Tag Archives: citizen science

Nighttime Fireflies JS Mcelvery

Fired Up About Fireflies

When it comes to summer rituals, watching fireflies light up the night sky has to be one of the most magical. For generations, these flying insects have been providing wondrous moments for people of all ages. Lately, though, scientists are curious if firefly populations are growing or shrinking. And in order to get those answers, they need your help.

fireflies at night

Enter Firefly Watch

This citizen science project asks people all across the country to report whether or not you see flashing fireflies. The Museum of Science in Boston launched this project 10 years ago. This year, Mass Audubon is carrying the torch (or should we say flash), and we have partnered up with the preeminent firefly researchers from Tufts University (shout out to Sara and Avalon!).

All you need to do is go outside after dark, take stock of your surroundings, and then set a timer. Each observation includes three 10-second time periods. If you see fireflies, sweet! Let us know approximately how many. Didn’t see any? That’s ok! We still want to know that too!

Get to Know Fireflies

The first thing to know about fireflies is that even though they’re often called lightening bugs, they are not a bug (nor are they a fly). Rather they are beetles that have this really cool ability to light up their lower abdomen (the bottom part of their body).

Some of them light up in a specific blinking pattern, like a secret code that they use to “talk” with other fireflies and to find mates. In North America, there are over 150 species. Flashing fireflies (note: not all fireflies flash) fall into three main groups of flashing fireflies: Photinus, Pyractomena, and Photuris.

On first glance, they aren’t easy to tell apart, but the different species have different flash patterns. Before heading out, check out this handy chart.

Get Involved

Ready to be a Firefly Watcher? You can head out on your own or join an upcoming program or event. Find a list of what’s planned, see a map of current observations, and submit your own sightings at massaudubon.org/fireflywatch.

In Your Words: Vasha Brunelle

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them.


Vasha Brunelle © Frank Brunelle

Vasha Brunelle © Frank Brunelle

Growing up in Connecticut, most of my free time was spent outdoors, usually in the woods or swamps. As an adult living on Martha’s Vineyard, I returned to the woods for long walks and started painting local birds.

About 12 years ago, a friend suggested I get involved at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Since then, I have monitored horseshoe crabs for their citizen science project, painted several signs and murals, and served as the secretary for the Felix Neck sanctuary committee. But, perhaps, the most exciting and challenging opportunity came when I began volunteering with the sanctuary’s Coastal Waterbird Program in the spring of 2013, monitoring a pair of American oystercatchers nesting in my neighborhood.

Being new to nest monitoring, I needed help. The coastal waterbird coordinator at Felix Neck patiently showed me how and when to observe the birds, and what information to record. I was delighted the first time I saw a clutch of eggs in an oystercatcher scrape (a sandy, shallow nest dug by oystercatchers), horrified when a nest was lost to storm surge washover during a nor’easter, and ecstatic to see for the first time a chick emerging from the grasses.

American Oystercatcher © Phil Sorrentino

American Oystercatcher © Phil Sorrentino

Since those first couple of years, I’ve learned so much more about the threats to these birds, particularly predators, weather, and disturbances from beachgoers and dogs. But the birds’ admirable resolve to breed and reproduce despite these challenges has inspired me. I’ve become adept at speaking to people I meet while out observing—answering questions or gently reminding them to be cautious in a restricted area.

It’s gratifying to observe and record data, knowing that all of this information serves an important purpose: to help us understand population trends and factors for reproductive success so we can adjust our strategies to provide the birds the best chance of survival. This summer, I will be monitoring a second oystercatcher nest, a tern colony, and a pair of osprey. If you see me out and about, stop and say hi!


Vasha Brunelle is a longtime volunteer with Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary’s Coastal Waterbird program, which you can learn more about on their webpage.

The Plight of the Swallows

Every spring and summer, swallows grace our skies with their aerial acrobatics, diving to catch insects in mid-flight. Yet, Mass Audubon’s 2011 State of the Birds report had troubling news: cliff swallows are rapidly declining and in need of urgent conservation action while barn swallows are showing the initial signs of wide-ranging decline.

The reasons for these declines are currently unknown (though we have our suspicions). One thing is clear: we need to unravel the mystery to help these agile birds, and fast! That’s where you come in.

How You Can Help
Here’s what we know about the swallow situation:

  • Barn swallows and cliff swallows rely on man-made structures to place their nests. Barns, bridges, and overpasses are all likely spots.
  • Many of these locations are disappearing from the Massachusetts landscape.
  • The ones that are still standing are also favored by the house sparrow, a non-native, aggressive bird that readily kick swallows out of their nests and destroys colonies.

In order to figure out how these factors are at play, as well as other issues like climate change and toxic chemicals, we need to learn more about how swallows are making their living in Massachusetts. Enter the Big Barn Study.

From now until July 8, we’re asking willing volunteers to visit at least one potential barn swallow or cliff swallow nesting location three times. You don’t need to know in advance if barn swallows or cliff swallows are present (in fact, it is better that you don’t). Then report what you find (or don’t find). It’s as easy as that.

Learn more about the project, including how to identify barn swallows and cliff swallows as well as house sparrows, at our Big Barn Study site. Thank you in advance for helping to keep our skies full of dancing, bug-eating swallows.

Photo, barn swallows © Richard Johnson