Citizens in Science

Monarch butterfly. Photo: Amanda Newell Chambers

The Link, Summer 2018
| by Amanda Newell Chambers |

A few short breaths ago it was spring. The willows were busting silver at the bud-seams, Redwing blackbirds were squealing over the pond and woodcocks were buzzing as the longer days settled into evening. My absolute favourite sign of the season, trilling choruses of Spring Peepers, poured through our cracked windows into the wee hours.

If you’ve never seen a Spring Peeper, imagine a bitty tree frog, three centimetres or smaller, with wide suction cup toe pads – picture brown to grey colouring and a distinctive ‘X’ across the back. The whistle-like ‘peep’ of this tiny critter is loud and high-pitched. Just one tiny individual easily makes itself heard, while a bunch putting their voices together makes a magical, deafening sound.

…gain hands-on experience with nature…

I’ve always known and loved the sounds of the Peeper, and I eventually learned more about them, and other frog ecology, through the Ontario FrogWatch program. FrogWatch involves learning frog calls and listening for them a few times a week at a selected wetland location. Data is recorded and submitted, helping to track population trends and distribution as well as changes in climate. Anyone can participate and being involved offers the chance to actually contribute to sustainable development.

FrogWatch is one of a handful of NatureWatch programs administered by Nature Canada in partnership with a host of other institutes and non-government organizations. It is a great example of citizen science – the collection of data by members of the public, usually in collaboration with professional scientists and institutes, and in reference to the natural environment.

This tracking of environmental change would have been part of everyday life and oral tradition many moons ago. Now it is a formal effort, with collaborations to collect, record and analyze data happening since at least the 1970s. British butterfly counts, and the actual term “citizen science” being coined in the mid-90s. This was a time when more data was needed than there were paid hands to collect and it was being realized that your average Jo(e) could provide reliable, meaningful information.

Today, being part of a citizen science program is an incredible way to gain hands-on experience with nature, and there are a surprising variety of opportunities. See Ontario Nature’s Directory of Ontario Citizen Science ( for information on tracking plants, birds, ice and even worms. This volunteer work doesn’t have to be very time-consuming and it lends valuable experience at every stage of life. From little ones getting outdoors with parents, to students looking to gain résumé experience, to retired folks giving back in an important way – the immersion in nature is as beneficial as the data collected. With a preschooler, a toddler and a newborn, I’m pretty low on the “extra time” scale, but I’m excited to be devoting a few moments here and there to MilkweedWatch this summer. It’ll be a first for me and a fun way to contribute and teach my kids while we’re out and about.

Over time, data is telling. The Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program, around since 1995, has shown declines in many native bird populations while populations of some non-native species have increased. According to the program’s newsletter, the real numbers provided by citizen scientists have contributed significantly to Environment Canada’s Status of Birds in Canada. The data was also used to guide the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s 2017–2030 Ontario Wetland Conservation Strategy. Let’s hope one stage of progress – being armed with information – leads to the next logical stage: real, on-the-ground changes for healthier biodiversity in our backyards. I want to know that my great-grandchildren will have the pleasure of hearing the Peeper’s chorus.

Based in Peterborough, Amanda Newell Chambers works on diverse organic growing, urban greening and land stewardship projects throughout Southern Ontario.

Mark your calendars: a local chance to get involved is happening June 23 and 24. The second annual Northumberland BioBlitz will take place within the Ganaraska Forest, an 11,000-acre site stewarded by the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority. The data collected on insects, reptiles, amphibians, bats and birds will provide a clearer picture of the forest’s biodiversity. See for updated information.

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