Monday, March 18, 2013
Since 2011, Lincoln University's Biological Diversity class (Ecol202) has run the Great Canterbury Butterfly Hunt. As one of their nature journal assignments, each student counts butterflies in a simple, standardised way in one garden and one wild place. As a class, we can then figure out in more detail the kinds of habitats and places our butterflies most like. By doing this every year, and making it public through NatureWatch NZ, we are setting up baseline from which changes in butterfly numbers can be detected.
At the end of summer, each student spends one 20-minute period on a warm sunny day counting butterflies in their garden, and another 20-minutes doing the same in a wild place. They note the maximum and minimum number of individuals of each butterfly species they see within and beyond 10 m of where they stand. They photograph as many of the species as they can. They also record and photograph the presence of any host plants of butterfly caterpillars, and record and photograph the flowers that any butterflies are visiting at the site.
This is the first year that we've had NatureWatch NZ available for the butterfly count. It's made things much easier than having to deal with 60 to 70 student spreadsheets. We set up a project on NatureWatch NZ, which all the students joined and used for this year's observations.
Importantly, the assignment is assessed on the ability of students to create a useful dataset. That means they lose no marks if they cannot identify a species, so long as they provide sufficient notes and photographs to allow someone else to identify it. We encouraged them to use the "ID Please" function in NatureWatch NZ whenever they were unsure of an identification. This worked out really well as often someone else on NatureWatch NZ had already made the correct identification by the time we marked the observation.
Another handy thing about NatureWatch NZ for this kind of exercise is the way it deals with location privacy. Students, if they wish, can choose to publicly obscure their locations to a 10 km radius or make them private. Perhaps they don't want everyone in the class knowing exactly where they live. When they do this, the exact locations are hidden from everyone except the Butterfly Hunt project managers (in this case, me and our tutor Nathan). All projects work this way, and people are warned by NatureWatch NZ when they join and add observations to projects. It's a really useful balance.
I've also been uploading the past years' observations into the project using NatureWatch NZ's handy CSV spreadsheet upload function, and then editing the relevant observations to add photos. Soon, we'll have all three years of butterfly counts publicly available and archived on NatureWatch NZ. That will be a record of local butterfly diversity that will only get more valuable with time.
Imagine how much more we'd know if every university, polytech, and high school was doing something like this each year, throughout the country. Imagine if they'd all been doing it for decades. We wouldn't be wondering whether or not NZ butterflies were declining. We'd know so, and in enough detail to describe the conditions associated with the worst declines. (The Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust is busy working to achieve this vision too.)
As part of the class exercise, I prepared the following video tutorial on using NatureWatch NZ. I expect it will be of general interest to people new to NatureWatch NZ (like last month's video tutorial on how to upload kereru observations). Note that the details we added to the tags of each observation will very soon be able to be added directly into custom fields, part of the next NatureWatch NZ feature upgrade.
I'll blog at a later time about what all these observations are telling us about butterflies. For now, I hope it's a useful example of how NatureWatch NZ can be used in a university classroom to collate and error-check observations, build students' natural history knowledge, and do so in a way that contributes to our shared knowledge of New Zealand biodiversity.