The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about how we interact with each other, and how we interact with each other while nature volunteering is no exception. Many volunteer events were cancelled in 2020 after social distancing guidelines went into effect in March. By the summer, a few events returned, but at a lower capacity than in previous years.

Paper grocery bags full of dried plants on the ground next to a van.
Volunteers collected a couple dozen bags of wildflower and grass seeds for Three Rivers Park District on October 17. Social distancing was quite easy in a wide-open prairie at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve.

The Minnesota master naturalist program was very kind about the difficulty of finding volunteer opportunities, given that so many were canceled. Anyone who recorded any volunteer hours in 2020 will receive a service pin, rather than the required 40 hours of volunteering plus 8 hours of advanced training in typical years.

It was a good year to spend time in nature — but individually, not in groups. Fortunately for me, my volunteer gig with the Big River Big Woods chapter of Wild Ones is essentially a solo endeavor, anyway. I post several-times-a-week updates on the Big River Big Woods Instagram feed, documenting what’s happening in gardens, parks, and wild spaces throughout the year.

Blooming purple, red, yellow, and pink flowers next to a pond.
My new favorite spot to find wildflowers! It’s a restoration project of a shoreline that used to be overrun by invasive buckthorn. Volunteers helped the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District plant native wildflowers and grasses here in 2019. In late summer, this spot was filled with flowers — and bees and butterflies and birds. This beautiful area is around an unnamed pond to the southeast of Snail Lake in Shoreview. I visited this spot a lot to take photos for the Big River Big Woods Instagram account.

Most of the photos I post on this Instagram feed are from my own garden, or from my hikes in the Twin Cities metro area, but I also post photos from other members from time to time. I especially appreciated that option when I broke my foot in early May and couldn’t easily get outside to see what was blooming!

In 2020, I posted 228 photos on this Instagram account. To make time-tracking easy, I count each post as 15 minutes. Some posts are short (just a sentence for a caption) and quick to do when the flower is in my own yard. Other posts are longer and take some time to research, not to mention travel time to parks. In the end, I’m undercounting by using that average, but I’m not worried because that many posts added up to 57 volunteer hours with just this one activity! Here are the three posts with the most likes:

In January, to help promote the annual Big River Big Woods winter seed planting event, I created a “name that seed” campaign. Each day leading up to the event, I posted a photo of a plant’s seeds, and invited people to swipe the photo to see the flower in bloom or scroll down to see the scientific and common names in the caption.

Planning this campaign and photographing the seeds was a lot of fun. It even evolved into a live guessing game during the seed planting event!

I also added an “invasive plant of the week” campaign, showing a flower that was blooming at that time, and describing why it’s a problem.

Besides these educational Instagram posts, I found some other opportunities to log volunteer time, too: some before the lockdowns, and some afterward but on my own.

Winter tracking survey: In January, about 30 people gathered at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve for their annual winter animal tracking event. My group (by chance, made up of four master naturalist volunteers) headed to a small lake, where we found wolf tracks, as well as coyote and fox prints along the trail. Another group investigated a deer that had recently been killed by a wolf and found signs that a fox, a fisher, and birds had been scavenging on the carcass. The third group went to an open field and found tracks of coyote, vole, mink, and several fishers. All three groups found plenty of evidence of deer: many well-worn deer trails, along with areas where they had rested, and areas where they had scavenged for acorns. In all, 15 species were recorded. Here are two of the master naturalist volunteers studying the wolf tracks on the frozen lake:

A person pointing at a set of tracks in the snow, while another person looks on.

Snow seeding (native prairie plants and grasses) in the woods for the City of Roseville:

Scattered seeds mixed with sawdust shavings on top of snow.

Snow seeding wildflowers and grasses with the Lower Phalen Creek Project at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary:

A hand pouring seeds onto snow, with purple prairie clover seedheads in the background.

Roseville parks: Stacking pre-cut Siberian Ash trees into wood storage boxes near fire pits at Central Park. It was March 14, two days before the city closed public facilities due to COVID-19. People were leery about what we were about to head into.

A small wooden shelter nearly filled with logs.

Spring tracking survey: Two-day tracking survey of the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project that got moved to the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area after the Cedar Creek spring survey was cancelled due to COVID-19. It was modified to a do-it-yourself survey, rather than the typical group activity. We went to one entry point on Saturday and another entry point on Sunday. Highlight of the first day was recording many frog calls, and the following day we not only heard but also saw the frogs in a wetland closer to the trail. Plus this canine scat:

Dried, light-gray scat in 3 pieces, with an orange ruler showing the pile is 5 inches wide.

Pulling invasive garlic mustard at Reservoir Woods (which needs a lot of help with this problem):

A hand pulling out a garlic mustard plant, showing the root is longer than the plant.

City Nature Challenge, a competition among cities all across the world. People go outside and take photos of life forms, living or dead. Could be a flower, a mammal, a feather, a print in mud, a skeleton, scat — any evidence that something is or was there. The photos are then uploaded to iNaturalist, with date and time, location, and any categorization the photographer knows (even if it’s just “tree”).

A second part of the challenge is identifying the photos, and anyone can take part in that, even if they didn’t take any photos. This event is usually a friendly challenge to see which city can record the most verified observations, but in 2020 it turned into a friendly collaboration due to the pandemic.

Ask me to go out to parks and take photos of everything I see? I’ll do that every chance I get. For the 2020 challenge, I took two days and visited two Twin Cities area regional parks each day. I also did a bit of identifying for other local observations.

(Save the dates for the 2021 City Nature Challenge: take photos from April 30-May 3, and ID from May 4-9.)

Closeup of a globe-shaped mass with a stem growing above and below.
Gall of the larva of a goldenrod gall fly, found at Long Lake Regional Park.
Overhead view of a green plant with parsley-like leaves.
Narrow-leaved bittercress, an invasive species that’s popped up relatively recently in the Twin Cities, this time at Hidden Falls Regional Park.
Overhead view of a plant with 2 dozen round leaves with scalloped edges.
Little-leaf buttercup, a native wildflower that looks very similar to the invasive garlic mustard when both are at this stage, which unfortunately happens to be at the same time of year. Found at Lake George Regional Park.
Closeup of a flower with 8 white petals open flat.
A beautiful bloodroot, found at Rum River Central Regional Park.

Weeding the children’s pollinator garden at the Roseville library, one of the Big River Big Woods chapter’s projects. I’ve unofficially claimed removing the invasive species birdsfoot trefoil as my personal project. Here’s a before-and-after of one of the walking paths; note the lack of yellow in the second photo:

A gravel path narrowed by green plants with small yellow flowers.
The same path back to its normal width. Other green plants, some with white flowers, are now more clearly visible.

The DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas program held several bioblitzes during 2020. A bioblitz is very similar to the City Nature Challenge, only with a designated location. The SNA program uses information submitted during a bioblitz to expand its species lists. I happened to be relatively close to La Salle Lake SNA during its late-August bioblitz, so I headed over to see what I could find. In this case, I was one of 9 people who made 850 observations of more than 300 species. Note that in a bioblitz, all species are recorded, whether invasive (like the thistles below) or native (like the blazingstar).

Seed collecting at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Parks: Gathered stiff goldenrod, showy goldenrod, and assorted asters. (Staff realize that asters are hard enough to tell apart when they’re blooming, let alone when they’re in seed, so we got to collect them all without worrying about sorting by species.)

A hand holding dried flowers, with fingers holding the three species separate.

And finally, I helped the master naturalist program’s Instagram account a few times too, contributing photos and text for three posts:

Are you a Minnesota master naturalist volunteer, too? Program leaders are always looking to share stories of how we’re volunteering and what we’re seeing. Contact master naturalist staff to share nature photos from your own adventures.

All of these activities added up to 85.75 service hours, just under my personal record set in 2019. The travel time was less than half, no surprise due to fewer in-person volunteer activities.

Screengrab from the hours tracking system showing 85.75 service hours, 5.25 travel hours, 3 prep hours, 353 miles, and 94 total hours.
Nearly horizontal shadow on leaves.
Accidental selfie during the City Nature Challenge. See more of my 2020 volunteering photos.

Previous volunteer recaps

I’m so glad I spent time photographing wild ginger a couple weeks ago, now that I’m nursing a broken foot that’s preventing me from a deep exploration of my garden. I’ve been looking through those photos plus a few I found from last year.

The wild ginger stands out in my garden, before its neighboring summer-blooming flowers have started appearing.

Three flowering plants, each with two fuzzy leaves on long stems and a dark-red flower at their base.

This woodland plant has beautiful, heart-shaped leaves.

Overhead view of two large, heart-shaped leaves. The top heart is upside-down and the bottom leaf is right-side up.

Landscapers say this is an excellent groundcover. It spreads, but not too quickly.

Dozens of leaves taking up the entire frame.

This spot in my garden has roughly tripled in size in six years.

Wider view of two clumps of wild ginger.

Every year I see people comment on Instagram that they didn’t realize these plants have flowers. They hide really well!

Dark-red flower barely poking out under two big leaves.

The flowers are weird and wonderful.

Focus on a flower with three long, greenish, skinny sepals branching off a red flower, like legs running.

They’re close to the ground, sometimes even resting on the ground, which makes them attractive to ants that carry the seeds to new areas. The dark color and bad smell (which I cannot vouch for) apparently attract flies that pollinate the flowers.

Closeup of a flower that's on the ground.

The leaves start out lying flat.

A single leaf, looking like it's swaddled with a brown blanket.

Then the leaves pop up and the flower appears — like a sea creature poking out of its shell.

Ground view of the fully open flower, though only its two bottom sepals are visible, with its two leaves cradling the top.

Within a couple days, the leaves are fully grown. Sometimes they look like a pair of antennas.

One plant with its leaves sticking out in a V shape.

New plants apparently start out as teeny-tiny replicas. I’ll have to watch these next year to see if they’re “oldies” that will flower.

Six miniature plants with their leaves sticking straight up, no flowers, next to a quarter that is almost as big.

More about wild ginger

I’m certainly not the only gardener who buys plants and then takes awhile to get around to planting them. Usually these neglected plants don’t do much in my yard, but 2019 brought several delightful surprises.

I had forgotten I even bought a pasque flower the year before, so when I rounded the corner to the backyard and saw this beauty, I gasped:

Large, pale purple flower on a short stem, in a small pot.

I bought two pots of blueflag iris at a spring sale, and each produced three gorgeous blooms:

Dark-purple iris with yellow streaks, with a patio in the background.

A brand-new harebell:

Closeup of a medium-purple bell-shaped flower.

This one was particularly embarrassing. I had bought these two pots in 2018. Not only were the tags weathered and unreadable, but I had not even the slightest memory of what they were — and they had been in that spot so long, roots had grown out the bottom, so the pots were stuck in the ground.

Two small plants, each with a paper tag glued to a popsicle stick.

They turned out to be wild petunia:

Closeup of a single medium-purple, five-petaled flower.

And last but certainly not least, this dark blue stunner I didn’t see coming: bottle gentian.

Small pot on a paver wall, with a long stem branching to the right, and a single dark, balloon-shaped bloom.

Sharing memories of 2019’s garden, with hopes that this reminds us all that happy days will come again.

Best new addition

Meadow blazing star…

A stem with three purple flowers that look like bird nests

…which really is a monarch magnet.

stem of blooming purple flowers, leaning horizontally, with a monarch hanging upside-down

Other new plants

Swamp milkweed was successful in my yard for the first time!

two clusters of pink-colored milkweed flowers, the ones in the foreground blooming and the ones in the background budding

I planted this thimbleweed from seed several years ago, and it finally appeared.

six short yellow flowers

This is narrow-leaved coneflower, the native version of the popular purple coneflower found nearly everywhere. I bought just one of these plants and it seemed pretty lonely in its new spot in the garden. Hopefully it will spread quickly.

a flower viewed from above, with a spiky flower disk and long, narrow pink petals falling away

I also purchased two other blazingstars (rough and prairie), a bottle gentian, two blueflag iris, and aromatic aster. (The other pots are plants that are, ahem, still hanging around from 2018.)

13 potted plants resting on a staircase


All of the milkweeds and the blazingstars did well — possibly because we fenced them in and the rabbits didn’t get to eat them this year. (This one is whorled milkweed.)

closeup of white-colored milkweed flowers, half blooming and half budding

The false indigo produced one flower spike in 2018. The following year: about 60!

shrubby plant with a half-dozen purple spikes of flowers with orange pollen

It had a relatively short blooming period, but it was much loved by bees when the flowers were around.

two spikes of purple flowers, with a bee posing on the left

Wild ginger is doing spectacularly, especially in the more shaded backyard garden.

a mass of large, heart-shaped green leaves viewed from above


The bishop’s cap gave up after two years, possibly crowded out by violets.

the tag for a bishop's cap plant, nearly covered by a blooming purple violet

The butterflyweed up front, which was a huge two-colored beauty for years and was a host of many monarch caterpillar eggs in years past, and survived the sewer reconstruction of 2018, petered out in 2019. These buds did bloom, but that was the extent of the plant.

one cluster of orange buds, above somewhat curled leaves


When pulling grass from my backyard garden, I suddenly realized I had gone too far and hit the spiderwort.

about a dozen green stems that appear to have been cut at about 2 inches above the ground

Fortunately, it was early enough in the year, and it grew anyway, blooming for the first time.

a three-petaled purple flower

This wild columbine survived being eaten by deer (twice) and a transplant during the blooming season. What a strong plant!

closeup of a pink-and-yellow flower that hangs upside-down, with five more in the background


This pretty vine…

many six-inch stems with small oval-shaped leaves

…turned into the pretty but invasive crown vetch. Out it came.

overhead view of a round, light-pink flower

And I gasped when I saw this one: garlic mustard! I spend hours helping parks get rid of this terrible invader! And I probably carried seeds back home with me on my shoes from one of those events. I pulled it out long before it could create seeds.

overhead view of one small, four-petaled white flower above many large, scalloped green leaves

Best unexpected find

Bird’s nest fungus! It’s obvious how this one got its name. Notice the (small) clovers for perspective on just how tiny these treasures are.

10 small round cups with flat, light-brown circles inside

New bugs

This chrysalis was hiding under a common milkweed leaf. Could be a red admiral; I’m not sure. I watched it for a couple weeks but it disappeared — likely eaten, since the chrysalis “shell” was gone.

a brownish, spiky chrysalis hanging on the underside of a leaf that's been turned up

I believe this is a red admiral caterpillar. It’s so blurry because it was almost dark and my phone did the best it could to compensate. I was looking for caterpillars on the pennsylvania pellitory plants in my front yard, since I’ve heard they are a host plant, and I lucked out! Good reminder that what we may consider a weed (in this case, a mildly aggressive sticky weed) may be vitally important for our insect friends.

a nearly black, spiky caterpillar on a small, light-green plant

Previous recaps