Is Spring Early or Late?
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Before you Google it, I challenge you to look for the answer in the surrounding vegetation or glance towards nearby lake. Rather than asking Siri, listen for the frogs and the birds. Too many of us are out of touch with nature because we spend too much time touching screens.
I recently taught a unit on solar power and asked my freshmen students, "If you installed solar panels on a house in Colorado, which direction should the panels face?" There was little consensus so I regressed, "In which direction does the sun rise?" A little better, but still not unanimous. "Why does the sun rise?" Oh my...now I start by handing my students compasses and going outside.
In an anticipation of too much screen time, I've been keeping track of the timing of seasonal events in nature ever since my 1st son was born. Tracking cycles in nature is actually a specific science called phenology (the science of appearance). I thought it would be fun for my kids to watch for cyclical events like perennial flowers blooming or animals returning.
My phenological record is relatively short, and due to the busyness of life, some of my observations are more consistent than others. Phenology is most accurate when you have the opportunity to look for a certain event every day, and those events most likely overlap to a daily routine.
Every morning in the Spring, I scan for the first greenery as I walk alongside a flowerbed to start my truck. I used to look for tulip and daffodil sprouts, but the deer ate the tulips, so now I just have daffodils. As I'm driving to work, I always glance at the ice coverage of Lake Hatcher. On my way home, do a windshield survey (a highly scientific glance through my windshield) and gauge the water level of Cloman Creek, which collects snowmelt and empties it into Lake Pagosa right next to Piedra Road. Once I'm home, I always bring in a load of firewood, which gives me an opportunity to listen for the frogs and owls.
Before you assume that I'm the only nature nerd out there, there are several national phenology networks such as Project Budburst that build a case for the importance of phenology. For example, imagine showing up to a cherry blossom festival without cherry blossoms!
According to my record, daffodil shoots usually reach the sunlight in the Hatcher Area (7,800 feet) during the 3rd week in March, and this year was slightly later than the previous 3 years.
Ice Melts on Lake Hatcher
Lake Hatcher is easily visible from Piedra Road so I document when it freezes over in the winter as well as when the ice completely melts. The ice usually completely disappears in late March and this year, the ice melted slightly later than the last 3 years.
Notice the pile of snow at the shoreline. That's actually crumpled ice that was driven ashore by high winds. The lake ice melts around the edges first, which creates an unanchored ice sheet that can travel with the wind.
This phenomenon, known as ice heave, can create serious damage to shoreline structures on larger lakes. I show this crazy video clip in my physics class when introducing momentum. This wind driven ice process also explains the mysterious moving rocks in many locations near Death Valley.
National Park Service photo
As the snow melts, seasonal ponds form in the low spots in my neighborhood, and a loud chorus of frog chirping fills the air. These little frogs are very difficult to see because they immediately stop chirping as you approach them. A few years ago, my kids found one under a large stump in April, and for the first time we were able to see one up close. The frogs usually begin chirping in the Hatcher Area in mid to late March, and this year they were a little later than the last few years.
Here's a list of other observations I document:
1st blue bird, 1st daffodil bloom, lilac buds burst, lilacs bloom, snow gone from the yard, aspen leaf out, oak leaf out, acorns present?, pine cones form?, oak leaves turn, aspen leaves turn, Lake Hatcher freezes. This list could be made into checklist for kids to observe throughout the year.
In summary, according to the daffodils, the ice, and the frogs, Spring arrived in the South San Juans a little later than the previous 3 years, which has helped us maintain our meager mountain snowpack. Finally, I challenge you to use phenology as a way to stay connected to nature as we move towards an increasingly indoor digital society!