Driftless Terroir: Finding Phenology with a Pandemic Puppy

by John Peterson

I have to admit that I have been sneaking out on my wife and kids. Early in the morning I duck out the back door with Sadie … our pandemic puppy. She is a border collie, so she needs to work. We don’t have sheep, so she has to settle for herding me around the woods and prairies near Platteville. 

Sadie the adventure dog.

My whole life I have looked for excuses to get outside. I didn’t need an excuse when I was a child. I had nothing but time to head outdoors and catch frogs and bugs. When I was a teenager, I took up mountain biking, disc golf and photography. I chose a career that got me outside studying amphibians and reptiles (herpetology). As a young dad, my kids were my excuse to get outside. Now my excuse is Sadie. I admit that, at first, I didn’t want a dog, but I am smitten with Sadie. 

You don’t need a pandemic puppy to get outside. In 2020, Wisconsin state parks saw a 22 percent increase in visitation and they are expecting another record year in 2021. Unfortunately, last April the governor had to close 40 state parks due to vandalism and crowds. I want to urge you to avoid the crowds and find smaller patches of nature close to home and watch how those patches change throughout the year. Do this and you will become a phenologist. 

Before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to spend time in the field with one of our greatest living Wisconsin naturalists. I was blown away by how he could read the landscape based on the plants that we came upon. That experience inspired my latest phenological project.

Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena. You’ve probably already noted phenological changes in your neighborhood. Crocuses are the first flowers to pop out of breaks in the snow, followed by daffodils, hyacinths and tulips. Robins and red-winged blackbirds are often thought of as the harbingers of spring. We use departing dark-eyed juncos as our spring litmus. As a herpetologist, my favorite vernal voices are spring peepers and chorus frogs. 

Why be a phenologist? Getting outside has been shown to benefit your physical and psychological health. In fact, “ecotherapy” can help with depression and anxiety. We have all had a tough year getting through this pandemic and getting outside can do wonders for a struggling brain. 

Daffodils erupting from the ground in my backyard in Platteville.

Wisconsin has a rich phenological history. One of our most famous scientists from Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold, author of “A Sand County Almanac,” was a phenologist. His data have been used as evidence for how our climate is changing in Wisconsin. If you have not visited the Leopold Center in Monona and the beloved shack where he spent countless days with his family and dogs, you are in for a treat. 

The Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey was the first citizen science frog calling survey of its kind in the United States and has been used as a model the world over. On the first warm night in April we drive around southwestern Wisconsin quantifying frog calls while our kids fall asleep in the back seat. You can sign up for a route or contribute to other phenological citizen science programs at www.wiatri.net. 

I have had a personal love affair with phenology. I have completed research with students on the phenology of frog reproductive calls, including those of the state-endangered Blanchard’s cricket frog. We have also observed local phenological changes in an emerging fungal disease infecting snakes across North America. However, I have longed to harness my inner Aldo Leopold and learn more about plants. Before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to spend time in the field with one of our greatest living Wisconsin naturalists, Mike Mossman, who helped start the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey in the ’80s. I was blown away by how he could read the landscape based on the plants that we came upon. That experience inspired my latest phenological project.


Sadie-the-adventure-pup and I have been documenting the local flowers and fungi on the Platte Mound (you know, the mound outside Platteville with the big M on it). When a new discovery is made, we post our finds on social media and let our friends help us ID our treasures. We’ve also been using books and the iNaturalist app. Once we have a positive ID I learn as much as I can about the discovery. Wild ginger has flowers that appear below the leaf litter that are pollinated by beetles. Dutchman’s breeches (because their flowers look like pants) are also called “staggerweed” because of their hallucinogenic effects on livestock. I know what you are thinking, but it is thought to be toxic to humans. 

My personal favorite flower find has been bloodroot. One friend noted that they look like little vampires. They have one large flower that, when closed, looks like a head. They have one large leaf that wraps around the flower like a cape. I like to think of bloodroot a little more poetically. They emerge from the ground under harsh spring conditions and weather wind and frost. Their beauty is a surprising joy to behold, but that beauty is supported by one diverse leaf. Each leaf is structurally unique. In these difficult times, I hope you have someone special that is supporting you. A loved one, a mentor or a new puppy. Each time I see bloodroot I think of how lucky I am to be supported. 

Dr. John Peterson is an associate professor of biology at UW-Platteville. He is also an avid musician, photographer, foodie, father and husband. Find his science at www.facebook.com/drjohndpeterson and his music at www.johnpeterson.bandcamp.com.