Research using Nature’s Calendar’s citizen science data

The Woodland Trust is developing its relationship with the research community by supporting my PhD with the University of Edinburgh. Last November, I wrote about how citizen science can help answer questions about the future of UK woodlands and wildlife. Since then, I have spent much of the winter familiarising myself with Nature’s Calendar records, an amazing resource submitted by observers across the UK.


Wood anemone

How does one start to make sense of this data? Like the start of any research, it involves a lot of thinking about what you can do with what you have available . I thought I’d share how I’m starting up my project and learning to analyse Nature’s Calendar records.

I introduced the concepts of plasticity (the ability of plants and animals to vary their seasonal timing according to the environmental conditions each year) and local adaptation (adaptation to local conditions through natural selection) in my last post. The first part of my research is all about how to assess their contribution to phenology, or seasonal timing, in different plant species. 

Step 1: Decide what to focus on

Nature’s Calendar collects a wide variety of information, so the first thing to do is decide which records to use by asking:

– What species and spring events have lots of records?

The more records available the better, as this provides more data on differences in seasonal timing across the UK.

– What kind of plants should be analysed?

Records are available for trees, shrubby species and flowering plants. Choosing a combination of species means the analyses may show differences between them.

Step 2: Check what data are required

To explore seasonal timing, and its relationship with temperature, the following data are needed:

– Records of phenological events (e.g. budburst, first flowering) from Nature’s Calendar. These are the first dates an event is observed in different locations and different years.

– Daily temperature data from Met Office records across the UK. This shows how temperature varies between years and different locations.

 Step 3: Decide what methods to use

Once the records have been chosen, they need to be analysed using statistical modelling techniques. There are different approaches that can be taken, and much of my day-to-day work involves trying out different methods, and deciding which to pursue. These models help answer:

– What temperatures cue the seasonal event? For example, is budburst in a species predicted by average temperatures over a particular time period, or does a temperature threshold need to be reached before budburst can occur?

– Whether the phenology of a particular event varies over space, across the UK?

– Whether the phenology of a particular event varies over time, in different years?

The differences between phenology over space and time can show whether plant populations have a plastic response to temperature or if there is evidence that they are locally adapted.

What next?

Image: WTPL/Ilene Sterns

Silver birch catkins

Further analyses of more species and spring events will form an important part of my PhD research, and help steer subsequent work. Of course, trying out any kind of analysis means encountering hiccups along the way. Spending a lot of time on one particular method is no guarantee it’s going to provide the most useful or interesting results, but is part of the process. 

An important step is to examine the ecology of each species analysed, and develop possible explanations for patterns in their seasonal timing. I have also been working with a small group of Nature’s Calendar recorders to develop an exciting new project that will build upon existing data. Look out for my next blog post, where I’ll write more about this.

In the meantime and despite the recent flurries of snow, it is starting to feel like spring. I’ve been out and about, looking for events recorded by Nature’s Calendar. It’s exhilarating  to see a burst of green appear on a bud, and notice changes each time you walk past a particular location. If you’d like to participate in recording the signs of spring, please get involved with Nature’s Calendar and start submitting your observations.

Every record submitted will continue to improve our knowledge of the seasonal timing of plants and animals, and contribute to the growing body of research based on citizen science.

Christine Tansey, Nature’s Calendar PhD Researcher 


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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9 Responses to Research using Nature’s Calendar’s citizen science data

  1. Pingback: Track a Tree: become a citizen scientist | Woodland Matters

  2. Tony says:

    You have a task and a half on your hands here, but a fascinating one at that. I’m guessing, when looking at my records that Wood Anemone, Wild Daffodil and Coltsfoot are three plants which are effected by day-length only. They will be others and mankind and womankind is still learning, it’s just a shame there aren’t more observers out there.

    Keep up the good work, Christine and feel free to explore my blog, from time to time. I hope you also get to use my data at Nature’s Calendar as I’ll be fascinated to know where mine fits in with others.

    Best Wishes


    • Hi Tony,
      Thanks very much for your comment, it’s great to hear about your own observations. I’ll keep posting about my research, and you can see how it compares.

      I have been following your blog, and it is interesting seeing where your 2013 records differ from 2012’s. Your contributions to Nature’s Calendar are much appreciated, as repeat recording provides particularly useful data. Thanks for your interest, I do hope you continue to enjoy my updates.
      Christine Tansey

  3. Joan Fairhurst says:

    Hi there
    Just a supportive comment to pursue your approach. I did my PhD 1966-68 looking at Carabid beetle life cycles over three very different years on the east and west coasts. The plasticity was really dramatic.

    Back plants….in January 2012 daffodils in my garden started to bloom end of January after a dry winter. This year the daffodils emerged from the snow April 10th and are now at their best after a very wet winter…..

    • Hello Joan,
      Thanks very much for your support. You PhD project sounds very interesting, it must have been fascinating to see the changes between different conditions each year. I am keen to see whether I can incorporate some invertebrate phenology into my work, and will write an update about new projects as they develop.

      I’m glad to hear that your daffodils are blooming now, it is great to start to see flowering finally happening! I’m currently keeping my eye on the appearance of wood anemone, lesser celandine and ransoms in my local woodland. Thank you for your interest in this project, I hope you continue to enjoy my updates.
      Christine Tansey

  4. Neal Pearson says:

    Dear Kay,
    I hope that you’re also considering the effects of other parameters, not just air temperature, as other variables such as wind, rain, frost, snow, light intensity and soil temperature are bound to be influential factors in some cases too. Sorting out the main factors will be an interesting project and I very much look forward to hearing what you find.
    Good luck ! Neal Pearson.

    • Hello Neal,
      Thank you for your comment, you raise a very important point. Temperature is a well-documented variable that is known to be an important cue for plant phenology, so it is a good starting point for my research. I will then begin to incorporate day-length, or photoperiod, into my approach, as it is also an important factor for some species. The next variables to look at will partly depend on what data are available. Precipitation and frost data are available from the Met Office, and in the future I may be able to work with other sources as well. I will continue to post about the progress of this research, I hope you enjoy hearing about it.
      Christine Tansey

  5. Rosemary Chapman says:

    I want to unsubscribe from this but your website doesn’t seem to want to do this whatever i try…your emails keep coming. Can you please unsubscribe me

    Sent from my iPad

    • Kay Haw says:

      Hello Rosemary, I am sorry you are having difficulties! Our blog is hosted by WordPress and it is them you will need to contact in order to unsubscribe. Otherwise, you can adjust the settings in your account to change how often you receive an alert about our latest posts. There is a lot to talk about in the woodland world and we only wish to share information and generate discussion. Thank you for your support.

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