Communities are for critters (& science)

Apr 19, 2023

Reserves transform community passion for wildlife into science that informs management and protection.

Along the coasts, we love our wildlife. There’s little that compares to spotting a coastal critter—be it furry, feathered, scaly, or slippery. It’s a moment that sparks wonder for children and adults alike. On Earth Day and every Day, Reserves around the country transform this passion for wildlife into community science to support an ever-growing body of knowledge about these special estuary residents and how we can make sure they are enjoyed by future generations.

California’s sea otters

The Elkhorn Slough Reserve—and its otters—draw hundreds of daily visitors. Through the Reserve Otter Monitoring Program (ROMP) and other activities, many of them help collect data on otter counts and activity throughout the estuary.

“Watching otters is the highlight of my day, and I always learn something new,” says volunteer Ron Eby, who plays a leadership role in ROMP and is the first author on a new paper that shows how community members can contribute to our growing understanding of how sea otters use estuaries.

The ROMP team discovered sea otters are six times more likely to be found in seagrass than in immediately adjacent open waters. They also noticed that where the otters go and what they do differs significantly depending on the tide. 

“Volunteer data really allows us to understand how salt marshes are used by otters, which helps us design the best strategies for conserving and restoring these habitats,” says Kerstin Wasson, research coordinator at the Reserve and the paper’s senior author. “All those eyes on our habitats can help us understand and protect the places we love.”

Elkhorn Slough Reserve volunteer Boyce Thorne Miller collecting data on sea otters.

Former captain and owner of the Elkhorn Slough Safari, Yohn Gideon, started the otter counts in 1994.

Oregon lamprey

Lampreys may have faces only their mothers could love, but that doesn’t stop community volunteers from stepping up to help the South Slough Reserve track the distribution of these slippery critters on Oregon’s southern coast. 

With training from Reserve scientists, they collect environmental samples from streams which are then analyzed for the presence of lamprey DNA. To find testing sites, the team uses GIS maps to select sites where roads crossed streams at low elevations in the watershed. 

South Slough Reserve volunteers use cutting edge molecular science to track lampreys throughout the watershed.

Reserve scientists submitted the community data to the USDA-USFS National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation. Undergraduate student Parker Jung is using GIS project data for her thesis to compare habitats and examine potential migration barriers. The eDNA will also be used to monitor fish and lamprey for a planned restoration project at the Reserve this year.

Volunteers Make it a Big Year for the Delaware Reserve

Even birders get competitive. Almost 100 volunteers brought brought game to the Delaware Reserve in 2022, making 200 observations of approximately 65 species of birds within Reserve boundaries. In the birding world, it’s a “big year” when you record as many birds as you can in 12 months, and the competition can get feisty.

The Reserve offered programs to engage new birders, including guided hikes, boat trips, and other informational events. To ensure accuracy, participants followed guidance from the American Birding Association. The goal? Encourage sustainable enjoyment of the estuary and develop a list of species at the Reserve to use for conservation, stewardship, restoration, and education. 

More than 165 of the volunteers’ observations were of high enough quality to support future research. Birds spotted included red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys, great egrets, bald eagles, red-bellied woodpeckers, clapper rails, American kestrels, and bobolinks.

Eels on the Hudson

As spring skies fill with migrating birds, the waters of the Hudson River Estuary teem with tiny American eels heading inland from the sea. Each spring, trained volunteers catch and count thousands of these so-called “glass eels.” Since 2008, approximately 1,000 people have pitched in each year. They’ve counted more than million-and-a-half eels, and most of which have been released above dams and other barriers to migration. 

In addition to helping eels on their travels, the Eel Project is also a great way for students to continue their own river journey. Many continue to grow through summer research, fisheries fellowships, and even employment with the Reserve or partner organizations. 

Currently, the Reserve is working with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to integrate community-collected data into the Commission’s 2022 Stock Assessment, a ten-year census of juvenile eels used for conservation and management policies from Florida to Maine.

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ReservesDelawareCommunities are for critters (& science)