Fellowship travel update: from Canberra to the USA

At about two-thirds of the way through my Churchill Fellowship, I’ve visited centres of excellence in citizen science and wildlife monitoring in the USA, Hungary and now the UK. It’s challenging to blog while the cauldron of my ideas is being constantly stirred, with new ingredients regularly added. In the mean time though, I’ll record my itinerary, and why I chose each of my destinations.

I had good advance preparation – starting with the beautifully planned, inaugural Australian Citizen Science Association Conference in Canberra, in July. This covered all aspects of citizen science projects, from initial design to assessing a project’s impacts and effectiveness. In August, two courses in Distance Sampling software allowed me to focus on my main interest – survey design and analysis. Distance sampling generates population density estimates from wildlife survey counts – if the survey method has been followed correctly! Finally, just before leaving, I talked over citizen science ideas and experiences with a number of Tasmanians working in this area.

Canada geese, Patuxent Research Refuge – near the Research Center

The US Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, USA was the first port of call on my fellowship journey. Hidden away in the woods, yet only half an hour’s drive from Washington DC, Patuxent houses rather overwhelming levels of expertise in wildlife monitoring. Its other, numerous, claims to fame include bringing back whooping cranes from near extinction (Radiolab did a lovely podcast on the story); it also has a long history in toxicological research.


John Sauer, wildlife statistician and – like almost all at Patuxent – keen birder, was my host. John’s work includes analysis of the North-America-wide Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), to which amateur and professional birders contribute across the continent each year. The BBS has resulted in more than 550 peer-reviewed publications since its start in 1966. Practicalities may preclude the perfect survey design, but it’s always good to know the preferences of the statistician –  especially one very familiar with the realistic options – and the solutions they’ve employed to circumvent the imperfections. I was also particularly interested in talking with him and colleagues about their methods to survey eagle populations.

I hesitate to turn this post into a giant list of names, but the visit to Patuxent was also a golden opportunity to talk with authors of some of ‘the’ standard texts, papers and software for wildlife monitoring and analyses – e.g. the book Occupancy estimation and modelling and the associated software Presence, and Camera traps in animal ecology. Among these was the inventor of the BioBlitz, and of the native bee citizen science project Bee Hunt (stunningly portrayed in a National Geographic article). There’s also expertise in decision science – will the findings of one’s planned monitoring make a worthwhile difference to conservation outcomes? Others in the neighbouring US Fish & Wildlife Service office gave me hands-on accounts of running monitoring projects on bird species from American Woodcocks to Caribbean parrots.


The legendary nonagenarian Chandler Robbins, however, really has to be mentioned. Still coming in regularly to his office, his multiple claims to fame include establishing the Breeding Bird Survey, and the discoveries of the impacts of DDT on wildlife that stimulated Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. His commitment to volunteer bird surveys shines through in this video on an even longer-running bird monitoring project, the Christmas Bird Survey.

Driving through the beautiful fall/autumn scenery (especially impressive when you live in a place with only one deciduous tree species, ‘fagus‘), I subsequently made my way to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. The Lab is also nestled in the woods – this time on the edge of Ithaca. It’s surrounded by trails, enjoyed every day by scores of birders (many from the Lab itself).


Among more than 200 scientists housed within it are my hosts Jennifer Shirk, Rick Bonney and their colleagues, who research and support effective use of citizen science for scientific research and conservation. Their multiple outputs include the very comprehensive Citizen Science Toolkit, the book Citizen Science: Public Participation in Environmental Research and extensive material to evaluate learning outcomes from citizen science projects.


The Lab itself hosts a number of citizen science projects, and also specialises in the storage, management and analysis of large datasets. It is home to the Macaulay Library – the world’s largest archive of wildlife sounds and videos – and, since 2002, eBird, which now receives a million bird observation records per week from around the world via its web site and app.

So that was the US itinerary. I’ve only touched on the diversity of expertise that I encountered at these marvellous places (would you have guessed there’s forest elephant research at the Lab of Ornithology?), and I’ve inevitably omitted some significant features. I’ll incorporate what I learnt from each of these places in subsequent posts, but it seemed helpful to introduce them here. Meanwhile, follow up the two institutions’ links to find out more.

My heartfelt thanks to my hosts and their colleagues at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.



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