I am one of those people who anxiously awaits the changing of the seasons. Growing up in Wisconsin, I became accustomed to changes in temperature and vegetation with each of four very distinct seasons.
Little did I know then that the changes I awaited – skunk cabbage popping up in the spring, the greenery of summer and the yellows, reds, and oranges of leaves in the fall – were changes in phenology.
Nor did I realize how much those changes were a part of me. “Fall”, for example, very distinctly meant leaf color change, crisp temperatures, apple trees dripping with fruit, and bright pumpkin patches speckling the countryside. Only later, when I left the Midwest to attend graduate school in Tallahassee, Florida, did I realize how strong an imprint the changing seasons had left on me.
Take temperature, for example. The average high temperature for September in Wisconsin is 71 degrees F. In Florida, it’s 88 degrees F. Then there were the plants. Sure, there was some color change in Florida, but mostly it felt to me like Florida “skipped” the fall. It took me a while to discover what the “signs of fall” in Tallahassee looked like – turns out Sweetgum, Flowering dogwood and several other species will change color for a brief time. I also realized that fall might come a little later (like November or December) rather than in September. Once I realized what to look for, I began to notice the seasonal transition to fall once again.
Now, I live in Colorado. Fall here has some characteristics of the fall I knew in Wisconsin, but it also has its own unique spin. I’ve grown to enjoy the brilliant displays of golden aspens nestled among conifers along the slopes of the Rocky Mountains. And I’ve delighted in realizing how incredibly different a fall day can feel if I stay on the plains, where I live, or if I drive up to the mountains or even the foothills a few miles away.
This year, the fall has been unseasonably warm where we live in northern Colorado. The average high for the month of September is generally 76 degree F. This year, we are currently averaging 85 degrees F, with several days this month reaching 90 degrees F or higher. As climates continue to change, I may find my expectations of fall adjusting yet again, this time without even leaving home. It will be interesting to see how these changes play out for the plants in our community.
At Season Spotter, we use leaf color change as one way of looking for signs of fall in photos. If you had a Season Spotter camera set up where you live, what would you encourage people to look for? What does fall look like in your community?
Sarah Newman is the Citizen Science Program Manager at the National Ecological Observatory Network.