National Wildlife Refuge System
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Participants in a 2009 BioBlitz at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Montana stop at a registration booth to sign up with one of several data collection teams
Participants in a 2009 BioBlitz at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Montana stop at a registration booth to sign up with one of several data collection teams.
Credit: USFWS

Refuges Embrace "Citizen Science"


An urgent need for data on plant and animal behavior is outstripping scientists' ability to collect it, so experts are recruiting thousands of ordinary citizens to help. And where are these volunteer "citizen scientists" heading to count critters, record the dates that buds open and birds nest, and document other possible indicators of climate change? More and more, the answer is National Wildlife Refuges.

No wonder. The country's 551 National Wildlife Refuges are oases of natural habitat in increasingly urban landscapes. That makes them the perfect places for anyone interested in phenology — the study of cyclic natural phenomena, such as flowering, migration and breeding.

Among the "citizen science" programs conducted in partnership with many refuges are:

  • BioBlitzes, 24-hour inventories of anything that swims, walks, flies, crawls or grows, organized by several wildlife refuges across the country.
  • Project BudBurst, a two-year-old project of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Chicago Botanic Garden that tracks the budding and flowering of selected plants;
  • The Big Sit!, a one-day international bird tally sponsored by Bird Watcher's Digest and held each fall; and
  • The Christmas Bird Count, a winter bird census directed by the National Audubon Society.

BioBlitz activities are familiar on refuges. Last year, citizen scientists counted 413 species during a BioBlitz at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Montana; another blitz took place at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Also in 2009, more than 40 refuges took part in The Big Sit! (http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/site/funbirds/bigsit/bigsit.aspx), which is a sort of bird-a-thon in that the object is to tally as many bird species as can be seen or heard within 24 hours.

More than 70 refuges took part in the 109th Christmas Bird Count (http://www.audubon.org/Bird/cbc/). From December 14 through January 5 tens of thousands of volunteers armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists go out over a 24 hour period to count birds. Count volunteers follow specified routes, counting every bird they see or hear all day. The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Project BudBurst (http://www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst/) engages the public in making careful observations of the "phenophases" such as first leafing, first flower and first fruit ripening of a diversity of trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in their local area. Staff at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico plan to welcome their first Project BudBurst volunteers this summer. Project BudBurst director Sandra Henderson says the data gathered on refuges will be "a tremendous boon to phenologists."

For more information on the refuges:
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/newmex/bosque/ or 575-835-1828

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey
http://greatswamp.fws.gov/ or 973-425-1222

Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Montana
http://www.fws.gov/leemetcalf/ or 406-777-5552

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa
http://www.fws.gov/midwest/nealsmith/ or 515-994-3400

 

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