Observing nature's wonders

Michele Lawson, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.
·7 min read

May 1—Need a reason to get outside? There's a trail at Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area that offers visitors an opportunity to watch for recurring patterns in nature, such as flowers opening and birds migrating, and encourages observers to report their findings.

The study of these changing patterns is called phenology, which is why a portion of the trail is now known as the Wabashiki FWA Phenology Trail. Phenology is nature's calendar and a key component of life on earth. Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings. For some people, earlier flowering means earlier allergies. Farmers and gardeners need to know the schedule of plant and insect development to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides and when to plant to avoid frosts.

What kinds of trees, plants, insects, birds and wildlife can be observed at Wabashiki?

Laura Maloney, natural resources programmer for Vigo County Parks and Recreation, said there are 17 species of trees at Wabashiki including box elders, green ash, silver maples, cottonwoods and American sycamores. Buttonbush, a shrub, can also be found along the trail. Its white flowers in spring attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, then turn into fuchsia-colored fruit in the summer that attracts insects and birds. While swallows are the most-plentiful bird at Wabashiki, bald eagle sightings seem to be the most popular among visitors. Ruby-throated hummingbirds and giant yellow swallowtail butterflies are easy to spot with their bright colors.

"I've noticed quite a few cottontail rabbits along with some foxes, squirrels, beavers and muskrats on the trail and have seen a few whitetail deer on the opposite side of Wabashiki," Maloney said. "I've also been told that river otters can be observed there, but I've yet to see any and I go there to kayak a lot."

Maloney said for the physically disabled, the trail can be observed from along the top of the levee with a good set of binoculars and that she's more than happy to meet people there to help them identify various plant and wildlife species. For those who plan to walk along the trail at the bottom of the levee, the trail can be easily accessed from the Dewey Point trailhead and Maloney advises visitors to wear hiking boots.

"This trail is an invitation for Hoosiers to observe how the property's plants and wildlife change across the seasons," said Elizabeth Middleton, stewardship outreach specialist for the DNR. "There are two easy ways to participate in this experience at Wabashiki from casual observer to more planned and deliberate observations."

For those people who prefer to observe occasionally, there is a sign at the trailhead of Dewey Point that offers some guidance about what to observe with color-coded circles placed on trees that identify the species at predictable stops along the trail. For people who would like to develop a more thorough understanding of their observations, there are in-depth brochures at the check-in station that offer a blueprint, of sorts, to explain exactly what to look for along the way that make the experience "almost like a scavenger hunt game" when the plants, insects, birds and animals are discovered and checked off the list.

"Observing patterns in nature is a wonderful activity for all ages and children as young as four can participate with a little bit of guidance," Middleton said. "The fascination children have with nature's small details is a great reminder of the joy one can experience in nature."

Anyone can make observations along the trail, and trained volunteers will regularly monitor and report changes in plants and wildlife along the trail for scientists to study. Phenology data from the trail will help scientists gain a better understanding of how Indiana's wildlife is affected by long-term seasonal changes. Middleton said that all of the changes have consequences which cascade down from the plants, insects and birds to animals and humans.

Data can also help DNR make better-informed decisions about property management. For instance, Middleton said the button bush is an important nectar source for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds at Wabashiki. She said that based on phenology observations, the DNR might decide to plant more of it at various spots throughout Wabashiki or at other DNR properties.

Experiencing the outdoors

Middleton said the DNR believes in the power of the experiences in nature. She said now more than ever, after being cooped up inside and secluded during the COVID-19 pandemic, people can improve their mental health by getting outside.

"The DNR exists to help people connect with nature just as it exists to protect fish and wildlife," Middleton said, "So go outside and enjoy yourself, even if that means just looking at all of the beauty that surrounds us in nature."

The trail was developed as part of a new partnership with Indiana Phenology and adds a new dimension to the existing partnership between Vigo County Parks and Recreation and the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.

"We are excited to partner with DNR and Vigo County Parks and Recreation to offer people of all ages another way to enjoy Wabashiki FWA," said Amanda Wanlass, executive director at Indiana Phenology. "It's a wonderful opportunity for community stewardship."

An avid gardener, said she started Indiana Phenology after moving to Indiana from Utah. Gardening in a very different climate, she said she began to make notes of recurring patterns and track any differences in nature on her calendar because she couldn't find any actual recorded data. She said she found a program called Nature's Notebook where she learned the term phenology and that's how Indiana Phenology got its start.

No matter where you live in Indiana, there's plenty of nature around. With more the 600 species of plants and animals, there's valuable phenological data in everyone's backyard.

Not sure where to start? Indiana Phenology offers a couple of different programs for various levels of participation at seven public spaces in Indiana: Bloomington Community Orchard, Christy Woods in Muncie, Fox Island in Allen County, Holliday Park in Indianapolis, Johnson County Prairie, Province Park Arboretum in Franklin, Touch the Earth Natural Area in Columbus and Wabashiki.

"Indiana Phenology reached out to the Indiana DNR because of all the wonderful public properties it owns that people are already visiting on a regular basis," said Wanlass. "Elizabeth suggested that we develop Wabashiki as phenology trail because of its proximity to colleges and universities and because it's surrounded by cities and towns full of people who have a passion for the environment."

All that's needed is a smartphone to join over 100 Hoosier citizen scientists in collecting phenological data for the Backyard Observers program. Simply choose a conveniently located area to observe the selected plant and animal species. This location could be a yard, a green space near work, or a park. Go to Indiana Phenology's observer training page for full details on how to make and record observations with free access to the Nature's Notebook program at: observers.indianaphenology.org.

Volunteers welcome

Middleton said the DNR is always interested in cultivating volunteers to become regular phenology observers. She said phenology hasn't always been consistent throughout the state but because there is so much value in the data collected, she's excited about the trail being established at Wabashiki as a source for attracting more volunteers who will collect consistent data.

Other volunteer activities at Wabashiki include trash pick-up, basic gardening, painting and more. Call the property office for details. Non-hunting activities including wildlife watching, walking, mushroom hunting, gathering nuts, etc., require daily self-service check-in and possession of a daily permit card obtained at the check-in stations.

In 2009, Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department partnered with Indiana Department of Natural Resources to purchase over 800 acres of Wabash River bottomland with the support of an Indiana Heritage Trust grant. The 800 acres is located directly across the river from the City of Terre Haute. The land extends south of U.S. 40 and continues just south of I-70.

Previous usage of the property was agricultural. In 2007, the previous owners signed a perpetual easement with IUSDA Wetland Reserve Program. The purchase of 800 acres of Wabash River bottomland was to provide recreational opportunities for the citizens of Vigo County and a natural habitat for the native and migratory wildlife.

Michele Lawson can be reached 812-231-4232 or michele.lawson@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarMichele.