Christy Lowney points to a magnolia tree that is already budding.
On a recent Saturday morning walk through the UW-Madison Arboretum, Christy Lowney stops to examine the newly formed buds on a stately magnolia tree. They’re lovely to see and touch — fuzzy little proto-blossoms bursting forth from dormant wintry branches. But they’ve arrived several weeks early. “Our curator is kind of in a panic,” says Lowney, an Arboretum ranger. “This normally happens much later.”
The magnolias aren’t the only ones waking up early from their winter nap. There are signs of spring showing up all over the Arboretum — never mind the fact that the calendar still says March. Walking a few steps deeper into the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens reveals a thicket of witch hazel shrubs, already blooming with delicate yellow-red flowers. Like the magnolia, the witch hazel is another harbinger of spring, but it, too, is ahead of schedule this year, Lowney says. Same with the pussy willows, whose soft, gray buds are already abundant in the garden. On the ground, tulips are beginning to emerge, their green leaves peeking up through mud and snow.
Lowney says record-setting temperatures in the third week of February kicked off the early seasonal shift. Rangers, naturalists and Arboretum patrons alike began reporting and documenting each bloom and bud, adding to a living ledger of ecological data about the nature preserve that’s been kept since the mid-1930s. “When things hit the 60-degree weather mark, that’s when we started noticing a lot of things happening around here that are a little earlier than some years,” she says.
Budding pussy willows.
Sandhill cranes and red-winged blackbirds were both spotted on Feb. 19, nine days earlier than the first sighting last year. And the hermit thrush, notable for its beautiful song, was heard calling on Feb. 4 — a full two months earlier than in 2016. Lowney also spotted a pair of eagles in February. Eagles don’t migrate, but they do need open water to hunt, so their return to the Arboretum means that nearby Lake Wingra has thawed. While the early migration might seem like good news for birdwatchers, Lowney says the threat of climate change is on the minds of many. “Birders know something’s up,” she says. “It is a little daunting for some people.”
Inside the Arboretum Visitor Center, naturalist Kathy Miner is busy setting up for the annual Madison Reads Leopold event, a celebration of the famed Wisconsin environmentalist Aldo Leopold. Leopold became the Arboretum’s first research director in 1934 and was the first to begin tracking and recording the area’s phenology — the cyclic and seasonal changes in plants and animals. Miner honors Leopold’s legacy through her work as a proponent of “folk phenology” at the Arboretum — data and observations collected by citizen scientists.
“Folk phenology is about people being connected to natural rhythms. It’s an important component of mental and physical health,” she says. “We evolved to pay attention to those things for survival — and we still should.”
A resident of Monroe Street for nearly 40 years, Miner says “folk knowledge” in the neighborhood was that Lake Wingra froze around Thanksgiving and thawed around April Fool’s Day. “That’s no longer true,” she says. Like the vast majority of scientists, Miner is concerned about climate change and believes that human activity is the primary cause. She worries about what rising temperatures will mean for our natural world — and the generations that will inherit it.
“I have a grandchild who’s 6 years old. By the time he’s an adult, is Wisconsin going to have snowy winters anymore? There’s really no guarantee,” Miner says. “I don’t think it’s paranoia. These are very reasonable questions to be asking.”
Early bloomers: Magnolia, pussy willow, witch hazel
Early birds: Sandhill crane, red-winged blackbird, hermit thrush
Average maximum temperature for February at Dane County airport, 1981-2010: 31.1 degrees Fahrenheit
Average minimum temperature for same period: 15.1 degrees
Average maximum, minimum temperatures for February 2017: 41.7 degrees, 23 degrees
Record high temperature: 66 degrees on Feb. 22, 2017