Witness climate change in your garden

Witness climate change in your garden

by Ellen Goff

Have you ever wondered how birds know when to migrate or how flowers decide when to bloom? Seasonal changes are happening constantly, even now in January, according to a special timetable determined by environmental conditions.

Phenology is the study of seasonal, biological events. Climate and weather impact everything from plant growth, and bird and insect migrations to pollen production and the color of autumn leaves.

Economic returns can be unpredictable for businesses dependent on nature, especially farming, tourism, landscaping and sporting events.

This, in addition to the effects of climate change, have given scientists a new urgency to focus on phenological studies worldwide by monitoring conditions in local ecosystems through reported observations by other professionals, students and citizen-scientists.

Generations ago, when more people were dependent on the land, they learned to "read" the seasons to know when and what to plant, remembered in sayings like "when the forsythia blooms, it's time to plant peas and carrots."

Today, we might observe small changes, like seeing the first dandelion or hearing the birds sing, and not realize that subtle changes in temperature, length of day or weather conditions have prompted such movements.

I've kept an informal garden journal for 10 years, and I've noticed subtle changes in the first-bloom dates of spring flowers and shrubs. Bluebirds are now laying eggs one to two weeks earlier.

And the last frost slips out in late March instead of its traditional early April departure. I don't need to reference the polar ice caps - climate change is taking place in my own yard.

Phenology is an important part of one local scientist's work. Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, has studied birds and their migratory habits for more than 30 years. The 11-acre center, outside York, S.C., promotes conservation, education and scientific research to students of all ages.

Hilton's best known program, Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project, is an international initiative in which students, teachers and others collaborate to study the habits of ruby-throated hummingbirds. "They're the most common hummingbird in the western hemisphere," Hilton says.

"The species originated in the tropics and is now found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. But we know very little about their migration routes." In the spring, ruby-throats start appearing in Florida around March 1. They can reach northern Georgia about March 20 and the Carolina Piedmont about April 1.

Founded in 1982, Hilton has banded more than 53,000 birds of 124 species, including 4,000 hummers. Today, participants across North and Central America share observations and contribute to this growing body of knowledge.

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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