Volunteer in the Spotlight: Dr. Orrin Shane

Orrin ShaneOrrin Shane’s lifelong interest in milkweed began when he was a boy in 1940s. He and his childhood friends picked bushels of the plants for the war effort. The fluffy insides of pods were used to fill life preservers for soldiers overseas.

“That was my introduction to milkweed,” Dr. Shane said. “It is a plant of many faces.”

Today, as a volunteer of the Signs of the Seasons phenology program, Dr. Shane regularly observes milkweed for signs of Monarch butterflies and caterpillars. He found his current stand accidentally after a futile search of his Portland neighborhood.

“We had taken our dog to the dog park. I was just walking around with him and saw this patch of milkweed right there by the park,” he said.

Dr. Shane now observes the plants whenever he gets a chance, ideally every three days. So far this year he hasn’t seen much Monarch activity, but he expects to later in August and early September.

Dr. Shane is a committed volunteer. He has been gathering phenology data since the program’s inception three years ago, entering mounds of information into the Signs of the Seasons database. In addition to Monarchs, he observes Red Maple, Red Oak and White Oak. Every third morning, he arms himself with a pair of binoculars and leans out from his condo balcony to observe the particular branches he is monitoring.

“It takes about 15 minutes,” he said. “Then I always enter the information into the computer. It’s about consistency.”

A former director of the National Science Foundation’s Informal Science Education program, Dr. Shane is deeply committed to citizen science. A university using its own resources could not duplicate the Signs of the Seasons program, he said.

“A professor and a handful of post-grads could never gather enough data. On a project like this you need lots and lots of people and lots and lots of data,” he said. “No one’s actually done a program like Signs of the Seasons. No one has gathered this detailed information on climate change via phenology observation. We don’t know what to predict, but this is the way to find out what changes are happening. It’s about the long term.”

“Orrin is an ideal volunteer,” said Esperanza Stancioff, director of the program and Climate Change Educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant. “His commitment to phenology and the program added to his passion for citizen science make him an irreplaceable member of our team.”