Sunday, January 15, 2012

Citizen Science Takes Flight!

By Vincent Smith

Have you ever wanted to make a difference for birds? I have a great way that we all can help. VFAS is taking part in this year’s Great Backyard BirdCount (GBBC) held February 17-20, 2012. The GBBC was started in 1997 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a way that every day citizens can provide important information that helps scientists track the status of our avian friends. Entering your local counts gives scientists access to huge amounts of data that they could never obtain by themselves. Thousands of people enter their counts into the Cornell Lab data base. The numbers are crunched to give scientists “a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent” according to the GBBC website.

I would also like to put in a plug for citizen science in general. There are numerous projects that VFAS is involved in that use citizen science. First, we have the Christmas Bird Count, which is the longest continuous bird census in the world. This past Christmas was the 112th year, the first year being 1900. The data collected from this census has proved invaluable for numerous scientific papers and journals. You can go to Audubon’s website and look up Christmas Bird Count and create reports on specific species. For example, if you look up Bald Eagle, you can see both the decline and return of the species over time.

VFAS also does a Spring Bird Count, which is helpful in determining the breeding status of our local birds. Data collected is forwarded to county compilers who note positive or negative trends of species. (We cover portions of 3 counties.) A great example from my personal observations is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Their nesting activity in northern Chester County may represent a limit of their nesting range in southeastern Pennsylvania.

We have started to enter all the VFAS bird walk observations in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program. This program is a way to enter your observations into a database that you can track. Cornell Lab then uses these observations to indicate trends and movements of species. A great example for this year has been the movement of Snowy Owls out of northern Canada into the Continental U.S. (I was fortunate to see the one that showed up outside of Spring City in December of 2011). Anyone can enter their observations and you can also create reports from your personal observations or the data base as a whole. For example, you can create a map that shows the yearly movements of Fox Sparrows in the continental US and Canada. Our monthly walks are going to be noted on our website, so if you want to see what is hanging around, check out our walk results.

VFAS has been involved in conducting bird censuses for the Willistown Township Important Bird Area. This census is conducted by volunteers at least two times a year. It is conducted on private properties that are being protected from development. We are helping to show the value that these private residences provide to our local bird populations.

The advancement of digital photography is making it possible to record not only proof of the unusual or rare species, but also banded birds. This past year I was able to get a picture of a banded Ring-billed Gull and a magnification of its leg band. I submitted the photo to United States Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service Bird Banded Report and they sent me a certification of appreciation. It turns out my Ring-billed Gull (Band Number 0954-18715 MM9) was banded on June 18, 2011 in Ile De Pierre, NR Laval, Quebec, Canada and visited Reed’s Beach, New Jersey, USA on September 20, 2011.

The trend of citizen science is going to be one of the most powerful ways that we all can make a difference. We, the citizens, can help the experts obtain information that they never would have the manpower to collect. This trend toward citizen science has begun to involve non-avian species as well. This past summer I took part in a citizen science project called Firefly Watch through the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. I did not know that fireflies are in decline and that there is a need to monitor their numbers. I also was not aware that you can tell the species apart by their color or lighting pattern. My wife and I had some neighbors over for dinner and we monitored our neighborhood fireflies and submitted the results into a database. I can’t think of a better project for kids. This spring, my wife is hoping to train for the Frog Watch USA citizen science program at Warwick Park in Chester County to learn how to monitor local frog populations.

So get out there and record your sightings. Those sightings, avian and non-avian, can make all the difference in the world to those who care about and live in our natural world. Come check out our walk at Mill Grove on Saturday February 18th. Our walk results will be included in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count! If you are interested in volunteering for any of our other citizen science activities, please contact us on our website at


1 comment:

  1. Your text is really interesting. I'm a member of the lab who have tagged the Ring-billed Gull in Québec. You can report your sighting directly on our website ( and get more information about other marking programs of gulls in eastern North America. Sightings of marked birds are really valuable for us.

    Thank you!
    Martin Patenaude-Monette

    Assistant de recherche
    Laboratoire de Jean-François Giroux (UQAM)