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Citizen Science Monitoring Instructions

Pollinator Attraction Citizen Science Monitoring Project

Monitoring Protocol

Goal: Repeat observations of the same individual plants over a summer, and document any phenological changes or pollinator visitors. University of Alaska Fairbanks ecologists, Dr. Christa Mulder and Katie Spellman, want to see if invasive plants such as white sweetclover overlap in flowering time with native Vaccinium sp. plants in different parts of Alaska. With this phenological data we can create models to help us predict which area might be most vulnerable to changes in pollination of native berry plants. Melilotus officinalis is a tracked species of the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), and we aligned our protocol to match the requirements of their protocols. Our project will contribute to the National Phenology Network data, which supports larger scale sweetclover phenology studies throughout the United States.

Project Contact: Katie Villano Spellman,

Overview of citizen monitoring steps:

1.      Select a site

2.      Select plant species to investigate

3.      Select individual focal plants

4.      Mark your site and plants

5.      Record your observations of plants

6.      Report your data


1. Select a site


A site is the area which encompasses any plants you plan to observe.

Select sites that are

      convenient for you to get to

      relatively uniform habitat

      at least 12 m2 in area, but not larger than 200m2.

Remember, if the land is not publicly owned, be sure to secure permission from the landowner to observe plants on the property.

Try to avoid:

      Steep slopes

      Very windy sites

      Areas prone to snow drifts

      Watered or fertilized sites

The size of your site will depend on how sparse the species you are observing are on the landscape. If the plants are dense, a small site will work, if the plants are sparse, a larger site will be necessary.

When you've selected your site, fill out the site description form so we can have the relevant data about your site. Scan and return this form immediately to Katie via email, or snail mail it to the address in step 6. You'll need to record the latitude, longitude, and elevation of your site. You can do this with a GPS unit, if you have access to one, or you can use Google Earth to locate the exact location of your site find these numbers.

DOWNLOAD Site Description Form here.


2. Select plant species to investigate

The focal speices we are investigating are Melilotus officinalis (sweetclover), Vaccinium vitis- idaea (lowbush cranberry or lingonberry), and Vaccinium uliginosum (lowbush blueberry or bog blueberry). Locate one or more of these species in a convenient location for you to monitor on at least a weekly basis.

DOWNLOAD an identification guide of our focal plants here.

If you are still unsure if you have the correct species, email us photos and we can make sure you have correctly identified your plants. Do this early on so you don’t collect data on the wrong species!

If you do not have Vaccinium uliginosum, V. vitis-idaea or M. officinalis in your local area, you may choose another native or non-native species tracked by the USA-NPN that occurs in Alaska, or another species of interest. Tracked species include the non-native plants white clover (Trifolium repens), or dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). You may also choose to observe an invasive plant of interest in your area.


3. Select individual focal plants

Observing multiple individuals helps to give scientists an idea of the variation in phenology among individuals at your site. You will select and monitor FIVE individuals of the same species at your site. Do not select direct neighbors.

Choose 5 plants that are:


      relatively undamaged

      At least 1 m away from other plants you are observing

      For clonal plants, choose individual stems from different clumps

Try to avoid:

      plants that are close to buildings

What if the plant I am observing dies?

      Select a new individual to monitor

      Note the death in the comments section of the datasheet

      Give the replacement plant a new, unique label (for example, plant #6)


4. Marking sites and focal plants

You will make your observations repeatedly at the same site or sites over time. You will want to somehow mark your site so that you can find it again in the future. For most sites, it is probably easiest to mark an easy entry point or nearby tree or shrub with colorful flagging, which is a colored non-adhesive tape often made of PVC or vinyl, scrap cloth, or something similar. You can also use natural or human-made landmarks, like the edge of a yard, large rocks, a bend in a trail, a road, or something similar to remember your site location.

Because plant monitoring requires that you observe the same individual plants repeatedly, you will also need to mark each plant so that you can find it on each visit. Mark each individual plant with a unique label. For example, you could mark pieces of flagging tape or metal plant tags with “Melilotus-1”, “Melilotus-2”, etc. and then tie them to each of the white sweetclover you are observing. Or, you could label brightly painted popsicle sticks or chopsticks and place them in the ground next to the plant so you can find them as the vegetation grows. Be sure to replace the labels if they get damaged by the weather or animals, so you can be sure to continue marking the correct data for the correct plant.


5. Recording Observations

At least once a week, you will record the phenophase of each focal plant by counting the number of buds, flowers and fruits. You will record these observations on a datasheet. You will record the data for each plant in the column on the data sheet with the same number or label as on the plant. There are different datasheets for sweetclover (Melilotus officinalis) and for the berries (Vaccinium uliginosum and V. vitis-idaea). Be sure you are using the correct data sheet.

 DOWNLOAD monitoring datasheets here.


DOWNLOAD a photo guide for the phenophases of our three focal species here!

Leaf  Unfurling/ Emergence 

New growth of the plant is visible, either from above-ground buds with green tips, or new green or white shoots breaking through the soil surface. Growth is considered "initial" on each bud or shoot until the first leaf has fully unfolded. Record “yes” or “no” if the plant has begun to unfurl leaves (Vaccinium spp.), or has begun to break through the soil surface (Melilotus officinalis). This phase will only need to be recorded in May or early June. You do not need to keep recording this phenophase when the leaves have fully emerged.

Flower Buds

Count the number of flower buds that have not yet opened on the plant. For Vaccinium uliginosum (blueberry) the flower buds droop like tiny pink earrings. For Vaccinium vitis- idaea (lowbush cranberry), the flower buds look a bit similar to leaf buds at first, as they are both pink in appearance and come straight from the end of the stem. Look for the pinker buds with hardly any green on them. For Melilotus sp. (sweetclover), rather than counting every tiny flower, count the number of inflorescences (flower spikes composed of many small individual flowers) that have unopened buds. There is a special box on the data sheet for sweetclover for inflorescences that are half buds and half flowers, or half flowers and half unripe fruits. Record these numbers separately.


Count the number of open, fresh flowers or flower spikes (inflorescences) that are visible on the plant.Do not include wilted or dried flowers that remain on the plant, or heads whose flowers have all wilted or dried. Flower spikes include many small flowers that usually do not open all at once. There is a special box on the data sheet for sweetclover for inflorescences that are half buds and half flowers, or half flowers and half petal drop, or half petal drop and half unripe fruits. Record these numbers separately. 

Petal Drop

Count the number of flowers that have dropped their petals, but have not yet started to have their ovaries swell. In all three species, the little green ovaries will not yet look like they are starting to get spherical, and there will be a pointy stigma protruding quite visibly now that the petals are gone.

Unripe Fruits 

Count the number of unripe fruits on the plant. For an unripe fruit, the ovary is swollen and obviously has been fertilized. Count all the fruits that are green or beginning to color. For Melilotus, count the number of inflorescences that are unripe fruit. Again, record the number of flower spikes with half unripe fruit and half flower or ripe fruit separately.

Ripe fruits 

Count the number of ripe fruits that are visible on the plant.

Frequency of observations:

      As often as possible, especially during the spring

      At least once a week

      All observations are valuable!

Photographic data:

You can take photos of your plants to help you remember the phenology and identity of the plants. There is a space on the datasheet to record the photo number from your digital camera. Make sure your plant labels are visible in the photo. You can put the site name, plant number, and date on a slip of paper or whiteboard and put this in the photo so you can better keep track of your photos. An example is pictured to the right.



6. Reporting your data.

Please submit your weekly datasheets to Katie Spellman on a regular basis. You may submit the data in any of the following ways:

1) Online at

2) Email scanned data sheets to

3) Mail paper data sheets to

Katie Spellman

Biology & Wildlife Department

University of Alaska Fairbanks

PO Box 756100

211 Irving 1
Fairbanks, Alaska 99775

Monitoring kits are available for citizen scientists and monitoring groups participating in our project. Please contact Katie if you are interested in receiving a monitoring kit. The kit includes:

 - 5 metal plant tags

- fluorescent flagging tape for marking your site

- “Research Area” laminated sign to mark your site  

   and prevent tampering

- Focal Plant Identification Guide

- Phenophase Photo Guide for your species

- Monitoring Protocol

- Site Description Form

- Data sheets


Katie Spellman,
May 16, 2012, 5:34 PM
Katie Spellman,
May 16, 2012, 4:30 PM
Katie Spellman,
May 16, 2012, 3:52 PM
Katie Spellman,
May 24, 2012, 6:02 PM
Katie Spellman,
May 16, 2012, 5:34 PM