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Citizen scientists

By on November 30, 2016 in Articles, Outdoor Fun, Sports & Recreation with 0 Comments

Susan Ballinger makes notes during an Upper Basin Birders survey at Fish Lake.

‘The power of collaboration’ as ordinary people lend to understanding of the world

By Jaana Hatton

If you are curious about the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees, you could ask Susan Ballinger.

She knows a thing or two about such matters, and loves to share her life-long knowledge of nature. With one foot on the hills and the other in the community, she welcomes new paths to connect the two.

One such trail is that of a Citizen Scientist. You don’t need a degree to be one — enthusiasm is the only requirement.

As for Susan, she has plenty of inspiration and she sprinkles it around like poppy seeds. Anyone who has taken her Wenatchee Naturalist class at the Wenatchee Valley College is likely to agree.

Susan developed and started the Naturalist program at the college in 2012 in order to grow new Citizen Scientists in our area. The Chelan-Douglas Land Trust began sponsoring the course this year.

So far 150 Citizen Scientists have been sprouted and 17 have taken root as board members in various conservation organizations in the Central Northwest region.

Citizen Science started officially at Oxford University in Great Britain in 2007 with the launch of their Galaxy Zoo program. It has evolved in a co-operative effort of nine separate establishments, called Citizen Science Alliance (CSA), which develops and maintains programs for scientific purposes.

Unofficially, we can go as far back as Charles Darwin who recruited 2,000 lay people to contribute information to his research on evolution. These days, with the benefit of the internet, scientists can easily access the input of 2 million people, or more.

CSA offers a project for almost anything in the natural world: the endangered rusty patched bumble bee, the phenology of your backyard maple tree, or the coastal rockfish tagging project, to name a few. CSA has created an internet-based system with which observations can be entered and accessed. It is a field of information where nature and technology happily mingle.

“This shows the power of collaboration,” Susan emphasized. “We can learn from each other.”

Many of you may unknowingly already be Citizen Scientists. For example, if you like to keep track of the crows occupying your backyard Douglas fir or record the daily temperatures at noon, the information might be useful to scientists around the world. It is especially important to have human eyes, rather than automated gadgets, making the observations; people instinctively spot the odd thing out, the anomaly that could indicate an alarming change in a pattern.

“A lot of this work can be done from home,” Susan explained. “Most anyone can participate, (regardless of physical condition or age). There is even a Citizen Science program for observing the backyard sunflower pollinators. Isn’t that exciting,” she quipped with her typical happy energy

Susan’s favorite Citizen Science project is eBird. She goes on regular bird watching excursions, on specific locations at consistent times, and keeps close records of her observations.

Her Wednesday morning walks in the Walla Walla Park and the Horan Nature Preserve often have several participants.

Susan also travels farther: once a month she joins the Upper Basin Birders, who gave her the spark 17 years ago, on the White River and Lake Wenatchee. They also travel on a pontoon boat on Fish Lake.

“It takes years to get a good sense of what is going on scientifically; you have to develop a database. I have noticed how Fish Lake has begun to steadily host more bald eagles. There are currently 25. That’s exciting,” she enthused.

eBird is a record keeping program developed by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society. One of their Citizen Science projects is the widely known Christmas Bird Count.

To help bird enthusiasts in the greater Wenatchee become familiar with eBird and bird watching possibilities, Susan teams up with Wendy Connally, the Citizen Science Coordinator with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They offer an annual workshop to introduce the basics.

The local program as a whole is sponsored by the Wenatchee River Institute and the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, which Susan joined 17 years ago and now serves as a Fellow.

“I like teamwork,” Susan pointed out. She is always happy to have volunteers join her on bird walks and other nature outings. “We have observed 83 species of birds over five years in the Horan lagoon area.”

Not only does Susan lead educational bird outings, as she scouts attentively with binoculars in hand, but she will also point out the plants and geological features along the way.

Every now and again, when a bird flies by swiftly, Susan will wonder: “Who’s that?” And wasting no time, she refers to her dog-eared bird book to solve the mystery. Birds, you see, are fickle: they change their plumage according to age and seasons. And that will be recorded on the eBird charts.

One of her current birding projects was setting up observation markers, together with Neal Hedges, on designated eBird routes on Horse Lake Reserve and Mountain Home Preserve. The posts have metal plaques to signify them as eBird locations. Now the routes are just waiting for Citizen Science participants.

With a Master’s in Education and Biology, Susan likes to get kids closer to nature. She currently led a group of eighth-graders in a bitterbrush planting project on the Balsamroot Trail.

“They were so enthusiastic,” Susan beamed. “It was hard work digging, planting and protecting all those little starts, but they were a good crew.”

She has also organized a group of high school students to monitor the plant density in the 2015 burn area on the Balsamroot Trail. Susan continues to lead and encourage, as she did in her childhood when taking her siblings on adventures along the Montana hillsides.

“Citizen Science can help people feel empowered,” she explained. “With the use of a computer, a person can participate in real research.”

It is encouraging to know that without a degree and student loans to prove for it, without even having to leave the home, one can still observe nature and assist in compiling relevant data.

“I have always enjoyed birds,” Susan shares. “And I am happy about the nature around us, every day.”

If you can’t find Susan in the classroom talking about the birds and the bees, she may be roaming the hills in her ongoing effort to preserve the natural environment around us.

Or, when the sun sets, you may find her playing the flute with the Wenatchee Valley Symphony Orchestra. Ladies also like to change their plumage on occasion.

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