Skunk cabbage is northern Illinois’ earliest blooming native wildflower, popping up in late winter in groundwater seeps, springs and fens.
Good Natured: Phenology
February 24, 2023
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a gentleman who said he’s been hearing male red-winged blackbirds singing their “Conk-a-reee” (or “Conquer-ee” or “Oak-a-lee”, depending on your ears) territory song. We then chatted about how this bird, which typically goes unseen during our winter months, while robins do not, would make a great First Sign of Spring.
We also said those oft-heard words, “They seem awfully early this year!”
Meanwhile, among my plant-loving friends, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the blooms of skunk cabbage, our earliest spring wildflower. Gifted with the ability to generate heat that melts through snowcover, this plant traditionally kicks off the wildflower season with its low-to-the-ground, odiferous, maroon-colored blossoms.
This winter’s relative warmth has had us looking for a while now. But in every seep and fen we checked, we got, well, skunked. The plants were just beginning to poke up through the soil; the blooms were still a ways off. These observations caused us to muse, “Gee, shouldn’t they be early this year?”
These phenomena and many others make for fun musings as the seasons progress, but did you know there’s a scientific discipline dedicated toward keeping track of their appearances and, in some cases, disappearances? It’s called phenology (get it? Phen, from phenomenon, “that which is observed,” plus ology, which means a subject of study) and it’s one of the fastest growing areas of community, or volunteer-based, science.
Thanks to online databases like iNaturalist and eBird, casual observers learn what others are seeing, whether nearby, across the country or around the world. Even better, those observations of plants and animals (and fungi, microscopic organisms and yes unknown items) are continually reviewed by all the ologists-ornithologists, herpetologists, entomologists, etc.-and you too, botanists!-so as time goes on, identifications are verified as correct.
Then, as more time passes, the value of phenology data really becomes apparent. That a red-winged blackbird was seen on February 11 is an interesting observation, but by itself it provides simply a snaphot of that particular moment. Any trends regarding red-winged blackbird arrivals-whether they’re coming back earlier, later or staying within a consistent window of time-become apparent only as more observations are added over time.
As of this writing, there are 126,998,213 observations of natural phenomena that have been uploaded to iNaturalist, and eBird has received 43.8 million checklists from 464,542 eBirders. The more data that’s contributed, and reviewed for accuracy, the more useful those records become.
You know what’s really awesome? All of us, the uncredentialed but no less ardent spectators of our great natural world, can contribute to this continuously growing body of knowledge. All it takes is an account, available for free; the time and inclination to take note of the phenomena right outside your door or window; and the ability to share it to these online resources.
But…at the risk of sounding like the As Seen On TV commercials…Wait! There’s more!
For the next two months, those of you who find yourselves in Kane County can choose to become a part of a body of data known informally as the Spring Ephemerals project. Begun by the St. Charles Park District in 2020, as a means of connecting with the many local folks with time on their hands, the effort seeks to document the time at which various species of woodland wildflowers start blooming.
Anecdotally we know that the very first species is skunk cabbage, and it’s typically followed by other early bloomers like hepatica and bloodroot. But recording specific dates, along with photos and other relevant notes to the database, year after year, will help track whether that First Place position is trending earlier, later or staying relatively the same. When paired with other information like temperature and precipitation, important trends regarding weather and climate can be tracked.
Participation is easy! If you visit www.iNaturalist.org, and manage to not get distracted by the astounding wealth of information being shared there, follow the instructions for creating an account, which can be found by clicking on the “Log In or Sign Up” option in the top right corner. Once you’re on board, you can find the project by clicking on the Community dropdown menu and selecting Projects, then using the search function to pull up “Kane County, IL: Spring 2023 Ephemerals.” From there you’ll be taken to the survey’s homepage, and this introductory text:
“This spring help us find and identify the appearance of these first blossoms of spring. Between March 1 and May 31 explore natural areas, forest preserves, parks and even your own neighborhood to find and submit your observations of flowering plants. Don’t worry about the scientific designation of ephemeral, we are interested in what is in bloom and when and you can help. So, if it is flowering, snap a shot and submit it. Please submit only flowering, non-tree species. This year’s project is sponsored by: The St. Charles Park District, Kane County Wild Ones, The Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Red Oak Nature Center, Campton Township Open Space, the Geneva Park District and the Conservation Foundation.”
I’ll admit, I was a latecomer to online community science. But now that I’m there, I find I’m paying a lot more attention not only to what I’m seeing, but also where and when. As for today…
I’m off to go check out a report of a pair of sandhill cranes performing their courtship dance. I’m excited to hear that they’re back, and kicking off this year’s breeding activities. But gosh, it seems awfully early, doesn’t it?
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at email@example.com.