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Throughout the year, curious nature lovers head out to local streams with their smartphones to take a close look at what’s living in the water.
With a drawstring backpack kit provided by the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) in Chevy Chase, volunteers can use a net, spoon, small white bucket and magnifying box to scoop up samples from the water. A Creek Critters app developed by the society helps participants sort through bug types and identify them by shape or the number of legs.
“People get really excited about being in the stream and finding macroinvertebrates,” says Gregg Trilling, Creek Critters’ program manager, who helped field-test the free downloadable app. The idea came from an ANS supporter who was interested in a modern, mobile way of testing water quality and funded the project. An ANS team worked with programmers to create the app, which was introduced in 2015 and has been refined each year since. It aims in part to promote citizen science.
“This kind of tool is handy, and many people find it easier to use than other printed identification worksheets,” Trilling says.
The health of a stream can be determined by how many creatures call it home, from dragonfly larvae to hellgrammites to leeches and crane flies. App users’ reports on a stream’s health are displayed on a map maintained by ANS. Generally, less diversity in a stream indicates poor water quality. Lisa Alexander, executive director of ANS, says the small creatures living in the water are good bioindicators because different bugs can tolerate different levels of pollution.
“We call it a canary in the coal mine. These interesting macroinvertebrates drop out when the water becomes more polluted,” she says. The organization’s hope is that the app will call attention to the problem of stormwater runoff and motivate people to take action.
Sarah Morse, executive director of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, a local environmental group, says the app has been embraced at the organization’s Creek Critter Days, held twice a year.
“Truly, people don’t know that anything lives in the creek besides fish. When they use the app, you hear people call out, ‘Wow!’ It’s this ‘aha!’ ” Morse says. “For us, it’s building a new set of enthusiasts for the stream and gets them to see how what they do impacts what lives in the stream.”