Non-professionals make their own contributions
MARQUETTE — People don’t need a Ph.D., a row of test tubes or even a white lab coat to be a citizen scientist.
How “ordinary citizens” who aren’t wildlife professionals can help nature was the subject of a panel discussion on Sunday during “Celebrate the U.P.” — the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition’s annual celebration of the region. This year, the event was held virtually from March 19-21.
The panel discussion was led by a trio of citizen scientists, Joe Youngman, Karen Bacula and Andrea Denham, whose topics of discussion included the Christmas Bird Count, Moosewatch and mobile apps, respectively.
Youngman is an avid birder who has participated in many bird-counting programs on and around the Keweenaw Peninsula for 20 years. He also has contributed to the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas project.
The Christmas Bird Count, for example, involves people counting species seen during this time of the year.
“They’re all over the continent,” Youngman said of the counts. “They use a 15-mile diameter circle and count all birds in one 24-hour period.”
He said the U.P. has 11 active bird counts.
Some have turned up noteworthy species.
The Keweenaw Bay count, Youngman noted, produced the first and perhaps only record of a Ross’s gull in Michigan.
According to allaboutbirds.org, this gull is rarely seen outside of the Arctic. The U.P. might seem like the Arctic at times, but the ranges definitely are different.
“That was interesting ornithologically,” Youngman said.
Although he’s not an avid user of eBird, Youngman called it a “fabulous resource” to gather people’s bird data, although documentation on rare species is needed.
While planning a trip out west, though, he used ebird.org to discover where Lewis’s woodpeckers had been seen in that region.
“Anybody who’s serious about sharing their bird data in the U.P. should get on eBird,” Youngman said. “I know they have phone apps. You can do it at home on your computer.”
He is active with Copper Country Audubon, which has a research page about its various bird surveys.
In fact, he and other researchers even published an article in the Journal of Great Lakes Research on fall water migration through Lake Superior.
“A citizen can, in this day and age, if he gets the right help, get something published in actual academic journals,” Youngman said.
How did they do it? Find obscure fields of study, get a “fair amount” of money and be determined, he said.
Bacula has participated for nine years as a leader in the Moosewatch program at Isle Royale National Park.
Isle Royale is a remote wilderness island in Lake Superior that’s home to moose and wolves, but it has another, perhaps lesser known feature: lichens.
“Isle Royale happens to actually be a hotspot for the Upper Great Lakes for lichens, with over 400 species,” Bacula said. “So, it’s always an interesting thing to watch and see the variety there.”
However, the focus of her talk, Moosewatch, is considered citizen science — but it’s a little rugged.
“We head out into the woods, and almost all of our work is done off trail,”
She acknowledged, then, that hiking is not always easy, with beaver dams having to be crossed, and having a good “sense of patience” is needed.
Why do the teams go through all this?
“A big piece is for finding bones,” Bacula said. “You would hope with Moosewatch that you would see a lot of wild moose, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she said. “I will say in the years that I’ve done it, I have seen just a couple live moose in Moosewatch expeditions.
“The last one was in 2019 when we were heading out of a site area and could hear a nice big cow moose coming through the woods.”
Bacula said four teams go out in the field during a year: two in May, one in June and one in August.
She’s been primarily part of the August teams, which brings extra challenges with the vegetation that can cover bones. For instance, it might be easy to step over and miss a set of mandibles covered in moss, which she said makes them resemble sticks and tree branches.
“It’s a true needle-in-the-haystack kind of search,” Bacula said.
After teams find the bones, they sort and collect data that involves things such as determining how many of each bone type were collected as well as their condition, she said.
A little inside knowledge, literally, can be gathered.
One cow’s bone was cut open, with researchers discovering it had no marrow. Bacula said the team then could report the animal would have starved because of a lack of food-source energy.
Teams bring back data collection as well as certain bones and teeth of particular interest to Bangsund Cabin on Isle Royale.
“We get to celebrate, but then the scientists behind the work get to take a look at what we brought back,” Bacula said.
The bones, she noted, can lead to learning more about topics such as correlations between diet and health, and tracking the level of air quality through looking at amount of lead and mercury found in moose teeth.
For more details, visit isleroyalewolf.org.
The importance of community
Denham, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy, discussed what she termed “community-sourced science.”
The UPLC is focused on this method of gleaning information among various groups.
“As we’re coming together to do community-sourced science, we’re learning more about what each other is doing and more about how we can work together,” Denham said.
It also gets people involved, even those who don’t have multiple degrees in natural resources or years of research.
“It gets kids, it gets grandparents, it gets parents, it gets people who have never, ever, ever been out in the woods involved with conservation and getting to know the environment around us,” Denham said.
Is using smartphone in the woods, such as iNaturalist, adding to people being disconnected from the outdoors? Not necessarily.
People likely are bringing their phones outside anyway — taking pictures of flowers, birds and other people — so they are more likely, she said, to use them as conservation tools because of their familiarity.
“If you’ve already got your phone out with you, you probably don’t need to take any college courses,” said Denham, who noted that most of the mobile apps are easy enough that they are targeted enough for even children to use, she said.
The UPLC is just beginning to build up its use of eBird, she said, at some of its sites, including the Chocolay Bayou Nature Preserve where people have identified 119 bird species. The UPLC now can get an idea when species are in the preserve.
“We know this is a highly biodiverse area, and this engages people with the Chocolay Bayou Nature Preserve and helps them understand why we chose the bayou to set aside as a nature preserve,” Denham said.
Another app has two versions — iNaturalist and Seek.
“Seek is really fun,” she said. “It’s definitely towards kids. You go on quests to find different things, and if you get 10 of a certain species within a month, you get a badge, and it’s really, really fun for anybody.”
On the other hand, iNaturalist, is more advanced.
“It allows you to create more research-grade observations,” Denham said, with the UPLC using it on several of its preserves.
She also pointed out that iNaturalist has a variety of projects for people to join.
“They’re not just asking, ‘What kind of bird did you see? Is this bird migrating through this area at this time?’ But it’s also, ‘What problems are we seeing out there?'” Denham said.
Discovering the problems, then, can allow people to work together to find a solution.
“It just advances conservation science just a tiny little step further,” Denham said.