Citizen science for conservation

Alan Lee, Ian Davies, and Carrie Seltzer profile iNaturalist, eBird and the African Bird Atlas Project.

Red-headed weaver (Photograph: John Wesson)

With a limited number of conservationists and ornithologists across Africa, the importance of the contributions of citizen scientists to our understanding of birds cannot be overstated. There are several citizen science platforms used by naturalists and birdwatchers, each with various strengths and weaknesses and appealing to differing audiences. Here we will focus on three projects (iNaturalist, eBird and the African Bird Atlas Project, best represented by SABAP2) that have been shown to be useful for understanding the ecology and conservation status of birds of Southern Africa and emphasize that participation in these is both useful and not necessarily mutually exclusive. Participating in all adds differing dimensions of utility given the methods of each project.

iNaturalist is essentially a global photo sharing platform of anything biodiversity related. It is endorsed by SANBI and has proven to be invaluable to understanding the distribution of many taxa, notably plants and invertebrates.

The attraction of this project is you don’t have to be able to identify what you are taking a photograph of, there is a global pool of species experts eager to identify, or confirm identification, of your target species. As such, it is also a great learning tool, and I’ve found it great for learning more about insects and plants particularly. Each photo needs to be geo-referenced to be of use, and this information is usually grabbed automatically from your smartphone.

For fancy camera users, when uploading a photo, you can choose the location easily enough from a map. An optional additional set of data for each record includes annotations which for birds include ‘Alive or Dead’, ‘Evidence of Presence’, ‘Life Stage’, and ‘Sex’. These fields allow for recording of dead birds, feathers, and tracks which may not be acceptable on other platforms.

For bird conservation, the real strength of iNaturalist is that the global community will confirm an identification, allowing confidence that a species has been recorded where it is. A record receives the ‘research grade’ designation once 2/3 of identifications agree. Given the emphasis on photo records (photoless records are also allowed), the bias is towards large and charismatic species. Skulking and drab species are underrepresented, and there will be greater uncertainty in identification for species better identified by call, which does include a large set of Africa’s birds. Note, you can also upload sound recordings, but photo records dominate submissions.

Another global citizen science project specifically aimed at the birding audience is eBird, hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, USA. eBird engages birdwatchers around the world to collect their sightings via ‘checklists’ – lists of species encountered at a specific location on a specific date. You can add your photos or audio recordings to your checklists and share these birding experience with friends or anyone in the world.

eBird works in conjunction with the Merlin Bird ID app, which is designed to help you identify birds: either from a description, or automatically from a photo or sound using machine learning technology. The eBird database is used by millions of people every year, with data exploration pages on the website designed to answer any question a birder might have to learn about or find more birds, as well as global data products to support research and conservation, used in close to 800 peer-reviewed publications to date. eBird’s primary goal is to have a positive impact on global biodiversity conservation, and all data access is free for research, conservation, and education, both through the website, as well as the free eBird and Merlin Bird ID apps on Android and iOS.

For Southern Africa, the most valuable citizen science project for birds given the publication track record associated with it, is the second Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2). This is based on the BirdMap protocol: compiling a bird list within a pentad, a blocked area of about 9x9km over up to 5 days (for a ‘full protocol’ card). The value of the project and protocol lies on recognising the challenges faced in collecting data across the African continent: there are simply not enough birders, and only a subset of the birding community is willing to take time and commit resources to rigorous protocols. Contributors are encouraged to ‘go deep and go wide’, with ‘deep’ records being repeated samples from selected areas (pentads) to provide temporal trend data, and ‘wide’ to encourage coverage of spots usually not visited by birders.

The length of time the project has been running for provides invaluable data on population changes, and there are multiple methods for predicting range and abundance. Although the sampling domain is course (the pentad), the partnership with BirdLasser, the most popular app for participating in SABAP2, means that GPS positions for bird sightings can be obtained. This information is accessible to BirdLife South Africa through participating in the ‘Threatened Species’ cause, and has been crucial for fine scale habitat suitability modelling which feeds into government decision-making tools.

Participation in citizen science projects does not have to be ‘either-or’. If we take as premise that SABAP2 is currently providing the biggest science and conservation bang for buck (or rand) in South Africa, then there is ample scope to nest eBird and iNaturalist into an atlassing expedition. Species accumulation happens usually mostly rapidly over the first few hours of any birding effort, with diminishing returns with added time after a certain period. So, for instance, if you are ‘going deep’ then the first day of your home pentad you’ll most likely have most species covered, with added days for tracking down the ’rares and specials’.

This is a lot of time for taking photographs for iNaturalist (value here is the confidence for a photographic record, lacking in a list), and doing shorter eBird lists. Here there are no time constraints, so you can rack up eBird list after eBird list, e.g., one while drinking your morning coffee (a ‘stationary’ checklist), and one on your afternoon walk (a ‘travelling’ checklist). These types of records are very much aligned to the standard monitoring protocols used by ornithologists: point counts and transects and have proven globally useful in answering a range of biodiversity, ecological, and conservation questions.

The world is amid significant challenges around biodiversity – a crisis that is intertwined with climate change, human well-being, our need for successful economies, and long-term sustainability. To best address these challenges we need data to understand what is going, why, and what might happen in the future. So, we need lots of data: information that is precise and relevant at global, national, provincial and local scales. Citizen science provides an incredible data source that is increasingly valuable for decision-making across broad scales and topics.

And the best part? It all starts with you. Thank you.

Reprinted with permission from African Wildlife & Environment | Issue 83 (2023).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *