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Nature’s Notebook: An Uncommon Occurrence

December 15, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert, 2018 fall intern at Prairie Ridge.  She is a senior at NC State and is graduating with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife concentration in a few days.  Thanks, Morgan!

Here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, we do periodic checks of trees for Nature’s Notebook, a citizen science project that collects phenological data on plants and animals nationwide.  (Phenology is the study of the events that occur in the annual life cycle of a species.)  Tree phenology research is focused on the leaves, leaf buds, flower, fruits, etc of the trees. You may ask who does the collection, scientists, researchers, or dendrologists (scientists who study the structure and characteristics of trees)?  Well anyone can, including you! All you need is a basic knowledge of native trees (easily learned!), a data sheet, and a pencil.  For very tall trees, you may also need binoculars. Then print a packet for each of the trees you want to monitor from the Nature’s Notebook website to help you identify the tree, answer all the questions, and record the data for that tree.  

For example, say I am trying to find out whether a tree I want to monitor is a Black Cherry or not.  How do I start? First I look through the Nature’s Notebook packet for Black Cherry, where the first few pages will explain what the Black Cherry looks like, including a few photographs with the leaves and bark (Black Cherry has noticeable horizontal etches on the bark – see photo below).  Once I figure out if the tree is a Black Cherry, I then look up at the branches and answer a series of questions to determine how many leaves, buds, flowers, and fruits are on it. This is all quite easy to figure out since the packet gives you steps to follow. After collecting these data, I move on to the other trees on my list.  Here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, we collect data from Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Pecan (Carya illinoinensis), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Boxelder (Acer negundo), Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

bark of black cherry
This is an older Black Cherry with scraggly bark.  Younger trees will have smoother bark with more notable horizontal etches (those are actually lenticels, which are used for gas exchange in trees).  Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Usually trees will bloom and grow leaves during certain times of the year. However, two of our native trees here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation have been doing odd things from October through December.  For instance, our Eastern Redbud has bloomed in November and December for the past four or five years. This tree will go into full bloom early next year, but blooming at all in the fall is strange. 

This timeline shows when the Eastern Redbud at Prairie Ridge has flowered in 2016 (top) and 2017 (bottom).  This year it is blooming right now!

Our other oddity, the Boxelder, has started to show opening leaf buds and leaves during November.  Boxelder breaking leaf buds and leaves do not usually start showing until the beginning of the year.

This timeline shows the random leaf buds on the Boxelder opening up during November of 2017 (top).  This same tree also started showing some leaves this year in November (bottom, though the most recent data has not been entered yet, so it does not appear on this timeline). Weird!

Now a big question we are asking is why exactly is this happening? Is it that weird spurt of warmth, does this always happen, or is this something new? Looking through the data from the past 10 years, I found that the Eastern Redbud did not bloom during October-December of 2009 but did bloom in during October of 2010.  The Eastern Redbud continued to bloom off-and-on up until 2014, where has bloomed in November and December every year. Unfortunately we do not have any data prior to 2008.  With more data we could figure out why these plants are blooming or growing leaves during the winter, which is part of why we collect data for Nature’s Notebook.  By sharing data with Nature’s Notebook over the long term, we will be able to detect trends in the future.

If you would like to collect data on your trees or learn more, head on over to Nature’s Notebook and begin your adventure!  Or, attend a Citizen Science Saturday or a training at Prairie Ridge to get some hands on experience with us in the project.  We’d love to help get you started!

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