Scientific observation

March 21, 2019

It is a chilly Sunday morning in early March at the trailhead at Lawton Park. The sky is gray, the ground is wet and there are still small areas of ice on the St. Marys River : but there is excitement up ahead.

A small group of bird-watchers is gathered near the footbridge that connects the Old Fort and Headwaters Park. The more experienced members of the group point to a bird with white patches and explain the significance to newer people hiking with them. Binoculars are out and photos are taken to document the rare sighting: a robin with leucism, which affects the pigmentation in some of its feathers.

Soon the robin hops out of sight and the mile-long hike continues over the bridge and through Headwaters Park on a loop back to the trailhead. After about 80 minutes, the group has spotted 56 birds from 15 species : a good number for this time of year, one of the more experienced hikers points out.

The bird-watching hike is one of Riverfront Fort Wayne’s free Citizen Science Sunday programs, which are expanding this spring.

“We’re trying to get people connected to this bigger idea that regular citizens can participate in scientific data collection that gets fed to state and federal agencies and universities,” says Megan Butler, program and events manager for Riverfront Fort Wayne.

There are four Sunday programs, each happening once a month. Bird Watching on Our Urban Rivers is the oldest. Participants can borrow a bird guide and are given instruction on using binoculars (extras might be available if you don’t bring your own). The session starts with a 10-minute period in the same spot each month where any birds seen are tallied and submitted to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. From there it is available to scientists and organizations to use for research and studies.

Though all the programs are designed to be family-friendly, the Young Naturalist Series specifically offers nature education for children and includes crafts and a snack. That program, which began last year, is the only one to require preregistration.

New this year are Watch the Wild, which observes wildlife and seasonal changes in the river and reports findings to Nature Watch, and Project Squirrel. The latter debuts this weekend and participants will count squirrels, note interaction of species and observe their behavior.

Squirrels are so ubiquitous that people don’t usually pay them a lot of attention, Butler says. But the creatures can be interesting. For example, they organize their nuts by type and know where they have stored their favorites.

“You wouldn’t notice that unless you were sitting down and taking the time to watch what they’re doing,” Butler says.

Because squirrels are cute and easy to see, it might be easier to get children interested in watching them and writing about what they notice.

Participants in some of the programs are given notebooks to keep so they can add observations each time they come out.

“It conveys that idea that nature changes and there are patterns to nature that you can observe over time,” Butler says.

In addition to the Sunday events, there are other citizen science opportunities available.

On the first Saturday of each month, riverfront cleanups include collecting data on invasive species of plants, animals and insects to be input in the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network. Agencies can access that data to see how non-native species are spreading across the country.

Returning in the summer, star parties in partnership with the Fort Wayne Astronomical Society will collect information on light pollution.

Program staff filter the data collected from all of the events and make sure it is in the correct format for whichever agency it is being turned into.

Butler, the only full-time programmer for Riverfront Fort Wayne, is joined by seasonal staff to help organize and lead the events. This summer, there will be about seven people on the programming staff for Riverfront, which also works with staff from the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.

The hourlong programs have one to four staff members to lead activities and educate participants. They take place at various locations but will move to Promenade Park when it opens in June. All of the citizen science programs will be offered June 23 as part of the park’s grand opening weekend.

Riverfront Fort Wayne is hoping that the public will remember that at 10 a.m. on most Sundays, there is a nature-related activity available for their family at Promenade Park, Butler says.