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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Everyday scientists
Armed with new tools, citizens help gather information on the world around them
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Credit:Mary Langenfeld

A full moon rises over Owen Conservation Park on Madison's far west side. The air throbs with the mating calls of chorus frogs. A pair of mallards try to corral their ducklings skimming through the rippling reflections on the surface of the pond. Barely visible, bats cut through the cooling air to scoop up the insects that have been drawn here by the pond and the street light.

It's twilight, that moment Rod Serling called the middle ground between science and imagination. For Andria Blattner, whose attention is clearly divided between the rising moon and the sophisticated equipment in the rear of her gray Subaru Outback, it's the science that has brought her out to the park as darkness falls. She's come to count bats.

Blattner is one of a growing number of citizen monitors who collect scientific data that is often not practically available through any other means. This data is then used to document environmental trends and help professionals make policy decisions.

"I'd never done any monitoring till I learned about the bat program," says Blattner, who has been walking the parks and neighborhoods of Madison as a bat monitor for three years. "I wanted to do something environmental, and there's only so much plastic you can recycle."

Why bats? "I'm just not the kind of person to enjoy a bird walk at 6:30 in the morning."

At 70 Blattner has short, gray hair and a purposefully light step. She opens a black case and lifts out an instrument the size of a cigar box called the AnaBat, a specialized sonic detector that scans the night sky, recording each bat's signature call and bringing the high frequencies down into the range of human hearing.

The AnaBat, in essence, turns the volume up on the sounds of silence. This device makes counting Wisconsin's bats possible.

"Pebbles or tall grass can make a sound the monitor picks up," says Blattner. "Late summer is almost impossible, the tall grass makes so much noise - and the crickets!"

Blattner snaps a specialized PDA onto the AnaBat to record and map each bat call. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) specifies that bat monitoring should begin exactly 30 minutes after sunset and last for at least an hour, but Blattner's outings often last longer.

"It's easy to get lost in a dark park and find yourself far from your car when the hour is done," she says.

Looked at in one way, Blattner is just someone who likes to get outdoors and take notice of the world around her. But she is also a player in a much larger movement of citizen scientists who are transforming the way critical information on natural sciences is gathered.

"We are so lucky," says Paul Noeldner, an Audubon Society volunteer who coordinated this year's Madison area Big Birding Count. "Right now, citizen monitoring is crossing the threshold to where anybody can do it. There are some handheld electronic references out there, and they are cheap enough that you don't have to be so into monitoring that you have to decide whether to get equipment or a new car. It's a wonderful time to be involved, and it's just exploding."

Noeldner says these exciting new tools are drawing more people into all kinds of monitoring. "We are seeing citizen science evolve from grassroots to larger organizations because of the ability to exchange data. What makes this possible is not only the portable electronic instruments but the ability to store the data in a way that is easy to share. You put the data out there where scientists can tap it."

Driving 'em batty

Dave Redell, who works as a bat ecologist for the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources, created the bat monitoring program in response to the outbreak of white-nose syndrome, a devastating disease of hibernating bats that was discovered on the East Coast in 2006. It is spreading 500 miles west each year, wiping out bat populations.

Redell wanted to get a baseline count of Wisconsin bats before white-nose syndrome hit the state's hibernaria. Bats consume tons of night-flying insects that would otherwise menace forests, agriculture and garden crops. Their loss will hit Wisconsin hard, and Redell wants to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. DNR employees go underground into the hibernaria in winter and trap and band bats during the summer, but most of the acoustic monitoring is done by volunteers.

"The DNR was getting a network of citizen-based groups and individuals together," says Redell. "There were people who wanted to help but did not know how. We came up with two main areas: bat roost monitoring and acoustic bat monitoring."

Since its inception in 2008, the bat monitoring program has trained more than 400 volunteers, giving Wisconsin one of the nation's most comprehensive survey networks in the country.

"We have more people waiting to be trained in acoustical monitoring," Redell says. "That's because it's really exciting. It opens your ears to what's flying out there after the sun goes down."

The first bat monitor cost as much as a house and required a generator that filled the back of a station wagon. Wisconsin has 14 of the new trimmed-down AnaBats that run about $4,000 apiece.

Back at Owen Park, Blattner dons a headlamp with a red bulb that makes map reading possible without spoiling her night vision and flips on the AnaBat. It immediately begins emitting sounds like a crazed chipmunk.

"That's a big brown," Blattner states with authority. Last year she helped the DNR create a Batlas of the state, spending hours on Lake Koshkonong and the Wisconsin River. "Going down the river was a little scary," she admits. "There was someone in the back of the canoe at the motor, and I sat in front holding the monitor. The DNR really cranked on the Batlas. They were out in teams of two every night. That was a totally impressive program."

For the birds

People have been watching birds for as long as there have been people - and birds. But advances in technology, like smart phones and iPads, are taking this activity to a whole new level.

The Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900. It began as an alternative to a yearly Christmas bird-shooting competition, a call to count 'em, not kill 'em. That count has hatched other Audubon events like the Great Backyard Bird Count and the Big Birding Day.

Birders now use more than just binoculars. An assortment of handheld wireless devices can connect each sighting to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird website, which is compiling a vast databank on birds.

"Our observations become part of a national database," says Karen Etter Hale of the Madison Audubon Society. "You can just go out in your backyard for 15 minutes, then enter what you see online. The idea is to get kids involved. They know computers. They can bond with their parents and grandparents who already know birding, and it really adds to our knowledge about birds throughout the year."

Etter Hale says this new capability is advancing the study of bird migration.

"Your own sighting may not seem important, but when it is added with all the others, it becomes important," she says. "It's an exciting way to look at bird migration. You can do it from the field on your smart phone. If you are going to a new place to bird watch, you can look up what has been sighted there in the past. You can contribute to information about your favorite site."

One example: Sightings reported at Cherokee Marsh are used for conservation management and planning there.

"Birding keeps getting more interactive," says Audubon's Noeldner. "We turn in our counts, and they all end up at eBird. The citizen science part of Big Birding Day is a survey of how many species you can find in a single day. It comes down to patiently reporting everything you see, so if you don't see it, you are essentially reporting on what's not there as well."

For the past two years, Noeldner's team has competed on Big Birding Day by bicycle. "We take off at four in the morning, rain or shine, so we can log some owls," he says. "Big Birding Day is a 14-hour race. We wanted to demonstrate that you can get a lot of species of birds without having to jump in the car and chase to hot spots. We got 112 species last year in just Warner Park, Cherokee Marsh and Governor's Island."

Birders ID by both sight and sound, and sounds are now easily accessible. In the past, only the most common calls were included in bird guides. "Here is a robin: Tweet, tweet," says Noeldner. "That's like saying, 'Here's a human: Hello.' We can say a lot more than hello, and so can birds. Reference data has been limited by the archaic restrictions in old media, but that is going away. Anyone recording bird songs now can put them out where other people can share them, and you can get their whole vocabulary, not just hello."

Noeldner has formatted the Madison Audubon website to make it accessible for local birders. "I've provided a list of birds for Wisconsin," he says. "You click on the name, and it takes you right into eNature, and bang - you've got the picture, and you've got the call."

Eyes on the butterflies

The new software doesn't stop with bats and birds. Apps that make identifying practically anything less of a burden are proliferating. The online field guides at make it possible to search more than 5,500 species from amphibians to trees to seashells to butterflies. Anyone can just pick a favorite form of wildlife and get involved in a network of like-minded volunteers.

The North American Monarch Conservation Plan relies on citizen science projects to track the monarch life cycle that stretches from Mexico to Canada. A major monitoring post in that process is Eric Johnson's yard on the east side of Madison.

Johnson plants three varieties of milkweed, tucking them in around his garden, a raspberry bed and some blueberry bushes. In early spring, he starts following the monarch's migration online as other citizen monitors report progress along their annual route northward. Sometime in June, the butterflies arrive and find an oasis in Johnson's yard, where they lay their eggs on the waiting milkweed plants.

Before filing his weekly report, Johnson makes a round through his yard. He follows a set path so as not to miss any of the milkweeds, scouting for eggs about 1/32nd of an inch in diameter and the color of heavy cream, with barely visible stripes. A monarch egg is shaped like a football cut in half, with the flat surface stuck on a leaf and the pointed end out.

"If I were to carefully check every single leaf it would take two hours," says Johnson. "I realize that if I were going to insist upon looking at every leaf, it would be in my self-interest to have fewer milkweed plants. But if I cut back on the milkweed, the monarchs might not find the yard. I probably find half the eggs out there."

In less than a week the eggs hatch and begin going through the five stages of caterpillar existence. This is when Johnson's job gets tricky.

"The thing with caterpillars is they move, and they are sneaky. They are trying to avoid predators," he says. "I almost never see a monarch form a chrysalis and go all the way to adulthood. I might see one adult emerge per year. Most years I don't see any. That's consistent with other people who count eggs and participate in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Program [MLMP]."

Johnson's work is not going unnoticed. "Eric is an example of a volunteer whose contribution has become very valuable, since we now have 10 years of data from his Madison site," says Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota's Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. "Eric's site is a great example of how even a small urban site can provide important monarch habitat."

The data being collected by MLMP volunteers is being used, says Oberhauser, "to assess long-term changes in monarch populations, how they use different kinds of habitat, and how their presence in different regions of the country varies from one year to the next. We are also using the data to determine if there are site characteristics that affect monarch survival from the egg through the larva stage."

They're everywhere

Other groups are also increasingly turning to ordinary citizens to help gather information on the natural world.

The DNR does it for the state's deer population. Brian Dhuey, DNR wildlife surveys and database manager, is running four surveys that use citizens for their source material. One is the deer hunter wildlife survey.

"While hunters are waiting for deer, they are spending many quiet observation hours," says Dhuey. "We ask them to record the time, date and general location of all the animals they see in the field." In two years, he has received 29,700 responses. "That gives us a good idea of abundance. We are hoping to create a long-term index."

Darren Marsh, Dane County parks director, uses citizen volunteers, both individuals and in groups, to monitor the county's lands and resource areas. Other volunteer monitors work with the Lakes and Watershed Commission on testing water quality.

Marsh works with as many as 25 local citizen monitors each year in the state's Water Action Volunteers program. They keep track of the insect life, temperature, stream flow, habitat and suspended sediment in streams all over Dane County.

"The longer we have folks on a given body of water, the more we can get an idea of how its health is trending," says Marsh. "There have been instances in other parts of the state where volunteers have found a spike in the data that raises a concern. They talk to their local coordinator, and an investigation might reveal an activity impacting water quality. It hasn't happened in our county, and that's a good thing."

Marsh has started training a new group, the Friends of the Yahara River, to monitor the waterway's health. He also works with school groups who want to get involved in monitoring the environment.

"Let's face it," he says. "We are losing staff for a number of reasons that we are all familiar with, and we are going to increasingly be looking to our volunteers. We would not be able to provide the services and meet our restoration goals for a lot of properties without the use of volunteers.

"The data that is being collected allows us to create goals and objectives for the management and restoration in Dane County for prairie, savannas and expanded songbird environments because those habitats have been lost over time throughout the south central part of the state. Volunteers have been supplying this info for years so we can provide the best type of wildlife and plant habitat that we can."

You, too, can be a citizen monitor!
Many organizations are vying for citizen monitors. Madison residents can take their pick:

  • Great Lakes Worm Watch is committed to increasing scientific literacy and public understanding of the role of exotic worm species in changing ecosystems.
  • Journey North engages students in a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. K-12 students share their own field observations with classmates across North America.
  • Monarch Watch is focused on the fall migratory generation of monarch butterflies.
  • Monarch Larva Monitoring Project is aimed at understanding why monarch populations vary in time and space.
  • Madison Audubon Society coordinates citizen monitoring events throughout the year.
  • USA National Phenological Network brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, nonprofit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the effects of climate change on plants and animals.
  • Water Action Volunteers provide citizen stream monitoring to keep tabs on the health of hometown streams and rivers.
  • Wisconsin Bat Monitoring Program is helping the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources supply essential information on basic ecology and trends of the state's bats.
  • The "Who's Who of Citizen-Based Monitoring in Wisconsin" is a directory of citizen programs and organizations in Wisconsin that focus on monitoring natural resources. To find an organization of interest, search by subject area, county or alphabetical listing; or type in your own search term.

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