Watch and Wait!

By Ulrike Axen

An interesting winter, indeed. Today (February 19) I experienced one of the finest walks at the Arboretum, ever. The sun was shining, we had a warm south wind, and I even sat down for a few minutes to enjoy the outdoors – on a dry log, no less. This would be a remarkable day for a month hence, the vernal equinox. In fact, this would even be a fine, if slightly chilly, day for April. What is going on?

The birds are confused too. Sparrows are calling loudly. Our ever-present chickadees have been calling for weeks now, and I saw a cardinal out scouting around. A woodpecker was tapping away in the woods as well. Our over-wintering bird species are ready for spring, even as the daylight is still slowly stretching towards the equinox. Watch for returning migrants in the coming months and make note of the first day you spot a particular species.

You can participate on-line and help scientists gather data to study how climate patterns affect seasonal phenomena like bird migrations. The study of seasonal phenomena and climate has a name, phenology, and gathering data for various studies has become more prevalent as it becomes clear that seasonal patterns are altering. There are a number of websites that are devoted to engaging citizen scientists; Journey North‘s website is a great place to get started if you are interested in helping scientists gather data about migratory patterns.

I also noticed today some early buds on the trees and shrubs, and making note of first leaves, flowers, fruits, etc. on plants is also part of the study of phenology. One of my favorite citizen science websites for this is Project Budburst. You can register to “watch” any of dozens of choices of plants, and track when changes occur. This is a nice way to participate, because you can do it right in your own backyard; the species on the watch lists are common species.

Why the study of phenology? As migratory patterns change, or plants start their growth season earlier than usual, it can disrupt an entire ecosystem. For example, if birds return to an area before their favorite food is available, they will have a less successful breeding season and populations in the area will change. A shift of one population in an area will often have a domino effect on other species, and so it is useful to have early indications of these dynamics.

Plus, it’s just fun to participate in these studies, and see how seasonal patterns change from year to year, and throughout the nation. But this year, you better be ready early! Enjoy!

Ulrike Axen is a Minnesota Naturalist volunteer.

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