The Nature Conservancy in Delaware is working to become a citizen science hub.
Horseshoe Crab Survey
Last summer, in the dark of a new moon, Kim Hachadoorian and her daughters found themselves shuffling down a beach in Delaware, counting crabs.
“You go out with your headlamps and your PVC-pipe meter square and your data sheet and your line,” says Kim. “I prepped my daughters that we were going to be doing scientific data collection, and you drop the meter square where you drop the meter square. You don’t try to put it down where there’s a bunch of horseshoe crabs. You might put it down and it’s zero, and that’s your number — that’s real data. So we talked all about the whole scientific process and the importance of that, and they were excited. And of course it’s just so exciting when you first get down there and see all these horseshoe crabs. It’s amazing.”
Kim and her family were volunteering for the annual Horseshoe Crab Spawning Survey, the longest-running citizen science program for the Delaware chapter of TNC. Coordinated by volunteer Lois Davis, it takes place over as many as 15 days each May and June. The popular survey has collected at least 16 years of population data on the crabs, which are threatened by overharvesting, as part of an ongoing statewide effort.
During working hours, Kim oversees a new kind of citizen science project for TNC in Delaware. As Stream Stewards Project Manager, she trains volunteers to monitor water quality in tributaries to Brandywine Creek, which flows through First State National Historical Park and serves as the city of Wilmington’s sole source of drinking water. Having started just a year and a half ago, the team, in partnership with Stroud Water Research Center and the National Park Service, is presently collecting baseline data. But its ultimate goal is to inform and help direct best practices across the watershed, much of which is developed or devoted to agriculture.
Volunteers help maintain stream monitoring stations, and keep an eye on the continuous data feed they generate. They also visit their stream site monthly to take water quality measurements using pocket meters and test kits. They measure conductivity, temperature, pH, turbidity, and nitrate and phosphate levels, as well as observing the site’s condition.
Unlike the Horseshoe Crab Survey, where volunteers take a 40-minute training and are ready to count, Stream Stewards volunteers attend four-hour training sessions over four Saturdays. “We really want our Stream Stewards citizen scientists to have a good understanding not just of the process of data collection but of how the data are going to be used and the overall goals of the Stream Stewards program,” says Kim. The training also ensures that volunteers get a solid background in watershed ecology and that they’re able to serve as ambassadors for The Nature Conservancy and First State National Historical Park.
Longterm Monitoring and Engagement
Horseshoe crab volunteers can have a great experience once with no obligation to return, although many do. For Stream Stewards, after the extensive training, volunteers commit to providing at least 20 hours of service over the year.
“There’s no immediate gratification in water quality monitoring,” says Kim. “It’s a long game. It’s hard, I think, to engage volunteers in something where there’s a big investment. We’re asking for a lot upfront, a commitment to a pretty extensive training period. They are getting lots of hands-on time in the stream and in the park, and people appreciate that. But in terms of really seeing the fruits of your labor, it’s a long process.”
There are encouraging signs that the program has staying power, though. Out of 20 people who took the trainings, 18 are still with the program. And beyond the excuse to enjoy the peace of a hidden stretch of stream in a National Park, volunteers have fun.
Kim says volunteers have a lot of “aha moments: when we start looking at the organisms that live in the stream, the macroinvertebrates. If we dig around with a net and flip over some rocks and sort through clumps of leaves, you can find these organisms. It not only brings home the point that there are living creatures that depend on these streams for habitat, but you can actually use them as bioindicators to tell you something about the water quality.”
If the program is successful, it just may become the blueprint for the future of citizen science at TNC. “From the beginning, we talked about making it a model, making it scalable,” says Kim. “It was always our vision to expand it beyond its current geographic scope.” She sees Stream Stewards as a path toward more deeply engaging volunteers, not replacing valuable one-off programs, but expanding beyond singular or annual events into more opportunities for sustained, year-round commitment.
“I’m really working to position our chapter as the citizen science hub for The Nature Conservancy,” says Maria Dziembowska, Director of Outreach and Partnerships for the Delaware chapter. “It’s one of those things where if you don’t say it out loud, it won’t happen.”
Urban Conservation and Shared Learning
Maria hopes to expand Delaware’s own citizen science portfolio into monitoring urban tree health in Wilmington, and connect the chapter’s citizen science work to additional community and youth outreach efforts. But she also wants to export successful models. “Regardless of what you’re trying to collect information on, there are certain principles of citizen science best practices that apply across programs. I would like us to be seen as that go-to as a chapter that really follows those best practices and can be a resource for other chapters.”
“We’re not bringing citizen science to The Nature Conservancy,” says Maria. “It’s more that we’re making this a strategic priority for the chapter in accomplishing our conservation mission. We have a desire to leverage the resources and investment that we’ve made to help other chapters if they don’t already have a program.”
Maria also sees an opportunity to take a more formal census of citizen science initiatives across TNC. “Because we’re such a large organization,” she says, “we don’t actually know who is doing citizen science and on what level.” She sees potential in meeting with other TNC chapters at the next Citizen Science Association conference, or forming a “virtual community of practice around citizen science.” She wants to ensure that “we’re continuing to learn from each other. Our chapter definitely doesn’t have all the answers.”
Maria says she’s looking at many successful models of citizen science around the country, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program, the iNaturalist app and TNC’s Habitat Network. “They are crowdsourcing information that scientists are interpreting and answering bigger questions with,” she says.
“Citizen science expands TNC’s capacity enormously,” says LaTresse Snead, Director of Volunteer Programs and Community Outreach. “We wouldn’t be able to take on many of these critical projects without the help of the public.”
Kim calls it the democratization of science. “Citizen science is very hands-on, it’s very educational and it connects people with nature,” says Kim. “But it’s not just that — it is real science. People can be trained to collect high-quality data that can be used to make conservation management decisions and plans. That’s something we say a lot at The Nature Conservancy, that we’re doing science-based conservation. But to actually engage people in that process, I think is a really powerful way of connecting people with our work.”