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Roll Call 

Note-takers and nature-watchers document details in nature, as humans have for ages. 
By: Joe McFarland 
Not everything in nature survives the winter, and that’s just how nature works. Winter always takes its toll, and a portion of each wild population that vanished in the fall never returns. It’s why we’re always delighted to announce those individual signs of life we see each spring.

For the still-living, this is our annual roll call.

“The shadbush are blooming,” Terry greeted me a few days ago as I walked into the coffee shop near the state park where I work. He’s an environmental-watcher and chronicler of nature’s progress. Terry was standing outside the open screen door, looking uneasy in the unseasonably warm March morning air. Something wasn’t right. This has been one of the warmest Illinois winters on record. Despite the sunshine, long strings of 80-degree days in March do not feel good.

We both know it. What we are seeing should not be blooming this early. The hillsides around our state park already have a distinct haze of colorful buds and tiny leaves. Spring is too early, once again.

“Bloodroot is out,” he added. Another check on the phenologist’s list.

I’m surprised.

“I looked for bloodroot two days ago and didn’t see any,” I respond. But Terry knows as well as anyone what’s going on in the woods. While I sit in my office, Terry can be seen riding his bicycle through the park every day, stopping his bicycle, inspecting.

“They’re out now,” he confirms, and I accept his witness. We’re both phenologists, those seasonal note-takers of nature’s resurrections. Natural science is what we’re doing, the kind of natural science people have been doing it since ancient times. At the precise date when a plant blossoms or when a migratory bird whose call we recognize appears, we reach for our notebooks and scribble notes. We watch spring in particular because of what spring reveals, which is hope.

Survivors of winter must be identified and announced.

I share an office with a DNR wildlife biologist, another phenologist and note-taker. Dan called me up yesterday from hundreds of miles away, anxious to hear the news.

“What day did the peach blossoms start blooming in the orchards?” he asked me before anything else. Dan’s been away, out of town on a wildlife assignment. “And the red buds?” We know this matters, and so we review the scientific parameters of proper phenology. There’s a difference, we agree, between visible buds one notices while driving past a tree compared with what can be seen while examining the tree up close.

“The red buds are visible from the road,” I report. He thanks me for my proper technique.

Of course Dan, Terry and I are not the only people in Illinois to document the survivors of winter. Crowds of amateurs and professionals alike have long kept personal journals of the precise dates and moments when nature’s evolution unfolds in their neighborhood. Human memory is no good when it comes to recalling the exact date when a flower blossomed, or when a hummingbird arrived. And so we write.

But why?

There’s a perfectly good reason why scientists and amateurs alike pay close attention to nature’s details. For as long as there have been people, we’ve all tried to understand what was happening in nature because we sensed our life literally depended on it. And it still does, of course, although many of us today aren’t aware that all life depends on the forces of nature taking care of their customary business.

In Illinois, we’ve been doing a great job of jotting down the details of nature and our environment for more than 150 years. In fact, Illinois boasts the best-documented weather history on Earth, thanks to the careful efforts of our own Illinois State Water Survey. For those who assume these freakish strings of 80-degree March days are unprecedented, know that one day in March, 1910, the temperature in southern Illinois where I live hit 93 degrees. It was the hottest March day ever recorded here, and I’m grateful someone long ago bothered to make a note of it because few people today would believe such an extreme could have happened 102 years ago.

In contrast, 59 years later, one day in March 1978, the temperature fell to 11 degrees below zero.

None of us note-takers and nature-watchers can predict what our current weather trends mean for our future. We simply keep notes, documenting every natural detail that appears before us, just as humans have done for ages. We know recent winters have been the warmest on record. And I’m glad we made a note of it, because there will come a day when we all realize our existence depends what is happening in nature.