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For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.
Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.
The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]
I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?
These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.
Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.
According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”
The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.
Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.
This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog
Things are blooming in Paradelle, so I have started recording them in my garden notebook. Have you noticed any changes in when things sprout or bloom in your neighborhood? Maybe flowers tend to bloom a little earlier in the year or birds that used to migrate are hanging around your yard through the winter?
In some ways my garden notebook is a nature notebook as I find myself also recording first and last frosts, snow storms, the appearances of birds, insects and wildlife. Some of those things I report here, both seriously and also as a kind of weather lore. My posts about predicting the weather based on signs in nature seem to get a lot of hits, so I am not alone in my interest, scientific or not.
Most people have never heard of phenology. but if you have ever paid attention to the timing of natural events, like blooming flowers and migrating animals, you have been practicing this -ology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.
If you want to make those observation to be more “official,” you can become a citizen scientist by connecting with groups like Nature’s Notebook. It is an online project sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network. Americans can practice phenology in their own habitat and share their observations with other members and have their data shared with scientists who will use the data for research and decision-making.
It saddens me how disconnected people are to the natural world of plants, animals, the earth and sky. s a lifelong teacher, it really saddens me to see how disconnected kids become as they get older. The interest is always there in very young children, so it is something that is lost.
We may not all be as observant as Sara Schaffer of Nature’s Notebook who suggests that we notice the “slightest blush on a maple leaf that foreshadows the coming fall” or the “new, more vibrant feathers warblers put on days before mating.”
Do you see the appearance of the first robin on your lawn as a sign that spring has arrived? I grew up hearing and believing that. But I have observed and recorded robins every winter. Once I saw four of them sitting on my fence in a February snowstorm. Robins as indicators of spring is a good example of weather lore.
Most robins do migrate south, but some are probably still around your neighborhood all winter – no doubt better protected in the woods than on your bare lawn. The robins that do migrate to the South in the fall, return in the spring, so then we see many more of them on that soggy lawn and field in search of food.
Geese flying south in Paradelle is a daily occurrence. They fly from the reservoir south to a pond. They never migrate and leave any more. What does that indicate? Perhaps some of it is climate change, but it is also the prime water and grass we provide them in parks, golf courses, school fields and corporate settings. Why leave?
Though thinking a captive groundhog can predict the end of winter is certainly weather lore, paying attention to events like true bird migrations can help us understand long-term trends and predict future events. That is why many observers may be reporting small changes that can help more accurately predict the long-term impacts of climate change and shorter-term events in the near future.
And observing when the smell of smoke from fireplaces changes to the smell of barbecue smoke is a definite indicator of suburban seasonal change!
“I live on land that has not surrendered the last of its wildness. It keeps secrets, and those secrets prompt us to pay attention, to look for more.” – Susan Hand Shetterly
You don’t have to escape the world most of us live in to observe how animals, humans, and plants share the land. One of my favorite books of any type is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It is a series of connected essays that combines scientific observation, philosophy, daily thoughts, and introspection. The writing is wonderful. I have used it in many classes as a model for writing prose. (Dillard also has several books about writing.)
Rather than go off to live in the woods, Dillard decides to take a very close look at nearby where she lives. Tinker Creek and its inhabitants offer her plenty to write about and she extends beyond the woods and water as she seeks out factual and metaphysical information about what she sees. And all that leads her to see much more.
As a reviewer said, she might be quoting the Koran or Albert Einstein, then describing the universe of an Eskimo shaman or the mating of luna moths.
She respects the landscape and its inhabitants. She tries to commune with them.
“No matter how quiet we are, the muskrats stay hidden. Maybe they sense the tense hum of consciousness, the buzz from two human beings who in silence cannot help but be aware of each other, and so of themselves.”
One difference is that she observes and writes about all of the local inhabitants – which includes the humans and the snowshoe hares, salmon, cormorants spring peepers and many others. How do all of them make their way in an ever-changing habitat?
That idea of taking a magnifying glass to your own little piece of the world isn’t quite as Romantic or adventurous as a year at Walden Pond or on a island, but it’s a lot more practical and possible. She observes a displaced garter snake, the paving of a beloved dirt road, rescues a fledgling raven, and see her town’s happiness in the return of the alewife migration. She gets and gives a reader some education in nature that might inspire you to take a similar short journey.
In doing some research on Shetterly, I found her website and discovered that she has also written a children’s book, Shelterwood. It is described as a teacher’s guide that explores forest diversity, from learning about different kinds of trees, to understanding how the “layers” in a forest provide habitat for all kinds of animals and insects. It sounds like the background material plus activities that encourage exploration while learning might also be a good book for parents to use this summer with their own youngsters.
The website also has an excerpt from the book, and I found a post there that had this section in it.
My plan is to lie on the couch, read the paper, uncork the wine. And so I wave to him, turn into my driveway, into the shadows of the softwoods, and pull up at the clearing where my house sits, catching the light left in the day.
Inside, I set down the paper and the wine and stand at the window watching a hen turkey, who has spent a good deal of the winter here, emerge out of the woods and direct herself toward the house. She’s lame. She walks by lifting her right foot in an exaggerated gesture, thrusts it ahead, and sets it down.
Birds walk on their toes. Most of what we see of a bird’s leg is the elongated foot with the same joints going the same ways as our own. On this hen, just at the place on the right foot where the tarsal bone fits to the bones of the toes, her toes curl under like a fist. She is two years old, and some neighbors and I have fed her since she was a jenny – a youngster -whenever she appears in our yards.
Her group of hens left her after the first snow this year. Or maybe she left them. In the fall, every time I watched them troop across the field in a line, she brought up the rear, rocking along. But she is a determined soul. Now she spends her days near my house, or she walks through the woods to be near a neighbor’s house. She preens. She watches every movement around her, perks at every sound. Sometimes, when I look into the trees in the woods on a sunny day, I see her resting in the leaves on the ground, or she is balancing on a fallen log above the snow, her head tucked back, asleep.
It seems that Susan had once done the move into the unfinished cabin approach and was probably more idealistic, and less prepared for the experience. But most of the essays come from the later period. She’s not always the quiet observer, like Dillard, as when she rescues that fledgling or stands down a bobcat that’s chased a baby rabbit into the middle of the road.
And she is interested in the people too, neighbors and the fisherman who encounters whales and swordfish or the garbage collector who repairs what others throw away.
So, perhaps, it is all about preservation of what matters and even finding out what does matter in the wilderness and yourself and about the slowing down that is required to make those kinds of observations.