Citizen Science


September 2, 2014

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Sanderlings and a sandpiper at Stone Harbor, NJ. Photo by Flickr user hjhipster through a Creative Commons license.

What is SEANET?

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) is a collaborative citizen science effort to identify threats to seabirds.

The Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the Lloyd Center for Environmental Studies initiated the program in Massachusetts in 2002 and it has since expanded along most of the East Coast of the United States.

Why is it important?

SEANET volunteers survey beaches year round to collect baseline data on beached birds, data that reveals a surprising amount about the marine environment.

By analyzing the reported bird mortalities, scientists are able to detect mass mortality events. The information reported by citizen scientists can also help to determine if the cause was an oil spill, algal toxins, or a disease outbreak.

“SEANET is important to me because it is a genuinely mutual endeavor between the data generators (volunteers) and the data managers. I learn at least as much as they do, and as both a teacher and an insatiably curious person, this works for me on all fronts,” explains Sarah Courchesne, SEANET Project Director.

The data collected are freely available online.

“We would love to do more with our data–along the lines of real time tracking, as well as year to year comparisons of baseline data. But we are proud of what we’ve been able to do on a shoestring,” Courchesne reports.

Surveying beaches can also have a more personal impact. “Pulling plastic pieces out of the gizzards of shearwaters who forage far off the coast brings one a visceral  — no pun intended — feel for the profound and awesome influence humans have on the entire world. It’s simultaneously discouraging and amazing,” Courchesne explains.

Volunteers also tag the birds they’ve found with bright orange cables so that if other people find them, they can report how long they stay on the beach and how far they move along the coast.

And you can see some interesting things when you are paying special attention along the beach.

“On an autumn SeaNet survey at Spring Lake, New Jersey a few years ago I found a partially eaten gull as I returned to my car in a location where I had seen nothing about 1.5 hours previously.  It was too obvious to have been missed and I realized it was probably killed by the Peregrine Falcon I saw while I was conducting the 1.3 mile survey,” volunteer Jerry Golub recounts.

How do you get involved?

First, check out the SEANET Volunteer Tool-Kit. Volunteers spend time finding and examining bird carcasses, so it is probably most appropriate for teens and adults.

Then, find a beach!

“Find a beach you love. Better a place you love than trying to find a beach you think might be ‘better’ in terms of the science. The science gets done only if you go out to do it, and you’re more likely to do that in the dead of February if you’re curious to see what a favorite place looks like on that given day,” Courchesne recommends.

As the volunteers of SEANET reminded me, there are many other reasons to be at the beach – you can combine your passion with citizen science.

“SEANET lets me enjoy birding while contributing scientific data,” Golub says.

“The coolest thing was finding out that after a beach replenishment projects people with metal detectors were finding both Spanish and English coins from the 1700’s,” volunteer Frank Kenney reports.

If you want to double (or triple!) your citizen science impact, you can combine your SEANET trip by reporting live bird sightings to eBird or jellies to JellyWatch.

And you can have a positive environmental impact. “In addition to doing your survey pickup some trash,” Kenney suggests.

Keep your beach vacations going year-round and give it a try!

“We are always, always, looking for more volunteers! Anywhere on the East Coast, you’re welcome to join in!” says Courchesne.

Not on the East Coast? Check out COASST — a project I covered for  last week’s Citizen Science Tuesday — for a similar opportunity on the West Coast.

Share your favorite citizen science on the beach stories in the comments!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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