prairie dogs and citizen scientists

First prairie dog AND first robin sighting of the season, both this morning. Must be spring!

I knew it was coming. Skunks on the roads, winds whipping up pollen, green grass alongside snow patches, buds on the trees. The light is different, too, coming in earlier each day to wake me up and shining with a little bit more pink to it. If we’re lucky we’ll still get plenty of snow, but chances are good we’re not slated for any more of that bone-crunching cold that December brought us. The prairie dogs seem to know this, and the fat robins that poke around looking for worms.

Each year I make a mental note when I see my first signs of spring. And in the fall, too: tarantulas crossing toward the Gorge; elk heading toward their wintering grounds over on San Antonio Mountain. If I were better organized, I’d write all these things down.

That kind of data is hugely relevant for scientists studying climate change and its effects on the life cycles of plants and animals. Luckily, there are thousands of people keeping track of when plants bloom, when birds arrive, when mammals migrate, when insects emerge, and more. The more dedicated of these citizen-scientists contribute to the National Phenology Network. Here’s how they describe their work:

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes. We do this by encouraging people to observe phenological events like leaf out, flowering, migrations, and egg laying, and by providing a place for people to enter, store, and share their observations. We also work with researchers to develop tools and techniques to use these observations to support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists, and others, including decisions related to allergies, wildfires, water, and conservation.

Anybody can share phenological data. Getting a fine-scale, local record of the timing of natural cycles is too broad a job for research scientists only, so the people who share their data are crucial to the effort.

Even though I don’t keep a written record (or not yet, anyway), the effort I spend paying attention to the timing of natural events gives me such pleasure. I like to notice when the cottonwood leaves unfurl and let loose their exquisite odor. Keeping an eye on the water in the river, on the birds who pass through, on when the ground thaws and the skies change, keeps me connected to my animal body. For a little bit, anyway, it reminds me to get out of my head and into my senses.

So maybe I don’t need to worry about recording the data. Maybe, for now, I just need to get out and live it.


in honor of Grace Paley’s birthday

December 11 would be Grace Paley's 89th birthday. I've assigned her story "Faith in the Afternoon" for a writing workshop I'm teaching this weekend, and re-reading it I'm just as dazzled by her brilliance as I was the first time I encountered her work. Grace was one of the greatest ...

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new mexico reads wrecker

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why blackberries?

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