Jim Gilbert tracks nature for Weatherguide calendar

For people who love nature, the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendar has been a major source of information on phenology – the science of observing and tracking plants and animals in relation to weather and climate – for the last 33 years.

Naturalist Jim Gilbert

If you look on the back of the January page, you will find that black-capped chickadees start singing their “fee-bee” spring songs as early as the first week of the year.

If you look at the August section, you will learn that purple martins are already gathering in flocks for migration south and baby snapping turtles are hatching.

And, if you page ahead to November, you will learn that the rutting season for white-tailed deer is at or near it peak, and that Nov. 16 was the last good day for picking apples in 2008.

Those observations – a mixture of advice on what to look for in plant and animal activities in a given month of any year, and records of when an unusually large flock of robins was seen or when the lake ice went out in specific years – have been compiled for all those 33 years by Jim Gilbert.

Gilbert, a balding 69-year-old naturalist whose eyes sparkle when he talks about spotting a red-winged blackbird on a cattail or about red oaks shedding their acorns, teaches environmental studies part-time at Gustavus-Adolphus College, a job he took after retiring from a 30-year career as a science teacher in the Hopkins school system.

He has worked as a naturalist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum almost every summer since 1968.

And he hosts a regular Sunday morning radio show on phenology for WCCO-AM, contributes phenology notes for the Star Tribune and writes another column for the Waconia newspaper. He also has written three books: Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notebook, Through Minnesota’s Seasons with Jim Gilbert and Jim Gilbert’s Minnesota Nature Notes.

Gilbert grew up on Lake Minnewashta in Carver County. He says his interest in phenology dates to when he was 12 or 13 and began, sporadically at first, to keep a journal of nature observations.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in general science at Gustavus Adolphus, earned a master’s in earth science at the University of Oklahoma and studied field biology at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station.

He got his start writing about phenology for the calendar, shortly after the Weatherguide evolved from an almanac into a calendar. Gilbert said he visited Dick Gray, one of the founders of the Freshwater Society. “I said: ‘Dick, I see you’ve got this calendar,'” Gilbert recalled. “My stuff would fit perfectly in there. It’s called phenology.'”

These days, Gilbert  notes his observations on a clipboard he carries with him on walks through the arboretum a couple of times a week and in the forest and wetland behind his home on Lake Waconia. He also has a network of observers around the state who share observations with him.

Wherever he is, he’s aware of the natural events occurring around him.

“I was in church last week and heard a couple of birds singing, so I wrote it down on the back of the bulletin,” he recalled recently.  “It was an American robin singing full-throat, and it was a house finch singing.”