Mary Harper, of Margate, always appreciated birds. But she couldn't name every species she saw, like serious birders could. And she never imagined she'd do research that would help protect shorebird nesting areas.
That changed after being trained in identifying and counting shorebirds for New Jersey Audubon's Citizen Scientist volunteer program about six years ago, and doing weekly counts in several locations in Spring and Fall. "I'm a very serious shorebirder now," said the retired vocational rehabilitation counselor.
She even leads groups of birders at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, Galloway Township, and has had a direct impact on conservation efforts in Atlantic County.
Citizen Scientists have surveyed grasslands birds, pinelands birds, piedmont species, shorebirds, night jars, herons and others. The program gives volunteers the training and opportunity to develop high level skills in a particular field of ornithology, and contribute to the work of professional scientists.
Harper first volunteered as an eagle nest monitor in Cumberland and Cape May counties. She then took up the task of surveying shorebirds. She had to learn about their migratory, feeding and nesting habits and how to identify the different birds by species. Since many shorebirds are small, look a lot alike and tend to gather in large numbers, it took a lot of study.
For shorebird counts, Harper was assigned to Malibu Beach Wildlife Management Area on the causeway between Longport and Ocean City, also known as Dog Beach; to the adjacent Seaview Harbor Beach; and to the Klingener Fishing Pier, part of the Atlantic County Park System, off of Route 152 about halfway between Somers Point and Longport.
She documented how important the areas are for shorebird nesting, and her work helped convince the state to rope off areas of both Malibu Beach and Seaview Harbor, for protected bird nesting. Seaview Harbor beach is the home of the biggest black skimmer nesting colony in the state, Harper said.
"That's the whole thing with citizen science. It's factual. It provides scientific data to base decisions," she said.
The spring count, from May 1 to June 10, involves surveying each site once a week as the birds stop over in concentrated numbers on their way from South America to the Arctic to breed. The fall count runs from mid-July to Nov. 1, and requires surveys every 10 days, she said. It counts the shorebirds on their way back from the Arctic to the southern hemisphere, and they straggle back over a longer time period, she said.
Last summer she and other citizen scientists presented papers at the Waterbird Society's conference in Cape May, she said.
"We got to go and hobnob with all the famous, famous birders," she said, of the people who attended the international conference. "It was fabulous."
The Citizen Scientist program got started through conversations between New Jersey Audubon and the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species program of the Department of Environmental Protection, said Nellie Tsipoura, of Piscataway, research director and director of Citizen Science for New Jersey Audubon Society.
She and her husband own a condominium in Wildwood, and spend lots of time birdwatching in southern New Jersey, she said.
"We realized we needed a lot more information for (wildlife) management," Tsipoura said. "Since New Jersey Audubon has a very good track record of finding and surveying birds, and working with volunteers, it was a logical way to do it."
The program started in the summer of 2004 with about 30 volunteers doing the first shorebird survey, she said. Now there are about 100 volunteers, in all of the counting programs statewide, she said.
"Most of the people we have working with us are midlevel birders. They can identify birds fairly well, but they are not experts," said Tsipoura, who has a doctorate in ecology and evolution, and did all her research on birds. Some programs demand more specific talents, she said. Grasslands volunteers have to identify species by ear, which requires both willingness to study recorded calls, and excellent hearing.
"Some calls are high pitched, and older observers can't hear them," she said, even after the training.
She said the program accepts teen volunteers, as long as they can get transportation to the different sites. "We have had teens whose moms drive them around," she said.
Kathleen Roye-Horn is an epidemiologist and director of infection prevention for Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, Hunterdon County. She lives during the week in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., but she and contractor husband Roger Horn come down to their second home in Villas every weekend.
They do grasslands surveys and night jar surveys as volunteer Citizen Scientists, in both the northern and southern part of the state.
"We have properties we survey in Hunterdon County before work in the morning," she said. "We have to be at sites by 6 a.m., and I'm not a morning person either. But for this, I'll do it."
They are both also volunteer associate naturalists at the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May Point and Cape May Court House.
They caught the birding bug about 15 years ago, after going on a group walk in Hunterdon County with Don Freiday, formerly with the Cape May Bird Observatory and now the visitor services manager at the Forsythe reserve.
"He stood in the parking lot and identified birds just by sound. I was dumbstruck by his talent," Roye-Horn said.
Ron Smith, 40, of Merchantville in Camden County, and a teacher at Haddonfield High School, has been doing shorebird counts at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge for about six years, he said.
He is a former instructor in the New Jersey Governor's School on the Environment, that used to be run out of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township. The free summer program for serious students was eliminated after last year's session due to budget problems, but when it was running Smith had students help out with the shorebird counts, he said.
"Nellie came in and trained Governor's School students on techniques for the shorebird survey," Smith said. "Then I continued with students from Haddonfield. It's been great in that students have had the opportunity to do hands-on work."
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If you are interested
New Jersey Audubon is recruiting Citizen Scientists for the 2011 Grassland Bird Survey. Survey sites are still available in Salem County. Volunteers must attend one training session in April, and then visit survey sites three times between May 15 to 31 and again between June 1 to 15. Contact Kristin Munafo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn about the next training for shorebird or harbor heron Citizen Scientists programs, with survey sites in southeastern New Jersey, email Tsipoura at email@example.com