Citizen scientists find good news for Puget Sound seabirds

Seabirds have been suggested as critical “sentinel species,” indicators of overall ecosystem health, at least for coastal habitats. They’re often the best ways to see how well a given landscape is facing the threat of climate change and other human-related activities. One of the best ways to assess the health of seabird communities is through a procedure called “species distribution modeling.” The process combines spatial and temporal information for any given species – where do they like to hang out, and how do those preferences change from season to season, year to year – the results of which can then be used to inform conservation practices.

For example, such information could help designate areas to protect, or landscapes that serve as vital strongholds for the endurance of a species whose long-term existence may be uncertain. It could also be used to predict how species will respond to future environmental shifts.

But to effectively model a species’ distribution requires lots of high quality information. That’s especially true now, in the era of “big data.” So some researchers have increasingly turned to citizen science as a means of collecting massive amounts of data. It’s what allowed a group of Washington State researchers, led by NOAA conservation biologist Eric J. Ward, to determine that things are looking up for several Puget Sound seabird species that have historically been in decline.

It’s no surprise that a group of bird researchers decided to turn to citizen science. Some of the most successful, longest running citizen science programs in the United States have appealed to birders: the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey. While citizen science efforts can be variable, as can the quality of data derived from citizen scientists, statistical tools have been developed recently to account for these issues.

Ward and his colleagues used seven years worth of citizen science data from their own program, the Puget Sound Seabird Survey. They trained teams of 2-4 volunteers in their observation protocols, and each team was responsible for monthly surveys from October through April at various pre-determined days, times, and sites. Observations ranged from 15 to 60 minutes. The study focused on eighteen species at 62 sites, including alcids, cormorants, loons, grebes, and waterfowl. Their results were published this month in the open-access journal PeerJ.

Volunteers participating in the Puget Sound Seabird Survey record bird sightings. Credit: Toby Ross/Seattle Audubon Society.

Volunteers participating in the Puget Sound Seabird Survey record bird sightings. Credit: Toby Ross/Seattle Audubon Society.

After putting the data through various statistical funnels, the researchers discovered that fourteen species were actually increasing. “Although many seabird species in the Puget Sound region are thought to be depleted relative to abundances in the 1960s–1970s,” write the researchers, “our results present a more optimistic picture for a number of species over the last decade.”

The remaining four species appeared to be in decline, consistent with historical records. That could reflect shifting food sources or habitat loss. Alternatively, it could be due to other threats to their nesting areas, which are located elsewhere.

The study also highlighted several hotspots for different species, which may reflect important food sources or habitats. That information will help researchers identify critical conservation areas.

Importantly, none of this would have been possible without the hard work of enthusiastic volunteer birdwatchers. “You could never do this with staff people. You’d never have the budget to send out this many people so consistently for so many years,” said Toby Ross, Science Manager at Seattle Audubon and co-author on the study, in an official statement. “But volunteers make it possible.” – Jason G. Goldman | 23 January 2015

Source: Eric J. Ward, Toby Ross, Adam Sedgley, Todd Hass, Scott F. Pearson, Gerald Joyce, Nathalie J. Hamel, Peter J. Hodum & Rob Faucett (2015). Using citizen-science data to identify local hotspots of seabird occurrence, PeerJ, 2 e704. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.704

Header image: Brant at Shilshole Bay, Washington. Credit: Enrique Patino/NOAA Fisheries.

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