Citizen Scientist

I love science for its inquiry, information gathering, critical thinking and problem solving. In college I majored in botany and zoology and minored in chemistry. Science has stimulated my natural curiosity and wonder about the world around me. In the many decades since, I have had numerous opportunities to keep that intellectual curiosity alive as a citizen scientist.

Volunteer citizen scientists support the work of scientists and institutions by gathering information using prescribed protocols. (Some organizations now use the term “community scientists” to imply a welcome of all people wanting to help, regardless of citizenship.) Two fields of study—ornithology and meteorology—are particularly enhanced by citizen scientists because they deal with subjects that know no political boundaries.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Part of my holiday tradition for the last half century is to participate in my local Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Launched in 1900 as an alternative to the then popular traditions of going out on Christmas day to shoot birds for food and sport, the CBC count has become the largest and longest running citizen scientist project in the western hemisphere, if not the world.

Counts are organized into teams that cover an area defined by a 15-mile diameter circle. Ideally each team has one or two members proficient at identifying birds AND counting them, but anyone is welcome. Whidbey Island is large enough and has enough enthusiastic birders that we have both a north end and a south end count on different days in the two-week period surrounding Christmas.

Sarah Schmidt and Janet Hall looking through spotting scopes and binoculars to count the number of surf scoters bobbing up and down in the offshore waters.

I participate in the north end count on a team of 3 birders. In 2023 our count had a total of 15 teams with 39 volunteers who counted 119 species on count day, plus two additional in Count Week (Western Tanager and Northern Shrike). The total number of birds counted was 21,426.

Ann recording species being called out by her team mates at an inland site.

Dissecting the data, we see the significance of team work. Our longstanding, skilled team saw 61 species. The total of 15 teams in our area counted 119 species. Most notable for the three of us were the large rafts of surf scoters—a sea duck. For a total listing of our species count: https://ebird.org/tripreport/182007

Since 2000, all CBC results have been entered online. This has become one of the most important data sets for researchers to track the health of avian populations across the Western Hemisphere.

The CBC informs scientists about trends and patterns in winter bird populations over the decades. For example, Christmas Bird Counts have contributed to the knowledge that populations of barred owls have expanded from the east into the Pacific Northwest where they are outcompeting and hybridizing with the threatened northern spotted owl. Another example focuses on species like pine siskins and red crossbills that have “irruptions”—that is, one year we see quite a few of them, the next year none. An “irruption” is the movement of a species from one location to another because of food availability. Shortages are usually  based on the cyclical availability of food like pine cones.

Citizen CBC scientists use the tools of spotting scopes, binoculars, and decades of experience. It is terrific to be part of a gigantic effort that gives data to scientists that they alone would never be able to amass.

CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network).

 Weather is a passion of mine. Ever since paddling around Lake Superior in 1992 when daily weather checks of our hand-held weather band radios were crucial to our safety, I have paid attention to the weather. (No cell phones back in those days!) In 2008 I joined a volunteer reporting network affiliated with the National Weather Service which gave me a tangible, daily practice of weather recording and watching.

Ann checking her rain gauge—often done in the early morning with a flashlight.

This network, called CoCoRaHS, was launched because of a tragedy that might have been preventable if the NWS had access to more data stations. On July 27, 1997, over thirteen inches of rain (almost the city’s annual average) fell on the west side of Ft. Collins, CO resulting in a flash flood that killed five people and caused millions of dollars of damage. Because the storm cell was an intense, highly localized event in a remote canyon, the National Weather Service had no way to record that the event was happening and thus warn people downstream of the potential for intense flooding.

The event spurred state meteorologist, Nolan Doesken, high school students, and other state emergency managers, to create a volunteer network of reporting stations to expand the predicting capabilities of the NWS. The private nonprofit became known as CoCoRaHS.

The daily report form Ann fills out online.

Most areas have micro-climates. A micro-climate is created by a combination of temperature, light, windspeed and moisture. For example, here on Whidbey Island the yearly average rainfall for my gauge is about 27.72 inches (an average of 16 years of data). Coupeville, WA located only 12 miles north has an average annual rainfall of 20.66 inches. Coupeville is in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains.

The Wikipedia definition of rain shadow: “an area of significantly reduced rainfall behind a mountainous region, on the side facing away from prevailing winds, known as the leeward side.” Depicted in this diagram, we know that my Freeland area of Whidbey is not as protected from prevailing Pacific Ocean storm moisture as is Coupeville. The precise definition of where the Olympic Mountain Rain Shadow lies has been based on data from many local reporting stations.

Rain shadow effect from Wikipedia

There are now over 26,000 active CoCoRaHS active observers in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Guam. Everyone of us empties our rain gauge before 8 a.m. in the morning and sends the data in.

Weather matters. It is probably the one natural phenomenon effecting the most people every day. Our amateur measurements make weather predicting more precise because the increased number of reporting stations gives meteorologists more data. Had the COCORAHS network been in place, perhaps the deaths from the 1997 Ft. Collins flood resulting from the storm up in Big Thompson Canyon could have been prevented.

In a civilized society we watch out for one another. We care what happens to the planet and our fellow human beings. A tangible way to engage that care is as a citizen scientist.

24 replies
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Appreciate the kind comment, Gretchen. But the real wonder is the collective joy from working with so many fine people to make things happen. Ann

      Reply
  1. Sabine
    Sabine says:

    Thanks Annie! A fabulous and inspiring post with wonderful graphics. I recently learned that iNATURALIST is a citizen science app used by citizen scientists to provide data for all sorts of researchers. I’d been using Seek to help me identify plants, but apparently that data doesn’t get analyzed. So I’m training myself to switch apps. (Yay for cell phones). And thanks for the information on CoCoRaHS. I’m signing up to volunteer.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you Sabine! Seek was the plant ID app I was using because it was easy. So, now I, too, will be switching to iNaturalist. I think you’ll have a lot of fun with CoCoRaHS. There is a lot on their website—interactive maps, etc. that I think you’ll enjoy. With appreciation, Annie

      Reply
  2. Jana Jopson
    Jana Jopson says:

    Appreciate learning about community scientists and the power of collaboration. Humanity at its finest. Lifts my heart.

    Reply
  3. Marina D. Lachecki
    Marina D. Lachecki says:

    Always inspirational. Thanks for the continued witness. And weather remains a passion of mine after living on Madeline island for two decades with its ferry crossing.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      For me, being in tune with the weather is about respect for Nature. We don’t take things for granted. We listen and watch carefully and act thoughtfully. Those ferry crossings definitely require attentiveness to the weather. If the ferry is cancelled, best not to be frustrated, but rather grateful for the safety. Ann

      Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Well, thank you and my reply to her is the same as my reply to you—the “wonder” is in the excitement of working with others on these projects and seeing what a bunch of people working together can accomplish in helping us learn more about our precious earth. Ann

      Reply
  4. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    I love this. Really interesting to me and should help me find more ways to make my walks, walks with extra purpose. I downloaded that app and will see how I can contribute. Thanks, as always, for being such a good steward of the planet. Next time I head to the island I hope you can steer me to a new birding spot!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      OK, Bonnie, looking forward to steering you to several birding spots. Also, glad to share with you the Cascade Loop map of the Washington State Birding trail. Lots of good resources out there! Ann

      Reply
  5. SHARRY ERZINGER
    SHARRY ERZINGER says:

    Hi Ann! I, too, am on the citizen science network. It has truly become influential in promoting science projects, including with children. Great to see your work. Love, Shar

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you for responding, dear cousin! And for the support you offer citizen science in another venue because there are many opportunities to do this work! Ann

      Reply
  6. Pamela Sampel
    Pamela Sampel says:

    Great post, Ann! And welcome
    iNaturalist! Such a great app. I also added PredictWind today—based on comments from
    a mariner friend. Loving the real-time access to wind flow.
    Keep up the inspirational
    work! Thank you!!!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, Pam. I try to limit my app acquisition so I can actually find ways to use and understand the ones I have. BUT a recommendation from a naturalist friend like you is an immediate YES! I have been using the app Windy, but when kayaking need to have something more predictive. So, “PredictWind today” here I come! Ann

      Reply
  7. Annamae Doyle
    Annamae Doyle says:

    Your passion for your subject matter shines through in every post. It’s clear that you genuinely care about sharing knowledge and making a positive impact on your readers. Kudos to you!

    Reply

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