Reflections on Quarantine Quieting Fieldwork

By Dr. Jeffrey Wozniak, lead scientist on the expedition Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitat in Texas, Warren Stortroen, Earthwatch Volunteer Extrordinaire and leader of the "Warren-ites," and Ashley Junger, Earthwatch Science Writer

Beginning earlier this year, all over the world, the usual rush of buses, cars, and planes slowed to a trickle as travel restrictions kept people home in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these efforts were--and continue to be--essential to safeguard public health, they also made it necessary for Earthwatch to cancel an entire season’s worth of field research expeditions.

Earthwatch made some quick pivots to keep our passion for science alive through our Science Matters webinar series and our new climate change course, Earthwatch at Home. But this still left hundreds of volunteers unable to join the expeditions they were eagerly anticipating, and Earthwatch scientists missed out on the essential data those volunteers would have helped to collect. Recently, we asked Dr. Jeff Wozniak, lead scientist on the expedition Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitat in Texas, and Warren Stortroen, a long-time Earthwatch volunteer, to reflect on what Earthwatch has meant to them and how this pandemic has affected their contributions to citizen science.


Jeff headshot

I think isolation gives you the ability to highlight what's important and I have learned that citizen science research is so vital to my research program… It truly highlights the importance of Earthwatch and of citizen science.

— Dr. Jeff Wozniak

Dr. Jeff Wozniak began working with Earthwatch in 2014 when he became the lead scientist on a project to study the last wild migratory population of whooping cranes and their habitat in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Jeff shared some of the many ways working with Earthwatch has shaped and supported his research:


In many ways, Earthwatch has been the foundation of my research program for the past six years. It provides structure and stability to everything we do in our research lab.

From a data point of view, our Earthwatch expeditions provide so much information and data that my collaborators and I can explore.  We use it to foster new collaborations with different organizations and it really helps us to be productive and efficient researchers. 

When you're on the ground in an expedition, I personally really like the social side of things.  Getting to know the volunteers is a fun process.  It amazes me how every expedition is different⁠— every group of people is different⁠⁠— and it's fun learning the quirks of each team.  It's really neat that you bring in this group of strangers from around the world together for a common goal and watch them grow as a team.

I always tell them by the end of the week you're going to be experts in ecosystems ecology. You're going to be experts in how this coastal system functions. They always look at me and are skeptical, but it is true, by the end of the expedition, everyone really does understand coastal ecology and whooping crane biology on a much higher level.


Whooping crane field work


Warren Stortroen, Earthwatch Volunteer Extraordinaire and leader of the "Warren-ites," says Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitat in Texas is one of his favorite expeditions, so much so that he’s now trekked through the marshy wetlands of Texas with Jeff five times. Over the years Warren has been able to witness the whooping crane population boom from 300 in 2016 to 550 in 2020, which is especially impressive considering at one point the flock consisted of only 15 birds.

Each year Warren would zoom through the waterways of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on a motorboat, observing a wonderful variety of shorebirds, seabirds, waders, raptors, and a variety of other wildlife that find a home there. While the habitat surveys and behavioral observations were the same each time he visited, each expedition offered a fresh look at this magnificent species, a new opportunity to discover the wonders of the refuge, and a fresh batch of volunteers to bond with.

When Warren left the marsh in March 2020 and left those avian memories behind, he boarded his flight home, returning to a rapidly changing world. Travel restrictions were being put in place, flights were being canceled, and public life was rapidly changing. The remaining 2020 whooping crane teams were all canceled, along with all of the other Earthwatch expeditions that had been scheduled throughout the summer and fall. Field notebooks were left empty, boots unmuddied, and crabs uncounted. Jeff shares how this has affected his project:


The whole pandemic has greatly impacted academic research in general. From travel restrictions and not being able to access research sites, students not being able to be in the research lab, it really impacts us on every level. This quarantine and isolation have affected everybody in so many different ways and academic research has not gone untouched. Obviously, this has dramatically impacted Earthwatch from a data collection point of view, from a volunteer point of view, and obviously financially. 

It has been interesting watching and learning all the different ways isolation and quarantine can affect us, and research is definitely on that list. I think isolation gives you the ability to highlight what's important and I have learned that citizen science research is so vital to my research program. I have learned that I really can't go do all that fieldwork by myself - I need Earthwatch volunteers to be successful.  It seems like every trip the volunteers will look at me at one point or another and say: “do you really need us here?” or “are we really helping you?” And I always tell them yes I do need you!  This pandemic has really made that point clear - that my research program really does need those groups of citizen scientists.  We really do need their help to cover more research sites, to see more whooping cranes, to assess habitats. It truly highlights the importance of Earthwatch and of citizen science.


Observing whooping cranes


Volunteers like Warren share Jeff’s eagerness to return to the field. Warren was scheduled to volunteer on a few different expeditions in 2020, and is keen to get back into the field and assist on Earthwatch expeditions as soon as it is safe to do so:

Warren Stortroen in the field.
Warren Stortroen in the field.

My flight home was in the middle of March, so I was very concerned about encountering the virus on the plane!  I quarantined myself at home for the next two weeks, and since then have been very careful and so far I’m still well!  My July expedition Marine Mammals and Predators in Costa Rica was canceled because of the virus and two other expeditions I had planned for this year were also canceled. 

I’m 88 years old now, so I won’t have many more opportunities.  Maybe 2021 will be better!

Jeff is also looking forward to having volunteers return to the field. He’s especially looking forward to once again finishing up a tiring day of fieldwork and basking in the setting sun and pride of the volunteers:


My favorite part of the day is the final boat ride back after a good day of fieldwork.  The sun is starting to set and if you are lucky the dolphins are jumping in our wake.  The team is tired, we've been out on the marsh in the mud, on the boat in the wind all day long and despite all that, as I look around the faces in the boat everyone is smiling.  There's a great sense of accomplishment at that moment. The boat’s engine is screaming, the wind is loud in your ears and you really can't hear each other talking, but you can read the faces and you can see contentment, the achievement, and the pride in the work that everyone's done.


Texas field work


While quarantine has drastically changed our day to day lives, it’s completely halted projects like Jeff’s that are essential to safeguarding vulnerable species and habitats. It has been said that the scientific symbol of 2020 will be the asterisk, as research projects all around the world have been unable to collect data. Many long-term data sets will be missing entries. While we are able to cherish the amazing memories we have made in the field and are proud of the amazing impacts the data we’ve collected has had, just like Warren, we cannot wait to get back into the field. With these pauses in data collection, getting back into the field, conserving critical environments, and working with communities will be more important than ever.

We will be in touch in the coming months with our plans for a return to the field. Although a specific date has not been scheduled, preparations are underway to accommodate new fielding protocols while upholding Earthwatch’s high safety standards. If you wish to support projects like Jeff’s in the meantime, consider donating to support Earthwatch’s mission of conservation research.



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