What is Phenology?
Phenology is the study of the timing of seasonal biological events, such as the flowering of plants or the migration of birds. For example, you are observing phenology when you note when your favorite plant beings to flower each year, or when your favorite migratory bird arrives at your feeder in the spring. When phenology and climate data are studied together, we can explore how climate factors influence the timing of those seasonal biological events. For example, if a warm winter leads to an earlier spring, your favorite plant may flower earlier than in years past. Monitoring plant and animal phenology gives scientists a better understanding of how our changing climate is impacting ecosystems, locally and globally.
Why is monitoring phenology important?
The scientific community agrees that our climate is changing; however, we are unsure what that means for existing biological systems. We know that species are responding to climate change at different rates, and we are concerned that this will lead to negative impacts such as ecological mismatches. Ecological mismatches can hurt natural ecosystems and man-made systems alike. For example, if lady bugs are not active at the same time as their prey, aphids, an entire season’s crops may fail. This could occur if lady bugs and aphids have different responses to climate change. One of the best examples of a climate-change-induced mismatch is from the Netherlands. English oaks are leafing out earlier each spring due to a warming climate. Winter moth caterpillars are emerging earlier due to the available food supply of leaves. The Dutch pied flycatcher, a migratory songbird, arrives from Africa to feed on caterpillars at the same time each year. When the flycatcher arrives, it’s too late and it only finds adult moths. The Dutch Pied Flycatcher is now in decline (Both et al 2006).
How do we help study Phenology?
The Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office has been partnering with local schools and community groups since 2009 to create native plant gardens. Not only do the gardens provide habitat for native plants and animals, but they provide an outdoor classroom for citizens to study phenology and report observations to national citizen science programs like Nature’s Notebook and eBird.
To learn more about:
How to Create a Phenolgy Garden
ASSESS YOUR SITE – Phenology gardens can be as large as a football field, or as small as a few square feet. The larger the garden, the more habitat you are providing for native plants and animals. Only plant a garden as large as you are willing to maintain. Also think about location. If your garden is far away, you may not be excited about going to the garden to monitor phenology and maintain the plants over time. The long-term success of your garden is important; take steps during the planning phase to ensure you have a great garden over time. Alternatively, if there is a native habitat near your home or school, you can monitor the plants and animals at that site– no garden needed!
CHOOSE PLANTS – Chose native plants based on where your garden is located. Think about both biotic and abiotic factors: how much sun, heat and precipitation will the plants receive? Is the soil sandy or full of clay? Studying these factors will help you determine the right plants for your garden. Please see our plants for native habitats in southern California to learn more. Also, remember that you will be studying phenology in your garden. Choose plants that flower at different times of the year, or have interesting phenophases to keep phenology monitoring fun!
FUNDING – If you are planning a garden at a school or community center, look for local funding opportunities. Find a local native plant nursery and see if they are willing to work with you. Local businesses and groups will often provide volunteers for planting day, or even financial help if you engage the right people. Please see our schoolyard habitat page for more information.
PLANTING DAY – Gather up the kids and don't be afraid to get dirty. When we started our program we were worried that students wouldn’t be interested in helping us during planting, or they would do it incorrectly. We have been happily proven wrong since day one. Now our biggest concern is having enough shovels! With appropriate instruction, students of all ages can be relied upon to properly plant a native habitat.
MONITORING – Now that your plants are in the ground, it’s time to start monitoring them. As the old saying goes for California native plants, “the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap!” Phenophases on your plants will change throughout the year. During the spring, plants go through many changes and it is best to monitor more frequently during this time to capture the timing of these changes. Sign up to be a citizen scientist with a phenology program like Nature’s Notebook, Project Budburst, or EBird. To learn more about phenology monitoring, please see our Partners section below.
SHARE – Don’t forget to share what you learned. Work with your friends to start new phenology gardens, and teach them to monitor phenology too. Compare the phenophases of the plants and animals in your garden to other gardens and natural areas!
LESSONS - We have learned a lot over the past few years about constructing native habitats and phenology gardens. You will too! To see a list of the lessons we have learned, please click HERE.
To learn more about: -creating a phenology garden and hands-on interactive activities, see the California Phenology Project Phenology Garden webpage - creating a Schoolyard Habitat with the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, please see our Schoolyard Habitat webpage
How to Monitor Phenology
THE BASICS – Don’t be afraid! The study of phenology can be as easy as recording when your favorite plant has leaves, flowers and fruits. Recording the dates of when these phases occur on your plant is very meaningful to scientists tracking phenology across the county. Your data is important! Below are a few sites where you can register to become a citizen scientist and track phenology in your garden or native habitat.
Nature’s Notebook is a citizen science phenology program tracking both native plants and animals. We use Nature’s Notebook with almost every school and community group we work with
Project Budburst is great for new phenologists! Identification and field guides provided by this program are very helpful.
EBird allows you to track the birds you see and their behaviors in your native habitat, garden, or favorite hiking trail. When you upload your observation to Ebird, scientists can use the data for phenology research
Partners & Other Phenology Programs
The United States Geological Survey is a major funder of the USA-NPN. The USA-NPN has helped fund phenology education and garden development at the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office for multiple years. The funding has helped us purchase plants for gardens, provides education materials, and helps our staff reach out to members of our community regarding phenology education and monitoring.
Nature's Notebook is a national plant and animal phenology observation program. You can join thousands of other individuals who are providing valuable observations that scientists, educators, policy makers, and resource managers are using to understand how plants and animals are responding to climate change and other environmental changes. Observations by participants like you are already helping researchers detect early leaf-out in forests from St. Louis to Maine in response to unusually warm winters and springs.
Nature’s Notebook is the primary phenology observation program used by the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office to engage the public on phenology data collection. The program tracks many species native to our area, and provides wonderful resources for new and experienced phenologists alike.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
The Ventura Fish and Wildlife has worked with SAMO for multiple years, offering phenology workshops and other programs. Most recently, we partnered to host a series of hikes for local school groups to collect phenology data in the Park. Hikes were lead by staff of both SAMO and the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office at Rancho Sierra Vista. Students at California State University Channel Islands mentored the school groups and helped students collect phenology in the park.
California Phenology Project
The California Phenology Project has developed many phenology-related educational resources. Locally, the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office is partnering with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a park associated with the California Phenology Project, to provide phenology education to school sand community groups. Make sure to check out the phenology garden handbook and interactive activities pages.
Project Budburst is a network of people across the United States who monitor plants as the seasons change. It is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data based on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants (plant phenophases). Project BudBurst participants make careful observations of these plant phenophases. The data are being collected in a consistent manner across the country so that scientists can use the data to learn more about the responsiveness of individual plant species to changes in climate locally, regionally, and nationally. Thousands of people from all 50 states have participated. Project BudBurst began in 2007 in response to requests from people like you who wanted to make a meaningful contribution to understanding changes in our environment.