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Citizen Science in Wisconsin

Kathy Mehls is a retired high school guidance counselor from Chippewa Falls with an abiding love of birds and the outdoors. Most days, Mehls experiences the sciences vicariously through her daughter Casey, a biologist working to protect endangered species in South Dakota.

But not today.

On this October evening, Mehls is doing her part for the scientific enterprise as she walks down a wooded trail in search of northern saw-whet owls. Along the trail ahead, illuminated by car lights, small badminton-like nets are strung between the trees. Pre-recorded mating calls—hoot, hoot, hoot—meant to lure the tiny raptors into the nets boom from loudspeakers.

Mehls and Judy Schwarzmeier, her partner on this night, are part of a nationwide research effort to track the fall migration of this elusive creature. Schwarzmeier checks another net and confides, “This moment is a big part of it—the anticipation.”

As if on cue, Mehl hoots in triumph, “We got an owl!”

• • •

In Milwaukee, fifteen-year-old Donald Harris begins his weekly Saturday morning survey of the Canada geese at Washington Park. Armed with binoculars and an iPad, Harris identifies and counts each individual goose he can find. To test his hypothesis that the number of geese will vary based on warmer or cooler weather, Harris also records the air temperature. 

 “If you’re not asking questions, you’re not going to get answers,” says the high school sophomore. “You are always going to be in the dark.”

• • •

Ted Ludwig collects weekly water samples from Lake Tainter and Lake Menomin and monthly samples from the streams flowing into the two Dunn County lakes. During the summer months, Ludwig also pilots his small boat along the shorelines of the lakes in search of curly-leaf pondweed and other invasive water plants. Sometimes he rides his bike and uses a handheld GPS to mark where he finds invasive plants along township roads. At night, Ludwig listens for bats with an acoustic bat detector while driving or boating along specific routes to understand where bats live in Wisconsin and how many there are. 

“It can become an obsession and leaves little time for other things,” he says. “But you get the satisfaction [that] you are doing something to help our home.”

• • •

The “it” Ludwig refers to is citizen science, a collaborative endeavor in which everyday people volunteer to help with scientific research. While citizen science programs vary in type and scope, people like Ludwig, Harris, Schwarzmeier, and Mehls are part of a growing volunteer corps in Wisconsin and across the globe that works with scientists to monitor the health of our environment and unlock the mysteries of nature.

An old tradition energized by new tools and new demands 

According to Jennifer Shirk, a project leader at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, citizen science efforts are flowering in Wisconsin, the United States, and across much of the world. Regarded as a major hub of citizen science today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology hosts, a new website designed to support volunteer monitoring and other forms of organized research in which members of the public engage in scientific investigations: asking questions, collecting data, and/or interpreting results.

“Nationally there’s been a long history and tradition of citizen science by amateur experts involved in discrete sectors like astronomy, birds, and water quality—and a real explosive and innovative growth in recent years in new arenas,” says Shirk. She credits the boom to a convergence of factors: most importantly, improved technologies for collecting, transferring, and analyzing information and a growing demand from government agencies and academic researchers for data.

Today, climate change impacts, invasive species, and disease outbreaks are just a few examples of the big-ticket issues being addressed through the digital application of citizen science. Digital technologies like smart phones and handheld GPS units enable citizen scientists to collect information in the field and directly enter it into web-based databases that cover everything from birds to bees, to bats and bud bursts. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society,, for example, enables people to instantly report sightings of birds year-round, while offers citizen scientists their choice of projects on space, climate, humanities, nature, biology, and many other topics. Online gamers can even help advance biomedicine by competing on to create the best possible protein structures, while armchair astronomers can collaborate with professionals through to report planetary finds.

Ironically, it is the increasing digitization of modern life that drives many people to environmental organizations and agencies that promote citizen science as a way to reconnect with nature.

“You are getting citizens involved and getting them to care,” says Jeanette Kelly, who directs citizen science programs at the Beaver Creek Reserve where Mehls and Schwarzmeier volunteer. Kelly points out that if people don’t realize that Wisconsin has owls—let alone nine species of them—they won’t understand how human activities, including their own, may affect owls or other wildlife.

Too, Kelly notes that as a result of state and federal budget cuts there simply aren’t enough wildlife professionals to go around. Eau Claire and the surrounding four-county area were without a state wildlife biologist for five years. But even with that wildlife biologist position now ably filled by Bill Hogseth, there is more than enough work to go around for volunteers who can help with monitoring bird and animal populations or water level and quality.

For instance, volunteer monitors have been crucial in counting and locating bats in Wisconsin. Bats play an important role in nature by eating mosquitos and insects that can damage forests and crops. Monitoring their number became especially important after white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed more than 5.7 million bats the U.S. since 2006, was documented last spring in a southwestern Wisconsin mine.

Bird populations are constantly challenged by human activity. Starting in winter of 2015, thousands of citizen scientists will be the eyes and ears behind an ambitious effort to update and digitize the Breeding Bird Atlas, a collection of data about all of the birds that breed in a particular state or region. They’ll be asked to visit pre-selected sites to observe and record on a specially customized eBird site evidence of nesting by more than 200 bird species. The information will yield a digitized Breeding Bird Atlas that will help guide bird conservation efforts for the next generation by showing where species exist today compared to twenty years ago. The Wisconsin Society of Ornithology, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hope to recruit at least 4,000 volunteers (and possibly as many as 10,000) to participate.

Volunteers also play an important role in monitoring Wisconsin’s more than 15,000 lakes, 44,000 miles of streams, 5.3 million acres of wetlands, 1,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and 1.2 quadrillion gallons of groundwater. Add in a growing desire by citizens and DNR managers to monitor even more contaminants and collect more basic information on stream and lake water levels, and it’s easy to see why professional water managers are counting on volunteers to help get the job done.

“When I started in 2001 as coordinator of volunteer stream monitoring, we were told this was educational only,” says Kris Stepenuck, whose job as Water Action Volunteers coordinator is shared by DNR and University of Wisconsin–Extension. But when state budget cuts dug into DNR staffing and funding, Stepenuck says volunteer monitoring became much more than just educational.

In fact, the DNR has developed training programs and manuals to help ensure standardized methods are used to collect high-quality data by volunteers and professionals alike. Data collected by both groups are integrated into DNR databases and used for managing lakes and determining every two years which lakes or rivers do not meet water quality standards. This data in turn triggers federal requirements for cleanup plans and potentially improves the likelihood of federal funding for remediation.

“We’ve seen that citizens have a proven track record of collecting credible, sound data for lakes and streams,” says Tim Asplund, who leads DNR’s overall water quality monitoring program. “We’re now at the point of asking ourselves, what are the opportunities to build on that? Is this a project or a data need citizen monitors can do?”

For example, volunteer monitors have enabled more streams to be tested for nutrient pollution and road-salt runoff in recent years, Stepenuck notes. In excess, both phosphorus and chloride can harm water quality and aquatic life. In 2013, 55% of the 146 stream sites volunteers monitored for phosphorus were found to have high levels. Volunteers also identified 28 sites on 17 different streams with chloride levels that exceed federal standards.

Partnerships with citizen science volunteers free up DNR staff to focus on assessing and interpreting the data and working with citizen groups and local governments to protect high-quality waters or improve impaired lakes or rivers. “Citizens can continue to monitor the water to assess progress and we can move on to the next water in need of protection or restoration,” says Asplund.

Local data helps solve regional puzzles 

Wisconsin citizen scientists are also contributing to a better understanding of the world beyond our state borders. University of Wisconsin–Madison wildlife biologists Benjamin Zuckerberg and Karine Princé analyzed more than twenty years of data on 38 bird species reported by thousands of citizen scientists through Cornell’s Project FeederWatch, which collects reports of birds showing up over winter at birdfeeders. 

Appearing in the journal Global Change Biology, their study found that, as the global climate warms, cardinals and other birds typically found in the southern United States in the winter are pushing north and changing the composition of bird populations here in Wisconsin.

Likewise, assistant scientist Noah Lottig and his colleagues at the UW Center for Limnology’s Trout Lake Station analyzed citizen data from 1938 to 2012 from eight Upper Midwestern states. They found that lake water clarity bounced around a lot between years, but showed an overall improvement of 1% during this time period. “We can pretty confidently say that on average, things are not getting worse, and there is some evidence they might be getting better,” Lottig says.

As growing numbers of professional scientists are trained in using new analytical tools that allow them to more easily study large-scale questions, opportunities for collaboration with citizen scientists will only increase, Lottig says. Citizen collection of information helps scientists get the data they need, and, in turn, will spur more citizen interest when they see their data being used. Lottig also foresees citizen scientists getting more involved in helping to shape research projects. For example, as part of a study, Lottig hopes to recruit local lake association members to help him trap invasive crayfish on Trout Lake.

Citizen science collaborations of this kind are “a new frontier,” Lottig says. “It’s really open, and it’s really exciting.”

With two hundred nature centers, conservation organizations, and other groups now offering citizen science projects, Wisconsin is a pioneer on this new frontier. Not only do robust citizen science programs operate out of the Beaver Creek Reserve (Fall Creek), Mosquito Hill Nature Center (New London), North Lakeland Discovery Center (Manitowish Waters), and Urban Ecology Center (Milwaukee), to name a few, but the DNR has also committed staff and funding to advance the citizen science cause.

“Wisconsin absolutely is a leading state in no small part due to the DNR networking efforts,” Shirk says.

Since 2004, the DNR has funded a full-time coordinator to launch and help nurture the Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network, a loose association of the two hundred organizations engaged in citizen science projects and programs across the state. The DNR sponsors network conferences, a listserv and social media forums, and provides up to $100,000 in small annual grants to organizations for citizen science projects. This past summer the DNR, with a grant from the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, ran a week-long workshop for teachers and other youth educators to show them the kinds of citizen science programs they can easily incorporate into their school or nature center curriculum. The idea, says Carrie Morgan, a veteran DNR natural resources educator and workshop leader, is to get kids engaged in hands-on scientific inquiry while getting them outside and connected to nature.

Creating empowered and educated advocates

Kris Stepenuck, who surveyed 345 volunteer water-monitoring programs across the United States, found that data provided by volunteers is indeed critical to sound policy and responsible management. Too, Stepenuck notes that volunteer participation can lead to broader activity around an issue. “The biggest thing is [that] volunteers get civically engaged,” she says, noting that volunteers are the ones who attend public meetings, serve on natural resource-related boards, and write letters to support or refute natural resource policies.

Ted Ludwig has done all of this—and much more. “I felt that it was—and still is—important to monitor the waters that form our lakes,” says Ludwig, who retired in 1981 from the U.S. Marines and in 2004 from the U.S. Post Office. “The only lasting way to clean them up is to reduce the nutrient input to them.”

 Ludwig and other local citizens worked with the DNR to create a plan to reduce the nutrients entering the lakes that cause toxic blue-green algae blooms in summer. He started a group called the Red Cedar Basin Monitoring Group to help identify which stream reaches the phosphorus was coming from and to assess the clean up progress.

 “Even if these goals [outlined in the plan] don’t occur, I will still continue as I feel it is important to do whatever we can to keep our planet healthy,” he says.

Ludwig encourages others to consider getting involved.

 “You don’t have to be a college-trained scientist—I have one semester each of high school and college biology, and manage to do the job,” he says, ticking off the benefits of his citizen science work: “you get to see the local stream up close, see what lives in them, and get some quality time outside.”

Judy Schwarzmeier started volunteering at the Beaver Creek Reserve after her job as an environmental science writer was outsourced to India and she was coping with the death of her father. “I was not in a state of mind where I wanted to reinvent myself,” she says.

Instead, she decided to return to an earlier love: wildlife fieldwork. It was work she had done while getting her Master’s Degree in zoology at UW–Madison in the 1970s, and she realized that she still had a knack for it. “It was a very good fit. I started volunteering at Beaver Creek Reserve and [from there] it kind of exploded.”

 Schwarzmeier now works on four different bird-banding projects, monitors mussels and a host of other wildlife species, and helps look for invasive species on land and in the water. This year, she’s also pursuing her own research project into solitary bee species that don’t live in big family groups like honeybees or yellow jackets.

 “I feel like I’m able to make a contribution,” she says.

Kathy Mehls got involved in the owl-banding project last fall after reading about it in the paper. “I’ve always had a passion for birds and now I have time to learn about them instead of just feeding them and watching them,” she says.

 It’s also something that she can share with her biologist daughter, Casey Heimerl, who works for the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department. In fact, when Casey signed up recently for extensive training in banding raptors and the instructor encouraged participants to bring someone else along to fill the class, she invited her mother.

 “We really are very close,” Mehls says. “I like to think Casey’s passion was something I helped spark. She’s doing what I wish I had another life to do.”

Donald Harris is just starting his life’s journey. He got connected to the Urban Ecology Center when he was eight and his brother and their friend recruited him to do a bird count. The youngsters had a lot of fun trying to identify birds and ended up taking home a third-place prize. Harris was hooked.

 “It opened up something to me. It lets me know there’s something here I could do.”

 Since then, Harris has participated in citizen science projects to help track monarch butterflies and to keep tabs on a variety of birds.

“Some people can’t understand why I do this. They call me Bird Man,” he says. “I hope [someday] they can experience something outside the box like I’ve been doing.”

Three years ago, Harris joined the Urban Ecology Center’s Driven to Discover program in which students immerse themselves in the scientific process by conducting research and presenting it at a student conference in the Twin Cities. Harris says the program, developed by the University of Minnesota, feeds his love of travel and introduces him to new—and new kinds—of people. Harris says that because of Driven to Discover he would like to study environmental science or agriculture when he goes to college.

 “Citizen science is a good thing,” he says. “It gives you a sense of pride. It gives you a good feeling to know you’re doing something to benefit society.”

Tim Vargo, the Urban Ecology Center’s manager of research and citizen science, says that getting citizen scientists to move beyond data collection to actual engagement in the scientific process, as Harris has done, is one of the challenges the movement faces. Other challenges are diversifying participation in and leadership of the research.

 “The ultimate goal is [to] create a collaborative space where it’s not always the professional scientists calling the shots,” Vargo says. “You’re trying to democratize the process.”

Doing so increases scientific literacy and deepens the research. “The benefits and power of involving the community bring so much richness and applicability to your research,” he says. “It’s messy, but very rewarding.”

Expanding knowledge by cultivating a sense of wonder

Whether they are monitoring streams for pollution, counting bats, or banding saw-whet owls, citizen scientists are fueling insights into the natural resource issues of today on a regional, national, and even global scale. Perhaps just as importantly, citizen science projects offer people an important avenue of education and empowerment, a chance to influence their corner of the world for the better.

The information Mehls, Schwarzmeier, and other Beaver Creek Reserve volunteers collect this fall will add to the growing body of scientific knowledge about saw-whet owls in North America. Like most citizen scientists in the field, Mehls and Schwarzmeier follow precise procedures and protocols for their work—in this case, instructions laid out by the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, which maintains the owl database and regulates bird banding.

Responding to her call, Schwarzmeier joins Mehls at the shorter bird net and trains a flashlight on the owl’s claws, which have become tangled in the net.

“Hi, Buddy,” Mehls whispers to the owl, which has a white v-shape above its beak and wide-open yellow eyes. She cradles the saw-whet in one hand while quickly freeing its claw with the other. “That’s called an easy one,” she says.

The two women walk to their car and tuck the owl inside a small tube for the short ride back to the Beaver Creek Reserve Citizen Science Center. Inside the center, Schwarzmeier gently retrieves the owl from the tube and the women measure its tail feathers and wing, weigh it (“Only 80 grams.”), and check under an ultraviolet light for the tell-tale feather pattern that marks it as a young owl born earlier in the year. (“Yes, it is!”)

They attach to the owl’s leg a lightweight metal band stamped with a unique number that will identify the bird if it’s recaptured. Owls caught and banded at Beaver Creek by volunteers have been recaptured as far away as Saskatchewan and Virginia, showing that migration isn’t always north-south, but also east-west.

“Before owl banding got going, people rarely saw northern saw-whet owls in Wisconsin and they were perceived to be pretty uncommon,” Schwarzmeier says. “When somebody figured out you could use an audio lure to attract them and the banding program started, we realized the population was bigger than anyone thought.”

Schwarzmeier carries the owl outside and places it beak first in the top cubby of a shoulder-high box sitting on a pole. She pulls a canvas cover over the cubby; the owl will spend the next ten minutes inside, letting its eyes adjust to the dark after its time in the brightly lit processing room.

Before they check their other set of nets, Schwarzmeier lifts the canvas covering the cubby. In a flash and a flutter of wings, the saw-whet is gone.

The two women shuttle between the two net sites, checking each for owls once an hour. They handle two more saw-whets that night, and, after folding the nets at 12:30 am, they each return home exhilarated but exhausted.


Lisa Gaumnitz has been writing about Wisconsin’s natural resources for nearly twenty years, mostly as a public information officer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She recently returned to freelance writing and editing after her DNR career and stint as a daily newspaper reporter.

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