Citizen Volunteers Document A Very Early Spring

Citizen Volunteers Document A Very Early Spring

Butterflies, flowers and frogs all 'early birds' this spring in Wisconsin.

Hundreds of Wisconsin researchers and "citizen scientists" are confirming what's been a favorite water-cooler topic of late: spring has sprung very early. 

Frogs, butterflies, birds, bugs and plants are but a few of the wild things arriving early, their appearance, first calls, first flowering, first emergence and other milestones the subject of reports to local, state and national databases that are helping document trends across time and space, says Owen Boyle, who coordinates DNR efforts to foster citizen involvement in monitoring natural resources.

Citizen Volunteers Document A Very Early Spring

"This spring the value of these citizen-based monitoring efforts are really hitting home," says Boyle. "Citizen-based monitoring projects are one of the scientist's most powerful tools for detecting long-term or large-scale changes in the natural world because of the large number of participants that can collect information over large geographic areas and long spans of time."

Their work is documenting that spring is running about eight days to five weeks early, depending on the species.

* 82 of 150 plants monitored through a database maintained by UW-Stevens Point botany professor Emmet Judziewidz flowered before April 1, compared to 28 in 2010, another warm spring, and 16 in preceeding years.

*  38 butterflies tracked on wisconsinbutterflies.org, maintained by Mike Reese, arrived early. Some, like the clouded sulphur, clocked in 39 days earlier than the previous earliest sighting!

* Wood frogs and spring peepers were first heard in Oneida County on March 18, eight and 15 days earlier, respectively, than ever recorded, according to 30 years of detailed records kept by Ron Eckstein, recently retired as a DNR wildlife biologist.

*  State records fell for the earliest arrival date for 10 bird species in 2012 and tied for one, the solitary sandpiper, according to Wisconsin E-Bird, an online bird reporting website. Savannah's sparrow, Franklin's gull, Lincoln's sparrow, dunlin, pine warbler, Louisiana water thrush, yellow rail, blue-grey gnatcatcher, black-necked stilt, ruby-throated hummingbirds all set what appear to be new state records.

* Common lilacs monitored by hundreds of people in Wisconsin and elsewhere across most of the rest of the country budded early and are blooming, according to Mark D. Schwartz, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor, president of the Wisconsin Phenological Society and co-founder of the USA-National Phenology Network, known as USA-NPN.

"This was an incredibly early year and it has everybody talking to me, so our network is trying to capitalize on the interest," he says, noting the Wisconsin society has its annual meeting, which is open to the public, on May 12 at the UW-Milwaukee Field Station.

Through USA-NPN, citizens and scientists can get low-cost lilac clones through nurseries to plant and in coming years monitor and record certain annual events in that plant's life cycle -- like first budding, first flowering, etc. Citizens also can follow the steps and reporting methods listed on the website and observe and enter what they see right now with a lilac bush or other plants already growing in their yard or nearby.

USA-NPN provides on its website protocols that people can use to observe and record information on 633 plants and 238 animals so that their data is collected consistently and can be used in some of these bigger studies.

The aim is to create a national clearing house for phenological data that researchers can use for their scientific studies and that citizens can contribute to, see their data, share their data, correct their data if need be, and connect with nature, and with others sharing a similar interest, Schwartz says.

 The number of people monitoring natural resources has climbed thanks in part to the Internet, and now smart phones and their apps. "It opened doors for some people," Schwartz says.

 The early phonological events people are documenting herald a welcome shot of color and sound to a typically drab early spring landscape, but are raising concerns as well, Boyle says.

 "Ecologists are concerned about potential phenological asynchronies -- or mismatches -- that could occur in years like this one with a very early onset of spring," he says. "Flowers blooming out of sync with the peak flight times of their insect pollinators; migratory birds that arrive out of sync with large hatches of their insect prey, these are just some of the examples."

 Kate Redmond, longtime volunteer environmental educator for the UW-Milwaukee field station, writes a weekly blog series called Bug of the Week and noted the potential harm to the tiger swallowtails from their early emergence from their chrysalises. 

 "If you see any of the tiger swallowtails that have been reported on the landscape these days, six weeks early, understand that they are Dead Men Walking…," wrote Redmond, who goes by the nom de plume Bug Lady.

 "There are no flowers for them to nectar on, and no cherry leaves to lay eggs on. And if the spring generation fails, what is the fate of the summer generation, which produces next spring's Tiger Swallowtails? Vertebrates, and many invertebrates, can hunker down and wait out a cold or snowy spell that follows the early warmth. Comma and Mourning Cloak butterflies, also flying now, are sap feeders that overwinter as adults and can easily re-enter diapause in a sheltered spot. But for a swallowtail, prompted by a week of very warm air to emerge from its chrysalis, there is no retreat."

 Boyle says that citizen involvement will be helpful in documenting what happens next this spring. "Citizen participation in natural resources monitoring is critical to our understanding of the natural world and particularly what are the cascade of effects when we have an early spring."

 He encourages people interested in getting involved to visit the Who's Who of Citizen-based Monitoring in Wisconsin website to find the monitoring project that gets them excited to get outdoors and collect information on their favorite animals, plants, lakes or streams.

Source: Wisconsin DNR

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