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Science
Volume 40 Issue 1 • April 22 - May 5, 2010
now in our 40th season

Finally, Spring! And Why Scientists Need Your Help

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

As the temperatures climb and Nantucket shakes off another winter, it is impossible to ignore the buds and daffodils popping up and peepers peeping, and, as they say in poems, one’s thoughts will eventually turn to spring.  For some, those thoughts turn to love, for others those thoughts turn to “time to get data about flora and fauna”; either way, we are still talking about the birds and the bees, just in a more literal sense. 

Across the country for the past several years, area conservationists, citizen scientists, birders, botanists, ecologists, biologists, park managers, school children, naturalists, and laypeople of all types have merged into a giant database, gathering information for a nationwide phenology project. What are they doing? They are recording the first leaf fall or change in color in the fall, the budding of different plants in the spring, and the arrival and departure of migratory birds.  I am sure all of us have said in the past few years, “sure seems like the peepers are peeping earlier, or the daffodils are blooming sooner.”  Sneezes from pollen-induced allergy attacks to the first mosquito bite are part of the constellation of natural events we all record in our minds as signs of the start of the season.  Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate.  It is something that is virtually impossible NOT to do here on Nantucket.  The word is derived from the Greek phainomai, which means “to appear” or “come into view.”  So we can see that phenology is specifically concerned with the dates of first occurrence of biological events in their annual cycle.

Birds Foot VioletFarmers, ranchers, gardeners, beekeepers, amateur meteorologists, and outdoor enthusiasts have been making these observations for years.  The Japanese have kept track of their cherry blossom emergence for millennia. Robert Marsham, known as the father of phenology, and his descendants kept unique records of spring’s arrival on the family’s country estate in Great Britain from 1736 until 1958 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Marsham). One of the longest running phenology projects is the Audubon’s Christmas Bird count.  For 110 years and counting (sorry, could not help myself), people across the U.S. and world have gathered to record the number of bird species and individuals observed over this holiday week. Nantucket is one of the many places that have preserved this tradition.

My colleagues at field stations across the country are often involved in phenology projects and we educate our visitors about the online resources such as the USA National Phenology Network (www.usanpn.org).  According to their website, the USA National Phenology Network “brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States.”  In the same way that people across the world linked their computing power to look for alien life on other planets in the SETI project (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SETI), regular citizens from girl scouts to senior center members can contribute their personal observations of the first daffodil’s emergence from the cold ground to the sound of the first peeper peeping into a giant database of facts.  Climatic changes can be recorded hand-in -hand with these natural observations by including weather data (rainfall, soil temperature, air temperatures, humidity, etc.) culled from professional and backyard meteorologists.  The USA National Phenology network has a number of excellent resources and articles on how to become an observer and how to integrate these experiments into the classroom. They also list a series of Phenology Festivals and I found out to my delighted surprise that the Daffodil festival is highlighted on their map of world-wide events (www.usanpn.org/resources/festivals).

Another wonderful tool for enlisting an army of observers is the website and program Project Budburst (www.budburst.ucar.edu).  They are looking for reports of blooming forsythia and red maple noticeable everywhere on island as two species in their list of the top ten most wanted plant species in America.  Another way to help build this giant database is through “rescuing” historical data which is being done on island by various groups in order to preserve our data and historical records via scanning and digitally storing pictures and information. One example of this approach write large is the North American Bird Phenology Program, which houses a unique and almost forgotten collection of six million handwritten “migration observer cards” that describe the migration patterns and population status of birds in North America. They are looking for online volunteers to help scan and record these paper copies (www.usanpn.org/participate/bpp).

There are no shortage of interesting stories out there of people who took a normal pastime like rocking on a porch and watching the world go by to a useful extreme. An excellent example of the perfect field naturalist is Minnesotan rural mail carrier John Latimer, who has been running the www.phenology.org site and KAXE radio network for 16 years. Latimer’s site is a cornucopia of observations, videos, and stories. Driving 100-mile routes every day gives Latimer all the time in the world to simply look around him and start observing how things bloom and fade with the seasons.  He has parlayed this natural tendency to “look around” into an entertaining and valuable database. Read more about him in this New York Times article at www.nytimes.com and check out his site to see how you can start some of these same observations.

A new tool in our toolbox which has changed and evolved in the past few years is our access to the web and to technology and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and Flickr which allow people to share information almost instantaneously. I am planning a trip to Washington DC next week, so I checked on the timing of the Cherry Blossom Festival and the peak blossom dates and sure enough, there is a related Cherry Blossom Festival Bloom Watch page that has an excellent pictorial description of how buds on trees change throughout their emergence which demonstrate how recording the first instance of these stages from year to year can allow us to track climatic effects (nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/cms/index.php?id=404).

We have a state-of-the-art “leaf out” experiment blooming here on island as part of the “Windows around the World” project (www.windowsaroundtheworld.org) that the Nantucket New School is doing in collaboration with the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station and UMass Boston biology professor Juanita Urban-Rich. WAWS was started as a fun and easy way to set up satellite observation points for elementary students to exchange pictures, weather data, and cultural information. These simple recordings and pictures, whether through the lens of a camera or the eyes of a child, provide a repeatable and simple method to mark the start of each season. The program also helps kids connect with other children around the world from remote villages in the Northwest Territories to a tropical island.

Wikipedia lists a variety of useful links and examples of how this information can be used to set up long term trend studies (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenology). Last year we talked about pollen records in our bogs on island; records of viticulture and agriculture also serve as a good proxy to determine climatic changes over time. The ability of creatures like bees to quickly adapt to these seasonal changes helps scientists determine how much of their foraging and honey production is hard-wired into their DNA. One of the greatest concerns to scientists is whether codependent creatures like plants, insects, and birds can maintain their interactions if blooming and migration become disconnected. Here on the island, the Nantucket Land Council’s participation in Monarch Butterfly tagging is an excellent way to become involved (and enchanted) with measuring these trends (www.monarchwatch.org).  Fortunately our general curiosity and need to both teach and learn about nature has allowed each of us, like little Whos in Who-ville, to be able to participate in this world wide observation and data record. So next time you first hear that peeper, or see an dogwood bloom, look at a calendar, write down the date, and check out one of the above websites to see if you can add your part.

While you are enjoying being outdoors this spring and summer, please come join us in the third annual Nantucket Family Adventure which kicks off on Sunday May 9th from noon to 2 pm at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation at 110 Eel Point Road. The Maria Mitchell Association, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Mass Audubon, Nantucket Land Council, UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, Linda Loring Nature Foundation, The Trustees of the Reservation, and Strong Wings Adventure School will be hosting a variety of guided and self-guided events throughout the multi-week event such as: star gazing at the Maria Mitchell observatory, invasive species plant walk at Lily Pond, Clean Team clean-up at Jetties Beach, geocaching at the UMass Field Station, kayaking, a special trip with The Trustees of the Reservations to Great Point, scavenger hunts, horseshoe crab surveys, rock climbing, and much more. Families can pick up a registration form at the Maria Mitchell Association. Forms can also be downloaded at www.mmo.org. Please return all forms to the Maria Mitchell Association, Attn: Nantucket Family Adventure, 4 Vestal Street Nantucket, MA 02554. Each team must consist of at least one adult age 18 or older and one child under age 18. At the kick off (or if you register in person at the Maria Mitchell Association), each family will be able to pick up a NFA passport that will help you discover cool outdoor activities and initiate fun family trips around the island as you learn more about our habitats and outdoor conservation spots. Prizes are available for the families that participate in the most activities, and for all those who attend the end event on June 13th at Strong Wings from 1-2. For details, visit www.mmo.org  or talk to one of the sponsoring organizations.

 

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