Skip to main content

Plant phenology networks of citizen scientists: recommendations from two decades of experience in Canada


Plant phenology networks of citizen scientists have a long history and have recently contributed to our understanding of climate change effects on ecosystems. This paper describes the development of the Alberta and Canada PlantWatch programs, which coordinate networks of citizen scientists who track spring development timing for common plants. Tracking spring phenology is highly suited to volunteers and, with effective volunteer management, observers will stay loyal to a phenology program for many years. Over two decades beginning in 1987, Alberta PlantWatch volunteers reported 47,000 records, the majority contributed by observers who participated for more than 9 years. We present a quantitative analysis of factors that determine the quality of this phenological data and explore sources of variation. Our goal is to help those who wish to initiate new observer networks with an analysis of the effectiveness of program protocols including selected plant species and bloom stages.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  • Beaubien EG (1991) Phenology of vascular plant flowering in Edmonton and across Alberta. MSc thesis. University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

  • Beaubien EG, Freeland HJ (2000) Spring phenology trends in Alberta, Canada: links to ocean temperature. Int J Biometeorol 44:53–59

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Beaubien EG, Hall-Beyer M (2003) Plant phenology in western Canada: trends and links to the view from space. Environ Monit Assess 88:419–429

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beaubien EG, Hamann A (2011) Spring flowering response to climate change between 1936 and 2006 in Alberta, Canada. Bioscience 61 (in press). doi:10.1525/bio.2011.61.7.6

  • Beaubien EG, Johnson DL (1994) Flowering plant phenology and weather in Alberta, Canada. Int J Biometeorol 38:23–27

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bird CD (1983) Alberta flowering dates. Alberta Nat 13(Suppl 1):1–4

    Google Scholar 

  • Bonney R, Cooper C, Dickinson J, Kelling S, Phillips T, Shirk JL (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59:977–984

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Delaney DG, Sperling CD, Adams CS, Leung B (2008) Marine invasive species: validation of citizen science and implications for national monitoring networks. Biol Invasions 10:117–128

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dickinson JL, Zuckerberg B, Bonter DN (2010) Citizen science as an ecological research tool: challenges and benefits. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 41:49–172

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Droege S (2007) Just because you paid them doesn’t mean their data are better. Pages 13–26 in McEver C, Bonney R, Dickinson J, Kelling S, Rosenberg K, Shirk J, (eds) Citizen Science Toolkit Conference Proceedings. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, June 20–23, 2007

  • Fitter AH, Fitter RSR (2002) Rapid changes in flowering time of British plants. Science 296:1689–1691

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Jackson MT (1966) Effects of microclimate on spring flowering phenology. Ecology 47:407–415

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Koch E (2010) Global framework for data collection-Data bases, data availability, future networks, online databases. In: Hudson IL, Keatley MR (eds) Phenological research, methods for environmental and climate change analysis. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 23–61

    Google Scholar 

  • Kross A, Fernandes R, Seaquist J, Beaubien E (2011) The effect of the temporal resolution of NDVI data on season onset dates and trends across Canadian broadleaf forests. Remote Sens Environ 115:1564–1575

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leopold A, Jones SA (1947) A phenological record for Sauk and Dane counties, Wisconsin, 1935–1945. Ecol Monogr 17:81–122

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Louv R (2008) Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin, Chapel Hill, NC

    Google Scholar 

  • Moss EH (1983) In: Packer JG (ed) Flora of Alberta, 2nd edn. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON

    Google Scholar 

  • Natural Regions Committee (2006) Natural regions and Subregions of Alberta. Compiled by DJ Downing and WW Pettapiece. Edmonton. Pub. No. T/852. Alberta Environment, Government of Alberta, Edmonton, AB

  • R Development Core Team (2008) R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R foundation for statistical computing. Vienna, Austria. ISBN 3-900051-07-0, URL

  • Ryan R, Kaplan R, Grese R (2001) Predicting volunteer commitment in environmental stewardship programmes. J Environ Plan Manag 44:629–648

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • SAS Institute (2008) SAS/STAT 9.2 User’s guide. SAS Institute, Cary, NC

    Google Scholar 

  • Schmeller DS, Henry PY, Julliard R, Gruber B, Clobert J et al (2009) Advantages of volunteer-based biodiversity monitoring in Europe. Conserv Biol 23:307–316

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schwartz MD, Beaubien EG (2003) Chapter 2.4. North America. In: Schwarz MD (ed) Phenology: an integrative environmental science. Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp 57–73

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Vasseur L, Guscott RL, Mudie PJ (2001) Monitoring of spring flower phenology in Nova Scotia: comparison over the last century. Northeast Nat 8:393–402

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Funding to carry out the analysis presented in this paper was provided by the NSERC Discovery Grant RGPIN-330527-07 and Alberta Ingenuity Grant #200500661. We thank all citizen scientists who contributed to the data collection and we appreciate their enthusiasm and continued support of this program. Comments on the manuscript were kindly provided by Dr. M. Hall-Beyer and we also thank L. Seale for editing.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elisabeth G. Beaubien.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Beaubien, E.G., Hamann, A. Plant phenology networks of citizen scientists: recommendations from two decades of experience in Canada. Int J Biometeorol 55, 833–841 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: