A smartphone is a powerful gardening tool.

A smartphone is a powerful gardening tool.

Traveling north for a family funeral last month, I encountered a snow storm rocking the Midwest. I overheard lots of grumbling travelers around me: “It’s colder,” “it’s wetter,” “spring is later.” You know the chorus. But is it really? How do we know?

Images of a lone scientist checking her equipment on a frozen mountain struggling to understand our climate pops into my mind, that is until I heard a lecture by Allen Hurlbert of the University of North Carolina’s biology department. Hurlbert explained scientists are now able to examine a wider range of environments, organisms and conditions because of you, me and those little devices we carry in our pockets.

Hurlbert studies the structure of environments and he monitors the timing of the seasons. His research explores the relationship between when trees leaf out, when insect populations surge and when birds begin to raise their young. When one of part of this relationship changes it can have dire consequences for the others. But by themselves Hurlbert and his team have a limited reach — that’s where we come in.

The huge datasets that volunteer citizen scientists collect vastly expand what researchers can do, as thousands of measurements and observations are uploaded each day to internet-connected databases.

Helping scientists feels great, but easy-to-use applications that I can add to my smartphone to collect data enable me to look at my garden in a different, deeper way.

Here are three smartphone applications I’m using which you may want to consider:

“Nature’s Notebook:” From the USA National Phenology Network, this project provides tools and trains citizen science volunteers to observe when nature wakes up. In the 1950s, the project started by tracking lilacs — when their leaf buds broke, flowers opened and achieved full flower. The network expanded and now provides historical data for the Spring Index Model that predicts leafing for lilacs and other indicator species. Data collected by “Nature’s Notebook” volunteers helped researchers at the University of North Carolina estimate that spring arrived in our state about two weeks early this year. You can learn more and start making your own observations by visiting usanpn.org.

iNaturalist.org helps you identify plants, animals and other organisms. Snap a photo with your phone, upload it to iNaturalist.org and add any descriptive information. Other iNaturalist community members will help you identify it, often with surprising speed. By participating I have a better understanding of my landscape and scientists are able to use the data to, among other things, examine distribution and migration patterns. Learn more by visiting iNaturalist.org.

Cornell’s ornithology lab manages eBird, an online database of more than 100 million bird sightings from around the world. A great tool for birders to document their bird sightings, it offers a treasure-trove of resources for students, amateur birders and scientists. Data collected and shared through eBird have helped scientists develop more accurate models of avian global migration, nesting, and distribution. Visit eBird.org to learn more and create your account.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email info@absentee-gardener.com.

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