Phenology notes reconnect you with nature

140127J1010457It’s the depths of winter and here in the Colorado mountains, spring is still months away – May is when things make their big shift here – but that doesn’t mean I don’t look for signs of spring now. They are here (ravens are pairing up and the black capped chickadees are singing their spring song on nice days), there just aren’t many of them yet.

But in other parts of the country, spring is just around the corner, and people pay closer attention to the changes that signal the coming of warmer weather. Because of this, now is a great time to consider starting a Phenology journal. Phenology is a doorway – an entry point – to connect with nature. Simply jotting down all those small observations builds into a fascinating collection.

Knowing when to look for various key points (data points if you will) is something I think is buried in our DNA. Hunting and gathering used to include this intimate knowledge of local phenology. Now it takes place more in a grocery store that has most anything you want any time of year; the “seasonal” aisle simply means the next batch of goodies for the next holiday on the calendar. This has dulled our connection to the world around us.

To create a phenology notebook, you simply need a means to make entries by date. I have examples here online that I continually add to. You can use a 5 year calendar, or a 3-ring binder, or whatever else seems to work for you. I’m still experimenting with what physical system will work best for me to blend in with the other field journals I keep.

Keeping phenology notes is also a great continuous project to take on as a family, a class or as a homeschool project. Phenology provides a jumping off point to lifelong learning and opens the doorway to being more in tune with nature. And, it means there’s always a great excuse to simply get outside more often and see what’s happening.

Wyoming phenology – Mid January


Moving is definitely a process. We’ve got the 3rd load moved and another set of observations from the back route we take to get from Colorado to Wyoming.

We drove this route just three weeks ago. On that trip up, we saw an amazing number of Bald and Golden eagles. This time – three. One Bald Eagle soared next to us as it paralleled the road in South Park, clocked at about 65 mph. They are amazing birds. The other two were Golden Eagles seen around the Saratoga area. All we can figure is that they are now hanging closer to their nests as nesting time should be starting here soon for them if it hasn’t already. We also saw fewer hawks as well.


Between Saratoga and I-80, we saw this tightly packed band of elk racing along. No sign whatsoever of what spooked them into this run. We wondered if this was one of the desert herds or if they had just come down out of the mountains. Either way, it was interesting to see them running in such tight formation.

Another bit of phenology was seen in Cody itself. After washing the road grime off the truck, we noticed a Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon holding a twig in its beak and wandering around with it. Looking them up to learn more, it seems that was likely a male who had found a nest site and was bringing nest material one twig at a time to the female he had attracted. He will help incubate the eggs and feed the young, and at least one resource says they can have 5 or more broods each year. They, like the Eurasian Collared Dove, were are not natives here, but the Rock Doves were introduced in the 1600s and have flourished throughout North and South America. These were also the messenger pigeons used in WW I an WW II. Interesting to note they’re already nesting.


We took a drive out to look at another house and while passing Buffalo Bill Reservoir, just west of Cody, there was a large chunk of open water. The locals we were with said it was frozen over just last week. At one point that line of open water was quite distinct, and we figured out why. The wind blew the ice off. The wind has been bad this winter up here. And, with the hot springs in various spots in the reservoir, the ice isn’t solidly thick. Give that Wyoming wind an inch and it’ll take miles.


Beck Lake in Cody also showed some open water on the northeast corner. When we arrived at dusk it was thick with birds. So we drove out Friday evening to see who was there. Mallards, Canada Geese and Common Goldeneyes were all well represented.

The bucks around here still seem to have their antlers in tact. They also still mingle with the does, but the interest level from the bucks seems to be down considerably.

Get outside and see what all is going on in your neck of the woods!

2014 Phenology: Week 1

One of my problems with creating a phenology report on Fridays is that it doesn’t mix well with how I record the rest of life (Monday – Sunday). So, from now on, my goal is to get a weekly write-up done to come out on Mondays as often as possible. So here we go – this one for the Pikes Peak region.

Phenology Week 1: 30 Dec 2013 to 5 Jan 2014

Weather: The week was fairly warm on most days. We received 5.5″ of snow this week at the house. This came down on Saturday – much of it in large fluffy “all’s right with the world” flakes. Powder like this lets me simply sweep the deck of the snow with a broom. Love that.


Birds: The year starts fresh with a new list of birds seen this year. I’ve not had time to get out much – so have mainly just enjoyed the dynamics happening at the bird feeder. I noticed two or three Pine Siskens – almost always hanging out with the Cassin’s Finches (a handsome one posed for the photo above). A few years back the Pine Siskens were thick – I would guess 50 or more in the group that hung around here. But one showed up sick, and in a short time we had only a handful left. They’re easily susceptible to infections – and so the feeders all got a good cleaning and bleaching here. We also told the neighbors who I hope did the same, but the sickness took a toll on the flock. It’s nice to see them back and joining forces with the Cassin’s Finches to make it through the winter.

Wildlife: On Saturday while sipping coffee in the morning and watching the world waking up to overcast skies and snow on the way, we noticed this buck battling a small, much battered small Ponderosa pine tree. He was with a couple of does, but he wasn’t all that interested in them. But he distracted me. I noticed a gash in his side – not bleeding, but obviously a war wound from this season.


After watching him, I noticed the gate to the dog yard was open, and a doe walking near it. Racing downstairs, I saw I was too late and she and a cohort of hers were already in the yard.


So grateful I noticed them before letting the dog out. We let them nibble away in there waiting to see if they would exit the way they came in. Each time they ventured to that part of the yard, they would hesitate, I imagine because from there, it narrows, as opposed to opening up as they came in. Mike eventually headed out and walked down and around to hopefully gently herd them out.

They ended up going over the fence and nobody was hurt – and the buck in charge of that harem didn’t see Mike as a threat, but just moved along with the rest of them. Lesson learned: double check that the gates are shut after we finish moving things for the day.

Phenology Update

It’s high time I post another phenology update. In all honesty, all the work we’re doing to get the house painted and sorting through drawers and closets to weed out what won’t get moved, I’ve not had a lot of time to just get outside and see what’s going on.

After months of only seeing groups of does, we’re finally starting to see the bucks seeking them out. Here are a couple of them caught on the trail cam. Mike said he saw another 5×5 buck not far from the camera the other night. We’ll find out in a few more days if he was captured on the cam or not.

A neighbor mentioned seeing two young bucks locking antlers on a hillside near his house last week. The rut is on from the looks of things.



And, while on a walk with Rhad at the end of October, I noticed what looked like elk tracks, but maybe they could be from a large buck instead. Maybe that was the first one to come calling on the girls around here.


One thing I have been able to notice more of late is the temperature, simply because it needs to be warm enough to paint. I’m glad we’re getting down to the tail end of it because each week in October and November has been a bit cooler and provided fewer hours to get out there to work. The most dramatic difference was in late October and early November when each week was noticeably colder overall. The shift from fall to winter.

The chipmunks aren’t out anymore even when the temperatures rise into the upper 50s and low 60s. I think the last one I saw was right around Halloween. I know I wrote that down somewhere, but can’t seem to relocate it. I watched one almost frantically gather as many seeds as possible from the ground below the feeder and scuttle them off to his den beneath the storage shed. With them heading to semi-hibernate (they go into a torpor state and do come out of it occasionally through the winter), we’re guessing the bears aren’t far behind. That finds us testing this theory by adding a bit of more ‘scented’ trash in the dumpster a day or two before pickup.


The tiny Pygmy nuthatches (one is on the right there in the photo) were quite successful nesters this summer and seem to have nearly doubled their numbers to around 12-15. It’s hard to get an accurate count as they seen to never hold still for long. The added numbers have given a boldness I’ve not seen before from them; they actually gang up and chase out squirrels and the Clark’s nutcrackers – the previously undisputed kings of the feeders. Just yesterday, one of the young squirrels noisily scolded them from below after being chased off.

At the feeder, the regulars are:

  • Pygmy Nuthatches
  • Steller’s Jays
  • Clark’s Nutcrackers
  • Gray Jays (aka Camp Robbers)
  • Mountain Chickadees
  • Black-capped Chickadees

Occasional visitors include:

  • Hairy Woodpeckers
  • Downy Woodpeckers
  • Brown Creeper (not at the feeder, but on the tree trunks where the chickadees and nuthatches have stashed seeds)
  • Magpie

Noticeably absent are:

  • Evening Grosbeaks
  • Pine Siskens
  • White-breasted Nuthatches

Take some time this week (as I hope to do) and get outside to see what’s happening.

Time or Topic – 2 ways to organize

This summer, I read an article by John McPhee in the New Yorker magazine about how he organizes his information to write the amazing non-fiction books he writes. He talked about writing from a timeline or by topic, and how when he switched to topic for some of his stories, everything fell neatly into place.

YES! This is what I struggle with. I find writing on topic so very interesting, but timeline story telling is also compelling. This is why I had both the alphabet (topic) and months (timeline) for my scrapbook this year. However, timeline won out, and I removed the few topic pages done and inserted them into the month I scrapped them or when they made sense from a timeline perspective.


And now I sit here trying to sort out a method to document phenology observations from our life to be lived in the Greater Yellowstone Area. But rather than topic, the question becomes by timeline or by location? Or to simply choose one (time usually wins), and create a cross-reference for it. Would I actually keep up with that?

Yes, I could keep it more easily in a spreadsheet on my computer, but as I said yesterday, I see technology as fragile. Books, notebooks, journals are more sturdy. Even with my geyser research, most of it is printed out and filed.

As I gather research on the thermal features (geysers, hot springs, etc.), I keep coming across bits and pieces of phenology from years gone by. And the sad fact is that I am interested in pretty much everything, and as a natural documenting fiend, I want to capture it. A few years back, I started to gather these into a heavily discounted yearly Moleskine Diary.


This example comes from the Field Journal of George Wright (online at Berkley – warning: this link is a potential rabbit trail that might suck you down it for awhile) – his focus was on the tundra swans in Yellowstone area, but I found a few tidbits on the geysers in there as well because he wrote out his observations every day or two – sometimes daily. I also have found notes from my Grandma that include a lot of nature observations from the Teton area – and from their cabin in the Turpin Meadows area.  They, too, invite me to include them.

And it all comes back to how to set it up – timeline, or location, or both or simply just a reference from one to the other.

I’m curious. How do you tend to document? Timeline or Topic?

Friday Phenology 18 Oct 2013

As I write this, we have the first measureable snow fall of 2″ on the deck. Earlier this week we had a couple of dustings of snow. So glad to welcome it back. The days have warmed, though, to give us some delightful days to get out and take some walks.


The leaves on the aspen are almost gone – many stands just have a few leaves hanging on still, and a touch of color still remains in other stands. The below freezing night temperatures took their toll on the color, freezing it out to a dull brown. It did seem that the leaves with more red in them died off first, but I’m not quite sure if that’s fully true or just seems that way.

Above you see three of the many photos taken of my ‘chosen tree’ for this year. It really wasn’t the best to choose lighting-wise as the shadows on it throughout the day gave me only a couple of chances to really capture it lit evenly. But I chose it anyway because it’s my favorite aspen tree on the property. Perfectly framed through the front door, I’ve watched it now for 19 years in all seasons. It just felt appropriate to record its changing this fall.

On Wednesday, I saw a couple of deer walking through our property and it looks like the Trail Cam caught them. A mom and her fawn of the year, I believe. Both were fully into their winter coats. Mike and I talked about this – wondering where the others had gone. Maybe a poacher in the neighborhood? We haven’t heard many single shots fired – sometimes we hear someone doing target practice, but that’s it. Or a mountain lion has moved in? Or perhaps more of us are outside getting those last outside chores done before winter drives us inside more.


Also on Wednesday, while on the phone, I saw a LARGE raptor of some sort try to nab an Abert’s Squirrel, the black ones with tufts of fur on their ears, from the tree right next to the house, giving me a great view of its solidly steel grey back and tail with the wavy bands on it. It missed the squirrel (shown above – a youngster just starting to get his ‘tufts’) who stayed silent and pretty much in place in the tree for a good half hour. After scouring through the bird books and online, I’m leaning toward thinking it could have been a Northern Harrier simply because of the size and the length of the tail (it was at least 2 ft from head to tip of tail if not a bit more).  If not, perhaps a Northern Goshhawk. I sure wish I had gotten a look at the rest of it.  One of my goals for birding is to get better at all those hawks and such. If you have an idea of what it was, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes out for it.

At the bird feeder, well, on the deck, a chipmunk is still gathering food like crazy and hauling all it can back to its home beneath the shed we have outside under the deck. I don’t often see it in the morning until the air has warmed, so am wondering if it slips into torpor overnight already. If it hasn’t, it will soon as the temperatures are slowly dropping. Good for winter, but we still need a few more warm days to finish painting the outside of the house.

That’s all for now – head outside and enjoy the changes happening & stay curious about it all!

Colorado aspen at the peak of color

I’m going to enter yesterday as the peak of color for the aspen here on our property. It’s really sort of a subjective thing – we read in the paper this morning that they thought it was at 40%. I heartily disagree with that one.

So how do I define the peak of color? Most of the aspen are in full color, with a few left yet to turn – some stands may still be green – but the first ones to turn are now losing leaves, some have lost them all.

It’s when you can feel the fullness of fall.

Yesterday, Mike took the little cheapo camera with him as they traveled up Gold Camp Road to do some surveying work. All of these were just drive-by shots, but show where things are. We’ll be heading out this weekend occasionally to a few spots for some more photos.







And with that bit of inspiration (thanks, Honey!) – get outside! Stay curious.

Friday Phenology: 27 Sept 2013


Fall has finally blown in. Lots of wind this week – mostly 10-25 mph with a few gusts up higher. It’s dry, too, with the humidity often in the single digits. The temps are down and we had our first light frost this week on Tuesday.  All of this wrapped into a sign of fall. Now the aspen are turning in earnest and most have reached the ‘lemon-lime’ stage – some more on the lime side, and others on the lemon. Maybe 10-20% are fully in the yellow stage. I’m amazed at how quickly they’re turning. The peak of the aspen will be a bit later than in the past few years, and I expect that to probably show up some time next week.

The wild geraniums and other groundcover are also turning and the grasses are finally curing out. All this extra rain has kept the deer from taking a look at the garden.  They’ve nibbled some on the horseradish and day lilies, but not much else.

That wind has also blown off all – or at least a whole bunch of the shed pine needles – useful for a couple of years for the tree, then it lets them go. While helping Taylor up the stairs the other day, I noticed the letter A formed courtesy of the nearby Ponderosa trees.


Chipmunks and ground squirrels are still seen daily – frantically filling their cheeks with whatever seeds they find. Though it’s now been a couple of days since I’ve seen the last hummingbird at the nasturtiums in the window boxes. Our neighbor may still be seeing them, though – she’s got the ‘popular’ feeder and usually sees them a bit longer than we do – so I’ll need to ask her.

Next week is supposed to have those warm and dry fall days and cool to chilly nights – perfect weather to help the aspen finish up turning to gold.

I checked the trail cam today (Fridays are the day I try to get to that) and here’s a sampling: deer, fox and surprisingly again, a raccoon. First raccoon of the year, I think. There were quite a few cats on there as well – still all ones we know where they live – so no feral ones to worry about.




The other morning while out with the dogs, I heard a whirring sound – some bird of some sort, but I never could find it. Definitely a unique sound. Only heard it once, though, as we first went down into the dog yard. Guess that one might stay a mystery.

Take some time to get outside and see what’s going on!

Have a great weekend and stay curious!

A closer look at Kinnikinnick


The sun was out and the wind calm – and I had to get outside especially after all the rain. Grabbing my camera, I decided to take a closer look at the kinnikinnick – an evergreen groundcover that’s thriving with all the moisture we’ve had this summer. Very few leaves are damaged compared to years with less moisture.


Kinnikinnick was used as a tobacco by Native Americans in the past, and it’s a food source for birds and other animals. The berries are all fully ripe. I mentioned the other day that a few slightly green ones were still being found – that was last week. This week, I’m only finding perfectly red ones. I’ve heard someone say that the berries make a substitute for coffee, but haven’t ever found that referenced anywhere. The only thing found is that a tea can be used for treating urinary tract infections and works as a laxative. How accurate that is, I’m not sure, and I doubt I’ll be trying it.

Runners are spreading all over the place, but at the end of a few, I noticed this:


Pulling one off, I noticed these were rolled leaves – meaning something was living in there.


The leaves are fairly thick and this was difficult to open. I finally used my pocket knife and tried to be as gentle as possible, not squishing the inhabitants. And this is what I found:


Aphids. Interesting. I’ve noticed some of the Dark-eyed Juncos fussing around some of the kinnikinnick, but didn’t pay that close of attention. Maybe they’ve found this extra protein source. Not all of our patches of kinnikinnick have these, but some of the larger carpets seem to have them the most.

Then I noticed these:


Flower buds. In the fall? Huh.

Maybe the buds normally form in the fall, but I always thought they formed in the spring. Maybe I was wrong and not paying close enough attention. I’ll keep a closer eye on these to see if they develop further – this next week is supposed to dry out a bit more and give us some warm sunny days and cool sunny nights.

Quick update on the aspen leaves turning color: In one day, the aspen all lightened noticeably. The UPS driver out here mentioned it as well – that overnight they seemed to have decided it’s fall. Now to see how quickly they’ll turn.


If you haven’t been outside lately, head out and see what all you find. Look closely. Then look even closer.

Nature is the best teacher there is. Stay curious.

How the aspen are coming along


Generally, on most years, the aspen here in Colorado usually reach their peak around the last full week in September. I don’t think they’ll be even close to that this year. With as cool and wet as it’s been, I think the aspen are taking advantage of the ability to still grow and store energy. At least that’s my best guess. We aren’t even at 1% turned yet. And hearing from others around the state, they’re seeing the same.

I do recall in other wet years (not as wet as this summer, though!) that the leaves haven’t been much to write home about. They sort of turn, then just shrivel up and fall off. Here’s one that I found on our property last week that looks like it might be taking that route to winter:


As for other bits of phenology:

  • Hummingbirds (pretty much only the females and maybe a few juvenile males) still zing through the air around here. At least a small handful are seen daily. Still waiting for the last day to see them.
  • The deer are about half way done with shedding their summer coats.
  • Very few flowers still in bloom, but if found, usually they’re asters or a lingering hare bell.
  • We still have some band-tailed pigeons around, but many of the summer birds have left already.
  • We’re still seeing chipmunks and ground squirrels around, though their population is down significantly since a few of the neighbor cats have been here – thank goodness. The rodents were getting a bit thick – all the moisture kept their food supply up, giving them the ability to reproduce at a rather alarming rate.
  • The kinnikinnik is as lush and healthy as I’ve seen it in a long time – still growing with all the moisture around. Most berries are bright red at this point, but a few can still be found with a tinge of green on them still.


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