Social Media Hooks Scientists with Citizens Scientists

franktakeoffdlswmEven in the most connected among us, there are doubts that the time we spend on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr or substitute your own favorite network has real value.  Those of us who write for a living use it to promote our content, but really what lasting contribution does our time with social media make?

My Twitter feed gives me most of my daily news.  Facebook has connected me with high school friends including some that I hardly knew.  Still there must be a way to utilize our social networking time and skills to do more than read the news and renew old friendships.

A feathered visitor to the marshes around our home near Swansboro, North Carolina helped me discover there can be some real scientific value in social networking.

In late December of 2012, I was paddling back in from a kayak trip on the White Oak River.  The light was fading but as I neared home, I spotted a great egret in the distance.  I see lots of great egrets but this egret was different. He had red splotches on his wings.  I took a picture of him with my Nikon Coopix P500 which has a 36X zoom, but I still could not tell what the red spot was.  Next I tried my Canon Vixia HF R300 with 51X zoom and filmed the egret for a minute or two.  When I got home, my wife and I examined the pictures and video.  We were still stumped.

We guessed the great egret might have gotten tangled in a deflating red balloon with a string.  The egret was back in a couple of days and was not nearly as shy.  From the two tags on his wings with the now clearly readable “29x” it was obvious that he had been tagged. We found out from posting a picture on Facebook that the Egret had been seen hanging around a local fast food drive-in and had picked up the name Frank.

We let it go at that until Frank decided our marsh was his home. The tags intrigued us and I contacted a local bird expert whose research told him that our bird was “a product of some studies in Ontario by the New York Ornithological Association.”

I soon found the name and email of Susan Elbin of the New York City Audubon.  I sent her an email and quickly got back a reply that my bird was likely one of Chip Weseloh’s Ontario birds.  Chip works for the Canadian Wildlife Service.  It took a few emails back and forth, but we got confirmation that Frank AKA 29x was tagged on Nottawasaga Island in Lake Huron as a nestling in June 2012.  Frank’s perch in our marsh was 1,435 kilometers from his birth nest.

Chip was very interested in our sightings and asked for me to provide updates. I tried a couple of things, first a daily Google map with Frank on it, and then a daily photo album with a picture map.  Then Susan suggested that I create a Facebook page for Frank.

That was easy to do. Anyone can find and “Like” Frank or even be his friend on Facebook by searching for “Frank29x.” Still I thought there just has to be a better way. Then my wife had the brilliant suggestion that Frank needed a Twitter account.  Now Frank29x Tweets his location and it is easy to know where he is when he is sighted.  As Susan Elbin said, “How cool is that? Frank is now Tweeting.”

All of this has worked well.  The scientists are getting lots of information about Frank and I feel like I am contributing to their research on one of my favorite birds.  I also feel like my social media skills have been put to good use.

Now I have even been contacted by a North Carolina egret ecologist who wants me to help him put geo transmitters on egrets this spring. Soon we might be able to follow great egrets like we do Mary Lee, the great white shark.