Phenology, an old science, attracts new interest

John Latimer is a rural mail carrier who drives a 100-mile route through Itasca County five days a week.  As he drives, he sometimes speaks into a digital voice recorder to note what he has observed: A great blue heron just returned from migration, a showy lady’s slipper blooming in a damp spot between a gravel road and an old rail bed, a mourning cloak butterfly flitting in front of his windshield.

Latimer has kept all the notes he has taken over 25 years and he puts them into a computer database that now contains about 22,000 entries on more than 200 plant and animal species.

On Tuesday mornings, Latimer talks about his latest nature observations in a program he hosts for KAXE, a public radio station in Grand Rapids.

Larry Weber, a retired junior high science teacher who lives on a wooded acreage southwest of Duluth, takes a 2.5-mile walk early every morning and stops five to 10 times during each walk to jot a note in a spiral notebook when he spots a plant that was not blooming the day before, hears coyotes calling or sees a skunk’s new tracks.

John Latimer and Larry Weber,
at rear, lead a nature hike
during the founding meeting
of the Minnesota Phenology
Network in February.

Each evening, Weber elaborates on those experiences in hand-written journals that he has kept since 1975. “Every single day – I never make an exception – I write an entire page,” he said.

And Rebecca Montgomery, an assistant professor of forest ecology in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources, directs a project at the university’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve near Bethel that this year will send a researcher out to make detailed, twice-weekly observations of about 75 plants and trees from 22 species.

Montgomery also supervises a project in which a video recorder continuously records a section of the forest canopy at Cedar Creek as trees change with the seasons.

What do Latimer, Weber and Montgomery have in common?

It is phenology, the science of recurring plant and animal life cycles – budding, flowering, mating and migrations -influenced by weather and climate.

Latimer and Weber are phenologists, part of a long tradition of amateur and professional naturalists who closely watch the living things around them and keep track of their observations from year to year.

Thomas Jefferson closely followed the development of plants in his garden at Monticello.  Henry David Thoreau tracked several hundred species of plants as he tramped around Concord, Mass.  And Aldo Leopold, the author of A Sand County Almanac, wrote of the pleasure to be found in systematically seeking “order and meaning” in the timing of natural events.

Montgomery’s Cedar Creek research projects are phenology, too. In fact, the Cedar Creek research is gathering data for a new USA National Phenology Network based at the University of Arizona.

But Montgomery said she is not a phenologist, at least not the kind of avid personal observer of nature that Latimer and Weber are. Or probably that Jefferson, Thoreau and Leopold were.

Instead, Montgomery said she is a scientist trying to collect new phenological data and use old phenological observations to predict the impact of climate change. She wants to figure out ways for researchers to get access to — and then to preserve, categorize, analyze and share — data that Latimer, Weber and other amateur phenologists have gathered for years.

“I come at it more from the research side, thinking these records and this research are signals that might show us how the world is changing,” Montgomery said of the years of observations stored in phenologists’ notes and journals.

Larry Weber points to
fresh tracks in the snow

Phenology was very big in the 1800s and in the early part of the 20th Century. And in recent years it has become a hot scientific topic again. Around the world, researchers are turning to old journals of phenological observations to learn more about climate change. Phenology records contribute to the study of climate change in two ways:

  • Ancient records, some more than a thousand years old, noting the first blooming of cherry trees in Japan each spring and the start of the pinot noir grape harvest in Burgundy each fall give scientists data from which they can estimate temperatures for centuries before thermometers came into widespread use.
  • More modern phenological records demonstrate the response of living things to a warming climate. For example, researchers analyzed notes and charts kept by Thoreau and a contemporary, Alfred Hosmer, and found that many spring flowers in Concord now bloom a week earlier than they did in the 1850s.

Other phenology-based research in the Netherlands found a significant decline in the population of the pied flycatcher, a small bird that begins feeding on caterpillars as soon as it migrates from Africa to Europe each spring. The caterpillars apparently have reacted quickly to global warming – with the adults emerging earlier now from their cocoons — while some of the pied flycatchers have been slower to react and miss out on part of their traditional food source.

That is the kind of effect that Montgomery wants to use phenology to help predict. “It’s largely focused around it being a tool, not just to understand and see a signal of climate change, but as a way that climate change may impact our ecosystem,” she said.

Latimer, Weber and Montgomery came together with about 30 other Minnesotans interested in phenology at a three-day conference, Feb. 26-28, at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center near Finland, Minn. The conference was conceived by Latimer and Weber in a meeting last fall in a Grand Rapids coffee shop, and it was organized by Pete Harris, Wolf Ridge’s science projects coordinator.

The purposes of the conference were to assess the participants’ interest in forming a new organization to promote phenology as a tool for research and education and to look for ways to preserve data the amateur phenologists have accumulated and make that data accessible to future researchers.


Photo: University of Minnesota,
Chris Buyarski

Rebecca Montgomery looks for
new growth in the tree canopy at
University of Minnesota’s
Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science

The conference showed the depth of passion that many of the amateur phenologists bring to their hobby.

John Weber, no relation to Larry Weber, was one of those attending the conference. He is a retiree who lives on Spider Lake  near Nevis, Minn., and has kept meticulous records on every  butterfly he has seen since 1995, every dragonfly since 1997.

Through the end of last year, he had carefully observed 137,721 butterflies from 108 species. His hand-written records show the species of each one, plus what it was doing at the time: Basking in the sun, sucking nectar from a milkweed, mating, laying eggs.

Dallas Hudson, who lives near Akely and works as a caretaker for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Shingobee Headwaters Aquatic Ecosystems Project, was at the conference, too.

Hudson, who walks a regular route almost every evening during the summer, said that last year he observed and kept track of 100 species of blooming plants, 80 kinds of butterflies, 70 dragonfly and damselfly species and 150 kinds of birds.

“I’ve just got to know what’s there,” Hudson said of his attraction to phenology. “I try to ID everything. Now, I’ve started to take on the moths.”

Montgomery was impressed and charmed by the expertise and dedication of the amateur phenologists.  “I knew nothing about these insect records and the intensity with which they are collecting them, and the acquired knowledge they have in terms of species identification,” she said. “That was amazing to me.”

The consensus of the group meeting at Wolf Ridge was to form an organization to be called the Minnesota Phenology Network.

Montgomery offered to try to find undergraduate or graduate students interested in taking the years’ of handwritten observations by phenology buffs and converting them into a database that can be merged with other data and readily searched.

Following the conference, Montgomery got a commitment from University of Minnesota to host a web site for the new network. A researcher in Montgomery’s lab is building the web site.

For now, the Minnesota network is partly aimed at giving like-minded people an opportunity to get together – either in person or on-line — and enjoy each other’s company while they share what they are seeing in nature. For a number of the people attending the conference, the main benefit of the new network may be to spread the word about using phenology to teach elementary and secondary science. For others, the benefit will come in the possibility that their observations will be preserved and eventually analyzed as Thoreau’s were.

“Somebody who isn’t even born yet is going to come along and say ‘I can’t believe all this was saved,'” Latimer said.