Sunday, January 8, 2012


Snowdrops, Galanthus elwesii
              “At the National Arboretum, the white petals of snowdrops—normally an early spring flower—have unfurled. In Maine’s Acadia National Park, lakes still have patches of open water instead of being frozen solid. And in Donna Izlar’s back yard in downtown Atlanta, the apricot tree has started blooming.” 

            So starts Mild weather redefines winter landscape,” an article by Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears published in the December 30, 2011 issue of the Washington Post.  They quote Scott Aker, head horticulturist at the National Arboretum, as saying, “It’s a weird kind of fall blending right into spring.” Chief of NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch Deke Arndt (what is “Deke” short for?) points out that what started out as a mild autumn has “become ‘dramatically’ warmer” across the whole northern tier of the U.S. “Just 19.6 percent of the continental United States is covered with snow, according to the latest snow analysis by NOAA, compared with 50.3 percent this time last year,” Eilperin and Fears report.
My apricot is blooming, too
            Well, huh. So far this season, southeastern North Carolina’s weather has returned to blessed “normalcy”—which is to say daytime temps mostly in the 50s and 60s, nighttimes in the 40s and upper 30s—after a couple years of ferociously bitter winters. At the same time, the National Weather Service’s once-a-decade recalculation of 30-year “normal” (average! See “Wind and Weather,” Aug. 17) daily temperatures for December has cranked down a degree or two for Wilmington.  And I still recall my favorite meteorologist of all time, George Elliott, saying that although global temperatures may have eked up a degree or so in the last century, those along the southeast coast of the United States haven’t budged an iota.

             What does it all mean? No one really knows. Cutting through all the hyperbole, yes, the climate’s changing. But that’s nothing new.

            For gardeners, however, the current climate ruckus is an opportunity. As people engaged with nature, we watch the subtle changes our plants undergo through the seasons, making mental notes as to whether something came up earlier or later than last year, or bloomed for a longer or shorter time, or hung on to its leaves into January instead of dropping them in December. Some of us write these things down in grubby little notebooks we carry with us wherever we go. The formal name for this activity is phenological observation. Since we all do it, we might as well forward our findings to someone who cares. The Internet makes it easy for all us dirt-monkeys to reinvent ourselves as scientists.

            This is a Really Big Deal for liberal-arts types (like me) who thought science far beyond their (my) ken.                                        
            To reiterate (see “For the Birds,” Feb. 2), phenology is the study of phenophases, life-cycle events like emergence, first leaf, first flower, seed set, etc. (Animals have phenophases too—diet, foraging habits and ranges, timing and sizes of litters, migrations, denning and nesting habits, and such; but I’m more interested in plants. They stay put, which makes observing easier.)  Phenologic information helps in tracking global climate-change trends as well as the monitoring of drought and wildfire risks and the health of ecosystems, and identifying and mapping invasive species, infectious diseases and pests. The task is enormous, especially given recent budget-slashing at universities and labs, but all of us can help by kicking in our two cents.

            Have I piqued any interest in all you history, English, poli-sci, psychology, economics and philosophy majors who grew up to make gardens? You—yes, YOU—can add vital information to databases focused on understanding climatological and demographic changes in the natural world, all without ever leaving your yard. By taking part, you could become a bona fide scientist.

            Following are three scientific endeavors to which I add my bit.

(The house finch is on the left)
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Being held this year from Friday, February 17 through Monday, February 20, GBBC seeks to provide a continent-wide snapshot of just which birds are where and in what numbers. Participation requirements are fluid: the minimum is a single 15-minute stint of feeder-watching over the four-day period. Conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the family-friendly Count welcomes data from everyone: if you’ve got a bird-feeder in your yard, keep it filled that weekend and record who shows up. For more information about rules, data submission and bird-identification help, go to GBBC’s website at

My maypop (Passiflora incarnata) in September
                The USA National Phenology Network (NPN). A collaborative effort between federal agencies, environmental networks, universities and the public, NPN monitors the impact of climate change on plants and animals in the U.S. through compilation of geographically diverse phenophase observations from regular joes like us. Participants choose one or more plants or animals for which to record and submit phenologic data. NPN’s Nature’s Notebook datasheet makes recording and submitting observations easy. The official website at tells you all you need to know to get started.

Sneaky Passiflora fruits in November
                  2011 was the second year I’ve observed the native maypop, Passiflora incarnata, mainly because several call my back yard home. Trust me, convenience encourages regular participation. This year, I began recording data on April 13, noting the first leaves on my two specimens. Blooming started two months later and continued into October. The first fruit appeared around September 12th (I haven’t caught the sneaky beggars developing yet—they just appear, full-size). I submitted my penultimate observation—the 82nd—Saturday morning, reporting the dry and crunchy leaves left by last week’s two consecutive hard freezes.

                  If I can do it, you can do it.

The Fitzgerald sunflower patch in July
               The Great Sunflower Project. Here’s a chance to pay attention to who's flitting around your garden. Did you know every third bite of food you take owes its existence to a pollinator? The Project’s mission is to create a map of which bees live where. Given the current uncertain future of European honeybees in the U.S., native pollinators like bumblebees, carpenter bees and wasps are attracting more attention. To ensure standardized results, participants plant and monitor ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers. (“Bee” sure to use the annual species, please, not the perennial.) Two or three times a week, take your datasheet, pencil and camera out to the sunflower patch, and settle in to observe any apians who visit during a 10- to 15-minute span. The Project’s website at helps you identify some of the more common native pollinators, and offers a great deal of information about phenology in general.

Sweat bees (Halictus poeyi) on sunflower
(picture by Pam Phillips, from her blog
"Writing Every Day")
Hurricane Irene wrapped up my bee-counting activities this year when she flattened the sunflower patch. I was surprised that the most regular visitors to the Lemon Queens in my front yard were sweat bees, and a black wasp with attractive white rings around its abdomen that I haven’t yet identified. I must admit that I’m less assiduous about reporting pollinator encounters than passionflower phenophases: I need to adapt the data sheet to better reflect my methods, a to-do list item that’s still waiting to be ticked off. Maybe this winter...

Birds, bees and phenophases only hint at the variety of citizen science projects out there hungry for your input. Just google “citizen science projects”: there’s bound to be one that tickles your fancy. Then you can amaze all your liberal-arts friends by casually mentioning your new status as a scientist.


Fungus gnat update: male fungus gnats’ posterior sections are rounded, not pointy-for-ease-of-ovipositing like the female pictured in last week’s post (“Thanatos and Fungus Gnats,” Dec. 31, 2011). I noticed the difference while brushing my teeth in the company of a selection of the curious creatures, and thought perhaps you’d like to know. Once you become a scientist, you’ll find you just can’t stop.

Thanks for dropping by.


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