Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Post by Walking Shadow Naturalist Mike Rosekrans
the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.
A flock of trumpeter swans honking from on high flies over Paradise Valley, Montana. The cottonwood trees turn a brilliant, golden color before falling to the ground as an autumn storm blows them into the nearby river. That same storm brings colder temperatures to the Gallatin and Absaroka Mountains shooting up from the valley, and a new blanket of snow shrouds the high peaks. The season is changing in Montana and in the greater Yellowstone area. For people living here that means gathering firewood, getting ready for the deer and elk hunt, and getting those warmer clothes out from storage.
Certain environmental phenomena tell us when the seasons are about to change. These changes can be obvious such as the changing of colors on trees or more subtle such as the appearance of new constellations in the night sky. The observation of these seasonal changes is termed phenology, and with some honing of our observational skills, phenology can be a fun and exciting way to enjoy the natural world and enhance our outdoor experiences.
Much of our current scientific data has been collected as a result of phonologic observations. Simple observations such as when the first spring flowers bloom in our neighborhood, the first frost of the year, or when the first hummingbird appears at our feeder can lead to valuable information that can clue us into patterns in the natural world. Collecting temperature data, snow fall, and peak stream runoff year after year contributes to data sets that have helped determine how rapidly the climate is changing. We as curious observers of the natural world can partake in the study of phenology ourselves, and it can be as simple as taking five minutes out of our daily routines and can offer solace and a deeper connection to our natural world.
A great way to begin a personal study of phenology is to establish a sit spot from where we can make daily observations. This can be a quiet location in your yard, a bench in a city park, or simply a view from your kitchen window. It is important to remember that nature is not confined to the last bits of wilderness like Yellowstone National Park, but all around you, including urban lots and backyard gardens. Spend a bit of time getting acquainted to your sit spot and become part of the surrounding. Make some basic observations such as identifying the species of plants and animals near your sit spot. The process of identifying flora and fauna has become much more efficient with the access to information on our personal devices as there are now apps that we can use rather than lugging around 10 different guidebooks. Once you have identified some of the wildlife, try to observe how they are using the landscape; how do they react to your presence, are any of the plants flowering, do birds tend to utilize specific species of trees, etc. Spending a bit of time becoming acquainted with your sit spot could open your eyes to subtilties you may have overlooked your entire life and is a great way to begin and become more invested into your study of phenology in your new sit spot.
After you have spent some time in your sit spot, you may now want to start a phenology journal. This can include sketches, reflections, poems, watercolors, or just simple bullet points of observations. They key isn’t to produce something that is “pretty” but to help you gain a deeper connection and understanding of the natural world. There are some great resources to get you started with keeping a nature journal such as “Keeping a Nature Journal” by Clare Walker Leslie & Charles E Roth and “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws. Find something that works for you and have fun with your practice.
Try to visit your sit spot as often as you can. Once a day, once a week, or once a month. Whatever time you can find. Remember, that any new hobby takes practice, so don’t become discouraged if you miss a day, week, or month here and there. Once you have established a routine that works for your schedule, your data may begin to add up from month to month and year to year. You may even be able to predict the week that the first buds on the trees show up in the spring or the day the geese begin to migrate in the fall. Phenology, and the observational practices involved in the study can bring about a deeper understanding of your local environment and may bring about a greater connection to the natural world. So get out there, have some fun, and become acquainted with your local environment and the seasonal changes that happen year in and year out.
*Photo by Diane Renkin, NPS