Phenology is the study of changes in the natural world through time. “Phenology” literally means “the science of appearance” and involves observing and recording nature over time. It can be thought of as reading the “pulse of life.” This can include anything you observe in nature, but especially happenings such as when leaves start to turn, when the pond freezes over, the first bloom of plants, or the arrival of migrating birds – in other words, tracking plants, animals, weather and nature through the seasons.
Making observations and keeping records of the world around us helps us connect with our local place, understand ecosystems, and have a better idea how things work on our planet. Nature’s cycles and seasons are shaped by Earth’s climate, and phenology can tell us a lot about our local climate and ecosystems – and also how changes in climate affect the wildlife around us. Aldo Leopold, his family, and many naturalists, climate scientists, and citizens practice phenology… You can too!
Below is a list of year-round phenological observations to look for at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. Use all of your senses to make observations — and then come inside the nature center to learn more about phenology and report what you saw!
- Spot cocoons on bare branches, thriving in the cold.
- Listen for great horned owl mating calls.
- Find bones or fallen antlers on the forest floor. Can you see rodent teeth marks from winter snacking?
- Look for the constellation Orion high in the southern sky.
- Listen for cardinal songs – a “cheer, cheer, cheer” or “birdie, birdie, birdie.”
- Look for signs of hungry mice and rabbits venturing out from under the snow.
- Watch ravens performing airborne mating dances.
- Find bark flakes in the snow — perhaps around the tamaracks. Look up to see if a woodpecker has been searching for food.
- Listen for the spring call of the black-capped chickadee: “fee-bee.”
- Spot Jupiter – one of the brightest objects in the sky.
- See if you can spot missing bark on birches or other trees from deer and other hungry critters.
- Find a sugar maple, even without its distinctive leaves. On warm days, the sap is starting to flow up the tree to feed new buds — it will soon be time to tap!
- Watch for bats waking from hibernation.
- Listen for the honking of Canada geese and the croaking of sandhill cranes arriving for spring.
- Look along waterways for migrating bald eagles.
- Feel your first mosquito bite? Aldo’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, recorded her first sighting on March 9!
- Listen for the loud, dry rattle of a belted kingfisher near streams and ponds.
- Look for pussy willows in wet areas and buds on trees like red maples.
- Can you hear toads or spring peepers in the wetlands?
- Watch for snapping turtles emerging from muddy pond bottoms or painted turtles warming themselves in the sun.
- When did you spot your first dandelion?
- Watch out for ticks – keep covered in the woods!
- Listen for hungry baby birds calling out to be fed.
- Watch for violets and wild strawberries in bloom.
- See if you can spot any sneaky morel mushrooms in the forest.
- Find signs of painted turtle nests being dug into the ground.
- Sniff the air for the aroma of blossoming wildflowers.
- Listen for busy bumblebees pollinating recently bloomed flowers.
- How many shades of green can you describe?
- Watch for the constellation Cancer appearing in the night sky.
- Can you hear the deep, loud croak of bull frogs?
- Look for dragonflies darting to catch mosquitoes and capturing them in their cupped legs.
- Find as many different colors of wildflowers as you can!
- Look for signs of robins and cottontails starting their second families of the year.
- Watch for tadpoles turning into frogs.
- Look for primroses – they only last a few days!
- Listen for – and beware of – hornets building their nests.
- Watch for fireflies on hot, still nights.
- Can you hear the high-pitched rattle-y chirps of katydids?
- Look for newly emerging monarch butterflies preparing to head south towards Mexico.
- Notice young red squirrels leaving their mothers’ sides to go off on their own.
- Feel ripe fallen crabapples squishing under your feet.
- Check to see how many cattails have released their “fluff”.
- Look for bright orange spotted touch-me-nots.
- How many different kinds of mushrooms and fungus can you find?
- See goldenrods shining in the fall sunlight.
- Feel the soft seeds of the bursting milkweed pods as they get ready to fly in the wind.
- Notice insects and spiders slowing down as dropping temperatures cool their blood.
- Notice frogs starting to burrow into mud for the winter.
- Watch for juncos arriving in autumn.
- Look for flocks of sandhill cranes gathering before they migrate.
- Notice the brightness of goldfinches dulling to yellowish-brownish-gray.
- Feel crunchy coatings of frost on cold mornings.
- Listen for pileated woodpeckers cutting holes in ant-infested trees.
- Notice a protective waxy coating developing on evergreen needles.
- Find tracks and tunnels in the first snowfalls from mice and moles.
- Watch for the whitening coats of animals like weasels.
- Listen for barred owls calling “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
- Look for the golden needles of the tamaracks falling to the ground — the only Wisconsin conifers to drop their leaves in winter.
- Spot snow fleas emerging on fresh snow.
- Watch for feeding chickadees, constantly eating for enough energy to keep warm.
- Listen for booming cracks of lake ice as it expands and contracts.
- What kinds of animal tracks and trails can you find in the snow? What are they up to?
- Notice what plants and animals you can’t find. Are they hiding, hibernating, or did they migrate?