Travelling 15,000 km from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to the southern tip of South America, the endangered red knot makes one of the longest migrations of any bird.
Unlike other species, which make many pit stops along the way, shorebirds such as the red knot fly long distances between breaks, which means they have to be strategic. To refuel along their journey, for example, they must pass through Delaware Bay just as the horseshoe crabs lay their eggs (which the red knots eat) on the beach. (To get a sense of the red knots’ challenge: imagine the fuel indicator on your dashboard lights up on a road trip, and the only gas station is open just one hour a day.)
These marathon migrations pose a challenge for wildlife researchers, too, since it takes immense planning and patience to determine where a species really goes and how long it stays when it gets there. But thanks in part to citizen scientists — hobbyists who document plants, collect water samples, or in this case, count birds — researchers are learning more and more about shorebird migratory patterns and how climate change and other stressors like habitat loss may be influencing them.
“It’s is an amazing thing,” says Paul Smith, a scientist with the wildlife research division of Environment and Climate Change Canada. “These people are going out and devoting their time to count birds and returning this information to the government.” Smith, who studies shorebirds in the Arctic, says the birds migrate about a week later now than they did in the 1970s — knowledge derived from citizen scientists’ observations. He says these shifts provide clues as to how birds respond to environmental changes, including global warming.
To analyze the data, Smith is combining citizen science with technology that Bird Studies Canada (BSC), a national charity, calls “the world’s most ambitious bird-tracking initiative.”
Called Motus, it’s a telemetry project run out of BSC’s Port Rowan office. Researchers have set up more than 320 radio towers throughout the western hemisphere that ping whenever nano-tagged shorebirds fly within 20 km of them. This way, scientists can track the birds as they travel through the network and see how long they spend at different pit stops — detailed data that would be difficult for citizens to obtain.
But technologies such as Motus don’t make citizen science redundant, Smith says. Instead, they make it even more useful. Volunteers have been observing fewer shorebirds during their counts, and data from Motus could fill in some knowledge gaps — whether the birds are flying along a different route, passing through at a different time, or simply dying off.
Smith also points out that the tag-and-tower technology is relatively accessible. “Imagine a scenario where receivers are cheap and put up everywhere,” he says. “The principle behind Motus is that amateur natural-history clubs, banding stations, and schools can put up these towers, and the hope is that more people will and the network gets more complete.”
In his research, Smith also uses data from eBird, an online repository that contains information on more than 9.5 million sightings of various species around the world. The database gives him access to a large range of spatial data, including where red knots, for example, have been documented over the past hundred years.
“People have always birdwatched and it hasn’t been all that useful, and suddenly we have this online portal that makes amateur birdwatchers’ sightings very useful,” he says.
Although the quality of data citizen scientists provide can vary based on volunteers’ level of experience and collection methods, Smith says professional scientists are working to ensure that statistical analyses can accommodate potential irregularities. He adds that the sheer volume of observations is what makes them so useful.
And it’s not just shorebird researchers like Smith who think so. With the country’s 150th birthday fast approaching, the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) is celebrating our natural heritage by hosting its first nation-wide BioBlitz. During the event, participants will take pictures of plants or wildlife on their smartphones, while on the other end of a custom app, specialists (and knowledgeable enthusiasts) will identify them. Since CWF launched the app last year, roughly 90,000 species sightings have been recorded across Canada, mostly during nature walks. James Pagé, species-at-risk and biodiversity specialist at CWF, hopes this summer’s event will add thousands more records.
Pagé says the BioBlitz will invite Canadians to engage with nature — but the event is designed so that the data participants collect can be used for conservation science and decision making. He adds that the BioBlitz is more than just a catalogue of species. “The beauty of having a lot of occurrences is to be able to see these large-scale trends,” Pagé says. “Climate change is one of them.”
Tina Knezevic is currently completing a journalism fellowship at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
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