Phenology

Birch tree seeds on the snow

Birch tree seeds on the snow

Nearly 30 people came to the Visitor Center on Sunday afternoon. Dare I suggest that the fine attendance owed something to the fact that the Packers played late that day?

Phenology has been discussed many times in these notes. It is the science (and sometimes the art) of noticing and recording periodic natural phenomena, particularly as these observations relate to climate and weather conditions.

People have been practicing phenology for millennia—I am told that the first paper on the subject was written in China in the year 974 BCE. Of course at one time, human survival depended on accurate knowledge of the natural year. I believe it still behooves us to pay attention. Quite simply, we feel better and more “in sync” when we heed natural cycles.

If you are intrigued and want to know more, I encourage you to sign up for the phenology class I will be teaching at the Arboretum on Saturday, March 19, from 1–3 p.m. Registration instructions will be available soon on the Arboretum’s website.

The only true phenological observation we made on January 3 was birch tree seeds on the snow. For me at least, these were the first I’d seen this winter. The small tan-colored 4-winged seeds sprinkled atop the snow tell us that the birch catkins have opened and are releasing their contents—a statement of faith that temperatures will warm, snow will melt, and germination will become possible.

Other events that might have been observed on our walk mostly related to bird behavior. Sometime in January—early in the month, in some years—several different birds switch from the minimal contact calls they use in winter to longer more tuneful songs which signal the approach of territorialism and the mating season.

Any day now, male chickadees may begin their insistent “See me” call; the Northern cardinal may start intoning “Purty, purty, purty, right-cheer! Right-cheer! Right-cheer!” Or one might hear a male house finch sing his jaunty little song, or a hairy woodpecker drumming noisily in the woods.

In my experience all of the above avian observations have been made between January 5 and 31.  Alas, ’twas not to be on Sunday’s hike. We are left in a state of anticipation.

We did have a lovely winter stroll past prairie, through woods, and across garden. We saw many tracks in the snow: coyote, deer, rabbit, squirrel, and mouse. We noticed a collapsed vole tunnel alongside the trail on Juniper Knoll, and watched a red-bellied woodpecker move between trees atop the hill in Gallistel Woods. And near the end of the tour, we heard blue jays shrieking stridently at … something we could not see … beyond the tall conifers of Longenecker Gardens. Most likely a hawk or an owl. Like crows, jays always know when something’s up, and they let the rest of the world know about it, too.

How’s this for ABNORMAL phenology: on December 27, 2015, an active caterpillar was seen in the Arboretum! I am guessing it was a woolly bear, since this creature overwinters in larval form, with naught but its warm fuzzy coat to keep it from freezing. The Facebook page entry does not say.

I had begun Sunday’s walk by reading excerpts from “January Thaw” by Aldo Leopold. Leopold was a dedicated and scientifically rigorous phenologist; his essay collection A Sand County Almanac is a delightful compendium of seasonal observations and musings.

I concluded with an essay called “The Day’s Commitment” by Hal Borland, first published in 1966. Borland wrote of January’s steadily lengthening days, and the hope and continuity they represent. “With the days in order and the seasons wholly predictable,” said he, “we can accept the haphazard as they come. We know there is daylight ahead, the lengthening daylight that leads to April and another spring.”

And phenology is the charting of that spring as it arrives. Enjoy winter! Anticipate April!

—Kathy Miner

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