Feel like spring to you? It did to me earlier this week on a sunny walk in the woods. I spotted new leaves on many of our native shrubs, including Indian plum, huckleberry, elderberry, red flowering currant and salmonberry. These caught my attention particularly because I’ve just started dipping a toe in a new project – tracking phenology of a couple of our forest plant species through the National Phenology Network’s Nature’s Notebook.

Phenology? It is the timing of seasonal events in the life of a plant or animal. For plants, important phenological events include bud break, flowering, fruiting, or leaf drop. For animals, they are things like migration or egg hatch. These events have a predictable annual sequence that is tied to weather and climate patterns and ensures the survival of the species. Plants have adapted to their local environments such that they do not leaf out if they are likely to be damaged by frost; nectar-feeding insects’ life cycles are tied to the plants that they feed on.

Why phenology? Other than appreciating those first signs of spring, there are many practical ways that phenology ties into forest function and forest management. Here are a few examples that come to mind for me. Do you use herbicides around newly planted trees to control brush? Then you may monitor when your seedlings break and set buds so as not to chemically damage them. Do you rely on non-chemical methods of weed control such as mowing? Then you pay attention to when your target plants flower and set seed so that you can time your actions accordingly for best results. And, the timing of these events varies across the range of a particular plant species. That is why we have seed zones to ensure that when it comes to reforestation we “plant local”.

In the face of climate change, scientists are paying particular attention to phenology and interactions among species. For example, if due to an earlier spring, a nectar-feeding bird species begins to migrate earlier, but the phenology of a plant species in its summer range does not change, then the bird may not have a food source and the plant may not get pollinated.

Like tracking precipitation through CoCoRaHS, which I wrote about a few months back, tracking phenology is easy to do in your own woodland or even your own backyard. You choose a species from the many that are in the Nature’s Notebook database. You create an online account. Then you start observing your chosen species. This is another example of citizen science, where collectively the power of thousands of individuals gathering data can inform scientists and contribute to their research.

Oh yes…to the app. Nature’s Notebook has an App for Android and iPhone so that you can submit your observations right on your smartphone. How convenient! No need to remember to log into your computer when you get home. Just bring your phone out with you to the woods. I am using the app on my iPhone. It’s pretty basic, but it gets the job done.

Extension programs across the country are starting to adopt Nature’s Notebook with their volunteers. I’ve given some thought to this; hence my toe-dipping experiment. If you are a phenology tracker or become inspired to be one through this post, I’d love to hear from you. Comment on the blog, or send me an email.

Amy Grotta

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