Smart Science: App Helps Protect Shorebirds


Have you ever visited a beach and wondered where the waves carry all that sand? On a college camping trip, curiosity about waves and sand sparked Rob Thieler’s desire to study shorelines around the world. 30 years later and now a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist, Thieler is combining science and smartphone technology to help study a threatened bird -- the Atlantic Coast piping plover.

The piping plover is an iconic shorebird that breeds along the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. Rising sea levels and storm surges associated with climate change, as well as increased development in their beach habitats, threaten the species. To help track changes in piping plover habitat, Thieler developed a free app called iPlover. 

A piping plover stands on a beach with three small chicks.
A piping plover stands on a beach with three small chicks. Photo by USFWS.

In 2012, Thieler -- who never thought that as a scientist he would build a smartphone app -- decided to make an app with his USGS colleagues to collect habitat data along a long swath of the Atlantic coast. This is a marked change from the typical way scientists collect data, which involves gathering information using specialized equipment or writing in field notebooks and then transcribing into spreadsheets. 

“As a scientist, I enjoy studying the interactions between people, animals like plovers, and their environment,” says Thieler. “As a federal civil servant, I’m working to apply science to help solve societal problems, whether it’s natural or cultural resources or human safety.”

USGS research geologist Rob Thieler holds a tern chick on Monomoy Island National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Photo by USGS.
USGS research geologist Rob Thieler holds a tern chick on Monomoy Island National Wildlife Refuge
in Massachusetts. Photo by USGS.

Since releasing iPlover, scientists have gathered data across 1500 km of breeding range. That equals about a third of the distance across the U.S, which is a large area to cover for only 2,000 breeding pairs of piping plovers on the east coast. 

Instead of having to travel and spend days at each site, a network of collaborators in the field use the app to collect and send data, allowing scientists to gather data more efficiently. It also allows them to collect data at the same time during each breeding season, providing a better picture of changes that happen over longer periods of time. And fast, centralized access means scientists can look at data quickly to get a real-time idea of where and how piping plovers are using their habitat. 

A scientists uses GPS and the iPlover smartphone app to track piping plover habitat in coastal Virginia.
A scientist uses GPS and the iPlover smartphone app to track piping plover habitat in coastal Virginia. Photo by USGS.

While iPlover is used by trained field staff, other apps like USGS’s web-based “iCoast – Did the Coast Change?” use crowdsourcing, inviting citizen scientists to identify coastal changes by comparing birds-eye-view photographs taken before and after storms. All the information scientists and citizen scientists alike collect helps federal and state agencies create policy plans for addressing climate change impacts worldwide. 

Interested in becoming a citizen scientist? For more information on USGS projects and ways to get involved, visit the myScience portal.