Monday, December 3, 2012

Waiting for winter in the Rockies

Nice mixture of new and old strawberry leaves, a result of extraordinary
warm temperatures in Colorado this fall
Wild weather makes for interesting phenology observations. Always something new to learn or discover this way.  The other day I read a comment about nothing should be happening here now since it is 5,000' elevation and December in the Rockies. But every time such a statement is made there inevitably arises an exception. Today I saw that exception in the form of new flowers emerging on a pennycress plant (Thlaspi arvensis), a small white mustard species. All around the garden and along my walks you can see plants responding to our strange weather which today for example gave us 60 degrees and no sign of snow. How can this be?  Plants should be smarter than to put out new flowers or foliage this time of year when it may snow or freeze at any time!

Pennycress with new flowers on December 3th, growing in my patio
While most plants must go through a cold period or dormancy usually for a month or more before they will respond to signals of a coming growing season, some plants can and do send out new leaves or flowers whenever it is warm and wet enough to do so.  Some like this pennycress I saw today are sometimes called winter annuals. This just means that they do not live for more than one year and can start growing in the winter if it is warm enough - it doesn't really matter what time of year or how much sunlight is available. While many weeds such as dandelion, pennycress, knapweed and others can do this, even native wildflowers can do this as well. In much of the interior West, for example, the early native wildflower, sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus) can also begin to flower anytime in the winter. It has been recorded flowering in December and January in Montana, although March is a more typical first time for flowers.

Around my house today I could see new leaves of the bulb grape hyacinth or Muscari, new leaves from a parsley plant (and many other herbs), new leaves of the Project BudBurst species yarrow (Achillea millefolium), new strawberry leaves, and of course lots of green lawn grass (Poa pratensis). The great irony is that with the unprecedented hot dry summer many lawns were brown during the summer, but have turned a deep green this fall and winter, now that there is a little more moisture and cool but not cold temperatures.  These are cool season grasses, so when daytime temperatures are 10 or twenty degrees above normal it is well within the range of activity for these grasses.

yarrow with new leaves (Achillea millefolium)
So December is a good time to review your notes from the year, submit those phenology observations that you have not yet had a chance to go through. But it is always a good idea to still make regular trips outdoors and see what is going on. Chances are that you will discover something new or surprising out there. And if you have a chance to travel to California or the Gulf coast there is even more to observe out there. Let us know what you find.

Paul Alaback

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Engage your Group with Fall into Phenology

Street trees changing color Photo courtesy of Paul Alaback
The Fall Equinox has passed but has the feeling of fall arrived where you live? Now is the perfect time to head outside with your participants, students, and volunteers to make observations of plants in your area and discuss phenology and the fall equinox. This month we’ve changed up our normal blog style and included a Fall into Phenology Activity that you can try with your group! 

The Fall into Phenology campaign is a great way to get started with Project BudBurst. It provides your participants, students, or volunteers with an opportunity to get a feel for phenology with minimal time commitment. The campaign uses Single Reports, a great way to introduce your participants, whether students or adults (or even a mixed group of students and adults) to the process of making observations of plants at your location. Single Reports involve reporting the STATUS of a plant at any particular time. These observations can be made anywhere, anytime.

Download the Fall into Phenology Activity

If you try this activity with your group, let us know how it goes! Send an email to with your name, occupation, age group of your participants, and your Fall into Phenology experience! If you work with students, this could also be a great opportunity for the students to practice their writing skills. Have your students compose a short essay about their experience. What plant did they observe? What did they learn about it? What was it doing when they observed it? Send your students essays to the budburstinfo email address and we may post it on this blog! If you ‘d like to learn more about how to implement Project BudBurst in your learning environment, sign up for one of our online Citizen Science Academy courses in November! For those interested in teacher re-certification, all of our courses can be taken for 2 optional, continuing education credits.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Road Trip to Montana Part II

Last month I described a road trip across the Rockies, where we made lots of Project BudBurst observations while going up and over the Rockies, and seeing plants in wonderful places such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Summer is the perfect time for vacations and adventures such as this, and its also a fun way to make Project BudBurst observations too!  For me it really adds to the enjoyment of the trip, it gives you an extra excuse to look at wildflowers and learn some new natural history!

This month I wanted to talk about the rest of this trip, and also to talk about the many ways that volunteers are contributing to Project BudBurst in Montana, where I spent much of my career up at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Black cottonwoods along Clark Fork River in Fall
Like most mountainous states, Montana provides a wide range of opportunities for single observations as well as monitoring local plants to contribute to Project BudBurst. The state is renowned for its natural beauty and diversity. It has a small population (less than a million people for the fifth largest state in the union!) and most live in a few small metropolitan areas leaving most of the state in a wild or nearly wild condition. It's a real mecca for naturalists and ecologists!

The diversity of the state mostly comes from a diverse geology (it is the treasure state, after all) and the diverse range of climates that result from how wind and storms pass over these many mountains and plains. The northwestern part of the state has many similarities to the coastal Pacific Northwest, especially the Cascade region. This is because the moist winds from the ocean can find some low passes where clouds and moisture are sufficient to allow many of these coastal plants to survive.
These dense forests contrast with the open plains and ribbons of riparian forests that dominate the eastern two thirds of the state. This is the region that inspired the phrase "big sky country".
The northern Front Range in Montana  
My trip to Montana this time mostly focused on the area from Yellowstone in the SW up to Missoula in western Montana. Missoula is famous as a artsy cultural center for Montana, especially for the visual arts, writing, and theater. And of course its the home of the University of Montana "Grizzlies".  It was also the basis for the the popular film "A River Runs Through It". From a natural history perspective it is quite fascinating as a cross roads between the nearby moist forests in the ancient Bitteroot mountain range to the west, the dry grassland valley where the town is, and the looming Rattlesnake mountains to the east and north. A small change in elevation or exposure to sunlight leads to completely different ecosystems.  Literally it goes from mossy green forests to bone dry brown grassland, all within a few hundred feet of one another.

Back in 1993 when I first moved to Missoula I started making phenology observations, similar to what is part of the Project BudBurst protocols today.  I used a trail near my house that goes up the western facing slope of Mount Sentinel. Every 2-3 days each spring (and sometimes in the summer too) my friends and I would write down every plant we saw in flower along a trail, and eventually ended up noting all the phenological stages in our notebooks.  In the first few years we were able to find 130 plant species within 6 feet of the trail, just going on a loop for about 1 mile (!).  Later this expanded to over 200 species by extending the trail up to about a 3 mile loop, near the top of the mountain, about 1500' up.  Its a wonderful way to learn local natural history!  Just try to learn a new plant every week. Soon you know your trail, and the common plants pretty well!
Chokecherries cover Mt. Sentinel with white in the late spring

The local Clark Fork Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society is now continuing this study.  We  have observations on this trail over the past 17 years, making quite a unique study of phenology and environmental change. The recently collected data is now a part of Project BudBurst. In the spring the local society takes a hike on this trail once a week, right after work, about 6:30 pm or so and combines a fun natural history hike with collecting valuable data for Project BudBurst. This is a great way to do Project BudBurst. Many native plant societies have field trips like this, to enjoy local natural areas, to learn more about the plant you see there, and meet other like minded individuals. On the day I was there rainstorms threatened to strike, but they did little to dampen enthusiasm to see what was out on the trail that day.  It was a wonderful time to see the plants in Montana. In contrast to most of the rest of the country, Montana had a wet cool spring and early summer. So the grasses and flowers were as green and as towering as ever. Gardens and prairies were colorful and verdent. A great way to enjoy travelling, nature, and helping Project BudBurst!

Paul Alaback

p.s. my son and I did complete our first half marathon race (the Missoula Marathon) on this trip too, which was one of the major motivations for this trip. Its always nice to combine lots of things together to have more fun on road trips and vacations!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Road trip to Montana Part I

While Yellowstone is most famous for geysers and wildlife, it has has a rich assortment of wildflowers that bloom in summer so it is a great place to make Project BudBurst observations too!
Project BudBurst was on the road again. This time I (Dr. Paul) went up to Montana from Colorado via all that wonderful country along the Rockies, most notably Yellowstone and surrounding areas. In this part of the country elevations vary so much that the phenological patterns can get pretty complex. So looking at phenology is a great way to appreciate what you are seeing a lot more.

Coulter Bay, Grand Teton National Park, 6772' elev.
We started at 5000' in northern Colorado, but were mostly at 7-8000' in Wyoming, then down to 3,000' in Montana. This is why it is so important to keep track of where you are when you make observations on a trip like this. Between the mapping programs on my cell phone, and the many books and maps we had with us, this was not too hard. At these high elevations we were going back in time to early summer or spring.  Actually the purpose of this trip was run a race in Missoula, Montana on July 8th, but why not have fun, see some good country, and also make some Project BudBurst Single Reports at the same time? 

At low elevations in  Colorado most of the Project BudBurst species had already flowered, and with the intense drought and high temperatures many plants were starting to brown up. Thistles had just started to form fruit, and the lindens had just finished  flowering. Warm season native grasses had just started flowering (western wheatgrass, sand dropseed, blue grama). I was hoping to see a lot more spring or early summer wildflowers up in Yellowstone where the elevations would be more like 7 or 8,000', and they did not have the intense drought that we experienced in the southern Rockies.

Bountiful wildflowers near the summit of Dunravan Pass 8859'
Yellowstone did have lots of spectacular flowers.  Sunflowers, fireweed, goldenrod.  One of the most common Project BudBurst species in flower in Yellowstone was yarrow.  It had started in mid-June in Colorado, but here on the 4th of July it was just starting around Yellowstone Lake. Wild strawberry, white spiraea, pearly everlasting also were just starting to flower. Woods rose was already in full bloom.  Going all the way up to Dunraven Pass, near Mount Washburn it really was like spring. Lupines, balsamroot, wild geranium, they provided a colorful palette of colours for the open grassy areas.

One really surprising thing was the lack of tourists. We had to come through the park on the 4th of July, when you would normally expect things to be super crowded. Not so. Most people assume the issue was people were afraid of fires and smoke. In fact driving by Fort Collins we drove by some big fires, and also around Laramie, WY fires were blowing smoke down into Colorado. This took little way from enjoying our trip. We had nice sunsets, due in part to all this smoke. The smoke took little away from the beauty of this special place, but this country is so big that most of the area was beautiful and clear anyway.

National Parks are a great place to make Project BudBurst observations while on vacation or traveling through.  If you get a chance to visit some at higher elevations it's really interesting to see how different things are from the lowlands. With lots of people visiting, Project BudBurst citizen scientists can help the parks by providing observations that help them learn about how these places are responding to changes in weather, climate, fires and other combinations of human-caused and natural processes. And its great fun too.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Summer Solstice Snapshot

Summer is always an interesting time to be looking at phenology and making Project BudBurst observations. There are a host of trees and wildflowers that wait for the heat of summer to become active. Some appear to be effected by local weather conditions and vary their timing according to what kind of year it has been and others are quite consistent in always flowering at the same time. Some studies have suggested that a number of tree species in the eastern US for example flower about the same time each year, especially in contrast to wildflowers that seem so sensitive to even small changes in temperature during the spring. It will be interesting to see what people find with their Project BudBurst observations for our first ever Summer Solstice Snapshot pulse this year.

The summer solstice itself is an interesting phenomenon.  While technically this means our days will get shorter from now until the winter solstice, for most people it actually means for the next several months it will get hotter and hotter.  This is because of the "lag effect" caused by the ability of the air, especially moist air to hold the heat. So even though the sun has slightly less radiation heating up the air each day, it continues to warm up because of this storage of built up heat over time.  The remarkable thing this year in Colorado is how hot it has been in the spring and early summer. We had temperatures in the 80's in March and now we have had record breaking searing heat, day after day in mid to late June.  And this is only the beginning of summer!  This heat led to wildflowers coming out an average of 3-4 weeks early, and fruits ripening at record rates. On the other hand all this heat with little rain or snow has led to huge problems for both plants and people this year.

Tales of Woe for Sweet Cherries

These patterns of heat and cold can have many effects on plants, well beyond simply leading to flowers emerging earlier.  One phenomenon which has been documented in high alpine areas of Colorado has been how warmer than normal temperatures can lead to plants becoming more susceptible to frost damage.  The idea is that if the plants are using temperature as a cue to determine when to put out new flowers, then if it is warm the flowers will emerge earlier in the spring or summer.  But if the warm temperatures are not consistent and more normal weather patterns return for a time, then this new growth and flowers could be killed by frost.

This is exactly what happened to most sweet cherries (Prunus avium) around my town. With those 80 degree temperatures in March cherries sent out leaves and flowers earlier than normal this year. Then when more normal weather returned in April  flowers were killed by frost.  This is the second year in a row of a bust in cherry production around the neighborhood.  Apparently the same thing happened in the Midwest as a friend from Michigan recently explained.  Remember those amazing warm temperatures in Chicago this spring?  Early flowers and killing frost did them in just like what happened here.  Pie cherries on the other hand normally flower a few weeks later than sweet cherries.  So there were lots of ripe pie cherries on trees around here this year. You have to be quick to pick them since the squirrels and other wildlife are quite fond of them.  My wife really wants me to plant a sweet cherry in the front yard, but I am thinking a pie cherry might be a safer bet.  This is a great example of how knowing about phenology can help explain so much of what is going on in your yard or garden!

Nearly all of our summer trees and shrubs have flowered in the past week or two, so there has been lots to contribute to the Summer Solstice Snapshot phenology campaign here.  The latest ones have been annual sunflowers, musk thistles, all three varieties of linden or basswood (American Linden, Tilia americana, Redmond Linden T. x euchlora, and small leaved  linden, T. cordata), goldenrain tree (a tree from Japan introduced by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800's), western wheatgrass, and several other prairie grasses, as well as the weedy quack grass and smooth brome.  Just in the past few days Virginia creeper has started to flower, and there are many sunflower relatives blooming weeks or months early out in native short-grass prairies around here.

Garden Phenology
Don't forget that you can also make Project BudBurst observations with perennial garden plants too.  Herb gardens can be a great way to keep track of the progress of the season.  I will be developing descriptions of several of these species soon.  Good ones to watch are chives, common sage (Salvia officinalis), oregano, thyme, and tarragon; they generally flower in this order.  Waterwise plants such as coneflower (Echinacea spp.) black eyed susan (Rudbeckia spp.), and annual sunflowers can be good ones to watch in gardens too.

Where is the rain?
The big question here in the West is of course how this will all effect our water supplies and the already record breaking number of fires that are burning across the Rockies.  It sure would be nice if the summer monsoons were early this year!  Lately my weather station suggests that as much as a 1/4" of moisture is evaporating off my garden plants each day - sucking the moisture right out of the ground. Even with a drip irrigation system that's a lot of water.

Another phenology-weather-agriculture connection this year has been the demise of the winter wheat and pasture crops. They depend on cool temperatures and spring snow to provide early growth. Instead it has been dry as a bone, windy and dry. So now you can see lilliputian wheat fields, bronze in color, mature seedbeds, but one half or less their normal size.  A personal connection to this is now for the first time I cannot buy a bale of straw for mulching our garden. Hay and straw are premium priced this year!

Every year is different and every season is different, that's what makes doing these observations and keeping track of things so interesting. Always a lot to learn and see out there. Looking forward to seeing what you find during this interesting summer.

Paul Alaback

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cruising Home--The Last Leg of the PBB RoadTrip

15 May 2012
Today is the last day of our road trip. We are having a lot of fun visiting new places, meeting new people and making Project BudBurst observations, but it will be nice to be home again too.

After breakfast, we pack up the car and drive north out of Council Bluffs to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. DeSoto lies on the floodplain of the Missouri River and is a great place to fish and view waterfowl. We stop first at the Visitor Center where we meet Ashley Berkler Danielson, the Visitor Services Specialist for the Refuge. We talk with Ashley about Project BudBurst and she talks with us about the Refuge and the flooding that happened there last year. She shares pictures documenting the flooded conditions at the Refuge. Nearly everything was underwater during the flood and for a good long time afterwards. Amazingly, the only part of the Visitor Center that was really flooded was the basement. Not much was damaged except the heating and cooling system for the building. Unfortunately, that meant many of the artifacts from the historic Bertrand Steamboat, found and excavated at the Refuge, had to be packed up and stored to preserve them until proper climate control of the building is restored. Looks like we’ll have to make a return visit to see those!

Layers of silt from the flooding can still by seen throughout the Refuge
It’s back in the car for a quick auto tour of DeSoto. The landscape is striking in that layers of silt can still be seen nearly everywhere and the plants are trying to break through and recolonize. It reminds me of a landscape that has recently been burned, except here there is no ash or burned debris, just silt. Lots and lots of silt. In some places along the road, we see long stretches of standing dead trees that couldn’t handle the flooding. Yet, even with all of the destruction, the Refuge is teeming with life. We see turkeys, a killdeer, geese, a Baltimore oriole, and a woodpecker as we drive around. We are told that many Plains cottonwoods perished during the flood, but still there are many others in full leaf, cotton flying around our car like a light snow. This will be our only “official” stop for today, so we drink in the fresh air and views before steering our car back to I-80.

A Goatsbeard at DeSoto NWR
We’ve set the car to cruise and are making our way towards Colorado quickly now. Many miles to cover before the day is out. But we still need a few breaks, so while in Nebraska, we stop at a Rest Area just outside Cozad and take a few minutes to explore the plants growing there. We find yet another Plains cottonwood and make a Project BudBurst observation. Then back in the car and away we go to Fort Collins and home.

It is a few days since our first Project BudBurst RoadTrip Adventure. As I reflect back, I realize this road trip was unique from the many other road trips I’ve taken over the years. Because one of the goals was to make Project BudBurst observations along the way, every stop we made with our car, whether at a rest area, restaurant, gas station, National Park, or National Wildlife Refuge became its own mini-adventure. Instead of simply “looking at” our surroundings, we were actively “engaging with” and “seeking out” our surroundings at each stop. This made the entire trip even more enriching and fun. It also made the trip a little bit longer than we had planned, since we often got so engaged in our searches that we’d lose track of time! On the next trip, we’ll plan in a little buffer time to help with that. On a plant-related note, we learned along the way that Plains cottonwood (Populous deltoides) is a great tree for Project BudBurst observers from the West to the Midwest. We made observations of it at nearly all of our stops! If you are new to plants or just want to focus on one plant during a road trip, Plains cottonwood might be a great plant to watch.
With all the fun we had on this trip, my husband and I are thinking about making all of our future road trips Project BudBurst RoadTrip Adventures! We hope you'll be inspired to do the same!

Are you going on a road trip this summer? Turn it into a Project BudBurst RoadTrip Adventure. Then share your story with us at or on our Facebook page. Your adventure could be featured in our monthly newsletter or on the Project BudBurst Blog!

Want a Project BudBurst Postcard to take with you on your road trip? Send an email to the address above and we'll send you one!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

RoadTrip Day #4: Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge

14 May 2012
On the road again, after a great visit with family and friends in Wisconsin. Today we are heading south to I-80. Over the next 2 days, our trip will take us through Iowa and Nebraska before we reach our final destination of Fort Collins.

First stop, Dubuque, Iowa, for a quick break and snack. We stop at an A&W/Convenience store not far from the welcome sign for the city. Several photos and a couple of Project BudBurst observations of Plains cottonwood and white clover and we are back on the road. Thanks Dubuque! Next time, perhaps we can stay a little longer and explore the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.
Visitor Center at Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge

A spiderwort at the Refuge, just about to flower!
We just barely made it to the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge  today before the Visitor Center closed. Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge was one of the first Project BudBurst Refuge partners, so we are extra excited to see their beautiful landscapes. We chat with Refuge Manager Cheryl Groom, tour the Visitor Center, get our Blue Goose Passport stamped, and then head back outside to check out the plants and wildlife. Lots to see at Neil Smith, but we are on a bit of a schedule, so we can’t linger long. We notice Little bluestem and Common milkweed in the butterfly garden in front of the Visitor Center. Still too early to make an observation for Project BudBurst but we’ll find something else I am sure! We hop back in the car and drive along the auto tour. We are rewarded by a herd of bison roaming the grasslands and we take a few pictures. We’re careful not to bother the bison though, since they could squish us and our car with little effort!
This Refuge is known for it's bison herd

We arrive in Council Bluffs, IA just in time for the sunset. It’s time for a good night’s rest. Tomorrow we’ll be visiting another National Wildlife Refuge and we don’t want to be sleepy when we get there!