Author Archive

What’s Your Lens On Nature?

By April 17th, 2012 at 10:12 am | Comment

Wren nest in the writing shack
The Carolina Wren nest in David Gessner’s writing shack. Read about how they left the nest in his blog.

When, this spring, writer David Gessner found that a nest of Carolina Wrens had taken up residence in the backyard shack where he writes about all things nature, he started posting status updates about the birds on Facebook and describing their progress on his blog. When did the eggs hatch? What do the chicks look like? There are so many questions to be answered.

I asked him if, in addition to being an on-the-ground bird reporter, he was also citizen scientist. He could contribute his observations of the nest to NestWatch, I suggested, a project that gets people all over the country to spy on the nesting birds in their backyards and report their observations. One person’s wren stories are another person’s wren data. It’s a different lens on nature. And many citizen science projects are relying on the observations of individuals to help us understand the seasonal timing of birds, plants, insects, and other creatures.

Gessner’s response was that he was more of a citizen amateur naturalist than a citizen scientist. Perhaps this was self-deprecation. Perhaps it was a way of telling me that he has quite enough on his plate. But it also made me wonder how people think about nature and how they think about science – how they envision a naturalist and how they envision a scientist.

Imagine someone who is exploring nature. Are they wearing a backpack and hiking boots? Are they roaming the great outdoors? Now imagine someone exploring science. Are they wearing a lab coat and glasses? Are they in a chemistry lab or a room full of computers? Have they been indoors so long that their eyes squint at the light of day? These are stereotypes. Sometimes they fit. Often they don’t.

Warner Varno art
Fall Birds Series, Flying Birds, by Warner Varno

Yet scientists look at nature. Nature and science are one and the same for scientists who study natural things like the atmosphere, ocean, geology, and living things. The journal Nature is about the science, for example. At NCAR, scientists make models of the planet –  simulations of nature on supercomputers that help us understand how nature works. These simulations help us better understand how it might be affected by changes in climate, drought, or other events. Using the model they create to simulate nature, we can answer questions about the planet that begin “What would happen if…” That’s one way of looking at nature.

Artists have other ways of looking at nature. From realistic scientific illustrations to abstract sculptures, nature is a theme of art from all times periods and cultures. Warner Varno, an artist friend of mine, is organizing an exhibit of bird paintings this spring in Denver. I told Warner that I would bring binoculars and my Audubon field guide to the opening so that I could be a birdwatcher in the art gallery, playing the role of scientist and/or naturalist in the realm of art. I was joking, of course, but I do wonder if anyone in an art gallery filled with birds will be seeing science within the art.

So let’s review:

  • David is blogging about spring birds,
  • NestWatch is studying the science of spring birds,
  • Warner is exhibiting art about spring birds,
  • And I am planning to birdwatch in an art gallery.

We are all exploring nature, just in different ways.

Painting by Warner Varno
Japan Birds, Sentinel, by Warner Varno

Warner liked the idea of binoculars. They allow people to see things differently. And it seems that we always look at nature through different lenses, making the study of nature intrinsically interdisciplinary. Uniting how nature is involved with science, art, storytelling and other ways of seeing brings in more perspectives and engages more people.

At Spark: UCAR Science Education we are working with EcoArts Connections to bring art together with weather and climate science. Stay tuned for interesting new Spark projects in the coming year that connect science and art and nature. Until then, enjoy the spring birds and take a look at nature through a lens that is not your usual.

This post was origionally published on the SparkBlog by Lisa Gardiner.

Citizen Science Test Drive: Three Mobile Apps for Exploring Nature

By March 29th, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Comment

Today, we are launching a  series of SciStarter blog posts titled, “Citizen Science Test Drive” where we will present first-person reviews of citizen science apps, tools and platforms. If you would like to contribute to this series and share your experiences with our community, email

Here’s my review of three mobile apps for exploring nature!

I often get sidetracked after using the W-A-L-K word out loud in front of my dog. Sometimes, I am looking for misplaced sneakers or sunglasses, but today I am downloading a few citizen science apps to my iPhone in hopes of turning our midday walk into an urban naturalist adventure.

Mia joins in a citizen science adventure

Mia joins in a citizen science adventure

Mila, a fluffy herding mix, sits at attention, impatiently staring at me with her “didn’t you say we were going for a walk?” expression as I poke at the phone and the app icons appear on the screen.

For most dogs and the people attached to the far end of their leashes, a walk around the neighborhood is a regular part of the day. This is especially in urban areas where fenced in backyards aren’t common. Taking the dog for a walk around my city is one of my favorite things to do, especially on a sunny afternoon, and this happens to be a sunny afternoon. If we are going to make a transect through the neighborhood, why not be a citizen scientist along the way?

I choose three citizen science apps: SciSpyiNaturalist, Project Noah. They sound like the high tech naturalist gear I’ll need. All three center around the same idea – that with all the people on our planet wandering around looking at plants and animals, why not capture the information they see? It could be useful, or at least fun.

Five blocks with SciSpy

Tree! Crow! Some sort of vine! I take pictures and make several observations in the first couple of blocks of our walk. There is also a “pets” category, so I take a picture of Mila and add that too. In this app, one must take a picture to submit for each spotting, which means that wildlife that isn’t photogenic (like the tiny birds that I can hear more than I can see) don’t seem like good candidates to record. The interface and data entry view are easy to use even when I am entering the information with one hand while my other hand clutches the leash. I’m not quite sure if there is any scientific need for this data, but it is fun and easy to make observations and it’s getting me to look at my neighborhood in a different way. I’m on an urban treasure hunt for wildlife.

Five blocks with iNaturalist

On the maps screen, I see my blue dot wandering about and I add observations as we walk with pictures, species names, and location. On all of these apps, the location information is automatically generated by the phone’s global positioning system (GPS), which seems to be on the right block. My blue dot wanders a few more blocks and I find another couple of plants to add. Mammals seem to be scarce today unless you count people and dogs.

I discover that I need to login to sync my observations with the iNaturalist database and allow researchers to use the data. It’s a little cumbersome to do the signup process on the phone since I have to go to the iNaturalist web site, then check email for confirmation, then go back to the website and login with the app. This is a bit challenging when there is a dog tugging at her leash and we wander on.

Five blocks with Project Noah

Aha! I can join missions, which seems like a much more direct contribution to scientific research! Mila, like most dogs, seems like a natural contributor for Project Squirrel so I choose that mission. But, alas, Mila is chasing the squirrels away, and I am unable to take their pictures for the mission. The “new spotting” button comes in handy when I see pigeons wandering the sidewalk. I’m not sure if there is a pigeon mission, but this way I can capture the observation as it is happening instead of browsing the missions.

In the “fieldguide”, there is a screen that allows me to see what wildlife has been spotted nearby. Someone spotted a duck in a nearby park yesterday and the plants on a green roof. And there is a silver maple on 11th Street. A fox squirrel was spotted near the library several months ago. I wonder where he is now. Someone spotted a spider at the state capital last year.

In summary, I realize that while the three apps have their differences, all changed the way I was looking at my city. Smartphones are usually thought of as a tool to make us oblivious of the environment that we are in. When focused on the screen of the phone, we are not noticing our environment. So many of the people I pass on the sidewalk are holding smartphones. How many are uploading pictures of the plants and animals they see along the way?

So, I challenge you all to download an app that gets you focused on the environment around you and test it out for yourself. Get out your phone, spy on the wildlife, take pictures, and join the wildlife paparazzi!

Hunting for Bugs at BioBlitz

By October 31st, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Comment

They found paper wasps, cactus flies and fruit flies. They saw dragonflies and butterflies zooming about. And when they peered into bushes like hackberry and creosote they saw ants, termites and ground beetles living underneath. They even found beetles in an old soda can.

That’s just some of what students of all ages found on Insect Discovery Tours, part of the BioBlitz event in the Arizona desert of Saguaro National Park on October 21, 2011. Check out the slideshow below to see what Insect Discovery Tours were like.

“It scares me when the flies try to land on me,” said one student. But the encounters with insects left most kids more excited than scared. Another student described the experience as “awesome!” It was a sunny and hot day in the desert, the type of weather that drains one’s energy, yet students asked if they could go back to the desert to look for more insects after lunch.

“For me these tours are fun because nature is fascinating and never ceases to delight,” ecologist Dr. Cara Gibson remarked after the event. Dr. Gibson was one of the scientists leading Insect Discovery Tours with students. “It is such a wonderful opportunity to share this. The Sonoran Desert is a very special place with a lot of interesting and extreme organisms,” she added. She was excited to see so much interest from citizen scientists during BioBlitz.

Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Time to Count the Stars

By October 15th, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Comment

Each purple mark is where someone has taken a look at the stars overhead and reported the data to Star Count.

Each purple mark is where someone has taken a look at the stars overhead and reported the data to Star Count.

Wow! Take a look at the map on the Great World Wide Star Count website. The fall campaign started yesterday and already there are oodles of citizen scientists from around the world posting their data. Citizen scientists from China, Australia, India, Kuwait, Egypt, South Africa, the European Union, Canada, United States, and Mexico have gotten involved so far. They are all looking at how bright the stars are overhead to help us get a better understanding of how streetlights, porch lights, car headlights and other nighttime lights affect how we see the stars in the sky.

Because different stars are visible in different parts of the planet, people north of the equator, in the Northern Hemisphere, are looking for different stars than people south of the equator in the Southern Hemisphere. Citizen scientists that are participating in the Great World Wide Star Count in the Northern Hemisphere are looking at the brightness of stars in the constellation Cygnus. Citizen scientists in the Southern Hemisphere are looking at the brightness of stars in the constellation Sagittarius.

To join the worldwide star gazing effort, print the magnitude chart from Star Count. Then, an hour after sunset sometimes between October 14 and 28, 2011, go outside and find the constellation Cygnus or Sagittarius in the sky. (If you’d like to plan ahead yet are not sure what time the sun sets, you can figure it out with a sunset calculator.)

How bright are those stars? Can you see them clearly or are they hard to see? Compare the way the constellation looks in the sky with the magnitude charts. Record the magnitude of the stars according to the directions in the activity guide and you are ready to report your findings at the Star Count website.

After reporting the magnitude of the stars you saw, take a look at the results pouring into the Star Count map. In the five years that the project has been going on, tens of thousands of people have participated from about 90 countries around the world. You might notice on the map that the same stars appear brighter in some areas of than they do in others. The stars are the same, but they are being seen from places that have different amounts of light pollution – lights from buildings, roads and parking lots that make it difficult to see the stars of the night sky.

Great World Wide Star Count

Days: October 14-28, 2011

Time: An hour after sunset

Enjoy to stars!

Citizen Science: the Animated Movie

By October 12th, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Comment


There should be more animated movies about citizen science, don’t you think? Thankfully, the people at a weather-focused citizen science project called the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (known by the funny acronym CoCoRaHS) have made this video! It tells the story of how the project started and explains how people all over the country are getting involved. Watch and find out how you can become a CoCoRaHS volunteer too!