The Story of My Land—Keeping a Phenology Journal
By Connie O’Connor
“Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way its bounty is received.” -- Richard Nelson
I bought my first home, hidden away on 3.6 acres of woodland, in May of 2001. I spent the first year exploring every nook and cranny of “my” land. I sought to know every plant and animal who were the rightful tenets of this property, and with whom I would now gratefully share it. Each season brought new surprises...the first spring peepers, the first daffodils, the first bluebirds. Before long I realized a need to record these small miracles, and began a journal affectionately titled “The Story of My Land.”
I’ve kept journals all my life, but this was unlike the others. This journal was focused externally, dedicated to celebration of the outside world. Nature’s periodic cycles and seasonal changes provide the rhythm in which we all live. Monitoring these seasonal occurances is known as “phenology”. My phenology journal is now in its 18th year. Each year I compare notes to see how things are different. Below are some excerpts:
March 14, 2002
First entry in my new phenology journal…my personal celebration of the land. Tonight around 7 pm I heard woodcocks in the neighbor’s field, and the first spring peepers of the season. A warm day…62 F.
April 9, 2005
Yesterday I discovered billions of toad tadpoles swimming around in the puddle next to the pond, near where we cut the downed logs to use for firewood. Shallow and dark from the leaves, the puddle was really warm. They’ll be toadlets before we know it! And yesterday, also, I saw a string of toad eggs in the pond, just where we saw two toads embracing the night before!
May 6, 2005
Looks like a raccoon got to the hawk nest … bits of bloody eggshell strewn on the ground under the tipped nest. And all five bluebird eggs are gone without a trace. Heartbreak. The parents were so diligent it crushes me.
April 14, 2006
74F tonight. Three kinds of amphibians calling: gray tree frogs (like crazy), spring peepers, and toads. Only saw one batch of toad eggs in the pond though, I think we’ll have a smaller hatch this year. Four eggs in bluebird nest. Tornado watch tonight. Feels like July. Planted a dogwood tree…great for birds.
April 16, 2006
Toad tadpoles are so tiny they look like wriggling seeds. Redbuds are blooming all over town, but not mine.
Sept 9, 2006
Warm enough that the spring peepers are calling!
May 24, 2007
Fireflies already! Columbine blossoming.
Aug 19, 2009
Found a wood frog in the front yard! WOW!
April 10, 2011
Vibernum by bedroom window beginning to bloom. Spring beauties near oak by privacy fence. I read over this journal to see if spring is “on time”. Can’t imagine loving anyplace more…am so grateful to have the opportunity to care for this little piece of land. The turtle float Tim built for the pond is full of turtles…where did they all come from?
June 10, 2011
The dogs killed a fox squirrel by the oak trees today. I am so sad. I didn’t even know we had fox squirrels on our land…what a terrible way to find out. Left the carcass near the woodline. A scavenger will take it by morning…its death won’t be wasted.
October 4, 2011
September was cold and wet, but now it’s warm and sunny. Bluebird has been bashing against the window for weeks now. Autumnal recrudenscence?
June 3, 2018
Heard what I think was a whippoorwill tonight outside the bedroom window. That’s a first! Saw a fledgling red shouldered hawk sitting on the lawn unafraid and heard parents calling overhead.
I record many more observations in spring than at any other time. After a long, cold winter, I eagerly seek signs of renewal and rebirth. I eagerly read over my journal to reassure my impatient self that spring WILL arrive soon. Remember the crazy snowstorm on March 8, 2008? Spring peepers were calling 12 days later. Everything is going to be okay.
It’s fun to compare my observations with friends who also keep phenology journals, and with coworkers here at CNC. Sagely we have conversations such as “spring’s a little late this year, if the fact that the spring peepers are calling a week later than average is any indication.” Below is a sample of spring peeper observations in my yard. Compare these dates to when you first heard them this year. This year I first noticed them on March 23, 2020.
These are the dates when I first noticed this occurrence, but more observant folks, or people who happened to be outside on a night when I was not, may have other dates. That’s why it’s great to share observations with others. Thanks to technology, people can share their phenology observations online, such as folks in Pennsylvania who created the Watching the Seasons blog. The author writes “The timing of these events in nature is extremely sensitive to changes in the environment. Thus, collecting data on the timing of phenology events over many years can give us important clues about what might be changing in our world.”
By summer, life is unfolding so rapidly and I can’t keep up, and I’m too busy enfolded in the thrall of it all to bother with recording. And autumn….the problem with autumn is that we never know when we will see something for the last time. With a sigh I realize three weeks after the fact that the hummingbirds have not been seen lately at the feeders, or that the monarchs are no longer passing by. Nature furtively slips past me in autumn, or perhaps I really don’t want to know when the cycles end for the year.
A phenology journal is useful to keep track of things such as when the maple and sycamore seeds fall from the trees (so I don’t take the pool cover off too soon), or when to expect the woodcocks or fireflies to be at their peak (so I can plan programs for nature center visitors). I also record my efforts to improve the land for habitat…such as when I make new plantings and where, or when we dug our pond for wildlife.
It makes me sad when I read back over my journal and find years when I’ve made no record of something wonderful, like the first day the acorns fell one year. Wasn’t I paying attention, for goodness sake?! How did I let it slip past me? For squirrels, turkeys, deer, mice, and just about everyone else outside my door, this is a BIG deal! And I forgot to notice. It’s alarming how sketchy my records are. I need to be more attentive in the future.
I am not comfortable making sketches, but I have lately decided to add photos to my phenology journal. This thought occurred to me when I was reviewing photos from a backyard party. Behind my friends, the coneflower was in bloom and I thought, “Oh yes, the coneflower was in full bloom at the time of the June Solstice – why didn’t I record that?” A photo captures what I might forget to record.
In addition to walking the trails at the Nature Center and walking my own land regularly, I also have a “sit spot”….a place at home under a maple tree where I sit daily to have my coffee and watch the world. From this still vantage point I watch bluebirds tend their families, hummingbirds chase each other from feeders, and the deer browse too close to newly planted dogwoods. I practice being calm and watchful, and record what I see in my phenology journal. Learning to be present in the moment is a gift the land has given me. We take care of one another, I think.
"The land gets inside of us; and we must decide one way or another what this means, what we will do about it."
-- Barry Lopez