NEWS & DOCUMENTARIES | IN WISCONSIN
In Wisconsin
 
Phenology
Thursday, May 6, 2010
 
Explore past videos by clicking on the movie camera icon on the video player.
PHENOLOGY
IN WISCONSIN REPORTS
Phenology is a science that tracks the firsts for every season like the first robin, first snowfall, and when things sprout, bud and blossom in any given year. It’s the unofficial account of when the seasons change. This spring perhaps the change came a bit earlier than usual. It's also important information in the study of climate change.  In Wisconsin Reporter Jo Garrett shows you why Phenology is important to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and the legacy of Aldo Leopold.
Phenology
TRANSCRIPT
Patty Loew:
When the fish first spawn or you spot your first robin, then you know the seasons are changing,  this year perhaps a bit earlier than usual. It's also important information in the study of climate change. "In Wisconsin" reporter Jo Garrett joins us to explain.

Jo Garrett:
Yes. It's the study of Phenology. That's not to be confused with phrenology, which is the pseudo-science of reading head bumps. Phenology is something altogether different.

Jo Garrett:
In the dead of winter, it's easy to forget that the natural world is all about change.   

Jo Garrett:
That calendar of change in the natural world when a particular pond melts, when a certain species of forest flower first peeks out in a place, when a migrant bird wings back through our state, that calendar, that catalog of year's first times is a branch of science called Phenology. It's current to discussions about climate change and as old as the Bible. "For lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth and the time of the singing of the birds is come."   

Jo Garrett:
Kathy Miner is a woman who spends a good part of her work time on the lookout for these changes.

Kathy Miner:
This is its time, early to mid-April. This is a little bit early.

Jo Garrett:
Miner is a naturalist on the staff of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. This 1,268-acre tract is as wild as can be in the middle of Madison. It's a great place to watch things come and go.   

Kathy Miner:
And this is a spring ephemeral. These are a group of early Spring wildflowers that live out their whole life cycle in about a six-week period between when the ground thaws and before the trees leaf out. Phenology is the art and science of noticing things. The "p-h-e-n" part of the word comes from "appearances," as new things appear in nature over the course of the natural year.   

Jo Garrett:
The arboretum has a particularly important Phenology history. It's a place founded by this man, Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist who revolutionized conservation through his book, "A Sand County Almanac." Leopold was also a Phenologist. He kept copious notes both at the family shack in Sand County and here in the arboretum.

Kathy Miner:
Aldo Leopold and one of his graduate students, Marion Jones, kept track of data here from 1935 to I believe 1945. It was at least a decade. We have those records and we are trying to keep up with them, to keep faith with them and keep making the same observations and see how things have changed or maybe haven't since then and see what's going on in the natural year.

Jo Garrett:
In 1939 they first observed pussywillows in pollen on April 6, bloodroot in bloom on the 20th, Canada geese on March 21. This list of first times in a place can reveal patterns. Leopold wrote this about Phenology: "A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows through and to living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their responses to the sun, Phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land's inner workings."

Kathy Miner:
These are Virginia bluebells. When they're in bud, they're pink. But when the flower opens, it is sky blue. Then it becomes pink again. It's only blue for that short time. I just read in an article by a horticulture expert that the color pink and red are almost invisible to bees. They see in a whole different color spectrum than we do. They see blue very easily, so that flower being blue right at that time when it's receptive to the bee, it's one of those examples of perfect timing.

Jo Garrett:
And if the timing's off for the bluebells or the bees...

Kathy Miner:
The bluebells might open and bloom a little too early, earlier than the insects are here, and you'd have a gap between the time of the pollen being ripe in the flower and the time that the agent would be around to move it from flower to flower.

Jo Garrett:
Long-term, very structured Phenology studies are a critical element in some global climate change studies.

Kathy Miner:
I started keeping this book in 1999.

Jo Garrett:
But Leopold himself wrote that Phenology, with all its weighty subject matter, is a very personal sort of science. Miner keeps a personal Phenology journal, what she saw when.

Kathy Miner:
So 2010 started with the starling. Then the first robin singing for me was on March 7th. I go on to sandhill cranes.

Jo Garrett:
Phenology embraces not just sights, but sounds. American toads raising a ruckus in Teal Pond.  The season is a time when all the senses are in play. And as Leopold wrote, "Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search."   

Man:
This is a definite sign of spring. When the overwintering buds have expanded to the point where they created pussywillows, some people would say spring is here.

Jo Garrett:
Looking for signs of spring. It's a tour in the arboretum led by Levi Wood, another arboretum naturalist.

Levi Wood:
That's one of our spring plants coming up, just the leaves. It will be another three weeks probably maybe months before we get the flowers up. Spring is coming.

Jo Garrett:
They're looking for those firsts, emerging flowers, a hungry hawk that's just migrated back in.

Levi Wood:
He's after a snake on the ground.   

Man:
Oh, yeah. Look at the snake.  

Woman:
Yeah.

Man:
Wow.   

Levi Wood:
That's an immature red-tail hawk.

Jo Garrett:
On the walk they see an example of a previous people's tie to nature, an Indian mound in the shape of a panther.

Levi Wood:
The mound builders were here between 800 to 1200 years ago. They left mounds all over the 4-lakes area of Madison. One of the things I like about this panther mound, come springtime, this has one of the best areas of spring beauties. If I come back here mid, end of April, I can identify where it is by the fact that the soil is different and it's covered with spring beauties.

Kathy Miner:
We lived outdoors before we lived indoors. Somewhere in our evolutionary memory we're still wanting to be in touch with the rest of nature.   

Jo Garrett:
Aldo Leopold's daughter Nina continued her dad's Phenology study at the Leopold shack in Sauk County. You can find out more about what that study revealed and how to add your observation to national Phenology research at our website. Just go to wpt.org. Scroll down and click on "In Wisconsin."

Patty Loew:
The University of Wisconsin arboretum is celebrating 75 years of research.

Jo Garrett:
That's right, Patty. It's a milestone. For those who don't know, the arboretum has a world class collection of restored ecosystems. The arboretum now faces a quandary in the years ahead. So "In Wisconsin" is taking a closer look at the arboretum at 75 with reports on Curtis Prairie, invasive plants, and how storm water runoff is threatening its future. Watch for our "In Wisconsin" special on the arboretum in the months ahead.

Patty Loew:
Interesting report. Thank you, Jo Garrett.
 
RELATED LINKS
 
FUNDING FOR IN WISCONSIN IS PROVIDED IN PART BY
Alliant Energy
Animal Dentistry

Donate to WPT
PBS Kids Go!




PARTNERS

PBS Wisconsin Public Radio UW Extension Educational Communications Boards
Portal Wisconsin Wisconsin Media Lab Next Avenue