SeasonWatch: Building Connections with Nature through Observing Trees

Dr Suhel Quader is a Senior Scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, and Head of Citizen Science at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. One part of his work is on investigating the adaptations that animals have to survive and reproduce; the other is on designing programmes, like MigrantWatch and SeasonWatch, to involve members of the public as participants in ecological research.

The natural world is changing so rapidly that entire landscapes are being unrecognisably altered within a few decades. The need has never been
greater for individual and collective action to stem this tide of change. Only then will future generations be able to wonder at the beauty of a coral reef, the grandeur of a rain forest, or the hypnotic stare of a wild tiger. What is required for this action to occur? Simply put, we need an emotional and intellectual engagement with nature. We need to have an emotional connection, through which we value nature for its own sake; and we need to use our intellect to understand the problems facing the natural world, and to devise solutions.

How do we begin to engage both the hearts and minds of children in nature? One way is through school-based activities that encourage children to become careful observers of nature. What is it that they can observe? 

Climate change and phenology
One of the dramatic effects of climate  warming is on phenology – the timing of seasonal events in the natural world. Seasonal cycles in temperature and rainfall influence bird migration, the flowering and fruiting of trees, and the reproduction and growth of virtually every living organism. The change in phenology in response to changing climate has been well documented in North America and Europe. Summing over various phenological measures, including migration time and the emergence of leaves and flowers, Spring is calculated to be arriving 3 days earlier every decade in these regions.

In the tropics and the developing world in general, and in India in particular, very little is known about decade-to-decade changes in phenology in response to changing temperature and rainfall. There are anecdotes about drastic shifts in flowering, for example of the Amaltas (Cassia fistula) in Kerala, but we simply don’t know how widespread such patterns are.

To document these possible changes we have a started a project called SeasonWatch, in which we invite children (and indeed anyone interested)
Courtesy: SeasonWatch
to contribute their observations on the timing of fruiting, flowering and leafing of trees. The basic activity consists of choosing a tree to monitor, visiting that tree once a week, and noting down simple details of its leaves, flowers and fruits. The tree can be anywhere – in your garden, along your street, at your office, or in your school premises. A year’s observation allows you to draw up a calendar for your tree; which can then be compared with other trees of the same kind, with other parts of the country, and with other years. Here is an example of a year-by-year comparison, taken from phenological observations of trees at Rishi Valley school.

Forty individuals of each species have been monitored fortnightly since end 2007. Each dot represents a tree with fresh leaves. Clusters of dots mean that many trees had fresh leaves. You can see that the emergence of fresh leaves begins a little later for Wrightia than it does for Neem each year. For both species fresh leaves emerged over a longer period in 2008 than in 2010. Wrightia shows a particularly shortened period with fresh leaves in 2010. The difference between the years might be because of differences in rainfall in the previous years: total rainfall was around 900 mm in 2007, but only 600 mm in 2009. The reduced rainfall in 2009 may have led to lowered food production and storage by these trees, and therefore a delayed and shortened leafing period in the following year.
Courtesy: SeasonWatch

What can these observations tell us? At their most basic, they build up a basic documentation of seasonality. But they also allow us to compare yearly changes in phenology with year-to-year changes in climate, and to warn us about potential disruptions in ecological networks. The possible disruptions arise from the fact that plants are the backbone of any ecosystem. They produce food out of carbon dioxide, water, sunlight, and little else. Everything else depends directly (herbivores) or indirectly (carnivores, decomposers) on the food that plants produce. Since much of this food is produced seasonally (as leaves, flowers and fruits), any change in plant seasonality can profoundly affect the animals that depend on plants.

So SeasonWatch helps to document potential changes in phenology and
to provide a warning if things are not going so well. But how can it contribute to an emotional connection with nature? The idea here is that, by noting down what a tree is doing, week after week, a person develops a bond with that tree. As I begin to understand the various inter-connections affecting my trees – the rain that stimulates fresh leaf growth, the soil that provides nutrients, the birds and butterflies that visit it, and the constant threat of the road-widener’s axe – my sense of responsibility broadens out from the individual tree to the larger world around. Whether, in fact, such an emotional connection develops in those who participate in SeasonWatch remains to be seen. This may not happen spontaneously, and so we must develop additional tools and activities that encourage it.

SeasonWatch in schools
In our schools programme, children monitor trees, and teachers coordinate the activity. The activity can be class based, or it can be carried out as part of a school nature club, as in many of the schools we work with in Kerala. The basic activity is standard: a child chooses or is assigned a tree, and then spends five minutes at the tree every week, noting simple information about its leaves, flowers and fruits. This information is written down in a notebook and eventually transferred through a free account on the SeasonWatch website.

This basic activity is just a first step in getting children outdoors and making observations. Teachers play a crucial role in reinforcing the connections with nature by encouraging children to do other things around the tree: observing ants, butterflies or birds; making bark rubbing and leaf paintings; comprising works of verbal or visual art inspired by the tree; and so on.
Education for Change • Volume 17
For more information contact:

Dr Suhel Quader
Head, Citizen Science Division
National centre for Biological Science
GKVK Campus, Bellary Road
Bangalore – 560 065 Karntaka

More about SeasonWatch
SeasonWatch is a Citizen Science project run by the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, and the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, with support from Wipro Applying Thought in Schools. Anyone who is interested is invited to help monitor flowering, fruiting and leafing times of trees, and track changes that are expected as the climate changes. All you need to do is choose a tree, visit it for 5 minutes once a week, note down a few basic observations on flowers, fruits and leaves, and upload your observations through your account on the SeasonWatch website. The project covers about 100 species of trees, but for our schools programme, we focus on a subset of 25:

Jackfruit,Jamun, Pride of India, Indian Gooseberry, Campbell’s Magnolia, Box Myrtle, Mango, Banyan, Mast Tree, Himalayan Cherry, Himalayan Maple, Himalayan Rhododendron, Devil’s Tree, Purple Bauhinia, Indian Coral Tree, Flame of the Forest, Indian Laburnum, Pongam, Tamarind, Neem, Walnut, Gulmohar, Egyptian Mimosa, East Indian Walnut, Red Silk Cotton Tree

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