The Tree Spotters program began in 2015 as an initiative of the Temporal Ecology Lab at the Arnold Arboretum, under the direction of Assistant Professor Elizabeth Wolkovich. Lizzie’s research at the Arboretum focused on plant responses to climate change. To gather and tap into data to support these studies, the Tree Spotters program partnered with the National Phenology Network (NPN) to train volunteers to collect data from 15 species of native woody plants at the Arnold Arboretum. For me, this marked the beginning of six memorable years with this terrific initiative for citizen science.
Subject: “Are you interested in having volunteer help?”
Little did I know when I emailed Lizzie back in January 2014 how much my simple query would change my life! On the eve of retirement, I read in Silva of Lizzie’s faculty appointment, the establishment of her Temporal Ecology Lab, and her plans to pursue research programs related to climate change. I live close to the Arboretum’s Weld Hill Research and Administration Building in Roslindale, love the Arboretum, and like many I am very concerned about the climate crisis. I wondered if there was something I could do to support Lizzie’s important work, and was absolutely thrilled when she replied “Let’s talk!”
The following spring, Lizzie started the Arnold Arboretum Tree Spotters Program to engage the public in collecting seasonal information about woody plants, enlisting the help of Research Intern (now Associate Project Manager) Danny Schissler and Research Assistant Jehane Samaha to organize the program and me to coordinate the program’s volunteer “Tree Spotters.” Jehane worked to establish our program’s presence in Nature’s Notebook, NPN’s online database, making all the data we collected at the Arboretum available to Lizzie’s team and climate scientists around the world. We officially launched the program that May with thirteen enthusiastic volunteers.
We worked in pilot mode that first year, building the program as we went along. The first improvement we sought was to post signs to help the Tree Spotters locate our trees easily. The Arboretum later replaced these with more durable and visible signs—white and red trunk labels that included both accession information and Tree Spotter details.
Observing plants is an inherently solitary activity, so we developed a newsletter and various educational and social activities to help us all stay connected. We found fellowship in potluck parties and spent winters brushing up on our plant knowledge through “Botany Blasts” seminars and a book club. By the fall of 2019, we had established a diverse community connected through a love of plants and a concern for the environment. We celebrated our efforts with the “Fabric, Fiber, and Phenology” exhibit in the Arboretum’s Visitor Center in 2019, which featured the artwork of Tree Spotter Steffanie Schwam and a series of displays highlighting various aspects of our citizen science program.
But the time had come to wind down. With Lizzie’s lab relocated to the University of British Columbia and Cat Chamberlain (who had replaced Jehane on the Tree Spotters team) wrapping up her own research, there would be no projects at the Arboretum directly connected to the Tree Spotters data. Determined to get another year of good data into Nature’s Notebook, we volunteers continued to make observations on our own through 2020. We celebrated six years of Tree Spotting with a virtual wrap-up party last October that focused on our accomplishments: during the program’s run, 227 Tree Spotters observed 75 plants representing 15 different species, and submitted more than 334,327 phenological observations to the NPN’s database. Very impressive!
While this may sound like the end of the story, it’s really only the end of the first part. A core of committed volunteers will continue to track the seasonal changes of trees at the Arboretum for the benefit of scientists everywhere. Citizen science offers many avenues for nature enthusiasts like me (and you?) to get involved, to learn, and to contribute to solving problems through community effort. I look forward to seeing where part two of this adventure takes me, my fellow volunteers, and the plants we observe changing through the seasons.