Watch the birdie
Citizen scientists needed
The wind rustles through a reed bed in Hout Bay, the bass line to the warbling of birds. Standing very still, Garret Skead looks around and identifies more than a dozen bird species by sight or by their calls.
“The habitat is a clue,” he says, reeling off names. “Then you evaluate the major features to make an identification. It’s like a diagnosis.”
Skead is a pathologist who spends his free time searching for rare birds and recording these sightings on the app BirdLasser. He is among a legion of “citizen scientists” in SA who observe flora and fauna and enter the information into biodiversity apps, helping to paint a picture of the country’s species and where they are at risk.
“Citizen science is growing substantially globally,” says Suvarna Parbhoo Mohan, manager of the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (Crew) citizen science programme at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).
In SA, more than 13,000 people have reported nearly 30,000 species in 1.2million observations on iNaturalist, and the numbers rise every day. The app is one of several on which a sighting can be logged with an image, time and location. Conservationists and scientists use this data, which is also open to the public.
iNaturalist has more than 700 projects in Southern Africa to which people can contribute, ranging from rhinoceros beetles and freshwater fish to “champion trees of SA”.
Rupert Koopman, conservation manager at the Botanical Society of SA, says its red list of South African plants is one of the projects assisted by amateur botanists. “There are not enough trained botanists and entomologists, and a lot of botany is seasonal. Citizen scientists are looking at things at any time of year.”
Academics mine citizen science data for studies, verifying details to map biodiversity and drive conservation programmes. “The beauty of citizen science is that you generate large amounts of data,” says Skead.
Citizen science has picked up dramatically in the past five years as smartphones have made logging species easier, says Sanbi principal scientist Krystal Tolley, whose focus is reptiles and amphibians.
“The information from citizen scientists is key to assessing the status of reptiles and is incredibly valuable for making distribution maps,” she says.
People have reported sightings of African rock pythons, black and green mambas and geckos and lizards that have been spotted outside their known range. Karoo farmers reported in a survey that they see Cape cobras all the time, even though formal records do not reflect this, Tolley says.
Also important is the absence of sightings of a species in places where it should be common, which acts as an early warning of potentially declining numbers.
A street, garden, park, beach, rock pool, mountain, game reserve — any place under the sun or moon — can yield vital information, Tolley says. “Whether you are out and about or at home in your garden, you can contribute. Even photos of roadkill are useful.”
Chantel Elston, marine ecologist at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity at Rhodes University, says: “Citizens see things that we would never be able to because we have very little time in the field. They make a big difference to science.”
Anglers and beach walkers are among those who give information to Elmo, a project that monitors creatures of the elasmobranch group — rays, sharks and skates. Fishermen provide data on age, gender, size and even movement patterns of these species along the coastline, says Elston, who manages the project. “We have been able to identify some migration patterns for the first time.”
Lorna Fuller, director of climate justice organisation Project 90, is among Elmo’s supporters. On a cool morning, she scans the sand as she walks along Fish Hoek beach, picking up plastic litter and stopping several times to examine kelp fronds. A paper ruler allows her to measure the size of discoveries, including sharks’ eggs.
Finding a tiny seahorse washed up on an Eastern Cape beach years ago sparked her interest. “I put it on iNaturalist and got a positive response because it had not been seen often,” says Fuller. “I took it to Kevin
Cole, the director of the East London Museum, and he was excited. After that I kept looking for interesting things.”
Logging the “dirty dozen” — the 12 most common types of beach litter — is a critical contribution by volunteers, whose records feed research tracking marine pollution. Sweeping the sand for litter often yields other interesting finds.
Kelp forest diver and filmmaker Craig Foster is a deep-dive citizen scientist who has mapped the ecosystem off the Cape peninsula and documented it for 10 years. The Netflix documentary about his icy daily dives and relationship with an octopus, My Octopus Teacher, has been nominated for an Oscar.
Ecology owes a lot to men and women whose unbridled enthusiasm makes up for a lack of formal qualifications. Charles Darwin, who pioneered the evolutionary theory of natural selection, and primatologist Jane Goodall, who plunged into the forest of Gombe in the 1960s with only binoculars and a notebook, are examples.
Searching for and finding species can be its own reward for citizen scientists who do it as a hobby. Organisations such as Crew, the botanical society, Birdlife SA and Elmo are training younger South Africans in species identification.
“They become more aware of nature and interested in wildlife,” says Elston.
Crew links its volunteers with academics, plant specialists and conservation officials, says Parbhoo. Sometimes they stumble across a new species, as happened on a walk Wits University academics led through Isimangaliso Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
“Another time in Jozini, northern KwaZulu-Natal, we were looking for a small, weedy plant whose flower is smaller than your nail. We had walked up the mountain, it was January and scorching hot … As we came down, we found the plant at the side of the road. The four-day trip yielded four different species of Thesium,” says Parbhoo.
Ernst Retief, spatial planning and data project manager for Birdlife SA, says social media has attracted more young people to citizen science.
One of these is Aadam Abdullah, 17, who has logged more than 500 sightings on BirdLasser in just two years, despite the lockdown.
Spotting a range-restricted red lark in the dunes was a memorable moment for the matric pupil, whose stomping ground is Rondebosch and its 40ha common.
“I try to get out as much as I can to go birding,” says Abdullah. “My two main spots are the West Coast National Park and the Strandfontein sewerage works.”
SA is divided into 20,000 blocs or “pentads” by the Southern African Bird Atlas Project, which is supported by BirdLasser. Participants can use the app to record sightings.
“The purpose is to obtain broad-scale distribution maps,” says Retief. “We are revising the bird atlas and volunteers provide valuable data that then goes through a vetting process.”
Citizen science is collaborative, and it is about more than biodiversity, expanding globally to embrace indigenous knowledge systems.
Parbhoo says: “It is not just about biology but also about bringing in lost cultures and communities, for example the Aboriginal communities in Australia. These cultures and indigenous knowledge systems are becoming part of citizen science.”
Leaders in the field have reached out to the UN to build support for a global citizen science platform to generate more funding for research and raise the profile of this work.
Naturalist David Attenborough says citizen scientists make a real difference.
“By getting a great body of amateur — and I used that as a word of praise — observers, who are extremely expert and produce statistics which are of great, great value in the study of ornithology, entomology and many other things, we begin to understand more and more how the natural world works and how we are affecting it,” he says.
Forced to stay at home during the pandemic, Attenborough, 94, turned his hand to recording birds in his garden for the first time. It’s never too late to start.