Crystal Possehl-Oakes, nature educator at South Fork Natural History Museum...

Crystal Possehl-Oakes, nature educator at South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center in Bridgehampton, inspects a milkweed plant on July 2, 2015. It is one of the species she is collecting data on for the New York Phenology Project. Credit: Heather Walsh

When the tupelo leaves begin blushing red next month, Crystal Possehl-Oakes will take note.

Possehl-Oakes, a nature educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center in Bridgehampton, is part of a group hoping to document the life cycles of that tree and other plants across Long Island in an area of study called phenology.

Noting when leaves first sprout and fruits first swell during the year can provide a glimpse into broader patterns stemming from climate change, said Kerissa Battle, president of the Community Greenways Collaborative and founder of the New York Phenology Project.

The effects of climate change can push life cycles of some plants out of sync with the insects and birds that depend on them, she said.

"A plant might delay or advance its flowering depending on what the weather is doing," Battle said. "And the insect might emerge and that plant has already flowered or the leaves have already emerged, and now that caterpillar does not have its food source."

While the project has 11 phenology-monitoring sites across the state, there are none yet on Long Island.

But the Long Island Nature Organization held a workshop in May for the region's environmental and nature groups -- such as the Third House Nature Center -- with the goal of setting up such sites across the Island by next year.

"This is important information to document," said Mike Bottini, a wildlife biologist with the Long Island Nature Organization. "We're anticipating that there are going to be noticeable changes in terms of the timing of significant natural-history events."

There is a list of 32 species the New York Phenology Project tracks across the state -- including red maple, common milkweed and wild strawberry. Battle said she wants to add northern bayberry, which fruits silvery berries in the fall, due to the shrub's prevalence across Long Island.

LI's variety helps

Battle said the varied nature of Long Island -- from urbanization in the west to rural lands in the east -- makes the region especially well-suited for a phenology project.

"You can really see temperature differences and the effect of urbanization," Battle said. "The density of buildings and asphalt in New York City is much different than out by Montauk."

Possehl-Oakes said she plans to have a phenology trail set up at the museum's grounds in Bridgehampton by September, with specific examples of northern bayberry, common milkweed, black cherry and other species marked along the path for citizen scientists to observe changes in over time.

"Data collection is really important in terms of observing what is actually going on instead of just theorizing about it," said Allison Harrington, a board member of the Third House Nature Center in Montauk, another Long Island group interested in joining the project.

The information also can be compared to historical data gathered by earlier naturalists -- observers of natural history who made a habit of noting in journals yearly events such as the first apple blossoms and rye harvests.

"We have records from past Long Island scientists who did go out in their favorite areas and wrote down what they saw," Possehl-Oakes said. "We don't have that connection quite as much anymore."

Citizen scientists in the New York Phenology Project eschew notebooks in favor of smartphones to record their observations, which are sent through an app to be included in a larger database.

Reviving tradition

"This effort is a revitalization of the old-school naturalists who kept records," Battle said. "It'll look a little bit different since we'll be collecting the data on our iPhones and tablets, but it's the same idea. And you use the same observation skills as a naturalist would in the 1800s, so it's actually a beautiful link to history."

And even if the historic records that serve as a baseline for comparing current trends are sparse, there is still a value to starting the data collection on Long Island now, Battle said.

"If you think about it, we're going to be those journal records for people in the next 200 years," she said.

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