Earthwise Aware Nature Conservation as a Way Of Life Thu, 09 Apr 2020 11:51:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Earthwise Aware 32 32 For the Love of an Ovenbird Wed, 08 Apr 2020 19:38:00 +0000

For the Love of an Ovenbird

Citizen Science in Latin America

A peculiar little bird with an odd-shaped nest has inspired people across Latin America to help with the study of Argentinian biologists finishing their Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany.

Carolina is a marine biologist from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Very engaged in conservation biology, she travels worldwide and contributes to projects covering many diverse groups of species including birds, sea turtles, herbivores, etc.

Carolina recently completed her master thesis focused on the diving behavior of marine birds and intends to return to this kind of research sometime in the future. At the moment, she works as a marine mammal observer on seismic vessels. This means spending months at sea observing and enjoying what she loves the most, the ocean.

Caro is a traveler with a restless soul. She hopes to keep moving, traveling, learning, volunteering and doing everything in her power to help take care of an amazing planet.

The first time that I heard about citizen science was at a conference in marine science held at my university. The concept of doing science as a community sounded like a perfect way to get people aware and directly engaged with environmental issues and with the underlying science. 

A colleague of mine remarked in a recent article (Balza, 2019), that the results of current scientific work are usually only read or distributed among those who work in the field—only scientists specialized in our niche of study. That is a bit frustrating, especially when doing conservation or basic science. Citizen science creates a way to involve the rest of the population not only in the process of making science but in sharing it as well. This expands the reach of our work making more people aware of it. 

‘Hornero’ is a project that has all the ingredients to enable great citizen science. The project’s data collection process is easy and accessible: anyone with a phone and good observation skills is able to participate. The project is also inclusive as age, location, educational background or professional credentials do not matter.

© Nicolas Andreani and Lucia Mentesana

The Hornero project was born like any other scientific project, with a question: What are the factors that determine where the bird places the entrance to its very distinctive oven-shaped nest? 

That is the question that Lucia Mentesana and Nicolas Andreani—the brains behind the project—wanted to investigate. Lucia and Nicolas are Argentinian biologists finishing their Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. The idea, says Lucia, came after attending a colleague’s presentation about asymmetries in scale-eating fish. The presentation described how some fish have their mouths towards one side of the body and how it affects their feeding behavior (Takeuchi et al., 2016). Then, Lucia and Nicolas recalled that the suboscine ovenbird (Furnarius rufus, or Rufous Hornero) also deals with a natural asymmetry, but one that is characteristic of its nest structure rather than of the morphology of the bird itself (Gmelin, 1788).

The nest of the ovenbird consists of a mud structure with a curved entrance that separates the breeding chamber from the outside (Turienzo et al., 2019). Nests can be positioned on top of a variety of supports such as statues, trees, lamp posts or even the ceiling of your house. The entrance of these nests can be either on the right or on the left of their support. Both the male and the female partake in the building of the nest whose entrance is positioned late during the construction process. 

A pair of ‘horneros’ building their nest | © Mario Oscar Roqueta

While doing initial research, Mentesana and Andreani found a study about the orientation of the entrance of the nest related to the earth (Schaaf et al. 2018) but nothing about the asymmetry of the nest. This prompted the idea of the project.

The success of ‘Hornero’ as a citizen science project lies in that the bird is a species easy to study: its nest is easily recognizable, and the bird is widely distributed across several countries of South America. It can be found in urban, rural and natural areas (Souza & Santos, 2007). Furthermore, the bird is an important part of the culture in all the countries where it can be found. Musicians and poets from different countries have written about the ovenbird (e.g., Maria Elena Walsh, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and Adrian Maggi, among others).

One hypothesis about the asymmetry of the nest is that the bird chooses randomly where to position the entrance (on the left or right side of the nest). Nicolas and Lucia were not satisfied with this hypothesis and proposed another one: “We consider four possible scenarios: (1) Nest asymmetry is a random phenotype; (2) Nest asymmetry is determined by environmental variables (e.g., temperature, winds, and rainfall, among others); (3) Asymmetry is a consequence of a learning process, or (4) Asymmetry is genetically determined”.

Analyzing all these variables would imply recording lots of measurements and taking abundant visual data in the field in order to get a representative sample of the nests under a variety of environmental and from genetically isolated populations. In the beginning, they considered carrying the fieldwork themselves. However, this approach raised a couple of major issues. First, it would amount to a lot of work for only two people. Secondly, the sampling area that they could reasonably cover would be very small in comparison with the wide distribution of the species. Instead, they implemented a  citizen science project, including the development of a data recording app. The intent was to gather as many observations as possible over a much wider geographical area than originally considered. In October 2018 they launched the project in both Argentina and Uruguay. 

Citizen scientist visual recording of a nest | © Lucia Mentesana and Nicolas Andreani

The data recording app prompts citizen scientists to answer a few questions about the nest. Observers locate the side of the entrance of the nest; they document the height and the natural context of the nest (e.g, urban or countryside environment, on natural vs. man-made structure); they record the cardinal direction of the entrance (information that can be found using the compass of the phone), and they provide a picture of the nest. The principle is easy: If you find yourself on a trail of a natural reserve near your home doing some outdoor activity and spot a nest, then you can open the app (free), answer all the questions relating to what you are looking at. it’s also gratifying as each observation contributes to a cutting edge study about this bird with such a particular behavior.

The project was intended to document the hornero ovenbirds in Argentina and closeby Uruguay. But this species is widely spread all around South America  (Massoni et al., 2012), and is truly a charismatic bird for many, so the project expanded on its own. After releasing the app both in Argentina and Uruguay, Lucia and Nicolas started receiving messages from other countries asking that the app be available there as well. And so the project got data from a much wider range including from Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia.

The data collection phase has been completed. Lucia and Nicolas are currently analyzing the information that was collected during 2018-2019. They already have some preliminary results. 

  • More than 1,000 observers from 5 different countries participated in the study using the app (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia).
  • About 13,325 nests were documented. Special mention: A single user from Entre Rios, in Argentina, documented more than 1,000 nests! 
  • On average 1,000 nests were documented monthly.
  • Data quality checking showed that on a sample of a thousand observed nests, 95% of those were correctly documented (this includes correct reporting of the nest asymmetry, completion of the building of the nest structure,  and its situational data).
  • More than 60 % of the documented nests have their entrance on the right side of the nest.

Soon, we will more when Lucia and Nicolas publish their findings and reveal what they have learned about the bird’s nest-building behavior. Meanwhile, one can seek information about the project on and get news and updates through the project’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).

As is usually the case with citizen science projects, “Project Hornero builds a bridge between science and society” (Mentesana). Anyone can do science while building an answer to a question born out of curiosity. As a result, more questions can surface just by observing our surroundings. 

Field citizen science is great at connecting people to their immediate and surrounding natural habitat, as well as making observers aware that in most cases, we are sharing our home with many other species. What we all learn when we are out there documenting nature is that respect and tolerance are the keys to coexistence. 


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April 10th, 2020 | by  Carolina Pantano 

Banner and References section photos © Natalia Allenspach

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2020 City Nature Challenge Wed, 01 Apr 2020 08:00:00 +0000

Ready for the 2020 City Nature Celebration? We Certainly Are!

Between April 24th and 27th, hundreds of cities worldwide will be celebrating Nature and gather observations of species found in our area, and engage the most people in the worldwide 2020 City Nature Challenge (CNC). Such events are known as Bioblitz events.

🆕 While past events have been friendly competitions among cities, in response to shifting public health recommendations related to COVID-19, this year’s City Nature Challenge will instead be a celebration of nature in our backyards and neighborhoods. Participants are encouraged to embrace the collaborative aspect of sharing observations online with a digital community, and celebrate the healing power of nature safely, with social distancing, as they document their local biodiversity within new public safety parameters. For detailed information about how the City Nature Challenge is adapting to COVID-19, visit

EwA is a member of the CNC steering committee for the Greater Boston area. Of course,  we are also participating in the event. As for all, COVID-19 rules EwA’s life and its group events. The health of our communities is the most important to us, so we canceled our field events during the City Nature Challenge. We invite you instead to iNat in place, right where you are. We will run virtual meetups instead of field events to help you with iNaturalist and show you what you can (and how to) observe in your city and in the places where we study urban and climate effects on local biodiversity (including in Somerville, Fresh Pond Reservoir, Middlesex Fells). 

Join any of these webinars! They are fun and insightful. These days they also bring relief by connecting us with Nature. They are also great tools to deepen wildlife ethics and help science while getting to learn about our communities and their biodiversity! 

How-to: Fresh Pond Reservoir 🦋
April 20th (Lunch Virtual Meetup)

» Registration

We’ll show you what you can find at this time of the year around Fresh Pond, and how to observe and record good observations on iNat while respecting wildlife. We’ll also show you how your observations help the phenology and arthropod surveys that we are running at the reservation. You could even see eagles 🦅 if if you’re lucky. We spotted 1 in flight in last year’s Bioblitz! 

How-to: Middlesex Fells 🐸
April 22nd (Lunch Virtual Meetup)

» Registration

If the Fells is your backyard, we’ll show you what you can find at this time of the year, and how to observe and record good observations on iNat while respecting wildlife. We’ll also highlight you how your observations help the ecological, phenological and arthropod surveys that we are running at the reservation. If you’re lucky you might spot some salamanders!

How-to: Urban Somerville 🍃
April 23rd (Lunch Virtual Meetup)

» Registration

We’ll focus our showing you what you can expect in the City: its trees, wildflowers & birds are getting active at this time of the year. You’d be surprised to see how rich still a city environment can be. Right where we live, there are nuthatches, flickers, black squirrels and a myriad of wildflowers! You’ll also learn about wildlife ethics and iNat tips and tricks.

[More…] EwA’s Full list of CNC 2020 events ⇩ 

We are needed all over the World to take observations (with our phones and cameras) of as many species as possible. The more the better! This information will help to get a more accurate picture of the biodiversity in the Boston area, focusing within the I-495 corridor and out to Stellwagen Bank.

Any observation of plants, animals, fungi, even microbes, made in the greater Boston area during these days, will count for the challenge.

This is a national event encouraged by iNaturalist, open to anyone in the World and here in the Boston area.

Taking part is easy and free! To participate with us:

1) Download the iNaturalist app from the AppStore or Google Play (or use iNat online) & join the iNaturalist EwA City Nature Challenge Event.

2) Once you registered on iNaturalist, please send us your profile name at, so that we get your observations counted explicitly in our EwA challenge project! We’ll generate a report after the challenge to show our participants’ contributions.
3) Get familiar with the app. Check the iNat short Getting Started guide and video tutorials. You can also join any of our citizen science crash courses prior to the challenge and listed in our calendar [» EwA’s Events Calendar]
4) Get outside & find wildlife.
5) Take a picture and then share your observations. Make your observations relevant to science following EwA’s observation and recording guidelines (it’s easy!).

You can also join the many organized events in your area (find if your city participates in the event). We will specifically host events once a day between April 24th and April 27th. Each of our events will be about 2 hours long, and you’ll learn and share a ton with us!

Come & Join us! It’s a lot of fun and for the great purpose of helping scientists to better protect the Nature that we love!

EwA Event Calendar & Registration »

What you’ll learn with us by joining any of our events

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) | Research Grade Sighting

Besides having a great time, you’ll also learn about:

꙳ Biodiversity. History; Biodiversity status & threats; Why it is important to protect it

꙳ The importance of everyone’s participation through Citizen Science. What it is and its impact; Origins of biodiversity challenges; How you can join the effort

꙳ How to ethically observe and record nature & wildlife sightings. Safety and ethical practices; Major species families; Captive (or cultivated) vs. wild observations; How to take pictures and of what; What information to record along with a sighting

꙳ How to use recording apps such as iNaturalist like pros

Events List

Introduction to Citizen Science & CNC Webinars (Jan – April) 

Climate & Biodiversity sciences need you and the information that you can collect. The good news is that you can really make a difference! This is a crash course about participative science (a.k.a. citizen science), which is the active public involvement in scientific research. In this class, we introduce you to what citizen science is, why it is needed, where it is needed, how you can help (individually or joining some of our local projects in local parks and reservations), and some of the popular tools used in citizen science projects.

Join us. It’s fun & exciting. Let’s make a difference together!

  • 💻 EwA iNat for the Advanced User Webinar (on-demand) » 📧Contact us!

iNat in Location (How-to): Virtual Lunch Meetups

Species Recording Events (April 24-27): 

Together let’s observe & record what we see right where we live! Avoid traveling – stay in place – explore your street, your backyard, your walking distance park. At all times, respect the necessary physical distance between people and as recommended by CDC, the State and the city where you reside. iNat with wildlife in mind: give them distance too!

We invite you to join our community and any of our iNaturalist projects. And you are most welcome to attend any of our local citizen science events!
꙳ EwA Biodiversity projects 🔬»
꙳ EwA Events Calendar 📆 »

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Banner Pic: EwA iNat recording of a White-breasted nuthatch (Middlesex Fells Reservation, Medford MA) | Red-shouldered Hawk Photo credit: © Joe MacIndewar.

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Forest Explorations — February in the Fells Thu, 13 Feb 2020 22:30:50 +0000 […]]]>

Forest Explorations

February in the Fells

It’s easy to think of February as a time when there is little to see outdoors. It’s cold and grey and muddy, if not snowy. But if it seems so, perhaps you need only look more closely…

Laura is a citizen scientist, co-leader and author for EwA. Together with Laura we explore the botany and wildlife of New England and that she shares about in our Forest Explorations blog series. Make sure to also check Laura's blog 'A Land Like This One' about a piece of a forest that she enjoys at every opportunity that she has. It's also a marvelous way to see how different things may be just a state away and compare the timing of seasonal events!

“The world around us is so intricate and interconnected. The more I look, the more there is to see. The more I learn, the more I want to find out...”

Once a month, Laura and Claire lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free form activity of ours which only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here?

Here are highlights of what we enjoyed this time!

Fifteen of us braved the cold and gathered together to enjoy a fun and sunny biodiversity walk in the woods. It had been fairly warm the previous days and the sudden cold temperatures made for an unusual encounter: a beautiful form of ice called “needle ice” (this post banner picture). It is formed of groundwater when the ground is above freezing and the air is below freezing.

Fungi & Lichens in Winter

We found quite a lot of American Amber Jelly Fungus (Exidia sp.) They were dry and hard today, but their gummy texture is fun to poke when warm and moist.

We also examined a number of lichen species and talked about their valuable and underappreciated role in the environment. These generally unobtrusive organisms live on trees, rocks, in the soil, and many other places. They provide food, shelter, or nesting material for animals including deer, mice, hummingbirds, squirrels, and many others. 

Common toadskin lichen (Lasallia papulosa)

Lichens are sensitive to changes in air quality, pollution, and climate, so they act as valuable early indicators of changes in the environment.

Concentric Boulder Lichen (Porpidia crustulata)
Could it be a Sunken disk lichen?

They also play an important role in moderating their local environments. Lichen on trees absorb large amounts of water from rain, dew, and fog and release it slowly, offsetting the detrimental effects of periods of intense dryness and heat.

The Little Things in Winter

We talked about interesting creatures called snow fleas. These tiny arthropods are capable of propelling themselves hundreds of times their own body length via special appendage under their abdomen. This gives them their other common name, springtails. They are present throughout the year, but due to their tiny size, people usually only notice them on the snow where their black color and springing activity stand out.

The Unexpected…

As we were leaving, we found the remains of a turtle. It doesn’t look like any of our native turtle species and might be a pet released by a misguided owner.

The former owners perhaps thought they were doing something good, but former pets are seldom well adapted to living in the wild. They may lack the necessary skills to obtain food and protect themselves, or not be able to survive in the local climate.

In winter when there are fewer distractions from wildflowers, birds, and animals, there are still whole worlds of details to notice and appreciate! Once again, I learned something new today, as I do on each of our walks.

Thank you to everyone who joined us. Check out all our other sightings that day at the Fells here.

📅 Join us next month to explore the natural joys to be found in March. We will be especially on the lookout for our earliest native wildflower, the skunk cabbage, which is one of our early bloomers.

Feb, 13th 2019 | by Laura Costello 

The photos in this article are visual observations that Laura, Joe, Bill and Claire have recorded during the Feb 8th, 2020 Forest Explorations event. Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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Joy of the Fells—Citizen Science with EwA Sat, 01 Feb 2020 08:00:00 +0000

Joy of the Fells

Citizen Science with EwA

“The Fells is a fantastic habitat where we can bring different pieces of the (ecological conservation) puzzle together and lead people to be part of this story as well”

“Action requires attention - I hope to make threats against global conservation and potential solutions more visible through my writing. ”

Caitlin is a journalism student at Boston University with a background in anthropology and environmental education. Her favorite stories deal with global conservation, social justice, and cultural change - especially if there's a little dirt involved.

Caitlin recently reached out to EwA for an interview about its Fells’ Citizen Science program. We invited Caitlin to join one of our fieldwork sessions to catch a glimpse of what the EwA naturalist community projects are about.

Claire O’Neill can make every inch of a crisp-leaf, late-fall forest come alive.

📷 Oak leaves and a gall

Just a few steps along the trail, Claire, the French-born founder of Somerville-based environmental nonprofit Earthwise Aware (EwA), stops in her tracks to point out a hanging, thorny vine to the left of the trail.

“I call that the protector of wetlands,” she says over her shoulder to a small group of EwA citizen scientists – amateurs out to catalog the flora and fauna of Middlesex Fells. “This is greenbrier. When you have your waders this is terrible because it tears them apart, but I love them for that because it keeps people at bay.”

Here in the Fells, a vast urban reservation with nearly 2,500 pond-spotted acres located just 10 miles north of Boston, that’s a useful adaptation to have. The Fells’ 100-mile trail network serves as a quick escape from the city, but that means it’s often flooded with bikers, hikers, runners and dogs who unintentionally wreak havoc on the natural habitat.

“This is a beautiful piece of land that we need to really protect,” Claire says.

But the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which manages the park, doesn’t focus primarily on ecological conservation, according to Claire.

“They are more about recreation,” she says. “My mission here is to bring conservation into the picture.”

Claire founded EwA in 2016 to “give science back to the people” by providing eco-ethics guidelines to the public and promoting biodiversity and climate research knowledge.

One of EwA’s main components is its citizen science initiative. Claire gathers community members of all ages and abilities to collect and “ground-proof” ecological scientific data at Cambridge’s Fresh Pond, a Massachusetts Audubon site in Belmont, the Somerville Community Growing Center – and the Fells, of course.

“The Fells is a fantastic habitat where we can bring different pieces of the puzzle together and lead people to be part of this story as well,” she says.

Today’s citizen science group – Claire and volunteers Jen and Sarah – is out to document one of 18 vernal pools in the Lawrence Woods section of the Fells – one piece of the puzzle, Claire says.

Vernal pools, seasonal ponds that fill and dry out periodically, are home to specialized species. But because their temporality makes them hard to identify, they are often left vulnerable to development and disruption.

“You have to bring biological, physical and geographical evidence that indeed it’s a vernal pool,” Claire says. Once the evidence is accepted, the pool and all the life it holds can be legally protected.

📷 EwA record of a Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

A few steps forward, Claire’s eyes refocus on the ground and she stoops down to inspect a slight olive-tinged leaf half-hidden under the browning trailside grasses.

“Oh look at that. That I love. This is one of the little joys of the Fells in the winter,” she says, stopping again. “Spotted wintergreen – it stays green all throughout the year.”

Claire’s face alights with each discovery. Her hands fly into her over-stuffed pockets for her leaf identification book, her magnifying glass, her mirror – used to see the underside of a specimen without disturbing it.

“We don’t uproot for no reason,” she says, stressing ethics to the group with a smile.

Claire means business – she’s been out in the field for 184 days in the last year – but her joy is contagious.

The organization promotes conservation as a co-creative process that doesn’t depend on training, background or demographic – interest alone is enough and anyone is welcome.

“I probably should have studied biology, but I got scared off from it somehow,” says Jen, who has a background in art and chemistry but has quickly become Claire’s right-hand woman through volunteering for over a year and a half.

“It’s nice to come back to. It feels very comfortable,” Jen says.

Because EwA is still small, Claire leads most of the citizen science expeditions herself. She briefly trains each volunteer before leading the group out to collect critical environmental data.

Since EwA’s inception, the organization has logged 24,900 biodiversity observations on iNaturalist, a crowdsourcing site for environmental data. But still, some professional scientists dismiss citizen scientists as amateurs, unable to contribute verifiable data.

“As soon as you start to put structure into citizen science, you can really have, very quickly, very good quality of data,” she says, calling out professional scientists who turn their noses up at the importance of amateur, public scientists.

As threats of global warming and biodiversity loss loom, compiling and tracking this data is more important than ever, she says. It’s everybody’s job to combat this.

“We should not hide behind a so-called leader. We need all to be leaders,” she says. “Anyway, that’s my little preaching there.”

📷 A potential vernal pool

Another 50 feet down the trail and there’s more – mapleleaf viburnum with its late berries, black birch with its fragrant mint bark, leathery white oak leaves, crowded parchment fungi gathered on the lower end of a downed tree. The destination isn’t far – a vernal pool just 750 feet from the edge of the woods – but the group is happy to stop and see the forest through Claire’s eyes.

 “Science is about observation. It’s about wondering, taking your time and forming questions,” she says.

“If curiosity killed the cat, I’m dead,” she jokes.

“Well, you have nine lives if you’re a cat. You’ve only killed one life,” says Sarah, a former Environmental Protection Agency employee and first-timer who Claire quickly welcomed into the group.

“How do you remember all of this?” Sarah asks when Claire identifies a bird later on. “I’m impressed.”

For most of her life, Claire was a statistician working with complex data sets and leading artificial intelligence research groups. She’s contributed to biodiversity and ecology projects around the world for 30 years and seems to know these woods like the back of her hand.

More than that, though, Claire simply loves to learn, loves to read and study. She’ll sit outside in her Somerville garden on a small stool with a field guide to figure out how to identify a tree by the bark alone so that she can read a forest even in the dead of New England winter.

Repetition is key too, she says. Saying the names over and over, teaching them to others helps her remember the names – especially in old age, she jokes.

“It’s not to impress or whatever,” she says. “It’s just to try to get it in so that finally the connection is made.”

Sarah smiles.

“It’s so nice and it makes it so much more enjoyable,” she says. “You can come out here in the winter and everybody else kind of sees brown, maybe a bird here or there, and you just see so much.”

📷 Citizen scientists recording ecological data

Leapfrogging through the forest, the group eventually makes it to a shallow vernal pool, just as the sun begins to dry out the leaves underfoot, still wet after yesterday’s deluge.

EwA events go on rain or shine unless there’s a major thunderstorm or Nor’easter rolling through, but today is a rare warm day before the long winter.

Normally, the group would wade into the water to take detailed notes of its depth, clarity and size. But today the group avoids the water, reluctant to disturb any sleeping salamanders and frogs from their long winter dormancy.

“They kind of put their little habitat in a specific way, but disturbing it there is no way you can really put it back the way it was and then you endanger them,” she says.

So the group takes what data they can in the last check of the season. Come next spring, when Claire is back in the field, it will serve as a comparison by which to judge whether or not it is a vernal pool.

They measure the length of the pool by stride, estimate its width, note the different species around the pool’s edge and debate whether the landscape here is better described as “forest” or “shrubbery.”

“Because of the choices, I would think shrubs would be more along the coast, where you don’t have trees,” Sarah says.

“Okay, I can buy that. I can totally buy that,” Claire says, convinced by the newcomer. “Let’s go for forested.”

Further Reading

 ⓘ EwA Citizen Science: Co-Creative Conservation in Action

Human Impact: Our Relationship with Climate, the Environment, and Biodiversity. Keyles, S. (Ed.) (2019)

The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science. Darlene Cavalier (2016)

A Green paper on Citizen Science: Towards a Society of Empowered Citizens and Enhanced Research. European Commission (2014)

Citizen Science Isn’t Just About Collecting Data – Nonscientists should take part in discussions about research priorities and more. Jason Lloyd (2016)

Feb, 1st 2020 | by Caitlin Faulds

All photos in this article are the exclusive property of the author © Caitlin Faulds, except for the photo of the Spotted wintergreen, that is the property of  © Claire O’Neill licensed under CC-BY-NC (some rights reserved). The name of EwA citizen scientists may be changed or omitted in this article to protect their privacy.

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Forest Explorations — January in the Fells Fri, 17 Jan 2020 19:49:46 +0000 […]]]>

Forest Explorations

January in the Fells

I have such mixed feelings about the unseasonably beautiful weather we had for our walk this weekend. On the one hand, it was absolutely delightful to be out in near-60 degree weather. On the other, it’s awfully worrying that we have such days at all in January.

Laura is a citizen scientist, co-leader and author for EwA. Together with Laura we explore the botany and wildlife of New England and that she shares about in our Forest Explorations blog series. Make sure to also check Laura's blog 'A Land Like This One' about a piece of a forest that she enjoys at every opportunity that she has. It's also a marvelous way to see how different things may be just a state away and compare the timing of seasonal events!

“The world around us is so intricate and interconnected. The more I look, the more there is to see. The more I learn, the more I want to find out...”

Once a month, Laura and Claire lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free form activity of ours which only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here?

Here are highlights of what we enjoyed this time!

Fungi in Winter

We stopped to admire a number of fungi species, including this unusually attractive Birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina). As its name suggests, it is to be found almost exclusively on birch trees. It serves as food and breeding place for a great number of insects.

A little up on the same trail, we then found a Thin-walled maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa). This beautiful bracket fungus is also known as the Blushing Bracket because there are often shades of pink or mauve on the top surface. At it catches the sunlight in the understory, it often stands out in the winter from the dark colors of the bark and branches that it is attached to.

We also helped release spores by poking the Pear-Shaped Puffballs (Apioperdon pyriforme).

Fruits & Seeds in Winter

Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) seeds always make me smile. We called them “wishies” as children. If I made a wish on one today, I might try wishing for more wishies because they grow into important nectar sources for native bees and critical food for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Canada mayflower’s (Maianthemum canadense) tiny fruits still dotted the forest floor, reminding us that their sweet-smelling flowers will come again. Their little green leaves will be one of the earlier spring wildflowers to peek up in April.

The dried seed pods of the Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) we encountered were splitting open.

Wildlife in Winter

Unfortunately, none of us caught a photo of our most striking sighting – three beautiful antlered stags that went leaping past perhaps 20 meters away. The Middlesex Fells are really such an amazing place!

But Joe caught a photo of a beautiful Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

And at the other end of the size spectrum, there was a Smaller yellow ant (Lasius claviger)…

Quite a wonderful variety for this deep in winter! Thank you to everyone who joined us. Check all our other sightings that day at the Fells here. 📅 Join us next month to explore the natural joys to be found in February!

Jan, 17th 2019 | by Laura Costello 

The photos in this article are visual observations that Laura, Joe and Bill have recorded during the Jan 11th, 2020 Forest Explorations event. Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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Wildlife Volunteering — Expectations, Reality, Responsibility Thu, 16 Jan 2020 08:00:00 +0000 […]]]>

Wildlife Volunteering — Expectations, Reality, Responsibility

Sharan Bahra, Earthwise Aware‘s Vice-President, was recently in Kenya, where she helped a conservation organization focused on protecting both giraffes and lions.

In an EwA post series, Sharan shares about the many facets of volunteering for wildlife conservation. Previously, she wrote about the difficulties of finding ethical conservation venues, and how she led her research to find the right experience.

In this second post, Sharan now shares about the realities of conservation volunteering, and the process of adapting to the difference between those realities and your original expectations. In the world of conservation, nothing is black and white, and the type of on-the-ground collaboration and adjustment described in this article is essential.

Sharan’s next article will talk about bird monitoring as a means to check ecological health. Pass along!

The ethics of conservation volunteering and travel need a lot more thoughts…’ –Sharan Bahra

Sharan has been part of Earthwise Aware from its very inception in 2016, and became formally its vice-president in 2017. At EwA, Sharan currently focuses on raising knowledge and ethics of conservation volunteering and traveling.

"Conservation efforts for me include finding out about good ventures, learning lessons from bad ones, widening my knowledge from fellow travelers, working with and understanding local communities and what they do to preserve their ecosystems and wildlife, and of course sharing my enthusiasm..."

 Read more about Sharan

I wanted to go back to Africa and help a conservation project. I chose a programme via the volunteering placement company, Projects Abroad, which has been in the game for about 25 years.

Normally I find more independent efforts; however, as mentioned in the first article, this seemed to tick all the boxes. They are especially geared towards younger or first-time volunteers. Once you are booked, they provide access to extensive documentation about everything that you need to know from visa requirements through to a detailed Kenyan conservation management plan and past volunteer feedback. Their management plan was of particular interest and aligned with the information on their website and with the few phone conversations that I had with them. They also asked for the completion of a questionnaire asking about the volunteer’s background, what their expectations are and how they feel they can support the project. All good stuff. 

The Reality

You never really know the value of a project (despite the amount of preparation) until you undertake the work. I’m definitely one to ask questions right from the beginning to make the most out of the experience both for myself and for the organization, as well as to validate through in-country discussions with staff and other volunteers, that the project is truly environmentally consequential.

From those initial conversations on the first few days, I went through a journey of panic, anger, and disappointment, all the way through to thinking by the end of the first week that this programme was actually better than advertised.

Most of my questions e.g. where are the researchers based? what are they working on specifically? what major land management/ conservation activities are being undertaken at the moment? were answered with “this is being handled on the other side”. 

The “other side”? Well, that was the actual Soysambu Conservancy side. 

Had I made a mistake? The detailed management plan indicated that we were part of the Conservancy and I had done some research on Soysambu itself before departing reviewing their very good website. Indeed, a few other volunteers already onsite and one who arrived a few days after I did thought the same.

The communal room had a lot of ‘unfiled’ data sheets going back to earlier in the year. Some didn’t even have dates or were missing GPS information. What was happening with these data sheets? What was the outcome of the monitoring work? What was happening with any research? The volunteers didn’t know. The board listing activities for the week showed onboarding & a giraffe survey for the afternoon. That consisted of 3 hours of driving around the Conservancy looking for giraffes but with no data being taken down. The rest of that week’s activity looked quite sparse and didn’t feel like a group of volunteers were needed. It was also unfortunate, that there was a national holiday in the middle of the week when I arrived, and so it seemed to me like that there was even less work to do.

From talking to the present volunteers, the predominant comment was “there is a lot of driving around!” and some work on eco-stoves but the work is overall very slow. Additionally, there didn’t seem to be much information being offered on the topics I asked about.

Jumping in

I needed a plan of action. Volunteers can pay a lot of money and it is a commitment of time and effort. Primarily the placement should engage volunteers in doing meaningful work. However, it needs to also satisfy the volunteer within reason and within the context of conservation. I asked to speak with the volunteer manager and prepared my list of observations and feedback. I also wanted to query back with the Projects Abroad head office. 

Did I put the volunteer manager on the spot? Yes. Was I a little bullish? Yes. At first, understandably, they were a little defensive, saying that I should give it to the end of a week and then I would be able to see the work fully. 

However, if by the end of the week the work & involvement wasn’t as I expected, then 25% of my time would have been wasted already on the wrong programme.

The volunteer manager made a note of everything that I gave feedback on and said he would arrange follow-ups to my requests, that is, a sight of what was happening with the data, a meeting with the head of the Conservancy, a site visit to the research centre which was on the Soysambu side and not on the Projects Abroad side. He also clarified that the volunteers upload all the monitoring data to the communal laptop. He advised that although it hadn’t been communicated, the induction actually takes 3 days and included a presentation. He was waiting for the last volunteer (who was expected the day after) to cover it all together. 

Whilst there were no researchers on-site on the Projects Abroad side, the volunteer manager is an ecologist by training so he can answer a lot of questions. Most of his time though was busy doing administrative chores and overlooking supplies. They were expecting 30 volunteers on-site every week from July for a few months so they were also spending time making sure that a second volunteer house was prepared. 

In the meantime, I also gave feedback to the Project Abroad head office. They are responsible for the marketing and information sold for bookings and they should be aware of what is happening on the ground.

It is fair to say that if I had booked with an independent, grassroots volunteer placement I certainly would have been more patient and approached this differently (less bullishly). However, there is an expectation that a global volunteer organisation should be accountable and should be held so.

Also, whilst my feedback, especially around the data filing, was valid, it seemed the volunteers on site had not asked any questions about what happens next. As an example, one had come for the animals, and other volunteers, whilst vocal when I asked for their opinions, were honest and admitted that they had come for the experience with no real expectations and therefore not vested to ask further questions.

Improving the Reality

The volunteer manager acted quickly and with good grace. He listened as did the head office. Through continued conversations, by the end of the first week, I saw how the programme was actually better than expected and that there was an opportunity to be even more valuable than just simply participating in the normal activities.

The volunteer manager had run through my feedback with the rest of the in-country staff. He agreed that the data logging definitely needed improving and that the suggestions for improvements had “put a spark in them”. One of the staff was going back through all the data for the year to bring it up to date, including any individual identification where possible.

The presentation was undertaken on day 3 after my initial feedback and after the last volunteer arrived. Adjusting to our group, the manager went into a lot more detail on the ecology and wildlife including conservation plans and status. 

What is sometimes difficult for the staff is adapting the information to the audience. For instance, the presentation can be much shorter for a family with children. The truth is that the interest levels in the actual work and conservation efforts vary based on individual volunteers.

They hadn’t had a volunteer truly interested in conservation for quite a while. This highlights a few issues with both company ethics and volunteer ethics. It can be easy for a company to become complacent when they are not challenged by the role they take. And it can be easy for volunteers to slip back into being tourists.

The staff was already re-assessing how many eco-stoves could be reasonably put in within a 4 hour period whilst still maintaining quality and that changed to 3 eco-stoves in one morning rather than 3 in the full day giving extra time for other needed activities.

They took on board the feedback of mixing up the day between monitoring and manual to increase engagement levels. Even the most passionate of volunteers can get bored with 2x 4 or 5 hours of driving, monitoring, driving per day, especially on the days when we were looking for the elusive pride of lions. 

It was known to the volunteers that there are WhatsApp interactions between Projects Abroad and Soysambu Conservancy staff for immediate observations (e.g. lion kill; hyena sightings; injured animals). What wasn’t generally known was that a weekly and monthly report was submitted by Project Abroad to Soysambu on the completed activities. All of the individual research groups did the same and this was collated so land management could be properly tracked and organised for the following period. In the same way, Project Abroad had a target of 12 eco-stoves to put in per month and this was fully tracked to show what percentage of the community remained. 

Whilst currently the giraffe monitoring information was utilised only by the Conservancy, they had a desire to publish the information on a global database (Wild ID). The difficulty they had was there was not a consistent technical resource to help them fully set it up. A previous volunteer had got it as far as they could. I helped a little further and identified where the system bug was and found the support team contacts, however that was at the end of my time with them. 

With respect to the volunteer programme schedule and coordination, volunteers are allowed to come anytime, any day. What this means for the staff is that they can and often will pick up 1 or 2 people the same day, transport them to the volunteer site (circa 5 hours journey), and then turn around the same day to meet and greet the next person. If you arrive in the afternoon, Projects Abroad houses people in a budget hotel in Nairobi (at their cost). This was the case for me. The person who met me came with me three-quarters of the way, helped me with money exchange and local sim card, handed me off to the volunteer manager and then turned back around to meet the next person. A massive output of resource, cost and time.  

They were also expecting a large influx of students from China throughout the next few months (30 students per week) alongside smaller normal contingents from other countries. One can see how the “come anytime” arrangement can put a strain on resources. A suggestion on my debriefing feedback questionnaire was that they could have a “try and come on specific days” e.g. 3 or 4 times per week, to reduce inefficiencies and costs. Other placements do this and this seems to work well. They were discussing how and if this could work for them.

All in All

So taking all this into account, this programme ended up being better than advertised. Here’s why:

  1. Welcomed feedback. If I had not been upfront at the start, the in-country staff wouldn’t have had the opportunity to address these and improve. The fact that they were willing to discuss and accept some of the feedback showed their desire to do the right thing to support the conservation and land management goals through the work of the volunteers. Overall, I experienced a much more open set of conversations with all the staff about the work undertaken, the operations and conservation as a whole by expressing my thoughts openly and I believe we mutually got a lot out of it. I certainly gained a lot of knowledge and as a bonus, we were able to find more slots for work activities to do by moving things around on the schedule! 
  2. Community impact. Alongside the excellent partnership with Soysambu Conservancy, Projects Abroad Kenya directly funds and delivers a big and laudable piece of work in building eco-stoves for the local community through the efforts of the volunteers and through the hiring of local contractors. Eco-stoves are critical in helping to reduce the demand for firewood and are desired by the community. The website and the original land management plan didn’t profile this.
  3. Open to suggestions. Volunteers, depending on their expertise and desire, can choose to continue to support them after leaving the in-country experience. I chose to offer to help them to update their land management guide. The original was good, however, it needed updates and clarifications on how the partnership with the Conservancy worked.

Mutual Responsibilities

For future volunteers, it’s useful to outline the “terms of contract” as it were when ‘you pay’ to work. Here are a few considerations for both the organization and its volunteers.

Company responsibilities

  • Provide an onboarding within a few days. State clearly that it will happen and when. The onboarding may be short or long dependent on the programme as long as it covers the bases of goals, progress, role expectations.
  • Provide meaningful work aligned to the organization’s overarching goals and principles.
  • Communicate work expectations to volunteers and undertake quality control. Provide feedback on any area that needs improvement.
  • Provide education and learning.
  • Encourage inputs from volunteers. Assess their suggestions, and follow-up with discussing the merits or explaining why they may not be implementable.
  • Be transparent on how volunteer funding is used to support the overarching goals of the programme.

Volunteers responsibilities

  • Ask, ask, ask and be engaged. If something is unclear or you are not happy about something, ask the staff. Don’t wait. 
  • Even if only going for the experience or the animals, there is a duty on the volunteers to be involved in all the activities signed up for. You may have paid, but it is still a commitment (and it ought to remain ethical).
  • Understand the work involved and take responsibility for its completion. In one case, it was to individually identify the giraffe and upload all the monitoring information into the database. Yes, it may be boring or take a long time but it’s a necessary part of the job. There’s no point in completing the monitoring sheets and carefully taking photos for them to gather dust on the proverbial shelf.
  • Be open and honest with feedback, however, also be aware that not all suggestions may be viable e.g. a suggested improvement may not meet the goals of the conservation programme or doesn’t take into account the country/culture/funds.

For more details about wildlife volunteering ethics and expectations, also check EwA’s Traveler & Volunteer Essentials.

In my next post, I’ll talk about birds and how monitoring them helps to assess the ecological health of habitats. Bird monitoring is also a wonderful way to introduce both good wildlife ethics and the field of conservation.

Further Reading

The Travelling Giraffe –Protecting a Species. Bahra, S. (EwA 2016)

Volunteering in Kenya: Choosing the Right Programme. Bahra, S. (EwA 2019)

Conservancy Management Plan, 2017 Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya

A Computer-assisted System for Photographic Mark–recapture Analysis. Bolger, D. et al. In Methods in Ecology and Evolution 3(5):813-822 DOI: 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2012.00212.x (2017)

EwA Guides and Etiquettes

Jan, 16th 2020 | by  Sharan Bahra 

The photos in this article are the property of the author. 

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◊ First published Jan 10th, 2020 | Our tips are regularly revised and improved.

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2019 EwA Citizen Science Report Wed, 15 Jan 2020 08:00:00 +0000

📊 2019 Biodiversity & Phenology Report

EwA has grown into the organization it is today in response to both the need to study nature and the importance of citizen naturalists in facing the challenges that confront our species. To help to understand and raise awareness about nature’s dynamic systems, we made place-based and data-based natural history the core of our citizen program. 

We are proud to release EwA’s first annual citizen science report. We are thankful to have a community of core citizen scientists who are genuinely dedicated to EwA’s mission and want to see it succeed! 

This report highlights our work and the work of our citizen science community. It details the what, why, and how. It tells the beginning of a journey. As our community of citizen scientists and expert collaborators grows, we become stronger and ever more committed to building upon our accomplishments. We invite you to be part of our local natural history. Enjoy the report. Join us! 

2019 Highlights (short)

A few minutes read

Join our effort. Be an EwA naturalist!

» EwA Citizen Science Program

More about the report…

Earthwise Aware (EwA) runs a field naturalist community science program that advances biodiversity and climate research while promoting ecological ethics and the democratization of science. 

This is EwA’s first annual citizen science report. While the report compiles the results of and data collected from a year’s worth of EwA fieldwork, it is not purely a data-driven report. In addition to reporting those results, it documents EwA’s developmental and operational process. It summarizes EwA‘s field projects with general findings for 2019, as well as explaining EwA’s field methods and how to access our data for further analysis. The audience for this report is varied and comprised of our citizen scientists and volunteers, our partners and collaborators, the cities where our programs are located, and the various non-profit and governmental organizations that we work with.

Publication Date: Jan, 15th 2020 | The graphs and group photos in the 2019 Highlights and the 2019 Report are the property of Earthwise Aware. Species photos are observations of EwA’s citizen scientists and are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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🏞️ Forest Immersion » Going Back Home Tue, 03 Dec 2019 08:00:03 +0000 […]]]>

Summary ꙳ Objectives

This circle is a mindful Forest Immersion. It is structured so as to make the mindfulness of the experience explicit and accessible. 

Ideally, Forest Immersion (or Forest Attuning) happens in a forest, but it needs not be. You can pick a meadow, a beach, or your own garden. It is important however that it is as sheltered as possible from human noise interference. Prefer a place where there are plants and trees (or shrubs) and where you have access to water. A free-flowing stream would be great, but a fountain can work as well.

Whatever you choose, don't challenge yourself: pick a spot suited to your own ability and confidence.

Go alone or with nature circle friends. Enjoy walking on our immersion path, and spend quality time connecting deeply with Nature, yourself and your companions if you attune as a group 

ⓘ Intro to EwA Nature Circles

Type » Activity

Level » Wellness + Nature Sketching

When? » Anytime

Where? » A Forest preferably, but you can also 'immerse' in a meadow, in a clearing, or some quiet place on the shore. Try including an element of water (a stream, a river, a cascade) 

Time » 2 hrs+

Themes & Skills

Celebration ⋆ Nature benefits ⋆ Forest ⋆ Stillness ⋆ Slow walk ⋆ Focus ⋆ Senses ⋆ Natural processes/cycles ⋆ Systems thinking

How to Prepare & What to Bring 

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” — John Muir

If you're remote in Nature make sure to tell people of your whereabouts, as well as bring a first aid kit, and a whistle (3 short blasts at a minute interval is usually a universal warning signal).
Be properly dressed for the weather and the habitat you'll immerse yourself in.

  • Sturdy shoes for rough forests
  • Flip-flops for wading in water if you can
  • Insect repellent and sunscreen (eco-friendly when possible)
  • Hat, poncho depending on the weather

  • A map if you don't know the area
  • A hiking pole if you feel like you need an extra 'foot' when walking in a stream or a river bed
  • A light mat to sit on, or a folding stool
  • Water and snacks


"May the forests be with you and with your children." —Daniel Quinn

We've always known that forests are good for our physical and mental health. We have a very long evolutionary history tied to the forest, and that is likely one of the reasons why we 'feel good' in 'it' (with all its benefits). Forests are indeed a more familiar human habitat than cities are. Forests are our common human shared tradition. Did we need science to explain all this to us? It looks like it: there are now countless scientific studies that have accumulated evidence that proves 'formally', that yes the forest is invaluable to our human wellbeing... meanwhile, we lost a lot of time trying to cut our 'Life cord'. Here we aim at reacquainting ourselves with our home. In short, we invite you to go back "home" with us.

We like to describe our attuning to the forest as a ritualistic walk on a path in that forest. We use the word 'path' because it hints at a journey. Whether we are already 'there' in that forest, or whether we are coming back to it, immersing ourselves in a forest is indeed a Life journey. We also like that the word 'path' refers to the Chinese concept of 'the Way', 'the Road', or 'Principle' embodied by the word 'Tao', for which its interpretation is a holistic philosophy.  

Enjoy walking on that path with us  


Clarity of Intention
Duration: ~5 mins

This is a moment to reflect, a time to 'be'

The first step in our immersion is about expressing our commitment to the moment that we're about to experience. We make clear to ourselves, and to the others in our group, that the intention is not to hike, or trek or do something with a purpose other than letting go and opening up our mind, our senses, and our heart to our immediate environment.


Soundscape of a Rainforest (To Get You in the Mood)

Revisiting Safety

Avoid learning safety by accident...

Here the moderator of the circle goes over the potential hazards. For instance, in our Northeastern American regions, we have problems with a few poisonous plants, and the infamous ticks that carry Lyme disease. The ultimate protection starts with knowledge. Make sure to understand how to recognize potential hazards, so that you keep safe from them.

This is also the time to check that we have sunscreen, insect repellent, water, hat, and that we are properly dressed for the habitat.


Keeping Safe » Understanding Hazards

Entering the Quiet Zone
Duration: ~5 mns

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear” ― Ram Dass

Ideally, the forest immersion path that you've chosen to explore is sheltered enough from the sound of the city and its highways.

It's also the time to turn our smartphone off or to put it in airplane mode if you intend to use your phone's camera. If you can't unplug, at least set it in a priority/silenced mode, limiting external notifications to the strict minimum. Digital distractions are a stress nuisance in an immersion experience: they diminish our cognitive levels and are totally counterproductive.


Surrounded by Digital Distractions

Ethics of Reciprocity
Duration: ~5-10 mins

“Gratitude is most powerful because it provides an opening to reciprocity, to the act of giving back, to living in a way that the Earth will be grateful for us.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer

In many cultures, the ethics of reciprocity is also known as the golden rule. It refers generally to the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated.

Our own ethics of reciprocity emphasizes exchange and partnership between us, the forest and its beings. It is an ethics that contrasts with a utilitarian view of the world. Instead, we reflect on the weakness and harm of a human attitude that is centered on dominion and that sees the natural world only as a resource for humans. And we remind ourselves that we are an integral part of Nature –critical entities of the web of Life. We explore as a group what Nature gives us, and then we share what we intend to give to her.

This is also the time where we debrief about wildlife etiquette, highlighting to handle ourselves around the species that surround us in this forest, and their habitat. We pledge to connect with the forest and to give it our humility and respect.


Easy Rules to Protect Nature & Wildlife


Immersion Gate Opening
Duration: ~5 mins

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness ” ― John Muir

This is an affirmation of our readiness. After a minute or so of mindful breathing, we acknowledge that we are about to start walking on 'the path'.

Look for a tree or a shrub at the beginning of the path and recognize it as the gate. What we often do ourselves is to find a stone, or come with our own stone and place it on the path for us to pick it up later upon our return. Then we 'pass it' symbolically. We've started!

Local Sensory Explorations
Duration: ~15-20 mins.

“We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts.” ― William Hazlett

To help to let go and slow our busy minds down, we usually start with 15 minutes or so with explicitly attuning a few of our senses other than the sense of sight, that will be fully exercised throughout the immersion.

Taste is a powerful sense, but you need to make sure that you know 'what' you are tasting. We ourselves like the taste of trees (needle, leaf, flower), but if you can't distinguish the ones that are poisonous to those that aren't, then please refrain from doing that. There's plenty to explore anyway with all the other senses.

'Hearing' is great to explore when shutting down our sense of sight. Creating a sound map for 5 minutes or more is a great way to experience it. The principle is simple: each of us has a piece of paper in which we trace concentric circles spaced so as to represent 5 yards distance intervals. The center of the map is us. And then we close our eyes and listen. For each of the sounds that we detect, we write or draw what we think it is, placing it on our map in the direction and at the distance that we think we heard it. At the end of listening, we compare our maps...

Touch is an intimate sense, and a great one to experience through the meet a tree activity, with a friend leading you to it when you're blind (a bandana will do). This exploration also promotes trust and empathy. It connects us with a tree in a memorable and intimate way.

▹ Don't dismiss our very powerful sense of smell, and keep your nose open. For instance, walking through a damp forest after the rain has a unique smell. This one comes from bacteria in the soil known as 'geosmin' (meaning “Earth smell”). Studies have identified geosmin as one of the metabolic by-products of a class of bacteria known as Actinobacteria. Geosmin is responsible for many earthy tastes in alcohols and foods such as fish and vegetables. It is unclear why this smell is released during rain. It has been hypothesized that, by signaling the presence of water, the smell is a method of attracting thirsty animals which unknowingly help disperse the bacterial spores. Smells also open other pathways, some strongly linked to the memory of our past...

▹ There are also other senses to explore such as those relating to body awareness. One we like to explore is Exteroception, that is the sensitivity to stimuli outside the body, e.g., how you perceive your environment. In other terms, this sense is about inclusive attention. An example of that is closing our eyes, moving our hands and knowing exactly where they are in space.

Because some of us are Tai Chi students, we like to incorporate here a few simple movements of Tai Chi to have us experience our own energy as well as the energy of the place.


The Smell of Rain: Before, During & After

Attuning / Blending In
Duration: 1/2 hr to as long as you want it to be...

“In this forest, there is a tree that has been waiting to meet you since before you were born.”

This is the core of the immersion walk, and yet this is the less structured part of the entire process. It is about ambling, strolling, musing. It's about listening to the forest. It's about walking as slow as you want (and maybe can) and making light observations (as opposed to scientific or involved observations). It's about sharing with others, and thinking about, what the forest is communicating to us.

Intersperse the walk with as many sittings or resting moments as wanted or necessary. Often what we do during our sitting times is to draw or journal the present moment, which has the effect for us to slow time even more. Some others prefer to read poetry to one another or reflect on some inspiring quotes from master strollers such as John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and so many others.

This is also a moment and place where you can take your Yoga, Qigong, or any other gentle practices outside and share it with your group. Make sure if you share your practice, that it is not about the perfection of the moves, but rather is a means to connect deeply with the forest and the people with you along the path.

The key is light exchanges, not forcing anything. That's also where a good moderator leads us back on the immersion path if we stray away from it...

Stillness & Reflection
Duration: ~10-15 mins+

“Stillness just might be the ultimate adventure” ― Pico Lyer

We've moved slowly; we've shared with others and with the forest; we practiced all our senses together. If we attuned enough, we took in what the forest wanted to give us, and we gave back our humbleness and respect.

This moment is about ourselves; It's taking 'it' all in–still and silent. It's about diffusing the experience further in our body and mind. There is a very nice verb in French that we like to use to describe this moment's main action: 'se recueillir'. It's a reflexive verb, and it combines the act of meditating, honoring, reflecting, collecting oneself silently. That's what this moment is about.

Returning & Belonging
Duration: ~5-10 mins

“Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints! ― Chief Seattle

Before we conclude our stroll, and if we have collected some things off the forest floor, we make the effort to return most of (if not all) our collection back to the forest. It's an appreciation of need vs. want, as well as acknowledging the 'belonging' of what we took.

It also allows us to loop back to ethics about what is 'collectible' and not (including unintended ecological consequences of collecting besides potentially desecrating a site). Often this is also where we share personal stories or myths (including false myths) where terrestrial and ocean entities showed discontent by humans who took without asking ツ

Immersion Gate Closing
Duration: ~5 mins

“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees” ― Henry David Thoreau

Time to seal the moment in our heart and mind. This is not the closing of our mind, it is more an act of sheltering the moment (from external potentially harmful elements). It's an attempt to make our attuning and its benefits last longer.

The passing of the gate on our way back also symbolizes the completion of a cycle. This reminds us that cycles are the fabric of Life here on Earth, and that we are an integral part of the whole, following the same laws.


A Last Moment Among Friends Until Next Time...
Duration: ~As long as you want... 

Making memories and sharing them (now or later with friends)...

▹ This time is about sharing a moment from this walk with the other 'circlers': a drawing, something we collected (and kept) and that we are offering to the others.

If you walked this path alone, this is also the perfect time to have a sip of water, or a cup of tea before heading back to wherever our life calls us.

▹ Use that moment to do a tick check (have the back of your friends too), or making sure to get rid of any problematic critter.

Here we are, where we belong...

Don't leave without making the promise to come back and celebrate further this path together!


Stop Ticks (CDC)

A Note From Our Forest Immersion Circle's Author

Claire is the founder of Earthwise Aware, which focuses on developing individual and organizational ethics with respect to ecology and biodiversity. She strongly believes that individually and altogether we can be ethically & ecologically engaged –whoever we are, whatever we do and wherever we are.

Ethical Nature conservation is not circumstantial, it is a mindset that you acquire. Once on that path, a great many rewards for us become obvious. And the satisfaction out of practicing good ethics is almost addictive. There is no looking back...

Her favorite words: “Earthwise Aware — Because I Care!”

It's the little things that citizens do that will make a difference. At EwA, those 'little things' we do is to get us closer to Nature. And here, with this circle, I am doing my part, committed to getting us back to a familiar and sustaining place, our home: the forests. Forests are 'the place' where we came to be, and where we spent hundreds of thousands of years 'evolving', before leaving abruptly without really looking back. Doing so, we failed to understand that by ignoring and harming our forests, we are harming ourselves physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually...

Often, people asked if this circle is about Forest Bathing, referring to the Japanese and now branded therapeutic practice of Shinrin-Yoku. No, it's not, because we don't know Shinrin-Yoku other than what the Western media made of it. Our immersion path is certainly not about medical therapy but about sharing the human tradition of ambling into the forest. That there are common elements would not be surprising though: Forests are where we spent our species' childhood. From an evolution standpoint, we were totally attuned to our home, at least as a matter of survival. Along the way or maybe at the same time, our spiritual conscience added reverence into the mix. Forest immersion, attuning, strolling, ambling, bathing (or whatever you want to call it) is our initial Story.

The Fells, one of my favorite local destinations for hiking, sketching, doing citizen science and immersing...

As for me, I started immersing long before the term came to the West a decade or so ago. I have 'practiced' forest immersions for the past 35 years, in a way that originated from where I am coming from–Brittany (a cultural region in the northwest of France, covering the western part of what was known as Armorica during the period of Roman occupation). I 'quote' the word practice, because this is not something that we usually say or used to say there. For the longest time, it was somehow obvious that when you enter the forest, you're there to listen, see, smell, taste, feel, and converse with the forest. It was obvious that in a forest you de facto 'attune'. If my fellow Bretons lost the way, I would not know as I don't go back to Brittany very often. But glancing at some of the present time cultural groups over there, the thought seems to be persisting that attuning is what you do in the landscapes of Brittany.

Exploring a coastal forest in New Zealand...

I spent big parts of my childhood, youth and young adulthood wandering our forests and at sea (Bretons are also people of the sea). The forest and the ocean persisted in my heart throughout my very urban American life, as I always took the time to spend regular quality extended periods of time in our local forests. I even furthered my experiences in various other World forest habitats... Going back to my roots like a deeply felt need, probably fueled by the fact that forests and the ocean have been places of refuge for me from the very beginning.

Anyway, about 20 years ago I started studying the Tao Te Ching and the T'ai Chi Ch'üan. I liked the simplicity of the breathing and fluidity and the grounding quality of the moves. So it felt natural to incorporate some of my favorite postures to deepen my experience. in this case, the word 'practice' makes more sense because it's actually hard to reach movement or breathing purity  (but that's another story). However, trying to reach some kind of perfection is not what I practice when I 'immerse'.

So, this practice is a mix of personal experience with various cultural traditions. When people tell me that the ability 'to be' in a forest is the 'panache' of (or is accredited to) a specific country or culture, it makes me feel very sad. We could not be more mistaken. There is a very simple reason why forests are so beneficial for our health: we come from there, forests are our familiar places while cities still aren't... Our departure from 'the Forest' is very recent in the history of Man.

There is also a reason why the Tree of Life is a widespread myth in the history of human cultures: forests are our common human tradition. And this is what this immersion is about: a shared memory of this tradition.

» EwA Circle Members Tips & Tools


» Ecology, Ethics & Conservation

The EwA Wildness Etiquette » Easy Rules to Protect Nature & Wildlife

Funding Trees for Health –Finance and Policy to Enable Tree Planting for Public Health (Nature Conservancy)

Tree Values (Global Tree Campaign)

How Trees Talk to Each Other – TED Talk (2016)

The Science, Art, and Meaning of Forest Wisdom (Dr. Suzanne Simard)

Geosmin, an Earthy-Smelling Substance Isolated from Actinomycetes by Gerber, N.N. & Lechevalier, H. A. in Appl Microbiol (1965). 13(6): 935–938.

The Smell of Rain: Before, During, and After from The University of Melbourne's Scientific Scribbles (2014)

Vanishing Clams on an Iberian Beach: Local Consequences and Global Implications of Accelerating Loss of Shells to Tourism by Kowalewski, M. & al. (2014) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083615

» Wellness, Mindfulness & Art

How Forests Foster Human Health – Present State of Research-based Knowledge (in the Field of Forests and Human Health) by Meyer, K.; Bürger-Arndt, R. in International Forestry Review, Volume 16, Number 4, September 2014, pp. 421-446(26) [DOI:]

Forest Experience and Psychological Health Benefits: The State of The Art and Future Prospect in Korea by Won Sop Shin & al. in Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 38–47.

Just think: The Challenges Of The Disengaged Mind by Wilson, T.D. & al. (2014) in Science Vol. 345, Issue 6192, pp. 75-77 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830

Cycle Celtique (12 Principes Fondamentaux) » Pour les celtes, la Nature, est célébrée comme une source d’inspiration, une conseillère de sagesse et de beauté. Les celtes pensent que l’homme n’est qu’un des éléments de la grande harmonie naturelle, que la nature n’appartient pas à l’homme mais que c’est l’homme qui appartient à la nature.

Tao Te Ching (1994) by Laozi (Auteur), Stephen Mitchell (Interpretation) » There are countless interpretations of the Tao, and our intent here is not to list all the ones that we read or study so far, and which one is more truthful to the original text. Stephen Mitchell's interpretation is one that touched us, and that's why we chose to list it along with a more traditional (below) French traduction.

Tao-Tö King (2002) de Lao-tseu (Auteur), Liou Kia-hway (Traduction)

Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan by Fu Zhongwen (1999)

Sharing Nature » A movement to help people deepen their relationship with nature.

Forest Bathing: A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood (NPR 2017)

Nature & Naturalist Journaling » Why, How to… » With references & examples of wonderful nature sketchers and observers to reassure and inspire us.

The EwA Naturalist Daybag » Preparation is key, our Nature bag is always ready to go, so don't have to think about and risk forgetting important items!

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Forest Explorations — November in the Fells Thu, 21 Nov 2019 08:00:15 +0000 […]]]>

Forest Explorations

November in the Fells

It sure felt like winter today, with temperatures in the 30s and a brisk wind that chased us away from the pond edge into the shelter of the trees. It’s easy to dismiss this time of the year as the off season for naturalists, but there is still so much to learn and see!

Laura is a citizen scientist, co-leader and author for EwA. Together with Laura we explore the botany and wildlife of New England and that she shares about in our Forest Explorations blog series. Make sure to also check Laura's blog 'A Land Like This One' about a piece of a forest that she enjoys at every opportunity that she has. It's also a marvelous way to see how different things may be just a state away and compare the timing of seasonal events!

“The world around us is so intricate and interconnected. The more I look, the more there is to see. The more I learn, the more I want to find out...”

Once a month, Laura and Claire lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free form activity of ours which only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here?

Here are highlights of what we enjoyed this time!

Trees and Shrubs in Winter

We found a few Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flowers still hanging on. Witch hazel is the last native plant to flower in New England. Last year they kept blooming past Christmas, but it doesn’t look like that will be true this year.

We talked about the two groupings of oak species in New England and how their leaves differ. White oak leaves have rounded lobes. Their acorns are more appealing to wildlife because they have fewer tannins than red oaks, and they are more drought and rot-resistant. Red oaks generally have pointier lobes with tiny bristles on the tips.

Can you guess which are the red oaks and which are the white? Here’s one answer [ » ]… 

We also compared the cones of two pine species. Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) which are large and oblong.

And Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) which are smaller and rounder as seen below.

Wildflowers in Winter

I am especially fond of a number of evergreen wildflowers that can be found all year round, even in the bitter cold and under snow. These three species are all in the Heath (Ericaceae) Family. And we saw them all!

Here’s the American Wintergreen (Pyrola americana).

Here’s the Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata).

And the closely related Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata).

Looking at the large, dense patch we found, one of our attendees theorized that they probably reproduce clonally, and she was right. Pipsissewa reproduces both sexually via the pollination of flowers to produce seeds and asexually when a part of the creeping stem takes root and forms a separate but genetically identical plant.  

I love when someone’s question causes me to do some research and learn something new!

Wildlife in Winter

The birders in our group spotted a number of species including Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens).

And the White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

If you step out in the forest, also check for flocks of tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees. These 2 little birds can often be seen together in the Winter.

It can be so tempting to just stay inside on cold winter days like this, but I’m never ever sorry when I make the effort to get out into the woods and really appreciate the season. There’s so much to see out there.!

What a great morning walk. Thank you to everyone who joined us! Check all our other sightings that day at the Fells here. See you next month ( 📅 Join our next walk )!

Nov, 21th 2019 | by Laura Costello 

The photos in this article are visual observations that Laura, Joe and Bill have recorded during the Nov 16th, 2019 Forest Explorations event. They are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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Empowerment through Citizen Science Sun, 10 Nov 2019 15:59:35 +0000 […]]]>

Empowerment Through Climate & Biodiversity Citizen Sciences

As an undergraduate student, contributing to data that can be used by scientists at a global level is not something that I considered likely. At Earthwise Aware, I was introduced to an opportunity to do just that in the form of citizen science. 

Sarah interned at EwA as a Biodiversity citizen scientist in Summer 2019. Together with Sarah, we established the backbone of EwA's Science reporting. This is now a resource that enables our citizen science community to participate first-hand in the annual reporting process of our participatory science program and its results. Sarah also shares about how empowering citizen science is to the people and communities who participate in this global effort.

“There is a lot of  (climate and wildlife) research to be done and you can help get it done! There are tons of opportunities to participate in scientific research, and you can start learning today.”

Disregard even being a student, citizen science is something that my family and I could have begun to practice when I was growing up. Although it has existed long before now, this movement has been growing in recent years thanks to technology.    

Scistarter, an online community dedicated to improving the citizen science experience for project managers and participants, defines citizen science as “the public involvement in inquiry and discovery of new scientific knowledge”. This effort is one that has been used worldwide but is not often acknowledged in the United States. In the US, it is still emerging, and people are increasingly participating in projects all over the country on many various topics.  

Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, collecting and uploading data is faster than ever. Also, because it is so accessible, it opens doors for everyone to contribute. You can now collect data when out on a walk with your dog or enjoying a hike in the woods. Not only will you be contributing to a database but you will be cultivating a lifelong skill for yourself. With applications that assist with data collection like iNaturalist, eBird, and Nature’s Notebook, there are step-by-step instructions so that we can all be learning to collect reliable information. 

Citizen Science is becoming critical to science. Even with advanced technology, we cannot always have researchers in the right place at the right time to gather the necessary data. This is where citizen science is crucial. For instance, in the United States, we have a project organized by NASA to help document local landslides that you witness. This has helped inform decisions and give researchers a better idea of which areas are of higher and lower risk of landslides. This is very important information when it comes to means of needing to evacuate or not.  

As valuable as the research is to the scientific community, it is also inherently beneficial for the citizen scientists gathering the data. Part of making the experience fulfilling for the participants is to make it useful and help people build a community.     

EwA Pollinator Record (July 2019) > Swallowtail

At EwA, through a summer internship, I had the opportunity to experience what it takes to develop citizen projects which are geared to advance climate and biodiversity sciences and build a community of skilled citizen naturalists to do so. Along with this internship, I conducted interviews to hear from a range of professionals who run citizen science projects to crowdsource successful retention tactics to learn about how we can make citizen science projects more intriguing and keep volunteers coming back.    

EwA Citizen Science projects are focused on filling critical biodiversity and phenology data gaps and revealing the ecology of the Boston area’s urban parks and ecosystems. 

One of the resources that EwA uses is Nature’s Notebook. This is a field tool that helps track the timing of natural phenomena of fauna and flora (a.k.a. phenology). This program is owned by the US National Phenology Network that aggregates various datasets nationally, which are then used by scientists. To date, EwA citizen scientists have collected more than 15,000 phenophase records of species that they monitor. 

EwA also uses iNaturalist to help scientists learn about and record biodiversity in these areas. As of November 2019, EwA Massachusetts citizen scientists have amassed around 18,000 biodiversity records on that platform, representing over 2,300 distinct species. iNaturalist is tied to global databases that are consulted by scientists worldwide. 

Citizen science is something that can be fun while contributing to research. It also helps to learn about our local habitats and organisms. Another great thing about the accessibility of citizen science is that, if getting out of the house and moving is challenging for you, there are still ways that you can participate online. For instance, because researchers often have too much information to deal with, they can use the help of citizen scientists to process it. 

Whichever avenue suits you, there is a lot of research to be done and you can help get it done! There are tons of opportunities to participate in scientific research, and you can start learning today.

Further Reading

 ⓘ EwA Citizen Science: Co-Creative Conservation in Action

Human Impact: Our Relationship with Climate, the Environment, and Biodiversity. Keyles, S. (Ed.) (2019)

The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science. Darlene Cavalier (2016)

A Green paper on Citizen Science: Towards a Society of Empowered Citizens and Enhanced Research. European Commission (2014)

Citizen Science Isn’t Just About Collecting Data – Nonscientists should take part in discussions about research priorities and more. Jason Lloyd (2016)

Nov, 10th 2019 | by Sarah Haughney

The biodiversity photos in this article are iNaturalist records from EwA citizen scientists. They are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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