Spring is in full tilt. Many of us are wandering around our woods, meadows and yards making small exclamations of delight as we see the bright faces of our beloved Spring ephemerals and our trees glowing with the haze of pollen-heavy flowers. Our joy is not diminished, but perhaps tempered by the knowing that most of the phenophases we are seeing are quite early - many are much earlier than we've ever seen them. The USA National Phenology Network's (USA-NPN) spring leaf data goes back to 1900 and shows 2012 as the earliest spring — until this year - 2017. This year, Red Maple (one of the earliest trees to flower, an important resource for early season pollinators) flowered in NYC in February! These types of changes can be detrimental if organisms respond out-of-sync with one another. Evidence of this "phenological mismatch" is mounting, though many systems are also thankfully showing resilience.
Phenology data gathered by citizen scientists is helping to provide baseline data and identify species response to climate change - which can provide relevant information for land management and conservation efforts. The power of citizen science is becoming more and more apparent (see www.crowdandcloud.org for a great documentary series about citizen science projects making a difference all over the world). Each phenology monitoring site in NYPP that contributes data is adding relevant information to the larger picture of phenological change. Each time we head out to collect data on the Happy Valley Phenology Trail here at Community Greenways Collaborative, we know that we are contributing relevant information for our long-term understanding of how to manage biological response to climate change. What is better than having that feeling while wandering around the woods looking for flowers? Below is a review of some of the beautiful phenophases happening in late April here in the Catskill Mountains.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier) is in open flower! This early season beauty is a great pollinator plant (small native bees seen on the open flowers!). Folklore has it that it's called serviceberry because early settlers often planned funeral services around the time of bloom (ground would be thawed enough for burial). It's also called Shadbush because the bloom coincides with the spring shad fish that run up the Hudson River to spawn. It's also called Juneberry because it forms delicious, edible fruit in June (a fast turnaround after pollination!)
Red Trillium (Trillium erectum), with a trinity of leaves and stunning red flower is startling when you don't expect to see it amidst the drab mud and leaf litter. This plant is also called Stinking Benjamin (why Benjamin??) due to the foul odor it emits to attract carrion flies to pollinate it.
Trout lily is in open flower along the road, but on our woodland trail is still in flower-bud stage (with unfolded leaves). This species is sometimes called "Dog-tooth violet" because of the toothy shape of the underground bulb (confusing common name though because it is most certainly not a violet). The name Trout Lily refers to the mottled coloring of the leaves, one of the first of the Spring ephemerals to emerge in March.
The Canada Mayflower leaves are greening up the forest floor and the bright yellow Coltsfoot flowers open along the road peek out from under the brown leaf litter. The big basal leaves (that look like a colt's foot) won't appear until the flowers are gone.
The meadow path is carpeted in Antennaria (pussy-toes, or as our daughter would say "moonie-hoaze"), a small velvety aster that is a favorite host plant of the American Lady butterfly. Flowers have not yet opened but the sweet pink haze of the buds are actually the prettiest phenophase (in my opinion at least!). The sweet little patches of Bluets (Houstonia) always make us happy (along with the small native bees, small bee flies and butterflies who visit the self-incompatible flowers!).
Our beloved Witchhazels have emerging and unfolded leaves (and dormant flower buds - flowers won't open until the coming Fall!), but the star of the tree show is the Sugar Maple, with the most abundant bloom I've ever seen happening this year. They are gracing the mountainsides with a superb golden haze.
As we sat by the pond watching the nesting red-winged blackbirds surf the Phragmites stems, we wondered two things: are we the only people who hear the opening four notes of the Star Wars theme in their song (are we???) and will the Springs we know and love will be a thing of the past? Questions rooted in nostalgia, I know, but we are grateful to be part of a community of observers asking these types of questions - and collecting the data to find out. Let the joys of Spring keep coming!