Author's Note: Jillian Finucane is from Madison, Wisconsin, and is currently studying Geological Engineering at University of Wisconsin – Madison. As a lover of the outdoors, she spends her summers hiking, camping, and rock climbing; she adores Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Jillian is a Summer Naturalist/Geology Intern at the Cable Natural History Museum.
A light breeze brushed through the pollinator gardens surrounding the Museum. Happy children and singing birds filled the Museum courtyard with sound. All this noise didn’t bother me; I zoned into the pollinator garden. I was completing my weekly butterfly survey as a participant in the Wisconsin Statewide Community Science Project.
Despite having finished the Master Naturalist course my second week at the Museum, I am still far from considering myself a pro at any plant or insect identification. My specialty lies with the rocks. As a senior studying Geology at University of Wisconsin - Madison, I have spent the last several years honing my rock identification skills. With all the time spent on that, I’d neglected my interests in learning about living nature. When Mollie Kreb-Mertig, Museum Curator, asked me to help with a butterfly survey in partnership with Milwaukee Public Museum, I was a little nervous. Would I be able to identify down to the family, let alone genus or species? Was I qualified enough to participate in a community science project?
Community science is defined as a scientific project undertaken by members of the general public. As someone who is a part of the Northwoods community, I am perfectly qualified to participate. Mollie prepared me by covering the basic butterfly families and a few important survey protocols.
With Kali Sipp, my co-intern, as my scribe, I felt a lot more comfortable starting my first survey. A peer into the sky and a check with my weather app helped me gather all of the environmental data needed to start the survey. At a here-comes-the-bride pace, I began my short 0.2 mile walk that would take me 20 minutes. I slowly gazed between the pollinator garden to my right, and the open courtyard to my left. Much to my delight, I spotted a brushfoot. I snapped a picture and tallied it on my clipboard. By the end of the survey, I had identified a few brushfoots and even a couple monarchs!
What I have come to appreciate most about these community science projects is how they force me to slow down and truly appreciate nature. I don’t usually meander through a pollinator garden or drive out to isolated forest roads just to observe some critters. But when forced to “stop and smell the roses,” I find myself appreciating even the smallest things.
So, when invited to a DNR Mink Frog survey by a local naturalist, I was excited to tag along. Unlike the bright and colorful butterfly surveys, frog surveys occur in the dark, after night has completely settled in. Visiting 10 different survey locations, the naturalist and I stepped outside into the mosquito-infested air.
For five minutes, we stood in silence waiting for frog calls in the black night. A cool wind bristled through the trees. Something cracked a branch in the woods. Two wolf packs howled back and forth at each other. But that wasn’t what we were listening for. Then we heard it. The call sounded like two pieces of wood being clanked together, but we knew it was the mink frog looking for a mate.
Using a code rating how frequent calls are (1 - individual calls are heard, 2 - some calls overlap, 3 - full chorus of overlapping calls), surveyors track the size of populations in different ponds. By mid-July, the only frogs making noise are the bullfrog, green frog, and mink frog. Most calls we heard during our stops were ranked as a 1, with an occasional 2.
Now, you may be wondering why data like this can be useful. For the annual DNR frog surveys, data is analyzed to estimate frog species abundance, determined by the presence of their calls. This helps wildlife biologists monitor frog populations in different parts of the state.
The butterfly surveys serve a different purpose, as they track migration patterns and populations of butterflies in specific areas. Milwaukee Public Museum, our partner organization, has been notified that researchers in Europe have been using Pollardbase, the butterfly database, to track migration patterns!
Community Science has taught me a new way to appreciate the finer details of the Northwoods. If you’re also itching to learn more about the natural world, or hoping to use your knowledge for the greater good of a project, consider getting involved in community science. Contact Mollie Kreb-Mertig at email@example.com here at the Museum for more information about getting involved in our surveys!
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open through mid-March. Our Fall Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.