Citizen Science

NRS citizen science programs put more eyes on the land to make valuable observations about our changing world. Amateur researchers further our understanding of plant responses, animal behaviors, and climate cycles while deepening their connections with nature.

Sedgwick Phenology
Volunteers learn to identify plant parts at a California Phenology Project training at Sedgwick Reserve. Image credit: Brian Haggerty

Science of the Seasons
The California Phenology Project has trained dozens of docents, teachers, and other volunteers to observe and record the passage life stages of selected plants over many years. By observing the date of events such as leaf out, fruit production, and leaf drop in plant life cycles, members of the public help track the effects of climate change on state ecosystems. More than 100 sites at eight reserves (Carpinteria Salt Marsh, Coal Oil Point Reserve, Hastings Natural History Reservation, Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve, Sedgwick Reserve, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve, Valentine Camp) and seven national parks are being monitored in the program.

clapper rail
Floating nest platforms at Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve improve the breeding success of the endangered light-footed clapper rail. Image credit: Roy Little

Bringing Back Native Species

A large number of NRS reserves are involved in restoring native biodiversity to California’s altered landscapes. The community docent program at Coal Oil Point Reserve educates beachgoers about endangered western snowy plovers nesting in the dunes, and helps ensure the rookery remains undisturbed by hikers, dogs, and others using the publicly accessible beach. Volunteers at McLaughlin Natural Reserve remove invasive weeds and test new ways to encourage native plant regrowth. The state’s rarest amphibian, the southern mountain yellow-legged frog, is being reintroduced to the wild at the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve from captive-bred animals. San Joaquin Marsh Reserve provides seeds and plants with local genotypes for revegetation projects. At Sedgwick Reserve, docents run a native plant nursery to restore reserve landscapes. Floating artificial nest platforms at Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve protect eggs and young of the federally endangered Ridgeway’s rail from predators and high tides.

American avocet
American avocet at San Joaquin Marsh Reserve. Image credit: Eric Doran

Species Documentation

Monitoring the types of species that frequent each reserve helps biologists track California’s biodiversity. At San Joaquin Marsh Reserve, the local chapter of the Audubon Society conducts bird counts every month as well as snag surveys identifying how birds use dead trees on the reserve for nesting, foraging, and roosting. The information helps track the long-term health of bird populations in Orange County and documents the value of natural lands as avian habitat. 

Students and the public are also often invited to reserves to help conduct bioblitzes—efforts to find and identify as many species as possible in a day or two. Bioblitzes sometimes involve taking samples or photos of species and conferring with experts to confirm identifications. Others, such as the CALeDNA project, asks volunteers to take soil samples that are screened for genetic material that can pinpoint species recently present in the environment.

Such citizen scientists can use the iNaturalist app to upload image records of plants and animals sighted at NRS reserves. Volunteers at Sagehen Creek Field Station, for example, have documented more than 800 taxa over thousands of observations. Information on the presence and absence of reserve biota helps researchers evaluate ecosystem health and monitor the impacts of climate change and other stressors on California’s biodiversity.