by Andrea Williams
I entered the year in a fog of illness, and returned to work and full awareness with sunshine and relatively fine weather. It took a flock of American robins to make me realize that yes, it is actually January.
We all have our ways of telling time, both day to day and monthly or seasonally. Some people notice lengthening days—it’s not dark when I leave for work—or have school calendars or technology to keep them grounded in an annual rhythm. I tend to notice birds and plants; a lot of people do, more so on the East Coast where seasons are more distinct. But the reminders are always there: both Orion at night and golden-crowned sparrows during the day tell me it’s winter; robins tell me it’s January; and the bold leaves of the first wildflowers tell me it’s late January. No snowdrops and crocuses here, just clear white of milkmaid flowers (Cardamine californica ) and the grassy spears of ground iris (Iris macrosiphon) and chow-chow purple first leaves of houndstongue (Cynoglossum grande).
In March there will be trilliums (mostly Trillium ovatum), which it seems silly to call wake-robins out west where the robins are not the harbingers of spring they are elsewhere. But come June I’ll know it’s summer when the farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) bloom!
The study of the timing of life is called phenology. It tracks all sorts of things, like the leafing out of deciduous plants, flowering and fruiting, bird migration, insect emergence, and dozens of other life cycle stages for a myriad of organisms. People have followed phenology for ages to know when to plant, or hunt, or head to their favorite wildflower spot. There’s been a renewed interest in phenology recently as an indicator of climate change, to see if things are happening sooner than they used to. Endeavors such as the National Phenology Network and Project Budburst have begun to centralize individual efforts and provide methods and a storehouse for data. In Europe, they have a longer and more detailed record, and have been able to produce summaries such as “250 years of spring” (actual report here) using nearly 400,000 observations of first flowering stretching back to 1753! You can explore these efforts online and join to submit your observations as well, or keep a natural calendar of your own.