SLT in the News

Science on the Land: Volunteers study seasons through plant observations

Author: Aleta George, Vistas editor
Date: Apr 10, 2013

Standing in front of a California buckeye tree at Lynch Canyon, a group of Citizen Science volunteers tried to determine if the majority of brilliant green leaves on the tree had just started to break open or if the majority had already broken open. The question relates to phenology, the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals. Phenology is being introduced on Solano Land Trust properties through a systematic observation method developed by the National Park Service and adopted here in California through the California Phenology Project.

Sue Wickham (second from left) and volunteers look closely at a coast live oak

On an overcast March morning, 13 volunteers gathered to learn about phenology from Solano Land Trust's project manager Sue Wickham. After an introduction we broke into three groups. I followed a group that would examine three California buckeye trees upslope of Lynch Road, the main trail that parallels Lynch Creek. As we climbed the steep slope to the largest tree, half a dozen cows further up the hill trotted off to another part of the property to regain their privacy.

John Federowicz (foreground) and Steve Chun take a closer look

The volunteers—John Federowicz, Sanni Osborne, Cathy Christo, and Richard Christo—tagged the tree with a metal tile for ongoing study. They measured the tree's height and noted its slope aspect (the direction it faces). Following guidelines provided by the California Phenology Project, they answered specific questions about each tree: What percentage of the tree has leaves that are breaking bud? What percentage of the tree has leaves that have fully emerged? Are there blossoms, flowers, or seeds on the tree? Is there fruit on the ground, or leaves changing color? In answer to the questions, the group found that on these trees most of the leaves had fully emerged, and a few blossoms had started to sprout.

These and other questions help to determine the seasonal changes of this specific tree. The data will contribute to the National Phenology Network, an effort to learn more about the effects of climate change on biodiversity and natural resources in California and throughout the United States.

Richard Christo notes the findings for his group

To bring phenology programs to Solano Land Trust properties, Wickham and several Citizen Science Friday volunteers attended a workshop at the John Muir National Heritage Site in Martinez taught by Fernando Villalba, a biologist with the National Parks Service. The John Muir National Heritage Site is one of seven national parks engaged in a three-year pilot project to determine the best way to implement phenology programs. Villalba supervises six local students who go out twice a week on Mount Wanda to observe seasonal changes in coast live oak, coyote brush, California bay laurel, California buckeye, and blue oak. Friends of Alhambra Creek have adopted another site that they monitor twice weekly. Villalba's goal is to build up a core group of phenologists who can help train more volunteer monitors.

Wickham is setting up a systematic way for volunteers to observe the designated trees on land trust properties, and developing an online Solano Land Trust group site to enter phenology data taken from Lynch Canyon, Rockville Trails, and eventually Rush Ranch. "In addition to gathering important data, phenology gets people learning about and observing the land," she says. "With participation, a greater understanding of our open space lands will follow."

Discovering the difference between male and female willow catkins

Wickham has given phenology training at Rush Ranch, Rockville Trails, and Lynch Canyon, and will likely offer more training in the future. But phenology is just one example of the opportunities that Wickham offers on Citizen Science Fridays, monthly volunteer workdays that include a component of science and learning. To get involved with phenology or to participate on Citizen Science Fridays, contact Sue at or (707) 432-0150 x207.