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A Naturalist's Take on Baffling Spring Weather

Susan Bence

Don Quintenz practically came out of the womb with a fascination for nature.

“I just loved the wildflowers and the hawks and the birds; and I’m lucky I was brought up with a lot of exposure to nature as a young kids; go outside, I don’t want to see you until dinner time kind of thing,” Quintenz says.

That intense attraction led to degrees in biology and math and ultimately, to his post at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. He directs education and manages 185 acres of natural habitat. Quintenz’s desk drawers bulge with 32-years worth of notebooks.

“I keep records of seasonal records – phenology its called,” Quintenz says.

Phenologists study real-life life cycles of plants and animals. Quintenz says there’s plenty to monitor in his territory. Staff and volunteers have helped spot more than 220 common and rare birds there. “We have one of the longest records of bird monitoring in the country,” Quintenz says.

Quintenz pulls out his 2012 notebook to compare its bird count with this month. He just spotted his first robin of the year on March 8th, and says they were already singing days earlier in 2012. He’s noticing several species showing up later this year.

“The bluebird, I was the first to see the bluebird this year....I saw one on the 14th; last year Last year they were on the 6th, they were singing. So there’s all sort of this stuff going on,” Quintenz says.

That “stuff”, the naturalist says involves more than a gradual warming trend; he’s observing what’s happening with more frequent temperature swings.

“What’s most noticeable to me is the extremes. I went skiing yesterday, I’m going skiing today. Cross country. I don’t have any record of me skiing that late,” Quintenz says.

Quintenz says humans can slip on another layer to warm up; he worries about how animals and plants might cope. We step outside to see how they’re doing. The wind stings our faces.

“Not many signs of spring out here; our skunk cabbage isn’t even out; sometimes that comes out in February,” Quintenz says.

The lowly skunk cabbage thrives in soggy - off-trail spots. The early arriving insects pollinate it and later, wood ducks and bobwhites – that’s a type of quail – feast on its bright red berries.

Quintenz calls that cycle a thin slice of the interdependence of plant and animal life.

However, temperature extremes put interconnections to the test. For example, while temperature signals some biological activity, the length of the day dictates others.

“Some things will go with temperature and something with photoperiods. So the photoperiod thinks it’s right on schedule and the temperature shifts some food sources, for birds, for example,” Quintenz says.

Even as he speaks, Quintenz seems to hear everything around him – including a far away cardinal. “Okay, so there’s a cardinal singing. Cardinals hormones are going, so here it’s cold like winter, and he’s singing because he thinks it is spring,” Quintenz says.

Quintenz keeps his pencil poised to chronicle what he hears and sees.

“Some species are timed to do things in season that’s not necessarily meteorological spring, like great horned owls – they’re nesting in February. How would you like to be sitting in a nest right now, and they’re out in the open....all day long you’re sitting on that nest in this wind,” Quintenz says.

Most trees towering above us appear to be “thinking” winter, except the elegant aspen. Quintenz says it budded out almost two weeks ago.

“This is dysfunction for this tree this year because we have an extreme weather swing and these buds are going to be frozen and they’re probably going falling off,” Quintenz says.

Quintenz says scientists are grappling with how species that hang in such delicate balance with each other will fare amid all the changes.

Credit Susan Bence
Don Quintenz has been tracking plant and willdlife at Schlitz Aububon Nature Center for 32 years.