Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation

“Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation” presented by Marlene Doyle, Environment Canada

Becoming a citizen scientist . . . or how to help monitor ‘what’s up world?’: A report  written by Dr. Jim Bendell

When most of us stop and ask ourselves what we value most in life, we likely admit it is not a thing or things at all, but ourselves and other people. Next would be the natural environment, which, after all, we depend upon for at least food, water, clothing, and shelter. What can we do to understand more about our natural environment and how to protect and sustain it? Marlene Doyle of Environment Canada told us what we can do during her presentation: “Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation”.

At her lecture to the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) in Almonte, Ms. Doyle invited the audience to “Join the ranks of Darwin and the Compte de Buffon” . . . that is to become citizen scientists!!! Ms. Doyle has worked for many years in enlisting people of all ages to monitor plants and animals and their habitats as coordinator of our national Nature Watch program. Ms. Doyle holds a Master’s degree from the University of Waterloo and is currently Canadian representative on the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program’s Terrestrial Export Monitoring Group, or, “What’s Up? in the lands of the North?” Monitoring means observing and noting, something we do every day. Ms. Doyle gave us lots of ideas for what we can do to find out “what’s up world?” by monitoring the health and diversity of our natural world as citizen scientists.

Everyone can take part and the requirements are simply interest, time, and wanting to help. Along the way you will learn new things, including how top professionals think and work. You will also see for yourself what people are or are not saying and writing about important issues. You will connect to nature and the community. You will certainly make new friends, have fun, and perhaps begin a successful career. The major reward is caring for Canada and the world by recognizing real environmental problems and doing something about them. The concerns are many and the need for help is unlimited. An important issue is climate change, which is real but what can be done about it? We are losing species of animals and habitats, making the world a poorer place, at never so fast a rate. Locally, and in a life time; tree swallows, nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, little brown bats and other birds and mammals have been significantly reduced. Might this signal greater losses for the future and eventually impact negatively on our own way of life? But why the losses and is there anything that can be done about them?

A start in solving these problems is to monitor aspects of the environment by sight, sound, odour, or feel. As a citizen scientist, you will work with an experienced leader and follow set procedures. The more who are working together to the same end the more powerful will be the result. While amateurs are the main workforce, professionals in organizations, schools, universities and government typically provide information, participate, and publish the results. Observations and actions by citizen scientists may be out-of-doors, or in a laboratory or library. Work as much as you wish, alone or in a group. The longer observations can be made the better. Some monitoring projects extend over many years. For example, you might go out and tag a clump of wildflowers on your property, and then follow PlantWatch monitoring directions for information which should be collected in the spring, file a report and repeat this again with the same plants each year. Or, you might join an MVFN Christmas bird count. You might participate in a marsh monitoring program or a Lakes Loon Survey next summer at your home or cottage. Always there is help at hand for advice and direction.

Often people hesitate to participate in an activity because they think it is of little value or beyond their abilities. In fact, thousands of people are actively caring for our environment simply by reporting observations. And their findings have been used by many professionals and others to write reports on research and management in authoritative journals and books. Numerous tests show inexperienced volunteers, with training, make accurate observations and determinations to provide trustworthy results. In fact, says Ms. Doyle, the quality of data is more likely affected by survey design or quality of communication than by the expertise of the person or group who collected the data. Not only is citizen science data reliable but it complements professional monitoring, it is relevant, local, timely, unique, and it is relatively low-cost to collect. Remember, you are not alone and can easily join many other interesting and committed people. Contact local and global leaders in the care of our environment. A main doorway in joining a quest of interest is through the speaker; Marlene Doyle at 613-949-7754 (and more on how to reach her later). She welcomes your call.

There are at least 283 projects powered by ordinary citizens across Canada. A classic example is the Christmas Bird Count, started more than 100 years ago, which now includes 50,000 observers reporting from 2000 locations throughout the United States, Canada, and beyond. The findings, which are solely based on citizen scientist reports, have helped elucidate the requirements of birds and clearly show changes in the abundance and distribution of species. For example, the counts tracked the spread of an introduced European Starling over the northern states and Canada and the disappearance of the similar Japanese Starling introduced to British Columbia. The Japanese form apparently cannot hatch its eggs under as cool conditions as the European bird and the abundance of both may be linked to climate change. Other projects range from counting Monarch Butterflies (an at risk species) to searching old logs and journals for information on past environments.

MVFN Bioblitz

Data gathered by citizen scientists are credible, unique and useful for furthering our understanding of the natural world. In this photo, ‘citizen scientists’ join amateur naturalists and professional scientists taking a biological inventory of a Mississippi Mills property during MVFN’s 2009 Bioblitz. Photo Pauline Donaldson

Ms. Doyle, through Nature Watch Canada, coordinates the input of four large inventories. They are: Plant Watch, Frog Watch, Ice Watch, and Worm Watch. Observations on plants include invasive species and dates of flowering. The kinds and abundance of worms reveal the health of soil. Frogs and the formation of ice are sensitive indicators of many factors in aquatic ecosystems, including temperature.

Interested in more information? In Lanark Highlands, Carleton Place and Mississippi Mills talk to Cliff and Lynda Bennett at 613-256-5013, ; or Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089, . Then some relevant organizations, in no particular order, are: Environment Canada (NatureWatch,, Ms. Marlene Doyle, 613-949-7754, , see above); Natural Heritage Information Centre, Peterborough (705-755-2159, ); Toronto Zoo (361A Old Finch Ave., Scarborough, ON M1B 5K7,; Ontario Nature (336 Adelaide Street West, Suite 201, Toronto, ON, M5V 1R9, ; Royal Botanical Gardens (Ontario Plantwatch Coordinator, Natalie Iwanycki, ); Bird Studies Canada ( P.O. Box 160, Port Rowan, ON, N0E 1M0); Canadian Wildlife Service (Ontario Region, 49 Camelot Dr. Nepean, ON K1A 0H3); and Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network (Chairperson, Christine Bishop, 4553-46B Street, Delta, B.C. V4K 2N2, ). Cornell University also keeps a directory of projects undertaken by volunteers at

Christmas bird count (998x1280)

Another way to join the ranks of Darwin and become a citizen scientist is to participate in one of the many annual Audubon Christmas bird counts across North America. Two local counts include the Lanark Highlands and the Carleton Place Christmas Bird Counts (for further info visit Birder Cliff Bennett records data during the count-in held after local count-teams return from a 2006 MVFN CBC. Photo MVFN archive.


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Citizen science in action in the Mississippi River watershed: from August 5-7, 2006, nearly one hundred citizen scientists (MVFN members and others), set out in canoes, row boats and motor boats to take the watersheds’ temperature. The goal was to collect data and engage citizens in considering local implications of future climate change Shown is Howard Robinson, water-sampler in hand, ready to survey Palmerston Lake. Photo Mary Robinson


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Citizen Science—Joining the Ranks of Darwin and the Comte de Buffon

Press Release

Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

September 2, 2011

Citizen Science—Joining the Ranks of Darwin and the Comte de Buffon

by Cathy Keddy, MVFN Program Chair

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ (MVFN) public lecture series on natural history and biology is set to begin September 15th. Attendance records were broken at the lecture series last year. Talks this year will once again be held at the Almonte United Church, and are open to the public as well as MVFN members. You do not need to be an expert to enjoy the presentations—just possess a curiosity or appreciation for wild nature. Cottagers, hunters, fishermen, canoeists, hikers, campers, artists and seasoned field naturalists alike should find something to interest them as the series explores what lives in Lanark County and how best to protect it for future generations. Refreshments are offered at each lecture.

The lecture series theme this season will be Trends in Fauna and Flora. Lectures will include a wide range of topics such as citizen science, ‘deceit’ in nature, flying squirrel battles, plants invading in our county, and tuning up for spring birds.

The first lecture, “Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation,” will be presented by Marlene Doyle, Science Officer with Environment Canada. Marlene has worked for many years with citizen science approaches to ecosystem monitoring, assessment and reporting. Doyle is currently coordinator of the national NatureWatch program and is the Canadian representative on the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program Terrestrial Expert Monitoring Group.

Citizen scientist networks are groups of volunteers who collect natural heritage information which is shared with those involved in decisions impacting the environment. For volunteers, it’s as easy as using your eyes and ears to track changes in nature. Citizen scientists have the rare opportunity to participate in cutting-edge biological research, to help with monitoring and protecting ecosystems, and to gain insight into ways scientists unravel the mysteries of the natural world. Thanks to the observations of citizens, scientists understand environmental changes better. As a citizen scientist, you join the ranks of famous citizen scientists such as Charles Darwin and George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

Many will be familiar with the Christmas Bird Count surveys that are carried out in our region each winter. That is citizen science. In fact, the National Audubon Society initiated this survey over 100 years ago to make use of and organize bird sightings of amateur naturalists. Originally comprised of 27 volunteers at 25 locations, this citizen science network is now continent-wide with more than 50,000 volunteers reporting from over 2,000 locations. Such information obtained over the long term and based on consistent methods is highly reliable and of great value to scientists for assessing species trends and conservation needs.

A more recent citizen science network, set up in 2008, addresses the decline in honey bee and native bee populations. Volunteers have been enlisted all over the world to observe bees on their Lemon Queen sunflowers (recently, also wild plants). Sunflowers are relatively easy to grow and a great resource for bees. It has been discovered that on average the flowers are visited by pollinating bees every 2.6 minutes. This means your garden is doing better than average if you see more than 3 bees every 15 minutes. If you observe fewer bees in that time then your garden has poor pollinator service. Over time, your observations and those of others helps build up an accurate picture of global trends in bee populations and their effects on the vital pollination of garden plants, crops, and wild plants.

If the birds and the bees are not your forté, perhaps you have an interest in catching scuttle flies to assist scientists with genetic research, or in monitoring monarch caterpillar distribution. Or perhaps you could get involved in Project Budburst that tracks the timing of leafing, flowering and fruiting of plants, or bat monitoring, or Icewatch, or the Lost Ladybug Project, or Firefly Watch, or the Garlic Mustard Field Survey… Even on a rainy day, you could contribute to a better understanding of the natural world from the comfort of an armchair by sifting through the pages of a ship captains’ data logs from a voyage made during the 1780s to 1830s to find historic weather data, or by examining star brightness charts to detect changes, or simply by letting your computer detect strong-motion seismic events. As you have probably gathered, fantastic opportunities to contribute as a citizen scientist abound!

There is no need to be bored—after retirement or at any time—become a citizen scientist! There is a worthwhile project for you and likely a new group of friends. Talk to Marlene Doyle about opportunities for participating in citizen science work to support conservation at her MVFN presentation “Citizen Science Networks: Linking Nature Observation with Conservation,” at 7:30 pm Thursday, September 15 at the Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. All are welcome ($5 fee for non-members). For further information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089.


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