OPINION

Observing Nature’s Calendar

Steve Lekwa

Thankfully, we live in a part of the country that experiences real seasons. Natural events, at least for some of us, help us keep track of those changing seasons more than the pages on printed calendars. Those events are often featured in this column and are known in scientific circles as phenology, or the study of relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena. I find myself more comfortable with nature’s less rigid time line than the strict numbers and dates that form our modern calendar.

It’s a hot, humid Sunday afternoon, Aug. 2 to be exact, as I sit to write this week’s column. That’s right in the middle of the calendar’s summer. It’s a time of year that finds many of us looking forward to fall with its cooler, drier air. It’s a time some refer to as “dog days,” but what have dogs to do with hot, sticky weather? Not much, really, unless you are referring to Sirius, the “dog star.” Sirius is the brightest star in Canis Major, and is also the brightest star in the sky. The dog days are actually a phenological event that even the ancients took note of. The hot days of summer are a time when Canis Major, one of Orion’s two dogs, is invisible to us because he is too close to the Sun, where he was likely hotter than any dog hear on Earth.

The phenological calendar is less rigid because the seasons blend together with no specific time for one to begin and another to end. The cardinal begins to sing his spring song on a sunny morning in January, even if the temperature is hovering near zero. Spring flowers may occasionally cower under a late April or even early May blanket of snow. Summer, even now in August, has some hold-over aspects of spring, like nesting birds. Most birds like robins and bluebirds are winding down their nesting, but goldfinches are just beginning theirs. They’ve been waiting for that the first crop of thistle down to line their nests. August also holds the first signs of the approaching fall, as well. Blackbirds and swallows are forming ever larger flocks as they prepare for their fall migrations. Many shorebirds that nested in the Arctic are already well into their fall migration.

Blooming time for different flowers measures the passage of spring, summer and fall, and also serve as reminders. The first red columbine flowers tell me when it’s time to put out the hummingbird and oriole feeders far more accurately than any printed calendar could. Their first appearance in spring is always within a few days of the first columbine blooms, regardless of what the actual date is. The first goldenrod blooms showed up during the past week and reassure me that the current dog days discomfort will only be temporary. Soon the trees will wear colors other than green and morning air will have a reviving crispness to it. My river birch is already losing a few yellow leaves each day.

Local geese have regained their ability to fly now that their summer molting period is over. Many of the young ones that hatched in late April can now join their parents in daily flights to new feeding areas and back to water. It won’t be long before Orion The Hunter leads Sirius into the predawn sky, where he’ll greet Earth-bound hunters as they head for tree stands and duck blinds. I look forward to those times, just as I look forward to the delights that each special season brings. The climate may be comfortable year-round in some places, but I thank goodness that I don’t live where there are no seasonal changes to look forward to.