Get Involved in Citizen Science at Home

Volunteers use binoculars to search for dragonflies.

Volunteers search for dragonflies at the Arboretum’s Schmidt Lagoon in 2018.

Spring’s renewal is all around us as longer days, warming temperatures, and the reappearance of many plants and animals help lift our collective spirits. The multitude of seasonal changes makes it a great time of year to observe nature. And since April is recognized as citizen science month, here are some citizen science projects and resources you can explore and get involved with from your home, backyard, or neighborhood – while still following public health guidelines.

The Arboretum organizes or participates in a wide range of citizen science projects. Some focus on monitoring the plants and animals in our natural areas. However, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, we are highlighting projects that are not site-specific and resources that can be accessed online. If you do venture out to visit the Arboretum or other natural areas, please protect yourself and others by following all public health guidelines for spending time outdoors.

Journey North, one of North America’s largest citizen science programs, is based at the Arboretum. The project tracks migrations and seasons and provides an easy entry point into citizen science for people of all ages. Reported sightings are mapped in real-time as migration waves move across the continent. People submit observations, view maps, take pictures, and leave comments. Spring migration is underway, so now is the perfect time to sign up and help track monarch butterflies, hummingbirds, and more.

One of the best ways to learn about nature is through photography. Many of the Arboretum citizen science projects rely on volunteers documenting organisms in photos. iNaturalist is a robust and user-friendly tool for these kinds of projects. Available as a smartphone app, iNaturalist helps with plant and animal identification, connects users with a community of scientists and naturalist, and lets you upload records and images to a world-wide database of nature observations. The Arboretum uses iNaturalist to document the diversity of fungi growing in prairies and woodlands, but anyone can use it to document the diversity of plants, animals, and other organisms in their backyard.

Spring is a popular time for birding as many migratory species return from their overwintering grounds. Are you noticing birds in your backyard or neighborhood? Submit your sightings to eBird, the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project, and explore what other species are being seen in the area. A useful complementary tool to eBird is the Merlin Bird ID, a smartphone app that provides free bird identification help for more than 5,500 species.

Zooniverse is a web portal of over 90 online citizen science projects that range from natural science to astronomy to history. Snapshot Wisconsin, a local project that can be accessed through Zooniverse, is a statewide wildlife monitoring partnership that relies on volunteers to help identify wildlife that has been documented on a network of trail cameras, including two at the Arboretum.

If you still haven’t found the right citizen science opportunity for you, try using SciStarter to search for a new one. Users can filter projects based on a number of fields, including those that can be done online or from home.

Citizen science enriches our connections to nature and provides valuable scientific data in a rapidly changing world. The sheer scale of citizen science projects across the globe is a testament to the curiosity and passion of the everyday scientists of all ages, and their contributions continue to advance scientific knowledge.

We encourage you to celebrate citizen science this month and safely participate however you can. Whether you are documenting a warbler in a nearby tree, the blooming bluebells in your backyard, or helping identify a species in an online database, there are countless ways to get involved and explore the world around you.

– Scott Dyke, Arboretum/Journey North communications specialist, and Jessica Ross, citizen science coordinator