Beware the citizen scientist!

21 08 2015

This week, an editorial in Nature addressed the now well established use of citizen science generated data. Though the line “Some professional scientists are sniffy about the role of amateurs,” the piece points out the general acceptance of the value of volunteer-driven science. But even though scientists are using or at least accepting these data (some grudgingly, perhaps, or even sniffily), the editor points out some potential pitfalls to be considered. A major one is the potential for bias introduced by a self-selected team of citizen scientists. In a program like SEANET, we know our volunteers tend to be conservation minded, outdoorsy types. Nothing wrong with that, but as the editorial describes, an interest in conserving the subject of a given study could change the behaviors of the data collectors. People’s personal predilections and preferences can also skew data. This could be deliberate, or, perhaps more likely and more difficult to detect, subconscious. In projects like eBird, researchers learned early on of the tendency of many birders to overreport rare birds and underreport common ones. Overreporting the rare birds does not mean the birders record birds they don’t actually see, just that they may report it every time they see a rare bird, and not bother to report a bird they see everyday even if it was sitting side by side with the rarity. eBird now asks the question,
“are you reporting all birds you saw/heard?” to make sure you aren’t cherry-picking, or, if you are, that they can account for it in their analyses.

img_3208For Seanetters, that particular type of skew might not seem relevant since Seanetters go out for a beach walk and record every dead bird they see, regardless of species. We don’t accept incidental reports of oddities like an albatross in the backyard. But we still wrestle with these issues. Many of our volunteers join up thinking that finding the most dead birds is the goal, and that a “good” beach is one that turns up many carcasses. Some volunteers ask if they should modify their walk schedules to coincide with the aftermath of a big storm in the interest of finding wind and wave-tossed bird bodies. That’s why we try very hard to instill in all our volunteers the value of a true baseline (or as close as we can get). For our purposes, a beach that never turns up any birds is no more or less valuable than a beach stacked high with carcasses. For the volunteers who rarely or never find dead birds though, the chance to finally  record one can be tempting. Seanetters will email from time to time saying they’ve been tipped off to the presence of a dead bird on the beach on a day when they had no walk scheduled, asking if they should go out and record it as a walk. I understand the temptation, but sticking to the set schedule of monthly, twice-monthly, or weekly walks is critical to our attempt to get at that baseline.

lc_feb2012_3The editorial closes with a mention of “increased scrutiny […] on the reliability of the work of professional scientists,” a reference, I can only assume, to recent stories of trained scientists fabricating data or even entire careers. Some of these stories are truly egregious, like that of Dutch sociologist Diederick Stapel, whose falsifications ramified down into the careers of his graduate students too. This sort of extreme case is fortunately rare, but what it points to is the possibility to get away with even a massive fraud if no one ever checks on the work. Replicating scientific studies to verify the findings of other researchers is not as common as it ought to be, and the tendency of scientific journals to preferentially publish positive results put pressure on scientists to generate the right kind of study. Most scientists, and most citizen scientists, resist that tug, but we also do whatever we can on our end to make our program as rigorous as possible. As the editorial mentions, volunteers may not be expert in identifying, say, plants. Or dead birds. We want anyone to be able to volunteer with us, so we apply to everyone equally the requirement to take a photo of every dead bird found, whether the volunteer is a total newbie to birding, or a wildlife biologist. We reduce the impact of inter-observer variation in bird identification by having one person (me) do all photo verification. And when I’m not sure of an i.d., I send it out to you, my crack team of bird identifying experts. Sometimes, science requires relinquishing some ego. But the better job we do, the more our data will stand up to rigorous inspection, and the more the profile of you, the army of citizen scientists, will rise in the world. In defiance of those who would sniff.

Tale of two beaches

24 02 2015

Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure of serving on a panel discussing waste disposal and the impacts of human trash on the environment and human and wildlife health. Many thanks to Annie Hooper and Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for inviting me! While we were down on the Cape for our whirlwind, sub-24 hour visit, we stopped by First Encounter Beach in Eastham, MA. This is a bay-facing beach, rather than an ocean-facing one, so it is more sheltered, with less wave activity, and thus, more prone to at least partial freeze-ups. We were surprised to find, however, that the bay was entirely locked in by piled slabs of ice as far out to the horizon as we could see. It was not clear where the ice-covered beach ended and the ice-covered bay began.

Here's me at the presumptive edge of the bay.

Here’s me at the presumptive edge of the bay.

My sons were thrilled, as they are on a mountaineering kick in their reading, and this was the closest they will be getting to a glacial crevasse field any time soon.
It was good to get to a beach at all, however ice-covered, as the beach I normally walk in Salisbury, MA has been unreachable for the past month. The mile long road in to the parking lot finally succumbed to the drifting snow this month, and last time I tried to go, I had to give up, and drive my poor Prius in reverse for three quarters of a mile back to the state park entrance when blowing snowpiles made the last reaches impassable. I am hopeful for a walk in March, but we will play it by ear. For the Cape Cod Bay beaches, it’s hard to imagine how any dead bird would ever arrive on the beach, with what looks like miles of ice between the sand and the open water. I have to imagine we will see a downtick in beached birds when we look at the data from those beaches for these latter weeks of winter.
Meanwhile, down south, I have a couple photos to share of Seanetter Lori Porwoll. Lori ordered a SEANET shirt from me a year and a half ago, but her check was quite literally lost in the mail. I only recently unearthed it in an unopened packet of mail I found in a closet, and I finally sent her the shirt. As you can see from the pics, it’s warm enough on Lori’s South Carolina beach to wear the shirt (albeit with a layer underneath).

Our walking billboard, Lori.

Our walking billboard, Lori.

I know it shouldn’t constantly amaze me–the geographic differences in weather–but it always does. In conversation with an acquaintance of mine from Alabama, she asked why hikers and backpackers in New England complain of missing the trail this time of the year. “Why not just go out? A good jacket and some boots are all you really need, right?” I can scarcely convey to her what nine feet of overall snow looks like, nor what it feels like to walk out into -8 degree air this morning to bring water to the chickens. Even my cross-country ski outings have been curtailed this week by severe wind chills. But, as everyone keeps pointing out, “Spring is coming next month!” I can’t argue with calendar spring being close at hand, but right now, the concept of mud season (spring in New England) seems like something I imagined once and have since mostly forgotten. I will be glad to get back out to beach MA_23 at some point. Come to think of it, couldn’t I do a SEANET survey on skis?

News flash: citizen scientists are trainable

20 11 2014

Not to be smug about it, but SEANET has been doing citizen science since before citizen science was cool. Or at least, since before it was widely accepted as a viable and valid method of collecting large scale data sets. For a long time, the critique from the science establishment was that lay people without formal science training could not match the quality of data generated by trained scientists. Over time, more and more citizen science projects have taken off and produced high quality data sets on a scale impossible for scientists and their exhausted grad student minions to replicate. Now, in the face of these data, many former naysayers have had to admit that citizen science plays a role nothing else can. Professional scientists needn’t have feared; the rise of citizen science can, in many cases, free them up to do things besides constantly collecting data themselves. Study design, data analysis, publication of results, all these things remain in their purview.

As these views have evolved, it has remained critical to ensure that citizen scientists, who often collect data with little to no direct supervision, are actually doing a good job. In some projects, that requires intensive training before joining up–learning how to identify organisms, or take measurements with accuracy and precision, for example. These trainings were often in person and labor intensive, and sometimes also cost prohibitive, so many programs began looking for alternative methods of training, whether with print materials or mult-media ones.

The slick and flashy app interface of the Outsmart cit sci project.

The slick and flashy app interface of the Outsmart cit sci project.

A new study out in PLOS one looked into the relative effectveness of print vs. video training for volunteers monitoring invasive plant species in Massachusetts. They determined that video training out performs plain print resources (photos and text descriptions of plants), but, perhaps more importantly, rivals in person training in preparing volunteers who can correctly identify invasive species. Moreover, when volunteers did incorrectly identify species, they tended to be plants that were challenging for all volunteers, regardless of how they were trained. Identifying exotic honeysuckles, for instance, is hard for almost everyone, while multiflora rose was identified by nearly 100% of volunteers.

For SEANET, we have chosen to put more work in on the back end of data collection. Our volunteers are not required to have any knowledge of species identification when they join (though they tend to acquire it if they stick around); instead, every bird must be photographed so that it can be reviewed for accuracy as to species. For a program of SEANET’s relatively modest size, this works well, and I am able to review everyone’s reports individually. But on a scaled up project–something like ebird for instance–the program leaders must rely on the volunteer’s abilities and experience, and only reports that seem strange or outlandish are challenged and followed up on. If SEANET were to get so big as that, we’d have to modify things.

One thing the invasive plant project studied in this article has that I do indeed covet is a very slick and attractive interface in a smartphone app. We’ve talked about having such a thing for SEANET for a long time, but as of now, it’s not in the cards. But you can all gaze in wondering admiration at this plant project’s interface, and, if you are located in the northeast, you might even consider participating. If, of course, it wouldn’t cut into your Seanetting.

Update on eider research

30 10 2014

It’s fall, and on Cape Cod, that often means piles of dead eiders rather than piles of rustling leaves. In the multi-year investigation into why so many common eiders turn up dead around Wellfleet most years, the USDA, USFWS and numerous other groups have partnered up and pooled their skill and resources to try to get to the bottom of what’s happening. Right now, the researchers are wrapping up the live bird sampling phase of this fall’s work; they have been trapping birds as they arrive from their breeding islands–some from as nearby as Boston Harbor, some from nearer the Arctic. The idea is to sample their blood and feces to see if they arrive in Cape Cod Bay already having been exposed to, and possibly even shedding the virus. The birds are also banded so that if they ultimately die (of any cause) and are found, we will know what their viral status was as of the beginning of the overwintering season. The Cape Cod Times has posted an article with some rather delightful photos of this work.

Cape Cod is a SEANET hotspot, luckily for us, and many of our dedicated volunteers have offered to help in any way they can. Up to now, biologists were interested in hearing where and when eiders were arriving from the north. With the sampling work completed, the focus will now shift to documenting and collecting dead birds. Anyone, Seanetter or not, can help with this effort, so if you see more than a few sick or dead eiders (and this is not just for Cape Cod), please contact Randall Mickley (randall.m.mickley”at” or 413-658-7113).

The other critical thing to report is any banded bird found dead. Here is a timely time to reissue our dead bird flyer! Please encourage all your friends and neighbors to jot down any band numbers they find and report them. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable those data are!



A followup, and a flyer

1 10 2014

Edward Soldaat wrote in on the last post to add some more useful notes on making the cormorant identification in last week’s Dead Bird Quiz. I didn’t want to just leave those buried as a comment, so I am pulling them up and featuring them here, front and center. Edward knows vastly more than I about skulls, so I present his comments as given:

“In addition: another important feature to distinguish cormorants from shearwaters or gulls is the absence of the depressions for the salt glands above the eyes. In this case skull and bill were too big for any shearwater, only a giant Cory’s Shearwater would have come close. But in smaller cormorants the lacking of visible nostrils and salt gland depressions are important characteristics. Interesting is also that cormorants and darters (not in gannets, pelicans or other) have a small dagger shaped bone connected to the back of the cranium, embedded in the strong musculature of the neck: the occipital style.”

The salt glands are organs you may have seen in action in living birds like gulls, which will occasionally tilt their beaks down as a clear liquid runs down from their nares. These are secretions from the glands, which function almost like an accessory set of kidneys, cleaning salts from the blood and allowing seabirds to drink saltwater and compensate for their actual kidneys’ comparative (to mammals) lack of ability to produce concentrated wastes.

The second item for your persual today is a flyer I worked up to address the many questions that nature centers, town officials, and biologists get from the public about birds sporting metal tags or orange cable ties. If you walk a beach for us, and know of an information board, a nature center, community center, public library or other spot where people might see one of these, would you consider printing and posting one for us? We might gain some new recruits, or, at the very least, alleviate some confusion among beach goers not in the know.

Just the usual things in New Jersey

20 05 2014

One of our longest suffering of our long suffering Seanetters, Jerry Golub, has sent along a few pics from his New Jersey beach. Though not at all restricted to dead birds, and including not any dead seabirds at all, I found all his photos so fascinating I wanted to share them as a view of his beach. I particularly like his note about the mysterious paw, poking daintily out of the sand as if inviting a manicure; Jerry wrote, “The strangest thing on my beach was a mammal paw I was afraid to excavate. Any ideas?” How about you, Seanetters? Any ideas on that one?


Snappy dressers! They’re not dead, and they’re terns, so I am outside my area of expertise on two counts. But still, Least Terns is what they look like to me.


Know who this character is?


Oh, I think a nice bubble gum pink shade would do nicely.


Simply stunning. And lucky for me, no mistaking an oystercatcher, even if they are alive.

Sending in the reinforcements! SEANET gets help!

26 03 2014

Normally, lean, mean SEANET gets by with a skeleton crew of 2 working a total of a few hours a week. We manage to get a lot done, but some of the work does pile up. We are therefore very relieved to have help this semester. Grad student Marissa Jenko has joined us as work study and I, for one, am most grateful for the help reviewing walk data, verifying reports, and hopefully even blogging on occasion for you all. In the meantime, I’ll let Marissa introduce herself:

Lucky for us, Marissa has embraced the work with good cheer!

Lucky for us, Marissa has embraced the work with good cheer!

“Hello! My name is Marissa Jenko and I’m originally from Floral Park, NY. I received my bachelor’s degree in geology from UMass Amherst in 2011 and spent two years working at an environmental consulting firm in Somerville, MA. Though I learned a lot in those two working years, I decided I needed a change and applied for Tuft’s masters in conservation medicine (MCM) program.

Conservation medicine studies the relationships between human, animal, and environmental health and seeks to develop policies, programs, and health management practices that maintain biodiversity and protect the ecosystems that are vital to human and animal health.

Recently, I’ve found myself gravitating back towards my geology roots and have been researching the geologic reasons behind certain human and animal health issues (for example, the prevalence of iodine deficiencies are strongly correlated to the soil characteristics and bedrock composition of the region).
I became interested in SEANET after a lecture from Dr. Julie Ellis about the program. I was intrigued by the idea of using these birds as indicators of an environmental contamination event (like an oil spill) before most people are even aware that something has occurred. I’m looking forward to being a part of the team!
In my spare time I’m an avid skier, crafter (particularly sewing), and reader.”

Scenes from a SEANET beach

1 11 2013

Earlier this week, I let new volunteer Warren do most of the talking on this blog. Today, it’s 70 degrees here in New Hampshire, and may well be the last such day I see until Spring. So, I am posting a few shots from my own SEANET walk with my sons this week, on MA_23 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, and then I’m going outside to play in the leaves. Happy weekend, Seanetters!

Getting started around 4pm.

Getting started around 4pm.

Mid-way along.

Mid-way along.

Scanning the horizon from atop the seawall.

Scanning the horizon from atop the seawall.

Finishing up just as the sun set.

Finishing up just as the sun set.

Welcome to a new volunteer!

29 10 2013

Massachusettsan Warren Mumford has just begun Seanetting for us down Chatham way in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. He’s been most kind to share his thoughts on his first foray, and his writing needs little introduction. I am certain many, if not most, of you can relate. And regarding the question posed in the last line, You couldn’t get yourself fired if you tried. What’s the worst you can do, kill a bird? They’re already dead. Er…”beached.”

Beached Bird Hunt Number 1

The SEANET (Seabird Ecological Assessment Network) coordinator (Sarah) gave a talk at the Wellfleet Audubon Center a few weeks ago. Her description of this program was given with a flair and a sense of humor. She cheerily asked for volunteers to help look for “beached” birds on Cape Cod.

Somehow, being recently retired, I was attracted to this sunny prospect as a way to spend quality time outside on the beautiful Cape. Today, my wife, Mary, and I made our first excursion to search my chosen beach at the Morris Island National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA. Our first find was a nondescript wing, a complete wing, but only a wing nevertheless. A complete wing constitutes a “beached bird” to be recorded according to the SEANET protocol. I was hoping for a more dramatic beginning for my first entry into the annals of SEANET and tried to suggest to Mary that we skip this puny item and perhaps record this avian body part on the way back in case we did not find anything more juicy. Mary unkindly chided me into following the protocol.

The directions say to place a 3X5 card next to the carcass of interest with descriptive info like my name, beach, date and alas, a four letter code indicating the species. To my consternation, I had no idea what ornithological name to apply to this forlorn wing. I am only a beginning birder, and the new copy of Sibley in my backpack would be no help to this neophyte eyeing an arbitrary collection of black, grey and white feathers on bone. Eating humble pie, I penciled “UNKNOWN” on the card and snapped the required pair of pictures: wing face up, wing face down.

MA_27, Warren's beach.

MA_27, Warren’s beach.

Further down the beach we stumbled upon another “beached” bird. This one possessed all body parts. It didn’t hit home to me till then, that the term “beached” is really a soft front for the more exact and macabre adjective, “dead.” I nervously donned my surgical gloves to adjust the bird into the prescribed model position in preparation for a photograph, however, I ran into a problem. There was no flexibility to this bird. It was in an advanced state of decomposition and therefore was afflicted with an advanced state of arthritis. As I struggled to create the Nazi eagle pose described in the protocol, black spiders abandoned the avian scull through the eye sockets and gullet. Mary peered down with a look of disgust, saying “I don’t know about this?” I soldiered on and abruptly broke off one stubborn wing. When I began to record culmen, wing chord and tarsis lengths, still wearing my plastic gloves, Mary raised the question that some kind of disease might be spread on pen, clipboard and into my trusty backpack. I mumbled that I needed a better system for posing the specimen, snapping photos, measuring body parts and recording numbers. For Pete’s sake, I had never been trained in taking biological data. (The last time I performed a dissection was of a frog in freshman high school bio class and my partner, Sarah, did most of the cutting. Funny how two Sarahs are associated with my ventures into the bio world.) Again, I had trouble with the ID for the index card. The best I could muster was “GULL?” with a big question mark.

We trudged on in our quest, finding two more “GULL?” specimens which I dutifully photographed, measured and banded, all the while avoiding the fleeing spiders in the process. Eventually we reached the end marker on my assigned length of beach. We were then able to enjoy the colors of the sunset sky and return to our car. I wonder if the program coordinator will be cruel enough to fire this eager volunteer after the very first mission.

Down the data rabbit hole

28 10 2013

At the prompting of several people, not least beached bird surveyor Doug McNair, I am delving into our data from years past. Being so consumed by volunteer recruitment, retention, and this blog, I tend to put off data analysis. This is also because I have no training in it. However, even without knowing anything elaborate about stats and such, I can at least get you all some general patterns that have emerged from all the data you’ve been collecting.

I will be focusing my efforts on the years from 2008 to the present as that’s about when we made several changes in our methods (including introducing a requirement for photos of all beached birds). I started working on this project this morning, and I’m inordinately proud of this graph I made for 2008 (click on it to view a larger version):

Comparison of beached birds found on west shores of Buzzard's Bay vs. Cape Cod Bay beaches in 2008.

Comparison of beached birds found on west shores of Buzzard’s Bay vs. Cape Cod Bay beaches in 2008.

I know, it’s not much, but it does show what we always suspected–that the number of carcasses found along Cape Cod Bay is quite a bit higher than that found along the west shore of Buzzard’s Bay. It also raises the question of what results we might get if we had volunteers walking the east shores of Buzzard’s Bay. This means I will need to do some more Cape Cod recruiting, of course; never a hardship for me.
I’ll keep plugging away and sharing the data with you as I work. I plan to break down the data by species of birds found as well. If there are additional analyses you’d like to see, or some data item you’ve always been curious about, let me know! I will try to muddle through it. Wish me luck, Seanetters!