Counting the Days to Spring: Phenology Through Photos

In late winter I start to become impatient for spring to arrive.  Some years it seems like winter hangs on stubbornly as long as it can – even though the days are getting longer more quickly now as we head towards the equinox, it still freezes at night and the last of the snow is not yet melted.  So at this time of the year, I like to go back through my photos and look at when I photographed certain signs of spring in past years, so that I can see if spring really is uncommonly late this year or if it is just my impatience that makes it seem that way.


I’ve probably photographed blooming crocuses more than any other sign of spring, so they’re a good example.  In 2008, I photographed crocuses on March 21; in 2009, April 10; in 2012, April 6; and in 2013, March 25 (I somehow missed 2010 and 2011).  The dates are variable, but it seems that crocuses typically bloom here in late March to early April.  More telling, perhaps, is that last year (2013) the snow was mostly melted, daffodils were sprouting, and snowdrops were budding on February 27.  The crocuses last year also bloomed earlier than in some other years (such as in 2012 or 2009).  This year, however, the snow is still melting and the daffodils have just started to sprout in mid-March.  Our first snowdrops have only just started to bloom.  Spring this year is clearly later than it was last year, but last year, I suspect, was early*, and 2014 may be more typical.

Making observations of this kind is part of phenology, the study of seasonal cycles in nature.  Other phenological observations might include noting when trees leaf out, birds migrate or build nests, deer grow antlers, leaves turn colour in the fall, or bears hibernate.  Personally (because I’m a nerd about this kind of thing), I find it fascinating to study this information and compare the dates in different years.  But phenology is also an important part of the ecology in a region.  For example, if flowers bloom early because of a warm, sunny spring, they may end up blooming before many of the insects that pollinate them have developed.   We can also use phenological cues to help us decide when to plant our gardens or make other preparations for the upcoming season.  And phenology can be an indicator of climatic change: if birds migrate or flowers bloom earlier year after year, then this may indicate that the climate is changing and spring is arriving earlier.  I also believe that studying phenology can help to bring us into deeper relationship with our local environment and its cycles, and help us realize the interconnection of events and species in the landscape.

A simple way to get started with phenology is through looking back at your old photos – just as I did at the beginning of this post.  Because digital cameras automatically record the dates photos are taken, a simple photo of blooming crocuses can easily become part of a basic phenological record.  Even if you don’t take many photos specifically of plants or animals, you may still be able to find examples in the backgrounds of other photos.  Look at the photos that you’ve taken around the months of February, March, and April, pick out any subjects that you have taken many photos of in different years, and compare their dates**.  Do you notice any trends?  Any changes over the years?

If your set of photos is small, like mine, you probably won’t notice any larger patterns, but hopefully this simple exercise will encourage you to become more aware of the seasonal cycles in your environment and how they change from year to year.  If phenology fascinates you as it does me, you may want to start taking more detailed records and photos, and perhaps get involved with citizen science.  At the very least, this exercise will help you to stop feeling guilty about taking the same photos of the same flowers every year.  (And it can also help you see how your photography skills have improved – just look at the difference between my photo of 2008 and those of 2012/2013!)

Is it spring where you live?  Is it early or late this year?


*The winter of 2012/2013 was a weird one.  I saw flowers blooming in every month but January (dandelions in December, snowdrops and primroses in February), which seems odd for this region.  The 2013/2014 winter, however, seemed to arrive early and stay late, but maybe it just felt that way in comparison to the winter before!
**Of course, this method is not perfectly accurate.  In 2009, for example, I may have taken my photo a week after the crocuses first bloomed, while in 2012, it may have only been three days later.  But I think that the photos are still going to give you a general idea.
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