Thursday, January 13, 2011

Let me introduce you to Phenology

In The Woodlands Texas, this happens to be an important topic. Many of us highly value the nature that surrounds us. Phenology is the study of Mother Nature, sort of. It is focussed on cause and effect of natural processes, specifically the timing of those processes to plants and animals, including humans. An example is how weather delays or speeds up bird migration. I will address that separately in the weather commentary but will just mention it here. Another example is the dependence of certain bird migrations on certain plants. Outright survival for much of nature's wildlife is very dependent on the timing of annual events and location of those events.  Global warming must include the consideration of phenology and vice-versa. Water, warmth, sun rays, and daylight play a role in phenology. Man's behavior also plays a significant role.

Although the organized global study of phenology is recent and just getting into high gear, observation data has been collected for decades and even thousands of ears to study some aspects of it. "For the past 1200 years, observations of the timing of peak cherry blossoms in Japan have been recorded." 5 The internet has enabled this specialized subject matter to be taken up in ways never before even envisioned. Personally, I started taking note of a new wave of knowledge in this field in my writings last year. The Cedar Waxwing comes through here in the Spring, getting drunk on the berries of the Yaupon tree. In a month or two, we will see these birds making their annual trek up north again. It hasn't been like this for ever. The name of this bird comes from a past migration path and feeding habits. They are called "Cedar" for a reason. They used to feed off of a species of Cedar trees in their migration, but with the demise of their food in the food chain, they had to find an alternative. The berry of the Yaupon is much higher in sugar content and stays on the branches over the winter, offering a berry to them relatively high in alcohol content. The berries are highly available and dense on the native Yaupon trees in the Spring in East Texas. So the beautiful Cedar Waxwing passes through here for their survival. Therefore their lives have changed partially due to man who has destroyed part of its primary migratory food chain. On the other hand, man has planted fruits and trees rich in fruit content to take the place of the cedar berries. These fruits are now fond in the cities and rural areas, facilitating existence outside of the forest. Actually if there are records to support it, I believe we have likely been a part of their migration path for centuries or longer. They may be coming through in greater numbers now than in the past due to the changes mentioned above but are just eating the fruits that are available as always. This article is not about the Cedar Waxwing though, it is focussed on the science of the timing of Mother Nature. 3

My own interest in this topic has taken me to participate in a project to electronically capture historical bird migration records which document sightings and the timing of those sightings. This information will be used to correlate ecological events, weather patterns and the timing of birds in their migration over the period of history where there are records. Today, we have observers and data recorders to collect more information in real time into a database. This is expected to enhance our knowledge and give us direction of trends. Perhaps the butterfly observations and counts taken each year could be integrated with this effort as well. There are many more birders than butterfly observers however.

Although there are disagreements whether we are in a man-made global warming trend, it is easily apparent that we are in a natural global warming trend. How that will play out over the next century and beyond  is not easily predicted, so we have the opportunity to utilize phenology as an additional tool for future generations, to enable predictions at least for short terms. These efforts may serve as an additional means to save our planet down the road.

The National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) is funded to serve us in this way. It "monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes".1  The organization looks for data such as when a plant leafs out, or begins to bloom or other such milestone events during the year. A specialized organization/project called North American Bird Phenology Program (NPP) specializes in bird migrations.  It is with this group that the bird observations are being cataloged electronically. Six million observations from just before World War II and earlier into the 19th century are being digitized in this project. "This program was started in 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, who wanted to broaden knowledge and understanding of (bird) migration.  2   

So why am I writing about this in a local blog? We are part of nature here. That is our fundamental backbone of value. Why is it that we live in the woods anyway? That is the reason I came and the reason many others came to this community. We are in the path of bird migrations. That is part of our heritage and our ecological responsibility to sustain. That is one reason I am so partial to the Yaupon tree (bush). It is a contributor to phenology and an important part of our ecology. Therefore, I am a member of USA-NPN and NPP.  I encourage others also to participate in one or more of these programs. You can rest assured that I will publish more articles in the future on this subject.

Related links
National Phenology Network website
2 North American Bird Phenology Program website
3 Cedar Waxwing just passing through Southeast Texas (Commentary)
4 Yaupon - One necessary component of the understory (Commentary)
5 Project Budburst website

Eagles in the sky for year 2011

In The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston, we have the American Bald Eagle in our community. There is other natural wildlife as well. All of it is on the decline as the community continues to be built out. An Eagle needs space. We have had space for them over the years, and that is the reason they are here. That space is filled with large Pine trees and dense undergrowth. In the summer the birds migrate to the north, but by the time it gets really cold up north, they are back here to nest in December. The Woodlands development Company owns the current nesting grounds of the pair that I observe each year. It appears to me that their nesting ground will disappear within the next three years. Their previous nesting location here was dislocated by the construction of of apartments, condos and homes. The birds built a nest close-by when the previous site was threatened by that construction and human activity increased there about 5 years ago. They prefer to use the same nest year after year. It saves them time and energy, besides proving to be safe from prior years' use. Today they inhabit an area of about 10 acres which should be preserved for their use. The chance of that happening is extremely low. It is high value land. As our pine forests decline and is displaced by concrete and brick,one of our precious residents will lose their habitat. Will they move to Spring Creek? Will they move to the 242/1488 area near-by? They have are options, but prefer and perhaps even demand the dense forest and the undergrowth near the lake where there is plenty of food. There, the parents teach the birds to catch small animals like rodents, squirrels, snakes, rabbits, and other small animals. There, they teach their young to fish.

The preservation of their habitation is an opportunity for an organization and/or the developer. With pride, the residents of The Woodlands speak about our community - we have the Bald Eagle right here among us! Wouldn't it be great if we had something for our nearly useless boats on the waterway to observe from the boats, like an Eagle's habitat? We have an opportunity, but we can't see a vision by the development company to develop based on the natural ecology. The Woodlands is unique but it is becoming less so as the developer continues to displace its strengths and values with the developers' own vision of what those strengths and values should be.This is typical of development everywhere. There remains hope for these birds, as slim as it may be. Savvy business people know that you should leverage the strengths you have and build on it, not try to make it something else.

The Woodlands maintains its parks for people, generally not for birds and animals (although it could be changing as I am working with others on a project to place Bluebird houses in the parks). People are not compatible with these large shy birds of prey. The Eagles are not birds which tolerate "tourists" who infringe on their hunting territory. To provide a safe place for their eaglets, they require a family atmosphere away from human threat. They need their space and a natural environment to fly, hunt and care for their little ones. We residents do get the thrill of seeing and hearing these birds in the Spring and early Summer. This year I hope to do some observations with a spotting scope. Meanwhile, I wanted to share this year's photographs with my readers. These photos were taken here in The Woodlands in December 2010 with careful consideration and respect for the birds' privacy before their eggs hatched.

If you want to read past years' articles on this mating pair of Eagles, please refer to the links provided below.

Other Commentary articles