Citizen Science at ASNV

By Lisa Mackem

On September 22, ASNV awarded James (Jim) Waggener National Audubon Society’s prestigious Great Egret Award in recognition of his outstanding citizen science contribution. Jim is only the second person from ASNV to receive this award. He is a naturalist, who began the Occoquan Monitoring Program 30 years ago after retiring from foreign service. His survey draws volunteers from across the region who help document the presence and abundance of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and first bloom dates of plants in the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Julie Metz Memorial - Neabsco Creek Wetlands Preserve, and Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area.

Jim Waggoner and ASNV President Tom Blackburn; photo by Laura McDonald

Jim Waggoner and ASNV President Tom Blackburn; photo by Laura McDonald

The September 22 Audubon Afternoon focused on citizen science. Speakers, Leslie Ries and Elise Larsen, from the Georgetown University Ries Laboratory of Butterfly Informatics, summarized the history of citizen science. Leslie started with Frank Chapman, who began Christmas bird counts in 1900. In those early days, Chapman had to promote the idea of counting birds rather than shooting them. In the 1950’s, Fred Urquhart became interested in monarch migration and engaged the public to tag them. Chip Taylor took over this program in 1992. Both speakers cited Ernie Pollard, who developed a method for surveying butterflies in England in the 1970’s. His surveys accounted for fluctuating abundances throughout the season and for weather sensitivity. Pollard developed the most common survey protocol for butterflies and Pollard Walks and counts continue today.

Jim Waggener has also developed survey protocols. His Occoquan Monitoring Program was one of the first general butterfly monitoring programs, and anticipated a trend toward multi-species surveys. Leslie Ries learned about Jim’s surveys through Laura McDonald, ASNV Program Manager, and has begun to digitize the surveys’ data. 

Occoquan data has been added to eBird, Cornell Ornithology Lab’s online data base for bird observations. Leslie Ries noted promising trends in suburbs – when people planted native plants and stopped using pesticides they saw butterflies return. 

Jim Waggener credited digitization, application of INaturalist, the daily work of volunteers in the field, and resources of the Northern Virginia Audubon Society for his survey’s success. 

Occoquan Monitoring Program, the Christmas Bird Count, Birdathon, and other wildlife counts continue regularly and always need volunteers.