Across the United States, several thousand people this spring are going out into their yards and gardens and the woods and wetlands around their homes and making regular, detailed observations of trees and plants that they will visit over and over during the year.
Instead of writing their observations in private journals that perhaps no one else might ever see, these volunteer “citizen scientists” return to their homes, log onto their computers and record what they saw in a growing national database.
The database and the protocols that give the volunteers detailed instruction on what to look for as the trees and plants develop are the
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of the USA National Phenology Network. The network was established in 2007 after two years of planning by scientists seeking a reliable source of data to monitor and analyze to track climate change and its effects on living organisms.
The network is a partnership of federal agencies, universities and non-governmental organization. It is based at the University of Arizona and funded primarily by the U.S. Geological Survey. The Freshwater Society is one of many collaborators in the project.
“It’s mostly there to collect new data at a density and scale that hasn’t been done before,” said Mark D. Schwartz, a bio-climatologist and professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was one of the co-founders of the network.
Last year was the first year the national network was in operation, and it collected data only on plants. This year, it is being expanded into plants. The network currently has about 2,500 participants – 40 of them in Minnesota — who have signed up to make and record observations. Organizers of the network hope that eventually tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people will become regular observers.
In addition to recruiting the volunteer nature observers, the national network is encouraging long-term phenology research by trained scientists around the country. So far, that research is being conducted at two Minnesota sites: the University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve near Bethel and the Marcell Experimental Forest, north of Grand Rapids.
Amateur phenologists traditionally have recorded seasonal “firsts”: the first red-winged blackbird spotted in the springtime in a particular area, the first budbreak spotted on aspen trees in an area. In fact, the word phenology has a Greek root, phaino, that means “to appear.”
For phenology buffs who have been keeping records for years, the national network encourages them to continue noting their observations as they have in order to maintain the integrity of long-term studies. The network also encourages people who have non-computerized, often-handwritten, notes that go back a number of year to fill out an on-line description of what they have. Researchers eventually may seek out those notes for the data base.
For newcomers to phenology, and for long-time nature observers willing to take part in the on-line project, the network’s protocols urge participants to choose a site for regular observations and to record the development of a few specific specimens from each plant species they track.
Instead of recording only a “first” for the season — for example, the first budding — the observer would follow those few specimens through an entire summer, recording their development through specific life stages, or phenophases. On a hardwood tree or shrub, for example, the national network’s protocol calls for the observer to record six stages: emerging leaves, unfolded leaves, leaves are 75 percent of their full size, half the leaves have turned colors, half the leaves have fallen, all the leaves are down.
For animals, the network recommends three protocols for observers: pick a particular spot to visit regularly and record the animals they hear or see from that spot; walk a regular loop through a designated site; make multiple passes through a site.
After making notes on those plant stages or the animals on a check list, the observer would log into a data base on the national network’s web site and record the observations.
And, instead of just noting the days on which he or she saw a particular stage, the observer also would note the “null dates” on which the plant was observed, but a particular stage had not occurred. Logging those null dates allows later users of the data to judge the frequency of the observations and evaluate their usefulness.