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What is Citizen Science?

The term "citizen science" has been used to describe a range of ideas, from a philosophy of public engagement in scientific discourse to the work of scientists driven by a social conscience.

In North America, citizen science typically refers to research collaborations between scientists and volunteers, particularly (but not exclusively) to expand opportunities for scientific data collection and to provide access to scientific information for community members.

As a working definition, we offer the following:

"Projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions."

(Used with permission from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science Central)

Citizen Science at Severson Dells and Forest Preserves of Winnebago County

Citizen scientists are volunteering at forest preserves throughout Winnebago County to record observations of a variety of species along with the environmental conditions that support their presence here. Data collected by these individuals in the field are submitted to a variety of repositories to aid in our collective understanding of the natural world, inform natural resource management and inform the public education programs offered. 


Bats are important—if underappreciated—members of our ecological community. Because they are nocturnal, these mammals often escape our attention. Severson Dells and the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County have teamed up with other area forest preserves, state agencies and institutions to form the Illinois Bat Working Group. Citizen Scientists are using acoustical equipment to record the presence of various bat species in the county.


Catching sight of the Eastern Bluebird used to be a rare occurrence in this region, but thanks in part to the installation of nesting boxes, Bluebirds have been making a comeback. Volunteers in Winnebago County tend to these Bluebird nest boxes, preparing them for occupancy, recording the number of eggs in a clutch, along with the number of young who fledge. Field data are submitted to Severson Dells and the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County at the end of the season.

Bumble Bees:  Beespotter

Bumble bees and other native pollinators are in dire straits so it is important that we collect population data that can be used to help conserve these important species. BeeSpotter is a collaboration between citizen scientists and the professional science community through a web-based portal at the University of Illinois. Volunteer monitors in Winnebago County learn to identify 11 bumble bee species native to Illinois and upload photographs and site information to the Beespotter website.

Butterflies:  Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network

Butterflies are charismatic insects. Moreover, some of them rely on certain, very specific, host plants to support their larva (caterpillars) and, as such, can be important indicators of ecological health. Citizen Scientists in Winnebago County visit their butterfly monitoring sites 6 to 8 times over a 10-week period to record their findings. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network is coordinated through the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Frogs/Toads:  Calling Frog Survey

One of the early signs of spring is the sound of chorusing frogs as they call from their wetland breeding grounds. Throughout the warm weather months, a progression of different frog and toad species call to attract their mates. Citizen scientists participating in the Calling Frog Survey, coordinated by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, learn to identify 11 species of frogs and two species of toads according to their respective voices. Presence, relative abundance, and atmospheric conditions are reported.

Odonata—Dragonflies and Damselflies

Winnebago County is home to 33 species of dragonflies and 24 species of damselflies, members of one of the most ancient orders of insects, the odonata. Volunteers may submit their findings to Severson Dells or directly to the Illinois Odonate Survey, coordinated through the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.


There are new opportunities for plant monitors in 2018, with volunteers tracking the timing of life-cycle developments, recording species population data, and reporting the location of certain invasive plants.


Our plant phenology project records the timing of certain life-cycle events for selected species. Under two campaigns of the National Phenology Network, volunteers in Winnebago County are recording dates of five phenophases (“breaking leaf bud,” “leaves unfolded,” “increasing leaf size,” “colored leaves,” and “falling leaves”) for selected native trees and native and invasive shrubs.

Plants—Watch Plants

Watch Plants is a new program designed to collect data about plants worth watching, often because they are indicators of significant environmental conditions in the area. In collaboration with the Natural Land Institute, Severson Dells and the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County have identified 14 native plant species to watch in 2018.

Plants—New Invaders

Invasive plant species pose a significant threat to natural areas in Winnebago County and beyond. Severson Dells and the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County have identified eight woody plant species that are present in the county, but perhaps not yet in large numbers. Volunteers are encouraged to report sightings of these new invaders so that they can be managed before their numbers increase significantly.