Logging Your Local Woodland for Citizen Science: No Axe Required!

By March 29th, 2016 at 8:43 am | Comment

forest-1081364_1920Follow a tree through its journey into spring! Citizen scientists can record budbursting, leafing and flowering with Track a Tree as seasons shift in the United Kingdom.

by Nina Friedman

As Citizen Science projects proliferate, so do the curious communities they create. Relationships begin between excited, everyday people as they explore their surroundings for the sake of science. But there is one United Kingdom based project that inspires the inception of a particularly odd relationship…

Track a Tree asks volunteers to visit their local woodlands, select a tree, and record seasonal events as they take place in the immediate ecosystem of the tree. Through recurring visits and focused observation volunteers become familiarized with the tree’s particularities. Maybe it’s the final Sycamore in the area to leaf. You, a volunteer, root for it to catch up with its peers, literally the parent of a late bloomer. You invest yourself in seasonal transitions, gaining insight into the life of the tree, surrounding flowers, and sometimes surrounding animals.

You become a scientist of phenology, the study of the seasonal-ecosystem interaction. Phenology observes timing variations seasonal events, and the resulting affect on plant and animal life. Recent rapid shifts in the earth’s climate make phenology evermore interesting and important. Tree’s that thrive in an April-June springtime may lose health if temperatures unexpectedly rise in March, triggering early blooming. When the Forestry Commission has access to ecological data, they can make informed decisions when harvesting and planting trees. When you have access to ecological data, you can learn about the nature that surrounds you. You can also create and play with interactive infographics.

Credit: Christine Tansey, Track a Tree

Credit: Christine Tansey, Track a Tree

Christine Tansey, the founder of Track a Tree, relayed the project’s impressive growth. “We expected a smaller, more dedicated group of participants because it requires a bit more commitment than other citizen science projects,” she says. Most ecological projects do not require multiple visits to the same location. Volunteers prove to be excited about the committing task. Since its launch in 2014, submissions include 2,000 observations spanning over 200 woodlands. Participants include school age students, families and individuals. Couples are also among the ranks. Tree tracking happens to be a great bonding activity, with the benefit of being lower commitment and lower cost than cat adoption and child rearing.

Steve Hallam (part-time tree tracker and full-time father) finds free moments to volunteer for several conservation projects in the UK. When life’s unexpected challenges arise, Steve finds routine and peace in data collection. “Gathering data on my trees forces me to stay quietly in one place for a few minutes- and it’s amazing what wildlife can make itself visible whilst this occurs,” he says. Local Nuthatches regularly make appearances while he scribbles the status of his Silver Birch.

One citizen scientist, a self-proclaimed “wayward botanist”, shares the tree tracking experience through sound. With every outing comes an audio upload.

Christine loves the unique way each volunteer approaches his or her experience. “They’re all following the outline of the project, but they’re able to individualize it and explore their own interests at the same time”. Christine aims to “give all [volunteers] the chance to hone their observation skills”. This goal is mutually beneficial. Years into her ecology research, she still notices new aspects of nature every time she goes into the field, attributing this to the volunteers fresh perspectives.

Ultimately, Track a Tree would like not only to collect data, but to educate citizen scientists. If UK woodlands are inaccessible to you visit the Track a Tree resource page to learn about tree identification. Or visit SciStarter’s Project Finder and use the “location” function to explore ecology underneath your local canopies!

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