Armed with Apps, Citizen Scientists Track Animal Populations
By Swathi Narayanan
Photography By Graham Dickie
The hikers who gathered on a September Saturday morning at a wilderness preserve just west of Austin had more than exercise in mind. The diverse group that included a retired lawyer, a student and a few biologists was on a mission for science: to track and identify birds.
The popular image of a scientist, a person in a lab coat peering into a microscope, is changing. Today, just about anyone can become a citizen scientist and collect and analyze scientific data. All that is needed is a smart phone and a few apps.
That personal technology and a strong interest in science are what recently brought a half-dozen bird hobbyists to the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, over 200 acres of woodlands on Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) north of Bee Caves Road.
In addition to the usual tools of the bird-watching trade, such as binoculars and cameras, the citizen scientists used mobile apps such as eBird to record the birds they heard or saw.
Given its vast landscape, Texas is a great place for bird watchers. Researchers rely on citizen scientists to be their eyes and ears on the ground or in the sky to record birds.
“Texas is one of the most dense and diverse migratory corridors in the continent, and so many birds follow up through Texas that breed in the eastern and northern parts of North America,” said Cullen Hanks, a biologist with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife ‘s Texas Nature Trackers Program.
At the Wild Basin Preserve, once the information is uploaded on an app it becomes a part of a repository that is available for research scientists at the preserve and across the world to use. The information also helps the management of the preserve to keep track of the biodiversity in a fast-growing urban area.
Allan Seils, 67, was the leader of the bird walk. He carried a pad and a sheet of paper with the names of birds commonly found in the preserve. Seils, who worked at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for 30 years, fell in love with birds 6 years ago on a camping trip to West Texas.
“For most birders…they see a particular bird species and for some reason, that bird catches their imagination and they get involved in birding,” he said. “For me, it was the painted bunting.”
Seils and his group of citizen scientists walked in silence. “We often don’t get to see the birds, and we have to identify the birds by song,” Seils said.
When the hikers heard a bird, they stopped to listen. If the bird went quiet, Darrell Hutchinson, a biologist, stopped and made bird noises. It was almost like he was having a conversation with the bird.
“It’s called pishing,” said Rose Ann Reeser, a retired lawyer who now is a trail guide at Wild Basin.
When Janet Reed spotted a bird, there was palpable excitement in her voice. With her training and knowledge as a result of a doctorate in wildlife science, Reed can pick up even a bird’s slightest sound or movement.
The group spotted about 20 species, including bluejays, woodpeckers and robins. The identification was made almost always by sound: it’s hard to see birds in the thick cover of trees.
The activity took about 2.5 hours. Seils would later upload the information to the eBird app, along with details about weather and temperature.
“The data will be used by ornithologists and researchers to look at many different things like climate change to individual species characteristics and habitat changes,” he said.
Amy Belaire, research director at the Wild Basin Preserve Creative Research Center at St. Edward’s University, said information from citizen scientists helps to “keep track of which species are where and helps us keep an inventory of the Wild Basin.”
The university and Travis County co-own and co-manage the preserve.
Belaire asks students who come to Wild Basin for their courses and research to use apps such as eBird or iNaturalist to log observations. She also asks the general public who visit to log information they find.
Hanks, the state biologist, said that there are more than 25 million observations of birds in Texas on the eBird app. Texas Parks and Wildlife relies on citizen scientists to help them detect new populations of birds or to get information on existing species for research and conservation efforts.
One example is the department’s Texas Whooper Watch program, which monitors the habitat of the endangered whooping crane. The crane’s traditional coastal habitats are disappearing due to climate change and the birds are beginning to explore new wintering habitats. Texas Whooper Watch uses the help of citizen scientists to monitor these new habitats
While citizen scientists can help collect information, there are challenges. People with varying levels of science knowledge collect information and so the observations can be flawed.
“In all cases, regardless of the participant’s skill and experience, every project has to be very attentive…so that people are engaged in a way that produces data that can be used,” said Jennifer Shirk, director of field development for the Citizen Science Association.
During the bird walk, the citizen scientists were careful to make sure they did not record the same bird twice. If they could not recognize a bird, they referred to books to make sure their observation was as accurate as possible. As they finished the walk, they made plans to meet again in December to record the birds once again.
Editor’s note: The story has been revised to clarify St. Edward’s University role as co-owner and co-manager of the preserve and to correct Jennifer Shirk’s title.