The Gam


Nature Blog Network

Hey… Happy New Year!

So, it’s been a while since I last blogged! Much has happened since I last posted. I lived for a while in a cabin in the woods with no internet or running water, which I think is a reasonable excuse. I’ve also since started a new job! Though sadly, I’ve moved out of Minnesota :(. I’m now living in the desert Southwest (I miss snow!). But on the upside, my new job involves citizen science! :)

I know this is a really, really short update, but I plan to start blogging again semi-regularly. So, thank you to everyone (or anyone) who hasn’t given up on me!

And Happy New Year!

A Minnesota gurl’s excuse

I know I keep saying that I’m going to blog more, but as I mentioned  a few weeks ago, it’s Spring! There are so many distractions for me right now: birds are migrating, frogs are calling, and plant buds are getting ready to burst!  I’m also hard core in search of a new job, which is just time-consuming and draining. Not to mention I’m just plain terrible at interviews and “selling myself.” In fact at a recent interview, I nearly slammed my head down on the table after ending an answer with “And hey, I didn’t get fired or anything!” So, thank goodness for spring to keep my spirits up. A few recent sightings I’ve been particularly excited about include loons, mergansers, fox sparrows, a black bear with cub, and mud! We’ve had a few absolutely gorgeous days, warm enough even for mosquitoes. But the more recent snow falls haven’t kept me wanting to stay inside by any means. What can I say, I’m a Minnesota gurl (though I recently discovered I need new waterproof boots).

And I can’t forget about maple (and birch) syruping, which has been an adventure to say the least. We are in the boiling stage now but still trying to work out the most efficient method. We’ve been using a portable wood stove, but can’t seem to get a steady boil. We better figure it all out soon though, because the sap is still running and we’re running out of room! Birch sap is also finally showing up in the “buckets.” I was about to give up considering how much maple and box elder sap we’ve collected in comparison. I now think we might be able to cook up a small batch. Oh! and I have made a few test syrup batches (box elder), most of which turned out delicious! I burned the first two though. Once we work out the last few kinks, I’ll write up a full post on my experience syruping and all the mistakes along the way. I hope you’re enjoying spring!

Quick Links 4.5.11

I have quite a few links to share this time around!

  • First, a belated welcome to the newest blog to join the Southern Fried Science Network! From Alevin to Adult: the life history of a salmon girl.
  • If you are a student passionate about citizen science, check out these awesome internships being offered this summer through DataONE and the National Phenology Network. If I qualified, I would be applying the very instant. I was actually pretty sad about it. *sniff* Deadline to apply is this Friday!
  • Did you know that bats are worth at least $3 Billion per year to U.S. agriculture? I still think they’re priceless.
  • Only a few more hours to vote for the official name of the cobra that escaped from (and was recaptured by) the Bronx Zoo. Choose between Agnes, Amaunet, Cleopatra, Subira, or Mia!
  • A really cool story: Solar salamanders have algae in their cells even as embryos!
  • In my last post, I reviewed a few of the National Geographic Channel Expedition Week premiers. In addition, I got to watch the first two episodes of Shark Men. The series follows a crew of scientists researching great white sharks using methods that sparked an interesting debate at Southern Fried Science over individual animal welfare vs. the need for information to conserve populations and species. The series premiers this Sunday, April 10th at 9/8c p.m.
  • Lastly, speaking of expeditions, check out the CAT in WATER project on Kickstarter. Pledge to help two journalists get to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in Thailand and document fishing cats and fishing cat research! I would lovelovelove to see this documentary made, so I plan on posting more on fishing cats soon. Also, check out the CAT in WATER blog.

Expedition Week on National Geographic Channel

I’m a little behind on posting this (technical difficulties), but tonight premiers Expedition Week on National Geographic Channel! Over the next seven nights, you can join in on 13 expeditions ranging from archeology to wildlife research. Thanks to National Geographic Channel, I had the opportunity to preview three of the programs including:

  • Eating with Cannibals (Sun 9/8c p.m.): Expedition week kicks off with Piers Gibbon traveling to Papua New Guinea in search of people who may have practiced cannibalism. Interesting program and I thought it was pretty well done.
  • Man vs. Volcano (Thu 10/9c p.m.): Journey to the mouth of Nyiragongo, Africa’s most active volcano which holds the world largest lake of lava. Amazing journey and even the dynamics between the photographer and research team was intriguing to watch.
  • Tiger Man of Africa (Fri 10/9c p.m.): Visit Tiger Canyons, the place where John Varty is working to make his dream of creating a new population of “wild” tigers outside their natural habitat a reality. I’m afraid I was not a fan of this one. I can’t deny that the program has some cool footage, but then again these are tame not wild tigers. Wild tigers don’t let people use them as pillows. I also find the idea behind Varty’s project, to establish a wild population of tigers in Africa because their recovery is doomed in Asia, absurd. The program’s focus on getting these tigers to mate and birth also seemed more “zoo-like” than “expedition-like” to me.

However, I am really excited to watch Lost Land of the Tiger (Friday 9/8c p.m.), which I have not seen yet.

Go in search of an undiscovered tiger population rumored to be hidden in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.  This pristine country of lush forests, clear rivers and icy mountains could hold the key to safeguarding the future for these big cats.  But first, the team must trek across Bhutan’s wildest terrain and face its extreme weather — pushing the expedition to its very brink.  With cameras strategically placed, the team is closing in on capturing key evidence of the tigers said to be living here.

Now this sounds like a tiger expedition! Tiger field research is near and dear to my heart and I even have a little first hand experience. I’m also excited for this program because it includes Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, tiger expert, wildlife author, and President & CEO of the wild cat conservation organization Panthera.  I am super excited to watch this one even just from the clips.

Check out the Expedition Week website for even more fascinating premiers. Online, you can participate in a photo safari in search of hidden miniature artifacts through Mission Expedition. Also be sure to check out Expedition Granted. Two explorers, Only one expedition granted: Save endangered seals through research in Hawaii or help park rangers stop poaching in Indonesia. You decide.

Updated 4/4/11: Bad link

Tough Times for Minnesota State Parks

Recently while watching “Yogi Bear” the movie, I found myself thinking, “There’s no way a politician would try to open up a much loved park to logging. The public would be outraged and that would be political suicide!”

Apparently I was wrong, because Rep. Steve Drazkowskii (R-Mazeppa) added an amendment to a large environmental finance bill that would require two state parks in Minnesota (Whitewater and Frontenac) to harvest black walnut and other timber resources to help fund the state park system because, “We can’t afford to watch our state assets rot.” Thankfully the logging requirement has since been removed (I think I was right about that whole public outrage thing), but Minnesota’s state parks along with many other natural resource and environmental projects are still facing some major funding challenges. From the Star Tribune:

One-third of state parks could have hours reduced and services slashed under a sweeping environmental bill approved by the Minnesota House and Senate on Tuesday.

The Republican-controlled House would cut deepest, but both houses would limit spending for the environment and natural resources during the next two years to about $200 million, a trim of about $40 million from projected spending. The House and Senate proposed more cuts than DFL Gov. Mark Dayton recommended, but he makes up much of the gap with outdoor and environmental fee increases.

The reductions would hit nearly every corner of the Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency, even the Minnesota Zoo.

DNR officials said the cuts could force a “mothballing” of up to 10 parks until state finances improve. Under the plan, the parks would remain open, but campgrounds and buildings would probably be closed and unstaffed.

I would be sad to see any of Minnesota’s State Parks shut down or unstaffed. However, I am personally concerned for one of my favorite state parks, Soudan Underground Mine, which suffered a fire on March 17th. If you are unfamiliar with the park, Soudan Mine is known as  Minnesota’s “oldest, deepest, and richest” iron ore mine. Shortly after mining operations ceased in 1962, the mine reopened as a state park allowing visitors to tour the mine and learn about history, geology and even physics a half a mile underground.

Thankfully the fire has since been put out. The mine also houses neutrino, dark matter, and other physics experiments underground, which are expected to be up and running again soon. However, the park is closed to the public for an indefinite amount of time or until repairs are completed. I just really hope that budget cuts don’t keep any repairs from happening since it is an expensive park to run and money for the development of Vermilion State Park, which is adjacent to Soudan, is already being redirected:

DNR officials said they are uncertain how many parks would be affected because the operating costs vary greatly from park to park.

“One may cost $30,000 [a year to operate], while another may cost $1.5 million,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said. “Tower-Soudan Underground Mine, for example, is very expensive to operate, but it provides a very unique visitor experience. We could close Itasca State Park and Tower-Soudan, and that would take care of [the cuts],” he said. “Or we could close 10 smaller parks.”

To offset reductions, the Senate moved $3 million in lottery dollars from the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) to the parks budget — money that was supposed to go toward development of the new Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota.

Landwehr said he questions the constitutionality of such a shift. The law specifies that those dollars are to be used to protect, conserve, preserve and enhance state resources.

But there are many battles to be fought in Minnesota. For more information, be sure to read Minnesota Parks Need Help by Birdchick.


I’ve seen a few convocations over the last few weeks. Convocations of eagles that is. I love the different names for groups of animals. Actually, I’m not sure how many individuals are needed to be considered a group, but I’m going to go with more than two. Correct me if I’m wrong. But anyways, I’ve seen lots of bald eagles lately: soaring, feeding off the many dead deer on the side of the roads, and even hanging out at their nests. I’ve also seen a number of immatures, which are usually hanging out near the adults. Here’s one eagle (that was apart of a convocation) I came across the other day.

Continue reading Convocations


Spring has officially arrived! It still looks and feels more like winter around me, but the snow is melting, it rained the other day, and I saw a couple of Canada Geese. For a little while, I was questioning whether I really remembered what grass and dirt looked like. But my faith in spring has been restored, and I can’t wait to see some green.

Melting Lake Itasca and Headwaters of the Mississippi River

One reason I can’t wait for spring to progress is because I’m doing something I’ve never tried before. Maple syruping! According to Twin Cities Naturalist, the sap has been running in the twin cities for a little while now. I haven’t seen any sap yet, but I am farther north and hope to see some in my buckets soon. In addition to maples, I also tapped a few paper birches. I’ve never tasted birch syrup before but heard that it is delicious.  I could have sworn someone told me a few years ago that syrup could be made from red pine sap, but I couldn’t find any information on it.

While researching when the sap starts to run in my area, I came across a maple syrup citizen science project! Journey North has a multitude of citizen science projects focused on phenology and seasonal changes. Participant can observe anything from animal migrations like hummingbirds and monarch butterflies to plant activity like sap running and trees budding. Though Journey North is designed primarily for K-12 students, the general public is also welcome to participate and report observations.

There are a number of other citizen science projects that are perfect for spring. With all the changes that take place this time of year, I think it is the funnest time to start a project. Here is a quick list of some spring time projects I put together:

  • National Phenology Network: Monitor plant and animal seasonal changes to help study the impacts of climate change. Herbaceous plants, trees, insects, and mammals, the National Phenology Network is one of my favorite projects because there are so many species you can observe.
  • Project Budburst: Monitor plants and their phenophases (such as leafing, flowering, and fruiting) as the seasons change.
  • NestWatch: Monitor and collect data on nesting birds to track reproductive success.
  • SnowTweets: Still have snow? Report how much you have (even if you have 0″) by tweeting it.
  • FrogWatch USA: Monitor frogs and toads by listening for and reporting their calls. Training is required to participate and provided through a number of participating AZA accredited zoos.
  • North American Amphibian Monitoring Program: Another option for monitoring frogs and toads. Volunteers survey a route for calls several times per year. In Minnesota, the program is run through the Minnesota Frog and Toad Calling Survey.

Any citizen science projects I missed that you think are perfect for spring? I’d also love to hear if you have any maple syruping advice!

National Wildlife Week and Quick Links

Seen any wildlife lately? If not, be on the lookout because it’s National Wildlife Week! Sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, this year’s theme is “Wildlife That Move Us” and runs March 14-20. Each day will celebrate different animals based on how they get around. Today is all about wildlife that swim. The National Wildlife Week website will be updated every day for activities, posters, trading cards, and ideas to celebrate. And be sure to get outside! Perfect timing too, as I think spring might finally be on its way to my corner of the world.

Now for some links. With current events the way they are, I tried to pick upbeat links to share:


Uniting research with recreation: marine biodiversity monitoring and scuba divers

One of the reasons that I think citizen science is becoming increasingly popular is because it takes advantage of people’s already established interests. Bird watching is one hobby that has been particularly successful at creating citizen scientists. These projects can be as simple (and fun!) as putting up a birdfeeder and recording the birds that visit a few times a week. However, not all project subjects are as accessible as the birds in your backyard. Take for example marine life. Most people don’t have windows that look out under the sea, and you need special skills and equipment to even breathe in an underwater environment. Therefore, scuba divers can be invaluable to marine citizen science projects because they already have some of the skills needed and a natural interest in marine life.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, accuracy can be an issue when it comes to citizen science. A number of projects have tried to account for accuracy while utilizing scuba divers by requiring fairly extensive training, a strict protocol, and specific locations and transects to sample from. However, striving for the most accurate data can limit the number of people who will participate. Would removing some of these constraints increase involvement but also throw accuracy out the window?

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is what Stefano Goffredo and colleagues of the Marine Science Group were wondering. They wanted to involve as many people as possible in marine biodiversity monitoring, especially recreational divers or those just diving for the fun of it. Their project, “Divers for the Environment: Mediterranean Underwater Biodiversity Project” asked participants, recruited by Italian tour operators and media outlets, to complete a survey after a dive about the animals, plants, and litter they had seen. The volunteers went through a low intensity training session right before the dive, so researchers designed the survey to contain 61 taxa that would be generally well-known by recreational divers or easily identified. Unlike some of the more rigorous projects, volunteers were able to dive where they wanted to and as they normally would on a recreational dive. They were not required to follow transects or dive at locations selected by the researchers.

Scuba diving in Elba island, ItalyFrom 2002 to 2005, almost four thousand divers took part in the project completing 18,757 surveys over 13,539 diving hours. Most of the 61 taxa were observed at consistent frequencies with six species showing significant declines over the course of the study. Previous studies supported these findings in four of the species with declines attributed to habitat loss and over-fishing. Previous research also supported the finding that marine biodiversity decreased with latitude likely due to environmental quality.

To check the accuracy and reliability of the recreational divers, the researchers also conducted validation trials on a portion of the dives to compare the volunteers’ data with a marine biologist control diver. These trails showed that the accuracy and consistency of the majority (76%) of volunteer divers was between 50% and 80%. The authors considered these levels acceptable and comparable to other projects that required divers to follow along designated transects. As the project went on, the quality of the data also improved as may be expected. However, the freedom divers had in choosing to dive where they wanted resulted in the biggest problem with the data. Divers strongly preferred visiting rocky habitats to sedimentary habitats resulting in an uneven spatial distribution of samples.

While this study did not provide perfect data over a perfect spatial distribution, it did produce useful information. The recreational divers had accuracy and constancy levels similar to volunteers in projects following precise transects, and the trends found were consistent with other research. Surveys such as these can be especially useful in complimenting governmental and other research whose resources are often limited. For a single paid professional to gather the same amount of information from the volunteers in this study, the researchers estimated almost $5,000,000 would be required. In addition, this project recruited more volunteer divers than the more structured projects, and participants in citizen science are likely to be more environmentally aware and have a better scientific understanding after participating.

If you are a scuba diver and interested in participating in a similar project check out these projects on I am unsure if the project in the paper is still running. However, the authors also put together a similar monitoring project in the Red Sea: SCUBA Tourism for the Environment.

I had some other thoughts on the paper. While this paper focuses on marine areas, I think it could also inspire or be applicable to other projects that connect what people do for fun with science. For example, underwater environments aren’t the only places that are not easily accessible to the average person. In the United States, there are terrestrial environments such as the 757 wilderness areas that relatively few people visit, especially the interior areas. Such areas typically don’t allow motorized vehicles and have no roads, making them timely and costly for researchers to access. Why not involve the backpackers, canoers, and even mountain climbers that will spend up to a week or more in a wilderness area just for fun in ecological monitoring? Kind of like scuba divers, many wilderness users already have an interest in nature, some identification skills, and the skills to travel in a certain environment. Some wilderness areas, like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota, already have overnight visitors watch a “training” video on how to use the wilderness (Leave No Trace Principles, don’t litter, etc). Potentially some useful information could be gathered by recreational wilderness users, even if just for helping monitor endangered, declining or of concern species, rather than larger scale biodiversity monitoring like in this paper. That’s what came to my mind, anyway.

And one last thing. I want to say thank you to a reader, “C”, who sent me this article. It inspired/pushed me to finally write a post, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. So thanks “C”! :D <3

Goffredo, S., Pensa, F., Neri, P., Orlandi, A., Gagliardi, M., Velardi, A., Piccinetti, C., & Zaccanti, F. (2010). Unite research with what citizens do for fun: “recreational monitoring” of marine biodiversity Ecological Applications, 20 (8), 2170-2187 DOI: 10.1890/09-1546.1

Ecology ID #2: Porcupine!

Last week, I asked if anyone could tell me what happened to this bur oak tree (Quercus macrocarpa) to lose much of its bark. There’s many reasons why a tree could lose its bark, so I tried to hint that I was “hiding” something in the provided pictures. What was I covering up? A North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). Congrats to @ttweakk on twitter for the correct guess!

This porcupine must have hung out in this tree all winter long by the looks of how much bark is missing. North American porcupines are generalist herbivores with a fairly variable diet. In winter, tree bark often becomes a primary food source, and porcupines can feed heavily enough from a single tree to the point of killing it. Because of the damage they can cause to trees, many people view porcupines as pests. But if this tree does die, it will create an opening that other trees can grow up in, contributing to a more varied and multi-layered forest.

Near the tree, I also found what appeared to be the porcupine’s den under a fallen log. Continue reading Ecology ID #2: Porcupine!