National Phenology Network Hits 10M Records
Tucson students and Arizona volunteers are among the thousands who have sent their observations of plant and animal life cycle events across the nation to the USA National Phenology Network housed at the UA.

By Erin Posthumus, UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
April 24, 2017

Ocotillo Flower.jpg

You can contribute to a nationwide effort to record plant and animal life cycle stages, like flowering of the Sonoran Desert's native ocotillo.
You can contribute to a nationwide effort to record plant and animal life cycle stages, like flowering of the Sonoran Desert's native ocotillo. (Photo Brian F. Powell)

It's a beautiful time of year to be in Tucson with palo verdes, ocotillos and cactus blooming. White-winged doves and other migrant birds are arriving from the South to find a spot to nest and raise their young. And, as it were, these plant and animal life cycle events seem to happen around the same time each year. 

This is phenology, and a nation-wide organization exists to collect, store and share phenology data.

The U.S. Geological Survey-funded USA National Phenology Network, hosted within the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Science's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, has enabled people across the country to collect and share information on phenology of plants and animals since 2009. 

And because people love observing nature and reporting what they see so much, the National Phenology Database has just crossed the threshold of 10 million records. Lexi Hibpshman of North Dakota, who has been an observer for fewer than three weeks, submitted the milestone record on American basswood, a deciduous tree native to the eastern region of North America.

The records, submitted through the network's plant and animal observation program, Nature's Notebook, include observations on species that are common in other parts of the country such as red maple, American robins and bumblebees, as well as species found in the Tucson area.

"We are incredibly grateful to our dedicated Nature's Notebook participants. A dataset of this magnitude would not be possible without the contributions of thousands of volunteers," said Theresa Crimmins, assistant director of the USA National Phenology Network.

Observers set up an observation site in their backyard or participate through local organizations. They, then, visit their sites usually once or twice a week to see how plant and animal activity changes throughout the seasons. 

This large amount of data is used for a wide variety of applications, such as predicting when allergy season will occur, the best time to treat invasive species, such as buffelgrass, and help understand how plants and animals are responding to changes in climate. Everyone can explore this data, freely available to the public online. Features include customized searches, downloading, comparing and sharing data, and data visualization.

Observers in Arizona have submitted tens of thousands of records on ocotillo, saguaro, white-winged dove and many other species.

Last year, a team of scientists from the UA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service reported that, compared with historical average conditions, the country is seeing earlier springs driven by climate change. In the study, the team reported that the change is happening earlier in three out of every four parks that were examined, and more than half the parks were expriencing an extreme early onsets of spring.

A different effort, called the Tucson Phenology Trail, links people in the Tucson area who are observing phenology to answer local science questions and learn about their local environment. Elementary and middle schools, master naturalists, botanical gardens and city parks are involved.

The phenology observations collected on the Tucson Phenology Trail will be used to answer local questions like; What is the best time to harvest mesquite beans so that the pods do not become contaminated from remaining on the ground for too long? When are saguaro fruits ripe and ready for harvest? Does ocotillo flowering match up with hummingbird migration?

The Tucson Phenology Trail also serves as a link between the community and the UA, where students from courses across campus visit the Joseph Wood Krutch Garden on the UA Mall to make observations of native plants and animals. The Krutch Garden offers a small oasis of native Sonoran Desert habitat right in the middle of campus. 

UA undergraduate students in lecturer Lisa Parce's Agricultural Education 150 course, "Learn To Teach To Learn," have gained a better understanding of nature while adding their observations from the Garden to the millions of records submitted to the database.

"We are so much more aware of our surroundings now," UA students Sarah Wolsiffer and Lexi Kudirka, both of them studying natural resources, wrote in a joint report to Parce. "When we hike, we notice the plants and look at their leaves and flowers and the entire scene becomes so much more beautiful — more alive."

Though phenology observations take dedication, the payoff can be great.

UA pre-business major Casey Ponton and Nicholas Magana, a general studies major, noted in a report to Parce that "after seven weeks of observing the same plant, we finally saw signs of a budding flower. We never thought we would feel excitement towards a random plant in the desert, but we were overcome with joy."

Extra info

You can join the effort to collect phenology information, and learn more about the plants and animals where you live. By observing your plants and animals for just a few minutes each week, you’ll be surprised at the changes that you see and gain a new appreciation for the nature that surrounds you.

How to Participate

Become a Nature’s notebook observer in three easy steps:

1. Join the program at
2. Set up your account by selecting a site such as your backyard and adding plants and animals to observe. 
3. Go outside and observe.

Learn more about the Tucson Phenology Trail online:

Explore the rich data:

Check out the Data Dashboard metrics:


Resources for the media

Erin Posthumus

UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment