Petaluma open space preserve part of national climate study

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A little-known swath of open space in west Petaluma is earning a spot on a national map as it serves as a site for a nationwide citizen science project aimed to track climate change.

Beginning last month, a group of 10 volunteers armed with clipboards, binoculars and data sheets began to observe the changes and behaviors of a handful of plants and birds as well as an animal at Paula Lane Open Space Preserve, logging their findings into the USA National Phenology Network “Nature’s Notebook” database, which gives scientists access to aggregated data from participants around the nation to inform their research.

A team of about five volunteers is also undergoing monthly observations of the migratory cliff swallow population that makes its home each year at the Petaluma River Bridge from March until August, according to Susan Kirks, a Petaluma resident who’s spearheading the local efforts sponsored by the Santa Rosa-based Madrone Audubon Society.

Scientists say phenology – which is the study of seasonal transformations in plants and animals and how those changes are impacted by climate and seasonal variations — could be an important indicator of the impacts of climate change.

In some cases, changes to climate might result in an ecological “mismatch,” where differences in historical weather patterns might mean that the timing of one natural event — such as the budding of a flower – would no longer coincide with the arrival of a migratory bird that depends on that plant to survive, knocking the ecosystem out of sync.

The observed long-term trends toward shorter and milder winters and earlier than normal spring thaws can throw off the timing of key events, potentially triggering an overabundance of pests and a lack of food for certain species, or a longer blooming season for plants that cause allergies in humans, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Using data from the “Nature’s Notebook” as a springboard, the USA Phenology Network also fosters scientific research communities and the development of resources, such as maps and visualization tools that collect and share data related to trends and phenology.

According to the data from the organization, there are more than 2,000 registered researchers, students and volunteers tracking 10,973 organisms spread across more than 1,400 sites in the U.S., with four registered observation sites in Petaluma, including the open space and the bridge.

The 11.22-acre Paula Lane preserve, which is home to more than 100 documented avian species as well as an abundance of plant and animal life, is the perfect landing spot for the organized local efforts, according to Kirks, the Madrone Audubon Society president and one of the founding members of the Paula Lane Action Network, a nonprofit that advocated for the preservation of the land.

As part of the project that kicked off the week of May 16, trained volunteers spend about an hour and a half at the preserve once a month to record observations on nine bird species — including several that have been identified by the National Audubon Society as being threatened by climate change — as well as four native and non-native plant species, while also tracking the behavior of the mule deer that populate the land, Kirks said.

“Everything in nature is connected,” Kirks said. “People don’t want to feel helpless knowing that we might lose hundreds of bird species and animals because of climate change and plant cycle mismatches from the way they historically are. This is a way for us to contribute at a state and national level and hopefully have some benefit.”

Kirks said the documentation at the two Petaluma locations will go on indefinitely as a larger slice of data gives scientists a better idea of how trends are shaping up. She said the efforts will also serve as a way to inform planting and maintenance decisions at the preserve, which is a wildlife corridor that serves as a destination for migratory birds and is also home to a hummingbird and butterfly garden.

She added that the study will also be used as an educational component at the preserve, which is owned by the city and maintained by the nonprofit action network, and is slated to be open for managed public access by next spring.

For Petaluma resident Raye Lynn Thomas, volunteering as part of the project is a way to sharpen her own observational skills while contributing to a greater cause.

“It’s an opportunity to document changes that might be the result of climate change instead of it all being anecdotal,” she said. “I know that’s being done in a lot of scientific communities with working scientists, but this is where the rest of us can help out. We know our own neighborhoods and we know the wildlife and are more likely to observe the changes.”

Sandy DeSimone, the Director of Research and Education at the Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary in southern California, created the pilot “BirdSeasons” phenology project for The California Audubon Society in 2014 in connection with the USA Phenology Network. She’s since overseen its expansion to Mount Diablo Audubon in Contra Costa County, Sea and Sage Audubon in Orange County, and most recently, to three societies in Yolo, Napa, Solano and Sonoma Counties.

“(The projects) are really exciting to me,” she said. “It brings together citizen volunteers and climate change and partnership.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)

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