Science: it’s Your Community – Go Out and Play!

By Audrey Fry & Holly Wotherspoon, Class of 2023 Climate Stewards

On one of those chill mornings that stings your cheeks and requires you to bundle in every layer, four of us pack into an open-air utility vehicle under a pale, periwinkle blue sky. As the “mule” jostles us over Pepperwood’s hilly terrain, we commute to our destination alongside a pair of coyotes returning from a crepuscular hunt. Once the vehicle stops, the engine noise is replaced by the mooing of rangeland cows and the rhythmic chirp of American robins. Our quarry, however, is silently waiting in the soil.

One person stands ready with a clipboard. Another bends over an unassuming 3-foot-by-3-foot piece of plywood on the ground, hand gripped on the far edge. We wait on the side pulsing with potential energy: breath held, eyes focused, grins gleaming.


The plywood is lifted. Delight erupts.

“How many are there? Is that one or two?” 

“There’s nothing under this one— oh, wait! A frog!” 

“Is that a toad? You can hardly tell it apart from the soil.” 

“One, two, three… seven slender salamanders!” 

“No, that’s a worm.” 

“Look closely, it’s got tiny little legs!” 

That morning, we, Holly Wotherspoon and Audrey Fry, recent UC Climate Steward graduates, visited Pepperwood’s research plots where people interested in tracking ecosystem health are recording long-term data on which species live where. Some of these people are professional scientists. Some are community scientists like the two of us. Our day jobs are in law and animal welfare, while our extracurricular activities are in ecological stewardship. Check out the photos below of some of the delightful finds we discover underneath the coverboards at Pepperwood.

Community science is science conducted by non-professionals under the guidance of scientific principles or professionals. We found that community science connects us back to our childlike glee in discovery and participation, inviting us to crouch down for a closer look with other adults ready to do the same. Better yet, is knowing that all this fun contributes to work that helps protect the very environments that enliven us.We’d like to invite you to have fun, play, and connect. Community science is accessible to everyone and opportunities abound in Sonoma County. Help yourself by having fun in nature and caring for it in return.

When you were a kid, did your to-do list ever include turning over rocks to see who was living underneath? Maybe making daisy chain crowns was more your style? Or catching beetles, following ant trails to the end (or the beginning!), saving stranded earthworms, protecting a tiny clutch of eggs in a bird nest… What was on your childhood to-do list? Being part of community science and stewardship can turn your adult to-do list from ugh to fun!  

How to get started on your new fun to-do list? One idea is to join the upcoming City Nature Challenge. Invented by rival California scientists, this now worldwide event is described as “a bioblitz-style competition where cities are in a friendly contest with each other to see who can make the most observations of nature, who can find the most species, and who can engage the most people.” The event’s origin lies in the historic rivalry of San Francisco vs. Los Angeles. Back in 2016, both cities vied to be the “top dog” of community science. This year, the Challenge takes place April 28 – May 1st, so you haven’t missed out yet. Check out City Nature Challenge 2023: San Francisco Bay Area.

Another fun addition to your list is downloading the iNaturalist app to your smartphone. iNat is a community science tool you can play with all year. This app, which covers flora, fauna, weather and more, invited us to take a closer look at plants we might normally pass by. We first used iNaturalist to measure ferns as part of our UC Climate Stewards class. We found ourselves proudly wrangling springy fern fronds against a measuring tape and taking notes in a journal, feeling like “real” scientists as passing hikers asked what we were up to.

Measuring these ferns not only connected us to each other, our local ecosystem, and our curious community members, it also connected us to the wider research community once we uploaded our data to iNaturalist and joined a worldwide network of observers contributing millions of data points. According to the iNaturalist website:

Every observation can contribute to biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard weed. We share your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) to help scientists find and use your data. All you have to do is observe.

Take just a few moments to explore GBIF and you’ll find thousands of scientific papers that use data points like those collected on iNaturalist to research pressing issues such as locations of wildlife-borne disease vectors or discovering the carbon-sequestering and economic benefits of seaweed farming.

Wondering how you can practice identifying local species? Another great community science app is Seek. Seek lets you use your phone camera to instantly identify plants and animals.  Seek is easy to use, great for kids and families, and the payback is immediate – that weird flower is a Cuckoo-pint and part of the Arum family! A bird perched on the patio furniture is actually a Red-vented Bulbul whose range extends to Tibet! Who knew? Seek helps answer the familiar refrain of nature lovers both young and old, “what IS that?”

For those interested in playing with others while conducting community science, check out these great local and online opportunities:

  • Do you have teens in your life? Encourage them to apply for Teen Nat, Pepperwood’s summer conservation science program for students entering grades 10, 11, and 12. Applications are due May 15.
  • Rescue and document amphibians with Chileno Valley Newt Brigade.
  • Conduct bird surveys with Petaluma Wetlands Alliance.
  • Identify local wildlife on Sugarloaf State Park’s critter cams.
  • Peruse the many “People-Powered Research” options at Zooniverse

So what’s on your nature to-do list? We hope you can try one community science tool or attend one event, and experience what it’s like to have fun, play, and connect with others and your ecosystem, all in the name of science. Here are some ideas to get your funday list started:

  • Fool Aroundexperiment with Seek, iNaturalist, or other fun nature apps. There are several iNaturalist projects based in Sonoma County like the Regional Parks project.
  • Throw a Party – for Earth Day or other nature theme 
  • Watch Videos Try The Crowd and The Cloud or The Awesome Power of Citizen Science 
  • Show OffPost about your nature adventures on social media
  • Hang with your Friendsgrab your peeps and head to Pepperwood for a class or event.  Birds, wildflowers, art, butterflies, indigenous perspectives, work parties and more!

About the Authors:

Holly Wotherspoon and Audrey Fry graduated in the spring of 2023 from the UC Climate Stewards course at Pepperwood. If you see us out on the trail crouching to identify a plant, please come say “Hi!” and help us figure it out.

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