Imagine wandering around in woods or streams, identifying fungi, plants, insects, wildlife — anything alive. This is what's known as citizen science: amateurs observing and documenting nature. And if you like being alone or sharing observations from a distance, it's the perfect activity during a pandemic.
Of the active citizen scientists I spoke with, all three grew up in Southern California, where they witnessed their homes changing rapidly from towns to suburbs, with housing developments and freeways before moving north. One, Kim Cabrera, who now lives in Redway, has earned several tracking certificates in the desert and the forest, and is training to learn to track people for search and rescue.
She was always obsessed with nature as a kid, even caves, "to the point that my English high school teacher gave me the nickname 'Spelunker Deluxe.'" At a creek near her home she'd find raccoon tracks, crayfish, frogs and tadpoles. She once released hundreds of tadpoles into the watery cover of her swimming pool, much to the consternation of the neighborhood. "For years after, you could hear the frogs croaking at night. Later I discovered the hills on my bike, where I found mountain lion tracks and ran into a coyote."
Cabrera loves bears and mountain lions, but she focuses on tracking all animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. "Tracking is more than just following footprints," she says. She also looks for scats, scent marks, feathers, skulls, bones, galls, egg masses, cocoons, bird nests and eggs. She can step out her door and spend anywhere from a few minutes to several hours spotting wildlife. "When looking for footprints, I seek out the sandy river bars and muddy creek edges, the Ma-le'l Dunes and the South Spit."
Humboldt State University botany student Bobby Valentine learned about citizen science in his general botany class at College of the Redwoods in 2018, when his professor had the students use the iNaturalist site (www.inaturalist.org/projects/humboldt-county-biodiversity) to document plants on campus. The nonprofit site is dedicated to "unlocking the world's biodiversity for curiosity and conservation," inviting anyone record observations and discuss findings with fellow naturalists.
This time of year, Valentine walks around the woods looking for mushrooms, making observations on iNaturalist. (I asked him which woods exactly but it's a trade secret). When he's not familiar with a species, he refers to Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz, or Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora. Those interested in mushrooms can check out the Humboldt County Mycological Society website at www.hbmycologicalsociety.org/wp.
Documenting species "is time consuming, so I've scaled back, because, much as I love iNaturalist, I don't like spending too much time on my phone. I can make 50 observations in one day. So now I'm going for quality rather than quantity," Valentine says. "I can be a rather obsessive person, so I allow myself 10 observations per day, unless I'm out for longer than six hours, in which case, 20. That way I can spend more time actually learning which species it is."
Until recently, Alyssa Semerdjian was getting her M.S. in Natural Resources at HSU, followed by a year working at the university's vertebrate museum. Now she's getting her PhD in Biological Sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis. She grew up in the San Diego suburbs near a canyon. "I played with animals while my cousins played with Barbie dolls. Running cross-country in high school, my favorite days were when we ran in the canyon. I remember appreciating the smell of the sage and looking for snake trails in the dust."
While Semerdjian is also an iNaturalist user, she was introduced to citizen science through the eBird site when she studied ornithology as an undergraduate. Mammals are her favorite but she tries to find as many species as she can because it gives her a sense of purpose and encourages her to pay attention. "I'm always looking for signs of wildlife. I'll stop on my walk to work to take a picture of a squirrel. When I lived in Arcata, I'd walk around the marsh with my camera looking for birds. I might check the rare bird alerts on the eBird site and try to find a species I've never seen before," she says. "I treat a hike like a scavenger hunt, with the goal of finding and documenting as many vertebrate species as possible."
She thinks citizen science is great way to involve the public in science and to boost engagement in the natural world. "I see a lot of kids doing it, which is awesome!"
Citizen science is also excellent for helping people become familiar with a place. "I worked in the Carrizo Plain National Monument for several years, long enough to really get a sense of it," Semerdjian says. "I love knowing what's going on in a place that, to people just driving through, looks like an empty grassland. By focusing on what's around and actively trying to seek diversity, you can learn a lot about an area in a pretty short amount of time."
Each of these three investigators, while not traditionally religious, say they feel citizen science nurtures a certain kind of spirituality. For Cabrera, it "offers a way to connect deeply with the landscape and wildlife around me ... When I make new discoveries, I feel a joy and a new knowledge that we humans cannot be separate from nature." For Valentine, "coming to know and understand the natural world and all its creatures fills me with a sense of meaning and purpose unlike anything else." And Semerdjian says, "I feel unencumbered, calm and most like myself when I'm in nature."
The cool thing is, we can start anywhere. As Valentine says, "Don't forget to look for the little things in the cracks and crevices of your world."
Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a leadership coach and writer who lives in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico.