I have found it good to be a citizen scientist. I count butterflies in Midlothian on hot, still summer afternoons, moths at dawn, thrushes in winter and ducks all the year round. I downloaded lots of charts for a seaweed survey , and then hid them under the sofa when I realised how hard it was.
I ve counted every bird that moved or tweeted over two hour periods on Loch Long, the coast of Angus, the Moorfoot Hills and down the Tyne valley.
So I provide data. I think of it as pouring it into a huge information funnel. The methodology employed in these surveys is to reduce the Citizen’s individual choice to a minimum and to move through the task, as much as possible, as an automaton following an algorithm in the service of science. Soon this work will be done by drones and the ID apps many of have already downloaded onto our mobiles.
Once the algorithms have whirred and docked and the stat boffins have had a look , someone will write a paper and the Comms Dept will send out a press release to the media which will indicate the percentage reduction in INSERT NAME HERE And, if it makes the headlines on a quiet news day, people ( such as the folk who volunteer for the charities) will despair and a few others might be alarmed and join up, but mostly it will just pass out into more data.
As I plod the grouse moor counting meadow pipits I wonder if it would really make a difference if I d just stayed in bed and made something plausible up. Say 42 meadow pipits against the 44 were actually there. Maybe the more interesting question is why i didnt.
There is an anecdote in Birders by Mark Cocker, about a twitcher who in order to boost his ailing reputation created a false sighting of a rare vagrant bird by photographing one he had constructed out of wood in a remote field in Lincolnshire which then caused several hundred other birders to race there to try and confirm the sighting. Once the photograph is studied closely, and the hoax ( in birding terms,’string’) is suspected, the twitcher leaves the country in shame.. Although the story could be seen as amusing or tragic, my response to it was great outrage – I ve never been a twitcher, or really hung out much with other birders, but I do see their reports of ‘what is about’ and will exchange this type of information freely if I ever meet anyone on a site, usually with the proviso of , ‘I think’. It is a community of trust- perhaps the only thing that makes it a community.. and to belong to it requires a commitment to being as accurate as possible – which might involve bigger and better optics, or in my case, letting others decide how they judge my competence. So just to be clear I saw 44 meadow pipits on the tetrad that morning, and my effort involved in finding that out clearly places me as an amateur naturalist ( which does give me some pride).
Data reduces idiosyncracy to numbers. We had a lot of trouble with the crow in the trap. On the highest point of the bald headlands of the shooting estate they had placed an enclosure containing a live young carrion crow. This is a crow trap, which in days of yore would have been tucked out of the way in nooks and crannies, with an air of secrecy, but in this intensely ‘governed place’ it is held high as a gallows visible for miles. the crow in the trap attracts the inquisitive corvids for miles around which enter through a net funnel and are then stuck there until the gamekeeper appears to shoot them. This is all legal (well as long as the trap is licensed ,which SNH is happy to provide) . The one act of apparent clemency is that there is a source of water in the trap and it is supposed to be emptied each day- and I m sure all the gamekeepers will be driving 15 miles up a bumpy dirt track to do that, with no one else to look over his shoulder.
My discussion with the support team concerns whether I count the crow in the trap, which will have been a resident of the woods around the gamekeepers cottage , unlike the high moor ravens which it will lure into the trap. They tell me that the rules are to count only wild birds using the area, so it doesnt go on the list, and that particular blip in the data will disappear. As, I decide , will be the possible hen harrier sighting I have on the way back – I m not hopeful for its future, and feel I that keeping its secret is the best I can do for it. Gamekeepers read citizen science too.
But I actively enjoy all this so maybe I should work out why.
Firstly I d be doing it ( or something like it) anyway. And although there are good critiques of identification as dominion and classification as control and speciation as anthropocentrism I find this engages me in place and space. It makes me turn up , and test what I ‘know’. Of course naming is not knowing, but the process of turning the data that my body can collect into the impression of something known ( or comparing something new with something known) is knowledge which floats between subjectivity and objectivity.
Who knows if I saw a hen harrier – how would I know, what something flapping away into the mist over a moorland would be? If I m honest what happens with birds is I hear the names in my head . This is not something I would share widely – either with birders or with post structuralist reading groups. Birders have the term jizz for the thing that philosophers (non post structuralists) call essence (one of the possible origins of this word is as an Irish term for ‘spirit’) . Post structuralist birders would argue that our intention can often create the sense of essence on a drab brown canvas(back, birder joke there- might take it out later), that we can see what we wish to. But most of them would acknowledge we are usually usefully ( ontically) approximate with things we already know, and aware of the mystery ( ontology)of something we don’t.
All the places I ve surveyed have remained clear to me as memories both as events in my life and as places I belong ( or in the case of the grouse moor am exiled from). I think I can guess why. It is a fairly overwhelming experience to differentiate between every birdsong for two hours at near dawn in a wood, but you do get a sense of the size of all that. It becomes say, blackbird (alarm call), song thrush (song) chiffchaff(song), wren (alarm call) chiffchaff ( competing song), Buzzard ( over), blue tit ( alarm call), blackbird ( alarm call), wren ( alarm call , again).
Thats a memory – probably fifteen years old of a particular May morning in a wood near my home, where I ve been many times since without competing associations , but I always recall it.
The butterflies have taught me a different way of looking. Downwards and into the mid distance and for particular composite shades of brown, blue ,or white ( which I think if its a shade is technically grey), and to make as much as possible of a glimpse.
Moths I am learning slowly. I stumble up just after dawn to a plastic bucket topped with a funnel and a glowing orb above suggesting a mis sized UFO has crashlanded in the bushes. Inside resting on egg boxes ( dont know why but theyre important) are the moths. Moth wing patterns make faces for the birds to peck at ( known as oceli) while their real insecty wriggly cores have a chance to escape intact. Even at rest they seem to be signalling something to us that we cant quite grasp.
The moths also go out of the bucket ( officially trap) and into my phone in pictorial form. Someone asked me if they could come along when I empty the trap at their local patch, and I made an excuse. I dont actually identify anything at 4am, and I think that s a good thing. I do it at home , usually when watching sport. There is not yet an app for moths, so their obscurity and awkward features have so far stopped my failing eyes becoming obsolete.
Opening the trap you have a sense of numbers of Beings staring back at you, poised for lift off. They sometimes rev up like an archaic car on a cold damp morning ( most dawns feel like cold damp mornings). On bad days I put them in Tupperware containers and cool them off in a fridge for a few hours until i have the energy for the ID challenge, and after having their mug shots taken they wobble back out to occluded lives amongst the bushes.
Victorian moth-ers ( Lepidopterists on Sundays) gave them names often reflecting their wing patterns, but also indicate the sense of something else going on. The Deathshead you ll have heard of- I think its in Silence of the Lambs- but also, Mother Shipton, Quakers , Non-conformists, Moons ,Satellites, Sphinx, Brocades, Dogs tooth, Ground Lackey and the Hebrew Character. Those without imagination might think that these were merely attempts to try to retain focus in trying to differentiate between hundreds of similar small brown and grey striped fluttering insects. I think there s a little bit more to it – perhaps an instinctive response that the patterns and sudden movements are designed to make on our internal bird brains.
I dont actually believe citizen scientists beome automaton recorders . We choose our routes , we choose what way to look, and what to be interested in -what to notice and what to ignore. Every point when looked at closely enough beomes a line or a form. Every instant a period.
For the Winter Thrush Survey we were offered the ‘opportunity’ to do ‘bonus’ tetrads over the (interminable ) Xmas holidays. I got the sewage works ( surprisingly good for blackbirds) and an undistinguished slope on a sheep walk in the Lammermuirs. I walked around it on the 27 of December for the alloted hour and confirmed it contained no thrushes and then on the way back to my car in the gathering 3pm gloom found the largest flock or fieldfares I ve ever seen eating spilt grain in a ploughed field. It looked like the grey ground was creeping forward as they moved along. Not on the tetrad though. It was a relief not to have to count them, but seemed somehow remiss.
Sometimes as I count I remember the Borges story about the map https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Exactitude_in_Science. It suggests that the most exact version of the thing is the thing itself and we are drawn through improving our methods towards creating an exact replica of whats there to the extent it becomes an expression, and maybe obscures what we wanted to experience anyway. I guess in those terms I could see citizen science as a response to precariousness, change and loss , and my own participation in it as a way to be present with the creatures and places which are already ( but perhaps always) slipping away from us.
What is it that the detailed knowledge of everything would give us? Control? Omnipotence? Predictability? I think for me its awe. Its a sense a sample if you like of profusion of quite how much is outside me , how much i can gather and how much will always remain.