Near Will’s Marsh on the grounds of the Montana Audubon Conservation Education Center, Jasmine Lee, 16, identified the sex of a Rocky Mountain juniper by looking at it.
“This is a female,” she said.
Lee and 60 other environmental science students enrolled in two classes from Senior and one from West High School have been monitoring 15 different species of plants and 20 species of birds since mid-March.
Their last day to make observations was Thursday.
It’s all part of a phenology project that had students monitoring when plants bud and birds return to the area using an application on their smart phones, called Nature’s Notebook.
Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles.
The timing of bird migrations, budding plants and when amphibians or reptiles come out of dormancy has been carefully monitored by climate change scientists, because the data could give insight on global shifts in seasons or temperatures.
The data collected in Billings goes into a national database maintained by Nature’s Notebook.
Lee said it has helped her learn things she wouldn’t have noticed about the plants.
“I would have definitely not looked at a tree and said, like, yeah, that’s a female,” she said.
The study is funded through a $10,000 grant from the Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship program, which was awarded to the Audubon’s Darcie Howard in November.
Howard, director of center, wasted no time getting students ready to take spring observations.
“I started getting into the classroom in February,” Howard said.
By mid-March the classes were out in the field snapping photos, looking at birds and carefully charting the changes in plants that were happening.
Sarah Lord, the environmental science teacher at Senior High School has used the phenology observations as a teaching tool to inspire her students to get in touch with the world around them.
“It gets the students to really familiarize themselves with two native species,” she said. “The students are really connecting with their species.”
Developing that connection with the natural world, she said, is crucial for the future of the environment.
“If you don’t care about the environment, you’re not going to want to take care of it,” Lord said.