Citizen Scientists: the Underdogs in Modern Research

The field of environmental science can be intimidating. In today’s world of climate catastrophes and underfunded research, it seems like there is no wiggle room for extra projects or general inquiries. However, many have taken the matter into their own hands. With widespread access to modern technology, it has become easier for outdoor enthusiasts to contribute to science and interact with their surrounding ecosystems.

Citizen science is an increasingly relevant field of scientific participation. Emerging from the desire to take the outdooring experience to a whole new level, it has become a way for everyday citizens to engage with not only their surrounding environment but with other enthusiasts as well.

If you are someone who is interested in local research projects, environmental advocacy, or want to play a role in the bigger picture of science, you might consider joining the field or simply taking part.

This was the main topic considered during the “Citizen Science and Research in the Sax-Zim bog” webinar held last Thursday, Feb. 11th by the local nature preserve, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. The presentation included a brief, seasonal overview of the progress the citizen science projects have made at the FOSZB, and how to get involved.

Lead presenter, Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus gets the best of both worlds– and it all started with birding. The lifelong citizen scientist and head naturalist at the FOSZB says that “eBird was [his] first exposure” to citizen science in action.

The online database allows any person to submit data based on their encounters with different species of birds around the world, including characteristics of their behavior, habitat, and more. Though, it doesn’t stop there; scientists and researchers actually utilize the data collected to analyze bird populations and their distribution. For people in the field like Dexter-Nienhaus, databases like eBird allow researchers to maximize their time spent on various projects.

On a local level, the Sax-Zim bog has become a hub for those in the area looking to contribute to regional projects, and to spend time learning about and appreciating the world around them. Spanning over 300 square miles just west of Duluth, the bog contains a variety of habitats that attract a biodiverse crowd of critters.

The bog also provides hobby and professional researchers endless opportunities to gather data specifically on boreal birds in the area. Some of the annual projects include the Christmas Bird Count, BioBlitz, BRRRRDathon, and more. Each year, the bogs master species list grows. As of 2020, there has been over 1,800 different documented species.

The ultimate purpose of these projects according to Dexter-Nienhaus, is to document the characteristics of our surrounding ecosystem on a regular basis in order to observe what is there before it is lost.

To folks like Juile Grahn who attended the online webinar, the projects and events aren’t all about establishing data. To the local citizen scientist and volunteer at the Bog, “It is about appreciating what is in one’s yard,” she said. “I feel like a dog that just can’t help but follow where their nose leads them. I just can’t seem to not notice things and feel the need to take a closer look.”

Where some projects certainly can take a certain level of commitment, such as the 100-mile radius observers attempt to cover for the Christmas Bird Count, others can be as simple as uploading a photo to an app or website (like eBird, iNaturalist, etc). The webinar offered many resources for those still questioning whether or not they are interested in participating in these projects. Barbara Huberty, the Area of Concern Coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is not a part of any projects yet but attended the webinar to learn more about them. Though she considers herself someone who typically is wary about using technology, after attending the presentation she says “I suspect that I’ll start dipping my toes in [citizen science] by exploring eBird.”

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Peyton Haug

Peyton Haug

Journalism B.A. in-progress // Passionate about Climate Science and Culture // Freelance Writer and Photographer for hire (inquire at: haug0453@d.umn.edu)