Armchair Birding: The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, by Akiko Busch

Armchair Birding: The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, by Akiko Busch

While I was not quite ready to walk ocean beaches in search of dead birds for Dr. Julia Parrish and the COASST team, our Annual Dinner speaker inspired me to learn more about citizen science projects and what ordinary people can do to help our increasingly imperiled world survive. Instead of just worrying about climate change and habitat loss, what could I do to make a difference? I don’t have a background in science or natural resource work and consider myself to be a mere beginner as a birder. More heart than head, really, but keen to learn.

So I hitched a ride with Maria Ruth early one morning to get a firsthand look at a citizen science project. We headed for a little-noticed dock by the port to monitor one of the clusters of Pigeon Guillemots that populate lower Puget Sound. I found these birds in my guidebook but had never noticed them on the water before. Their name was puzzling: a pigeon that swam?

Maria instructed me on survey protocol and introduced me to her teammate, Woody Franzen, who came equipped with a spotting scope. We found the birds here and there in the water. Counting Guillemots involves a steady murmur of, “There’s one, now two. Look over there, another one. Try to find where it bobs up. Does it have any fish in its beak? One just landed on the dock. Oh, it dove.” The hush was punctuated only by loud cries from the resident Osprey, guttural croaking from a Blue Heron, gentle lapping of water against the pier posts, and a hum of machinery in the port area. It was a perfect clear morning. The Guillemots were busy: bodies low in the water, or flapping to new spots, bright red legs thrust out for landing, distinctive black and white plumage catching the light. Now I’ll know them anywhere, and I began to get interested in everything about them. The beauty of this work is you don’t have to be an expert with a string of science degrees, just willing to show up. You’ll be welcomed and trained.

Writer Akiko Busch relates how she stumbled upon a local science project when a biologist studying bats asked permission to search her Hudson River property for a radio-tagged bat. She went along and discovered a hidden world of nocturnal neighbors she did not know were there, and also a community of scientists who study and protect these fragile creatures. Busch began to explore how she and others could participate in this work to gather the raw facts and numbers that help programs track the whereabouts of birds, amphibians, butterflies, and plants. Also, to measure water quality and flow, map and remove invasive species, chart weather fluctuations and migration patterns. She found people of all walks and ages who bring patience, persistence and dedication to protecting the nearby lands, water and local wildlife dependent upon their health. She discovered active programs tracking bats, ridding the Hudson of invasive plants, counting herring, addressing insect infestations threatening trees, monitoring eagle and coyote populations, and even helping support the migration of eels. Busch waded in to pull water chestnuts choking the river and pondered the complex role of loosestrife in local marshes. She tabulated, measured, got wet and dirty, made some mistakes but learned an impressive amount of natural history. And she met new friends and deepened her own relationship to her home ground.

Each chapter of her book examines a different program and brings us along for the adventure. She shares with us her interior dialogue as she learns new science concepts and experiences these salvage efforts firsthand. Her approach is deeply philosophical and wide-ranging, infused with her own insights from the world of art and design. She asks provocative questions and lets ideas filter down through layers of thought and experience, open to change and insight. She muses as she investigates. And she has fun! Glass eels delight her. A day on the river is a joy. Everything is deeply interesting and worth poking into. Busch is an engaging amateur; that is, she brings her affection—her amore—to whatever activity calls to her. This is the true beating heart and strength of the citizen science approach: inspired by this affection and concern about one’s local flora and fauna, and the desire to know the world more intimately and constructively, ordinary people can help do extraordinary work to protect and defend the world.

Akiko Busch shows us almost a dozen imaginative ways to get involved in important projects, highlighting her own Hudson River ecosystem. Closer to home, the Pigeon Guillemot study is but one example. You can learn more about the original study on Whidbey Island here: http://pigeonguillemot.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/nwn15-312E1.pdf and see a Bird Note posting here:  http://birdnote.org/blog/2013/08/studying-pigeon-guillemots-citizen-scientist. Read the latest posted monitoring report on the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve for which we were gathering data, explained and compiled here: http://www.nisquallyestuary.org/pigu.pdf by BHAS member Anne Mills for the Citizen Stewardship Committee with Jerry Joyce of the Washington Environmental Council in 2014. (by Anne Kilgannon)