Are you interested in doing field work for conservation science? Are you looking to learn more about Virginia’s wildlife and plant communities? Are you searching for rewarding volunteer opportunities in your community? Virginia Working Landscapes may be just right for you!

Each spring, Virginia Working Landscapes recruits citizen science volunteers to assist biological surveys across northern and central Virginia. These surveys are part of an ongoing study of grasslands on working lands here in the Northern Piedmont and the Northern Blue Ridge regions. We are monitoring species diversity for grassland birds, pollinators, and plants under various management regimes and at different stages of warm season grass establishment. In addition, we collaborate with other programs on a number of monitoring projects involving citizen science, such as the orchid survey. Our citizen science volunteers collectively contribute thousands of hours to Smithsonian projects each year, vastly expanding the range of our studies.

VWL provides its volunteers training in the protocols used to collect these data, and we do the coordination which allows surveyors (e.g., our citizen scientists) access to the properties where our work occurs. Before each survey season begins VWL hosts protocol training sessions at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. These protocol training events are mandatory. In addition to survey protocols, training sessions include guidance on field safety and introductions to survey partners.

Beginners are welcome at Virginia Working Landscapes! VWL welcomes volunteers from all levels of experience, from novice to professional-grade. We give our volunteers hands-on training and work to pair newer citizen scientists with partners who are more experienced. We only ask our volunteers come to us with a strong interest in learning and sufficient time to dedicate to our project.

All VWL volunteers are required to register as a volunteer with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old to apply. All volunteers will be required to pass a Smithsonian background check prior to volunteering.  

NOTE: The 2022 volunteer application will be available from December 3, 2021 through December 24, 2021. 

If you miss the 2022 application window and are interested in volunteering as a citizen scientist for VWL surveys and would like updates on when volunteer applications will open again, please contact the VWL Survey Coordinator, Erin Thady at: ThadyE@si.edu.

Current Volunteer Opportunities

GRASSLAND BIRD SURVEYS

Field Season: May 15 – June 30

Introductory training includes a brief overview of project goals, survey protocols, data collection and site assignments. After the introductory survey training, we host a field-based practice survey for new volunteers, where we reinforce point count techniques. A working knowledge of local bird species is required for participants in this survey.

Details:

  • Point counts are carried out within 3 hours of sunrise and take approximately 45-60 minutes per site (three 10-minute counts)
  • Time commitment is a minimum of 3 survey sessions plus training (estimated 20 hours including travel)
  • Each volunteer will supply their own personal binoculars and a field guide; survey datasheets and site directions will be provided by the survey coordinator

GRASSLAND PLANT SURVEYS

Field Season: June & August

Introductory plant survey training includes the training protocol and a safety briefing. There is no need to be an expert in Virginia’s native flora. New volunteer plant surveyors will be paired with experienced surveyors. Most survey teams will be assigned a single site, though some may request additional site assignments. VWL hosts plant identification sessions at SCBI throughout the survey season. Survey teams bring unidentified plant specimens collected during their field surveys to plant ID sessions, where surveyors use keys and the expertise of the collective group to determine species ID. This is an excellent learning opportunity for aspiring botanists.

Details:

  • Sites take approximately 6-8 hours to survey
  • Surveyors are asked to commit at least 5 days but the scheduling of the survey dates can be flexible; on average plant survey volunteers contribute 40-50 hours each year including travel time
  • Datasheets, protocols, site directions and Robel poles for surveys are provided by the VWL survey coordinator

GRASSLAND POLLINATOR SURVEYS

Field Season: July through September

The survey goal is to assess number and diversity of pollinators at working cattle farms in northern Virginia. Introductory training in May includes a brief overview of project goals, survey protocols, data collection, and site assignments. Volunteers will be given resources to study basic pollinator identifications and survey methods. After the introductory survey training, we host a field-based practice survey in June for volunteers, where we demonstrate and practice survey techniques. 

Details:

  • Pollinator surveys are carried out in the afternoon between 12:00 – 4:00 PM and when the weather is conducive to promoting pollinator activity (sunny, dry, low wind). 
  • Estimated time commitment is 20 hours total including travel, a minimum of 3 survey sessions plus training. Each survey session (includes 4 survey transects) will take between 1-2 hours to complete.
  • For each survey, the surveyor will walk a 200 foot transect for 15 minutes and record the number and types of pollinators seen during that time period.

WHAT VWL VOLUNTEERS GAIN:

  • Opportunities to apply skills to ground-breaking scientific research
  • Training in the ecology of Virginia grassland communities
  • Training in survey protocols for specific guilds (birds, plants, pollinators)
  • Opportunities to learn from scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
  • Opportunities to network and learn from others of similar interests
  • Admission to VWL workshops, lectures and training events
  • Free membership in the Volunteer Association at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

WHAT WE WILL NEED FROM YOU:

  • Email the VWL Survey Coordinator, Erin Thady at ThadyE@si.edu to join our volunteer applicant email list
  • Apply for Smithsonian Institution volunteer registration during application period (see info above for information on application dates)
  • Complete a background check; the VWL survey coordinator will assist
  • Participate in introductory training sessions for your preferred survey(s)
  • Completion of assigned field surveys and delivery of data
  • Professional demeanor and reliability in communicating with VWL staff, interns, survey partners, landowners, and fellow volunteers
  • Prompt replies to emails concerning logistics and data management

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Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road
Front Royal, Virginia 22630

SCBIVWL@si.edu
540.635.0038

www.nationalzoo.si.edu