Did you know you can go back in time easily? Give it try. Visit your local green space and admire the plants that have leafed out, the flowers that are blooming, the birds that are singing. Now, travel up into the hills, up the Snoqualmie or the Skykomish rivers maybe, and wend your way back into a cold deep valley. Stretch your legs, look around, listen. The same plants are there but whereas they were leafed out on the Hill, they may still be in bud along the rivers. This timing of the events in the lives of living things is called phenology. By taking this trip you’ll have effectively stepped back in phenological time.
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I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on phenology lately. Part of my day to day has involved looking at the phenology of plants between sites in valleys of Western Washington and the lower slopes of the Cascades. I’ve watched as the red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguinium) flowers have slowly brightened the river valleys I’ve traversed and heard the zip of Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) following close behind.
The study of phenology is nothing new, I’d hazard its part of being human. Almost all organisms probably pay attention to the phenology of other species around them in one form or another. For example, when our native bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) blooms, local insects know they can go nuts breeding, because there will be plenty of food to support the effort.
However, for us it may seem slightly abstract. After all, why does it really matter when red-flowering currant blooms? If every species existed in a vacuum, it probably wouldn’t. However, a fundamental component of all ecosystems is that their members are interrelated and while it might not matter that currants are blooming later or earlier than normal, it relates to pollinators which also service the flowers of the plants we eat.
The USA National Phenology Network is paying close attention to plant and animal phenology across the country (check out this article for an example of results of their work). Their reasons for doing so are many, and they’re far from abstract. Changes in the phenology of the species we live in close relationship with, like crop plants, need to be monitored. Climate change can deeply affect the phenology of different species, in ways we don’t fully understand with study.
One of the major concerns is that certain interconnected species, ones that rely on each other for their livelihood, might become mismatched in timing. This could have cascading effects that create the disappearance of certain species across their range, or worse, degrade entire ecosystems. Paying attention to phenology can even help us understand pest species, because management may be deeply tied to their annual cycles.
What’s awesome is that unlike much research, we can actually help provide data to the effort. The National Phenology Network created a program 10 years ago called Nature’s Notebook, which has been crowdsourcing phenological data ever since. Anyone can take data independently to support the effort. All it requires is access to the internet, the ability to identify a couple plants or animals, and a desire to get outside on a regular basis to observe them (learn about it here; there’s an app that makes it really simple). I recommend only focusing on a few plants at a time to start off. The rest, like what you need to be observing is laid out simply, so that all can engage in the project, even if you aren’t a biologist.
My contributions to Nature’s Notebook fall under my work as a graduate student in environmental education, but the point of contributing to citizen science is that anyone can do it. This consortium of researchers, educators, and citizen scientists are gathering valuable data that no lone group of researchers could expect to get. However, I think the most important part of the program is that it gets us to pay attention. There’s a lot of exciting discroveries to be made when you start focusing on one particular plant as it goes through the seasons. This spring I’ve watched as dormant buds on my focal salmonberry began to break, burst into leaves, and finally developed flowers. Although I give much thought to this process already, I think it’s brought me even closer to the cycles that are happening all around us.