Phenology is the study of the timing of nature’s cyclical events, such as the emergence of leaves and flowers, bird migration and nesting, and animal hibernation. Scientists are particularly interested in how these are related to seasons and climate. Phenology is derived from Greek, and means “the study of appearance.” You do not have to be a scientist to make phenological observations, and there are plenty of tools to help you learn more. Phenology is a good way to engage youth in scientific observations without making special arrangements or using fancy equipment.
Observing nature is a lost art in our busy world, so take advantage of this pause in activity to sharpen this basic skill. Even young children can take notes, make sketches or take pictures of phenological phenomena. Be sure to record the date of your observation, and make notes on the weather conditions at the time, such as temperature, precipitation or wind patterns. These can easily be seen on a smart phone’s weather app.
Plants make a great subject to study, as they are easy to observe and cannot move away, as animals can. One does not need to go far to get started. In fact, starting in one’s yard or neighborhood makes it more likely that one will make routine observations without a special trip. Select a few plants, and start keeping a record in a notebook. Look for signs of change, such as the emergence of new leaves or the first hint that flower buds are about to open. Record how long a flower remains open, and keep a list of pollinators that come to visit. Later in the year, look for signs that fruits and seeds are forming. Keep observing the same plant over several years, and patterns will start to emerge.
Looking to learn more? The USA National Phenology Network is a unique resource for those who want to explore data. The website shows the arrival of spring leaf out, start and end of the growing season, the emergence of caterpillars and much more. You can go a step further and submit your own observations by visiting Nature’s Notebook, a citizen science project. Citizen science projects are a chance for the public to join other amateur observers and help build a rich resource that is used by scientists to study natural phenomena. This is a great option for educators and parents looking to engage students in science outside of school. Get outdoors and start observing!