Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Teaching Resources for Natural History Field and Lab Courses Through Distance Learning

I am a mammal ecologist, and teach a variety of biology, ecology, and natural resources courses.   I have started to assemble resources for how to transition these traditionally, fundamentally in-person lessons, to online learning.  Although these are widely crucial for learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also valuable for being inclusive to those with varying ability to go out in the field.  I'm grateful for any additional resource you would like to add.

Field Journal Blog to replace Field Notebook -   
  • Have students create a blog post (or entire blog, depending on the assignment) with all the same information that they would normally include in a field notebook, slight modification to Grinellian.  Blogger offers free accounts, and they can be set to private (shared only with prof) or public, per student preference.  Do the grading by reviewing blog instead of physical notebooks.  Or just via Google Docs - that might be easier to use the existing tech.  Nature Illustrator John Muir Laws made his book "How to Teach Nature Journaling" freely available to educators as a PDF download.  
Virtual Google Street View Tour to replace Field Trip - 

  • Good Street view is a feature that allows you to get a cars eye view of just about anywhere with a road in the U.S.  There are roads driving through every national park, every habitat type etc.  I've actually had to do this class once before (wildfire smoke closures on field trip day), and it was a surprising success.  In 6 hours we visited places with interesting and unique habitats all over the United States, and taught students to recognize and identify different natural communities.  I just shared my internet browsers, showing Google Maps on Streetview mode, over a Zoom lecture.  

  • I put together a Google My Map of different habitat types around UC Davis for a course a couple of years ago.  This could be a decent starting point for a virtual tour.            
  • Many national parks offer virtual tours as well.  
Geocaching to Replace Navigation - 
  • Geocaching is a hobby, and requires navigation to coordinates.  There is a whole community who hid caches and post coordinates and hints to find them, and there are nearby geocaches nearly everywhere.  Smartphones have built in GPS, and those function similar to Garmins/Trible (just lower precision)  But that brings people outside, possibly into public or unsupervised in natural areas - so not always appropriate.  
Behavioral Field Studies - 
  • Most Zoos have nest cams or animal cams in many of their exhibits.  There are also eagle cams and other nest cams made public in many natural areas.  These are live time, and you can still have the student practice behavior observation methods of wild animals (vs. their cat or goldfish).  
 Species Accumulation Curve (Time and Space)-
  • Time: Have students go out and identify all of the species in their yard, and write the time next to the identification, then plot the total number of species along the Y-axis and the time passed from the start of survey on the x-axis.  This shows that the more time spent during a survey, the more species identified.   
  • Space: If they have access to somewhere they can safely walk, have them do a transect where they identify every new species for a set distance.  Plot total number of species identified every set distance. See how far they have to walk before the species accumulation curve levels off. 
Plant Sampling - 
  • Count and compare the plant species in plot of a manicured garden and plot of a natural or unmaintained area.  Can use the results to calculate one of the biodiversity indices.  To create a quadrat with items on hand, they can use a pencil in the dirt and a shoelace, or a hoola hoop.   Optional additional topics, consider the percentage of non-native vs. native species.  
  • Conduct a tree census of their yard or street.  Determine species (iNaturalist can help), take DBH, record coordinates.  Then maybe use something like like i-Tree Design to calculate the environmental benefits of those trees.  
  • Use the Point-Centered Quarter Sampling Method to map yard/street trees.  Maybe adapt to shrubs just for the practice?  Methodology example available here (needs modification for suburban/urban landscapes).  
  • Track Phenology.  The National Phenology Network -  - has a lot of teaching resources, and citizen science projects that can be transitioned to online labs.  Including Nature's Notebook, with predesigned curricula.   

Field Sampling, Taxonomy Labs, Analysis - 
  • The American Society of Mammalogists crowdsourced teaching resources from among their members.  These cover both taxonomy labs and field course suggestions.  The document summarizing their suggestions is a wonderful resource, even including full lesson plans, is available here - 
  • Participate in Cornell's Feeder Watch Citizen Science program (comes with a "Research Kit" the students can use).  
  • Participate in one of the Zooniverse research projects by respected organization.  These are designed to facilitate citizen participation in real research.  Has projects in many categories, including Nature, Biology.  Some tasks include identification of species on camera traps.  
Natural Resource Data Analysis - 
  • Use an existing publicly available database from iNaturalist, eBird, MoveBankEDDIE (datasets and teaching modules), or NEON.  
  • Data Nuggets - "Data Nuggets are free classroom activities, co-designed by scientists and teachers. When using Data Nuggets students are provided with the details of authentic science research projects, and then get to work through an activity that gives them practice looking for patterns and developing explanations about natural phenomena using the scientific data from the study."
Guest Speakers to replace Field Practice - 
  • A panel of guest speakers (via Zoom) of wildlife researchers, citizen science program managers, land managers.  The professionals are going to share a bit about the work they do, and the logistical challenges to that work and how they manage it. Talking in detail about the parts of doing the fieldwork that usually get glossed over in conference presentations.  Switching direct experiential learning of fieldwork to indirect experience through storytelling. The assignments are moving from field reports, to live time questions (which they post to the discussion board so I can grade participation), applying course material to the guest speaker topic.  
Equipment Substitutions-

  • GPS - Smartphones generally have compass and GPS apps available for free.  The GPS apps function similar to a Garmin, and in an area with WiFi, have comparable accuracy.  
  • DBH Tape - Sewing Tape/Tailor's Measure + Math
Other Resources -

  • Extensive Workbook of Ecology and Environmental Science Resources, from Lectures to Labs -

I will update this as I get additional ideas/resources.

Physically Distanced Citizen Science Community Building

Following the guidance of the best available modern modeling and medicine, we are all physically distancing and socially reaching out in every way we can.  As my children and I, and my community, all howled into the night, connecting in such a primal way, we were joined by the neighborhood dogs,  the coyotes on the back hill, and the always gleeful neighborhood turkeys.  It was dark enough that we could no longer see bats, and a great horned owl swooped down from the trees, soaring maybe 10' overhead, before silently gliding down the valley.  The rest of the ecosystem is still humming around our little containment pods.

This has been a busy time here.  I am teaching University science and field-classes, suddenly on-line, while also guiding my elementary-aged children through distance learning.  I've found myself grateful for the abundance of citizen science projects that are still available for people to participate in, especially in Marin.  These can still be participated in while following all of the Shelter in Place orders required by this and surrounding counties, and are all free.  Here are some of my favorites.

iNaturalist   - At its heart, this is a place where everyone in the world can share pictures and sightings of the plants and animals that they find with others.  You do not need to know what they are.  But it is really so much more.  For even beginning naturalists or the idly curious this App, and the associated iNaturalist community, will help you identify the species that you found.  The App offers a very good suggestions for the species in a photograph using built in pattern recognition software.  Then, once you submit an observation, the iNaturalist community will either verify your observation, or offer suggested alternatives.  You don't need to do anything with this additional information if you don't want to.  The information that is submitted to iNaturalist becomes part of a global mapping of the distributions of plants and animals over space and time.  The data can be used to track patterns of migrations, discovery range shifts, and many other scientific pursuits.  And - you don't need to trek off into the wilderness for this, your yard is a perfect place to start.  You can document the birds that come your your feeder, even the ones that come every day, the deer that trot down the street, the bay tree that grows in your yard, the mushrooms that pop up behind a rock in your garden, the western fence lizard that suns on your porch, the slender salamander you find under a stepping stone, the snail in your garden, the California maidenhair fern that pops up by your fence, the crows that fly overhead in the evening, the lichen and moss growing on bricks, the coyote sighting that you shared on NextDoor. It's even important to document where invasive species are, like the yellow flowered shrub, french broom that pops up on our hillsides.  This app will track your observations for you.  There is also an iNaturalist program specifically to document animals living insides homes, like spiders and ladybugs.  There is an associated App for children, called Seek.  Seek does not track location information, but it does allow children to earn badges for finding and identifying plants and animals.

eBird - eBird is similar to iNaturalist, although it is designed specifically for the birding community.  Also has an App.  You can track your life lists, get alerts about rare bird sightings etc.  This data can also be used to show how species migrate over time.

The River Otter Ecology Project - The Otter Spotter program one is truly a homegrown citizen science opportunity.  The founders of this organization are locals.  The premise is easy, if you see a River Otter, tell them using the online form.  Otter spotter reports allowed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to revise the official distribution map for this species!  I've made Otter Spotter reports from Otters spotted from a parking lot before.  This is a fun and easy way to share those exciting spots.  And its totally fine to share ones that you saw a few years ago too!

Zooniverse Snapshot Safari - Help researchers categorize the images taken with wildlife cameras around the world.  Zooniverse is the world’s largest platform for citizens to participate in active research projects. More than a million volunteers around the world assist professional researchers remotely. Their Snapshot Safari gives you direct access to images collected with researchers during wildlife camera trapping studies, and you give you best guess to identify what is in the photo.  There are tutorials.  It is not expected that you know all the animals.  They just ask that you do your best!  There is a local version of this in Marin, The Wildlife Picture Index, through OneTam.  However, this was done in person and is temporarily on hold.

The following are some of my favorite nature observation Apps.

iBird - A field ID guide for birds with loads of cool features, like limiting the options to species likely to be found near you that time of year, pictures and illustrations of multiple forms, a button to show you similar looking species, and a library of calls for each species.

Sky Guide - For finding out where the constellations are during The Howl, a map of the stars in the sky.  It uses position detection of the phone to show you the stars that are right behind the phone, including the constellations and planets.

I will periodically update this with additional resources and opportunities.  Thank you for your contribution to our knowledge of the natural world!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mountain Lions in Marin County

Would you believe that prior to some recent efforts, the last published, scientifically verified, mountain lion in Marin County was in 1931!  This charismatic animal had accumulated many fleeting sightings in local lore in the following decades, but there was sparse verifiable evidence (e.g. a clear photograph or museum specimen) that could bump the sightings up a notch to merit a place in the scientific record. 

With the relatively recent increased availability of motion-activated wildlife cameras (camera traps), wary species like the mountain lion are more readily documented.  I highly recommend checking out Nature of a Man and Sebastian Kennerknecht to see masterful camera trap imagery of this species. 

Local biologist, Ginny Fifield, combined good, old-fashioned tracking prowess with the technology of camera traps, and did a lovely job of documenting our local mountain lions.  She has been consistently documenting one local male since 2010.  Her work was recently published, and is available here, including photos of this fellow and a description about what makes him unique.  He is still quietly living his life here, and photos and videos of him are continually being added to in the "Mountain Lions in Marin County" gallery.

There are now a number of other project which have also been documenting this species locally, and I look forward to learning more about this species in the coming years. 

And if news of this species occurring here is new to you, I encourage you to be excited and not concerned.  Mountain lion attacks on humans are VERY rare, in the past 125 years, (since 1890) there have been only 16 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California, and few of those were fatal.  Taking a bath or owning a puppy is much more hazardous statistically.  Mountain lions really prefer to avoid people and enjoy their deer dinner in peace. 

For additional information on Mountain Lions in California:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ring Mountain Wildflower Hike

We went on a hike to Ring Mountain in Tiburon last weekend.  This location is known for it's native wildflowers, and the wildflowers are up!  And not only the early spring wildflowers, many later season species were already blooming also.  The drought seems to have compressed the blooming schedule into a quite a show.

Here are some of the beauties we saw.

 Calochortus (umbellatus?)

Achillea millefolium  and 


Platystemon californicus

Lasthenia (californica?)                                                       

Lasthenia and Layia platyglossa 


Quite a view these plants have

Nice bouldering also

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Juvenile Western Fence Lizard

In early August, I noticed this little fellow darting around the rocks.

I didn't recognize it at first, but the marking and toes looked rather familiar.  It turns out this is a juvenile Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), also known as the Blue-Belly.  We are in the heart of it's range, and the adults are a common summer sight here.  As an adult, this little one will be about 20 cm.

This species generally hatches in August, and this photo was taken in early August, so it is possible this one is only a week or so old.  However, as JK over at Camera Trapping Campus pointed out, many species (plants and animals) were running a bit early this year, so it is possible that it is a bit older.  Still a fairly young one though.

I've seen additional juveniles this week. They are a bit more stretched out now, and a lot faster.   But I'm optimistic at least one was a sighting of this one growing up.

Thank you JK with the help on ID

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Playful Pups

My son really wanted to go fishing for his sixth birthday.  I hadn't actually done this myself, so we spent some time on Google, and headed up to our local lake (Alpine Lake for the locals), to enthusiastically pretend I knew how to fish.  When we got there, we were overjoyed to instead be greeted by a family of river otters (Lontra canadensis).
Which is my better side?  This one? 
Or maybe this one?
The entire family didn't greet us at once.  The first glimpse we got was auditory, a happy crunching sound as an adult made short work of crayfish.  We'd see a sleek brown head pop up near some reeds, and then animated noshing.  The otter would then dive back down, it's body curling up out of the water as it went, and a few minutes later it would pop up with another crustacean.


Crunch crunch

We had pulled the hooks off the lines, as we didn't want to catch an otter, and were watching the otter's antics for awhile, while flame skimmer dragonflies cruised by.  After awhile, the otter disappeared, and from a patch of reeds we heard a "unh unh unh" call, and were thrilled when that one otter became four.  I couldn't tell it was four until we looked at the photos later.  In the moment it was just one big wiggling, squiggling tumble of squeaks and splashes.

Looking at the pics, you can see that some of the otters are slightly smaller.  We think these are pups from this year (likely born around February).

We watched from a distance until the family made it's way down a creek.

After a few more practice casts, and jumps in the water after minnows, the kid was happy and ready to head home.  We submitted our Otter Spotter Report, and called it a day.

References and Additional Information
River Otter Species Info:
River Otter Ecology Project:
Crayfish Wiki -
Fun article on Non-Scientific Names of Crayfish -
David Herlocker on local dragonflies -

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tired Turkey

This is just something cute to share.  Our local mother wild turkey brought her new brood by the backyard today.  The terrain is hilly with lot's of obstacles, like steps and vegetation.  This little one got tired of navigating the grass, and took a 30 second power nap in the sun on the way past. 

We can hear the brood making it's way around, constantly peeping at varies distances behind mom.  They are learning the ropes.  Click here to see some of last years crew, and here for 2011 (where I also learned to respect mamma turkey!).  
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