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Who wants to be a scientist?

By Courtney Baker,
Orillia Packet and Times,
August 11 2017

Who doesn’t want to be a scientist? It is one of the most intriguing jobs on Earth. Nothing else has that same sense of wonder and discovery applied to it.

Being a scientist was always a dream of mine, but I meandered down another path in life – a path that did not include much science until recently, when I realized I could become a citizen scientist. I took the opportunity to become a property monitor at the Alexander Hope Smith Nature Reserve, protected by the Couchiching Conservancy, in Washago. And I am hooked.

On our first walk, ghost plant was everywhere. It is a beautiful and mysterious plant, and I have never seen so much of it. On our second walk, seeing beautiful fungus, following tracks in the mud and finding what can only be described as the world’s cutest salamanders have made property monitoring addictive. Property monitoring takes your usual walk in the woods – for peace, quiet and exercise – and turns it into something dynamic.

I enjoy normal strolls through wilderness, but with me and my partners, there are three sets of eyes looking for markers of a healthy environment, species at risk or, unfortunately, invasive species. With training from the Couchiching Conservancy, we have the confidence to know what is significant and what should be recorded on the property. It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I am finished, and pride that I have contributed to a better understanding of the world around me.

Citizen science is becoming more important by the day, especially in Canada. Our country is vast and has a small population. We need people on the ground because there are simply not enough researchers to cover all the land out there. Science needs your help. Climate change is already causing animals and plants to pop up in places they wouldn’t normally appear. Some species are changing their regular migration habits, while others are waking up too early from hibernation – and on and on the list goes. These signs are Earth telling us things are changing. And if we want to be a successful species ourselves, we need to understand, record and act on these changes.

There are so many ways to contribute to a better understanding of the world. There are regular butterfly and dragonfly counts, most naturalist clubs have bird counts (there are several clubs in our area) and the Couchiching Conservancy has opportunities for water monitoring and property monitoring, with reptile and amphibian monitoring coming in the spring of 2018. Even the Nature Conservancy of Canada has events in our region. And if your schedule is too busy to make it to structured meetings, there is always a way to participate on your own, or on regular walks with your family. The Great Canadian Bumble Bee Count is going on now, organized by Friends of the Environment. If you see a frog, salamander, turtle or other amphibian or reptile, you can add your sightings to the Reptile and Amphibian Atlas provided by Ontario Nature. (Amphibian species are remarkably sensitive to their environments and they are valuable markers of the health of an ecosystem.) From November to April, when we are often in the house anyway, you can enjoy watching local bird life at your feeders and submit birds to Project Feeder Watch by Bird Studies Canada.

These are all ways you can make meaningful contributions to the environment. You will contribute to the Couchiching region, to Ontario and to the world’s understanding of the complexities of nature. So, join me, if you’d like, because here I sit – a scientist at last.

Courtney Baker is the administrative assistant and a volunteer at the Couchiching Conservancy, a non-profit land trust dedicated to protecting nature for future generations. To learn more about conservation efforts in our area, visit couchichingconserv.ca.