Over the miles and months, volunteer surveyors make big progress on Great Oak Count

By Canopy Team on November 12, 2021

Great Oak Count volunteers with swag and masks

Great Oak Count volunteers set out these last six months equipped with reflective vests, tote bags, maps, door hangers for absent homeowners, and more.

Canopy’s ambitious project to survey Palo Alto’s venerable oak trees made great headway in 2021, despite the pandemic. Last spring Indira Selvakumaraswamy, Canopy’s volunteer engagement manager, assembled 21 mostly two-person teams to cover routes across the city. They began in May, once the trees’ leaves had grown enough to identify the species, and continued through early November.

“I’m delighted that we’ve been able to ramp up the Great Oak Count this year,” says Indira. “Pairing two surveyors, an oak spotter and oak plotter, has worked well to ensure COVID safety and help teams cover more routes. We started this year with 190 of 280 survey routes still to complete (the survey began in 2017). We are now close to 135 routes surveyed, and it’s so nice to see the volunteers’ enthusiasm and motivation continuing all these months.”

Undertaken in cooperation with the City of Palo Alto, Canopy’s Great Oak Count is documenting the city’s four native oak species—valley, coast live, blue, and California black. The volunteers are noting the trees’ location and their general condition. When complete, the data will help scientists evaluate ecosystem changes over the last two decades; Canopy also conducted a survey of the native oaks between 1997 to 2001. 

Plenty has changed in 20 years since the last comprehensive survey, Indira notes. “In 1997 everything was manual, the volunteers even drew the maps by hand,” she says. This time around, the volunteers are using Tree Plotter, a cloud-based digital mapping tool and database that allows them to upload photos, measurements, and other information on the trees’ welfare. Christine Baker, “our all-star volunteer” as Indira calls her, helps train the volunteers on Tree Plotter and how to distinguish between the four species, then accompanies them on their first route. Christine and Indira are quality checking each route’s data after it is entered, as well.

Indira loves the diversity of the Great Oak Count volunteers, who range in age from six to mid-80s with all genders and backgrounds, including high schoolers, working professionals, and parents with their kids.

Great Oak Count volunteer leader Christine Baker with Steve Brugler and Emma Grant-Bier. Steve and Emma met nearly weekly to cover routes as a team through the summer and fall.

Steve Brugler, a retired Silicon Valley engineer who could already distinguish among oak tree varieties, was paired with Emma Grant-Bier, a senior at Henry Gunn High School, “probably because I can use a phone,” Emma laughs. “It was a pretty cool experience. I enjoyed the process in general, to be walking around outside, and it felt pretty cool knowing that the data I was entering was going to the city.”

When Laurie Phillips learned about the volunteer opportunity and that families were welcome, she quickly signed up herself and her two sons, Cooper, 10, and Mason, 7. “They loved putting on the reflective vests, they loved talking to neighbors about why the trees were important,” Laurie says. She was grateful for an activity she could do with her boys outside after a year of “Zoom school” in the pandemic, and Indira was wonderful about making the training inclusive for the boys. “It was a wonderful experience,” Laurie adds. “It’s fun on walks now, they can point out the different types of oaks.”

“As a citizen science project, it’s a great way to inform residents about climate change,” Indira says. “And the volunteers know the contribution of their time really matters.” 

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