NEWS

'Citizen scientists' keep tabs on wildlife

Volunteers vital to tracking population trends

A gray tree frog, one of 16 amphibian species monitored by Iowa volunteers, keeps an eye on its wetland neighborhood. Kristen Fankhauser photo
A gray tree frog, one of 16 amphibian species monitored by Iowa volunteers, keeps an eye on its wetland neighborhood. Kristen Fankhauser photo
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The eyes and ears of every day Iowans are helping state biologists track the status of many important species of wildlife.

The citizen scientists who participate in the Volunteer Wildlife Monitoring Program “are absolutely necessary” in tracking population trends for species facing challenges, said program coordinator Stephanie Shepherd, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

Without data from the approximately 150 volunteers, diversity program biologists could not keep tabs on the more than 1,000 species of wildlife in the state, she said.

Starting next month, Shepherd will lead workshops that prepare more volunteers to collect data on some of Iowa’s most vulnerable wildlife.

The volunteers specialize in one of three areas — raptor nesting territories, frog and toads and colonial nesting birds such as herons, egrets, cormorants and pelicans.

“It’s a rewarding thing to do,” said Bill Scheible of Cedar Rapids, who monitors a bald eagle nest east of Marion in Linn County and another along the Skunk River in Keokuk County, both of which have been active in recent years.

Carrying binoculars and a spotting scope, Scheible said he pays three half-hour visits to the nests — once in March looking for nest activity, once in April looking for nestlings and once in June looking for young birds out of the nest.

Scheible, a bird enthusiast, said the rewards go far beyond the data he collects.

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“It’s a portal to the outdoors, a reason to just get out and appreciate and enjoy nature,” he said.

Iowa’s first volunteer-based frog and toad call survey took place in 1984 and became a yearly event in 1991.

The volunteers visit streams, ponds and wetlands at night, when amphibians are most vocal, and rely exclusively on their trained ears to identify the species of the singers and croakers.

Robert and Connie Mutel have been monitoring frogs and toads near their rural Solon home since 1993, when they used a DNR-provided tape to learn their calls.

Ecologist and author Connie Mutel said they monitor six sites for five minutes each during visits in April, May and June.

“My sense is that they are not as common as they once were, but I am pleased that we still hear all the ones we did originally,” she said.

Because amphibians are bellwethers for changes in water quality and climate, Mutel said she thinks the surveys are more important than ever.

Apart from contributing important data, Mutel said “getting to know the night is really fun, one of the high points of spring for us.”

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In an essay written earlier this year, her husband, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said, “Frogs are not just congenial companions on summer nights. They are also sensitive bioindicators, harbingers of environmental change, (whose) near-term future is threatened by loss of habitat, toxic chemicals and infectious diseases.”

The DNR is partnering with conservation departments in Dallas, Sac, Scott and Wapello counties to host workshops.

Bird workshops will be held on two Saturdays, one near Ottumwa on March 7 and one near Perry on March 14.

Frog and toad survey workshops will be held April 10 in Scott County, April 13 in Dallas County and April 16 in Sac County. For more information visit the Iowa DNR website or email vwmp@dnr.iowa.gov

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