Phenology Phun! (2)

For scientists tracking climate change, a weekly observation of one tree in one yard for 5 years is worth more than 50 unique observations of different trees in different yards. So says Dr. Joydeep, our certified phenologist who taught us so much in our March 14 workshop.

And who can’t do that? Sunday after the workshop I established a phenology trail in my yard. I’ve now made weekly observations of two trails, the one at BBL around the Education Center I wrote about in the earlier post and the one in my own yard. Here’s a smidgen of data from the “My Yard” trail:

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Interpretation: My willow oak tree went from tightly closed leaf buds March 15 to a full canopy of mostly full grown leaves by April 7. When I compare it to the same data for my buttonbush and American beautyberry, I see that the two shrubs are much slower. Indeed, they both still have breaking leaf buds and lots of leaves not full grown.

But the true value of this data is, again, in the long haul: How will this year’s timing compare to next year’s and the next year’s and 5 years down the road? That’s what the climate scientists need to know. And Dr. Joydeep also emphasized, there’s a real data gap for northeast Louisiana.

So… welcome to Northeast Louisiana Phenology Project, NLP2 for short. This is Dr. Joydeep’s vision: That we Master Naturalists will join in filling in the data gap for northeast Louisiana. I’m still learning, but I’ve started. Hope others will join me.

Be assured, I did not set up a spreadsheet and enter this data by hand. Rather, I entered and uploaded the data via the Nature’s Notebook app on my phone while walking my phenology trails. Here’s a screenshot of my dashboard for my Nature’s Notebook account, which is connected to the National Phenology Network website:

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Notice the “How-to-Observe Module” and the link to click to take it! These two interconnected websites, the NPN and Nature’s Notebook, are a treasure trove of information and instruction.

BTW, I have also signed up to take their online course this summer. But… don’t wait for me. We’re kind of confined to home, right now, right? So get your learning on….!

Phenology Phun! (1)

And not just fun, but inspiring, compelling, highly educational. I knew phenology was important, but… now it’s a mission!

So… rather than try to summarize my extensive notes from Saturday’s Phenology workshop with Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharjee, I’m going to cut to the punch line: We learned to make sound phenological observations using “Nature’s Notebook,” a smartphone app available from your app store. It’s free.

Setting up an account for yourself is also free. Then you must create a “site” for observation. I created a site called “BBL Education Center” and picked 5 trees to observe at that site. The screen shot from my phone (below, right) shows most of them:

BBL Edu Ctr pheno trail 1Once you have created a site and selected plants (or animals) to observe, click “go to observe.” There you will find a checklist, like this one (below) for my observation yesterday of the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) directly behind the BBL Education Center.

BBL Edu Ctr pheno trail 2

Notice that we estimated the number of “breaking leaf buds” on the tree, the percentage of the tree’s expected total leaves that were present at point of observation, and the percentage of leaves that were full size at point of observation. There’s a learning curve here, but it was less difficult than I expected. Nature’s Notebook offers sufficiently broad category choices that even an amateur can feel confident estimating.

For pawpaw, Nature’s Notebook offers 10 “phenophases” to rate. These include flower buds, open flowers, fruit and more. But it took just 3-5 minutes to make the observation and upload the data.

And here’s the coolest thing about this: The moment you upload, the data you have just created becomes part of a huge database used by scientists to track climate change and many other things important to the well-being of our Earth home.

Dr. Joydeep emphasized that consistency in observation is important to the quality of the database. That can be achieved in a couple of ways. Obviously, I can go back to this site on a weekly basis and observe each of the selected trees again. And I would love to be able to say I’ll do that, but I know better. However, YOU can download the app, locate the “BBL Education Center” site I created, go make a set of observations of those same trees, and Voila! We have another set of data points and are building consistency.

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Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Watch for Phenology Phun! (2) in which I will introduce the Northeast Louisiana Phenology Project, whereby we will participate in closing the phenological data gap of northeast Louisiana!

Hug a Tree for Science!

A picnic shelter at Kiroli Park turned out to be a great place to begin. Birdsong, an occasional frog, early morning light and a gentle breeze provided a delightful backdrop to Dr. Joydeep’s introduction to Ecosystems & Restoration Ecology.

How does one convey in a short period of time the “flavor” of a field that begins with the premise that “everything is connected”? It’s a tall order, but Dr. Joydeep engaged us with tales of his own research in the Himalayas, basic concepts well explained, and activities that gave us a taste of what an ecologist does, whetted our appetite for citizen science and affirmed our value as naturalists.

insect collecting
Stephanie & Maggie Herrmann collected insects for Maggie’s school project along the way.      (photo by Charles Paxton)

“Ecology is grounded in patterns.” I had never thought of it that way before, but it made sense immediately. And then with one aerial photo of a landscape, we dived in, making observations, identifying patterns, and generating questions for further investigation.

We could have spent all day listening and discussing, but… there we were in a park full of trees! So we learned how to estimate the diameter of trees. I was astounded that after practicing on just 5 trees, we were able to estimate the diameter of 5 other trees within a few centimeters. I used the “hug a tree” method and it served me reasonably well.

Before leaving Kiroli Park, we walked a short way down a trail to a platform on the lip of a small ridge overlooking a wet area. From that vantage point, we could see the change in plant life from the mesic habitat at the top of the ridge (white oak, musclewood) to the hydric habitat at the bottom (water tupelo, river cane).

water testing
Dr. Joydeep goes way out on a limb to drop the water testing sensor into the still water of a pond at Restoration Park while I read off the numbers for others to record.     (photo by Charles Paxton)

We reconvened at Restoration Park after lunch. There we did some water quality testing in order to observe the differences between a stagnant pond (lentic) and a flowing stream (lotic), and between water on the edge of the park and water deeper into the park.

One of the great values of natural areas like Restoration Park is their ability to improve water quality, and we were able to demonstrate that. The moving water deeper inside the park was cooler, contained more dissolved Oxygen and had a lower pH.

All in all, it was a fascinating and fun day. Many thanks to Charles Paxton for providing photos for this post and to David Hoover for sharing his excellent notes.

green snake
On our way out of Restoration Park, we encountered this adorable little rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus).     (photo by Charles Paxton)

Fish Creek & FS 568

The Catahoula Ranger district of the Kisatchie National Forest encompasses 121,500+ acres extending from Ball, La., all the way to Saline, La. It offers an awesome variety of plant species for master naturalists in training to practice their skills on, and Dr. Charles Allen, our workshop leader, seems to be on intimate terms with every one of them!

Our morning field work took us to an area along Fish Creek that was new to me. What an interesting variety of trees! We parked our cars at a trail head, and identified at least six species before we headed down the trail.

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is one of the 20% of plants that have opposite leaves.          ©Bette J. Kauffman

These included several things you don’t get to see everyday: a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) with upturned sprays of not-quite-open flowers, an American hop-hornbeam (Ostraya virginiana) with hundreds of its hops-like blooms hanging down, and a chittimwood (Bumelia/Sideroxylon lanuginosa).

I photographed 36 different species of plant on the short hike in to the Fish Creek swimming hole and out again, but I know I did not get photos of everything Dr. Allen showed us and talked about.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
The sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) holds out her sprays of recurved blooms like a woman drying her nail polish. I had heard and Dr. Allen confirmed that these flowers make for excellent honey.         ©Bette J. Kauffman

After a short break back at the Georgetown gas station, we headed straight west on Hwy 500 then north on FS 568 to an area where wide trails extend east and west. We took the eastbound one, as it was higher and drier.

Sadly,  the many red buckeyes I saw blooming profusely when I scouted the area in late April were now just lovely dark green bushes. This short hike turned into a bit of an “edibles” class, as Dr. Allen introduced us to peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum), which flavors bread wonderfully, and ground cherries (Physalis spp.), which I remember eating on the Iowa farm where I grew up.

A highlight of this walk, especially for me, was the female swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) we spied depositing eggs on a piece of rotting wood. Ovipositing females are pretty easy to approach, being focused on their work, and I got pretty close to this one. Suddenly, much to my surprise, she turned away from the log and began buzzing my head.

My first reaction was startled self-defense and I swatted at her, until someone suggested I allow her to perch. I held up my right hand and she immediately landed on the side of my pinky finger–and stayed there for an amazingly long time! But she was on my right hand, so I couldn’t take a picture. To see this, you’ll have to go to Charles Paxton’s Wild Open Eye blog post, which I shared in the LMN-NE Facebook group. What a delight!

Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) (female)
A swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) deposits eggs in a crevice in a rotting log.        ©Bette J. Kauffman

It really is an island!

So… ever since moving to Louisiana, I have wondered how a little town in the south central portion of the state surrounded by seemingly flat farmland got named Sicily Island.

No longer! Our geology workshop cleared that up for me, and Gerry Click’s information was driven home when I began posting my observations from our field work on iNat. Just look at this map. Do you not see an island?!

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The J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA is the green area covering most of the western portion of the geological island you see between the Ouachita River Valley on the west and the flat farmland surrounding the town of Sicily Island and extending to the east pretty much all the way to the Mississippi River. The pink tear drops marked A and B are observations of plants I made at the St. Mary Falls and Rock Falls trailheads, respectively, and posted on iNaturalist.

I will not try to repeat the entire explanation Gerry gave for this rocky island, but it is an Ice Age formation. It is also one of the few places you can go in Louisiana to see lots of rocks, and it is definitely the only place you can go to see a 20-foot cascade!

Rock Falls
Bette Kauffman and Gerry Click enjoy the view from the top of Rock Falls in the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA on the Rock Falls Trail.     (photo by Charles Paxton)

BTW, shortly after Charles Paxton took the above photo, Amy Ouchley made our day by standing IN the falling water!

Blooming trillium and red buckeye all over the place were among the many delights of the day. Both love a sunny slope, and the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA has lots of them. And I can report with confidence that the trillium blooming here are a different species from the trillium that bloom a few miles north on the ULM Biological Station, Charles Allen Nature Preserve.

Trillium (Trillium
Trillium (Trillium sp.)

I can narrow it down to two species. Based on Charles Allen’s wildflower book, the only two possibilities for these locations are Trillium ludoviciana and Trillium gracile. I have long thought the trillum near Columbia were T. ludoviciana. But now that I have a point of comparison, I’m inclined to think that these are T. ludoviciana and the ones up near Columbia are T. gracile. And if that is so, I have a LOT of photos of trillium to re-label!

Hiking the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA has been on our agenda for awhile. You might recall that we planned a family fun hike there a year ago and got rained out. I now understand why hiking those trails when wet and muddy would not be a good idea! They are challenging trails, rocky with some very steep stretches, but well worth the effort.

Kim Paxton and I are both working on species lists. I’m sure our birders Suzanne Laird and Roselie Overby will contribute as well. Thanks again to Gerry Click and all who came and made it another great workshop adventure for LMN–NE.

Now… how did a small town in south central Louisiana get named Sicily Island?