2017 volunteer hours

Sorry for the early post, but this draft isn’t quite ready! Stay tuned, and I’ll publish all the details (and photos) of my 2017 master naturalist volunteering activity by the end of the month.


Volunteer service hours

A woman in a vest and fleece jacket holding an oak sapling

As a master naturalist, I am required to complete 40 hours of natural resources volunteer service per year.

As someone who loves nature, this is not a chore. For example, I’ve wanted to take part in Three Rivers Park District’s seed collection events for the last couple years, but this was the first year I made time for it – and I’m glad I did.

How to volunteer

Minnesota Master Naturalists divide service hours into four categories:

  • Citizen science
  • Education/interpretation
  • Program support
  • Stewardship

Activities such as wildflower planting and invasive species removal – stewardship – are where my interests most naturally lie. I’ve been doing citizen science, unofficially, in my own front yard (observations such as the 2015 monarch adventure), so I may join official projects in the future (ladybug project, bird counts, etc.).

Could this blog and my corresponding Instagram account count as education / interpretation? Perhaps. I spend way more than 40 hours per year on each, with taking photos, editing and posting photos, writing and editing notes, and most of all, research. But for now, that is a fun hobby.

How I volunteered

a gloved hand planting a wildflower seedlingMy husband and I participated in a City of Roseville service project in July, then I kind of forgot about this until the fall and had to cram in a bunch of events. (It’s not a surprise; I am an experienced procrastinator.) So my autumn was extremely busy packing in as many events as I could to reach the quota.

“Don’t count your naturalist service hours before they’ve hatched.” Isn’t that how the saying goes? Yes, I waited too long to get started; but FOUR volunteer events I had planned to attend were cancelled due to weather – two for rain, one for extreme heat, and one for a winter storm. A fifth was supposed to last two hours but so many volunteers showed up that it took only one. That’s a lesson to me to get the hours in early next year because something may come up to prevent my planned events from happening.

Here are the descriptions I submitted when reporting my service hours:

7/16 City of Roseville, 1.5 hours: Email solicitation: We’ll be doing shoreline planting along Bennett Lake in Central Park. Holes will mostly be predrilled [they weren’t, and it was quite difficult to dig through the thick roots on the shoreline] and many hands are needed to install hundreds of plant plugs in the designated area. [My husband participated, too.]

closeup of a hand planting a seedling into the algae-covered ground

9/1 Bruce Vento Nature Center for City of St. Paul, 1.5 hours: Collected purple prairie clover and sideoats grama seeds until sunset. Beautiful evening.

purple prairie clover seedhead with seeds falling into a hand

9/3 Crow-Hassan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 3 hours: Collected purple prairie clover and white prairie clover seeds and now can easily tell the difference between the two. [Unbeknownst to me, an Instagram friend was also collecting seeds at this event!]

Purple prairie clovers on the left; white prairie clovers on the right. They look similar, but the purple ones still had narrow leaves, while the white ones were bare stems. Also, the purple seeds are light and fluffy, while white seeds are hard.

prairie clover stems - purple on the left, white on the right

9/8 Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, 1.75 hours: Collected wildflower seed: mostly bush clover, plus some monarda and five spiders. Wrapped sweet everlasting, flowering spurge, and whorled milkweed pods in knee-high nylons to catch the seeds when they ripen (someone else will collect them in a week or so). Mosquitoes were awful.

four plants covered in nylons, knotted at the top and tightened with ties at the bottom

9/13 Coldwater Spring at Minnesota National River & Recreation Area, 1 hour: Dug up buckthorn shoots from an area that has been undergoing removal and treatment for 4 years. It would have been longer than 1 hour, but the crew leader took us “newbies” on a trip to the spring, with a wildflower and grass search (and nature jokes) along the way.

small buckthorn plant being dug up

9/14 Eastside Heritage Park for City of St. Paul, 1.5 hours: Collected Canada wild rye (other volunteers collected side-oats grama) for the City of St. Paul’s Seed Squad. I brought a coworker along, too! Simply beautiful autumn evening in this small strip of prairie and there were hundreds of grasshoppers and native ladybugs and several orb weavers. I love collecting seeds.

bucket full of Canada wild rye seeds

9/16 Ney Nature Center in Henderson, 3 hours: Monarch tagging event: Arrived at sunrise to observe monarchs in the trees, but we only found one, and it was out of reach and flew away. (The director speculated that yesterday’s storms kept new monarchs from moving into the area.) Later we walked through the prairie and again found one, but it too flew away. After a break, I ventured out again on my own, and with the sun now shining, I found several active monarchs and my first-ever viceroys! I caught five monarchs but tagged three because two escaped. (My technique got better as the day progressed.)

monarch in a net, with the top pinched closed

9/20 Coldwater Spring, 1.5 hours: Dug up burdock and mullein. Muggy and mosquitoey.

shovel next to dozens of burdock plants ready to be dug up

9/29 Como Regional Park for City of St. Paul, 1.75 hours: Seed-collecting: a small amount of golden glow (which I would call green-headed coneflower) and a large amount of gray-headed coneflower, with a large group of Conservation Corps members.

a gloved hand holding yellow coneflower seedheads over a paper bag

10/1 Sand Creek in Jordan for Great River Greening, 3.5 hours: Dug holes in non-native canary grass to help plant 500 trees and shrubs to restore the riparian zone in a former corn and hay field. A photo of me was used later in the week for the thank-you message to volunteers!

newly planted shrub inside a black cloth square

10/8 St. Peter farm site for Great River Greening, 2.5 hours: Chilly morning for planting wildflower plugs (rough and dotted blazing star, blue-eyed grass, butterfly weed, stiff tickseed, western spiderwort, wild strawberry, and more) in fields that just last year were used for corn and soybeans. This project will benefit soil health and water quality and increase habitat for pollinators and wildlife in the Seven Mile Creek watershed.

9 flats of wildflower plugs ready to be planted

10/15 Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 3 hours: Collected nearly half a grocery bag of anise hyssop seeds; our group ended up with three full bags combined. There was also a lot of gray-headed coneflower (one bag). The group also collected liatris, thimbleweed, ironweed, and white prairie clover but not purple prairie clover. Overcast day, but the woods at the prairie’s edge were very colorful.

grocery bag full of anise hyssop seeds

10/16 Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, 1.5 hours: Buckthorn pull using weed wrenches. Amazing how big of an area can be cleared in just a couple of hours, when a group works together.

a shoe holding down a buckthorn removal tool that has a small trunk

10/19 Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary for City of St. Paul, 1 hour: Collected big bluestem and Indian grass seeds.

a hand holding Indian grass seeds between the thumb and forefinger

10/22 Crow-Hassan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 3 hours: Collected seeds from the relatively rare golden aster, a slow and painstaking process. Also collected liatris, a much quicker process that yielded almost an entire grocery bag of seed, and one bag of showy goldenrod stalks. Others in the group collected gray goldenrod and bergamot. Bright sunshine and almost hot by the end of the session.

Blazing star (liatris) with seeds on the left; the same stem without seeds on the right.

the same stem shown twice, before and after collecting seeds

The master naturalist program also counts travel time as part of the volunteer time, so it was at this point that I surpassed the required 40 hours. But since I was at only 31 hours of actual service, I kept going.

10/29 Allemansrätt Wilderness Park in Lindström for Great River Greening, 2 hours: Planted baby bur oaks for a study of how trees from three different regions (Roseau, Twin Cities, Des Moines) grow in today’s Twin Cities climate, done by Great River Greening and the University of Minnesota. Each group planted 30 trees from each of the regions in a former hay field that is now a 125-acre city park named after the Swedish philosophy that citizens have a right of public access to wilderness and a duty to conserve and protect it.

newly planted bur oak tree enclosed by a plastic mesh tube, with dead grass around

11/19 City of Roseville, 1 hour: Buckthorn treatment at Cottontail Park: dragged pre-cut brush to piles in the park in preparation to be shredded early next week. It was scheduled to be a two-hour event, but more than 20 people showed up and we finished in one hour.

two buckthorn piles, lightly covered by snow

12/17 City of Roseville, 2 hours: Hauled pre-cut buckthorn and brush into piles for pickup. Six of us braved below-zero wind chill and several inches of fresh powder snow to drag limbs and trees from a frozen pond up a small hill. It went much faster after we figured out a “bucket brigade” system to pass the brush.

two buckthorn piles sitting in a snowbank

12/22 Allemansrätt Wilderness Park in Lindström for Great River Greening, 1.75 hours: Mulched the baby bur oaks that were planted in October. Sunny and relatively warm.

oak tree enclosed in a plastic mesh, now with mulch circled around and snow on the ground

12/27 Lost Valley Prairie SNA, 2.75 hours: Lopped, hauled, and burned brush (mostly buckthorn, of course) to clear a limestone outcrop. [My husband participated, too.]

Before and after:

limestone outcrop before and after brush clearing

And that made 40 hours of service.

chart of service hours - 40.5 service, 14.75 travel = 55.25 hours


A woman holding a pile of brush in front of a brush pile that's on fireAs fun as these events were, I need to spread them out more next year so I don’t get so exhausted trying to make it to every event left. I really appreciated the organizations that held events during the week; every weekend during September and October had multiple options on Saturday mornings, and I could only do one at a time, so that was frustrating. (How about Saturday afternoons? How about Sunday afternoons? How about weeknights?)

I absolutely love collecting seeds (as long as the weather cooperates). It’s so peaceful and relaxing and stress-relieving. Next year, when I will have presumably met my 40-hour requirement long before fall, I will almost certainly still participate in seed-collecting as often as I can.

I need to get started way earlier than I did this year. It felt like I was doing service events twice a week for months, and I still needed to scramble in late December to hit 40 hours. I learned my lesson and will get started right away in 2017, so buckthorn-clearing events in a snowstorm are an option and not a requirement!

Though I can honestly say it’s fun to volunteer, even in the winter.

More photos from my volunteer service

Master naturalist

In mid-June I spent a week in the “prairies and potholes” area of western Minnesota, studying to become a master naturalist at Lac qui Parle State Park. Master naturalists are “well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service within their communities.”

a leader at the right, with a class gathered at the left, all looking down at grasses and wildflowers

Studying the plants, insects, and animals in my yard has become a serious hobby. I knew I would do this training eventually to solidify my study. Last fall, I realized: if I’m going to do this someday, why not now?

I decided to do this particular naturalist training because…

  • I wanted to do the program in one week, instead of the varied other options spread over multiple weeks or months. I thought it would be good for me to focus my mind and not be rushing to class from work or other obligations.
  • I wanted to do a “destination” (to me) because that meant I could also focus my time outside of class, and I’d get to explore another part of the state – the Minnesota River Valley and its extensive history.
  • It’s very close to the Lac qui Parle Mission site, part of the Minnesota Historical Society, where I work. I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend time at this site, and it was – I visited it three times during the week.

So I started referring to my weeklong training as “naturalist camp.” Our class was headquartered at the park’s visitor center, full of mounted animals:

four stuffed birds on a high shelf

It was gray and moody – or raining – much of the week. View from the classroom:

gray clouds in the top half, the bottom half green grasses with trees in the distance

Interesting sessions

Glaciers. I learned about them growing up in Wisconsin, and this was a good reminder about how they form: more snow falls than melts, and it builds up and turns to ice under pressure. One thing I noticed was that glaciers don’t literally retreat, though that word is used a lot; instead, the front recedes due to melting. The most recent glacier in this area, the Wisconsin glaciation, determined a lot of Minnesota’s topography. The Minnesota River “bends” north because the land tilts, probably because of glacial lobes.

Geology. Soil is not dirt! Sand is the biggest particle, then silt, then clay. Lester loam, the state soil, is a mixture of the three. Morton gneiss (“nice”), a pink-and-gray rock that is quarried in southwest Minnesota, is 3.5 billion years old, one of the oldest stones in the world. It has been used for decorating buildings in the Twin Cities and across the country. Morton Outcrops is a scientific and natural area where visitors can see this rock.

a heart-shaped pink and gray striped rock on a desk

Water macro invertebrates. A local woman brought water samples, and we used guides to identify the creatures. The coolest: caddisfly larvae, which builds its own shelter (the one in the image at the bottom left created a long tube out of tiny rocks).

Water quality can be significantly improved by removing dams, allowing the water to flow naturally and fish and wildlife to move freely. Then mussels are happier, too. It makes sense, but I had never thought about this. We all have a responsibility to take care of our water, whether urban or rural.

three half mussel shells, one facing up and two facing down on a table

Terri, the Lac qui Parle State Park manager, talked to us about the park, past and present. The area is known for geese, but the goose population has dropped dramatically. The state is working to mitigate flooding, which happens frequently, by moving some elements to higher ground. For example, there’s a newish upper campground (home to the only camper cabins in the state with air conditioning!). And the largest cottonwood tree in the state is technically outside the park, but just barely.

Hutchinsonian ratio: animals of similar species that live in the same area vary in size by 1/3, which helps reduce competition because they’re different enough. For example, northern harrier hawks, ferruginous hawks, and red-tailed hawks live in the same grassland, but they each have their own niche.

A real, live archaeological dig!

What I liked the best

I’m sure this is no surprise: I loved learning about wildflowers of the prairie. There were dozens of (human-seeded) flowers around the visitor center, which we thoroughly studied. It was fun to see numerous changes in just five days – flowers that finished blooming and flowers that started blooming.

We learned about the rule of thirds for native plants, which says that what you see above ground is only 1/3 of the plant because at least twice as much is below ground in the extensive roots. I also learned how to identify a few grasses, such as porcupine grass (needle-and-thread grass). This one is fun because it has long seeds with pointed ends that drive themselves into the ground.

tall, thin grasses blowing to the right in the wind

One afternoon, we explored the Nature Conservancy’s Chippewa Prairie, one of the last remaining native prairies in Minnesota (less than 2% of the state’s original prairie remains).

several class members in a row in a mowed path, with one classmate using binoculars

The class was in this prairie for an hour and a half or so, and though we didn’t travel far, we explored thoroughly. We identified 36 flowers and grasses…

fragrant false indigo - two tall purple spike flowers with lots of small green leaves

…and even stumbled upon a grasshopper sparrow’s ground nest with several eggs!

blurry image of a nest full of eggs, partly obscured by grasses

There was a monarch butterfly observation station in the visitor center. This wasn’t created for us, but I sat in the back of the room, next to this display, and watched the caterpillars grow quickly over five days.

monarch butterfly informational panels and five rearing containers

Even when we were in the classroom, we were often able to experience real items like these pearl buttons made from clam shells:

mason jar lid full of flower-shaped buttons

…and this Ojibwe sweetgrass basket, made by one of my instructors during a workshop at Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post:

small round basket with blue thread

…though some of our lessons were slideshows and not show-and-tell:

image of a hog-nosed snake projected on a pull-down screen

What I liked the least

  • Because we had to complete capstone projects by the last day of class, part of our class time was reserved for group work. Similar naturalist trainings that last longer than a week – meeting one evening per week for three months, for example – don’t dedicate class time to these projects. I understand why this was necessary – it would have been hard for groups to get together outside class in just one week – but I wonder how much more we could have learned if those hours were devoted to class lessons or field trips instead.
  • Similarly, there wasn’t enough time at night to complete all of the assigned readings. I’d like to believe I would have stayed on track if I would have had a week to read the three chapters, instead of one night, though of course I’m a procrastinator so there’s no guarantee. But I did try.

Things I learned that I’ve already put into practice

  • Just because a plant is native, that doesn’t mean it can’t become aggressive under the right conditions. I’ve started pulling some of the plants in my garden that are spreading too far and too fast.
  • Goldenrod with galls: I learned these occur only on Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod). When I saw them a month later, it was the first time I ever thought of the scientific name before the common name! I don’t think I will ever switch to scientific for most plants, but this one stuck because it was said so often.
  • Lingering knowledge about new-to-me organisms, like the caddisfly mentioned above: I saw this insect mentioned a couple weeks later on Instagram, and I knew what it was! Same thing with scurfpea flowers – I had never heard of them before, but the day after class ended, I saw them at the Jeffers Petroglyphs historic site, 100 miles away.

tall spike of small purple flowers

Other things I will do

  • Minnesota's Natural Heritage: An Ecological Perspective by John R. TesterFinish reading the curriculum guide and textbook. The textbook is beautiful and I hope I can dedicate some time to completing it soon.
  • Participate in volunteer nature events. It’s a requirement to maintain my master naturalist status, but it’s fun and interesting work. I focus on service positions, such as collecting wildflower seeds in the fall and removing invasive species like buckthorn in the winter.
  • Try to figure out how not to sound like a know-it-all when on hikes “for fun” with my family and friends. I’ve already been on several such hikes, and I don’t think I’ve pulled it off yet.
  • Think about how to turn this interest into more than a hobby. Now more than ever, nature needs our help.

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