Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Citizen Scientists

A little crab I drew for South Slough Reserve.  My of my favorite roles as a citizen scientist is using my art skills to help places like the reserve.
"Citizen Science."  when I first heard that term I sort of winced.  Not me!  For some reason it sounded a little phony ... I don't know why.  Just an unexplained reaction.  

I now have a very different attitude towards the term.  I am one, and proud of it.  Many other people are too.  In bits and pieces ordinary people can contribute an amazing amount of information, but only if they can find ways to share the knowledge.  Often 'citizen scientists' are part of some project.  It might be joining a group to pull noxious weeds from a local marsh; it might be a member of Audubon's annual Christmas Count; it might be as simple as leading a birding trip.  Many of my citizen science contributions are unrelated to a group effort, but they can be just as important.

I realize I've been a citizen scientist since I was a child.  I never know when the next opportunity will present itself.  I'll start with two of my very early contributions.  For both I was in grade school. 

Early spring in Wisconsin:  The ground was just starting to thaw.  We had several large anthills on our property -- maybe six inches tall and 18 inches around.  I decided to dig into one and see what I could see. I was surprised at the lack of ants, but I did find at least a half dozen small snakes hibernating in there.  Each was curled up in a little knot: garter snakes and little green snakes.  Green snakes are usually bright green, but one was brown.  My mother, a biologist, had never seen a brown colored green snake, so off to a museum it went.  

About the same time I was poking inside anthills, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin was studying the life cycle of a fluke (a parasitic flatworm).  The study involved a fluke which spends part of its life cycle in a snail and part as a parasite in sheep liver.  Somehow this researcher heard those prairie chicken biologists up in Plainfield had a little girl with an aquarium full of snails, snail eggs, and baby snails.  She was doing just fine raising snails, but the researchers were having difficulty.  So one came up to talk to me.  How did I do it?

My aquarium was an old battery jar.  Some batteries used to come in a rectangular glass container big enough to hold at least a gallon of water.  Nothing special about that.  Mine was full of aquatic plants and a little muck.  The researcher didn't look impressed.  But then I asked the researcher what he fed his snails.  Feed them?  Do you need special food to feed them? Aren't the aquatic plants in the aquarium enough?

No ..... I fed my snail little bits of cooked chicken.  I just happened on discovering that my snails started reproducing like mad when given extra protein.  That knowledge was just what the researcher needed.

This cardinal would really excite an Oregon Christmas Bird Count birder. Unfortunately it is just plastic.  Dale spotted it on a fence in Malheur Basin .... a birder's humor.  

Being a 'bird counter' on the annual Audubon Christmas Count is a well known contribution by citizen scientists. I went on my first count about 60 years ago.  Gads!  I hate to even admit that.  And my presence probably wasn't all that important, but maybe it was.  I may well have  spotted a bird that none of the adults would have spotted. 

More recently I don't think I've missed a Christmas Count in over 35 years. 

Dale should get most of the credit for one of our most significant contributions.  For years we'd heard that the only animal that can survive eating a rough-skinned newt is the common garter snake.  When we were out and about Dale paid particular attention to see if he could observe anything else eating a newt. He spent hours carefully watching what kind of salamanders a pair of great blue herons were eating.  They caught about six salamanders an hour, but never one of the numerous newts.   

Later, otter feeding on salamanders caught his attention.  It was a challenge to get a good photos to verify the species of salamander, but we did!  We could see the otter were eating rough-skinned newts.  When I telephoned the author of a reptile book he immediatly said, "But did the otter survive?"  Fortunately we felt we knew the answer to that too. As a result of our observations, researchers came to the pond.  Their research determined that newts found at higher elevations contain less toxin.  The results were published in a scientific paper.   I first blogged about our observations here: 
More recently a lot of our citizen scientist contributions have involved insects.  Digital cameras have made the insect world up-close and personal for us.  It started out when we realized we could get some beautiful photographs of dragonflies with our cameras.  Then, of course, we wondered just what dragonflies we were photographing.  That lead to looking for specific information on Oregon's dragonflies ..... and before we knew it we had verified six new county records for dragonflies in Douglas County, Oregon. 

Soon we were photographing more than just dragonflies.  We began to pay attention to butterflies, robber flies, crane flies, tachinid flies ... and not just flies.  Hymenoptera, Trichoptera, Lepidoptera, etc.   One tiny insect is called a white fly, it looks like a moth, but it is really a bug!  Insects are such a challenge!  There are less than 1000 birds in North America, but somewhere around 90,000 species of insects in N. America north of Mexico ... and a bunch more in Mexico.  Wow! 

Many insects have no common name and some are yet to be discovered.  Citizen scientists are definitely playing a role in adding knowledge to this base. One of my favorite resources for finding out what we have photographed is BugGuide.net.  Bug Guide helps with identification and has a tremendous database of what insects have been photographed, when and where.  Dale and I currently have added about 30 new 'data points' to their Oregon records.  A data point is a photographic record added to their database, but not necessarily the first record of the insect being found in Oregon.  Information like this is extremely helpful to determine how fast a new insect pest is spreading across the country; or how climate change is affecting the range of an insect. 

.... more next week on our 'bugging' adventures, i.e. our role as citizen scientists. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Tid Bit of South Slough History

Hinch Bridge, Sough Slough Reserve

My last post was about sketching along the trails at South Slough National Estuarine Reserve (on the Oregon coast).   The reserve has a wonderful trail system built on their 4800 acres and more than one path leading down to the estuary.  I almost expect a gnome to peer at me from behind a moss covered log, or perhaps to find one sitting on top of a mushroom. We seldom see a deer; and the only glimpse of a bear has been its poop, but occasionally a band-tailed pigeon calls or I hear the stiff feathers of a raven flying over. 
While Dale, my husband,  and I were walking, we chatted about what a treat it is to be able to walk through the reserve’s coastal forest  without having to fight the dense undergrowth.  The well-established trails are pruned, and, when steep, the paths zigzag back and forth to provide a sensible grade.  Dale, during his long career as a soil scientist for the U. S. Forest Service, often had to beat his way through the forest when he was surveying soils.  He commented these damp, Oregon slopes are about as bad as it gets – worse than the many acres he mapped in Southeast Alaska.  

With those thoughts still lingering in our minds we stopped at South Slough Reserve’s Visitor Center when we were done hiking.  A tall, slim gentleman was arriving at the same time.  We paused and chatted and soon were delighted to have met Don Cramer.  One of his many past jobs had been as a smoke jumper.  Don had come to the center to drop off brochures for the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum four miles south of Cave Junction, Oregon.  He is among a handful of smokejumpers who have brought life back to the smokejumper base that was operational there from 1943 through 1981.  Their website is full of history but one item particularly caught my eye:  the base was established to help combat Japan’s attempts to start forest fires in the American West during World War II. 

For more information about the Smokejumpers Museum be sure and go to:  www.siskiyousmokejumpermuseum.org.  Better yet, go visit the museum.  It is free and staffed by retired smokejumpers. 

While talking to Don we found he has had at least two other unusual jobs during his long lifetime.  He worked on diesel submarines long enough to damage his hearing, and he also worked as a consultant in a variety of far flung places including New Guinea, Borneo …. and South Slough Reserve, only it wasn’t a reserve yet.  Don agrees with Dale  -- the heavily wooded slopes and dense undergrowth found at Sough Slough are some of the toughest he has seen. Much of the land was logged many years ago and has had time to generate thick, new growth. 

Don knows South Slough well.  In 1962 he worked as an independent contractor for a Portland, Oregon consulting firm: Mason, Bruce and Girard.  He spent six months carefully surveying the patchwork of land Georgia Pacific was preparing to transfer to what would become part of the reserve.  It was not an easy job scrambling up and down those dense slopes.  His most unusual find was a marijuana patch complete with a three story tree house.  He also found where a cougar had recently made a kill, and had occasional encounters with black bears.  Mostly he found it was hard work getting the land all sorted out. 

Meeting Don was a reminder to me how young Oregon is in terms of its history since Oregon became a state.  Oregon became a territory in 1848 and the 33rd  state in 1859.  It was slightly over 100 years later that Don was slogging through the dense new growth created by the early logging.  He figures it had been logged about 70 years before his survey. 

I felt as though Dale and I were talking to piece of living history.