Gotta catch ‘em all! – Rainy day citizen scientist fun

All images in this post are screenshots from the website, please visit https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/birgus2/western-shield-camera-watch to find out how you can participate in the Western Shield project

Now I don’t know about you guys but I’m struggling. I miss travelling to new places, long walks in the bush with my boyfriend and photographing the animals we see along the way. Our lives have been reduced to the four walls around us with brief reprieves outside for a lap or two of the nearest park.

But, I think I’ve found the next best (virtual) thing.

I’ve been seeing posts pop up this week on Facebook saying how we can all get involved in wildlife data collection, we just need an internet connection. But I spend enough time on a computer at the moment thanks to my uni degree moving online. I don’t want to spend more time sitting at my desk when I can be walking around the retention pool nearby spotting wrens in the reeds and little pied cormorants resting above the overflow drain.

Then it started raining.

And its kept going for the last few days. I was the only one silly enough to be walking around outside yesterday. An hour of walking my suburb fully confirmed my cheap raincoat leaks.

I needed a way to get my wildlife and travel hit indoors.

And I found it. But be warned, its HIGHLY addictive.

Enter the Western Shield Camera Watch project on Zooniverse. Within a few clicks I’d created a login and was ready to identify some animals from the jarrah forests of Western Australia. Three photos from a sequence pop up and you have to identify the species you can see from a list and how many there are. You can play the images (try not to get stuck repeatedly making a joey hop across the screen) and zoom in when things get tough. There’s a field guide which helps along the way and a discussion forum for those chatty types to ask questions. The FAQ section was great when I came across my first kangaroo with a full pouch and didn’t know whether to put it down as one or two animals (two if there’s a definite joey bulge or can see part of it poking out).

I thought I’d spend five minutes on the site and be bored. Three photos in and I couldn’t stop. It becomes a bit like a game, every time you work out one image and submit it the next pops up. You can be sucked into this so long you cause your boyfriends hot cross bun to burn in the toaster because he’s busy helping you work out what species that tail belongs to.

At first I thought this would be easy. Using the guide I could quickly tell my grey kangaroos apart from my black-gloved wallabies just by looking at their ears and facial patterns. But then you get just a patch of fur or a tail and you need to take your investigation skills up a notch to work it out. Each scene is like a little puzzle. You don’t know what kind of animal you’ll see next or where you’ll be. The camera traps are set up in bushland around south west Western Australia. This means you see a range of habitats, and get a virtual walk in the bush at different times of day. I made the mistake of sitting down for a bit before breakfast on Saturday morning. An hour disappeared without me knowing but I saw echidnas stumbling along the forest floor at night, kangaroos lounging in the sun and a papa emu walking through the fog with three spotty chicks running around his feet.

Now this isn’t just a great way to see some critters, explore another state and kill a bit of time indoors. It has a purpose. Western Shield is a government funded conservation project that began in 1996 to manage introduced predators (foxes and cats) which threaten Western Australia’s native wildlife. A system of 90 automated wildlife cameras are set up in forests around South-West Western Australia. When a camera detects movement, it triggers and takes a set of three photos. Thousands of new photos are added to the collection each week so the team doesn’t have time to go through them all (only 10% of current photos have been classified).

This is where we come in. By joining this citizen science project we can speed up the data analysis process. You see, the cameras are set up in areas where foxes are controlled and other areas where no fox or cat control has occurred. By classifying if we see foxes, cats or natives a dataset grows which gives managers a picture of what feral and native populations are doing in these areas. This information helps managers determine if current management actions are working in different habitat types or if they need to adapt their strategy.

In 2019 volunteers helped classify 36,000 sets of images. From all those clicks managers now know more native animals are being seen in areas where foxes are controlled (the species foxes typically eat like possums, chuditch, woylies, echidna and quenda). This suggests fox control is working in these areas and the native animals, especially birds, are being seen more. Currently cats aren’t being managed because more information is needed on where the cats are to target them in the future. So, if you spot a cat as you are classifying you are directly contributing to that knowledge.

I thought this kind of thing wasn’t for me but it’s a real test of your detective skills while you learn to recognise aussie animals you might never see in the wild. Along the way I’ve learnt the traditional names for some species and can tell my woylies apart from my quendas. Other then the challenge of working out what I’m seeing there’s a sense of mystery, what animal will I see next?! I finally understand the Pokémon motto of “gotta catch ‘em all!” You just wait for the day when I see my first chuditch or Australian ringneck!

Happy clicking 😊

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/birgus2/western-shield-camera-watch

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