Phenology study continues after the fire

By Wendy Herniman, Pepperwood Steward

Wendy Herniman (left) and other phenology project volunteers in the field, photo by Gary Hundt

Vibrant green shoots emerging from seemingly dormant buds on wintery stems, fragrant flowers slowly unfolding their petals to attract the attention of passing insects, and industrious birds flitting to and fro with beaks full to line soft nests—these signs of the changing seasons are the phenophases of phenology.

I’ve been volunteering up at Pepperwood for about 7 years, drawn by the strong sense of community and the passion for protecting the wildlands of Sonoma County. However, I knew little about the abundant plants carpeting the rolling hills and valleys, so I was delighted in 2013 when Prahlada Papper started a phenology project to study seasonal and cyclical changes in plants and asked for citizen scientists to help with twice-weekly observations.

The project began by monitoring the changing phenophases of five native plant species: Sticky monkey flower, Coyote brush, Coast live oak, Poison oak, and California bay laurel (also known as Pepperwood!), quickly expanding to cover two trails and additional species as a result of the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers, who loved wandering in the woods and peering at plants. A year later I began to monitor a group of oaks of five different species hoping to be able to unravel some of the mysteries of these magnificent trees, such as how can a prickly, leathery Coast live oak possibly be related to a Black oak with its beautiful delicate leaves? Since its inception, Pepperwood’s Phenology Project has collected a huge amount of data which has been uploaded to the National Phenology Network’s database, where it can be accessed for scientific research along with the wealth of Pepperwood’s climate data. This combination allows us to assess plant responses, locally and nationally, to changing climatic conditions through drought years and wet El Niño winters and consider which species may be best adapted to future climate scenarios.

Wendy Herniman (left) and other phenology project volunteers in the field, photo by Gary Hundt

However, the fires of October 2017 brought great changes to our lives and landscapes, halting the phenology project since conditions were hazardous and the project needed to be reset with many plants having been consumed. Fire ecology and post-fire recovery became the focus of many new projects at the preserve, and the phenology team members were determined to monitor their plants’ responses to this extreme event. Fortunately, nine out of the ten oaks which I had been monitoring had survived the fire and soon began re-sprouting, so that I was able to continue with their observations.

In February 2018 the indomitable team of Brian, Darlene, Eleanor, Gary, Jane, Mike, Natasha, Tina, Trish and I were finally able to get back onto the trails and begin the new phase of the Pepperwood Phenology Project. We were able to identify the remains of most of our original plants and have been astounded at their ability to arise from the ashes. Michelle Halbur, Preserve Ecologist, adapted our project protocol to add photographs and measurements and the team has been diligently counting and measuring new shoots from charred stumps and noting their phenophases, documenting the gradual restoration of chaparral and woodland ecosystems.

The phenology project has given me so much: increased knowledge of these plants and the incredible biodiversity they support, the joy of intense conversations with my fellow phenologists about tiny botanical details, and weekly excuses to explore a little bit of Pepperwood. Most of all though, I have been astonished by the resilience of these plants, particularly the majestic oaks, many of which may have survived previous fires across the same landscape.

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