Phenology Study Club at the Hitchcock Center

By Ted Watt

November 6, 2015


The second full year of our intensive natural history course is drawing to a close as we observe the coming of winter. What does it mean for naturalists to be learning about and documenting our local organisms’ lives and natural processes? We’ve considered this question from a variety of perspectives during these two years.

A few famous phenologists include Carl Linnaeus, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. Like these well-known figures, participants in our full year phenology course study the organisms in our local environment to gain a deeper understanding of micro changes in their annual cycles.

What are the plants, animals and other organisms that are all around us? How do we identify them correctly? What is their natural history; the different stages of their life cycles and unique adaptations to their specific habitats? What associated organisms support each study species? And how do changes in our local climate affect the timing (phenology) of these? Answers to some of these questions are easier and some are more complicated.

The class gathered on a misty, cloudy morning in September at Mt. Toby to explore local fern species. The variety of habitats at Mt Toby means that we could observe more than twenty different species of ferns in our morning and have ample opportunities to hone our identification skills. Starting off, so many of the species looked similar, but over time and with practice, differences became clearer. Gradually the degree of cutting between leaflets, the shape and location of the spore structures, and other features became more distinguishable. Correct identification of species gradually became easier.


What does a phenologic study of ferns look like? In addition to exploring the diversity of this group and gaining field identification skills, we can also learn about fern life cycles. All ferns emerge from winter dormancy as fiddleheads – different shapes and sizes, but all variations on a single theme of uncurling. Fiddleheads appear above ground on a carefully timed schedule tied to spring temperatures, length of the day and moisture. If this year the cinnamon fern fiddleheads were 4 inches high on May second, how does that relate to other years? Are there patterns by which fiddleheads of the various species appear? Releasing spores is seasonally dependent as well. How do we document the timing of spore release and how do we record our findings? These are the questions we face as we seek to gather phenology data in our local woods and swamps.

Our intensive phenology study class prepares for year three of the course, beginning in January. This year we are adding three evening classes during the year, focusing on specific internet-based data gathering projects. We are excited about building a constituency of local naturalists who are observing changes in nature over time. Reviewing regional data and drawing conclusions about what these observations tell us…our citizens are contributing to deeper understanding of how our local environments are responding to changes in the climate.

Learn more or register for the Hitchcock Center’s Nature All Year – Phenology Study Club.

For an excellent resource to learn more about phenology, and how you can contribute observations to a long-term, wide-ranging geographic data set, visit the web site of the USA National Phenology Network.

Learn more about phenology study in Massachusetts by reading Walden Warming: Climate Change Coming to Thoreau’s Woods by Richard Primack. 

Find out more about phenology study in our national parks and which New England parks are participating…and get involved in the study! 

Ted Watt is a highly skilled naturalist who helps children and adults understand the unique habitats and ecosystems of New England through hands-on instruction and mentorship.

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