The Can-Do Spirit of New Jersey’s Citizen Scientists

October 10, 2019 Jennifer Finn

A toad in knee-high grass cautiously eyes Lauren Abderhalden as she takes a cell-phone shot of a plant thriving just outside the headquarters of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference in Mahwah. Using mobile app iNaturalist, Abderhalden identifies the slender-leafed plant as autumn olive, an invasive species that, like the nearby stand of Japanese knotweed, crowds out natives such as sugar maple saplings and black raspberry bushes.

“Invasive plant species are probably the second biggest destroyer of biodiversity after habitat destruction in New Jersey,” says Abderhalden, a sophomore at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She has been volunteering with the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force program since her junior year at Kinnelon High School. Abderhalden is one of some 200 volunteers and interns who annually survey more than 1,800 miles of trail for invasive species.

Abderhalden and her colleagues are considerered citizen scientists—volunteers who collect data and share it with the scientific community. Citizen science can be traced to at least 1900, when New Jersey ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed counting nongame birds on Christmas Day instead of shooting them. This led to the modern-day Christmas Bird Count. Today, New Jerseyans participate in a variety of citizen-science projects throughout the state.

The invasive-species program, for example, attracts outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers, gardeners and landscape designers, in addition to students. Each volunteer undergoes half- and full-day training workshops May through July.

The program has four tiers. The first and easiest consists of a monthly scavenger hunt–style challenge in which volunteers identify invasives using iNaturalist. The middle tiers involve data collection and GPS mapping of up to 25 specific invasives along a two-mile stretch of assigned trail close to volunteers’ homes between May and October. The fourth tier covers a section of a natural area.

Fieldwork is performed on volunteers’ schedules. “In a high-traffic, high-invasive-density area, that may take a total of three full days,” says Brent Boscarino, invasive-species citizen-science coordinator for the Trail Conference. “You go at your own pace and pick up where you left off.”

Based on the findings, trail crews determine threat levels and organize workdays to remove the unwanted plants. “Maybe we know it’s in Maryland, but not yet in New Jersey, and we’re keeping an eye on it,” says Boscarino. “Or it’s in New Jersey, but in low enough numbers that we can keep it out.”

To volunteer, contact Boscarino at brent@nynjtc.org. In the central and southern parts of the state, contact Michael Van Clef, stewardship director, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, at mvanclef@fohvos.org.

Here are some additional citizen-science initiatives:

Count horseshoe crabs

For 450 million years, horseshoe crabs have moved onto moonlit beaches in spring during high tide to lay their eggs. For the past 10 years, Adrianna Zito-Livingston has sent citizen scientists to count them.

“People find their way to the horseshoe-crab survey because they love birds, invertebrates, marine life,” says Zito-Livingston, coastal projects coordinator for the Nature Conservancy’s New Jersey chapter in Delmont. The group oversees the program on Sunray Beach, Del Haven and Higbee Beach in Cape May County. Various groups conduct the survey on 23 additional Delaware Bay beaches.

Starting each April, retirees, families and students from all over the state sign up for the Nature Conservancy’s annual count. “I depend on millennials because they’ll be up at 10:30 at night,” says Zito-Livingston.

Half an hour before high tide on one of 12 designated peak spawning nights in spring, volunteers arrive at the beach wearing headlamps and waterproof footwear. After a quick training session, the volunteers move along the beaches, laying lightweight frames on the sand and counting the crabs inside. On nights when the bay kicks up, some of the volunteers get a bit of a soaking. “On wavier nights, sometimes boots get flooded,” says Zito-Livingston. “I recommend bringing dry socks and shoes.”

The data is used to manage horseshoe-crab populations, which have been slowly recovering following years of overharvesting, and to ensure sufficient eggs to feed migrating birds, including the endangered red knot. “Birds and horseshoe crabs are a complex story, which is part of what’s so interesting about them,” says Zito-Livingston.

For information, visit nature.org.

Monitor a stream

If water quality is your worry, you can sign up for the stream-monitoring program run by Bedminster-based Raritan Headwaters, which evaluates water quality at 68 stream sites in the upper Raritan basin in Somerset, Hunterdon and Morris counties.

Open to adults 18 and older, the program attracts college students, teachers on break, retirees and environmental enthusiasts who “like to be outside, are capable of following protocol, and enjoy working with others,” says Trish McGuire, Raritan’s volunteer and outreach program manager.

Volunteers sign up in April; in May, they attend a full Saturday of training split between a classroom and a local stream. Those who complete the training are asked to commit to sampling at least two monitoring sites.

In the second half of June, volunteers work in teams of up to four at sites not more than 40 minutes from their homes. Each team records water temperature, depth and speed of the designated stream. Then, two volunteers enter a shallow part of the stream, kick up sediment, and use a net to capture macroinvertebrates such as mayfly and dragonfly larvae, as well as gilled snails and crayfish. All can indicate the health of a stream.

Each step is performed according to strict state Department of Environmental Protection protocols, from labeling to cleaning equipment. The DEP uses the data to classify and protect streams.

“We’re a leader in following DEP protocols,” says McGuire. “They know our data is consistent and reliable.”

In addition to stream monitoring, volunteers assist with data entry in the summer, find new stream sample sites, and assist with chemical monitoring at impaired sites during spring, summer and fall.

For further information, visit raritanheadwaters.org.

Patrol amphibian crossings

Q: Why did the amphibian cross the road?
A: To get to the vernal pool on the other side.

Unfortunately, it’s no joke that every year, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of early-spring-breeding frogs, toads, newts and salamanders fail to complete their annual migration from winter burrows beneath blankets of leaves to rain-filled ponds. Often, they must cross well-traveled roads.

Enter the headlamp-wearing volunteers for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. On warm, wet nights from about late February through April, the volunteers serve as amphibian crossing guards at three designated rescue sites in Sussex and Warren counties to ensure safe passage of amphibians, including the endangered blue-spotted salamander and southern gray treefrog. Volunteers also record data on the numbers and species seen, measure the impacts of vehicular traffic, and document additional crossings for future protection.

“Even a few dozen cars in the course of a night can kill hundreds of amphibians,” says David Wheeler, executive director of CWF. “It’s probably the only night we go out on a wildlife event and pray for rain.”

Open to adults 18 and older and 16- and 17-year-olds accompanied by an adult, the project attracts some 150 volunteers who undergo a day of training in January and are assisted in the field by experienced volunteers, as well as scientists with the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program. 

In addition to amphibians, the group runs citizen-science programs for shorebirds, bald eagles, kestrels, bats, terrapins and ospreys.

For further information, visit conservewildlifenj.org. 

The post The Can-Do Spirit of New Jersey’s Citizen Scientists appeared first on New Jersey Monthly.

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