Mayberry Park, Mar. 15, 2015.

Phenologizing: Is Spring Coming Earlier?

In Citizen Science, Truckee River trails, Winter by KelseyFitzgerald0 Comments

With all of the 70°F days we’ve been having, I can’t help feeling like spring has come earlier than usual.  A few days ago, my husband and I went for a walk on a trail across the river from Mayberry Park.  There were tiny leaves on the Coyote willow (Salix exigua), and sweet-smelling yellow flowers all over the Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea).  The air was warm and felt unseasonably pleasant.  “Doesn’t March usually feel more like winter?” I asked my husband.  I looked down.  He was wearing shorts.

You don’t need to have a PhD in something sciencey to speculate that flowers might start blooming earlier after a mild winter, like the one we’re currently experiencing.  In order to prove it, however, you’d have to write it down, because that’s how science works.  There’s a branch of science called Phenology, which is basically the study of when things happen in the natural world.  Note: This is very different from Phrenology, which is the study of the shape of the human head.  When you compare records from year to year, such as first dates of plants flowering, birds migrating, or tree leaves turning colors in the fall, you can start to discover meaningful trends.  These trends can be compared with climate and weather records to help us learn, for example, how a warming climate might affect the life events of plants and wildlife.  But you really need those records, or it’s all just speculation.

Since I don’t have any formal phenological records stored up from previous years, I looked through some old photos.  I found some photos of Buffaloberry that I took in Mayberry Park almost exactly two years ago, on March 24, 2013.

  • Silver Buffaloberry in Mayberry Park, Mar 24, 2013. 
  • Silver Buffaloberry in Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015. 
Above: Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) in Mayberry Park from March 24, 2013 (left) and March 15, 2015 (right).

See the difference?  This year’s blooms look a little bit farther along, but to be entirely sure, I would have to return to the exact shrub on the exact date.  I’ll have to try again next Tuesday.  We walked down a long dirt road that runs south of the Truckee River, adjacent to a ditch.  Along the way, we also saw blooming willows (Salix, unknown species), buds of Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), ears of a Great-horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) peering over from high in its nest, and a flock of Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) in the river below.

Flowering willows in Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015 Flowering willows in Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015

A Great-horned owl looks down from its nest. Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015.A Great-horned owl looks down from its nest. Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015.

A flock of Common Goldeneye, Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015.A flock of Common Goldeneye, Mayberry Park, Mar 15, 2015.

 A Red willow (Salix laevigata), Mayberry Park. Mar 15, 2015.

A Red willow (Salix laevigata), Mayberry Park. Mar 15, 2015.

Dabbling in phenology is pretty easy.  All you have to do is keep track of when things happen.  If this is something you’re interested in trying, check out this citizen science project called Nature’s Notebook.  They’re collecting data to help study climate change.  We could probably learn a lot from all sorts of things that people keep track of, like when ski resorts close for the season, or when we plant our gardens.  Local lore suggests that we don’t plant tomatoes in Reno until the snow melts off Peavine Peak — and during years like this, the rule is a bit harder to interpret.  When do you plant your garden in the spring?  What else do you keep track of?


Chloe on the trail, Mar 15, 2015.

Sometimes we keep track of Chloe, sometimes she keeps track of us. Mar 15, 2015.

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