Community science is for the birds: UGA Aquarium volunteers monitor nest boxes on the coast

With a pair of binoculars and data sheets in hand, Beth Webster heads out the back door of the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium to her first stop, a wooden nest box just outside the facility. She walks up to the box, gently knocking a few times so as not to alarm any birds, before opening the door to peer inside.

Four Eastern bluebird eggs, no bigger than peanut M&Ms, are nestled inside among twigs, grasses and pine needles. She records her observations on her data sheet before heading to the next box.

Webster is one of five aquarium volunteers participating in UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s bird nest box monitoring program on Skidaway Island. The program involves tracking the nesting and breeding behaviors of common birds, including Eastern bluebirds and Carolina chickadees.

illustration of a black, grey and tan bird in flight

Carolina chickadee

Between March and August, members of the group take turns checking the small circuit of boxes on the UGA Skidaway Marine Science Campus. They collect data on nesting activity, noting failed and successful nesting attempts, and submit their data to NestWatch, a nationwide nest-monitoring program designed to track status and trends in the reproductive biology of birds.

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant educators have maintained a nest box trail on campus for more than a decade. Katie Higgins, marine educator and volunteer coordinator, decided to establish a more robust community science effort in 2019 with the goal of engaging aquarium volunteers in scientific research and increasing awareness of bird populations on the island.

“Community science is a really useful way to collect broader data on common birds,” said Higgins. “Scientists have access to this data so they can have basic information on developmental time periods and species prevalence. They can also look at long-term trends, like shifts in [population] range or when nesting is beginning in an area and when it’s ending.”

close up of an empty wooden bird box being opened by hands

A volunteer opens one of the wooden nest boxes as part of the community science project.

Information gathered through community science can also inform conservation efforts and management decisions. The Eastern bluebird is a prime example of this. From 1920-1970, the number of bluebirds in the U.S. plummeted due to habitat destruction, pesticide use, an influx of domestic cats and competition with non-native birds for nesting space.

In response, community members formed the North American Bluebird Society and set up bluebird boxes, creating networks of trails and monitoring bluebird nesting success. Because of these efforts, Eastern bluebird populations have rebounded and even stabilized.

In 2021, Higgins received funding from the Georgia Ornithological Society to expand the nest box monitoring program and develop a new educational display at the UGA Aquarium focused on community science and bird conservation.

She recruited and trained more volunteers and increased the number of boxes on campus with support from Skidaway Audubon. During last year’s nesting season, six volunteers gave 38 hours of service to the effort. In total, the group documented 28 nesting attempts and 74 baby birds.

Two summer campers and an aquarium educator peer into a bird nest box at the UGA Aquarium.

Katie Higgins (right) teaches students about the nest box monitoring program during Summer Marine Science Camp at the UGA Aquarium.

“It’s really a magical experience,” said Webster. “You’re in nature, you’re watching the cycle of life really unfold in front of your eyes. From the birds building a nest to the baby birds fledging, it’s a privilege to be able to peek into their world and see this cycle of life that happens so incredibly quickly.”

As part of the new educational display, aquarium visitors will be able to witness the nesting process in real time thanks to a live camera feed. The exhibit also provides information about birds that commonly nest in coastal Georgia and ways to support bird conservation efforts.

“I hope visitors take away that birds are fascinating and easy to observe,” said Higgins. “There are lots of local organizations that are working with bird species, and they can do something to enhance habitat or add to greater scientific knowledge.”

Writer: Emily Kenworthy, ekenworthy@uga.edu, 336-466-1520 
Contact:Katie Higgins, kt.higgins@uga.edu, 912-598-2364 


Phytoplankton monitors help keep communities safe from harmful algal blooms

Every Thursday, a group of dedicated UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant volunteers collect water samples from the Skidaway River. They process the samples in the lab at the UGA Aquarium, counting and identifying the phytoplankton in each sample as part of the National Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN).

“I absolutely adore it,” said Sandy Haeger, a PMN volunteer. “Thursdays are really special to me because I love getting to see the marine animals at the aquarium, collect data with the team and catch up with the staff.”

Volunteers look at water samples under microscopes to find phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are critical organisms that serve as the base of the marine food web and they provide at least half the Earth’s oxygen. In a balanced ecosystem, phytoplankton provide food for a wide range of sea creatures including shrimp, oysters and jellyfish. When too many nutrients are available, phytoplankton may grow out of control and form harmful algal blooms. These blooms can produce extremely toxic compounds that have harmful effects on fish, shellfish, mammals, birds, and even people.

The PMN program was created in 2001 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a system to monitor marine phytoplankton and the potential for harmful algal blooms. The network has 250 sites in 22 states across the U.S., including Skidaway Island, Georgia. PMN volunteers collect ecological data and send it to NOAA, state and federal agencies and industry professionals in true citizen science fashion.

“The more information we have, the better we can understand (algae blooms) and organisms and hopefully better protect people from their harmful effects,” said Jennifer Maucher, one of NOAA’s PMN program coordinators. “Our volunteers are instrumental in this effort.”

PMN volunteers gather a variety of important data used for long-term phytoplankton monitoring.

The monitoring program at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is one of the organization’s longest running volunteer efforts. Since 2003, volunteers have gathered data such as water and air temperature, salinity and tidal flow in addition to the water samples collected every Thursday morning. The volunteer program has been so successful that a new monitoring site was added in 2019 in Oglethorpe Bay, the waterway behind Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Brunswick facility.

“These are not folks that came into this with the knowledge to do this monitoring. They were interested in contributing, and we do our best to support them through it,” said Katie Higgins, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s volunteer coordinator.

Higgins works to ensure that each volunteer is trained in the data collection process before starting. They learn to collect samples by towing a plankton net for three minutes at a time. Then, they bring their samples into the lab and analyze them under a microscope where they look for 12 target organisms, or phytoplankton organisms with potential hazards. The volunteers will take the data they have collected and enter it into the national NOAA database for future analysis and studies.

“At the first meeting I attended, I hadn’t been near a microscope in almost 50 years, so it was a steep learning curve for me, but everyone was so helpful,” said Haeger. “Learning is so important, especially life-long learning which is what this volunteer program is for me.”

All PMN volunteers are given training in microscope usage and phytoplankton identification.

The life-long learning and citizen science component of the program is what makes it so special, Maucher, Higgins and Haeger all say. Regular people with an interest in scientific efforts, their immediate environment, public health and safety, or climate change and its effects can play a role in phytoplankton monitoring whether or not they have a background in it.

According to Higgins, one of the biggest successes of the PMN program is how volunteers have shifted into playing an education role within the organization. UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant hosts a variety of educational public programs, some of which are tailored around teaching the general public, both adults and children, about phytoplankton monitoring.

On numerous occasions, volunteers like Haeger have taken the lead on teaching aspects of the programs since they are doing the work weekly and know firsthand its impacts.

“[UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant] utilizes not just citizen scientist volunteers but incorporates PMN into their summer camps for kids,” said Maucher.

Anyone interested in being a part of this program is encouraged to join. To find out more about the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network volunteer opportunities, visit https://gacoast.uga.edu/phytoplankton-monitoring-network/

Support for UGA Aquarium includes funding for tools and volunteer labor

New bluebird boxes are on the horizon for the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, adding additional educational resources to help visitors learn more about the importance of native wildlife to coastal ecosystems.

New tools include clippers, hammers and rakes for outdoor projects.

New tools include clippers, hammers and rakes for outdoor projects.

Contributions from Friends of the UGA Aquarium, a nonprofit organization that supports UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, are being used to buy new rakes, clippers, hammers, gloves and other tools that volunteers can use to maintain the Jay Wolf Nature Trail and add educational attractions that will enhance the aquarium experience.

“This purchase affords our volunteers appropriate tools and storage of these tools to do regular trail surveys and maintenance, pruning, clearing of debris and other small but necessary maintenance at the Marine Education Center and Aquarium,” says Katie Higgins, educator and volunteer coordinator at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit. Prior to acquiring the tools, volunteers brought in their own equipment or worked with the personal tools of aquarium staff.

As the volunteer program continues to grow under Higgins’ leadership, so do volunteer opportunities at UGA’s coastal facilities on Skidaway Island. One of the most popular areas on the UGA Aquarium campus includes the bluff overlooking the Skidaway River and the Jay Wolf Nature Trail which runs through a maritime forest. The outdoor spaces inspire visitors to develop a stronger connection and appreciation for the outdoors.

Andy Van Epps, who has been volunteering with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant since 2018, was instrumental in putting together a list of appropriate tools needed to accomplish outdoor maintenance. He also helped assemble the new storage shed used to house the equipment.

“Having the tools provided by the aquarium allows volunteers like me to show up and to be ready to address the basic landscaping needs,” Van Epps says.

Writer: Emily Kenworthy, ekenworthy@uga.edu, 912.598.2348
Contact: Katie Higgins, kt.higgins@uga.edu, 912-598-2387

New Adopt-A-Wetland coordinator plans to enhance monitoring efforts on the coast

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant welcomed Luke Roberson as the new Adopt-A-Wetland program coordinator for coastal Georgia. Roberson is recruiting, training and coordinating citizen scientists who are interested in protecting the aquatic resources surrounding Georgia’s coastal communities.

“My job involves talking with people about stewardship of their local waters, the science of water quality, and traveling along our beautiful coast with a terrific team,” says Roberson. “What’s not to like?”

Roberson will work to increase public awareness of water quality issues by training citizen science groups in different communities on how to monitor water quality and conduct biological sampling to determine wetland habitat health. All the data that is collected will be compiled by Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and added to the Environmental Protection Division’s water quality database maintained at the Atlanta Adopt-A-Stream office. Each group is provided with an annual report summarizing the data collected at their respective sites.

Roberson made his way to Georgia from Maryland, where he worked on the local rivers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and served as a biologist for eight years with the Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Monitoring and Non-Tidal Assessment Division. Prior to his role at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, Roberson worked as the monitoring and education coordinator for the nearby Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

Roberson earned a bachelor’s degree in biology as well as graphic design at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He then pursued his master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tackling trash – and public health – on the Georgia coast

We know picking up trash helps keep our environment clean, but could it also improve human health?

Jennifer Gay, an associate professor in the UGA College of Public Health, is studying the impact of volunteer litter cleanups on the environment and human health in coastal communities.

A UGA Public Service and Outreach Faculty Fellow, Gay is partnering with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to learn more about the amount or type of physical activity that occurs in coastal environments, or how the environment contributes to healthy lifestyles.

“Through this study, we want to engage people who are participating in litter debris cleanups to assess the amount of physical activity they’re getting and how much energy they’re expending during these events,” said Gay, who researches physical activity and public health.

As part of the study, Gay worked with Katy Smith, water quality program coordinator for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, to figure out how to apply the study in the Golden Isles community. Smith, who leads education and outreach initiatives focused on marine debris topics, has strong connections to the volunteer community through partnerships with conservation organizations like Keep Golden Isles Beautiful and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which host volunteer cleanups throughout the year.

“I’m excited to see what type of data we capture,” Smith said. “We’ve got people out there cleaning the environment, but what else are they gaining? Hopefully we can use the data to get more people involved in conservation efforts.”

Smith is helping Gay survey people in Brunswick, St. Simons and Jekyll Island to understand how they perceive the coastal environment. They are recruiting volunteers to wear monitoring equipment that collects data on physical activity during cleanups. Those that agree to participate wear heart rate monitors and accelerometers that track frequency, intensity and duration of an activity, as well as step counts over a one- to two-week period.

Sharon Hindery, who worked in a medical laboratory for several years before retiring, jumped at the chance to participate in the study.

Eventually I’d like to see what the data shows, said Hindery, who is particularly interested in the heart rate data following a cleanup event.

“I imagine that would be some kind of an indicator of satisfaction. After the event is over, you sit back and realize what you’ve done. Maybe that is kind of calming. Who knows?” she said.

Hindery and her husband Rick have lived in Brunswick for six years. During that time, they have helped with several debris removal volunteer efforts, even adopting a section of Highway 17 that they are responsible for cleaning throughout the year.

“I always joke that it’s exercise with a purpose,” Hindery said. “I go out and I pull a bag or two of trash off the marsh or the side of the road, and I look back at it and I feel better.”

Next steps in the study involve recruiting more volunteers so the team has a larger set of data to assess. Smith hopes to bring in several volunteers ahead of the World Oceans Day Beach Sweep on June 8, hosted by Keep Golden Isles Beautiful and Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and sponsored by Yamaha. More information is available here http://bit.ly/2JflIPI

Those interested in volunteering for the study are encouraged to reach out to Katy Smith at klaustin@uga.edu.

After analyzing the data, the research team plans to develop educational outreach materials designed to engage people who are aren’t as active or involved in litter debris cleanups as a way to get them involved in physical activity and environmental stewardship.

The Public Service and Outreach (PSO) Fellowship Program provides departmental support for tenure-track and tenured professors to immerse themselves in the work of a PSO unit for one semester. The experience offers opportunities for fellows to enhance their academic courses, conduct research and apply their academic expertise to outreach initiatives. An anticipated outcome of the fellowship experience is the sustained involvement with Public Service and Outreach after the semester ends.

Writer: Emily Kenworthy, ewoodward@uga.edu, 912-598-2348 ext. 107


Long-time UGA Aquarium volunteer says good-bye

Ed Stenson makes his way through the lobby of the UGA Aquarium, pausing for a moment as Genell Gibson, the UGA Aquarium receptionist, sings “good morning to you” to the tune of Happy Birthday.

“Where else can you get that kind of greeting?” says Stenson, explaining that this is a morning ritual. “Other staff have even started joining in.”

For six years, Stenson has volunteered at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island, lending a hand behind-the-scenes and assisting with education programs for k-12 students.

“Some of the kids come in and can be a little shy, but most of them have their eyes wide open,” Stenson says. “We encourage them to interact with the animals and before you know it, they’re holding a horseshoe crab…or at least touching it.”

Stenson first visited the aquarium with his wife Mary Ann after moving to Savannah from Rhode Island in 2011. During the visit, a staff member picked up on his enthusiasm for the work being done by educators at the facility and encouraged him to consider volunteering.

He applied following the visit and has since arrived every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 9 a.m. to begin his shift. He first cleans the protein skimmers that remove food and waste particles from the aquarium’s 16 exhibit tanks.

“It’s not my favorite activity, but it’s necessary,” he says.

The rest of his morning involves measuring and recording salinity levels in the Skidaway River and feeding some of the aquarium animals, including the seahorses and Lefty, a two-year-old loggerhead sea turtle. Once he completes his tasks behind-the-scenes, he jumps into assisting with the Sea Star programming for students in grades k-4.

“Not only can he be counted on to be on time, but he even comes in early to finish his aquarium duties before running off to help with our elementary school kids at the touch tanks,” says Lisa Olenderski, curator and k-12 educator at the UGA Aquarium.

Stenson’s time as a volunteer will soon come to an end as he and his wife recently made the decision to move back to Rhode Island to be closer to grandchildren. Hurricanes Matthew and Irma also factored into their decision to move. After evacuating during both hurricanes, the couple decided that the unpredictability of coastal living was causing a little too much stress.

“Filling the gap Ed leaves behind is going to be difficult,” says Katie Higgins, marine educator and volunteer coordinator at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “He’s become such a staple at the aquarium. His dedication to his work and joyous demeanor will be hard to replace.”

While Stenson is sad to leave his role as a volunteer behind, he remains hopeful that someone will come along who has just as much passion for the coast and a desire to inspire others to respect and appreciate marine environments.

“Educating kids alongside some really great people is what makes it enjoyable,” he says. “I’m sure there are people out there who are ready to get up and get going.”

Volunteering with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is a great opportunity to build and connect with your community, learn new skills, gain experience in marine science or education or mentorship of others. Do you have a passion for the marine environment and desire to share your enthusiasm with others? Visit https://t.uga.edu/4at for more information.



Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant welcomes Katie Higgins

Katie Higgins is UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s new marine educator and volunteer coordinator. In her dual role, she will provide hands-on experiential learning programs for students and grow Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s volunteer program. Higgins will be based on Skidaway Island at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium.

“I enjoy teaching and interacting with people who are motivated and engaged with Georgia’s coastal ecosystem and the organisms that rely on them,” said Higgins. “Everyone at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant whether staff, faculty or volunteer, is energetic and knowledgeable. My natural inclination towards wonder and discovery help me feel right at home here.”

Higgins serves on the board for the Georgia Association of Marine Educators and is a certified facilitator for the nationally recognized environmental education curricula Projects Wet, Wild and Learning Tree. As a marine educator, she will introduce students to Georgia’s diverse coastal ecosystems through outdoor exploration and lab studies.

When she’s not teaching, Higgins will work with volunteers that participate in programs like the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, which involves monitoring local waters once a week for marine phytoplankton and harmful algal blooms. She will also develop a streamlined process for recruiting and training volunteers to help out with activities at the aquarium.

“I hope to grow the program in numbers, opportunities, and demographic diversity. I also hope to partner with other like-minded facilities, like UGA’s Coastal Botanical Garden, Telfair Museums and Oatland Island Wildlife Center, to understand how volunteers assist with their programming and find ways of creating unique and lasting collaborations,” said Higgins.

Before settling in Georgia, Higgins spent time overseas in Spain, teaching English as a second language as well as serving as an environmental education board member for a local chapter of BirdLife International. Prior to joining the Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant team, Higgins served as the education coordinator for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. Higgins has an undergraduate degree in biology with an emphasis in vertebrate zoology from Portland State University and a master’s degree in zoology from Miami University of Ohio.

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