The Sciences

Nature’s Notebook: Through the Eyes of a Citizen Scientist

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science SalonBy GuestMar 30, 2015 2:00 PM


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Bobcat in Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico. Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel

This guest post by Sharman Apt Russel describes a citizen science experience with the the project, Nature’s Notebook featured on our recent Spring themed newsletter. Check out the rest of the projects on that list here. Nature's Notebook is also one of more than 800 citizen science projects on SciStarter. Use our project finder to find one that fits your interests!

Here in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern New Mexico, I am intimate now with three trees in my backyard: a box elder (Acer negundo), a desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), and a honey mesquite (Prosopsis glandulosa). I know when these plants become luminous with the green of new leaves, when they flower, when their flowers turn to fruit, and when their fruit falls. I also have a warm relationship with a male four-winged saltbush (Atriplex canescens), having rubbed his yellow pollen sensuously between my fingers, and with a female four-winged saltbush, admiring her extravagant and seasonal cloak of papery seeds. Perhaps my greatest new friend, however, is a soaptree yucca (Yucca elata), whose single stalk grows up quickly and prominently in late spring, its buds producing a mass of scented creamy-white flowers—like a six-foot-high candle glowing in the dusk. Across the United States, people like me are using the citizen science program Nature’s Notebook as a way to engage with the plants and animals they encounter daily or easily in a favorite natural area—a way to fall more in love with the world, even as we help track a changing world and the effects of global warming. What trees are budding when? What birds are migrating? What insects have emerged? Sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network, Nature’s Notebook has over 6,000 volunteers recording the life cycle or phenology of some 900 species. Eventually this continent-wide project hopes to combine its data with similar programs like Project Budburst and Journey North.

The Box Elder (Acer negundo). Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel The protocol in Nature’s Notebook is to choose and tag individual plants and check them at least once a week for young leaves, increasing leaf size, flower buds, open flowers, pollen release, fruit, and fruit drop. When I record my data online, I am further asked to estimate: “What percentage of the canopy has leaves (5–24%? 25–49? 50–74%?)?” And: “How many flower buds are present (11–100? 101–1,000? 1,000–10,000?)?” Some questions read like the dreaded word problem in a math class: “What percentage of all fresh flowers (buds plus unopened plus open) on the plant are open? For species in which individual flowers are clustered in flower heads, spikes, or catkins (inflorescences), estimate the percentage of all individual flowers that are open.” Examining a plant can take some time, which is why I have learned to tag only a few trees and shrubs. One of the great advantages of Nature’s Notebook is being able to design your personal study program. You can spend long afternoons out in the field, sun-kissed and nature-besotted, or you can organize for yourself a small project that only takes an hour or so a week. This spring is my third year with my selected plants. Phenology is too dull a word for what is happening here. For how I must search along a stem for the smallest of leaves, peer into the heart of a bud, and rub my fingers against a catkin. This is one-to-one, a real conversation, me and this catkin, me and this honey mesquite. Moreover, as I enter into the life of this particular tree, I become aware of its larger life—the insects who feed from and pollinate its flowers, the small mammals like mice and rabbits who eat the sweet crunchy beans. With my close-focusing binoculars, I watch two lizards on the tree’s trunk, bobbing and weaving in dispute, defending their territories. On the leaves of a nearby globe mallow, I admire the stunning beauty of a leaf beetle, Calligrapha serpentina, its wing covers a metallic emerald-green with black markings or “writings” vaguely Egyptian and hieroglyphic. Above me, white cumulus clouds sail the seas of a perfect blue sky.

Soaptree (Yucca elata). Image Credit: Sharman Apt Russel Nature’s Notebook also has a list of animal species they would like you to document. At first—in magical thinking mode—I hoped that putting an animal on my list would increase my chance of seeing that animal. So I committed to recording information for almost every species in my area that Nature’s Notebook is interested in: American robin, American kestrel, bald eagle, bighorn sheep, black phoebe, black-chinned hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, bumblebee, cabbage white butterfly, cliff swallow, great blue heron, house wren, killdeer, monarch, mourning dove, mule deer, olive-sided flycatcher, punctured tiger beetle, raccoon, red admiral, and sandhill crane. Later, tired of checking so many “no’s” on the user-friendly online data form, I limited myself to just the animals I would most likely see or hear. I am also on the look-out for animals that Nature’s Notebook is less interested in documenting. My backyard in southwestern New Mexico is a natural area only a few miles from the three-million-acre Gila National Forest. Black-tailed rattlesnakes are very much at home on my Nature’s Notebook walk. So are javelina, a pig-like hooved and tusked native species delightfully wedge-shaped, the adults weighing about forty pounds. From a nearby irrigation ditch, I hear the bark of an Arizona gray squirrel. A few years ago, before the population was decimated by an epidemic of rabies, I might have seen a fox. Skunk, bear, and coati walk these trails along the ditch. Occasionally, a mountain lion passes by. I’m aware of presence. To keep track of what I see, for myself as well as for Nature’s Notebook, I now keep a small actual notebook with good paper and sturdy binding. I write down leaf size and reminders to myself: “Look up wolfberry.” My middle-aged brain has trouble absorbing new information, like the identification of an unfamiliar plant, and I notice how often leaves blur into one general category. Botanical dyslexia is something I’ve always suspected but I never had an official diagnosis. So I draw the leaves of plants as a way to remember them, learning terms like simple (a single leaf growing from the stem) and compound (more than one leaf growing on a smaller stem from the main stem), ovate to lanceolate (egg-shaped to lance-like), and serrate (saw-toothed along the margin). I sketch the triangular shape of lambsquarters, prolific in my study area, and spend a few minutes serrating the leaf margins of the exotic Siberian elm to compare with the native American elm. I draw to size some of the animal tracks in the dirt, noting the leading toe and round print of a bobcat. All this fits in in my pocket like a smartphone—only better. Data from the program Nature’s Notebook has been used to predict the expansion of ragweed, track the invasion of buffelgrass in the Sonoran Desert, and illumine changes in arctic Alaska. I am glad to be a small part of these larger discoveries. But perhaps just as important, I am also making more intimate discoveries about myself and the place where I live. I am entering into secret lives. I am making myself at home.

Sharman Apt Russell teaches writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and at the low-residency MFA program in Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her recent book Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World was named by The Guardian as a top ten nature book in 2014. For more information, go to her website at

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