Fun With Phenology

Head outside to investigate all the seasonal changes that come with spring, which is the study of phenology.

A trout lily emerging. Photo by Suzy Lyttle

What is phenology?


Phenology (phe·nol·o·gy) is the study of seasonal changes or natural life cycles in relation to climate and plant and animal life. It is the way scientists keep track of when the spring flowers bloom, when birds migrate back to our area or when the leaves should fall off the trees.


Have you ever kept an eye on a tomato to see it when it reaches the perfect ripeness? How about finding a bird’s nest nearby and seeing the baby chicks grow? That’s tracking phenology!


Why keep track?


Tracking phenology is a great way to learn more about what’s going on outside each season. Everything in nature is connected. By studying one organism, we can learn about others that may be connected.


Birds lay eggs when they know the insects are plentiful so they can feed their soon-to-be hungry chicks. The insects will be active once they know the trees have delicious leaves. The trees will stretch out their leaves once there are consistent warm, sunny days.


With Earth’s climate changing, phenology is an important way to keep track of all these relationships. Data is starting to show some flowers are blooming earlier and leaves are staying on trees longer.


Citizen scientists


No matter how old you are, where you live, or how much experience you have, you can become a citizen scientist. A citizen scientist is an individual who collects data about the natural world. Studying penology is often fueled by helpful citizen scientists.


Many citizen scientist programs are looking for people just like you to help collect nature data. For example, Project Squirrel is looking for observations on squirrels right in your own back yard. Other citizen scientist organizations include eBird, iNaturalist and Nature’s Notebook. All of these have apps to take with you to help make recording your findings easy.


Get outside!


Spring is the perfect time for fun with phenology because there are so many events to observe. Birds like orioles, warblers and hummingbirds will be migrating back to our area. Frogs, like spring peepers, will start calling out to find their true loves. Forest wildflowers will burst their way out of the wet ground and bloom in the sunshine before the trees release their leaves.


Still need help trying to find something to study? Try looking at the citizen scientists apps to join others in a project. Not tech savvy? No problem. The easier way to record is with a pencil and a notebook.


Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Here is an example from my nature notebook! I recorded the spring flowers at a nearby forest preserve. I made sure to record the location, date and weather. I kept track of when the plant emerged from the ground, when it started to bud and when it bloomed.


I take pictures, too, to help me learn the plants better. I checked on the same flowers for a few weeks. I even checked back year after year. It really makes me love spring even more when I can watch the wildflowers grow before my eyes. Plus, while I’m outside I discover other things I would have never noticed. Check out the notes on the owl pellets that were found!


Adults can try it


Get started with phenology with help from an interpretive naturalist at the Nature Journaling program for adults from 1 to 3 p.m. May 11 at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center.


This program will introduce you to different types of nature journaling and show you how it can help you study nature and phenology. After a journaling introduction indoors, explore and observe nature outside and apply the nature journaling techniques. You can register online.