Both green and gritty, down town Toronto's storied, quintessentially urban Allan Gardens buzzes with activity late in the morning on a sunny April day.
Amid the comings and goings, a small clipboard-bearing group mysteriously huddle around a maple tree, marking chalk circles on the trunk and scrutinizing its bark with magnifying lenses.
Neither cultists, city tree inspectors nor idle science nerds, they are, in fact, foot soldiers in the swelling ranks of citizen volunteers who are monitoring a vast sweep of natural phenomena in the name of environmental health.
In this case, the amateur investigators are looking for tree lichens, crusty green, grey, orange and yellow colonies composed of fungi and algae living together symbiotically on bark.
Lichens are ideal bioindicators because they have no roots and absorb all their nutrients from the air and rain like sponges, making them highly susceptible to pollution.
According to Sonia Dong, program director for Citizens' Environment
Watch, info from these organisms can tell us a lot about what we're breathing. She notes that her group's count was done by about 100 volunteers at 25 parks and green spaces along the city's subway line. "We can get a north, south, east, west
index of air quality that will tell us what the hot spots are across Toronto," she says.
While a single maple in a hinterland forest can easily harbour 20 to 25 different lichen species on its trunk, a street tree in a traffic-congested inner-city neighbourhood usually bears only a few, if any. Tolerance to different contaminants varies among species, so their presence or absence can pinpoint specific pollution problems.
Citizens' Environment Watch was formed 11 years ago by enviro studies profs and grad students to promote monitoring in response to Harris-era cuts to the Environment Ministry.
Among the group's successes: it trained volunteers who detected high PCB and ammonia levels at a landfill site in Hamilton's Red Hill Creek and successfully took the city to court in September 2000 to force a cleanup.
But this isn't the only example of grassroots naturalists digging up hardcore eco data. Environment Canada's Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN), together with Nature Canada, has coordinated several ongo-
ing eco-monitoring programs involving about 1,1000 volunteers over the past eight years.
Broad "citizen science" networks can gather vital ecological information at a scale and speed that professional science can't usually attain, says Hague Vaughan, director of Environment Canada's EMAN coordinating office. "It provides scientists and decision-makers with a first approximation" of problems, he explains. "You get action while the canary is still coughing, as opposed to when it dies."
While a raft of new monitoring projects have been launched in recent years, they all draw on the success of a smaller number of much older citizen-based bird observation projects.
"Information helps us assess the current status of a species and compare it to what was known before," says Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Mike Cadman, who coordinated the work of 1,800 volunteers over five years to produce the second Atlas Of The Breeding Birds Of Ontario, to be published next year.
Here's a rundown of some of the many grassroots watch-and-see projects.
Amphibians are important indicators of environmental health because of their permeable skin and a life cycle that takes them from water to land and back, making them sensitive to contaminants and habitat degradation. FrogWatch, one of the components of this program run by the Toronto Zoo, aims to provide data on climate change by plotting trends in the timing of spring emergence and mating. Participants learn the signature calls of Ontario's 13 frog and toad species and record when they hear them at their local wetland during the late-March to July mating season.
Groups or individuals can also contribute to Adopt-a-Pond's Turtle Tally by recording sightings of the province's eight varieties of hard-shelled reptiles. www.torontozoo.com/adoptapond or www.naturewatch.ca .
COMMUNITY STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM
Toronto's parks, forestry and recreation department enlists citizens to watch wildlife and water quality at nine habitat restoration projects, mostly wetlands in the Don Valley. Volunteers work on a team that visit a site about twice a month from spring to autumn. Their duties also include planting, weeding invasive species, maintaining bird boxes and building habitat brush piles. www.toronto.ca/don .
BUTTERFLY AND DRAGONFLY COUNTS
Butterfly counts tally all the species and total numbers seen within a 15-mile-diameter circle on a single summer day. This year, the Toronto Entomological Society (TES) is holding its annual count in the parks and ravines of east-end Toronto on July 1. The Toronto Central count takes place July 8. All are open to the public.
The TES also has information on summer odonate (dragonfly and damselfly) counts, a relatively new phenomenon, being held in Hamilton, Burlington, Carden (near Orillia) and elsewhere. Because dragonflies start life as submerged nymphs in a wide range of aquatic habitats, their diversity is an important gauge of water quality. ontarioinsects.org .
Started in 1976 by the Long Point Bird Observatory (later renamed Bird Studies Canada), Project FeederWatch collects biweekly reports of bird sightings at the feeders of more than 2,000 people in Canada and 15,000 in the U.S. The info creates a detailed picture of changes in species distribution and abundance from November to early April and is used to develop conservation plans for threatened birds and for tracking diseases. www.bsc-eoc.org .
CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT
The oldest and probably most broadly based of citizen science endeavours, the Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 as an alternative to traditional Christmas Day bird hunts. It's held in more than 1,800 locations across North and South America, with about 12,000 volunteers in Canada alone.
At each local count, birders work together to record the variety and total number of birds they can observe within a 24-kilometre-diameter circle in a single day between December 14 and January 5. Toronto's count, centred at the Royal Ontario Museum, usually spots between 80 and 90 species. www.bsc-eoc.org .
PROJECT NEST WATCH
The Royal Ontario Museum's long-running Ontario Nest Records Scheme enrols participants to document nest progress, especially for common species such as robins. Observers take notes through the season, documenting when and how many eggs and hatchlings appear. Bird Studies Canada co-sponsors Nestwatch as well the Canadian Breeding Bird Survey, the Nocturnal Owl Monitoring Program, the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey and the Ontario Birds at Risk program. www.bsc-eoc.org .
One of the newest programs, Plantwatch keeps track of blooming dates, with an emphasis on charting the effects of climate change. Participants watch particular trees, shrubs or patches of wildflowers and report when they first bloom and under what conditions. The results are compiled by Environment Canada's EMAN office.
The search for climate change data is also behind EMAN's and Nature Canada's IceWatch, which collects old records and ongoing observations of freezing and ice breakup dates. As well, they sponsor WormWatch, which examines soil health by determining which species are present. naturewatch.ca .
TERRESTRIAL MONITORING PROGRAM
For those looking for a more intense, long-term commitment, this program assigns specific 10-hectare sites in parks and other green spaces for pairs of volunteers to survey 10 times a year. Participants measure the impacts of urbanization by looking for several dozen plant and animal indicator species. email@example.com .