|Americorps intern Jessica Allen runs the Nature's Notebook booth at the Valle de Oro third birthday celebration. Photo by Erin Posthumus/USA National Phenology Network
Erin Posthumus, with the USA National Phenology Network, tells us about an option for national wildlife refuges and citizen-scientists.
We know that to make the best decision, we need the best data. But with limited funding, some data may go uncollected. That’s where the USGS-sponsored USA National Phenology Network’s (USA-NPN) Nature’s Notebook phenology-monitoring program comes in.
Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life. By tracking ecological changes on refuges, citizen-scientists can help shape management actions. This in turn keeps the citizen-scientists engaged and gives them a sense of ownership of their land.
Nature’s Notebook is an online phenology-monitoring program with observation locations across the country that provide long-term monitoring data, both on and off national wildlife refuges, that can be used to assess environmental change over time.
Phenology Trails, or networks of sites that monitor similar species, enable comparison of refuge and non-refuge data.
The Rio Grande Phenology Trail is a pilot project of the USA-NPN and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that links organizations throughout the Rio Grande watershed. The trail includes the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program and Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area to track the phenology of a suite of focal species.
At Valle de Oro Refuge, citizen science-led data collection efforts have provided phenology data since 2013, data that might not have been collected because of limited refuge staffing. This can be a net gain of staff time, but collaborating with citizen scientists does require coordination to organize volunteer trainings, to manage volunteer sign-ups, to collect feedback from volunteers, and to deliver results collected by the volunteers.
In September, Valle de Oro Refuge hired a one-year Americorps intern, Jessica Allen, to work as Rio Grande Phenology Trail coordinator. Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia has also used an Americorps intern to work with Nature’s Notebook. The goal is to produce a sustainable phenology-monitoring volunteer program that continues after the internship ends, though it often takes three to five years to reach sustainability.
“Citizen scientists may sometimes lack formal education in their given interest, but what they do not lack is passion and enthusiasm,” Jessica says. “Their participation allows exponential growth in knowledge of this ecosystem, and also fosters a stronger sense of community surrounding the trail.”
||Valle de Oro Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White examines leaf buds of a native Rio Grande cottonwood, a species monitored through Nature's Notebook. Photo by Erin Posthumus/USA National Phenology Network
In the first half of her service, Jessica has helped several organizations join the trail, and is organizing summer workshops to train up more volunteers for the different trail locations.
“With our limited staff time, Jessica enables us to collaborate much more easily with partners from surrounding organizations to collect information on and off the refuge,” says refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White.
Having Jessica in the coordinator position has allowed for more effective engagement of volunteers, through in-person meetings and trainings, trail newsletters and a Facebook page.
More than 40,000 data records have been collected on 43 species over the last several years by 32 volunteers.
“Jessica keeps the volunteers connected to the refuge and informed about what we are finding with the data collected,” Owen-White says, “which keeps our volunteers interested and loyal.”
Learn more at the USFWS Phenology Network website at www.usanpn.org/fws.