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Backpacker Magazine – September 2007

I, Citizen Scientist

Learn how you can help combat climate change by researching everything from Alaska's Bering Glacier to tracking pumas in Argentina through citizen scientist programs

by: Bruce Barcott

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The next morning, we all pile into a van and head out to the 350-acre main research site, Cook's Lake Farm. "It used to be a working farm, but it was abandoned about 20 years ago," Buesching says as she drives. "My parents own it now, and they want to preserve it for conservation and research."

After nearly 20 years at Wytham Woods, Buesching and Newman are establishing a similar long-term study site in North America. Cook's Lake Farm is ideal, Buesching says, because it contains all of the flora and fauna of inland Nova Scotia in a near-pristine setting that won't be disturbed for decades. This expedition will start laying down a baseline of scientific data. "We want to know exactly what is living there and what size the populations are," she says.

We start by setting out our mousetraps–small-mammal traps, actually, because they'll catch mice, voles, and an occasional chipmunk. We'll leave them overnight and check them in the morning. By doing this day after day, Buesching and Newman will get an idea of the rodent population. The rodents are a key species in the local food chain, serving as lunch for foxes, coyotes, raptors, and other, larger animals.

After setting our traps, we move on to the poop survey. Here's where our earlier training comes in. Buesching marks out a 33-by-33-foot plot with a measuring stick; we all line up along one side. "We're looking for deer droppings, but give a shout if you see any other poop as well," Newman says. "I would advocate foot-sweeping or crawling on hand and foot as the desired technique. We might go through and find nothing; we might find a bonanza of pellets." Since we're in a grassy meadow, we adopt the latter method. Ten of us crawl across the grass. It takes about 5 minutes, and we find nothing. But repetition breeds skill. By our fifth plot, we're foot-sweeping through in 30 seconds and turning up all sorts of crap: deer scat, porcupine poop, fox droppings. Buesching notes it all on her clipboard.

After some vigorous handwashing, we break for lunch. It's a happy group. "I'm already attuning my eyes and ears differently," says Goodwin. "When I hike through the woods of Massachusetts or New Hampshire, which is a similar landscape, it's going to be a richer experience for me."

That's the thing about the Cook's Lake Farm site–there's nothing particularly unusual about it. It looks like any other patch of New England woodland or maritime Atlantic forest. And that's why Buesching and Newman value it. The changes they observe here will give them clues as to what's happening to animals throughout the region.

"It's always difficult to make people realize they need to conserve their own back garden," Buesching says. "It doesn't strike them as anything special. Only when it's gone do you realize it was worth preserving."

"In England," Newman adds, "people say, 'We used to see water voles as children. Now we don't see them anymore.' But nobody knows how many water voles we've lost because nobody was counting them back then. Consequently, we're not sure how many water voles we should try to restore."

Porcupines are the water voles of North America. They're easily identified, but nobody knows exactly how many are there. Porcupine parents raise one pup per year, and they're prone to being run over by cars. "They don't eat much over winter because of snow cover," says Buesching. "But with less snow cover, will they be more active in winter? Will more get killed by cars in winter? It's hard to say. At the moment, porcupines aren't endangered. In 10 or 20 years, they could be." By setting down a population baseline now, she'll know in a decade if porcupines really are dying out or thriving.

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