Throughout Crystal Cove State Park, the State Park’s natural resource staff monitors a specific species of bird called the California gnatcatcher.  Because this small, fluffy gray bird is threatened by loss of habitat, monitoring its population over time can help us see how the coastal sage scrub ecosystem is doing.

Now, we need your help to analyze the data!  You can use an online GIS platform to help us map past sightings of California gnatcatchers at Crystal Cove State Park to look for trends, so that we can see how the gnatcatcher population is doing.

For teachers:  If you are a teacher and would like to run this project with your science or math class, feel free to use this Lesson Guide and these Student Notebook Pages!

We would like to know who is taking part in the program! Please fill out this participation form if you have used any of the challenges.

Background on California Gnatcatcher Monitoring

The California gnatcatcher is a small bird whose call sounds similar to a mewing cat.  Gnatcatcher pairs makes their homes in a native species of plant called California Sagebrush.  If there is no California Sagebrush growing in an area, then gnatcatchers are unable to live there.

Because Southern California’s coastal population of California gnatcatcher has lost a lot of habitat to development, it is listed as endangered.  As a result, the State Park is tasked with monitoring Crystal Cove’s gnatcatcher population to see whether the population is healthy and stable.

We want to know if there are any annual or seasonal trends in California gnatcatcher sightings at Crystal Cove State Park.  Does the population of gnatcatchers seem to be growing or shrinking over time?  Can more gnatcatchers be found in certain areas of the park or at certain times of year?  By mapping the GPS coordinates of past sightings, we can get an idea of how Crystal Cove’s California gnatcatcher population is doing.

How You Can Help!

That’s where you come in!  We need your help analyzing our data set and creating visualizations and maps showing how the California gnatcatcher population is distributed.  We are specifically interested to know whether you can find any annual or season variation in the data, or whether gnatcatchers are concentrated in certain parts of the park’s coastal areas.

To help us, you will need to:

  1. Learn more about California gnatcatchers by watching and reading through the background materials below.
  2. Make a hypothesis about whether you think you will find any trends in the gnatcatcher sighting data.
  3. Conduct a virtual gnatcatcher survey in Crystal Cove State Park.
  4. Use GPS Point Plotter (or another GIS or mapping program) to map the data.
  5. Share your findings back with us!
  6. Reflect on your experience.

Thank you in advance for your help!  We’re really excited to see what you find.  If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact us by emailing

Step 1: Learn more about California gnatcatchers.

Start by watching and listening to the California gnatcatcher slideshow with Kaitlin on Voicethread. 

If you want to learn more about California gnatcatchers, their role in Orange County’s conservation efforts, or how GPS coordinates and GIS mapping works, check out these additional resources:

Step 2: Make a prediction.

Once you’ve looked through the background materials, think about our two monitoring questions.

  • Monitoring Question (1):  If we map the GPS coordinates of gnatcatcher sightings from the past three years, will we notice any seasonal or annual trends in the data?
  • Monitoring Question (2): If we map the GPS coordinates of gnatcatcher sightings from the past three years, will we notice any trends in where gnatcatchers are observed?

What do you predict you’ll find when you analyze the California gnatcatcher data set?  Make a hypothesis and share your initial ideas with us by completing this Google Form.

Step 3:  Virtually collect data.

Now that you have developed your hypothesis, take a virtual trip to Crystal Cove State Park with Kaitlin to collect some data on California gnatcatchers.  Go through this ThingLink and record your bird observations in your student notebook!

Step 4:  Analyze the data.

The raw data is available to download on Google Drive or Dropbox.

You will need some sort of GIS or mapping program in order to map the data.  We recommend using GIS Point Plotter, which is a free, online platform that is easy to use!

For some suggestions on how to get started with GIS Point Plotter, please check out our Getting Started video on YouTube!

Do you have questions about the data that you want answered by Crystal Cove Conservancy staff members or scientists? Submit any questions you or your classmates have to this Padlet.

Step 5: Share your findings!

We want to know what you found!  Did you notice any trends in the California gnatcatcher data once you mapped it?

Please share your findings through Google Forms here!  As part of your conclusions, it would be really helpful to get a copy of any maps or other data visualizations that you created so that we can share them with Crystal Cove State Park’s environmental scientists.

Would you like to communicate with other students who analyzed the data to talk more about it?  Contribute your thoughts, comments, or questions about the data to this Padlet and see what other people are thinking about the data, too.

Step 6: Reflect on California gnatcatcher mapping 

It’s important for scientists to take some time to reflect on how their thinking has changed. Watch the video of Kaitlin to help you start reflecting on your experiences with California gnatcatcher monitoring and answer the following reflection questions.

  1. What did you do during this environmental challenge?
  2. What did you learn?  How did your thinking change?
  3. Do you think it is important to protect the California gnatcatcher and coastal sage scrub habitat at Crystal Cove State Park? Why or why not?
  4. Did you enjoy analyzing data and sharing your findings to help protect the gnatcatcher?  What did or didn’t you like about the experience?
  5. Would you like to learn more about birds, the coastal sage scrub habitat, or how scientists monitor populations there?  If so, what topics interest you?  Do you have ideas of how you could learn more about them?

Are you interested in getting involved in other community science activities? Explore how to contribute to projects at these websites.

Did you enjoy doing the work of an ornithologist and an environmental scientist?  Would you like to learn more about those types of careers?  Explore career options by exploring these websites:

  1. You’re a What?: Ornithologist
  2. Ornithologist Job Description

Thank you for your help!  If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact us by emailing

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