The Past is Prologue?

I hear that there are already tree swallows in shoreline towns here in Connecticut. I’m told that Eastern Pheobes are also here. I know it’s true, because they are both already right here on our property. They say that bluebirds are nesting. That’s true, too. While I cleaned the bluebird boxes a few weeks ago, male bluebirds watched and scolded me for lateness, popping right into the boxes as soon as I was done.

In the Sunken Garden, early bulbs are starting to poke up. Things are improving from a weather perspective, but that doesn’t make too much difference to plants and animals. The signs of season change occur whether or not the weather is cooperating. We may have crocuses blooming today, and six inches of snow tomorrow. However, birds, plants and animals will faithfully migrate, sprout and reproduce based solely on the hours of sunlight each day. Some get caught out by a late snowstorm, a long, raw spring, violent thunderstorm or another of the ups and downs to which nature is heir.

Scientists are gathering information to see whether this kind of climate-driven calamity is happening more frequently as the planet warms. Cooperation between species provides for plants to leaf out at the right time for certain birds and insects to come along and pollinate the plant. Should a link fail, for example, if a plant blooms too early, then its usual pollinators (the insects and birds) may not be there to spread the seeds. Consequently, early blooming caused by climate change could possibly endanger whole plant families. But is there any real evidence for earlier bloom time, migration and breeding? Phenology, the study of seasonal biological events, may help point us to an answer.

Traditional ‘hummingbird wisdom’ has it that you should hang out your feeder on May 1. Last year, I had my first yard hummingbird on April 25. He had to wait politely for me to fetch the feeder from the closet and whip up some nectar for him. The andromeda alongside my house flowered on April 10 in 2008. As I write this on April 1 , 2009, (no fooling,) it’s blooming now. My “stats” are anecdotal to be sure, but naturalists and scientists have always been keen on keeping these kinds of records.

Henry David Thoreau, for example, kept careful note of what- bloomed- when on his patch at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Today those records are the basis for scientists at Boston University who study climate change using his lists of blooming wildflowers. A sad statistic demonstrated by the records is that nearly thirty percent of those flowers are extinct today. During the one hundred and fifity intervening years, the mean annual temperature in Concord rose four degrees. Another thirty percent of “Thoreau’s wildflowers” are so scarce, they are likely to become extinct in the near future.

We keep records at Hill-Stead, too. Listings on the Carriage Porch, the Bookshop and the Trail Log Book (at the trailhead at the end of the parking lot) describe what is blooming in the formal gardens as well as what has been seen lately on the trails. And we love it when visitors share their sightings with us. So please tell us what you see, or leave a question or comment either here or in the log book.

For my own curiousity, I am doing a little informal review of some photographs in our archives. Using dated pictures, I’m going to try and see whether our plants today are blooming earlier than they did in Theodate Pope Riddle’s timebluets. Wish me luck, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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One Response to “The Past is Prologue?”

  1. L Wasserman Says:

    My tulips are a bit ahead of where they were last season, most of my apple blossoms have already shed petals.
    WEhat is worysome is the absence of bees for pollination

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