(Photo by Chad Merda)
Enjoying the great outdoors can be more than a relaxing way to pass the time if you use it as a chance to participate in the growing citizen science trend of bio blitzes.
April is Citizen Science Month, which is intended to encourage the involvement of the general public in scientific research, whether community-organized projects or more large-scale global efforts. One good way to celebrate Citizen Science Month is through a bio blitz, which is a citizen science effort to record as many different wildlife species as possible at a given location during a specific time frame.
Bio blitzes can be all-encompassing, recording all the plant and animal species, or focus on a particular type of species. Some may just look to identify plants, birds, insects or fungi, among other things. The purpose of a bio blitz is to get a snapshot of the biodiversity of a particular location at a particular time, said Angela Rafac, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District.
A bio blitz may just seem like a fun activity to do with friends or family to help learn about and connect with nature, but they are beneficial to the scientific community as well.
"Scientists cannot be out in the field recording as much data as they would like, and the more data they have, the better scientists can see what is going on in the natural world," Rafac said. "Scientists depend on citizen scientists to share information on what they view. It helps scientists get baseline data, and then the ability to notice trends in declines or increases of specific species."
Today, interest in citizen science projects is growing thanks to apps that make it easy to record and upload observations that are then made available to a larger audience. The app Seek, from iNaturalist, allows smartphone users to use their phone cameras to identify plant and animal species, noting the location where they were seen. Similarly, eBird allows bird-watchers to record their birding observations and see what other people — both near and far — are seeing.
These types of apps are also useful when participating in a bio blitz because they help properly identify species and they have a mechanism for recording observations.
"Smart phones and the many apps that are available make it is so much easier for citizens to participate than it was in the past," Rafac said.
Of course, a bio blitz doesn't have to be high-tech, or even part of a larger group or initiative. You can do a bio blitz on your own, recording what you see in a given spot using paper or pencil. Or you can turn it into a fun family challenge, competing individually or in groups to see who can find the most species in a given time period.
A bio blitz can be a good way to teach children to respect and appreciate nature — and introduce them to some of the cool things all around them. Getting your kids involved can be as simple as spending some time in your yard looking for insects or visiting a nearby forest preserve to see how many different kinds of birds you see or hear. When looking to get your kids involved in a bio blitz, it helps to focus on things they are already interested in, National Geographic recommends.
The benefits of involving kids in science at an early age can have lifelong effects. Children who are active in science at a young age are more likely to act as though they have a sense of responsibility to the environment and support scientific research later in life, National Geographic reports. It can also build a lifelong positive attitude toward the environment.
As recognition of the importance of biodiversity grows, so does interest and participation in citizen science projects like bio blitzes.
"There is more awareness on the citizens' part of the importance of biodiversity, the joy of being outdoors and observing nature, and the reality that what is viewed really and truly helps scientists," Rafac said.
Want to participate in a bio blitz? The Forest Preserve District's Four Rivers Environmental Education Center will host a Bird Bio Blitz as part of its Migration Celebration on Saturday, May 8. The Bird Bio Blitz will be from 8 to 10 a.m.; registration is required by Friday, May 7.
Participants will be given a comprehensive bird list of species that are likely to be at Four Rivers during the event, as well as some guidelines, Rafac said. They can then mark off the birds they confidently identify either by sight or sound, then turn their list in when they are done. Data from all the participants will be combined on a master spreadsheet and added to the District's phonology notes for Four Rivers, shared with the public and uploaded to the citizen-science bird monitoring website eBird, Rafac said.
Four Rivers is a good birding spot, so there is potential for dozens of bird species to be observed.
"In addition to the birds that live here year-round, there are over a hundred birds that are just migrating through in the spring or coming to stay for the summer," Rafac said. "Because of the diversity of the habitats at Four Rivers — the rivers, woodlands, and prairie — there is the potential to see and/or hear many."
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