Gearing up with Citizen-Powered Science


by: Adina Daar

Our theme this season is ‘Involvement’. As a Land Conservancy, there are many ways people are involved with our organization; from donating funds, volunteering time, serving as a member on our board, to attending and participating in our events. Involvement comes in many forms!

Did you know that there are also ways to be involved while doing what you love outdoors; hiking, fishing, birdwatching – all while contributing to ecological knowledge about the area?

It’s called Citizen Science and it’s an ever-growing area propelled by technological advancements that have put powerful scientific tools in our pockets and at our fingertips!

Pairing public interest and time with organizations like ours and other research communities, this new frontier of people-powered research amplifies the speed, consistency, and accuracy of findings. It can also be a fun way to engage with a community around shared interests, all the while contributing back to the places that we hold near and dear.

Interest piqued? We hope so!

Here are five of our favorite digital tools you can use while contributing to ecological research and conservation projects – in the UP and beyond!

Merlin: For the Bird Curious

For those just dabbling (#birdword!) in the world of birding – Merlin is a useful app that both helps identify a bird you see and contributes to national bird monitoring data.

With around 399 species of birds in the Upper Peninsula and with hundreds of thousands of miles of protected forest and wetlands  – it should come as no surprise that birds love it here and so do people who love birds!

Screenshots from Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab of Ornithology for Android

Developed by the Cornell School of Ornithology and launched in 2014, The Merlin Bird App guides bird spotters through a series of five questions (location, date, size, color, and context) and then curates a visual list of possibilities which can then be further explored and confirmed. Each bird has pictures, sound clips, and a natural history write-up – lots of juicy details! Users can also download local databases tailored to different US regions to improve accuracy.

Alternatively, you can also snap a photo of a bird and let the Merlin database look for a visual match which is a pretty handy feature.

With Citizen Science powered by Merlin, researchers have been able to track migratory patterns of many avian species and record sightings in different areas as climates change shifts some breeding and migratory routes. It is both a wonderful learning tool and a simple way to be involved in furthering local bird surveys and knowledge for the wider community.

Download Merlin for Apple here and Android here

*Bonus Level “UP”*eBird: for committed Twitchers

The Merlin app is powered by over 500 million observations from a related app called eBird. Also produced and managed through the Cornell School of Ornithology, eBird is the expert version of the app for serious bird watchers who are already proficient at species identification and want to contribute to the growing database. The eBird app is a tool specifically for recording and noting bird sightings; equipped with checklists, a ‘Record as you go’ feature, and full offline mode. It’s a wonderful digital companion for birding trips with a large community of users and ongoing support.


Screenshots from eBird by Cornell Lab of Ornithology for Android

Available for download for Apple here and Android here

Litterati: For those who hate litter (who doesn’t?!)

Is there anything more infuriating than walking along the beach and finding litter strewn about? In some places, heroes don’t don capes, they carry out trash and use an app called ‘Litterati’.

Litterati started out as a way for California resident (and University of Michigan grad!), Jeff Kirschner to vent about offending litter in his community. He would upload pictures of his litter findings on Instagram along with the hashtag #Litterati. It has since grown into a worldwide movement of people who identify, map, and collect the world’s litter in pursuit of ‘Litter free world’.  

Images from Litterati.org and Litterati App for Android

It’s simple. See litter, snap a picture, pick it up. Once back home, tag the pictures with identifiers like the type, materials, and a brand if obvious. This all gets saved into a database and onto a map. The visual data serves as viable proof that has been used to hold companies, brands, and other groups accountable for litter in communities.

The now-famous example of how San Francisco doubled a tax on tobacco companies using a mass of Litterati data as evidence is the stuff of legends and also reality. One community used Litterati to encourage Taco Bell to change a sauce packet policy after residents had documented just how many unopened packets were strewn around public parks near Taco Bell storefronts.

‘Picker UPpers’ Club on Litterati

It’s refreshing to find that most people in Marquette are respectful and go to great efforts to prevent litter. Still, it’s nice to know that this app is here if you do come across an offending pile while out walking a trail. And if you find litter on our properties – we certainly want to know so we can encourage more Leave No Trace practices and distribute better information and resources about how to interact with natural areas.

And Litterati is global! So if visiting somewhere else where litter seems to be an issue, it’s a spontaneous way to lend a hand and make sure it is noticed.

Check out founder Jeff Kirschner’s inspiring TedTalk here and get started snapping that trash at https://www.litterati.org/. We have a local club called ‘Picker UPpers’ which you can find in the ‘Clubs’ section of the app – please join us and log your litter finds!

Download Litterati for Apple or Android

Great Lakes Fish Finder: For Fin A-fish-ionados!  

It’s no secret that the Great Lakes are home to an interesting and diverse bunch of aquatic wildlife. Those who fish and live on lakes and waterways have a personal and ongoing relationship with wildlife that has proven invaluable in monitoring and ensuring the health of water ecosystems.

A joint initiative between the Shedd Aquarium (in Chicago), The California Academy of Sciences, and National Geographic, this app has proven itself a welcome companion for many anglers – it is both useful as a field guide for identification and for contributing data to scientists who monitor lake health and fish populations.

Screenshot from https://www.sheddaquarium.org/fishfinder/)

Important to note, this app is not about helping people find the best fishing spots or anything like that! You don’t have to give your secret spot away if you use the app. It’s about logging catches, conditions, and connecting to others in the fishing community. Users can publish their observations to a community for identification or public view if desired.

While not the most utilized or frequented project on this list (UP representation is certainly lacking) it’s is a resource that is there if you so choose to explore it! We’d love to see more information collected about the fish whose habitat is affected by the lands we protect.

Download Great Lake Fish Finder for Apple or Android

iNaturalist: for everyone everywhere – alone or in a group!

iNaturalist is probably one of the most well-known and used programs when it comes to documenting natural sightings and sharing with a broader community. It is the skeletal structure of many other programs (including Fish Finder above).

You can pull up a map of just about any location and you’ll find thousands of sightings of all sorts of wildlife including plants, insects, birds, and larger animals!

Here’s a look at the app through a sighting from the Tory’s Woods Preserve:

Screenshots of Marquette Observations from iNaturalist for Android

Users can snap or upload photos and then ask for identification – or jump on and help identify through pictures that others have already uploaded. One of the really cool aspects of iNaturalist are the projects and community events – which range from personal garden explorations (I’ve heard of people using it to identify what is growing in community accessible plots) to what are known as a ‘Bio-blitz’ – when a whole bunch of people get together to document and identify as much as possible in a short period of time at a specific place.

Shout out to the top 5 UP resident observers: Nate Martineau, Mcaple, Rob Routledge, Joseph Kurtz and Will Van Hemessen who collectively have made over 29,000 observations of 8,800+ species and helped confirm and identify over 145,000 other observations by others in our area. We hope many others will join in to contribute to this already very healthy and growing ecosystem of nature sightings!

Download iNaturalist for Apple and Android

Zooniverse: The Mother Ship

Zooniverse is an ingenious website that hosts a wide array of citizen science projects covering a breadth of topics: from science and history to art and mathematics. Each initiative is set up as fun ‘Projects’ that are designed in creative ways to make sorting through lots of data points fun and useful. It is the largest Citizen Science platform in the world with over 1.7 million individual users and growing.

Zooniverse also has a DIY section where you can build your own project. So if you have data that needs to be classified or you could use some help sorting through and digitizing archives – it could be a great place to start.

It’s really best to dive straight-in and play around to get a feel for how the site works.

Here are a couple of our favorite projects for you to check out:

Michigan ZoomIN: Help researchers at the University of Michigan classify photos from remote cameras to better understand the distribution of wild animals. One of their research locations is here in the UP at the Huron Mountain Club – which means you also get a peek into the Club!

Image: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/michiganzoomin/michigan-zoomin/about/research)

Unearthing Michigan Ecological Data’: This is part of a program to digitize over a century of hand-collected data from the Biological Research Station at Douglas Lake in Northern Michigan. Historical data is helpful in that it provides documentation of changes over time – and is very powerful when combined with current data. Through this project, you can help to digitize the universities reports, research, and documents. If you are the kind of person that finds themselves drawn to dusty boxes of records, and delights in exploring the way things were done in the past – this project might be especially exciting 😀


Screenshot from https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/jmschell/unearthing-michigan-ecological-data/classify)

We looked up ‘Lepomis gibbosus’ – these are Pumpkinseed Fish fins!

‘Whales as Individuals’: Need a break? We recommend this project where helpful citizens can outline and help identify individual Whales from the many photos of their flukes. It serves as both a really easy and relaxing brain break in the name of science 🙂

Image from https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/tedcheese/whales-as-individuals/classify

What about a UP Land Conservancy project on Zooniverse?!? Oh don’t worry, it’s coming. And we’ll for sure let you know once we’ve got it running.

There you have it! Let’s science together 🙂

At the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy, we feel honored to be in service to and entrusted by a community that is engaged and interested in wildlife and habitat. What happens in the UP is inextricably connected to what happens in other parts of the country and the world – so whether ID-ing birds to better understand migration changes, identifying a species of plant that wasn’t here 15 years ago, contributing to the knowledge of local fish populations, or perhaps spotting that ever elusive Mountain Lion taking a selfie with a trail camera  – it makes a difference to us! We hope these tools continue to feed your curiosity, involvement, and contribution to protecting land today for life tomorrow!

What’s your favorite way to get involved? Let us know your experiences with these or other Citizen Science platforms in the comments!


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