solutions are free of harmful bacteria.) The monitoring takes just a few hours late at night working by moonlight, and it helps provide insight into the natural history of this ecological oddity.
International Coastal Clean-up
Beach trash is unsightly and can hinder the enjoyment of some of the state’s most heralded natural resources. Some of it, especially materials like plastic that degrade very slowly, can be harmful to marine life. Save The Bay coordinates beach clean-ups throughout the year, but it concentrates its efforts in mid-September when teams of volunteers converge on 80 coastal locations around the state. Volunteers tally the quantity and types of debris collected for inclusion in a global report prepared by scientists at The Ocean Conservancy. The data helps to identify the primary sources of litter, which will aid in focusing prevention efforts.
Lou Perrotti, conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo, says that amphibians are an important indicator species for healthy environments and a vital part of the food chain. In many parts of the world, frog populations are declining and many species are on the brink of extinction. While that’s not the case in Rhode Island, Perrotti coordinates the FrogWatch program to keep an eye on the health of local populations of frogs and toads in neighborhood ponds and swamps. Volunteers will learn to identify frog calls at a training session on March 31 or April 6 and then visit an amphibian habitat once a week throughout the spring and summer to listen for calling frogs and toads. Data is collected and shared with a national database on frog populations.
Osprey populations in Rhode Island have been growing steadily for several decades, thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in many fish-eating birds in the 1960s and ’70s. When DEM began monitoring osprey nesting in 1977, just eight chicks successfully fledged from nests in the state. Now managed by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, osprey monitors keep an eye on more than 150 nests that produce about 300 young each year. After a training session on March 3 or 10, volunteers will visit a designated nest once each week from March through August to track the breeding success of osprey pairs.
The American woodcock is one of the region’s most unusual birds. University of Rhode Island doctoral student Erin Harrington calls it “goofy looking” for its very long beak, short stubby legs, extra large eyes and plump, camouflaged body. Nicknamed timberdoodles, the birds are declining throughout their range in the eastern U.S. Harrington is studying their habitat preferences and is seeking citizen scientists to listen for their mating call and watch for their unusual aerial display. All it takes is a one-hour commitment at dusk on four dates in late April and early May, plus attendance at a training session on April 10 or 11.