Friday 21 February 2020

Nature’s Calendar, New Year Plant Hunt and #WildFlowerHour – how to get your phenology fix!

Hazel: first flowering
Image courtesy of Nature's Calendar
Judging by the increasing numbers of people taking part in the BSBI's New Year Plant Hunt each year (1,714 people in 2020) and talking about which plants they find in bloom in the depths of winter, and the growing number of people who take part in #wildflowerhour every Sunday evening, sharing images of wild or naturalised plants they've spotted in bloom during the previous week, it's clear that lots of us are fascinated by which plants are in flower and when. 

We also regularly find people asking BSBI on social media, "this seems early compared to last year" and "is anyone else spotting this plant in bloom in their local area?".

This whole subject area is called phenology and I asked somebody who knows a lot about it to tell us more. Over to Judith, Citizen Science Officer at Nature's Calendar: 

Some of the plants Judith spotted in bloom
during  New Year Plant Hunt 2020
Image: Judith Garforth 
"I took part in the New Year Plant Hunt this year because phenology, the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year, is something I find absolutely fascinating. 

"Whilst out on a family walk on New Year’s day, I made a note of the wildflowers I saw and submitted my records to the BSBI to help scientists investigate how wildflowers are responding to changes in autumn and winter weather patterns.

"I think most people have an awareness of the annual timings of natural events, especially in the UK where we have such marked seasons and love to talk about the weather. Have you ever thought ‘the daffodils are early this year’ or are you aware of what’s in flower around the time of your birthday? 

Beech: leaf unfurling
Image courtesy of Nature's Calendar
"As a child I always used to go blackberry picking in the last week of the summer holiday because I knew the bramble fruits would be ripe by then. I could be sure there would be heaps of fallen leaves to kick through on bonfire night. So we’re all natural phenologists really (even if you’ve never heard of the word).

"Some people take that natural awareness one step further and keep detailed records from year to year. A lady called Jean Combes, for example, started recording the date of oak budburst every year when she was a child and continued to do so all through her adult life (she is now in her 90s). Her records have become famous and used by scientists interested in the impact of a changing climate on trees and wildlife. Her records show that budburst has got earlier during her life time although there is huge variation from year to year due to the weather. She has been awarded an OBE for her work!

Beech: full autumn tinting
Image courtesy of Nature's Calendar
"Records like these kept by individuals are hugely important but only give scientists a snapshot of information from a single location in the UK. In 1998 a UK wide recorder network was established by Tim Sparks. It’s called Nature’s Calendar and is run by the Woodland Trust. It’s a citizen science project so anyone can take part but you don’t need to be a scientist!

"So if you enjoyed the New Year Plant Hunt and look forward to seeing snowdrops flowering in the spring, collecting ripe blackberries in summer, watching leaves change colour in autumn and spotting birds migrating for winter, Nature’s Calendar is the project for you. There are 69 different trees, shrubs, flowers, birds, grasses and fungi to look out for and record throughout the year.

"Records submitted to the Nature’s Calendar project, via the website, go into a phenology database and are used by scientists to investigate what effect recent weather has had on wildlife and - over the longer term - how wildlife is responding to climate change across the UK. The database contains nearly 3 million records dating back to 1736 but new recorders are always needed to continue the project into the next decade and beyond.

Lesser celandine first flowering
Image courtesy of Nature's Calendar
"I personally enjoy recording trees, shrubs and flowers for Nature’s Calendar. I share my Nature’s Calendar flower sightings during #wildflowerhour on twitter (8-9pm every Sunday). This is another phenology fix for me! It’s so interesting to see which wildflowers are flowering each week. If you also take part, look out for the upcoming Nature’s Calendar challenges!"

Many thanks to Judith and her colleagues at Nature's Calendar for telling us about this excellent project. There's more to come about the series of Nature's Calendar challenges currently being planned by the Wild Flower Hour team in the next few days, when we feature an exclusive interview with Rebecca Wheeler, BSBI member and the woman behind much of the recent success of Wild Flower Hour: watch this space! 

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