Join the Big Butterfly Count

By spending just 15 minutes counting butterflies, you’ll be taking part in the world’s biggest butterfly survey and helping protect these precious insects. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

By spending just 15 minutes counting butterflies, you’ll be taking part in the world’s biggest butterfly survey and helping protect these precious insects. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies aren’t just a beautiful sight, fluttering between flower heads on a sunny summer’s day, they are crucial indicators of the health of our environment. Alas the majority of UK butterflies and moths are still in major decline, they need constant monitoring and protecting. You can help do just that by taking part in Butterfly Conservation’s annual Big Butterfly Count.

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Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 1

Freshly dried lionfish fins and tails. Photo: Polly Alford, ReefCI

I’ve written in previous posts about the initiative to develop a market for lionfish jewelry as one of a number of commercially sustainable approaches to fighting this invasive species that is threatening marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Southern Atlantic seaboard of the United States. In my last post, I mentioned that the idea is beginning to take off in Belize.  I was able to observe this first-hand last month, spending two and a half weeks in the country.  During my stay I had the opportunity to meet local artists who are making lionfish jewelry and to participate in several workshops to share techniques and designs.  Continue reading

Fiji Shark Dive

Photo Credit: Martin Graf,

Photo Credit: Martin Graf,

In an earlier post I wrote about how more and more countries are waking up to the benefits of preserving natural capital, in recognition of the economic value that can be derived through ecotourism. I noted, in particular, the value that can be generated through ecotourism ventures focused on iconic species such as sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. I cited a number of studies and calculations that demonstrate that the ecotourism value of these animals far outweighs their one-time economic value if harvested for food or body parts.

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to experience one such venture first hand, via the famous Fiji Shark Dive. Over the course of two dives I was treated to the spectacle of 40+ Bull Sharks and dozens of Blacktip and White Tip Reef Sharks, up close and personal!  What an amazing experience to see these magnificent animals – some upwards of 8 feet long –swimming only inches away.  Click here for a video (check out the background music!) courtesy of Martin Graf, one of the pioneers of the Shark Diving industry, who just happened to be in Fiji this week and was along on my dives. Continue reading

Participatory Monitoring Workshop: Part 2/3

My penultimate post covered the participatory monitoring workshop I attended the last week of June. Here I will describe our results in the last two days of the meetings.

When dividing the attendees into different groups with assigned topics of discussion, the workshop organizers assigned me as discussion leader of the Resident (Urban and Rural) group, where six or seven of us talked about varied approaches and types of programs.

We started with the rural residents, focusing on farmers since the majority of landowners in the agricultural region of Santa Cruz fit that category, either with coffee, sugarcane, cattle, or other crops. There are countless farms in the area, and only about a dozen of them practice any tourism, but we considered this smaller group the perfect audience for a pilot project, since they should be more interested in completing periodic checklists of focal species that serve as tourist attractions. Guides from cruises or local operators often take groups of tourists up into the highlands to see wild giant tortoises and less common landbird species like the Vermilion Flycatcher, and these few farms offer not only passage in their land (as safe havens for the attractive species) but also their coffee or homebrewed sugarcane rum to the tourists. Some properties even have lava tunnels, one of which I’ve been told by a Hawaiian visitor is even more impressive than the famous Thurston lava tunnel on the other well-known volcanic archipelago of the Pacific Ocean.

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Participatory Workshop Introduction

Last week, thanks to the effort of very helpful contacts on the islands, I was able to attend a Participatory Monitoring workshop in Puerto Ayora. For those of you unfamiliar with the term in the workshop title, you are not alone. Participatory monitoring, community science, public participation in scientific research, volunteer data collection–these all mean practically the same thing as citizen science, which I have briefly written about before. Here is another good, and possibly the most definitive, source of information on the subject, and although the site is a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I’ve pointed out (even more briefly) that projects are by no means limited to birds.

The workshop consisted of an impressive list of international expert invitees—representing Cedar Crest College/Earth Watch, SUNY (College of Environmental Science and Forestry and at Stony Brook), Stanford University, Pepperdine University/ Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation/American Museum of Natural History, Colorado State University/University of Wisconsin-Madison, the United States National Park Service (Joshua Tree National Park and Acadia National Park), and the Galápagos Conservancy. Additionally, the Galápagos National Park, Charles Darwin Foundation, WWF Galápagos, Conservation International, Universidad Central Sede Galápagos, and Grupo FARO were present. A very skilled interpreter, with portable headsets, helped those who didn’t speak English or Spanish. Being in the minority of non-PhD.-holders, and practically the only person with just an undergraduate education, made walking into the room slightly unnerving, but I knew that since the Cornell Lab of Ornithology didn’t have a representative in attendance there were still constructive inputs that I could contribute, seeing as the workshop was about citizen science. Another comfort was that people commonly mistake me for being older than I am. While a freshman at Cornell two years ago, many of my TAs thought I was a senior or junior for most of the semester, and when traveling, people who I tell I’m studying at Cornell tend to assume I’m in graduate studies until I correct them.

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Celebrate Urban Birds

Screen Shot 2012-12-22 at 8.01.16 AMFor the past year, I have been working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the project Celebrate Urban Birds. Distinct from other citizen science projects the Lab of O. is involved with, such as eBird or FeederWatch, Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBs) stays true to its name and hones in on the celebratory aspect of studying birds: artwork, festivals, education, and other activities promoting community. Of course, there is still data involved. Thousands of forms have been filed—both electronically and physically—containing information on sightings of the sixteen focal species within 10-minute observation periods. These observations, along with notes about sighting location, are the source of data for the project. Participants include the address from which they are looking for birds in the ten minutes, describe the general amount of greenery and pavement in the area (as well as the size of the area itself), and list whether they saw, did not see, or were not sure about each of the sixteen species. This information constitutes a checklist that can be compiled into a larger repository of sightings in various types of green spaces around the country; the CUBs website contains species maps according to the number of observations in the last 90 days, marking where, say, a Brown-headed Cowbird has and has not been seen.

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Citizen Science

Bird watchers are everywhere. Countless households around the world sport bird-feeders in back yards, and thousands of photographers like Vijaykumar Thondaman dedicate much of their lives to capturing stunning images. It is practically impossible to believe that anyone could fail to see the beauty in a toucan or quetzal, Latin American species that tourists travel whole hemispheres to see for themselves in the wild.

Swallow nestlings studied by Cornell students

Collecting data on birds is a difficult process because there aren’t enough ornithologists to be in the field all the time. But what about the casual bird watchers carrying around their binoculars, the families gathering on their porches to watch hummingbirds flit around flowers, or the schoolchildren staring out the classroom window at the distant and free shadows of birds of prey in the sky? Citizen science involves using these millions of bird lovers as a resource. As one of the world leaders in the study of birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been using citizen science since 1966, and is involved in many projects that bring bird watchers together while building an impressive database that is used for important research.

Here’s an article on Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society’s citizen science project

Starting next week I will be working at one of these projects, called Celebrate Urban Birds, managing/deciphering this data and helping people around the country get involved in the surprisingly simple and rewarding experience of watching and identifying birds, whether they have a background in ornithology or not.