January 2019

A phenology year

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

Our post for December 2018, Timing is everything, was a general introduction to the term “phenology.” Phenology is a Greek word derived from the word phaino...to show or appear, or bring to light. It refers to the relationship of recurring, seasonal, plant and animal life cycles, leafing and flowering, when insects begin emerging and the migration of birds, moon phases and length of day. “We,” as in you and me, are the only species that use clocks and calendars, while all other plant and animal species are solely connected to weather and seasonal changes.

The study of plant phenology includes the subtle recurring seasonal changes in the length of the day, the temperature, moisture in the soil and nutrients. Many who study plant phenology may assist gardeners, farmers, and agriculture as to the timing of planting and harvest.

The study of insect phenology is largely timed interactions of bloom time and pollination. Emergence of insects during the plant growing seasons are based on weather factors, such as temperature sensitivity, if the plant and insect are in synch with their food plants, natural predators, insect pests, and crops, etc.

The study of bird phenology is one of the most popular, as birds are the most easily observed species in nature. The annual migration, breeding, and nesting are timed to occur when their food sources are available within their habitats.

The study of mammal phenology may or may not include actual mammal sightings, but by studying tracks, scat, and sign, such as fur, bones and shed antlers. Predators and plants are also important in the study of mammal phenology and ecosystems.

For each month of 2019, we’re going to follow the same format… looking at changes in the landscape through photos, looking back at what we’ve seen the last month, looking closer at something for greater understanding, an activity to help us dig deeper, and a look ahead for what we expect to observe

  • A picture per week taken from relatively the same place looking at relatively the same thing.

  • What we've seen the previous month.

  • A closer look (in photos) at something from the previous month

  • An activity to go with the time of year or something we've seen.

  • What we're expecting to see next month.

A photo per week - same landscape area

As an attempt to note subtle changes and broaden our knowledge about "phenology" within Marion County, a challenge has been posed by my friend and website cohort, Linette Bernard. The challenge is to take a photo, my choice, once a week for a year. I have chosen to photograph one of Cordova Park's iconic white oak trees, known as the "Wolf Tree" which is surrounded by reconstructed prairie. With that challenge accepted, there is a little woodland creek within Cordova's Oak-Hickory woodland that may be of interest, as well. Why not two types of habitats? The photos will be added to the photo albums on this website (see bottom of this page). With the broad and in-depth study of phenology, it will be fun to be more aware of our surroundings. If this challenge inspires you, your family, or classroom setting, GO FOR IT. See where it takes you.

What we have seen this past month

It’s been a different kind of winter. Many days were quite calm, warm and sunny, but the other days have been dark, grey, rainy, and cold. The thin layer of ice that covered Lake Red Rock in early December began to melt and give-way. This melting brought numerous waterfowl and trumpeter swans to the open water areas, and bald eagles moved from ​below the dam to all of the open water areas around the lake to do a little ice fishing. The barred owl has been calling mid-afternoons to get an early start to hunt. The local and migrating red-tailed hawks have been seen along the roadways and in the parks. Winter in Iowa for red-tails is a time of courtship. The chickadees have been calling a lot. You may hear this little bird calling fee-bee. Rut season for the deer is over with now, but the does and bucks are still sunning and out feeding on the warmer days. The mice, weasels, and other small mammals have been tunneling through and under the snow to escape predators and locate food within the grassy areas below the snow.

Links for learning:

A closer look at something from the previous month

Check out these photos of some of the cool sights and images!

An activity to try!

Download this PDF of the activity "Animal Antifreeze" and try this with your classroom, youth group, or family! Who makes the best insulation for their "animal?" You may have to explain what film canisters are to many! Small plastic bathroom cups would work for this activity.

What we are expecting to see next month?

The great horned owl is preparing to lay eggs in late January, early February. You may hear distant hooting between the pairs. The bald eagle has been working on their nests since October and older adults are preparing to lay eggs soon. Watch the skies for continued sparring and eagle activity. On warmer days, keep your eyes peeled for some of our mammals to wake from a torpor (slowed state of activity) in animals that allows them to survive periods of time with reduced food availability.

Links for learning:

Phenology happenings in Marion County, Iowa

As we notice the things in nature that are changing, we'll be adding to this calendar.

Each week a new photo of the woodland creek and the wolf tree will be added to each album! Both of these locations are within Cordova Park. This park is managed by Marion County Conservation.