Tracking seasonal birds and blooms reveals larger natural patterns
Balsamroot bloomed early this year on some sunny, south-facing slopes amid warmer- and drier-than-normal weather in February and March.
But an early-April snowstorm withered the tender blooms. The cool weather persisted, so it wasn’t until May that hillsides were studded with sunflowers, the emblematic symbol of spring in the Methow.
Naturalists and locals who track these seasonal events have observed a variety of anomalies this year. Some birds and wildflowers were out early, but others showed up late, they said.
The study of the relationship between climate and biological phenomena like bird migration, plant flowering, and insect hatching, is called phenology. Farmers and gardeners have long relied on signals — like waiting for the snow to melt off McClure Mountain — as the cue that it’s warm enough to plant. Others keep an annual log because they’re curious about the natural world and about what these patterns indicate about more widespread changes in climate.
Dana Visalli, a naturalist, farmer and editor of the Methow Naturalist, has been keeping records of blooms and birds for 20 years. “It’s a fun thing to have,” he said.
Visalli now has 73 pages of dates for plants and animals around his house, such as when the serviceberry blooms and the first hummingbirds show up. This year, at the beginning of April, he noted things were earlier than average, although not outrageously so, he said.
March warmth eclipsed by cool spring
Records for Winthrop from the National Weather Service show that March was about 3 degrees warmer than normal this year, with only five days with any rain or snow, resulting in just one-fifth of the normal precipitation. The month started with 16 inches of snow on the ground, but there was just a trace left by March 18.
On the other hand, April had 21 days with lower-than-normal temperatures — an average of 4 degrees cooler than normal for the month. Winthrop received slightly more rain than usual (0.99 inch, instead of 0.84).
May has also been cooler than usual. The high temperature for the month so far, 64 degrees, is 6 degrees cooler than normal, and the average temperature is 4 degrees cooler. May has also been wetter than normal, with 1.32 inches of rain as of Monday (May 16), compared to 0.84 inches in a normal year, according to the weather service.
People saw buttercups in February this year in some warm, sunny places, but then everything slowed down because of the cool April, said Kent Woodruff, who retired from a long career as a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and still actively observes natural cycles. Because these cycles are highly variable—– things aren’t consistently earlier every year — the calendar isn’t a perfect predictor, he said.
Visalli’s observations after the big January snowfall may explain some of the anomalies. Although the valley got 2 1/2 feet of snow, the snow was so dry and fluffy that strong winds blew it off exposed slopes the next day.
As spring progressed, the soil warmed faster on those bare slopes, providing energy to roots of early plants like spring beauties, said David LaFever, an ecologist and executive director of the Methow Valley Interpretive Center.
LaFever saw buttercups, yellow bells, spring beauties and bluebells — typically the first flowers to bloom in the Methow — in March. When the weather turns cool and snowy, animals can hunker down, but it has a big effect on plants, he said.
“I track these things because it’s interesting. It’s a cause to celebrate,” LaFever said. “I get excited when I see the first blossom, swallow or butterfly. It’s part of knowing your neighbors — the plants, reptiles and birds —– and is part of living in a biotic community.”
LaFever has been tracking birds and blooms at his house near Carlton for half a dozen years and, looking back over his list shows wide variations. This year he saw a Say’s Phoebe, a flycatcher that’s one of the first birds to arrive in spring, on Feb. 19, whereas in 2019, he didn’t see one until March 15. Swallows and butterflies tend to be more consistent, appearing every year at the very end of March, LaFever said.
This year, LaFever saw snakes about a month early. Species like rattlesnakes, which practice communal denning, will emerge on a warm day but stay close to their den so they can go back in if it gets too cold. They wait until it’s consistently warm before they venture further, he said.
Even when he sees butterflies fluttering especially early, LaFever experiences “unbridled joy” rather than concern. “The earth is renewing. That these deep cycles of seasonality, migration and phenology are still happening is a miracle,” he said.
On some level, these annual variations are just that — variations — but they’re occurring amid inescapable signs of a changing climate. Weather patterns that take place over 20 years become climate, said Joshua Porter, who tracks natural cycles in his role as director of Sustainability Pathways for Western Washington University.
Porter keeps a journal of what he notices every day. Phenology helps natural historians develop essential skills for tuning into changes in the land and patterns in nature, he said. His students track specific plants every week, along with weather and cloud cover, since that also affects whether you see birds or other animals, Porter said.
Share your seasonal observations
Joshua Porter, director of Sustainability Pathways for Western Washington University, conducts oral histories about people’s observations of the natural world. People interested in sharing observations of the seasons should contact Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Out of sync?
Many plants and animals are able to adjust to changes, but some have specific needs, and biologists are concerned that the climate is shifting enough that things will get out of sync. If birds nest earlier, their young may hatch when it’s still too cold and the insects they eat aren’t out yet, Visalli said.
In addition, scientists have been recording significant warming and related changes that go beyond seasonal variations. The Northwest is 1.5 degrees warmer than in the first half of the 20th century, and the coldest day of the year now is almost 5 degrees warmer than 30 years ago, according to Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. The Cascades snowpack is down by 25%.
Animals have had lots of practice sensing changes, based on the tides, moon, ocean currents, humidity and river levels. There’s a lot we don’t know about how they time their movements, and no way to know for sure, since you can’t attach a backpack with a sensor to a warbler, Woodruff said.
Many birds seem to be able to adjust their migration to coincide with other events. Some birds, like warblers, time their migration to and from the tropics to coincide with the small caterpillars they eat, which in turn need emerging leaves, Woodruff said. “If things are out of sync, and the birds missed the worms, they get going faster. Or if it’s snowing, they put on the brakes,” Woodruff said.
But certain species need a specific food source or conditions and can’t adapt. Wolverines, which rely on deep snow for their dens, face increased risk as the mountain snowpack shrinks, Woodruff said.
Woodruff is also watching bald eagles and osprey in the valley, which often build their nests along rivers so they can forage for fish. But if snow melts early and the rivers run high at the wrong time of year, the water will be too turbid for the birds to find fish, he said.
Some species of hummingbirds used to time their arrival to coincide with the bloom of glacier lilies in the high country, LaFever said. For the past five or 10 years, that matching has been off, and the flowers are usually done blooming by the time the birds arrive. That means the birds don’t find the rich nectar they need, he said. “It’s a classic example of where phenology is not matching up,” LaFever said.
Still, in terms of ecology and conservation, the important thing is that there are a lot of individuals in most species, so any one catastrophe doesn’t become an extinction event, LaFever said. “It’s interesting to think about population levels over time,” he said. If some individuals emerge early and it proves advantageous, the trait could be passed on, if it’s genetically coded, he said.
Many wildlife populations find ways to adapt. For birds, it can be a roller coaster of abundance and scarcity, Woodruff said. He’s seen red-winged blackbirds defending their territory in the middle of a blizzard. “It’s one of the fun mysteries about wildlife,” he said.
Phenological observations also depend on perspective. Farmers, ranchers, fishers and skiers all tune into different dimensions of natural patterns, providing a variety of invaluable information, Porter said.
Connections to natural cycles are important even if you don’t grow food — they’re not an abstract theory, but are integral to how people interact with the land, Porter said. “It’s data in its own way — especially at a time on the planet where we’re seeing unprecedented change,” he said.
Woodruff expects the biggest impacts from climate change in this area will be warmer winter temperatures. That will alter river function, bring more rain than snow, and decrease the water supplies we rely on throughout spring and summer, he said.
On top of that, the freezing level has been getting higher, meaning there’s less snow at lower elevations, Porter said. “What does it mean to be alive at a time when we’re witnessing those changes?” he said.
As things change and humans acknowledge our role in those changes, LaFever wonders how the earth can continue to be habitable for all beings.
“One of the ways wildlife science happens is curiosity,” Woodruff said.