Written by Executive Director Joe Meyer
What is Phenology? It is nature’s calendar; when cherry trees bloom, when a robin builds its nest and when leaves turn color in the fall. In Fact, Phenology is a key component of life on earth. Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings. In turn, insect emergence is often synchronized with leafing out in their host plants. For many people, allergy season starts when particular flowers bloom—earlier flowering means earlier allergies. Farmers and gardeners need to know when to plant to avoid frosts, and they need to know the schedule of plant and insect development to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Many interactions in nature depend on timing. In fact, phenology affects nearly all aspects of the environment, including the abundance, distribution, and diversity of organisms, ecosystem services, food webs, and the global cycles of water and carbon. (National Phenology Network).
February and March
Maple Syrup: February means one thing, maple syrup time. My son Nathaniel and I tapped around a dozen sugar maple trees and immediately upon drilling the hole for the spile, sap was flowing. In my experience, having days around forty and sunny with nights below freezing produces the best flow. When temperatures reach high forties and fifty the flow actually stops. Every year we tap the trees around this time but usually we are ahead of any flowing. This year, the warm weather week of Valentines Day even produced sap. Maple syrup sap is being sent up to the tree twigs to help produce leaves in the coming weeks. The sap is about 2-4% sugar and will be boiled down to about 66% sugar which we then call syrup. This boiling can be slow going as you may have to evaporate off 50 gallons of water to get 1 gallon of syrup! Sugar Maples are the most common tree used for syruping but other maple family trees can be used; silver, red, boxelder. In Alaska, without maple trees, they utilize the sap of birch trees to make syrup!
WoodCock Sky Dance: Other signs of spring include chickadees doing their “cheeseburger” mating song, Canada geese heading north, and even a sandhill cranes displaying. Red-winged blackbirds and grackles gather in the hundreds and create a cacophony of noise when resting in a tree. On these spring evenings, just before dark you will begin to hear the “peenting” call of the male Amercian Woodcock. Without knowing this, you might write it off as a silly insect buzz but what follows is truly a spectacle of nature. The male continues his “peenting” call for several minutes before taking flight. Then begins a circular flight into the sky, during which you will hear a high pitch noise as they fly made by the sound of their wings. They continue these concentric circles until they are several hundred feet in the air and then continue with their “falling leaf” display. This consists of erratically falling through the air while making high pitch vocal tweets. Their sky dance ends with them swooping silently to the ground where they originally took off and continue their “peenting.” This mating display continues well into the night and sometimes in the morning as well.
I remember first learning of this natural feat after reading Aldo Leopold’s account of it in a chapter of The Sand County Almanac. Sure enough, a buddy showed me a local park where this was taking place near my house where I grew up. My whole family would venture to experience this little known ritual happening nightly. Fast forward several decades, and I am blessed to be able to hear and see nearly a dozen of these birds displaying on my property with my wife, son, and daughter with me to experience it. When you are plugged into phenology, you will begin to appreciate these small but amazing gifts of nature- as a result, your view and attitude towards it changes.
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April and May
Flowers: We can’t forget our spring ephemeral flowers. These beauties carpet our forests and do most of their life cycle before the tree leaves come out on the trees and shade them out. These flowers are a crucial nectar and pollen source for our early awaking insects.
Morels: Early May brings new life to our region. Even with some nights dipping low into the 30’s, life is springing up everywhere- you just need to what to look for and where to look. Pictured above are some Morel mushrooms. If you are unfamiliar, Morel mushrooms drive thousands of people into the woods in search of these delicacies, which can fetch a hefty price if you want to sell them. These small mushrooms range in size from 1 to 8 inches and continue to evade our ability to cultivate them. Thus you need to search for them in the wild. Your best bet is to look near dead elm trees but of course, it is not only correct identification of trees that you need to be concerned with. Mushroom ID always requires caution. You can read more about finding, identification, and cooking of morels Here.
The great thing is all the other unexpected things you see and find while out in the woods looking for Morels. Possibly a deer shed antler from February, warblers migrating through, or even a turkey nest like this one.
“God has written a precious book, whose letters are the multitudes of created things in the universe” Pope Francis