Study of the Seasons: Phenology at the NRS

Sedgwick training California Phenology Project
Docents at Sedgwick Reserve learn to identify the life cycle stages of an oak. Image credit: Brian Haggerty

Nature celebrates the seasons with unmistakable changes. In California, rhododendrons add bursts of pink to coastal forests, bare buckeye branches grow leaf buds, and great egrets gather to nest in tall trees. In autumn, quaking aspens turn from green to gold, toyon produce bundles of berrylike fruits, and snow geese collect by the hundreds of thousands in Sacramento Valley wetlands.

Each of these events is influenced by climate. Factors such as temperature, rainfall, and rates of snowmelt help dictate when plants set seed and butterflies lay eggs but also how intense the wildflower bloom will be.

CA phenology project forbs form
The condition of each monitored plant is noted and later entered into a central database. Image credit: Kathleen Wong

Nowadays, observing nature’s seasonal events is a serious science. Called phenology, the study of recurring biological changes and their responses to the environment can answer a host of pressing ecological questions. Chief among these: how is climate change affecting natural communities?

The answers have major implications for both nature and people. Warblers that migrate earlier than insects hatch could starve. Rodents that require colder conditions could shift their ranges upslope. Flowers that bloom before bees emerge might never get pollinated. Changing weather patterns could accelerate crop planting and harvesting, as well as allergy and fire seasons. Conserving particular species or communities in a changing climate will require shifts in land management or restoration practices.

To keep tabs on natural schedules in California, researchers at UC Santa Barbara have launched the California Phenology Project. Led by Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Susan Mazer, graduate student Brian Haggerty, and postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Mathews, the project is observing plants at eight UC Natural Reserves and seven national parks, a total of more than 100 monitoring sites.

Sedgwick docents gather for phenology training
The California Phenology Project will monitor the dates of leaf out, flowering, fruiting, and similar events for plants at eight NRS reserves. Image credit: Brian Haggerty

Scientists, docents, staff, teachers, and other citizen scientists are being trained to track the life stages of several selected plant species found at each site. Thirty plant species are being targeted statewide. The data are then submitted online to the USA National Phenology Network, which makes phenology data from across the country available for education and analysis. The California project has already submitted more than 150,000 observations to the national database since 2011.

The state project began in 2010, when the National Park Service funded a pilot monitoring program in seven parks across the state. The UCSB scientists developed protocols, selected target species, developed plant identification materials, and trained people to document events such as flower maturity and fruit set.

The project expanded to the NRS in 2011 with a $32,000 Research Opportunity Award from UC Vice President for Research Steven Beckwith. Together with $8,000 in matching funds from the UCSB Office of Research, this funding provided training and coordination efforts at eight NRS sites.

NRS sites

  • Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve
  • Coal Oil Point Reserve
  • Hastings Natural History Reservation
  • Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve
  • Sedgwick Reserve
  • Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory
  • Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve
  • Valentine Camp

The California Phenology Project will monitor plant phases at eight NRS reserves.

“The UCOP funding has been absolutely critical to this project; without it we would not be coordinating the first multi-reserve science and education project in the NRS’s 47-year history,” Haggerty says.

The project was a plus for the NRS long before plant monitoring began. In order to pinpoint the plant species found at each reserve, and decide which to monitor, the scientists had to compile a plant list for the entire NRS. The resulting NRS flora was the first time such a list was assembled in one place.

Sedgwick phenology training
Making phenology observations requires close attention to plant anatomy. Image credit: Brian Haggerty

The NRS arm of the study is well underway. For example, Haggerty has trained 40 Sedgwick Reserve docents in phenological monitoring, ten of whom have committed to dedicated weekly monitoring. At Valentine Camp and SNARL, volunteers have already been collecting data throughout the summer.

“Reserve managers are using this project as a platform to engage their local communities of scientists, educators, volunteers, and the public, helping to raise awareness of, and participation with, the UC NRS,” Haggerty says. For example, reserve director Vincent Vogeli of Hastings is using project as a core piece of his new docent program.

Haggerty and colleagues are spreading the word about California phenology monitoring as broadly as they can. To date, they have trained more than 600 workshop participants, written a book chapter and lesson plans, conducted a UC Extension class for high school teachers, and submitted an article for the January 2013 issue of Madroño, the journal of the California Botanical Society

Upcoming presentations about the project include a lecture at a California Native Plant Society meeting in Santa Monica next Thursday, Dec. 11, and a phenology field workshop at the NRS’s Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve Dec. 15, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Citizen scientists can learn to contribute to the study of climate change from their own backyards.

Related Links
Phenology at Sedgwick Reserve