Esperanza Stancioff is an associate professor and climate change educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension/Maine Sea Grant. She oversees the Signs of the Seasons program, which uses volunteers to observe and record seasonal changes as a way to track Maine’s changing climate. We called her up this month, just when we were feeling fairly sure that winter was never going to end, to ask her to explain “phenology” to us. We learned how all of us can become amateur phenologists, discussed the data-gathering prowess of Henry David Thoreau and learned about Stancioff’s youth at sea.

RESUME: Stancioff studied marine biology and has a master’s degree in environmental education from the University of Maine. “More like marine education,” she said. Her interest in the ocean developed early, even though she was raised in landlocked northeast Texas. She left at 16, ran off to San Diego (with her parents’ blessing) and spent much of the next 15 years on the water.

“I was one of those wanderlust kind of people,” she said. “My first sailboat was 24 feet and wooden.” And she sailed it down the entire coast of Mexico and then out to the Hawaiian islands. In 37 days. “With no equipment except for a compass and a $10 plastic sextant,” she said. “It was dead reckoning the whole way over. One little mistake and you are off to the Orient.” Her husband, whom she met on a dock in the Bahamas, eventually lured her to Maine, where she began working on her master’s.

SAY IT FOR US PLEASE: Stancioff said it’s okay to pronounce phenology either “fen-all-ogy” or “fee-nall-ogy.” But what does it really mean? “It’s a really obscure word for something that is well known by fishermen and farmers and gardeners,” she said. “It is really the seasonal timing of plant and animal life changes, which are one of the most sensitive indicators of changing climate.” Examples: animals emerging from hibernation, that first leafing out of a maple tree, leaves changing colors in the fall.

INSPIRATION: When she was on sabbatical in 2008 and 2009 she was looking for new ways of communicating with the public about climate change. Her goal was to get more regular people involved. “I was kind of retooling,” she said. At a conference, she met Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing, now the science coordinator for Acadia National Park and Schoodic Education and Research Center, and learned about the national and international Signs of the Seasons programs. It was a light bulb moment for her. “That was it,” she said. “That was the perfect thing for Maine. We have such a great environmental ethic here, maybe because of our long harsh winters and because of farming and fishing, our environment is so important to us.”

HOW DOES IT WORK? The Signs of the Seasons program has been in place in Maine since 2010. To participate, volunteers must take a training course (it’s about 2 1/2 hours long). There are 19 species of plants and animals on the program list, all easy to identify (including lilacs, American robins and maple trees). More than 500 people have been trained in how to record their observations. The program offers webinars and a comprehensive guide to working with Signs of the Seasons, including what to look for within each species group.


SIGN UP: “We are constantly reaching out to people all over the state, and we’d love to have more people out there observing,” she said. “The more data, the better formation we are going to get.” But the group is flexible about schedules. “It takes about 15 minutes, maybe once a week,” she said. “Or in the early stages, as much as you can.”

One of the champion phenologists of all time was Henry David Thoreau, she said, who produced “an amazing amount of observations.” (Did you know Concord has 500 species of wildflowers? Thoreau did.)

QUALIFICATIONS? Being lazy/busy, we wondered if we could just take a webinar to get up to speed on how to practice phenology. “It is best done in person,” Stancioff said. “If you have a sense of botany and wildlife ecology and you are good at getting things through computer learning, but we really try to make it work for people to attend a training.” Volunteer retention can be an issue; it’s a commitment not to just keep an eye on things but to remember to record the data. “I know it is sometimes hard for me to get out there,” Stancioff said. She recommends establishing a ritual like the one she keeps at her woodsy Camden home. “My ritual is a Sunday morning with a huge cup of coffee on the porch, and I can see most of my species from there.”

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR: That would include peepers, dandelions and wild strawberries. Then there are monarch butterflies, but they are increasingly sparse. “For the last two years I haven’t seen any.” Which made us wonder, has she read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior,” which delves into some mysterious behavior by butterflies as a result of environmental changes? “Oh yes, I love her,” Stancioff said. The novel wasn’t Kingsolver’s best, she said, but worthy. “As far as getting the masses or whoever might read it to wake up to this problem, I think it was well done.”

AN APP FOR THAT: Volunteers keep track of their observations on a data sheet, making notations about everything from a bud on a branch to a fully extended leaf or pollen on the ground, and then plugging the information into an online database.

“We also have a mobile app so they can do that on their phones if they want to,” Stancioff said. “It is an amazing project. I have five projects I run and this one is my love.”

TELL ME MORE: The other projects include one working with fishermen on a qualitative systems model to help them assess their economic situation and another coordinating with municipal officials in coastal communities about preparation for climate change.

BUSY IS GOOD: “I don’t know what I would do without my huge multitasking job. I’d be lost.” Dead reckoning.

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