Saturday, March 19, 2016

Spring Phenology

Note: This program first aired on March 19, 2016.

Years ago when I was in college a friend commented on the phenomenon of March break. He said that you leave for break and it is winter, and when you come back to school, it is spring. That was certainly the case this year, I went away for a week and when I returned I found the seeds germinating in the green house, wood cocks calling in the evening and elderberries in my yard breaking bud. The next day out walking in the spring like sunshine I came upon alders shedding pollen from their male catkins, another of my favorite early signs that spring. It may get cold again, and snow, but the mechanisms of spring are now underway, there is no turning back. I’ve been paying attention for enough time now that I know soon I’ll hear wood frogs on sunny afternoons with no wind, and after that will come the spring peepers. After the alders will come the blooms of beaked hazelnut, and after that red maple. The birds will return, one day I’ll look up to see turkey vultures and broad winged hawks, hear phoebes in the morning, and hermit thrushes in the evening.

Keeping track of the dates of all of these spring occurrences is a hobby I came to on my own. Do it for a few years and you have a living record of the seasons in your home ground, it becomes addictive. I can look back and see that last year I didn’t hear a wood cock at my house until April 1, this year I heard them on March 12, about the same time I heard them in 2013. Last year the alders started shedding pollen on April 14, this year they started a full month earlier, on March 13. I can make notes on the winter weather, but there is nothing as telling as seeing how early or late the first signs of spring arrive. Little did I know when I started that I was participating the time honored naturalist tradition of observing and documenting the timing of seasonal events in personal journals. It even has a name—phenology: the study of the timing of recurring natural events.

The neat thing is, phenology has made the big time. No longer is it just the pet of introverted nature nerds (like myself) everywhere, quietly rejoicing in the first bloom of shadbush, noting the emergence of the coltsfoot or watching for amphibian egg masses in local vernal pools. No, phenology is now big science. Climate scientists have discovered that naturalists’ records are a treasure trove of data related to how ecosystems are adapting and changing as climate warms. Just as arctic researchers are pouring over the journals of arctic explorers and sailors to document the changes in sea ice over the past two centuries, climate focused biologists and ecologists are reading the journals of 18th and 19th century naturalists to establish how the timing of natural events has changed in the industrial era. Looking at a large number of records, over a long period of time is best. If we just had to go on my ten years of data, what would we make of hearing the wood cocks in early March this year, not till April last year, and in mid March the year before that? We really couldn’t make much of these data, other than to broadly state that woodcocks call in the early spring, which we already know. Reading and compiling naturalists’ seasonal observations is one way scientists are finding data, another is the growing citizen science movement. Now you don’t have to simply keep a meticulous nature journal that you hope someone will find useful after you die, you can participate in a state or national phenological programs and start sending useful data to scientists immediately. The Signs of the Seasons program is based at the University of Maine and has New England as its focus area. The USA National Phenology Network collects similar information at a national level. Both have well developed online presences and I encourage you to check them out and consider volunteering.

Here in the 21rst century, I’ve inadvertently discovered another way of keeping records of spring phenological events. Looking back through Facebook posts I see that I have excitedly posted every year the day I first heard woodcocks peenting in the marsh beyond my house. Ditto for wood frogs. And nature oriented friends are doing the same. This past winter wasn’t long or particularly hard, but it was weird, and people are ready for the predictability of the signs of spring. It is refreshing that so many people find something as simple as hearing a woodcock so exciting. I think we’ve finally found what Facebook is good for.

Read all about UMaine’s Signs of the Seasons Citizen Science New England Phenology program, find out about training sessions and sign up to participate!

The USA National Phenology Network collects citizen science data at a national level

Using Thoreau’s journals to track climate change:

A more science oriented article about Thoreau’s journals, including a researcher from Acadia National Park