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Signs of Fall: Using Free Apps and Phenology to Track the Rhythms of the Year 

click to enlarge Yellow flowering goldenrod - © RUUD MORIJN | DREAMSTIME.COM

When I was younger, my awareness of the rhythms of the year revolved around getting things: at Halloween, my birthday, Christmas. I always loved back-to-school time, which meant new school clothes and supplies. I can still remember the jeans with the Miss Piggy patch and the blue Trapper Keeper I received in the fifth grade.

With a kid in school and an academic work schedule, I continue to enjoy the rituals of fall, but I've also been trying to support my family in developing a stronger awareness of the rhythms of nature. There are lots of changes taking place all around us that can help us mark the passage of time. And there are some great resources that make it easier to predict and document these cycles.

One way into this world is to catch the identification bug. Once you start noticing the plants and animals around you and learning their names, you may find it hard to stop. That used to mean investing in a set of field guides. But now, with a smartphone, you can use apps.

There are a lot of them out there, but my favorite ones are iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab, Seek by iNaturalist and eBird by Cornell Lab. They're all free.

The first three are quite user-friendly — basically, they'll help you identify plants, fungi and wildlife you encounter. In most cases, it's as easy as taking a photo of something and receiving an instantaneous identification.

iNaturalist is perhaps the best all-purpose app, and Merlin is my favorite one for birds. It has a new feature that allows you to record a bird's sounds, which comes in handy when you can't locate it or get a good photo — which, for me, is usually. If you see the bird, you can answer three multiple-choice questions — about its size, color and behavior — and the app will tell you what kind you've found.

Some apps let you make your sighting public. I am not a fan of sharing my data with any apps, especially free ones, but in this instance I make an exception. These apps are not commercial enterprises; they're more like a giant citizen science project.

Peter Goff, a teacher at Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, agrees. He uses iNaturalist to map native animals and plants with his seventh-grade students. "I also use it as a way to introduce our kids to the world, and value, of citizen science," he says. "To date, VCS has added more than 200 observations to the iNaturalist platform." Goff's students also used the Merlin bird-ID app last year to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

click to enlarge Vermont Commons students recording nature observations - COURTESY OF PETER GOFF
  • Courtesy of Peter Goff
  • Vermont Commons students recording nature observations

Erin Talmage, executive director of Birds of Vermont Museum, explained to me that the data that iNaturalist and eBird collect are what makes Seek and Merlin run. She also pointed out that the data enable scientists and managers to make more informed conservation decisions. So, if you have the bandwidth, go ahead and make an iNaturalist profile and upload your data points for the public good. Every last dandelion and robin matters.

Another way to become more aware of the natural world is through phenology, the study of cyclical natural phenomena. The best definition I've seen comes from the USA National Phenology Network website: Phenology is essentially "nature's calendar," tracking the day the first baby robin hatches, for example. This event tends to happen at pretty much the same time every year, when the food baby robins eat is most abundant.

The rhythms of nature are tightly linked, and scientists today are comparing phenology data from Henry David Thoreau and many others to current-day observations to see if food webs are being maintained — whether species that need each other are arriving, blooming and hatching at the same time, for example. Your observations and contributions today could also help piece together what is shifting due to climate change.

The eBird app can help you clue into the phenology of the birds in your area. In general, I find eBird a bit less user-friendly than the other apps I mentioned, but it has a feature that allows you to see users' observations in graphical form. I really like to explore these bar charts for my county. It helps me get an idea of what I'm likely to see and proactively look for these birds, rather than just reacting to the ones I encounter.

If you live in Burlington, Gustave Sexauer, the cartographer for Burlington Wildways, has developed a hyper-local opportunity to collect and study phenology data called the Burlington Phenology Clock, also known as the Burlington Seasons Clock or the City Nature Clock. You can see what events have been recorded and when in recent years. You can also find out what particular species you're likely to see at any given time. You can contribute to the clock, too, by uploading photos of your sightings to iNaturalist. Find more information at burlingtonwildways.org/get-involved/city-nature-clock. The fall species should be posted soon.

If you make a practice of observing these species over the years, they'll worm their way into your family's consciousness. Fall will become the time of flowering goldenrod, woolly bear caterpillars, increased beaver activity and the arrival of common mergansers — not just another season of buying or receiving new stuff.

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont, University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College.

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