Become a Citizen Scientist

February 24, 2021By: Paul Racette
PEC Blog

Paul Racette – Program Manager, Watersheds

Want to do something to protect and improve the environment around your home, community, and waterways? Interested in observing natural spaces and providing valuable information to scientists monitoring water quality, protecting wildlife, or studying climate change?

You can do all of that and more by becoming a Citizen Scientist. From reporting on migrating birds, to measuring the impact of winter salt on local creeks, to recording when flowers emerge in the spring, you can get outside during all four seasons.

Your observations will be combined with others to inform scientists about the condition of our natural and physical world. This collective information paints a broad picture for researchers and policy makers about what is happening in your area and beyond.

And by being outside you will also benefit from a good dose of nature. Outside time has been shown to reduce stress and improve health.

Check out the following Citizen Science programs to learn more about how you can get involved: 

Water Quality

Stormwater runoff carries pollutants into waterways and causes floods that erode stream banks and damage property. Here are some examples of volunteer opportunities to watch and monitor your local stream. 

  • The Izaak Walton League Winter Salt Watch program provides starter chloride test strips to measure chloride levels. By measuring the amount of salt (chlorides) in your local stream you can help scientists better understand the impact of winter road salting on aquatic life.
  • StreamKeepers and Creek Watchers are a team of citizens that regularly monitor local creeks and tributaries. The program is part of a regional effort to improve Philadelphia area watersheds. Find out more for each of the local waterways at Darby-Cobbs, Pennypack, Poquessing, Tookany/Tacony-Frankford, and Wissahickon

Weather and Climate 

Report on rain, hail, and snow events to provide real time data to weather forecasters, water managers, and flood watchers. Or by watching when water on local lakes and streams freezes in the winter and thaws in the spring, you can help climate scientists understand local, regional, and global climate patterns. Two programs that address weather and ice include:

Plants & Animals

By observing when migratory birds return to your backyard, you can help ornithologists track the status and trends of bird populations or understand better how birds are adapting to urban environments. The Cornwell Lab and Audubon provide a variety of programs including:

  • Cornell Lab Bird Watch Programs: Participate in one or more bird watch programs including Celebrate Urban Birds (get involved with birds and community activities in urban and suburban areas), eBird (track and share your sightings anywhere, anytime), NestWatch (find and monitor bird nests), Project FeederWatch (watch and record birds at your feeders in winter), and Great Backyard Bird Count (in February, celebrate birds by counting them at home or in your community).  
  • Audubon Bird Watch Programs: Audubon conducts similar bird watch programs including the Christmas Count and Hummingbirds at Home.

Enjoy observing when plants flower in the spring or change color in the fall? Reporting on the life cycle of trees, shrubs, and flowers can help scientists track the seasons, monitor insect pests, report on allergy seasons, or study wildlife that depend on certain plants for food. The Chicago Botanic Garden Budburst program enables you to observe and report on leafing out, flowering, fruiting, and more for plants in your yard or nearby.

Combine your interest in wildlife viewing, plant observations, and more with the following programs:

  • Watch the WildTM: This Nature Abounds program allows you to report on a suite of natural features including wildlife, vegetation, weather extremes, water conditions, and human impacts.
  • Natures Notebook: This USA-National Phenology Network program allows volunteers to observe specific plant and animal species listed by state. 
  • iNaturalist: This app identifies the plants and animals around you and allows you to share your observations to create quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature.

Whether you are just getting started or have a long track record of observing the great outdoors, there are many opportunities to share your knowledge of and experience with nature. Your contributions along with those of fellow citizen scientists provides a wealth of data useful to scientists and policy makers working to solve issues of great importance. How clean and healthy are our local creeks? Are recent heavy rain fall events causing more flooding? Are efforts to protect area woodlands providing habitat for migratory birds? As a citizen scientist you can help answer these questions while you also enjoy the natural world in your yard, neighborhood, and parks.

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