Ocean Views: Citizen Science: Seals, birds, and flowers, … Oh, my!

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 10:45pm

You might ask in wonderment, what do seals, and birds and flowers have in common? The answer is — for this article — citizen science.

Citizen science is the process of many volunteers collecting observations and reporting them to one scientist/entity that is building a database of information.

It’s a great way to connect people (regardless of age and vocation) who are interested in nature and natural history with others who are conducting research and documenting the conditions of our — global, regional and micro — environments.

One of the better known examples is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which was started in 1900 by the National Audubon Society.

This long-time effort has used the observations of many, throughout the western hemisphere, to inform scientists about bird populations and conservation biology at a global scale.

Now, in 2019, there are thousands of citizen science projects underway around the world. During the upcoming year, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) will be offering a monthly program highlighting one of the many ongoing projects as it relates to Block Island and our region.

In January, the topic was seals. Since 1994, Save The Bay volunteers have observed and recorded the presence, and species, of seals at haul-out sites around Narragansett Bay throughout the winter “seal season.” This year the study area will include Block Island.

We all know we have a lot of seals in the winter. But, how many and which species? On Block Island, seals will be counted at four locations (sentinel sites), on the same schedule and using the same protocols as are used for the Save The Bay seal counts in Narragansett Bay.

The schedule for seal counting at sentinel sites has been established as daytime low tides (the regular time when seals haul-out to rest) and on weekend days, which allows for greatest volunteer participation.

Two counts have already occurred in 2019 (Jan. 5 and Jan. 19), the next one will be Feb. 2. (Ground Hog day is not just for counting humans.)

Block Island’s sentinel sites are: Pebbly Beach from the sewer outfall to Old Harbor Point, Settlers’ Rock to Sandy Point, Cormorant Cove, and Dories Cove. Volunteers are needed to “adopt” a site and count seals that are hauled-out or in the water on a consistent basis — every two weeks through May. Ideally, two people would commit to each site so that scheduling conflicts could more easily be worked around.

To sign up to be a sentinel site leader, and/or to learn more about what is involved contact me at (401) 595-7055, or Kim.gaffett@tnc.org, or, meet at the Ocean View Pavilion for a seal count training walk on Saturday, Feb. 2 at noon.

February’s citizen science offering (Friday, Feb. 15) will be a bird walk and introduction to the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a project of the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The GBBC has volunteers all over the world counting birds during the Feb. 15 to Feb. 18 time period.

The lists of sightings are entered via eBird into one large interactive data site connected to a worldwide map showing where reports are coming from, and what bird species are being seen where.

Stay tuned for more details about this very cool project or go to http://gbbc.birdcount.org.

And, coming soon, March’s focus will be native perennials — think grasses, flowers and flowering trees and shrubs.

Citizen scientists — you — are indispensable in the work of many ongoing science-based projects and programs.

If you have helped to band birds, tag Monarch butterflies and horseshoe crabs or reported band and tag numbers when found, then you have already provided data as a citizen scientist.

Whether participating in the monthly offering, or contributing data on an ongoing basis about a subject of special interest, these programs will be a great opportunity to learn something new, and to share your knowledge and passion about our island’s ecosystems.