A century ago, when the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count had just begun, the idea of asking random people to provide field data on wildlife was ridiculous.
These days, it’s almost overwhelming.
Organizations from most government wildlife agencies to the federal government to private companies for environmental groups (including the Audubon Society, which still does) have created ways via computer or cell phone so you and I can tell them we’ve seen a particular animal, plant, fish or insect.
It’s still growing: In New Hampshire, established programs like reporting turkey herds or dragonflies or invasive plants or frogs – people love to see frogs – have just been joined by www.nhrabbitreports.org, part of the effort to help our population of New England cottontail rabbits.
All of this is amazing, says the head of a portal that tracks observations in New Hampshire on 169 species and puts them on an interactive map. These efforts provide plenty of data points to help biologists and conservationists figure out how wildlife populations are doing, both currently and over time, so we can decide what needs to be done to keep ecosystems healthy.
“We want to keep an eye on rare species … and also common species. We want to make sure they stay common year after year,” said Melissa Winters, a biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program.
The explosion in wildlife data collection is also good for humans. It gives us an incentive to get outdoors and observe what is around us, which can not hurt.
But there is one problem that will sound familiar to technicians everywhere: Lack of interoperability.
“There are a lot of these platforms, programs that also collect other data … that we can not see,” Winters said.
Winters oversees Wildlife Sights, the state portal where you can report sightings of species from mud puppies to cobbled tiger beetles to the gray bat. (https://nhwildlifesightings.unh.edu/) It is a good web portal with an interactive map, but it lacks something that is almost mandatory these days.
“We do not have a mobile app. We need funds to make it more accessible,” Winters said. often associated with a particular species.
Expecting people to enter data and upload photos to a site after returning from a hike, instead of immediately tapping them into their phone, as is done by sites like iNaturalist and eBird, is barely a step above to ask them to send it by telegraph using Morse code. It greatly limits participation.
It would not be a big problem if state biologists could access data from all the other places, but often it is not possible, at least not at the local level we need.
“We can not deduce population information. It can give us an idea of overall trends in high resolution, general distribution … but not what we need to know on the spot,” said Winters. Knowing that a species is in decline throughout New England, for example, is not enough detail when trying to decide where to spend limited amounts of money and effort on wildlife corridors to let that species move as the climate changes.
New Hampshire shares its wildlife spot data through the Natural Heritage Database program.
I asked Winters about the big question in any civic science program: How can trained people trust that things have been done correctly by us amateurs?
In the case of the state by double-checking.
“Every observation is examined by a biologist. It is here that the submission of photographs and location information and date are crucial so that we can determine if this is a valid record,” she said.
Winters had a few suggestions for those who want to participate in the NH Wildlife Sightings program.
First of all, do not overthink it.
“It does not have to be crazy, you do not have to put on a backpack and go out in the middle of nowhere, go to the White Mountains and ride on a 6000 foot elevation trail. If you walk so well, let me know – but you can walk on nature trails in your city, “she said.” Sometimes you just drive by, you see something along the way, or cross, you can report it. “
Second, do not become a problem for the animals you want to help.
“We do not encourage you to pick them up or get right on top of them. They get stressed, have no idea you are not a predator. And clearly do not deal with it,” Winters said.
With that in mind, give it a shot: “From day one, it has had value. The more information we get, the more years we get, the bigger and better picture we have of what is happening in the state.”