I had an article published in Isthmus this week that I’m very proud of and excited about. Citizen science is a topic near and dear to my heart. These are the people like you and me who are going to make a real difference in the world.
A full moon rises over Owen Conservation Park on Madison’s far west side. The air throbs with the mating calls of chorus frogs. A pair of mallards try to corral their ducklings skimming through the rippling reflections on the surface of the pond. Barely visible, bats cut through the cooling air to scoop up the insects that have been drawn here by the pond and the street light.
It’s twilight, that moment Rod Serling called the middle ground between science and imagination. For Andria Blattner, whose attention is clearly divided between the rising moon and the sophisticated equipment in the rear of her gray Subaru Outback, it’s the science that has brought her out to the park as darkness falls. She’s come to count bats.
Blattner is one of a growing number of citizen monitors who collect scientific data that is often not practically available through any other means. This data is then used to document environmental trends and help professionals make policy decisions.
“I’d never done any monitoring till I learned about the bat program,” says Blattner, who has been walking the parks and neighborhoods of Madison as a bat monitor for three years. “I wanted to do something environmental, and there’s only so much plastic you can recycle.”
Why bats? “I’m just not the kind of person to enjoy a bird walk at 6:30 in the morning.”
At 70 Blattner has short, gray hair and a purposefully light step. She opens a black case and lifts out an instrument the size of a cigar box called the AnaBat, a specialized sonic detector that scans the night sky, recording each bat’s signature call and bringing the high frequencies down into the range of human hearing.
The AnaBat, in essence, turns the volume up on the sounds of silence. This device makes counting Wisconsin’s bats possible.
“Pebbles or tall grass can make a sound the monitor picks up,” says Blattner. “Late summer is almost impossible, the tall grass makes so much noise — and the crickets!”
Blattner snaps a specialized PDA onto the AnaBat to record and map each bat call. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) specifies that bat monitoring should begin exactly 30 minutes after sunset and last for at least an hour, but Blattner’s outings often last longer.
“It’s easy to get lost in a dark park and find yourself far from your car when the hour is done,” she says.
Looked at in one way, Blattner is just someone who likes to get outdoors and take notice of the world around her. But she is also a player in a much larger movement of citizen scientists who are transforming the way critical information on natural sciences is gathered.
“We are so lucky,” says Paul Noeldner, an Audubon Society volunteer who coordinated this year’s Madison area Big Birding Count. “Right now, citizen monitoring is crossing the threshold to where anybody can do it. There are some handheld electronic references out there, and they are cheap enough that you don’t have to be so into monitoring that you have to decide whether to get equipment or a new car. It’s a wonderful time to be involved, and it’s just exploding.”
Noeldner says these exciting new tools are drawing more people into all kinds of monitoring. “We are seeing citizen science evolve from grassroots to larger organizations because of the ability to exchange data. What makes this possible is not only the portable electronic instruments but the ability to store the data in a way that is easy to share. You put the data out there where scientists can tap it.”
Read the rest of the article here.