“Phenology and keeping records slowly sensitized us to the land and our relationship with it.”—Nina Leopold Bradley
Happy New Year! Days are getting longer. Have you noticed? From January 8 to June 10 the sun will rise each day about one minute earlier than the previous day. Have you heard the great horned owl hoot? Or the cardinal call as the sun rises? Cardinals sing in response to lengthening days. Males and females will call later and later in the day as they establish territories and form pair bonds. Chickadees and nuthatches make different calls now and woodpeckers drum. If you observe these and other natural events and keep notes, you are a phenologist.
The word phenology is derived from the Greek word “phainestain” (to appear) and “logos” (to study). It is the science of observing and recording plants and animals and their relationship to season and weather. People have practiced this science since ancient times but the term was probably first used by the Belgian botanist Charles Morreno in 1853.
Twenty-five visitors interested in phenology joined me this nine-degree, partly sunny afternoon to observe and learn more about the subject. Because the trails in the woodlands are ice-covered, we spent our time in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. We encountered only a few icy areas and the hard crusty snow made for comfortable yet careful walking.
Owls are fascinating and a favorite subject of mine. To learn more about them we gathered beneath the tall white pines near the outdoor restrooms. We searched the trees for white wash and a roosting great horned owl but found neither. We searched the ground for owl pellets, and thanks to Tyler a nice specimen was found. I proceeded to share the following information: an owl pellet is regurgitated about 6 hours after a meal and again 6 hours later; courtship actually begins in September but intensifies in January; male and female great horned owls hoot back and forth consistently, often in duets; in late January through mid-February the female lays 1–3 eggs in an abandoned crow or hawk nest and then incubates for about a month.
Shivering from the cold, we decided to warm up by walking briskly to the shrub gardens, one of my favorite places to visit this time of year. We looked for buck rub and found several trunks with strips of bark ripped off. Last fall a buck (male deer) rubbed the velvet off his antlers before the mating season or rut. Usually in January, the buck sheds one of his antlers and later the other. A few years ago I found an antler in the area—unusual because rodents quickly devour the mineral-rich treat. We saw evidence of browse; deer lack upper incisors(teeth) and tear branches and twigs, rabbits make a sharp 45 degree cut.
The red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is showing a bit brighter shade of red. “Pussy” willow catkins (male flowers) are beginning to push their little fuzzy white “mittens” out from beneath the brown bud scales.
Just before heading back to the parking lot, we stopped near the white spire birch tree. The female cones had disintegrated and the snow was covered with myriad tiny tan seeds and bird-foot-like bracts. The seed packages provide nutrition for finches and other seed eating birds.
Usually we see siskins, goldfinches, house finches, juncos, tree sparrows, and sometimes robins and cedar waxwings in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. Today we saw only one female cardinal and a flock of ten turkeys.
Plan to visit the Arboretum many times in the coming months and record your observations. There will be much to see and hear: snow fleas, skunk cabbage in bloom, the first robin, the first calls of frogs and toads, first monarch and firefly, first spiderwort in bloom, first aster, first red leaf, first snowflake. . . . May these observations enrich your life and your knowledge of the life around you. And you may come to love this place as much as I do.