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Connecting with Nature Through Citizen Science

Weaving my way through a thicket of tall willows along the edge of the beaver ponds in the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Fe Preserve, I pause before reaching a small inlet. I let the sucking sound caused by wading through the mud in my knee-high rubber boots dissipate. I don’t want the frogs to hear me coming before I can hear them. I breathe in the pleasant smell of moist ground and cattails and continue gingerly to the edge of the pond. My senses are on high alert.

After a quick training in the spring from The Nature Conservancy’s departing herpetologist, I have visited the Preserve every week throughout the summer. Volunteering as a citizen scientist, I have been keeping the data collection going by counting frogs for The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Leopard Frog reintroduction project.

Splash…sploosh…..plink…go the frogs into the water. I glimpse them out of the corner of my eye as they hop away, legs out-stretched. I find it ironic that they regard me as a threat. I am out here to support their survival. I’ve learned not to expect gratitude or friendship from the wild. This human-to-non-human relationship has a different quality that doesn’t fit such anthropocentric concepts. Nevertheless, it’s a deeply felt connection that keeps me working on behalf of nature.

I kneel down at the pond’s edge to take a closer look. An adult Northern Leopard Frog sits as still as a statue only two feet from me. Burrowed down into the mud only a sliver of its brown skin and green spots peak above the waterline. He blends in perfectly with the surroundings. I take out my camera and get a few close-up shots of this rare close encounter. The frog indulges me for a few minutes before becoming wary of my presence and jumps off.

I scratch down tally marks indicating how many frogs I see and hear in a pocket notebook – the only scientific tool I carry. Then I continue along the four beaver ponds, skirting the edges looking for frogs sunning themselves. A bright orange dragonfly buzzes by my head followed by one with a glowing white body and lacey black wings. I pull out my dragonfly guide and attempt to identify them. Along the trail I spot a stunning new flower that wasn’t blooming last I visited. It’s an orchid of a variety I haven’t seen before. I’m always surprised to encounter orchids in New Mexico, a flower I think of as rare and tropical. I take a snapshot so I can identify it later.

When I return home I enter the numbers of frogs I counted at the ponds on a spreadsheet and a few notes on weather and sizes of the frogs. This information allows The Nature Conservancy to track how the frog population is progressing. I am thankful to see that while it’s not “froggy heaven” as Bob at the Conservancy calls big counts, the numbers are holding steady.

I’ve strolled through the Santa Fe Preserve many times before volunteering for this project. But walking along the trails and squeezing through the willows and cattails with a purpose has given me a new appreciation of this place. I am fascinated watching the changes that occur week to week. It has become familiar territory to me. I’ve come to regard it as my backyard although I live across town.

Frog populations are in decline across the world. Many regard them as a bellwether of what’s to come. By contributing as a citizen scientist on this project I feel like I am helping in some small way to saving the world’s biodiversity. At least in this one small pond, Northern Leopard Frogs have found a stable home.

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If you love spending time in the outdoors and are concerned about environmental trends, get involved in Citizen Science! Opportunities to participate in conservation research and projects abound both in your backyard and in Biodiversity Hotspots around the world.

Check our Get Out There and Hotspots pages for our growing list of organizations that offer opportunities to get involved in Citizen Science specifically focused on conservation.

Contact us at info@theunfoldingearth.com if you would like to add your organization’s Citizen Science program to our list.

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