Dates: Late August-October
With all the diligent attention citizen scientists pay to milkweed and monarch larvae, it's only fitting that the actual adult butterfly get some attention. That's where Monarch Watch comes in.
Volunteers can get involved by (carefully) capturing and tagging adult butterflies, collecting important data about their weight and health, and/or observing their flight. By doing so, you help scientists develop data about which monarchs survive the long migration from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, and how exactly it is that butterflies that have never seen Mexico manage to fly 3,000 miles to reach it.
Are only the large and fat destined to survive? Do monarchs navigate by some internal compass? Or the angle of the sun? These are the types of questions you can help scientists answer.
For more information, visit MonarchWatch.org.
The Great Sunflower Project
Dates: Spring to fall
One of the youngest citizen science programs in the country, the Great Sunflower Project is also among the most fun — since it involves planting one's own sunflowers. But the larger goal is much bigger: to understand more about how bees feed themselves, and hopefully how we can help reverse recent staggering declines in bee populations.
All you have to do to participate is plant sunflowers — you receive a seed packet in the mail when you sign up — and when they bloom, observe bee activity on the flowers. It takes no more than 30 minutes per observation.
For more information, visit The Great Sunflower Project.
World Water Monitoring Day
Date: Sept. 18
Initiated to recognize the anniversary of the Clean Water Act's enactment by Congress, World Water Monitoring Day is a chance for people everywhere around the world to get wet and gather water quality data in their communities. (By 2012, 1 million people in 100 nations are expected to be participating.)
The organization provides individuals with easy-to-use test kits, so amateurs and students can participate. Local watershed protection groups often use the same tools for more in-depth studies of local water bodies: Look for the opportunity to participate with these groups, too.
For more information, visit WorldWaterMonitoringDay.org.
Dates: All year
The Appalachian Mountain Club's Mountain Watch program seeks to enlist the nation's hikers in an effort to understand changes occurring due to climate change and air pollution, especially on America's mountains.
Citizen science opportunities include observations of mountain plants and flowers whose distribution may be shifting as the climate warms, and of visibility, which is affected by smog.
Another good project in which hikers can participate is the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Birds in Forested Landscapes program.
Dates: Varies by location, but primarily spring and fall
Mushrooms are both edible ... and deadly. And as it turns out, even mushroom experts can get confused when they try to identify fungi. By some estimates, fewer than 5 percent of the world's species have been described adequately by science.
Mushroom Observer is a long-term project to connect expert mycologists and amateur mushroom hunters on the Web, so they can help each other identify hard-to-recognize mushrooms and collectively build knowledge.
For more information, visit mushroomobserver.org.
Cooperative Weather Observer Program
Dates: All year
The National Weather Service's Cooperative Observer Program involves more than 11,000 volunteers who take daily weather data that inform experts' understanding of the U.S. climate as it is, as it was — and as it may change. The data gathered helps meteorologists improve their forecasts (and assess how accurate their past forecasts have been).
Volunteers must be trained and commit to daily data collection of such information as the highest and lowest temperature recorded in the previous 24-hour period, and how much precipitation occurred. When your local meteorologist lists the snow totals from recent storms, he or she is relying on the observations of individual volunteers across the region.
To learn more, visit the National Weather Service.
Great Lakes Worm Watch
Dates: Spring, summer, and fall
Open to residents in the six Great Lakes states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Indiana — this University of Minnesota project aims to understand how earthworms affect the environment.
Earthworms? But aren't they good for soil?
Earthworms are actually not native to North American hardwood forests, and by changing the soil they harm the ecosystem that supports the existing forest.
To participate, check the list of partners working with the University of Minnesota to see if you can get involved.
Milkweed and Nectar Plant Phenology Project
Dates: Spring to fall
A partnership between two projects you'll find elsewhere in this feature, Monarch Watch and Project BudBurst, this project aims to understand how climate change and other factors may affect plants that are critical for the survival of monarch butterflies.
As the title of the project suggests, the focus is the milkweed on which larvae feed and the nectar plants like lilac, sunflower, and purple coneflower on which adults feed.
To participate, you identify which plants of interest occur in your area, and then you observe "firsts" first emergence from soil, first flower bud, first open flower, etc. and send your observations to the National Phenology Network.
For more information, read this post on the Monarch Watch blog.
Dates: Spring and fall
Billed as the "premier citizen science project for children," Journey North "engages students in a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change" by asking them to track migrating wildlife, like hummingbirds, butterflies, eagles and hawks — even gray whales (if you're lucky enough to live along the right coast).
For people who want to get more intensely involved, there's the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology's program, Priority Migrant eBird. This program focuses on five neotropical migrant birds — those that migrate from Central and South America to North America and back, like the cerulean warbler pictured here.
Dates: All year
Hey, birds, butterflies, frogs, and even earthworms have their own citizen science project. Why not spiders?
As intensely as many people react to spiders, scientists actually know very little about most of the 4,400 species (or more) that can call North America home. To learn more, Spider WebWatch is asking volunteers to look for nine ambassador species (none of them, of course, venomous) and report their observations of one of three jumper spiders (the bold, bronze, and zebra); one of two garden spiders (the banded banded and yellow — pictured here); the six-spotted fishing spider; the parson spider; the goldenrod crab spider; or the cat-faced spider.
If just hearing those names creeps you out, then this project is for you. Really. Get over your fear and contribute to science.
To learn more (or just see some great creepy pictures) visit SpiderWebWatch.org.
Dates: All year
Not every lover of the outdoors lives on a ranch in the countryside. Most of us live in cities, and that's why there's PigeonWatch.
Perfect for kids, PigeonWatch is a Cornell Lab of Ornithology program that's nine parts education to every one part science. It's a good way for city kids to become familiar with a common and surprisingly beautiful (really, give these "flying rats" a second chance!) birds, and learn about scientific observation in the process.
Another of the lab's programs, Celebrate Urban Birds, goes further, asking participants to spend 10 minutes observing 16 urban birds and reporting their observations. It's a good way to get to know local crows, robins, orioles, swallows, and even more exotic species, like the black-crowned night heron and the peregrine falcon.
Did You Feel It?
Dates: All year
This program is one you won't think of ... until you do.
If you feel an earthquake, report it to the U.S. Geological Survey, which gathers data about earthquakes for such important tasks as describing the severity of quakes so emergency response can react appropriately, learning how to predict the danger zones and safeguarding buildings and other infrastructure against all that shaking. Oh, and it saves taxpayers (that's you!) money by providing a zero-cost source of data that would otherwise have to be gathered by expensive machinery or staff spread across the country.
To report an earthquake, visit earthquake.usgs.gov.
To hunt for new citizen science opportunities, check out this great blog: Citizen Science Projects.
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project
Dates: Late spring to fall
The life cycle of the monarch butterfly is one of the most amazing in nature. Best of all, perhaps, is that the butterfly is both beautiful and accessible — giving volunteers ample opportunity to participate in citizen science projects aiding scientists trying to understand this creature.
After wintering in Mexico, adult butterflies migrate north as far as Canada. The eggs they lay develop, and while those adults will never return to Mexico, the generation(s) they spawn will make the return trip in the fall, traveling up to 3,000 miles. Because larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, the abundance of this plant is critically important to the survival of the species.
Participants commit to monitor patches of milkweed weekly to count monarch eggs and larvae, and assess milkweed density.
For more information, visit the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.
Dates: March-May (check for exact dates)
You can learn a lot about the living by studying the dead. That, at least, is the premise of Project RoadKill, which like Project PigeonWatch is more about education than science.
Students choose a road each and monitor it twice daily and report what animals are killed there, along with data about speed limit and the like. While it may not provide scientists with useful information, it does remind students that roadways can be big killers of wildlife, and it can prime them for work on other citizen science projects. And it opens a window on the activities of wild animals in local neighborhoods that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe.
For more information, visit Project RoadKill.