Citizen scientists brave a hailstorm. Photo by Wendy Feltham.
After a career as an elementary school principal, I moved to Port Townsend and surprised myself by becoming a citizen scientist. Now I spend much of my time participating in about ten different projects. What is citizen science, also known as community science? National Geographic defines it as: “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs. Usually, this participation is done as an unpaid volunteer.” I hope you will consider joining a citizen/community science project yourselves!
When I took the Jefferson Land Trust’s naturalist course, “Tidelands to Timberline,” I was astonished by the biodiversity of the Olympic Peninsula. I signed up to volunteer as a Preserve Steward at the Land Trust’s 80-acre Quimper West property, in the Quimper Wildlife Corridor. I also began to clean aquariums every week at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. My sense of wonder grew for all the species around me, and I observed them more closely. As Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, wrote, “Citizen science starts with and continuously returns to individual observations of nature.”
Since its founding 40 years ago, the Marine Science Center has been a leader in citizen science. I joined several of these projects— one at a time— and received training. Betsy Carlson coordinates over a dozen projects; to learn more: ptmsc.org/programs/investigate/citizen-science In this photo she is surveying seabirds and marine mammals in the Protection Island Aquatic Reserve with volunteer ornithologist Bob Boekelheide.
I’ve been fortunate to accompany the small team on Ross Anderson’s Sea Hardy a few times during their five years of monthly surveys. This photo includes Erica Bleke from the WA Department of Natural Resources, which has established eight aquatic reserves. It takes a few hours to cruise the reserve’s waters, carefully keeping far from Protection Island itself. Noting their exact locations and depth of water, Bob points out Common Murres, Long-tailed Ducks, and rare Yellow-billed Loons, counting each one, while Betsy records them, along with sightings of harbor porpoises and harbor seals. I once spotted a humpback whale.
Cinda counts Brant geese off Fort Flagler while the rest of our small team follow Seattle Audubon’s strict protocol to check compass coordinates and use a ruler to determine each bird’s distance from shore. I’ve volunteered for Seattle Audubon’s Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS ) since 2013, identifying 47 species and counting over 8,000 individual birds. Beginning in 2007, the Marine Science Center has been a PSSS training site for locations in Jefferson and Clallam Counties.
Seattle Audubon states, “PSSS is the only multi-month, land-based seabird survey in Puget Sound: and it runs on citizen science!” Citizen scientists must be truly dedicated to birds to participate in PSSS because it includes standing in place for half an hour at each of our two sites. Cinda puts it well, “Even in winter’s cold horizontal rain, it’s rewarding to collect data that may support efforts to protect the Salish Sea, and fun to have a reason to be out birding.” And the birds are spectacular! It’s fascinating to watch them switch from winter plumage to breeding plumage, like this Common Loon in breeding plumage.
Meet the invasive European green crab, one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. My team found this three-inch crab at Kala Point Lagoon. In 2015, the University of Washington and Washington Sea Grant created an early detection and monitoring program. Dr. Emily Grason manages the project and trains volunteers each spring; she was delighted we could deliver this crab alive to her, since our team was much closer to Seattle than most. We drove to the Kingston ferry with the crab wrapped in seawater-drenched paper towels to pass it off to Emily for dissection, and then she airmailed key pieces to a Massachusetts lab for DNA analysis.
Here’s the team the day we found the European green crab in September, 2018: Eileen Cooney, me, Chris Jones, Katherine Jensen, and Lee Merrill. The Marine Science Center is connected to local teams that search for this crab in habitats that could attract them— salt marshes and pocket estuaries. Guided by retired shellfish biologist Chris Jones, my green crab team sets out six baited traps once a month from April through September at Kala Point Lagoon, and hauls them in the next morning. Although we volunteer during the warmer months, the photo at the very top shows Chris and Dennis Cartwright, another retired scientist, braving a hailstorm to position the traps during a minus tide. By volunteering in citizen science projects, I’ve been lucky to get to know working and retired scientists who have shared their knowledge and enthusiasm.
We’ve only found one European green crab at Kala Point, but we monitor the health of the lagoon habitat, and count every species of crab and fish in our six traps. Here’s a reminder of the day last summer when we trapped more hairy shore crabs than ever before— 969—along with a few staghorn sculpin fish. The fish are easy— we photograph, count, and quickly release them. But we have to handle every single crab, measuring ten males and ten females per trap, and tallying the sex of all the other individuals on a data sheet. And they pinch! We also conduct a survey to record data about what lives and what washes ashore, and we gather crab molts, the shells crabs shed as they grow. In April, we identified six species of crab molts.
The Marine Science Center coordinates the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network for NOAA locally. Betsy Carlson explains, “The project goes year-round, it is just much busier in the summer when 1) more people are on the beach, and 2) it is harbor seal pupping season. But calls can come in at any time of year. This year has been fairly quiet so far. Since Jan. 1 we’ve received calls about four sea lions —one California, one Steller and two unknown— all live. The California sea lion was thermoregulating by holding its flipper out of the water. Concerned observers tend to think they are entangled. We ask people and their dogs to stay at least 100 yards away so the mother seals won’t be scared away permanently.” To our surprise, I discovered this young harbor seal not in summer but in February, and right by the Marine Science Center. We worried about its foaming at the mouth, and Betsy checked with a veterinarian who explained it could be from several natural causes. Sadly, only half of the harbor seal pups reach maturity.
This cute juvenile elephant seal was trying to relax on the beach right below the Nifty Fiftys Soda Fountain on Water Street in the summer of 2013. Volunteers for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network took turns keeping people and dogs as far away as possible while the young seal molted. We explained to people that, like snakes and crabs, elephant seals molt, but theirs is a dramatic, “catastrophic molt” that can take a month to complete on land. Some don’t survive this annual shedding and formation of a new layer of skin and hair. Betsy Carlson just reported that recently “one live, molting Northern elephant seal came ashore in the Port Ludlow area and a responder was sent out to post ‘Share the Shore, Do Not Disturb’ signs.”
One of the Land Trust’s newest citizen science projects involves searching for amphibians on five of their Preserves. My “amphibian partner” Hillary and I were thrilled to discover a Western long-toed salamander under one of the plywood boards we had placed around one Preserve, hoping amphibians would crawl beneath them. So far, we have also identified a few Ensatinas. The Land Trust’s Preserve Manager, Carrie Clendaniel, explains the purpose of this project: “to understand what sorts of amphibians, particularly newts and salamanders, are currently using these Preserves, and how that use changes in response to habitat improvement projects in the form of creating additional downed logs or downed log surrogates (which are very important for many specifies of wildlife and plant life).”
There are many ways you can be trained or share your skills as a citizen/community scientist locally. Friends have enjoyed volunteering with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and the Northwest Straits Foundation. The last photo essay I wrote for Rainshadow Journal was about banded Brant geese. A professor of conservation biology in Colorado liked it, and wrote to me, “Keep spreading the word that searching for banded Brant, and reporting them to reportband.gov, is some of the most valuable citizen science around!” Carrie Clendaniel says the Land Trust, “is looking for community scientists to join our wetland health assessment team,” and they are piloting an ideal bird monitoring protocol “to better understand what birds are currently using the Preserves, and we may be looking for experienced birders in the near future.” Betsy Carlson says the Marine Science Center has projects that meet the interests and skill levels of a broad range of volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the Salish Sea, and that “the most universal characteristic is that they are able to follow instructions carefully so that the data collected is as accurate as possible.”
Almost every day I walk the beaches and forests with my binoculars and camera, observing and photographing the migrating birds, blooming wildflowers, pollinating insects, and intertidal invertebrates. Then I share my observations on eBird and iNaturalist (where I’m wendy5), two global citizen science projects with millions of contributions. One day at Ft. Worden I photographed a bumble bee on a blossoming silky beach pea (Lathyrus littoralis). It was automatically added to an iNaturalist project created by the Washington Native Bee Society, and an expert identified it as a California bumble bee (Bombus californicus). Somebody from Parks Canada, the Canadian National Parks, wrote to me, “We are really interested in learning more about what is pollinating the silky beach pea. I’ve added the plant as an observation field to help us link the pollinator to the plant in our data downloads. Thanks for your contribution and happy iNat’ing :)” In unexpected ways, it’s fun to be a citizen scientist and to make small contributions!
All photos copyrighted by Wendy Feltham. All Rights Reserved.
Great reporting! It’s good to know more about some of the projects that are happening in the area. You may have heard about the Northern elephant seal that gave birth in January to the first pup known to be born on Fidalgo Island, right in the middle of a busy state park. I helped protect the pup and learned so much doing it. Now I’m involved with a Great blue heron rookery project run by Skagit Land Trust. I let my posting on iNat lapse but maybe I need to get back to that – what a terrific response you had about the bee on the beach pea plant – very cool.
What a beautiful article and beautiful photographs. Thank you so much for what you do.
Wendy, what a great article and what an inspiration you are. It is a huge privilege to work and explore nature with you on several citizen science projects.
I always love your articles, Wendy–and especially learning more about citizen science and how much is happening with it in the PT area–thanks for making it sound possible for non-scientists, too. I’ll forward an interesting article about salamanders from Kitsap County.
Wonderful article, Wendy! I’m just now trying to work another survey possibility into my schedule (now that the Brants are moving on…). It has been so much fun going out each month to look for salamanders. I’m excited to do more.