A boy holding a cicada by a pond at the Bell Museum

Spring into Citizen Science (In Your Backyard)

Use these tips to get involved in citizen science this month!

Published04/06/2020 , by Holly Menninger

Over the last couple weeks, as my family and I have adjusted to working and learning from home, we find ourselves slowing down and taking more time to observe the natural world around us—a world that here in Minnesota is finally starting to wake up from a long winter’s slumber.

We watch new birds arrive at our backyard feeder station as the spring migration gets into full swing. We take pleasure in the fuzzy nubs popping out en masse on willow branches along the wetland boardwalk at our neighborhood nature center. We admire the fierce persistence with which the woolly bear caterpillar trucks across the sidewalk in search of food and a good place to pupate. Even indoors, our house spiders seem to be more actively prowling for prey along the perimeters of our dining room.

Our observations often lead to more questions (What do woolly bear caterpillars eat in the early spring time when green plants aren’t out yet? What part of the plant are pussy willows?), requiring deeper investigation into field guides and nature websites.

And quite frequently, we take our observations and curiosity to the next level, contributing our photos and data to research projects where the public and scientists are partnering together to make discoveries and collectively create new knowledge—a research collaboration known as citizen science.

I’ve marveled as opportunities for citizen scientists have grown exponentially over the last decade—whether you’re interested in astronomy or zoology (and everything else in between), opportunities abound in-person and online. Citizen science is one of the ways we at the Bell Museum engage our visitors in science and connect them to research happening at the University of Minnesota and beyond—we try to bring citizen science to life via our Discovery Stations in the Minnesota Journeys gallery, our gallery carts and programs, and through online resources.

Until we can get back to connecting you to citizen science opportunities through our work at the museum, I wanted to connect you to some activities you can do at home and in your neighborhood. Here’s a few citizen science projects my family and I have participated in over the last few weeks that are especially relevant for the current spring awakening. April also happens to be Citizen Science Month! No special skills needed to participate, just bring your curiosity and at times a smartphone or camera to record your observations.

iNaturalist

This biodiversity-mapping app is our go-to for keeping track of the plants, animals, and fungi we observe on nature walks. Relatively recent transplants to Minnesota, we use the “What did you see?” feature of the app—based on a powerful computer vision model—to identify and learn about local flora and fauna (especially spring wildflowers). 

You can also contribute your observations to specific projects in iNaturalist like the MN Wildlife Tracking Project (who doesn’t like taking pictures of footprints and scat?!) and Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Our Homes (yes, even those spiders crawling around our dining room ceiling have a role to play in science!).

By getting familiar with iNaturalist now, you’ll be ready for the upcoming City Nature Challenge, an international effort to map plants and wildlife in cities across the globe. Any observations you collect April 24-27 from within the 11-county metro area will automatically contribute to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul tally. Due to COVID-19, this year’s effort will celebrate collaboration and connection with nature rather than focus on competition amongst cities (it was fierce in years past). University of Minnesota Extension is coordinating our local efforts – including the crowdsourcing of identification. Learn more here.

Project FeederWatch

Our family joined Project FeederWatch in late January. This project, coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada, is a winter-long (November–April) survey of birds that visit backyard feeders (as well as those at nature centers and community areas) in North America. Participation is easy and flexible (see instructions and how to sign up here. We’ve designated Saturday and Sunday as our official count days, and it’s given us some structure and a fun, nature-based activity to look forward to during this Stay at Home period. Our backyard feeder is visible from the family room and kitchen table so keeping an eye out for birds is easy peasy (the protocol has you keep a tally of the maximum number of each species visible at any one time during your two-day count—you don’t keep a tally of total numbers of birds). Our biggest challenge has been telling the difference between the downy and hairy woodpeckers, but we think we’ve finally sorted that out. Special bonus: FeederWatch recently announced they have extended participation through the end of April!

HerpMapper

Yesterday afternoon, we strolled through our neighborhood wetland and were delighted to hear the boisterous chorusing of spring peeper frogs. We uploaded our geo-tagged recordings (you can share photos, too) to HerpMapper—a global project to coordinate and record observations of amphibians and reptiles for research, conservation, and preservation. 

Track a Lilac

We’re eagerly watching common lilac bush in our backyard for the Track a Lilac, a citizen science project from the USA National Phenology Network. Data reports indicating when people see leaves or flowers on their lilacs are contributed to a national database that helps researchers better understand the timing of lilac leafing and blooming. You can share observations via a simple webform or through the Nature’s Notebook app. Observations you download and submit via Nature’s Notebook will also contribute to the records of the Minnesota Phenology Network. Check out six other plant and animals species of concern and importance here in Minnesota you can help track through time.

Having a hard time getting outside? Rainy day got you down? No problem! Opportunities abound to contribute to biodiversity research online. Here’s a couple University of Minnesota-based projects to get your started:

Mapping Change

Help transcribe historical, hand-written specimen labels for plants, animals and fungi in the Bell Museum collection. By doing so, you’re contributing to the Bell Museum Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas, helping make important baseline data available and usable for researchers, land managers and conservation planners who are trying to understand changes in biodiversity over time.

Cedar Creek: Eyes on Wild

Help researchers at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve identify animals in trail camera images—they have over a hundred camera traps set up across this 5,600-acre field station in central Minnesota where three of the largest biomes in North America come together: tallgrass prairie, eastern deciduous forest and boreal coniferous forest. 

Holly Menninger is the director of public engagement and science learning at the Bell Museum. While she’s spent a chunk of her career coordinating citizen science projects about the biodiversity in our daily lives, she’s now enjoying her current role a citizen science participant (bringing her family along with her!).