Growing up as a budding biologist in Pennsylvania, I was lucky to snag the first-ever internship at the world-renowned Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. The geologic formation of this mountain along raptor migration routes naturally forces flocks across its rocky outcrops, making it an ideal observation site for hawks, eagles, falcons and vultures.
When I wasn’t cleaning bathrooms (I was an intern, remember?), I’d be sitting on a rock, scanning segments of the sky and counting hawks. I’d use a handheld counter to tally kettles of broad-winged hawks that could number tens of thousands, recording my observations on a sheet of paper.
I now live in Manitoba (and closer, coincidentally, to the Duck Mountains). My love of observing and identifying wildlife is as strong as ever. As a DUC member, odds are that you too are inspired by the natural world. Now, there are tons of ways we can indulge in and share our passions with others. Thanks to the explosion of nature observation apps, most notably eBird and iNaturalist, there’s a whole world of possibility at our fingertips. And thanks to their image-recognition capability and a strong community of users that help identify species, you don’t need to be an expert.
Welcome to the world of citizen science, also known as community science depending on your view.
DUC has long known the value of observations made by people who live and work on the land. Our first volunteers, known as “Keemen,” were our eyes and ears, sending in handwritten accounts of the waterfowl they were spotting, as well as habitat conditions. These early citizen scientists helped guide our conservation planning. It’s a tradition that continues today in the regular habitat reports submitted by our field staff and anecdotal ones provided by our network of volunteers, supporters, nest box stewards and landowner partners.
Technological advancements now allow anyone, anywhere, to capture and record wildlife observations on their mobile phones, and improvements in statistical theory help us use this data. As you can imagine, the datasets from the billions of these observations are huge, but we’re well-equipped to weed out a lot of statistical noise. I could nerd out on you here, but my editor says my time (and yours) would be better spent on sharing how this data helps conservation research.
Thanks to funding from RBC Tech for Nature, scientists at our Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research (IWWR) are building a tool to take some of the guesswork out of the impact of our habitat conservation and restoration efforts. They are working to address questions like these: It is well-established that changes to the landscape affect its biodiversity, but to what degree? How many more wildlife species can be supported in an area with grassland instead of cropland? How many more species could a quarter-section of agricultural land support if a wetland was added?
Using research-grade data of wildlife sightings gleaned from iNaturalist and other sources, the IWWR team is developing distribution models for wildlife found in the Canadian Prairies that will enable conservationists to determine how a change to the landscape may affect a given species’ occurrence.
These models will be used to create a tool that will increase our understanding of landscape features that contribute to farm and landscape-scale biodiversity in Prairie Canada and will allow scientists to map the biodiversity potential of an area. In addition, they will help landowners and agriculture producers better understand how land management activities can help in biodiversity conservation.
This is citizen science at its best, where a community of like-minded people can contribute to a body of knowledge and improve our understanding of the natural world, so that we can take action to protect it.
At a time when we are looking for ways to stay connected, I’d argue that participating in these opportunities (app-ortunities?) is time well spent. Over to you. It’s your turn.
Stay well, nerd out.
Two ways to help unleash your inner biologist
1. Record your bird sightings this fall using the DUC Migration Tracker project hosted on iNaturalist. It’s a great way to experience and enjoy the season, while contributing valuable data that will inform future conservation efforts. Visit ducks.ca/migration-tracker to learn more.