Friday, March 27, 2009

Time Machine

They say that spring moves north at about 15 miles per day. In other words, all other things being equal, a flower that first blooms here today will first bloom tomorrow in a town 15 miles north of here; or, to bring it closer to reality… the elm trees that were starting to flower Wednesday evening in the Whole Foods parking lot (Northbrook) should flower here today. And indeed, the buds, which have been swollen for a few days, have opened up (see photo, taken this morning). When you touch them, a cloud of pollen flies into the air.

This equation only works, of course, with the “all things being equal” part, and that’s a tall order. Same light conditions, soil conditions, watering conditions… But on average, it works out; aerial photographs taken weekly will show green moving northward in hundred mile increments. (100 miles a week = about 15 miles a day. Perhaps I didn’t need to spell that out for my loyal readers, but please remember that my normal audience is in the 10-year-old range.)

This means that, in the next week, as we travel to North Carolina and back, covering about 450 miles in north-south-ness, we will be phenologically transported 30 days into the future, and back again. It will be green when we get there! That’s a lot of time travel in a five-day trip!

Thursday, March 26, 2009


In the garden, my celandine poppies are getting quite large. They've been up in a while, but under leaf litter. Now they've broken through and are quite large.

Bedstraw is tiny but has emerged.

Those little blue lilies that come early in spring but which I have never identified are almost ready to burst open. (Note: apparently they are called scilia.)


With the grey and rainy weather for the past couple of days, and the chill in the air, it seemed as though spring had stalled.  (Although I guess really, this is quintessential spring weather.  But it doesn’t have the infectious excitement of seventy and sunny, nor the abundance of newness.)  But today the sun has shown its face and the air, though not warm, is no longer frigid, and birds are singing.  Spring marches on. 

Today's theme is: organisms with names that can be misleading.  Students are often fooled and enthralled by the names of these things.

1.  Rattlesnake Master.  So named because of the noise its seeds make as they blow in the wind, this prairie plant looks like it might be better suited to the desert.  It can handle the cold, though, and it is an early emerger.  These little guys are between 1 and 3 inches tall right now.

2.  Killdeer.  Saw (and heard) one today.  The first time I was introduced to the killdeer, as a child, I had a similar reaction to some of the students who saw the bird with me today.  I was called over, "Look, there's a killdeer!"  And excitedly I ran, expecting to see a dead deer.  Seeing nothing of the sort, I asked, "Where?"  "Right there,"  But all I saw was a bird.  And then, I got it.  Well, I got to give some kids that very same disappointment this afternoon.  Killdeer are ground nesters, and their mottled brown backs belnd in to the mottled brown of a prairie with little new growth.  Nesting killdeer are definitely a sign of spring, but I can't put a date on it.  Due to my oft mentioned poor birding skills, the only thing of which I can be certain is they've probably been here for a while. 

3.  Cattails.  Nothing really exciting happening with cattails, but they fit the theme and I took this photo that I thought was pretty cool. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Yesterday afternoon has made today a worm day.  One of those times when the saturated soil forces worms to come up and, misguidedly, seek escape on the sidewalks and roads.  Unfortunately, their "escape" often ends up being the final escape, either by means of drying up when the sunshine catches them unaware on a non-porous surface; or by bird.  That is what is happening this morning.  Robins are hopping around enjoying a free buffet of countless partially dehydrated, slow-moving annelids.  (Yum.)

Seeing this, and thinking about those lucky robins, made  me realize that worms are an unreported phenological sighting; I have overlooked these less romantic harbingers of spring.  They spend their winter six feet under... not dead, but in estivation.  They won't come back up in the spring until the soil reaches a temperature of at least 35 degrees (and some sources sat 40).  And of course warming soil also means other things can happen, like plants rooting and gardens being tilled.

Se we definitely saw worms over the weekend when we were working in the garden (that's Mar 21-22).  I can't recall if I had seen any previously; I'm going to have to call that event with inaccuracy.  Oh, well.  There are about a million things happening this time of year; no one can possibly catch all of them.  Most hit me on the head as phenologically important if I see them, but sometimes I don't feel the knock even when I've seen the event.  Or something like that. 

More weekend sightings that I didn't previously mentioned... a really cool centipede.  All the soil creepy crawlies seem to be out and about by now.  Also, there was a sprouted buckeye in the grass we dug up.  Which is odd, because I don't know of any buckeye trees nearby to have shed such a nut.  There are buckeyes in Grayslake, though, so for all I know there is one 3 doors down that I just never saw.  Anyhow, we transplanted it to a more suitable location and are hoping (against hope) for a baby buckeye in the future.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some photos

Too busy/distracted for good writing, but here's the phenology updates from yesterday.

Yesterday was cold and intermittantly rainy.  I made the mistake I always accuse students of -- dressing for yesterday.  I was quite cold during my outdoor classes.

I heard a bluejay, but I didn't see it.  (Can't blame the bird.  I wouldn't have shown my face to 21 first and second graders, either.)

At right is a picture of the hazelnut flowers, both male (catkins) and female (bright red!).

Here is the baby bergamots, sprouting purple and fragrant in the prairie.

Also, I tried to get a picture of a migrating duck, so we can play name that duck.  Scaup?  Any other ideas out there?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Our tenant

The latest news... we have a raccoon living under our porch. We have been seeing his scat for several days, but today was the first time this spring that I have seen him. He is big but not huge, and quite brazen. This evening, as the sun set, he spent at least an hour sitting about 6 feet from our (brand new!) sliding back door, scratching himself as though he had the world's whole flea population living in his fur. (Spectacular.) We opened the door and he moved away... for about 2 seconds, before walking back and resuming his raccoon yoga/grooming session. When we stared at him, he just stared back, totally unbothered.

You have to respect the raccoon. It's a native North American animal. In fact, the English word raccoon is taken directly from the Algonquin/Powhatan word arocoun or raugroughcun, depending where you look; and can be traced back to 1608 (yup, we're talking Jamestown here, folks). Raccoon plays a role in many Native American legends, including one of my favorite stories -- explaining the presence of the Pleiades, I believe -- in which Coyote kills Raccoon and serves him up to his kits. I forget exactly how this happened, but Coyote was his typical trickster self. He and Raccoon are hunting together for a squirrel, and they both reach into the tree to grab him. The squirrel is not there, but Coyote feels around, finds fur, and grabs Raccoon's paw. He pretends he thinks it is the squirrel, and, oops! kills his friend. He brings his prize home to his kits, who shared the meat. All but the smallest one, who doesn't get any. In revenge, smallest Coyote tells Raccoon's six babies what has befallen their dad. The raccoons, in turn, murder the entire coyote family -- all but smallest coyote -- and run with their new friend to the sky. The six raccoon babies and smallest coyote become the seven stars in the cluster. Today, the Pleiades can be seen in the sky when raccoons are hibernating (or, being dormant); but when the raccoons wake up, these stars cannot be seen. I'm not sure where this story comes from exactly, but I think it's a west coast legend.

Kind of a violent story. Kids love it. But the point is, raccoons have been around. And, unlike some of our other native animals, they have adapted extremely well to the presence of so many people. (Funny, all the animals that have done so, we consider pests. But that is another topic for another time). And they're kinda cute with their Davey Crockett tail and their bandito masks.

On the other hand. They eat gardens, having absolutely no respect for the fence I put around my vegetables to mark them as my food. They dig up the grass searching for grubs. They carry some diseases. And I already mentioned the fleas, which are awfully close to the (new) screen door, at which me cats sit and watch the world happen outside. So... if any of my loyal readers would like to shoot my raccoon and make a fashionable 'coon-skin cap out of him... or something... or even have a big live trap they want to let me borrow... let me know.


Chorus frogs are singing their comb-plucking sound. These fellows are one of the first frogs we hear in the spring, and their voice does sound very much like plucking a large comb from the low to high end. I don't think it's that sexy, but I guess it drives the girl chorus frogs crazy.

Yesterday I noticed 2 crocuses that were almost open. Today, these same flowers opened wide, displaying their yellow reproductive system in the midst of their purple petals. (This is one of my very favorite color combinations.)

Friday, March 20, 2009


Today we celebrate the sun, the source of energy for all living things on earth.  We welcome it back to our half of the world, this star, which bathes us in light and heat and makes this third rock the one that is ideal for life… liquid water, breathable air… it really is amazing, when you think about it, that we ended up in this place of all the places in the universe… 

This morning, at 6:44 am local time, the sun was directly above the equator, and then it moved, once again, into the sky above the northern hemisphere, where it will remain until the autumnal equinox in 6 months.  Ok, technically, I know, it’s the earth that does the movement around the sun; and due to earth’s tilt, the southern hemisphere leans toward the sin for half the year and the northern hemisphere tilts toward the sun for the other half.  And this morning we crossed the line… but, scientifically accurate though it may be, it’s less poetic to talk about the earth moving than the sun moving.

And so, with poetry in mind, I shall welcome the sun to the northern hemisphere.

What does this mean for us, practically?  The sun’s angle in the sky will be higher; our midday shadows will no longer be elongated.  The days will continue to lengthen; this day is the mid point, with 12 hours of darkness and 12 hours of light.  Many plants, whose phenophases are triggered by lengthening days, will continue to march slowly toward green. 

Happy first day of spring!!! (It’s might snow tomorrow).  

Thursday, March 19, 2009

S minus 1

The last official day of winter is deceptively bright and sunny.  Through the window, you almost think you don't need a coat.  But the air is chilly and the wind is biting.  

I believe I saw buffleheads on the lake today.  (Although I will reiterate here my poor status as a birder overall; and I had no binoculars).  I could clearly see a whole group of littleish diving ducks with white on their sides and heads, and I know I have seen buffleheads here before.  I kind of feel bad for buffleheads.  I mean, that's a pretty humiliating name for a duck that never did anything wrong of which I am aware.  

Flowering tree/shrub update:  
First,  in the picture here, which is the hazel...  I know it's a bit blurry (see above; biting wind), but above the catkins, there's a bright red splotch.  In real life, this is several strands emerging from a bud.  Is this, perhaps, the female flower?  I love hazels, have one in my yard (though it's small and has not gotten nuts yet) and enjoy looking at them aroung school all the time.  And I have never noticed that before!  (I am ashamed to say).  Only a few individuals have this and they're new today -- so this will be something for me to watch for excitedly!  [Note:  approximately 30 seconds on the internet has confirmed that these are the female flowers, and that they're not getting much bigger.]

Second, the alders are continuting to swell (see photo).

Also, saw turkey vultures on Monday (Mar 16), but failed to note its phenological importance until I read about them in Huginn--Muninn.  I only remember because it was actually students who noticed and pointed it out to me (probably to get me to stop talking about maple flowers). 

Finally, I have joined the National Phenology Network as an observer.  I am not sure why this excites me so much -- maybe I feel important even though anyone could do this.  But I have signed up to monitor 5 plants (so far) at home or school and when I notice milestones (yes, they have to be actual milestones, not "the bud swelled another 1/2 millimeter today) I log in and check them off and submit the data.  I have logged in 2 milestones (columbines emerging from soil and columbines have full leaf visible).  Pretty cool, and fun for the whole family.   You should try it! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More for the day.

A multi-post day... and no surprise, given that it is over 70 degrees and sunny.  (Also, extremely windy, like face-burning-when-you-come-in-from-it windy).

New updates:
1.  Willows are leafing out.  Well, that may be an exaggeration, but the leaves are peeking out of the bud scales.  See photo.
2.  Some hazel catkins are greening and swelling (though some are still brown and closed) and elongating.  See other photo. 
3.  One friend reports hearing frogs (spring peepers?) but I have not been so lucky.
4.  One friend reports bluebirds in Mettawa (10 miles south? -ish...)
5.  Also, prairie burn season has apparently started.  Oak Openings is char black.

Bud's a dud.

I had suspected that the maple bud I was looking at, being the very lowest one I could possibly find (and the only one I could reach) was actually a "late bloomer" -- and yesterday I got proof. That bud still looked quite the same, but with the help of some students, I got a slightly higher one and -- there you have it. Hundreds of stamen blatantly flaunting their stuff. Hanging in the wind. Plants are not at all shy; they display their sexual parts with wild abandon. You've gotta respect them for that, I guess.

In other events of yesterday afternoon, spiders are plentiful. Of course, I am not a spider expert, and so I have no idea what types of spiders there were. But I saw several. Lilac buds are even more swollen than before; and the Japanese elm flower buds have become round and robust.

I took this picture that I think is pretty cool (last year's milkweed seeds):

Monday, March 16, 2009


Long time, no blog.  Well, three days isn't that long, but I had been going crazy for a while there.

The weekend was warm and sunny enough for some major gardening initiatives to begin.  We're adding 2 new raised beds this year, and are eager to get them constructed.  It turns out, the ground is still completely frozen.  The new garden areas are in a bit of shade, which worries me for their planties.  But nothing we can do about that but try.  Even in sunny areas, the ground is still frozen after the first inch or so... although it's supposed to be in the 60s for several more days, so maybe soon...

Anyhow, I concentrated my weekend energies on cleaning up and trimming things back.  This gave me a chance to sit in the sun and clip clip clip for a long time, getting to see the plants and observe other things happening around me.  

Several single sandhill cranes flew over as I worked, their distinctive call giving away their presence long before they could be spotted (and sometimes in place of being spotted!)  A red-tail was also circling above me.  

Irises are sending forth their green shoots, as well as columbines.  Prairie smoke rosettes are looking vibrant, although I'm not really sure they've changed much.  And guess what else?  WEEDS.  Yes, while the prairie still sleeps, the weeds are getting their foothold in.  Sure makes me want to take a match to it!  

Dry kindling and strong winds have meant that prairies have burned naturally (or with the help of humans) since long before people began breaking it up and turning it into farmland.  Prairie plants are specially adapted to periodic burning.  Their biomass, at the burning time of the year, is underground, protected.  (A blaze that flashes by at 450 degrees F above the ground can leave temperatures completely unaffected just an inch beneath the soil!)  Some prairie plants have seeds that will lay in wait and not germinate until burned.  Any trees that grow in the prairie have thick bark that cannot be penetrated by the fire rushing by.  Weeds have no such adaptations.  Of course, if I killed their tiny tops now, the roots would stay alive and they'd re-shoot in a matter of days, but it would feel good.  And make the garden clean-up process ever so much easier. 

I also went to look at the silver maple buds again.  From even a few yards away, the look like huge red blobs -- how can those flowers not have started opening?  But up close, they look just like they did last week (see photograph below).   Spring is about waiting.  

Countdown to actual spring (as determined by equinox): 5 days!!!!! 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Today in Photos

Today in photos:

I believe these interesting ice structures were formed the other night when it was super windy.  Waves formed on the lake and splashed water onto the shore, which froze, coating the plants, rocks, etc. in ice.

The storm was also apparently not good for fish.  There were about 15 of them in a 10-foot area of shore.  (fish photo by Chris)
Silver maple buds, swelling and getting ready to flower.  This makes me remember one of my first formal phenology experiences... When I was a freshman at Carleton, my friend and I used to go every morning to breakfast and look at the MN Star Trib.  In the winter-spring, the Strib did a feature called BudWatch.  A photographer went to the same bud at the same time every day and took a photo.  They published them (in full color) every day, and we followed religiously.  We watched it swell, and leaf out, and felt that spring had sprung before our eyes.  What a wonderful thing for a newspaper to print!
There is a woodpecker right in the center there.  He was pecking away amidst at least 10 robins, so here is a picture with a robin AND the woodpecker. 

And finally, aspen catkins.
Also seen, but not pictured, a muskrat swimming in the lake. 

Wooly enough?

I saw a wooly bear this morning.  I feel a bit sad for him because I'm not sure he's wooly enough for this weather (although they do come out early.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Today was bookended by excellent lunar viewing. This evening's moon rose through sparse clouds. It came in and out of view as it travelled behind them. Backlit, the shapes of the clouds were illuminated by the moon's reflected light. Every cloud had a silver lining.

And, in case the cold weather didn't serve as reminder enough, Orion's primonent center-sky location at 8 pm served as a reminder that it is still winter.

old man winter

I saw great blue herons yesterday afternoon.  They have returned to the rookery in Almond Marsh where they make their summer home.  Their eggs, large and pale blue, will hatch to noisy heron screams and baby heron gurgles in very late April or early May.  Now, they begin housekeeping, readying their nests for later arrivals. 

I thought I saw one standing by a pond over the weekend, but it was raining and I was in a moving car, so I couldn't be 100% certain.  But now I am -- the birds that arrive every year when the water opens have returned.  I remember writing about them before... that the herons return in search of open water at about the same time the paddlers return, bundled up but thrilled to be out on the open water, to experience the flow of blood and the flow of the life-giving water.  Both celebrating the water's release from its icy prison.  And, I am certain, exactly two years later, that his memory flies in on their wings and he, too, soars over the open water. 

I do wonder how those herons are doing after last night, though.  Howling, vicious winds through most of the night blew in their little gift -- a 40 degree temperature drop.  Today's predicted high is freezing; and the winds, expected to die down this morning, are still whipping by.  Several times in the night, the literal whistling of the wind woke me, and the shaking of the tree branches and the rattling of the house made it hard to go back to sleep.  And as the night wore on, the full moon shining through the west-facing bedroom window brightened the room as if it were morning.  

Which is silly, of course.  With the new daylight savings schedule, I have to wake up long before the sun rises.  This morning, the sun began its ascent into the eastern sky, brightening the horizon to a glowing pale blue -- just as the moon set to the west.  Moon-illusion huge and glowing salmo-colored, it hung in the midnight blue sky just long enough to say hellow to the sun, and then disappeared. 

As shall I. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

diving dUcks

Today was, frankly, dreary.  Grey and foggy and misting all day, after a night of... yup... more rain.  At least it was warm, which is not supposed to be the case for the rest of the week.

Some ducks are migrating through.  I really enjoy ducks -- so much that I bothered to learn them! It is the one group of birds I know pretty well, an
d can identify on sight... if I have a good view.  Unfortunately, I don't carry binoculars, so generally, my view isn't good.  The ducks I saw today, for example, looked like plain black silhouettes.  The only reason I know they weren't mallards is because they dove.  Mallards are dabblers; their bones are hollow so they can't submerge themselves completely.  When they search for food, their duck butts stick up in the air.  Diving ducks, on the other hand, have solid bones.  This makes them awkward fliers, but excellent swimmers.  To me, they are a wonderful guessing game.  I could watch them forever.  They disappear in one spot and, a minute later, they pop up in a totally different location.  Where will they com
e up, and when?  I am almost never correct, but I keep guessing.  

I think maybe they seem special, too.  A bit rare, an
d yet easy to see and ID (with binocs).  Not at all like warblers -- hard to find and won't sit still.  

On to the plant world.  Call me crazy, but I think these alder catkins are swelling.  Two days ago, there was no yellow visible at all.  (Perhaps I'm grasping at phenological straws -- wanting spring when spring isn't here... I think the filbert buds are slightly bigger, too.  But I'd need a ruler ot be sure on that one.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rain rain, go away!

The weekend was 48 solid hours of rain.  At times, it sprinkled; at other times, it was sheets of water pouring down so thickly that you couldn't see the edge of the yard.  Puddles formed where I have never seen puddles before (perhaps because the ground is still frozen under there).  Thunder and lightning occurred more than once.

Today is a small respite -- sunny, crisp, clear.  A thin layer of ice covers the many puddles that remain.  It is supposed to rain again tonight.  Yea. 

Speaking of ice... today is a momentous phenology day... ICE OFF.  Ice has been off small ponds for a few days now, but I have kept records for several years of ice off Lake Leopold.
Lake Leopold ice off dates: 
2006 = Mar 10; 
2007 = Mar 18; 
2008 = Mar 31.  
This is the earliest ice off in 4 years.  

In other news, some aspen trees have their catkins emerging (noted as early as Mar 3 in previous years).  They look just like pussy willow catkins -- fuzzy and grey -- except, of course, they are not on willow trees.  I am not sure if they are male or female.   

Lilac buds are sure huge and swollen, but it will be a while yet... 

Friday, March 6, 2009


The subtle orange flowers of the witch hazels are blooming.  (I had been looking out for them, but the tree I was watching doesn't have any -- the others do.  I think mine may be unhealthy.)

Also, bees.  (Actually, probably more like wasps, but kids call them all bees.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009


The snowdrops are blooming in the garden, and some optimally-located daffodils have pushed up about three inches out of the ground. (Others, less fortunately placed, have not come up at all!)

3 entries in one day -- and it will be more of the same as things change. March and April are so exciting for phenology!

They're back!

Spring arrives on the wings of a red-winged blackbird.  As I walked outside this morning, I heard the familiar call, the indescribable trill... I can't describe it, but you can here it here... and I headed to the lake.  Before I even got close, I could see one, sitting on the tallest branch of a bur oak tree. He spread his tail, bobbed his head, and gurgle-yelled at me.  But that wasn't the original speaker; he was to my left in the old cattail reeds.  They are all over!

Of course, this means I missed the pioneer, the first brave boy back.  (And I definitely missed the even braver female pioneers, who should have returned -- quietly -- in advance of the males.)  But now, they're here in full force, and spring can safely arrive.

Actually, red-winged blackbirds apparently stay in this area all winter (as the range map at the above link clearly shows).  But in the winter, they hunker down and leave the wetland areas.  So in fact, they haven't returned to the area, but they have returned to their summer/breeding homes.

And welcome home, I say!


Another warm day ahead of us... each time it happens, as it gets later and later, it seems more like maybe this is it!  Spring!  In my head, I'm certain that we'll have another cold snap, but in my hopes, spring!  And in my dreams, seedlings are being arranged in the garden, compost being added to the soil... winter is long, but makes the warmth all the sweeter when it finally comes.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I saw a robin this morning, which was actually my first of this year.
But I wasn't that excited about it... so many people have been seeing them throughout the winter -- if they live near water that doesn't freeze, I think -- that they no longer seem to hold their status as a harbinger of spring.  For that, we'll have to look to the RWBBs, which haven't made their appearance yet, at least, not to me... I am not a particularly good birder.  A friend reported seeing them yesterday (Mar 2).  This is why I like plant phenology, personally.  Plants don't move, they aren't hard to ID depending on the light, and I can see the changes every day if I just bother to look.  Much easier.  

It is a crisp, sunny, sparkly morning, and also slippery. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

In like a lion

A small winter storm bleached the world to white over night. Only about 2 inches fell, with another inch falling currently... but everything looks quite wintry again.

We got the in like a lion part down, now if only we could be sure March would go out like a lamb!

Here are 2 photos of this morning's snow collecting on winter plants!