Long before the Mohonk Preserve even went by that moniker, it was doing phenology big-time. No, not measuring the bumps on people’s heads; that’s phRenology. Phenology is about when the swallows come back to Capistrano; when the shadbush blooms and the shad run upriver to spawn; when frogs and salamanders have their Big Night of swarming across roads in search of the ideal vernal pool; when the fall foliage display is likely to reach peak perfection; when brook trout start biting because the mayflies have hatched.
Succinctly defined by the National Wildlife Federation as “the study of how the biological world times natural events,” phenology matters to humans in a million different ways; to the rest of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, it’s a matter of life and death. If a bird is programmed to arrive at its feeding grounds when daylight length reaches a certain threshold, but the berry-bearing or larvae-emergence time of its primary food source has peaked two weeks early on account of temperature changes, that bird – perhaps even its entire species – could be in serious trouble. Phenology happens when people keep careful track of biological trends by collecting data in the same location season after season, year after year, then analyzing the results to determine the bigger picture of environmental health, or threats thereto.
Members of the Smiley family, founders of Mohonk Mountain House, have been faithfully and meticulously recording such information on the Shawangunk Ridge since the late 19th century, and the Mohonk Preserve carries on the tradition to this day. It’s a national model for longitudinal scientific study, and today an important contributor to the New York Phenology Project and the USA National Phenology Network’s Nature’s Notebook citizen science program.
“Citizen science” has become a trendy catchphrase for several years now, but its importance has been catapulted to the forefront over the past few months, since a new presidential administration started putting the kibosh on federal programs designed to monitor climate change. Major online sources for climate data are being shut down or retooled to avoid the subject, lest fossil fuel companies be forced by public opinion to turn to mining wind and sunshine instead of coal and crude oil. No matter how right scientists may be, they can’t prove their case without rigorous data collection.
That’s where you come in, concerned citizen: State agencies, wildlife preserves, nature centers and educational institutions need volunteer boots on the ground to keep on recording the dates when the buds burst on a particular tree species at a particular elevation at a particular latitude – relentlessly persevering in the face of government funding cuts and other attempts to erase the mounting evidence that our progeny’s inheritance of a livable planet is in peril. If you’re not the type to march on Washington brandishing a sign, a nice walk in the woods every couple of weeks, with a notebook and pencil or cellphone app in hand, might be more your speed.
The scientists at the Mohonk Preserve’s Phenology Project have even tagged the specimens that you’re supposed to visit, and prepared clear, explicit, user-friendly protocols to guide you in your observations. You don’t have to guess what it means, visually, for a red maple flower to be “open”; you get photos of the real thing for comparison. Have a look at the Project’s PowerPoint at http://bit.ly/2rScdNr to get the flavor of it.
The Preserve’s website provides links for species fact sheets, checklists, maps and other resources, and there are monthly “field sessions” with one of the program’s coordinators where you can get some hands-on practice, plus tips on “tricky” identification scenarios. Otherwise, participants can schedule their visits to the wild at their own convenience, so long as they commit to a minimum of two observational visits per month and enter their data on the Nature’s Notebook website. The Project even maintains a Facebook group where you can post photos of what you’re seeing and ask questions. The data that you collect will be available to scientists, researchers and the general public in order to inform planning for our planet’s future with hard science.
To sign up or obtain more information about the Mohonk Foothills Phenology Project, contact the Preserve’s research collection citizen science coordinator, Natalie Feldsine, at (845) 255-0919, extension 1271, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://bit.ly/2rC1d6Q.