With this winter shaping up to be a cold one, spring may still seem far away. But with time and a little patience, we will soon start to notice the lilac leaves bursting from buds, the return of brightly colored warblers, and the ringing chorus of spring peepers in the evening. Any time you detect events unfolding in the natural world, you are making phenological observations.
Phenology refers to the study of the timing of biological activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these changes in the life cycles of plants and animals coincide with the seasons. Besides day length, factors that influence the timing of biological events include temperature, precipitation, snowpack formation and melting, and wind.
Phenological observations can tell us about the presence, growth and survival of an individual or a species over days, months and years. For example, we may be able to determine that black cherry trees are producing fruit earlier than in the past. Or, we might observe that migratory Common Loons are spending two extra weeks in the Adirondacks before beginning their autumnal journeys south. Phenology helps us recognize natural variability as well as trends.
Climate change is perhaps the best example of a large-scale phenomenon that will influence the timing of biological events. For breeding birds in New York State, warmer temperatures have resulted in northward shifts of species ranges. In the coming decades, the Adirondacks are predicted to experience warmer overall temperatures, less snow and ice cover in the winter, and changes in precipitation patterns. Changes in climate conditions will also redefine species’ range limits. For example, alpine plants found on only a few High Peak summits may be outcompeted by lower elevation plants expanding into higher elevation areas as a result of warmer temperatures. Phenology serves as an effective tool to better understand and track these range shifts and effectively prioritize areas for management, conservation or additional monitoring.
Even simple observations – like the date when leaves first appear on sugar maples in the yard – can tell a great deal about how living things are responding to changes in their environment. The terrain of the Adirondacks varies widely; climate data show future warming in some areas, whereas others may be cooler on average.When we collect phenological data across a large and variable region like the Adirondacks, we may be able to determine when to start growing garden and farm crops and more effectively anticipate outbreaks of pests or invasive species. The longer we observe the start and end points of natural events, the better we can start to see patterns of change that may affect the Adirondacks as a whole.
Phenology monitoring efforts benefit greatly from participation by citizen scientists. Collecting data can be as easy as writing down and sharing when you first hear a robin sing in the spring. It can also be just as important to observe that a species normally present is not there. Opportunities to participate in phenology-related projects are becoming increasingly common as scientists and conservation planners realize the value of these observations. For example, Project BudBurst (budburst.org) relies on nationwide observations of plant growth patterns from citizen volunteers.
A partnership of agencies and universities is introducing a new Adirondack citizen science monitoring project this year focused on wetlands. The project is being funded by a United States Environmental Protection Agency grant administered by the Adirondack Park Agency. Trained volunteers will visit some of the most intriguing bog and fen sites in the Park to identify rare plants, count birds, and perform evening call surveys for amphibians (listen to mink frogs and other frog calls here).
Everyone can be a phenological detective and contribute to scientific research that will help us understand and protect Adirondack species and ecosystems. All it takes is a keen eye or ear and some careful observations on when, where, and what you noticed. To find out more about phenology, check out the USA National Phenology Network (usanpn.org).
To learn more about participating in the Adirondack wetlands monitoring program, contact David Patrick at the Center for Adirondack Biodiversity (phone 518-327-6174 or e-mail email@example.com) or Paul Hai at the Adirondack Ecological Center of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (phone 518-582-4551 x104 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Photos: Above, Black Spruce (Picea mariana) in an Adirondack wetland; photo by Samouel Beguin. Below, a Mink Frog (Lithobates septentrionalis); photo courtesy Mike Ostrowski.
This guest essay was written by SUNY – ESF conservation biology graduate student and Plattsburgh native Samouel Beguin along with Stacy McNulty, the Associate Director of the SUNY-ESF Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb.