More than 700 Connecticut birdwatchers have joined together to document the distribution and breeding status of every species of bird in all corners of the state. “One of the great things about the Connecticut Bird Atlas is seeing how the birding community has rallied to help out,” says Chris Elphick, the University of Connecticut ornithologist who manages the project. “From the top experts who are out birding every day to the casual backyard birders who just report the birds they see in their yards, there is scope for everyone to contribute.”
The Connecticut Bird Atlas is one of dozens of citizen-science projects seeking volunteers to collect data for scientific studies of wildlife populations, climate change, water quality, pollution and numerous other topics. Citizen science is growing dramatically as scientists realize that volunteers can accurately collect more data in more places, as well as faster and cheaper, than scientists can do on their own.
With one year of data collection left, the Connecticut Bird Atlas has already documented 166 species of birds breeding in the state, including significant increases in bald eagles, common ravens, black vultures and other species. “Volunteers are absolutely essential,” Elphick says. “There is no way we could even begin to collect such detailed information at many hundreds of sites across the entire state without the help of volunteers.”
A quick internet search will find numerous national projects seeking volunteers, like the Lost Ladybug Project, Firefly Watch, or Project Squirrel, all of which can be completed in one’s own backyard by following directions on a website and submitting data online. Local projects, like the ones listed here, include some that feature in-person training sessions and gatherings of like-minded people.
Sacred Heart University oversees a region-wide effort to collect data about horseshoe crab populations and their breeding activity, which peaks during high tides on full-moon nights in early summer. In partnership with Mystic Aquarium, the Maritime Aquarium and other local organizations, volunteers count and tag the crabs as females emerge from the water to lay their eggs on area beaches. By learning about horseshoe crab population dynamics, scientists are better able to manage their harvest and prevent further declines in crab numbers. sacredheart.edu
This statewide water quality monitoring project aims to engage volunteers in a “treasure hunt” to identify the state’s healthiest streams. Managed by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the program trains volunteers to collect macroinvertebrates — which the organizers call river bugs — as indicators of healthy streams. DEEP also coordinates a stream temperature monitoring network, which trains volunteers to deploy data loggers to gather summer stream temperature information, and a saltwater angler survey to document the species of fish captured by recreational fishermen, among other citizen science projects. ct.gov/deep, 860-424-3061, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many amphibian populations are declining around the globe due to diseases, pollutants and climate-related factors. To understand the scope and geographic scale of the declines in local frogs and toads, partners including the Yale Peabody Museum, Beardsley Zoo, the Connecticut Audubon Society, and the Maritime and Mystic aquariums are training volunteers to identify frog and toad calls and document which species are calling at neighborhood ponds and wetlands. This information is added to a national database and used to monitor frog and toad distribution, seasonal changes in calls, and population density.
Connecticut Audubon launched this effort in 2014 to monitor the state’s population of osprey, the fish-eating hawk whose population plunged in the 1960s and ’70s due to the effects of the pesticide DDT. Osprey monitors regularly visit known nesting locations and collect data about the birds’ arrival and departure dates and their nesting success. They also check the safety of the poles and platforms on which the osprey nest to ensure they are secure. Volunteers monitored 799 nests in 2019 and counted 650 fledglings leaving their nests. ctaudubon.org/osprey-nation-home
Citizen scientists trained by Save the Sound monitor water quality at dozens of beach, shoreline, stream and river sites in western Long Island Sound to identify sources of pollution. Once each week from June through Labor Day, volunteers collect water samples for laboratory analysis, usually from the shoreline but sometimes from a boat or by wading into a waterway. Data on environmental conditions is also collected. The results are used to advocate for repair of wastewater infrastructure and other improvements. savethesound.org
Keep an eye out for fishers
Have you seen a weasel-like creature with a collar skulking around in the Connecticut woods? Researchers want to know. Seriously.
Fishers, sometimes called fisher cats, resemble ferrets. They’re carnivorous and native to the Northeastern woodlands. About the size of a cat, fishers are some of the largest members of the weasel family in the region, second only to river otters.
Laken Ganoe, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island, is working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to “monitor fisher populations, including fine-scale movement, habitat selection and abundance,” in both Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to her website.
Ganoe has set up a fisher-report line on her website, so that the location of any collared fishers can be logged and tracked. “If you’ve seen a fisher in Rhode Island or Connecticut with a collar on, we’d love to hear where and when you spotted it,” she writes. “This information helps our crew relocate our animals so we can collect valuable data off of the collars.”
Just don’t get too ambitious with your tracking efforts. “Please do not approach wild animals to get a ‘better view,’ ” she writes. “If you cannot see the collar symbols that is alright! Give the animal space and allow it to continue on its natural way.”