Phenology and Signs of Spring – Really


This winter has been so cold that we might find ourselves questioning if spring really will come. Before we headed out on our hike I told the group that I will prove that spring is coming by looking at phenological events. Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal changes. For example, the first day that you see a Red-winged Blackbird return to Wisconsin in the spring would be a phenological event. Aldo Leopold recorded phenological events very carefully in his journals and biologists have found these notes to be very important to track plant and animal responses to climate and seasons.
We left the Visitor’s Center through the back entrance near the native gardens, as I spoke to the group I got distracted because I saw a turkey on top of the Visitor’s Center roof! We have over one hundred turkeys that call the Arboretum home, I had just never seen on one the roof. It must have been a young male turkey (called a Jake) since it had a short beard and was rather small for a male turkey. Once he jumped down we continued our hike through Longenecker Gardens. The snow was very deep, but we managed to hike though the gardens and arrived at Gallistel Woods.
As we hiked through Gallistel Woods, we decided to walk down Icke Boardwalk to see if we could see any birds. We did spot an American Robin; everyone could see it without binoculars since its chest was such a bright orange color. I did not count seeing the robin as a phenologic event because some robins stay in Wisconsin all year if they think there is enough food available. We heard White-breasted Nuthatches singing as we exited Icky Boardwalk, then we heard a call from a bird that is a phenologic event; we heard Black-capped Chickadees singing a call that sounds like “Fe’bee-ee” which is a mating call that the males sing to establish territory. Most of us have heard the call the Chickadees sing calls that sounds like their name, but the call we heard is a phenologic event since this is not a song they sing in the middle of winter, they begin singing this song in early spring.
We continued to hike through Gallistel Woods and stopped when we saw a Brown Creeper a few feet away in a nearby tree. Brown Creepers are only found in Wisconsin during the winter. This bird was spiraling up and down the tree poking its beak in between the bark looking for insects. The Brown Creeper is well adapted for climbing trees by having a sturdy tail to balance itself as well as narrow toes to gasp tree bark very well. Once the Brown Creeper flew away, we continued to hike the trail from G5-K1. I wanted to lead the group to Wingra Woods, but the parking lot we so icy that I decided that we should cross at trail K1.

We hiked to Skunk Cabbage Bridge and were pleasantly surprised to see Skunk Cabbage blooms! Skunk Cabbage typically blooms at the end of February and is a wonderful site to see. Skunk Cabbage blooming is one phenologic event I look forward to every year; there is something about seeing this marbled purple hood (called a spathe) emerging from a frozen ground that gives us hope for spring. Skunk Cabbage is a unique plant, the blooming portion of the plant (called spadix) actually breaths in oxygen to warm up the area surrounding it! While the Skunk Cabbage is blooming you may notice a smell that smells like rotting meat, this is because Skunk Cabbage relies on flies and bees to pollinate it. Flies are attracted to the smell and will spread pollen from one plant to another. Skunk Cabbage is considered poisonous if eaten raw due to calcium oxalate crystals that cause an unpleasant burning sensation of the mouth and tongue. The Native Americans did find medicinal uses for the plant once they boiled it for a period of time. Native Americans would use boiled parts of Skunk Cabbage along with a combination of other herbs to treat epilepsy, cramps and the flu.
We hiked back to the Visitor’s Center and at the end of the hike everyone was happy that we saw and heard some signs of spring! Whenever you go outside keep an eye and ear open for signs of spring, soon we will see all sorts of phenological events.
Samantha Bailey- Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.