Signs of the Season: A Maine phenology program

First published in Landings, July, 2013.

Participants make notes on the timing of certain natural events, like the appearance of Monarch butterflies or the first blooms of the beach rose. Photo by Beth Bisson, Maine Sea Grant.

Participants make notes on the timing of certain natural events, like the appearance of Monarch butterflies or the first blooms of the beach rose. Photo by Beth Bisson, Maine Sea Grant.

Signs of the Seasons is a citizen science program that engages children and adults in science through observation of plant and animal phenology. What is phenology? It is the study of the seasonal timing of recurring life events, such as animal migrations, insect metamorphoses and foliage changes. Many of these “signs of the seasons” have shifted as a result of a changing climate. Observation of what is happening and when in one’s backyard or local park helps scientists and managers answer questions that affect Maine’s forests, crops, and day-to-day lives.

“Fishermen and farmers understand the timing of life cycles of plants and animals,” said Esperanza Stancioff, climate change educator for University of Maine Cooperative Extension/Maine Sea Grant program and co-coordinator of the program with Beth Bisson of Maine Sea Grant. “It is a part of their daily lives to observe and note changes. For example, lobstermen know when the lobsters generally shed.” Maine lobstermen were shocked last year to find lobsters shedding their shells in late spring, earlier than had been seen in recent history.

Untitled-1Signs of the Seasons participants tackle two questions related to the local effects of climate change: How is the timing of spring and autumn changing in Maine’s forests? Are some plant-pollinator and predator-prey relationships becoming mismatched? The answers to these two questions have implications for the timing of maple syrup tapping, the available supply of fresh water, the match between pollinators and flowering of wild and crop plants, the availability of food for migrating birds, and even the length of Maine’s tourist season. “We’re trying to make the link for people, so they understand how these plants and animals are affected by increased temperature or extreme rainfall,” said Stancioff.

Volunteers are trained to make observations once a week on any one of sixteen plant and animal species found in Maine and then record those observations in a national database. In its first three years, the program has trained about 600 participants (ages 10-86) in all of Maine’s 16 counties. The Signs of the Seasons curriculum, which is tied to state educational standards and can be adopted by teachers for use in a variety of subject areas and grade levels, was used in five schools across Maine in its first year. Program participants have made 70,000 phenology observations, which are already being used by scientists in analyses and scientific publications.

“We would really like to be able to develop a phenology protocol with lobstermen and get their assistance. They are the experts and they already make these observations every day as they go about their work,” Stancioff said.