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  • HDT Team

Nature Notes: Citizen Science – Get Involved in Nature!

Spring has sprung and we’re all antsy to get outside and enjoy the nice weather. But what to do?  Find a bird nest? Observe the bees busily visiting flowers in your garden? Listen to the frogs? Watch your favorite pair of loons out on the lake? Did you know that you can do all these things while providing valuable information to scientists around the world?

Dark ice on cooper

The last of the ice left our lake at the end of March.

Citizen Science Programs use ordinary people – like you and me – who volunteer their time to make observations and share their experiences and/or data.  Programs collect this data, which provides way more data than any one scientist or a team of scientists could hope of collecting. This huge data collection can then be used by a variety of scientists, studying a variety of topics, in a variety of locations all over the world!

Let’s back up for a minute.

Phenology is the science of the seasons. It is the study of the biological timing of events in nature as they relate to climate and/or weather. It is something that you probably study quite frequently, and you don’t even realize it! Ever catch yourself thinking “I see open water, I wonder when the ducks will be back” or “Fall is in the air, I bet our maple tree will start to change color soon” or “Brrrr! It’s cold! I bet the pond will freeze over this week.” All of those observations are based in phenology.

Historical Phenology. Phenology has been observed as long as there have been people, but records of those observations are more recent. Even then, there are phenological records dating back thousands of years! Civilizations in both Ancient China and Ancient Rome had phenology based calendars. Native American communities named the 13 full moons throughout the year based on phonological happenings. For example, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe known the month of June as Ode’imini-giizis, meaning Strawberry Moon, because this is the time when you can find ripe wild strawberries! New Englanders used to plant their corn when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear. There are many old adages like this to help you decide when to plant your crops or predict the weather.

There are some very old phenological records for certain events. For instance, the records of Cherry Trees blossom dates in Japan extend back to the 8th century. More recently, scientists have used all this data to reconstruct spring time temperatures for thousands of years and have used them to analyze them for patterns of climate change. Many people throughout history have made phenological records, but most of them have been lost. Robert Marsham, who is considered the founding father of phenology, gave rise to modern phenology and record keeping. He began recording weather, temperature, and various phenophases (observable stages in the life cycle) of plants and animals on his estate. He eventually used his data to develop the “27 Indicators of Spring”.  Since Marsham, many others, such has Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson, Carl Linnaeus, and Aldo Leopold, have kept formal phenological records.

Modern Phenology. Now, with the use of the internet, phone apps, and other modern technology, we have the capability to collect data and observations from hundreds of thousands of people at the click of a button. These supersets of observations provide an incredible wealth of information for scientists in many disciplines to use in diverse applications all over the world. One of the biggest benefits comes from using this data to further understand climate change and environmental variation, including the potential future impacts on our natural resources.  The more observations we have to analyze, the greater capability we have at predicting how some phenological trends may change with climate, and we can begin preparing for the future. Changes in the climate will ultimately affect many aspects of our life:

  1. Ecotourism (i.e. autumn color tours, bird migration tours)

  2. Growing season (i.e. lengths, inputs, species we can grow)

  3. Biological interactions (i.e. food webs)

  4. Human health (i.e. illness from organisms like ticks & mosquitos, allergies)

  5. Native/Domestic Plants (i.e. types of plants that tolerate local weather)

  6. Invasive species (i.e. spread, change range)

Here is an example of how changing climate can cause mismatches in our food webs. A study was done in Europe, mostly in the Netherlands, that tracked the interactions of multiple species. The observers noted that English oak trees had been leafing out earlier than in previous years. The earlier leaf out of the oak was causing an earlier hatching of winter moth caterpillars, as these two events are linked to the weather/climate.

The pied flycatcher depends on the caterpillar phase of this moth as a food source for itself and it’s hatchlings.  Unfortunately, although this bird breeds in Europe, it overwinters in western Africa. This bird gets its cues for migration from day length, which does not depend on the weather, so it has kept to the same migration schedule that it normally does. By the time it returns to Europe, the oaks have leafed out, the winter moth caterpillars have already hatched and pupated, making them unavailable to the pied flycatchers.  The study found up to a 90% population decrease in the areas with the highest mismatch between the arrival of the birds and the peak availability of their prey. This change in the food web could have further impacts that have not been noted yet. For instance, the winter moth eats a lot of leaves and can cause damage through defoliation to orchard or food plants. So far, people are not sure what will happen to the winter moth population? Without the birds to eat the caterpillars, will the number of damaging winter month larva increase? Will it cause significant damage to food crops? This is just a small example of how we are beginning to notice and study these phenological mismatches, but no one knows how many may occur or to what degree they’ll alter our food webs.

Personal Benefits of Phenology – Developing A Love of Nature. While there are many scientific benefits to making phenological observations, the greatest ones to me are all personal. Observing phenology has given me endless hours of entertainment. By delving into these relationships, you begin to notice things you have never notice before, even though you have seen them many times.

You transition from walking around in the woods asking what is this, to when would I see this, to why is this here right now. It provides you with a much deeper connection with nature. Take a goldfinch for example.  The first step – what – is pretty easy, even for beginner birders, as this bright yellow bird is hard to mistake. When I started getting really interested in phenology, I began asking when. I noticed that in the end of August, there is a flurry of activity with these birds. They are building nests, laying eggs, and feeding their young, long after most other birds successfully raised their young. This led me to wonder why. As it turns out, the lifecycle of the goldfinch relies heavily on the lifecycle of thistle. The goldfinches wait until thistle have gone to seed and take the very soft, windblown seeds to line their nests before laying their eggs – much later than most other songbirds. It is these little pieces of information that phenology has introduced me to that I find so fascinating.


A goldfinch collects thistle down for the nest.

I spend the majority of my free time wandering around and exploring our woods. Here in Minnesota, we are lucky to have four distinctly different seasons, meaning there are new discoveries to be made nearly every week of the year! There is something ultimately so satisfying when you delve into all of the natural cycles, the timing of them and the relationships between them, and can begin to expect things on your forays into nature. Before I even get outside I’m thinking about what types of flowers I might find and where, what birds might be swooping overhead, what frogs might be singing, what bugs might be biting, and what berries might be available for snacking along the way. Phenology motivates me to get outside because I don’t want to miss the “firsts” of anything. The last few days I’ve eagerly been searching my woods for the first of the spring wildflowers. To me, phenology is just one more reason to get outside, observe my surroundings, and revel in everything nature has to offer. Plus, as we should all know by now, there are so many physical, mental, and emotional health benefits of getting outdoors!

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Ok, so let’s get back to citizen science. As long as you’re outside, making observations already, you might as well be collecting data for scientists! There is a huge variety of citizen science programs, so there is something for all nature lovers. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a nice list of links to Minnesota citizen science programs – check it out!  Here are a select few and some additional ones they don’t mention.


HDT’s Bee Block

Minnesota Bee Atlas – We’ve all heard about the dangers facing our pollinators, so do your part to help in research! HDT proudly monitors a nesting block for native bees. There are many different options for contributing to this program!

  1. Project BudBurst – Do you love gardening? Help scientists by observing when plants bloom!

  2. NestWatch – There are TONS of birding programs to join. This is one is super easy and great for kids! Plus, there are loads of resources for learning about backyard birds and building bird houses. Last year, we had 27 fledglings in the nests on the front of the HDT building!

  3. Project Feeder Watch – Another good backyard citizen science project that only runs during the winter! It gives you something to do all year-round!

  4. Minnesota Frog & Toad Calling Survey – Listen extra carefully this spring for the sounds of amphibians! Help out the DNR by becoming part of this program.

  5. Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program – Record observations of your lake’s loons!

  6. Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP)  – Help the University of Minnesota collect data on our beloved Monarchs!

  7. Nature’s Notebook  – One of the largest and most respected phenology programs in the country! Pick one local species to monitor and observe!

  8. iNaturalist – Submit sightings or pictures of any plant or animal!

So whatever your preference may be, make a commitment to spend some time outside this spring and summer. You reap the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of spending time outdoors while the greater scientific community benefits from your efforts! It’s a win-win situation! As always, enjoy!


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