Rhode Island’s Citizen Scientists
These volunteer scientists search for bears and tally bugs, monitor jellyfish and examine slime mold.
Most Rhode Island-based projects involve the monitoring of local wildlife populations and environmental conditions. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, for instance, seeks volunteers to track the nesting success of ospreys at designated sites around the state. It also conducts an annual butterfly count to assess the health of the state’s butterfly populations. Save the Bay coordinates a series of coastal clean-up events during which volunteers record the quantity and volume of beach litter and marine debris they collect for a global report that aids in focusing litter prevention efforts.
In addition, Brown University coordinates a statewide jellyfish monitoring program; Sacred Heart University manages horseshoe crab surveys at Napatree Point in Westerly and elsewhere; and Roger Williams Park Zoo trains volunteers to identify frog calls so they can collect data about amphibian activity at local ponds. And the Rhode Island Natural History Survey hosts a twenty-four-hour event called Bioblitz that uses volunteers each year to identify every species of wildlife of any sort on a designated parcel of land — from birds and bugs to plants, mushrooms and slime molds. This year the count will take place in June at Snake Den State Park in Johnston.
At the top of a hill in the middle of the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown, where the forest meets a meadow and where distant geese can be heard honking softly at dusk, a group of seven volunteers and four biologists stand beside two twenty-four-foot tall mist nets that arise like giant volleyball nets extending from the ground to the sky. They’ve gathered to capture bats to help scientists better understand the diversity of bat species that live in the area. Led by Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the volunteers are especially seeking northern long-eared bats, a species that has been captured less and less frequently during DEM bat surveys.
Most of the volunteers are seasoned veterans, including some who have studied wildlife management in college and are seeking additional field experience, hoping it will help them land full-time jobs as wildlife biologists. Those with the most experience, like Heather Kopsco and Charleve Carey, have even been vaccinated for rabies, enabling them to handle any bats captured that night.
Alyssa Grayson, fifteen, of Coventry, joins the group with her father, George. She has been an active volunteer on a wide range of environmental projects since she was seven, helping to host educational programs at local wildlife refuges, working on invasive species removal projects, and sharing her enthusiasm for wildlife with anyone who would listen. She is especially passionate about wolves, having started a wolf club at her school.
“I join these kinds of projects because I like wildlife,” she says. “It’s a great way to enjoy the refuges and to learn more so I can educate other people about it.”
Before the sky is completely dark, a bat becomes entangled in one of the nets and Brown carefully removes it and brings it to the tailgate of his pickup truck, which is arranged with tools to weigh, measure and attach identifying tags to the captured bats. He determines the animal is a red bat, and with most of the volunteers watching, he demonstrates how each bat will be processed and released.
Before he is finished, however, a volunteer calls out that another bat has been captured, whereupon the citizen scientists all rush to lower the net so the animal can be disentangled. It turns out to be a least flycatcher — a bird, not a bat — but everyone is still excited to get a close-up look at the uncommon species.
It doesn’t take long before the pace of activity picks up. The silhouettes of numerous bats are observed darting over and around the nets, then a second red bat becomes ensnared, followed by a big brown bat and another red bat. As some volunteers raise and lower the nets and work to disentangle the captured animals, others assist with measuring the bats and recording data.
In the middle of the action, Carey pauses with a very small bat in her hand, one likely born just weeks earlier. “This might have been her maiden voyage,” she says. As Grayson coos about the tiny baby and everyone takes pictures, Carey attempts to release the bat, but it continues to cling to her hand, apparently not ready to fly off. “Go on little one, it’s time to go eat,” Carey says softly, moments before the bat releases its grasp and flies away.
Eight bats are captured in the first forty-five minutes of the evening, and nearly a dozen more — none of them the targeted long-eared species — are caught by midnight, when the nets are closed and everyone goes home.
For Grayson, who had never seen a wild bat so close before, it is an eye opening night.
“This has been a great new experience,” she says. “I love learning about wildlife, and now I really love bats. They’re awesome.”
Brown says that volunteers are an important part of the success of the state’s bat monitoring efforts. In addition to helping during bat trapping nights, volunteers also monitor about twenty bat maternity colonies, counting the bats as they fly to their feeding grounds from their daytime roosts in barns and other structures.
“Those generally need to be done in a relatively short window of time, and before we had volunteer help, me and staff would be hard pressed to get them all done within that time frame,” Brown says. “Having volunteers has helped tremendously, and we often are able to do several counts to get a more accurate estimate of the number of bats in each roost.”
DEM is the state’s leader in engaging volunteers in citizen science projects. In 2015 it hired a volunteer coordinator, Jennifer Brooks, to manage the use of volunteers and to develop new research projects that would be of interest to even more citizen scientists. She says her position “came out of a need to supply more eyes and ears and boots on the ground” to conduct research on wildlife in the state.
“Our volunteers have provided so much more data than we could ever have accomplished before,” Brooks says. “It also provides people with meaningful opportunities to volunteer, and they become enthusiastic advocates for our wildlife. It teaches people about the importance of these animals.”
Since Brooks launched the DEM volunteer program, more than 730 Rhode Islanders have registered to participate as citizen scientists, and about 400 of them volunteered on at least one of the ten available projects last year.
She says that several projects would not have even been attempted without a dedicated corps of citizen scientists, like an effort to count herring at five fish ladders as they return upstream to spawn. About 130 people participate in the program each spring by conducting as many ten-minute fish counts as they can during the spawning season.
In collaboration with URI, DEM also sponsors the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, which uses nearly 200 volunteer birdwatchers to record breeding activity for as many bird species as possible; an effort to locate rare New England cottontails by collecting rabbit droppings for DNA analysis; and a survey of black bears living in the state that involves weekly visits to forty-two “scent stations” designed to attract bears to a lure that will snag fur from the animals. DEM citizen scientists also help band geese, monitor wood duck nest boxes, operate a hydraulic dredge to collect data on shellfish, and conduct fish surveys in coastal ponds using a three-person seine net.
“One of my goals is to keep the program evolving,” Brooks says. “My intent is to keep coming up with new projects that people can join in on. Maybe we’ll have an amphibian or reptile project in the near future.”
Bruce Stowers, one of the volunteer scientists on the DEM bear project, has already sweated through his T-shirt and hat before he even gets started checking his three scent stations in western Coventry. That’s because he lives in Providence and doesn’t own a car, so he takes a bus to Warwick Mall and then bicycles fifteen miles to his project’s starting point at a private tree farm near the Nicholas Farm Management Area.
After climbing off his bike, he walks around the edge of Stump Pond, across a muddy stream bed and into a pine forest to a cluster of trees encircled by two rows of barbed wire. In the middle is a pile of small branches stacked beneath a sapling, from which hangs a plastic film canister with a rag emerging from the bottom. He opens a vessel he’s carried in his bike rack containing rubber gloves, a bottle of fish oil and various tools, then walks the perimeter of the barbed wire looking for any hairs that might have become snagged as an animal investigated the scent coming from the film canister. Finding none, Stowers pours some fish oil into the canister, dumps the rest over the pile of branches, then walks back to his bike.
In the previous ten weeks of checking the scent stations, he found three hair samples snagged on the barbed wire, which he delivered to URI for DNA analysis. “They were reddish looking, so not likely from a bear,” he says. “Probably a fox or coyote. In my first two years on the project, I collected about eight hair samples, but none were bear.”
After a quick sip from his water bottle, Stowers bikes four more miles to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge, where he follows the same procedures, then bikes six miles to the Big River Management Area where he does it again, before catching the bus in Coventry back to the Warwick Mall, followed by another bus ride home.
Retired from teaching in Arlington County, Virginia, Stowers heard about the bear project in the news and immediately called to volunteer. He also volunteers for the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council doing landscaping, fish counts and maintenance, but he is especially enthusiastic about his citizen science work for DEM.
“I love this project,” he says. “I love the outdoors, and I like seeing the seasonal changes from week to week. It also helps give me structure to my day, but it lets me do it at my own pace. It’s just me out in the woods.”
Back at Little Pond, Gisela Meyn and Betty Law bring their water samples to Meyn’s kitchen table, which looks like a chemistry lab lined with squeeze bottles, syringes, vials of chemicals and other equipment. Sitting opposite each other and chatting while they work, Meyn adds two different chemicals to one water sample, shakes it up, then adds another chemical to create a reaction that determines the water’s dissolved oxygen content. At the same time, Law adds a different combination of chemicals to her samples, then uses a syringe to force the water through a coffee filter to collect its chlorophyll. The filters are placed in the kitchen freezer for later delivery to the Watershed Watch laboratory.
“When we first started years ago, we felt like chemists,” says Meyn. “Now we don’t even think about it any more. We started out wearing gloves and goggles because we wanted to do it correctly. We still do it correctly, but we’re no longer paranoid about screwing it up.”
“We used to know all the details of why we were doing each step,” adds Law. “But now we just do it.”
The state’s public health and environmental officials are happy they do.