A century ago, when the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count was just getting started, the idea of asking random people to provide field data about wildlife was ridiculous.
These days it’s almost overwhelming.
Organizations from most state wildlife agencies to the federal government to private companies to environmental groups (including the Audubon Society, still at it) have set up ways via computer or cell phone for you and me to let them know we’ve spotted a certain animal, plant, fish or bug.
It keeps growing, too: In New Hampshire, established programs like reporting turkey flocks or dragonflies or invasive plants or frogs – people love seeing frogs – have just been joined by www.nhrabbitreports.org, part of efforts to help our population of New England cottontail rabbits.
All this is great, says the head of a portal that tracks New Hampshire observations on 169 species and puts them on an interactive map. These efforts provide lots of data points to help biologists and conservationists figure out how wildlife populations are doing, both at the moment 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 on common species, too. We want to make sure they stay common, year after year,” said Melissa Winters, a biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program.
The explosion in wildlife data gathering is also good for people. It gives us an incentive to get outdoors and observe what’s around us, which can’t hurt.
But there’s a problem that will sound familiar to techies everywhere: Lack of interoperability.
“There’s a lot of these platforms, programs, also collecting other data … that we can’t see,” Winters said.
Winters oversees Wildlife Sights, the state’s portal where you can report sightings of species from mudpuppies to cobblestone tiger beetles to the hoary bat. (https://nhwildlifesightings.unh.edu/) It’s a good web portal with an interactive map but it lacks something that’s almost mandatory these days.
“We do not have a mobile app. We need funds to make it more accessible,” said Winters. The program is largely funded not by state dollars (this is New Hampshire, after all) but by donations or federal grants that are often tied to a specific species.
Expecting people to input data and upload photos to a website after they’ve come back from a hike, rather than immediately tapping it into their phone as is done by sites like iNaturalist and eBird, is barely a step above asking them to send it via telegraph using Morse Code. It severely limits participation.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem if state biologists could access data from all those other sites but frequently that’s not possible, at least not at the local level we need.
“We can’t derive population information. It may give us an idea of overall, high-resolution trends, general distribution … but not what we need to know on the ground,” Winters said. Knowing that a species is declining throughout New England, for example, isn’t enough detail when you’re 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 spotting data through the Natural Heritage Database program.
I asked Winters about the big question in any citizen science program: How can trained people trust that things have been done correctly by us amateurs?
In the state’s case, by double-checking.
“Each observation is vetted by a biologist. That’s where submitting photographs and location information and date is vital, for us to 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, don’t over-think it.
“It doesn’t have to be crazy, you don’t have to put on a backpack and go out in the middle of nowhere, go to the White Mountains and hit a 6000-foot-elevation trail. If you’re going that great, let me know – but you can go on nature trails in your town,” she said. “Sometimes even just driving along, you see something along the road, or crossing, you can report it.”
Secondly, don’t become a problem to the beasts you want to help.
“We don’t encourage picking them up or getting right on top of them. They get stressed, have no idea you’re not a predator. And definitely don’t handle 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’s happening in the state.”