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Volunteers know that the data we contribute represent "information power" for biodiversity conservation.

Citizen Science at PRBO

Claire Peaslee

On a sandy stretch of coast, the tideline catches giant kelp or oceanic drift particular to each season. The beach loses tons of sand to winter swells, then regains it during summer. Bird life pulses through peaks of spring and fall migrations. The years bring change, as well. As one of several hundred volunteers in PRBO's Beached Bird Survey, I learned that in some years Northern Fulmars are subject to starvation: their emaciated carcasses litter the tideline.

Being involved in "citizen science" at PRBO gives people like me occasion to witness natural phenomena first-hand. Volunteers also know that the data we contribute represent "information power" for biodiversity conservation.

The first of PRBO's large-scale "citizen science" projects, the Beached Bird Survey evolved from our realization after the 1971 Golden Gate oil spill that we knew virtually nothing about natural patterns of seabirds' mortality off the California coast. Over the next 14 years, steady field work by hundreds of trained volunteers, coordinated mainly by Lynne Stenzel, generated a context for discerning impacts on seabirds of natural phenomena (like El Niño) and of human-caused threats (like gill netting and oil spills).

Such immense undertakings are possible only because a sizable corps of observers get involved. In the process of gathering data, participants often become invested in science and stewardship. PRBO biologists publish the results in scientific literature and outreach documents, increasing basic scientific knowledge and making information accessible to conservationists and the public.

In the Pacific Flyway Project, led by Gary Page from 1988 to 1995, more than 1,000 volunteers helped PRBO conduct fall, winter and spring surveys of shorebirds in wetlands and agricultural lands throughout the western U.S. and in Baja California. In highly coordinated counts, we sought to document all the shorebirds in a given area--even ones as large as San Francisco Bay and Great Salt Lake--in the shortest possible time, to provide "snapshots" of shorebird use of Pacific Flyway habitats. Among the outcomes: a dozen scientific publications; regional and national shorebird plans; and a current joint project of PRBO and The Nature Conservancy to identify important areas for shorebird conservation in California.

A follow-up shorebird count along the California coast in November 2006 stitches citizen science together with informatics (see lead article by Grant Ballard). This time, participants will be able to enter their data directly and to access survey results online.

Citizen science has been (and continues to be) central to many PRBO projects.

· Since 1979, more than 600 volunteers have helped count Snowy Plovers from Washington to Baja California Sur. Their sightings of color-marked birds have revealed dispersal and survival patterns of these threatened beach-dwelling birds. Because coverage of the West (coordinated by volunteer Frances Bidstrup) has been so thorough, our recent effort to calculate the annual survival rate for Snowy Plovers produced the first estimate of true survival for any shorebird. The meaningful search for color-marked individuals tends to keep volunteers in PRBO's Snowy Plover Project involved for years!

· Begun in 1976, the Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas was the first in California. Some 200 volunteers repeatedly visited the 221 "blocks" in a gridded map of Marin County to gather evidence of breeding for all bird species present. Says Dave Shuford, who coordinated the project in 1982 and published the atlas: "Many volunteers are looking for ways in which their birding skills can be put to good use, particularly if they judge it will help protect birds and their habitats."

· In 1997, California Partners in Flight (PIF) put out a call for current information on the breeding status of key songbird species throughout the state. PRBO headed the collaborative effort to gather responses (voluminous!) from biologists and citizen scientists; contributors used standardized methods and data forms obtained from PRBO's web site. Web-based mapping quickly made data available for much of the state--for 1477 study areas to date, in riparian, scrub, conifer, grassland, oak, and desert habitats. This is a living database, open for additional information to update the study area maps. See livemaps.html and the example on page 4 of this Observer. A land manager in California can look to the interactive PIF maps for answers to the question, "Where should I focus conservation actions?"

Right now, PRBO needs citizen scientist recruits for an important new project in California's Great Central Valley. With vast expanses of agricultural fields and precious remnants of natural and managed habitat, this region is one of the most important in the world for Long-billed Curlews during migration and winter. Beginning this winter (2006-07), we aim to survey the Central Valley for this highly imperiled species--no small task! To learn how you can help PRBO gather information needed for the conservation of Long-billed Curlews, contact Gary Page at or Catherine Hickey at

In many other PRBO endeavors--the first-ever Central Valley survey for breeding shorebirds, bird-banding to monitor songbirds, long-running surveys of Bolinas Lagoon, and more--volunteers make the projects possible. New opportunities abound. To learn how you might become involved, contact Melissa Pitkin at 707-781-2555, ext. 307, or