Photo by Corey Husic

Friday, August 2, 2013

Phenology - kind of

An ode to August

An early morning walk through 18 acres

of bergamot and late-blooming butterfly weed,

Asclepias tuberosa.

Mixed in were some yarrow and the earliest goldenrod,

a Solidago, but which species I don’t know.

Remembrance of grandma’s farm;

a reminder that summer is beginning to fade.


Butterfly wings laden with last night’s rain,

too heavy to fly yet today.

But with the promise of sun and 80 degrees,

a fulfilling nectar feast awaits.

The spider webs are not hidden today,

heavily outlined by pearls of dew.

The bees were already starting their work of the day.


My retriever is happy to chase the scents,

some from new colonies of baby rabbits.

Is this batch number 2 or 3 this season?

Last year there were fewer, but more groundhogs.

Brood #2 of the barn swallows greeted me this morning

from their nests on our barn beams.

Parents return from the fog with food.


It is quite lush and green for this late in the summer,

a sign of lots of rain.

Lots of insects for the birds and bats,

the tick numbers are temporarily down.

I enjoy the quiet solitude, but can’t help but think

that soon, like the birds that will be heading south,

my oldest son will migrate to college.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Phenology and environmental change in our national parks

See this report about phenology from the Great Smoky Mountains:

If you visit any national parks this summer, you might ask the rangers what changes they have noted over the past several years or decades.  And share what you learn!

While not phenology, rangers from  the Grand Canyon talk about the increase in pine beetles and express concern about increasing demands for water. 

In the Grand Tetons, snow pack was down this year, so many flowers in the sagebrush flats were blooming earlier than usual ,and the elk had dispersed from the lower elevations sooner than usual.

Soon I will be in Alaska where I am sure to hear about receding glaciers in the Kenai Fjords region.   Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Another set of observations about changes in our seasons.

This new essay in the May/June 2013 Orion is written by my friend Sandra Steingraber and is worth a read:

While I will never be able to write like Sandra, this reminds me of my post from last winter (that wasn't):

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What do the bird watchers know and a lot of other questions

A bit on citizen science and some other interesting tidbits of information can be found in this opinion piece from the New York Times:

Phenology data, from Pennsylvania and from other locations in more northern latitudes, tell us that many bird species are arriving earlier in the spring than they did 40 or 50 years ago.  The results are the same regardless if trained scientists or citizens are reporting their observations over the long term.  The difference is that scientists typically publish their data in peer-reviewed journals; citizen scientists publish (or crowd source) their data in public databases such as e-Bird maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (see

What we don't yet know is how this early arrival impacts the ability of birds to find food after a long migration.  Are their spring food sources -- mainly insects -- hatching earlier?  We know that the fuel reserves of birds can be largely depleted after their long flight; we don't know if they are able to sufficiently replenish their energy needs.  If not, how is this impacting the health and survival of neotropical migrants -- our long-distance athletes? 

And if spring arrival of birds and the emergence of insects are no longer in sync, what is happening to the population of insects?  The trend has been for milder winters.  Bats are in decline.  And both of these two observations lead to more bugs.

Do the birds find shelter if the leaves on trees and shrubs aren't unfurling earlier?  The earliest plants to leaf-out are typically woody invasive plants.  Are the birds o.k. with these new types of temporary shelter?  Birders create list of the birds they see on a given day at a given location.  But they typically don't report the habitat conditions, so we don't really know.

Is there a competitive advantage for the "early bird"?  Perhaps, but we don't know if the worms are available.  These squiggly animals also migrate, but do so vertically through the soil.  (This migration was described by Edwin Way Teale in his 1951 book North With the Spring.)  Contributors to Journey North can track spring observations of earthworms (see, but I don't know of anyone linking these data with that of the timing of bird arrivals. 

Do the birds build nests and lay eggs earlier?  If so, is there a greater risk that a cold snap will diminish their reproductive success in a given season?

So many questions.  So many birders and nature lovers/observers are needed to help us find out more information in our changing environment.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Good advice from Adam Frank

Here in eastern PA, we are slowly seeing the seasonal transitions.

The essay below was on NPR this a.m.:

I am struck by the author's focus on presence.  That is really what phenology is about - the appearance, sudden presence (or disappearance) of things in nature.  So go for a walk in the woods and let us know what you are noticing.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Phoebes are back!

On March 27, 2012, there were several reports of the "first of the season" Phoebes in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.

In my records, in 2011, these first showed up in Kunkletown (north of the Kittatinny Ridge) on 3/23 and last year on 3/15.  I haven't seen them here yet, but one was at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center yesterday (3/27).  In 2012 (a wierd year, for sure), the first reports in the Lehigh Valley were on 3/11 and 3/13.  I have the data for the Lehigh Valley in 2011, but not at my fingertips.  They sometimes are quiet for the first week or so when they first arrive, so are less noticeable.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

January 12th and cherry blossoms?

Today, I had the first reports of cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.  Seriously.

Washington D.C. Cherry Blossoms in January 2013
(photo posted by fellow Audubon Together Green Fellow, Sara Espinoza, on Facebook)

The oldest known phenology records are of the timing of cherry tree blooms from China and Japan, going back over one thousand years.  A 2011 scientific paper by Sakurai, et al., published in the journal Biological Conservation reported that  "In Japan, biologists have found climate change is affecting species and ecosystems, including the earlier flowering time of cherry trees which are an important cultural symbol in Japan...According to research in Kyoto, the average flowering date during 1971– 2000 was 7 days earlier than an average of the previous 1200 years."

According to the National Park Service, the Peak Bloom Date in Washington is defined as "the day on which 70 percent of the blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees that surround the Tidal Basin are open." As in Japan, this date has been arriving earlier by a week to ten days.

This tidbit of information may not have any significant impact on our lives, except when we should plan a weekend trip to the nation's capital in the spring.  But one has to wonder if this is a little sign from nature that we should be paying attention to what else might be changing as a consequence of climate change?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The times they are a changin'

From the phenology project in 2012, we had a number of "early "reports, especially with plants emerging/flowering at odd times. West Nile cases were reported in the state earlier. The PA Breeding Bird Census shows northwardly expanding ranges for several species. Any connection to the unusual weather patterns?

NOAA scientists confirm that 2012 was the warmest and second most extreme year on record for the contiguous U.S.:

Monday, January 7, 2013