Become a community scientist

Post by Jen Berlinghof

While the past year and a half has kept many of us mostly at home, nature in our backyards and beyond has provided a balm for these trying times. General use of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois is trending 30% higher in 2021 than a typical pre-pandemic year. And in 2020, there was an astounding 70% surge in visitation. The number of folks delving into home gardening and backyard birding has skyrocketed as well, making headlines by leaving store shelves bare of birdseed and bird feeders. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our desire to connect to nature closer to home, and it has created space and time for local, daily observations. All of this translates to an environment ripe for community science, also called citizen science.

Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.

Community science consists of collaborations between professional scientists and members of the general public. Through such partnerships, volunteers, or community scientists, make many important scientific contributions. They assist with biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard flower. They help answer important questions around the effects of climate change on plants and animals, and how we can help mitigate those effects. Ordinary folks, with a desire to help and some basic training, have discovered everything from new animal species to new exoplanets.

A group of preserve visitors watches for birds. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A group of preserve visitors watches for birds. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Researchers list the top reasons for participation in community science programs as a desire to contribute meaningfully to science, to enjoy a pleasant distraction from everyday life and to be part of a supportive community. Rest assured that you don’t have to be an expert. Professional scientists break down complex tasks into smaller duties that people without specialized training can tackle. Anyone can do it—from students to senior citizens.

While some rookie community scientists might worry the data they share or the plant or animal identifications they make won’t be accurate, a 2018 analysis found such concerns to be unwarranted. Volunteers and professional scientists agree on the data an impressive 96% of the time, thanks to a number of tools and techniques that ensure data integrity, ranging from training sessions to standardized protocols.

Volunteers watch for birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest. Photo © Michael Haug.
Volunteers watch for birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest. Photo © Michael Haug.

For organizations such as the Forest Preserves, community science is a win-win, creating opportunities for public involvement and baseline data collection. We’re always seeking new volunteers to participate in our various Wildlife Monitoring programs to listen for frogs on calm spring evenings or to search the skies for raptors riding thermals during fall.

Additionally, there are countless community science programs you can participate in on your own, whether in a preserve or your own backyard. My budding herpetologist son and I have started searching for reptiles and amphibians in order to contribute to HerpMapper, an easy-to-use network designed to gather and share reptile and amphibian observations across the planet. Our local expeditions have nudged us out of the house to witness cool species such as blue-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma laterale), bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) and water snakes (Nerodia spp.).

The author and her son spotted this water snake (Nerodia spp.) on a citizen science expedition. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son spotted this water snake (Nerodia spp.) on a community science expedition. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.

My family has tracked the phenology—the timing of seasonal life-cycle events in plants and animals—of our garden. We’ve contributed our findings to Budburst, a community-focused, data-driven approach to plant conservation overseen by the Chicago Botanic Garden. As one example, we watched the leaves of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) unfurl slowly day by day and were treated to a plethora of pollinators that visited the pink pom-pom flowers as they bloomed.

A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) visits a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant in the author's garden. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) visits a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant in the author’s garden. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.

In winter, we diligently filled our feeders with seed and suet (when we could find it!) and reported the daily happenings of northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) that bopped in and out of our yard to Feederwatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. And when spring came, we turned to eBird as we traversed further afield to witness the wonder of a Midwest migration. Each boldly colored bird was like a drop of the rainbow in the tree branches and among the grasses.

A scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) perches on a tree branch. Stock photo.

All in all, the more hands on deck—and eyes and ears in the field—collecting data and contributing to scientific discoveries, the better. How can you help? Consider participating in a Backyard BioBlitz this summer, or simply go for a walk and report your findings to one of the largest networks of community scientists on iNaturalist. Learn more about the preserves and our volunteer opportunities.

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