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”

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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