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.

For the past two years, Noeldner's team has competed on Big Birding Day by bicycle.

“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.

9 replies

    • Hey Dennis! Great to hear from you. is a very interesting site. The one I like to follow is
      All those in the know say the same thing. It’s happening, and it’s accelerating faster than the scientific panels have predicted.
      I’m also reading a book right now, The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding. He believes that somehow, the human race will finally wake up when the facts slap us in the face hard enough, and then we will act fast and furious and perhaps manage to derail some of the terrible consequences that are coming at us like a freight train.
      I’m hoping by the time I finish the book that I can see his point.
      It is all to easy to feel like a deer in the headlights lately.
      Gilding says that those of us who see what is happening need to not lose hope and keep working to make sure there are solutions available when the general public opinion changes direction.
      I’ll probably blog about this book when I get it finished, if it ends well.

  1. “It’s happening, and it’s accelerating faster than the scientific panels have predicted.” From everything that I read, this point seems pretty clear. But so many people some unaware. And of course the denialists are working overtime.

    Haven’t read Gilding’s book (I’ll wait for your review), but I doubt his conclusion that we will “wake up when the facts slap us in the face hard enough, and then we will act fast and furious and perhaps manage to derail some of the terrible consequences” – I suspect that we are already past the tipping point. And as the price of energy goes up, we will make more and greater efforts to mine whatever fossil fuels we can to continue with Business as Usual. Which will mean ever greater emissions. And if methane deposits are actually starting to emit to the atmosphere, then we will truly be up the creek without….

    Yeah, I admit I’m a bit of a doomer. But given American and world politics, I see little chance that our “leaders” will force the public to face up to reality. “Politician” and “Leader” are antithetical terms with a few rare exceptions (Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt).

    • I’m only about half way through the book, so I’m holding out hope. I, too, have my doomer moments, but I would like something hopeful to contemplate.

  2. I did read that article. Doug and I are reading Gilding’s book out loud to each other when we are in the car either driving. That’s a good way to stay on the same page (literally and figuratively) when there is a book we are both interested in. I’m hoping to finish it this coming week.

    The next book I have waiting is Climate Wars by Gwynn Dyer. I’m afraid that one is going to be a lot darker in its prognosis. Dyer does not see to think we will pull back from the edge of disaster.

    I’m an energetic person, and basically optimistic by nature, and I have to keep acting as if what I do makes a difference — even when I’m not always sure that it does.

  3. I share your optimism Denise and even if it doesn’t work out I would still carry on because I believe it is important for healing to be brought to the lands we live in and the world we inhabit.

    Have you read the new scientist article about dark earth?

    It documents how nestled in the poor soils of the tropical forests there are patches of good soil that are there due to the actions of human settlements creating a rich dark productive soil. This suggests to me how it is possible to redeem land with some appropriate action.

    • Yes, Joanna
      I can’t explain it. It is satisfying to tend and mend the earth as best one can. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice or a burden. It’s just what feels right.
      Learning how best to do that is the constant challenge!

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