National Wildlife Refuge System

For Plant Watchers, Timing is Everything

Project Budburst coordinator Ken Lavish inspects a mountain laurel at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland.
Credit: USFWS

February 25, 2015 - For national wildlife refuges involved in Project BudBurst, this spring will bring more than new green foliage and swarms of visitors. It will also offer new evidence on the degree to which plant cycles may be changing as the climate warms.


Project BudBurst involves individuals, young and old, in observing and recording when various plants in various locations leaf, flower and fruit each year. The citizen science effort was begun eight years ago by the National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, CO.  Project leaders are partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor some plant species on refuges year-round.


One site where that’s occurring, with the help of refuge volunteers, is Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland.


“From my perspective, it’s really exciting when volunteers become involved in citizen science projects,” says Diana Ogilvie, Patuxent volunteer coordinator. “Over time, data gathered by citizen scientists across the country could give us valuable information to help wildlife in the future.”


Each year since 2012, Patuxent Refuge trains half a dozen or so volunteers to monitor 10 plant species, including mountain laurel, skunk cabbage and Virginia bluebells. All 10 plants are native to East Coast woodlands. Observations begin in early spring and continue through the year. Volunteers send their notes and photos to Ken Lavish, Patuxent’s Budburst coordinator. He compiles them and sends them to Budburst.


You can follow the project here: Refuge visitors can also test their observation skills against volunteers’ skills by watching selected species for signs of first buds, leaves and flowers. Patuxent staff  have labeled specimens of focus plants with Project Budburst markers to make them easy to find.   


Individuals can also take part in Project Budburst by monitoring plants in their backyards or any natural area they visit regularly. Just use your smartphone to log plant observations through the Project BudBurst app.


Over the last eight years, almost 20,000 private citizens nationwide have added to BudBurst’s data. BudBurst managers hope to use the information collected to detect long-term patterns. Data show that some plant species are flowering days or weeks earlier than they used to, as the climate warms. Such changes in timing can, in turn, impact other wildlife species.  


For a list of other participating refuges, click here


Last updated: February 25, 2015