Citizen Science: a labor of love

Citizen Science: a labor of love

Reflections on another successful season of data-gathering

By Sarah Gladu, Director of Education and Citizen Science

As the weather and water get colder and many of our citizen science programs come to an end for the season, I get to sift through the considerable data collected by volunteers during the summer months and reflect on all we’ve accomplished. Every year, I am filled with gratitude for our volunteers who labor in the name of protecting our lands and waters. I think it’s safe to say they do this out of love.

What else would drive these folks to plunge their hands into October-chilled sea water to take nitrogen samples? Or face down the occasional leech to wade – much less swim – in Biscay Pond to search for invasive plants? Or pick their way around patches of poison ivy to document shoreline erosion caused by increasing storm events? Or stare through a microscope for three or four hours at a stretch, as our phytoplankton monitoring volunteers do?

From May through October, every two weeks, three Water Quality Monitor volunteers – a boat captain and two monitors – venture down the Damariscotta River in Coastal Rivers’ Wendy J* to visit seven sites along the estuary. At each location, the captain carefully keeps the boat steady while the monitors lower a Secchi disk into the water to measure turbidity, or how cloudy the water is. Then they use a sonde instrument to measure dissolved oxygen, salinity, temperature, and acidity. Finally, one of them dons a sterile glove and dips a vial into the river to collect a water sample that will be tested at a lab for total nitrogen.

water quality monitors taking readings

Water quality monitor volunteers take a reading as the volunteer boat captain looks on.

In our freshwater lakes and ponds, the Invasive Plant Patrol, otherwise known as “IPPers,” are trained to identify invasive aquatic plants (IAPs) in local freshwater habitats. IAPs are non-native plants that are easily spread from one water body to another through human activities, and once in a new habitat they spread quickly and cause a whole host of problems for native plants, wildlife, and humans alike. The problem with aquatic plant identification is that the plants look beautiful floating in the water, but when you take them out of the water to look at the finer points of their structure, they all look like a mass of limp, wet tissue paper and are completely indistinguishable from each other. To get around this problem, volunteers learn how to float the samples in small, light colored trays and identify the plants by their leaf arrangement, vein pattern and other characteristics.

Eurasian water milfoil

Eurasian water milfoil is a lovely but highly invasive non-native plant. “IPPers” keep an eye out for this and several other plants in our lakes and ponds. 

Midden Minder volunteers schlepp an assortment of gear to certain spots along the shoreline to document erosion and changes to ancient middens, or prehistoric sites where the ancestors of todays’ Wabananki people left piles of shells from the bivalves they ate. A changing climate, increased storm events and rising sea levels all threaten these sites and our volunteers are making a record of changes they observe. If you come across folks at a shell midden maneuvering under tree limbs to get an accurate measurement along the shoreline, searching painstakingly for a metal marker left in the ground months before, or appearing to take photographs of dirt, you might have located some Midden Minder volunteers.

a view of the Glidden shell midden

The Glidden Point shell midden in Newcastle is one of the largest middens on the east coast.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Program volunteers collect sea water samples in South Bristol every week from early spring through late fall. They bring these samples to Coastal Rivers’ water quality lab look at them under a microscope to see whether the samples contain phytoplankton cells that can cause harmful algae blooms, sometimes called red tides. our program is part of a coast-wide network of volunteers tied in with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, providing a first-alert system for harmful algae blooms. The real-time information these volunteers provide is used by state employees to determine where to focus their efforts on sampling shellfish for potential increases in toxicity when a bloom of specific phytoplankton species is detected.

Phytoplankton monitoring volunteers in the lab

Phytoplankton monitoring volunteers identify phytoplankton under a microscope in Coastal Rivers’ lab.

In spring, a cadre of Horseshoe Crab Monitoring volunteers don their waders every day at high tide for a month to count spawning horseshoe crabs in the Damariscotta River estuary. Lugging their gear, they scramble down a rocky bank at the shore. It’s often chilly at that time of year, and sometimes the waves kick up and slosh into their waders as they wade in the water about a meter from the high-tide line. But at the end of the day, the volunteers know they are the only ones collecting these data in this important spawning ground. There is no state-run program to monitor horseshoe crab populations here, so it’s up to us. We do it out of love for those odd, ancient creatures that return year after year to find mates and lay their eggs in the sand.

three horseshoe crabs

Horseshoe crabs, Limulus polyphemus. Photo by Kris Christine.

All of these dedicated volunteers, in preparation for their work, have completed intensive training – bringing memories back, I’m sure, of the days of high school science class and cramming for tests. But, unlike the science class many of us remember, these programs make a real difference to our lands, waters, wildlife, and human communities. The data we collect guides local stewardship projects and helps the state and local municipalities make decisions about how best to protect our natural resources.

Perhaps it is not love for plankton or horseshoe crabs that inspires people to become involved in Coastal Rivers’ citizen science projects. However, I am certain that along the way – in the process of working with other folks with similar interests, exploring the shorelines and waterways through the seasons, gaining esoteric knowledge about invasive aquatic plants and other unlikely cocktail-hour conversation starters – they do come to love this place in a special way. Even more, I suspect than when they started.

*The Wendy J is sponsored by First National Bank, for which we are very grateful!

Editor’s note: If you are inspired to learn more about our citizen science programs, or other volunteer opportunities at Coastal Rivers (of which there are many!), visit our Volunteer Opportunities page. Or, if you have questions, email Sarah Gladu.