The Climate Chaser
at Northern Spark 2017. The lab
will be open at the Minnesota
State Fair in the Eco Experience
Building, 1615 Randall Ave.

I was born in 1970. When I was a kid . . . my mother and her father, my grandfather, had a little friendly competition each spring to see who would spot the first robin of the year.

My mom was real determined. She’d be out on her morning walk and looking for those robins. She’d run to the phone and call my grandfather, “Dad, I saw a robin,” and then she’d be all upset because he’d be pulling dad rank: ‘I saw one yesterday, but I didn’t have time to call you.’ My grandfather died when I was 14.

About 10 years ago, I started noticing that the robins weren’t leaving anymore. I’d be out hiking in the winter, maybe January or February, and I started seeing that robins were around and some of them just never left. . . .[My mother] called me in the spring to tell me she had seen a robin, and I kind of had this immediate little emotional dilemma. . . . I was hesitant to tell her that I had been seeing robins on hikes all winter long. I said it . . . and afterwards, I completely regretted it. I could just feel it took the wind out of her sails.

Since then, every year except one or two winters that have been more severe, I have seen robins that stay in Minneapolis all winter long . . . and she continues to do the same thing, calls me to let me know that she’s the first one, and I just let her.—This story was recorded in the Climate Chaser (at left) at Northern Spark 2016. Participants were asked to talk about their observations of changes in Minnesota’s climate. The speaker is unknown.


By Kristal Leebrick

Less shoveling. Fewer bee and butterfly sightings. Little snow cover and limited days to cross country ski.

These details and the anecdote above are part of nearly 200 stories a group from the University of Minnesota has gathered over the last two years, using a restored 1970 Boler camper dubbed the Climate Chaser as the vehicle to record and share people’s observations of seasonal changes in the lifecycle of plants and animals.

Those observations are called “phenology,” the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, and the Climate Chaser is part of Backyard Phenology, a project that is engaging U of M faculty and citizens in working to understand how seasonal cycles in Minnesota are affected by a changing climate. The mobile lab made its debut at Minneapolis’s all-night Northern Spark festival in 2016, where the recordings began. You can hear a sound collage and a podcast of those tales and share your own observations in the Climate Chaser at the Minnesota State Fair Aug. 24-Sept. 4. The trailer will be set up in the Eco Experience building, 1615 Randall Ave.

Prof. Rebecca Montgomery leads a workshop on Backyard Phenology in August at the U’s Native American Medicine Gardens. This sunflower is one of the plants marked to be tracked through the season. Photos by Kristal Leebrick

For Rebecca Montgomery, associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources at the U of M and coordinator of the Minnesota Phenology Project, these stories are helping her see connections between what lay people have noted and the data she and her colleagues are collecting. They may also lead her to new areas of study, she said.

“Collecting stories is a different way of thinking about change in the environment,” she said. And to her surprise, even climate change skeptics have stories.

Backyard Phenology was started by Montgomery; Christine Baeumler, artist and associate professor in art and social practice; Kate Flick, an educator and graduate student; and Beth Mercer- Taylor, coordinator of the Institute on the Environment Sustainability Education program. Additional team members include Nick Jordan, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, and Mae Davenport, a professor in the Department of Forest Resources whose work focuses on the human dimensions of natural resource management.

The program began after Montgomery, Baeumler and Flick met while teaching “Making Sense of Climate Change: Science, Art and Agency,” an interdisciplinary course in the U’s Grand Challenge Curriculum. The course, co-taught with Jordan, had students design a public art project addressing climate change for the Northern Spark festival. The festival’s theme for 2016 and 2017 was Climate Chaos/People Rising.

Baeumler was invited to do an independent project for Northern Spark, and that’s where the Climate Chaser came into being. It was present at the 2017 Northern Spark as well as other venues throughout the state.

Phenology walk

The USA-National Phenology Network has an app called Nature’s Notebook that allows backyard phenology observors to track changes on their phones.

The Climate Chaser is just one component to Backyard Phenology, which has partnered with several metro-area locations and will be working with community groups through September 2018 to develop site-specific “phenology walks” that include observation, artistic projects and reflection.

The U’s Native American Medicine Gardens just off of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues on the St. Paul Campus is one of those sites. This summer, the group has been holding phenology workshops at the gardens. At a session in early August, Montgomery trained a dozen participants to use the USA-National Phenology Network citizen science program Nature’s Notebook to record their observations of the plants and animals around us: When did leaf buds break on a specific tree? When did the leaves unfold on that tree? When did fruit appear and what are the dates for the appearance of more than 10 fruits? More than 100?

Tracking these changes from year to year can help observers see changes in seasonal patterns. Nature’s Notebook includes an app that helps participants note their observations of the plants and animal species they are tracking.

A number of trees and plants at the Medicine Gardens have been tagged for tracking. Each of these plants or trees dons a pink ribbon and nameplate, and you don’t need to download an app to track them. A wooden box on the property contains Nature’s Notebook forms that ask about the participants’ observations of specific plants, as well as the date and time of the observations. Participants are asked to fill out the form and return it to the box. The workshop will be repeated again in September, and participation is open to the public and people are encouraged to attend. (You can find the schedule of events at

Citizen scientist phenology calendars will be
handed out at the State Fair exhibit in the
Eco Experience building. You can also get
one at Micawber’s in Milton Square at Carter
and Como avenue in St. Anthony Park.

Observing as you go

Backyard Phenology will hold workshops twice a month on the St. Paul campus over the next year. The winter workshops will be held inside and storytelling will have a larger focus, according to Francis Bettelyoun, master gardener and coordinator of the medicine gardens. Bettelyoun, who also goes by his native name Cante Suta, is Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, S.D. He holds a talking circle after each workshop, something that helps build community, he said.

“Probably the most important part is [the talking circles] build relationships, build trust,” he said. “People are allowed to speak their truths. Storytelling is part of phenology.”

The sound collage that you can hear inside the Climate Chaser at the fair includes a story from Bettelyoun: “There is a Lakota phrase that means, literally, observing as you go, or as you walk through life. We’ve forgotten how to do that. . . . When you are on your journey here, with that intention of observing as you go, you are more aware of things. You are more aware as you are walking. . . . It’s not just your eyesight and your ears you’re listening through, it’s your spirit.

“Once you get to the point of walking with your spirit and walking with intention and you’re paying attention, you’re there,” Bettelyoun said. “Our phenology is this: It’s observing as you go.”

Visitors to the Climate Chaser will receive phenology “passports,” pocket-sized calendars that can be used to track nature’s cycles in your own back yard. The calendars will also list a schedule of monthly phenology workshops and other events in the Twin Cities. (If you can’t make it to the fair, the passports will be available at Micawber’s in Milton Square at Como and Carter avenues in St. Anthony Park.)

The Climate Chaser made a brief appearance at the State Fair last year: for one day, sandwiched between food booths. Most of the visitors came to the trailer because they were attracted to the vintage camper, Baeumler said.

“You’d explain the project and people would say, ‘I don’t have anything to share,’ or they might be skeptical, but then they’d start talking,” Montgomery said. “Everyone had a story.”

* * *

To learn more about Backyard Phenology, go to To learn more about the USA-National Phenology Network and Nature’s Notebook, go to

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