Nature Watch: Apps help nature lovers become citizen scientists - The Buffalo News

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Nature Watch: Apps help nature lovers become citizen scientists

Like most of you, I have trouble keeping up with modern technology. Every time I learn how to use one feature, a half dozen more appear on the horizon. While I am still struggling with Internet mail, I learn that kids now consider Facebook and Twitter old hat.

At the same time, I find myself amazed at the power of the little telephone I carry around in my shirt pocket. That seven-ounce gadget does more than the best room- sized computers of 50 years ago. Here are just a few of the things I can do with what looks like a toy using some of the readily available applications, or apps.

My phone locates my position to within a few feet. I can find the latitude and longitude coordinates of that location to within a fraction of an arc second and my altitude above sea level. I can also locate that position on a map and find driving directions to any other point.

I recall once falling while climbing down Mount McIntyre in the Adirondacks. Fortunately I wasn’t injured, because I had no such communication device available. Today my phone would have identified my location to searchers. I can even have my phone keep maps of my hikes together with distance traveled, altitude achieved and average hiking speed.

I can also use a star atlas to display the current night sky in order to locate stars, planets and constellations. With inexpensive Audubon apps, I can call up identification information for wildflowers, mushrooms, ferns, fish, birds, animals and insects. I can even play recorded bird songs. In effect my phone lets me head out into the woods carrying what I used to have to tote around in a half dozen field guides.

In addition, I subscribe to two special services that give me immediate information about unusual bird observations. For example, a few days ago I received the message, “The brown booby is being seen on the lighthouse structure from the small boat harbor tower,” and I was able to rush over to climb those 83 steps and see this rare bird. The phone also serves as a camera, allowing me to record the world around me.

There is, however, another feature that is becoming increasingly important. Using it, you can become a citizen scientist and contribute to serious scientific studies. There are many such possibilities. You can provide information to phenology websites about when various plants blossom and migrating birds and butterflies arrive, thus adding to our information about the effects of climate change.

One such website is called iMapInvasives. We have a serious problem today with invasive species. Among plants, we have common reed, purple loosestrife, garlic mustard and giant hogweed. Among insects: Asian long-horned, emerald ash and viburnum leaf beetles and hemlock woolly adelgids. And among animals: wild boars, mute swans and various carp species.

I’ve signed up on the iMapInvasives New York website so I can now enter any of these or other problematic aliens I find. For example, there is a mass of common reeds next to the Clearfield Library that I want to report. To do this I log in, choose “enter data” and then follow a simple series of steps. I can include a photo but this is not required. The most important step is locating the reeds on the map, which I do by enlarging the display. Finally I click “submit observation.”

In doing this I have not rid us of this noxious plant, but I have added to our knowledge of its distribution. I consider this a valuable use of our modern technological power.


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