Track Lilacs and Loons with Nature’s Notebook

By May 19th, 2014 at 10:59 am | Comment

Observe and collect data to learn how climate and habitat affect plants and animals with Nature’s Notebook.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Observing a tree in Tucson, Arizona.  Photo credit: Brian Powell

Observing a tree in Tucson, Arizona. Photo credit: Brian Powell

Most North Americans are relieved that spring has finally arrived, especially after a winter when ice storms, snowstorms, frigid temperatures or droughts were regular occurrences. For many, winter was not only harsh, but it was also longer than expected. How could a plant grow and survive with cold temperatures or dry conditions? How would the animals that depend on these plants be affected by these changes? These are a few of the numerous questions the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) investigates. The organization studies phenology, the study of the seasonal plant and animal life cycle events. Consisting of staff members, an advisory committee, and partner organizations (such as the U.S. Geological Survey), the USA-NPN collects and analyzes phenology data in order to address scientific and environmental questions.

Recording observations in Tucson, Arizona.  Photo credit: Sara N. Schaffer

Recording observations in Tucson, Arizona. Photo credit: Sara N. Schaffer

Unfortunately, the USA-NPN has a small staff that cannot observe the wildlife of the entire country by themselves. They decided to enlist the help of citizen scientists so they could gather as many pieces of data as possible. In 2009, the USA-NPN established an online monitoring program for over 200 plant species. The following year, they recognized the need to include animals in the monitoring process; as a result, they added animals to the observation program and formally named it Nature’s Notebook (official site).

This year, the USA-NPN hopes to collect 1 million observations through Nature’s Notebook, and invites anyone who wants to participate. To become an observer, set up an online account; then, you can learn how to observe with aid of a detailed handbook or instructional videos. Nature’s Notebook has also created a mobile app (for iOS and Android systems), where observers can enter observations into the database while they are outdoors. The data is readily available through the Phenology Visualization Tool, where you can look at the data of a particular region or species.

Flowers at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, Arizona. Photo credit: Lorianne Barnett

Flowers at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, Arizona. Photo credit: Lorianne Barnett

The observation process might be overwhelming for someone who is new to it. With over 900 plant and animal species in the database, what should you observe? Theresa Crimmins, the Partnerships & Outreach Coordinator for USA-NPN, recommends that you “start small; pick 1 or 2 plants that are familiar to you. Make it low-effort and fun! Observe plants you know and are familiar with.” You can also join a regional campaign, and focus your observations on a particular species, such as the campaign to track cloned lilacs. For educators who want to incorporate Nature’s Notebook into their curriculum, the USA-NPN has educational material available. Crimmins recommends that instructors incorporate the program around the same time each year, in order to contribute to the long-term record of particular species. While there is a time commitment involved for this citizen science project, repeated observations are necessary to notice the long-term changes of a particular species.

USA-NPN and Nature’s Notebook have definitely made an impact on phenology in the United States. It has partnered with almost 200 organizations, contributed to many peer-reviewed publications, and is collaborating with government agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see how the data can be used to inform decisions about wildlife refuges.  This year, Nature’s Notebook is excited to offer an opportunity to learn and interact through their webinar series. Their next webinar, on June 10th at 11am (PST), will be “A Summary of Spring”; a fitting way to celebrate the season and everything that happens within it.

References: USA-NPN 2013 Annual Report: Taking the Pulse of Our Planet

Images: USA-NPN


Rae Moore has a BS in Chemistry from McMaster University and studied Bioinorganic Chemistry as a PhD student at McGill University. She has also been a cheerleading coach, yoga teacher, and preschool science educator. Now she focuses on science education and advocacy, and blogs about scientific job searching on her blog, ThereOnceWasaChemist.com.

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