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On our watch: Akeley man records nature observations for 20 years

Since picking up a camera in 2015, Dallas Hudson has taken hundreds of photos of wildlife and plants in the Akeley area, along with his phenology notes. (Photo by Dallas Hudson)1 / 3
Hudson keeps his meticulous, daily observations in a journal. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise) 2 / 3
Using his data from 20 years, Hudson can chart trends for each species. He tracks everything from ferns to spiders. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)3 / 3

Growing up on 11th Crow Wing Lake in Akeley, Dallas Hudson spent his boyhood exploring the surrounding public lands and waters.

An outdoorsman all of his life, "I've always been in the outdoors looking at everything," he said. "My escape was the woods, the lake."

With the exception of 10 years spent in Michigan as a seasonal worker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hudson, 52, has lived in Minnesota his entire life.

He works at an official field camp of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on Shingobee Lake, near Akeley. As part of the Shingobee Headwaters Aquatic Ecosystems Project, Hudson conducts research on physical, chemical and biological processes of lakes, wetlands, and streams, investigating interactions between air, water and land. He monitors weather, temperature, water chemistry, groundwater wells and more.

Hudson's interest in phenology began in the mid-1990s after his USGS boss, recognizing his in-depth knowledge of local flora and fauna, encouraged him to write down all of his nature observations.

Phenology is the study of recurring events in the life cycle of plants and animals, many of which are closely tied to climate and seasonal rhythms.

Thomas Jefferson, Henry Thoreau and Aldo Leopold all studied phenology.

Journals started to pile up and it wasn't long before Hudson became one Minnesota's most dedicated phenologists.

"It's curiosity that drives me. What is that? Is it edible? What use does it have?" Hudson said. "It's become an obsession."

Hudson's shares his observations, data and photos with the Minnesota Phenology Network, KAXE's "Season Watch" community and the USA National Phenology Network's "Nature's Notebook."

Gathering at Itasca Park

A small, citizen-led group called the Minnesota Phenology Network (MnPN) is holding its 8th annual fall phenology gathering from Oct. 20-22. This year, it will be held at Itasca State Park's biological station and laboratories.

Founded in 2010, the MnPN promotes the study of phenology by sharing knowledge, compiling long-term datasets, creating common measurement protocols and inspiring nature observers of all ages across the state.

According to their website, "Knowing that more observers yield more data, and more data lead to better science, the founders of the group were inspired to create a network of engaged, citizen scientists to help gather that data — and the Minnesota Phenology Network was born. Using standardized, yet simple observation methods developed by the USA-National Phenology Network, these citizen scientists have contributed hundred of observations over the years, and the numbers keep growing."

MnPN encourages Minnesotans to monitor the natural world, share their data and use phenology to increase environmental awareness and education.

Keeping a record of observations directly impact scientist's ability to learn how a changing climate is impacting Minnesota's plants and animals.

In order to gather useful information, citizen scientists must record it in an accurate and consistent way. MnPN offers tips, tricks and video training on its website (www.mnpn.usanpn.org) and at the fall gathering.

The conference begins with dinner and a keynote lecture Friday, Oct. 20 and ends with lunch Oct. 22. Registration includes two days of workshops, guided hikes, meals, lodging and presentations with Minnesota's leading phenologists, such as John Latimer.

Latimer invites schools from across the state to share their student phenology observations on his weekly radio program.

"My highlight of the week is to listen to the kiddies speak," Hudson said, noting they are generally fourth, fifth or sixth graders under the leadership of a science teacher.

For more information about the Fall Phenology event at Itasca State Park, contact Tina Morey at tina.m.morey@gmail.com.

A dedicated nature observer

Since 1996, Hudson has tracked some 500 species — birds, animals, insects, plants — in his daily journals, noting first and last sightings of each season and population counts.

He began chronicling wood ducks, robins, monarchs and loons, "and I just kept adding and adding and adding."

Hudson fastidiously records the emergence of flowers, the chirping of frogs, the arrival of birds and so on. His phenology reports include Kingfishers, grouse, chipmunks, beaked hazel, Compton's wort, wood ticks, wood frogs, hepaticus (his favorite flower) — you name it.

A self-taught photographer, his data is accompanied with hundreds of photos.

Hudson then uses computer graphs to plot trends.

He helps fellow phenologist John Weber chart local butterfly and dragonfly trends.

If it weren't for citizen scientists like himself, no one would be collecting the data. There is no phenology program through state or federal government.

Hudson would love to get copies old journals or calendars kept by grandmothers or grandfathers "where they kept track of the robins returning or roses blooming or something like that."

"The older it goes back, the better. Grandma just left a legacy," he said.

For many northern Minnesota species, Hudson said the first sighting is occurring later and the last sighting is earlier. He believes mid-summer droughts appear to be a factor.

Hudson also logs the first frost, spring thaw, rainfall, snow depth and overall temperature.

"Where we're really seeing a difference is freeze up," he said. "We always ice fished some place Thanksgiving Day. John Weber used to ice skate. That was just a yearly tradition. Neither of us get to do any of that anymore."

In the past, first snowfall arrived during hunting opener.

"Now how often do we worry about a white Christmas? That's a biggie," he said. "We don't get the snow and cold we used to."

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