Track a Tree: become a citizen scientist

The Woodland Trust plays an important role supporting my PhD research at the University of Edinburgh and this includes developing how we use the data on seasonal timing collected by Nature’s Calendar recorders. This can be done through the analysis of existing records, as I wrote about in my last post, and also by investigating new ways to record seasonal timing or phenology.

In early 2013, I spent time thinking about what new phenology information could be recorded by citizen scientists, and this led to the development of the Track a Tree scheme. Last spring, a group of experienced Nature’s Calendar recorders participated in the pilot study of this sister project to Nature’s Calendar, and I can now officially launch the full project.

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What is Track a Tree?

Track a Tree aims to record the spring phenology, or seasonal timing of individual woodland trees and flowering plants that make up the woodland understorey or ground flora. The scheme will follow these woodland trees over several years.

Four important features of Track a Tree make it unique:

  1. It follows individual trees. This means we can find out how much trees are able to adjust their phenology from year to year as climate conditions vary.
  2. Trees are randomly selected. By selecting trees randomly, we will observe the whole range of seasonal timing, rather than just the individuals that reach budburst or leafing first.
  3. Interacting species are observed. By observing the flowering of plants beneath individual trees, we can see whether these ground flora species are able to shift their phenology to keep up with changes in the timing of shading.
  4. It gives insight into woodland communities. Through recording the phenology of UK woodland communities, we can find out how seasonal timing varies across some of our most important habitats.

Track a Tree will provide important insights into the seasonal timing of woodland species and this will help shed light on how future changes in climate could affect the interactions between trees and flowering plants.

The 2013 pilot study

A small and dedicated group of Nature’s Calendar recorders helped trial the Track a Tree project in spring 2013. I would like to extend a huge thank you to these volunteers, who braved weeks of extended snow cover to follow the progress of budburst and leafing in over 50 trees across the UK.

The pilot study recorded Pedunculate oak, Sessile oak and Silver birch trees across the UK, alongside flowering plants that included Wood anemone, Wood sorrel and Bluebells. From Sussex to Cheshire, Derbyshire to Devon, I received reports of budburst starting between March and early May, and first leaf between April and late May.

A good example of how much budburst can vary is the difference in the earliest and latest Pedunculate oak budburst dates, recorded on 26th March in Exeter, 3rd May in Reading and the 14th May in Edinburgh. With more recorders taking part in Track a Tree this spring we’ll get a much better picture of differences like this.

How to help record spring in the woods

We’re looking for more volunteers to track trees and woodland flowering plants in spring 2014 and 2015. You can read much more and sign up to participate at the new Track a Tree website.

As a recorder you will:

  • Visit your chosen trees weekly if possible.
  • Monitor your trees from before budburst through to leafing.
  • Conduct two stages of recording:

– Selecting your trees and completing some site information.

– Re-visiting these trees throughout spring to record their phenology and the flowering of some key woodland plant species immediately beneath them.

You can keep up with Track a Tree’s progress by reading the project blog, or follow us on Twitter @TrackATree. I do hope that many of you will join in recording spring in the woods!

And if you’re not a regular woodland visitor, why not record signs of spring in your garden or local park, and submit your observations to Nature’s Calendar

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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