“Mama, when will it be spring?”
I first hear this question around the beginning of March. My daughters look forward to the end of cold and snow almost as much as I do. Even though I love winter, I’m always ready for warmer temperatures. Alas, March’s sporadic warm days merely taunt me with a peek of what is to come, so I have learned to look for other ways to help me celebrate the coming of spring.
For the past five years, my husband and I have kept a phenology journal – a record of the change of seasons. Every spring, we record the first birds we see or hear as they return to our northern clime. We write down the first wildflowers we see bloom in the bare woods. We make note of the first frogs we hear calling in our thawing pond. We celebrate these firsts throughout the evolution of winter into spring, long before the warm days take hold. And to be honest, sometimes the anticipation of seeing my first killdeer of the spring is the only thing that keeps me from jetting off to Florida. While my mind may be tired of the endless dreary days, my heart leaps with joy when I hear my first Red-winged Blackbird – the first summer bird to return to our area. Just when I think it will never be spring, I hear a Spring Peeper’s hopeful mating call.
Through these simple observations, we are more attuned to the changing life that spring brings. We write down all sorts of things to help us mark the transition from winter to spring: first asparagus harvest, first meal of nettles, pond completely thawed, oak leaves open, aspen catkins falling and morel harvests. We’ve learned about the animals and plants in our area and how they have adapted to the changing seasons. For the last five years, we have seen or heard the first killdeer between March 11 and 13. The first turkey vulture sighting brings great excitement and warrants a phone call to my husband at work. Our observations lead to wonderful discoveries of the changing rhythm of the seasons. By recording the first sights, sounds, even tastes of the season, we feel so much more connected to the place we live.
We keep our phenology record in a weather journal. We write down the day’s high and low temperatures as well as precipitation. We begin to see weather patterns, such as a day that for five years in a row has not varied more than 5 degrees in the daily high. In addition to the weather, we make note of daily events – a potluck, a walk to the river, a bike ride. It is an easy, delightful way to recap the day in a few sentences. Writing in our weather journal has become a nightly ritual for me. It is the last thing I do before I head up to bed.
You don’t have to live in a rural area to notice changes in the natural world. All over cities, daffodils are blooming and robins are building nests. Phenology requires intentional observations and recordings, but beyond that, the location doesn’t matter.
Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of life cycle events and thus, does not only pertain to firsts. We record the last monarch butterfly we see, when the last junco leaves, or the last night we hear a cricket chirping. These lasts also indicate a change – an ending that ushers in another beginning.
There are many ways to record seasonal events. Our weather journal was given to us as a gift. It has space for recording temperatures and other notes. But you could easily create your own phenology journal with a page for every day of the year. Or you could select a few species of birds, flowers, insects or amphibians and record first sightings and other observations. I have a friend who uses an old calendar, and when she observes something noteworthy, she writes it in the appropriate day, noting the current year.
However you make note of seasonal changes, you will develop a lasting connection to the earth and her processes. You will begin to look forward to the changes that each new season brings. Spring doesn’t suddenly descend upon us. It gradually expands with each new change right in front of us. To answer my daughter’s question, I tell her to watch for the Red-winged Blackbird.
Rachel Sandhorst lives on an acreage in Northeast Iowa with her husband, two daughters, cats, cows, chickens and a dog. She spends her winter days cooking, crocheting, playing in the snow, reading, and waiting for the Spring Peepers to start calling.