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

A woman smiling at the camera while holding garlic mustard, with burrs stuck on her shirt.
At a garlic mustard pulling event where I’ve managed to walk through some burdock.

In my three previous years of volunteering as a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I put in most of my hours in stewardship / restoration events.

While I still love those one-off, practically-no-commitment-needed events, this year I added a few new components, courtesy of my local Wild Ones Native Plants chapter, Big River Big Woods.

In the fall of 2018, just three days after completing my second master naturalist biome course (which I have yet to write about), I went to the monthly Big River Big Woods chapter event. Full of excitement about nature and eager to participate, I filled out their volunteer survey, checking off several boxes: help with the website, give a plant talk, bring snacks.

I was soon asked to give a short presentation on a wildflower — so, on January 24, full of fresh confidence after giving a couple of short species presentations in my class, I gave a 5-minute talk about pearly everlasting. I enjoyed sharing photos of the pretty flowers, of course — but the bigger goal of my presentation was to show how looks can be deceiving, and we should not be striving for perfection from a human perspective. The plants look terrible in early summer, when they are taken over to provide protective nests for American Lady butterfly caterpillars, but I think I convinced the crowd to be patient when this happens because the plants will be just fine and will still flower like they should, just a few weeks later.

A woman speaking in front of a monitor that shows pearly everlasting flowers.

I was also asked to help with a redesign of their website, since my day job for the past 20 years has been managing websites. So with the help of the board of directors, a friend and I reorganized the navigation, tightened up the content, and added big, beautiful photos to the brand-new Big River Big Woods website.

Screen shot of the Wild Ones Big River Big Woods website, with an image of wild geranium near the top.

Once that was done, I convinced the chapter to launch an Instagram account since native plants are so naturally visual. Most of the photos and descriptions were my own, though I love to get submissions from other chapter members. In 2019, I created 112 posts, which I recorded as volunteer hours at about 15 minutes apiece. (Follow along at @bigriverbigwoods.)

Screengrab of the Big River Big Woods Instagram feed during the summer, with photos of blooming flowers.

Those three activities alone — in the “education” category for master naturalist volunteers — accounted for more than the required 40 hours of volunteering! But I still love to help with volunteer events, so I didn’t stop there. Here’s how I recorded the rest of my volunteer time in 2019:

January 12, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (education): A couple dozen volunteers and I helped with the beginning stages of an art installation, Kaleidoscope, that would eventually be “flying” at the Mall of America to bring attention to the importance of pollinators. The mall commissioned an artist to create a 30-foot monarch butterfly sculpture with a flock of 300 monarchs (and a few Karner blues) fluttering below to hang from the north atrium of the mall. We started with plastic bags (because the display also talked about upcycling) to form the shape of the body.

Plastic bags wrapped with masking tape.

And a few months later, this is what the Kaleidoscope art exhibit looked like:

Looking up at dozens of monarch butterflies.

January 26, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve (citizen science): Took part in Cedar Creek’s largest wildlife tracking survey to date, with 27 trackers and naturalists on five teams who recorded the tracks and sign of at least 18 different species of mammals across the reserve, on a day that was double-digits below zero. We began with a discussion about tracking and learned from experienced wildlife trackers about how to distinguish tracks. (I counted this activity as 1 hour of training — since I’m new to this — and 5 hours of work.)

Small tracks in the snow, with possible tail marks.

March 15, City of Roseville (stewardship): Snow seeding (native prairie plants and grasses) in the area between the Roseville arboretum and ballfields.

A hand sprinkling seeds above snow.

April 16, City of Roseville (citizen science): Volunteers have been conducting frog and toad call surveys in select city parks for a few years. Frogs and toads are indicator species — they can tell us about habitat condition, water quality, and more. An important part of monitoring of frogs and toads is to gather data each year. This allows researchers to detect trends and help provide feedback about management work that is occurring in our parks. I first participated in an hour-long training session, then monitored calls on 3 nights during spring, early summer, and mid summer.

Dark image of plants next to a pond.

April, City Nature Challenge (citizen science): Hiked at three regional parks, taking photos of all of the species I could find, and then went to an “ID party” to help identify or confirm identifications of species reported by other local people. Parks visited:

  • Minnehaha Regional Park
  • Bald Eagle / Otter Lake Regional Park
  • Pine Point Regional Park

May 7, Saint Paul Natural Resources (stewardship): Gorgeous spring evening for a volunteer restoration event. Hauled pre-cut brush and dug out burdock plants at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

Large pile of brush.

May 9, Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area (citizen science): Helped other volunteers identify as many plant species as possible in the first BioBlitz at Wood-Rill SNA.

May 11, Three Rivers Park District (stewardship): Garlic mustard removal event at Silverwood Park.

Garlic mustard.

June 1, Friends of the Mississippi River (stewardship): Planted trees on a hillside of the new Heritage Park.

Saplings in a bucket.

June 10, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District (stewardship): Joint RWMWD / Wild Ones Big River Big Woods planting event to restore the shoreline of a large wetland at Snail Lake Regional Park. This is a two-year project restoring native habitat in a large county park interspersed with large woodland, prairie, and wetland areas.

Three four-packs of plants resting in woodchips.

June 15, City of Roseville (stewardship): Planted native plugs to restore shoreline at Lake Owasso. Cardinal flower, blue lobelia, grass-leaved goldenrod, prairie blazing star, blue flag iris, common rush, bottlebrush sedge, among others — 750 plants in all. With more than a dozen volunteers, it only took two hours.

A flat of assorted plants and a trowel next to a pond.

June 18, Friends of the Mississippi River (stewardship): FMR has been restoring a bluff prairie on the overlook slope at Indian Mounds Regional Park. We tended to the area around native plants at this site, removing burdock, crown vetch, grapevines, thistles, and more.

Green invasive plant.

June 27, Friends of the Mississippi River (stewardship): Removed hoary alyssum at Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area. This isn’t the worst weed, but it doesn’t belong in this high-quality site, so Friends of the Mississippi River and their volunteers are removing it.

Hand holding a bouquet of small white flowers.

August 4, Dakota County Parks (citizen science): Bumblebee survey. I wasn’t so successful personally, though my husband caught quite a few. (The bees are always released after being identified and marked.)

Hand holding a small gladware container with a bumblebee inside.

August 15, Mississippi National River & Recreation Area (stewardship): Coyote howling survey. We visited three separate stations more than 1.5 miles apart and played a pre-recorded coyote sound three times each followed by 90 seconds of listening. We heard coyotes before the survey began and after it ended.

Data sheet with observations written in pencil.

August 17, Minnesota Bee Atlas (citizen science): Bumblebee survey at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. There were so many other volunteers, and so many bumblebees, that I only collected one bee and spent the rest of the time helping the gatherers ID the flowers where they were found and then sorting the containers by flower. 112 bumblebees were collected, totalling 7 species, but no rusty-patched.

Four small gladware containers on the ground, next to flower names written on paper.

September 4, Carleton Arboretum (stewardship): Seed collecting in the prairie, followed by an observation of a monarch roost!

Four people collecting seeds in a tallgrass prairie at sundown.

Dozens and dozens of monarch butterflies roosting together on a tree branch.

September 5, Saint Paul Natural Resources (stewardship): Collected bottlebrush grass seed at Phalen Regional Park.

A hand holding light-brown grass seeds.

September 7, Three Rivers Parks (stewardship): Collected leadplant, Golden Alexanders, purple prairie clover, and gray-headed coneflower. Elm Creek Park Reserve has 40 acres of prairie, and Three Rivers Parks District is expanding that to 200! Awesome project. It was a gray and wet day on the prairie. Just look at all these purple prairie clover seedheads!

At least six dozen stems full of seeds.

September 17, National Park Service / Coldwater Spring (stewardship): Removed river grape vines. I only participated for half an hour, but a little is better than nothing!

A pile of mostly grapevines and some buckthorn.

September 21, City of Roseville (stewardship): Got to a volunteer event late enough that the plants were mostly planted already, so I spent my time pulling buckthorn seedlings — easy to do after a bunch of rain. Left them on logs so they won’t grow back into the ground!

A dozen small buckthorn seedlings draped over a downed log.

Selfie taken from a kayak, with two kayakers in the background.September 26, Settler’s Island in Cottage Grove (stewardship): Volunteer tree planting event with Friends of the Mississippi River that started by kayaking out to an island! Restoration event at an area that had recently been cleared of buckthorn and other undesirable trees. Planted white oak, Ohio buckeye, viburnum, highbush cranberry, dogwood red osier, and catalpa.

Two hands planting a small tree.

September 28, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (stewardship): U of M students and alumni and master naturalist volunteers participated in a Planting for Pollinators event on National Public Lands Day and National Urban Wildlife Refuge Day. We planted 4,500 native plugs! It was inspiring to see the transformation of this place that used to be gravel and buckthorn. Now it’s a place to play, rest, and enjoy nature. And next year it will be full of wildflowers.

Closeup of a small plant on a hill, with more plants and volunteers in the background.

In all

That all adds up to…

Service hours in 2019. 86.75 service hours, 12.5 travel hours, 3 prep hours, 796 miles. Total 102.25 hours.

…more than 100 hours! Whew!

See more of my 2019 volunteering photos

Selfie with a winter hat and a green safety vest.Previous volunteer recaps

A woman smiles while holding a net and wearing waders in water past her knees.Nothing like getting a 2018 recap in under the wire! I’m a Minnesota master naturalist volunteer and spend a lot of time throughout the year volunteering for environmental events. It’s a requirement to complete at least 40 volunteer hours (plus 8 continuing education hours) to remain an active member, but it’s also one of the most fun and rewarding things I do every year.

Many of my 2018 volunteer hours were stewardship, as in the previous two years. But this year, I also did a lot of citizen science activities, too. I recorded one education/interpretation event, co-leading a buckthorn removal event and info session for the capstone project of my second Minnesota master naturalist class. (Much more on the class later.) And I had one program support event.

Stewardship events are noted with (S), citizen science with (CS), education/interpretation with (E/I), and program support with (PS).

January 20, Lost Valley Prairie SNA (S): Buckthorn burn! And other non-prairie trees and grapevine, too, that had been collected previously and added to during the burning.

Large pile of sticks and branches, with some orange fire visible in the middle, and a plume of smoke at top right.

March 3, Roseville’s Central Park (S): Hauled buckthorn that other volunteers lopped and sawed.

Four small stumps cut down to the snow level.

March 12, White Bear Lake Seed Library (PS): Packaged donated prairie coreopsis (coreopsis palmata) seed for the White Bear Lake Seed Library, which is in its third season. It’s fun to see how the native plant section has grown even since last year. I “checked out” two native grasses and one sedge; I’ve “checked in” joe-pye weed and yellow coneflower in the past.

A paper plate with two dozen small piles of seeds, on top of a sheet of labels and two small brown envelopes.

March 24, Lost Valley Prairie SNA (S): Brush cutting, treating, and burning.

A gloved hand holding a bundle of sticks with long, sharp thorns.

May 3, Lebanon Hills Regional Park (S): First garlic mustard pull of the season. The spring is so late, the plants were small and easily confused with a buttercup.

A gloved hand holding a garlic mustard seedling with a long root.

May 5, Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden (S): Very warm early-spring afternoon for pulling garlic mustard in a bowl just outside the garden. The commute was extra-long because 94 was closed in downtown Minneapolis.

Two clear, large plastic bags half-full with green plants.

May 11, Hyland Lake Park Reserve (S): Pulled narrowleaf bittercress, a new one for me that is so far only found in the metro area in Minnesota. Small plants so far this year, but parts of the woods just in from the trail were pretty thick. Also pulled some garlic mustard along the trail.

A short green plant with many stems that look like a small fountain.

May 12, Roseville’s Villa Park (S): Garlic mustard pull.

An area about 5 feet wide and 3 feet deep, filled with medium-height garlic mustard plants.

May 16, Hampton Woods WMA (S): Garlic mustard pull with Friends of the Mississippi River, with a little bit of buckthorn seedling pulling for good measure. There were way too many volunteers for the amount of work, so this was mostly a hike (entire event was 2 hours). In fact, I didn’t even pull any garlic mustard; I sought out buckthorn instead.

Buckthorn seedlings laying across a log.

May 31, Minneapolis’s Ole Olson Park (S): Dug and pulled weeds (Canadian horseweed and black medic and dandelions) from the demonstration prairie on the west bank of the Mississippi River, just north of downtown Minneapolis, with Friends of the Mississippi River.

A gloved hand holding a bouquet of weeds with the river in the background.

June 12, Coldwater Spring (S): Pulled narrowleaf bittercress, which had grown significantly since I saw it a month ago (in a different park). Trying to get as much of it as possible before the long seed pods ripen and burst.

A tall green plant with spiky seed pods. Looks nothing like the short fountain plant from a month earlier.

June 17, Como Regional Park (CS): Kickoff of the 2018 bumble bee surveying season. I found 5 or 6 (lost count) of the 19 the group collected. Today was hot and muggy and we found all except one on white clover (the exception was motherwort), maybe because not much else is blooming right now.

A hand holding a bumble bee in an upside-down plastic container on the grass.

June 22, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Rapids Lake Unit (CS): Bioblitz in the new Anderson-Lenzen Tracts adjacent to the Rapids Lake Unit. I had a morning appointment so joined a group after their lunch break, when they headed to a new area. We recorded 84 species of wildflowers, grasses, trees, birds, and insects.

Slender beardtongue, Penstemon gracilis.

July 7, Como Regional Park (CS): Sunny morning collecting bumble bees with my niece and about 10 other volunteers. Many more flowers were in bloom than the last time I participated, so we gathered 99 bees compared with 19 just three weeks earlier. All were of the three most common species, and most were found on monarda.

View over the left shoulder of a woman with a small, upside-down plastic container surrounding a purple flower.

July 8, Como Regional Park (CS): Wasn’t planning to collect bumble bees two days in a row, but when Elaine Evans said she was going to try something a little different, I had to see the results. This time, we 10 volunteers collected all the bumble bees we could find, including ones with a red dot that showed they had been counted on a previous day. (Today’s bees were marked with purple, and we did not re-collect those ones.) It was a lot hotter, and there were a few more bees this time. Of the more than 100 collected, only about 1/3 had been caught previously. We found the three most common species again, plus two that weren’t found yesterday. Again, most were on the monarda.

A hand holding three small upside-down plastic containers.

July 10, Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary (S): Muggy evening of snipping Canadian thistle (already in seed) and burdock (in bud).

An orange plastic bag full of thistles.

July 19, Shoreview’s Island Lake Elementary: Maintenance of a full-sun native pollinator garden, with the Big River Big Woods chapter of Wild Ones.

Rattlesnake master.

July 27, Lilydale Regional Park (CS): Beautiful afternoon for collecting dragonfly nymphs for the Dragonfly Mercury Project study of mercury in national parks. The amount of mercury found in these insects can be an indicator of the health of the ecosystem.

A large black nymph and a small green nymph in a shallow dish of water.

July 29, Como Regional Park (CS): Sunny day, not too hot, lots of flowers, lots of bees. The group collected, marked, and released about 150 bumble bees, with six species represented, but no rusty-patched.

A bumble bee in a small upside-container next to a cup plant flower.

August 5, Lebanon Hills Regional Park (CS): My first MycoBlitz! And only the second ever in Minnesota. My husband and I helped collect fungi for the MN Mycoflora Project and eventually for Bell Museum’s mycological collection. Started with a long presentation on mushrooms and then a demonstration on how to collect.

A table covered with small sheets of paper, each with a mushroom.

August 6, Crow-Hassan Park Reserve (CS): Bumblebee survey with a lot of Three Rivers Park District staff, in two locations of the park. We were there 2.5 hours, but there were too many bees for the identifiers to keep up. Absolutely gorgeous day — sunny and 80 — with flowers blooming that I’ve collected seeds from in previous years.

A bumble bee flying to an anise hyssop spike.

August 9, Shoreview’s Island Lake Elementary (S): Maintenance of a full-sun native pollinator garden with the Big River Big Woods chapter of Wild Ones. This beautiful yellow garden spider was so patient with the five of us who were taking her photo.

A yellow garden spider in a large web between plants.

August 25, Crow-Hassan Park Reserve (S): Seed collection — purple and white prairie clover, round-headed bush clover, leadplant, and cinquefoil — for Three Rivers Park District. A PBS crew was filming the event.

A cluster of leadplants with green leaves and seeds ready for collection.

September 5, Phalen Regional Park (S): Seed collection — bottlebrush grass, Golden Alexanders, and boneset — with Saint Paul Natural Resources.

A thumb and finger pinching the bottom of a bottlebrush grass.

September 6, three parks (CS): Coyote howling survey with Mississippi National River & Recreation Area! Emailed description: “Each night we will visit three separate stations, each at least 2.5 km (1.5 mi) apart. Volunteer positions: data recorder, audio recorder, game caller operator, and bearing recorder. Upon arriving at the station, we will have a minute of silence to allow the night to settle around our disturbance. Using the game caller we will play a pre-recorded coyote sound three times each followed by 90 seconds of listening. If at any point a coyote responds we will move on to the next station. Note: there is a chance no coyotes will respond during a survey — remember that no responses is still good data!” Results: A confirmed coyote response at the first station — a group yip-howl that goes on for at least 40 seconds. This was the only observed coyote response of the 9 attempts.

Photo of the skyline at dusk, with native plants such as gray-headed coneflower in silhouette.

September 18, Inver Grove Heights’s River Heights Park (S): Buckthorn and honeysuckle lopping/hauling with Friends of the Mississippi River.

A long pile of brush, neatly stacked.

September 22, Inver Grove Heights’s Heritage Village Park (S): National Public Lands Day stop 1: Collecting switchgrass and little bluestem seeds with Friends of the Mississippi River.

Switchgrass seedheads against a bright blue sky.

September 22, Lost Valley Prairie SNA (S): National Public Lands Day stop 2: collecting grass and flower seeds for Lost Valley Prairie Scientific and Natural Area. First time I had seen Virginia mountain mint and false gromwell.

10 people in a grass field.

September 23, Wild River State Park (S): Seed collection with a friend (and several people we didn’t know) in a restored prairie on a sunny autumn afternoon. Thimblewood, round-headed bush clover, purple and white prairie clover, blazingstar, and more.

Closeup of round-headed bush clover seedheads.

September 25, South Creek near Farmington (S): Volunteers planted plugs in the floodplain forest along South Creek, a tributary of the Vermillion River, with Friends of the Mississippi River.

A flat of mixed native plant plugs.

Summer 2018 (CS): Raised and tagged 5 monarchs from the migration generation.

A monarch with a tag on its right wing on an orange flower.

October 20, Carleton College Cowling Arboretum (E/I): Planning, marketing, and leading a volunteer buckthorn pull, the capstone project for my Big Woods, Big Rivers biome course, with three classmates. We marketed the event with fliers in local businesses, posted on Nextdoor and the Minnesota Master Naturalist calendar, and personally invited friends and family. We created a brochure that described buckthorn and honeysuckle, two invasive species found in the arboretum, with procedure for removal. Attendees were able to take the brochure with them, and the arboretum may post it on their website as a printable resource. The day of the event was sunny but cold, and 12 people volunteered for up to 3 hours. We described how to identify buckthorn to the volunteers and demonstrated how to remove it. Since the attendees showed up at different times, we waited until a “coffee break” to talk further about buckthorn and why it’s a problem, as well as about other opportunities to participate at the arboretum. Unfortunately, one of our group members was out of town on the scheduled day, so here’s the other three of us posing in front of the long pile of removed buckthorn:

Three women posing in front of a pile of buckthorn branches.

And that all adds up to… well, I’m not sure. (I haven’t finished entering my hours after September 18 yet; sorry, MNat office!) It’s more than the required 40 hours, even without travel time. I’ll update this once I’ve calculated the total.

Previous volunteer recaps

At the end of another cold snap, it’s fun to look back at pictures of the garden in its prime.

Front view of the front yard:

a 15-foot section with 10 different types of white, yellow, and pink blooming native plants


Obviously, as I’ve documented at length already, black-eyed susans were the star of the show. Blooming from late June to mid-August, taking up a huge spot right in the front of the garden closest to the street, they were amazing.

closeup of one black-eyed susan in the sunshine at the right, with dozens more faded in the background

This is the year that the cup plant “leaped” — more than a dozen new plants grew away from the original cluster.

five one-foot-tall cup plant seedlings, the one on the right in shade

Bonus: these were young enough that they were just my size. (The older ones are several feet above my head, so I usually don’t see these flowers up-close. The ones at the top of this website were taken when I was holding a camera above my head while standing at the top of a ladder.)

closeup of a cup plant flower blooming on the right, with three budding stems on the left

White snakeroot, which was in our backyard before we were here, spread to a new area in the backyard, and also to the front yard:

two-foot section of tiny white flowers

Joe-pye weed seedlings made themselves comfortable between the pine tree and the sidewalk:

two dozen seedlings less than a foot tall, in a relatively small space


Of course, not everything succeeded.

Trout lily and bluebells didn’t grow, but this was completely my fault. I never got around to planting them, and the little pots blew over in the wind and then something ate them.

two trout lily leaves standing straight up in a square pot with a white plant marker

Blazing star was eaten by rabbits (though I planted more seeds in the fall to try again).

several green stems that have been chewed off at about an inch tall

Vegetables didn’t grow, again. Tried in a different spot this time, too. This might be the last time; we can rely on farmer’s markets and the co-op for our fresh veggies instead.

five white plant markers in a dirt plot next to concrete

Even the path through the garden: it disappeared around the end of June, engulfed by plants that I didn’t have the heart to pull out (or the time to transplant).

three stepping stones surrounded by short and medium green plants

Mixed results

Every year it seems as if one non-native perennial fades or doesn’t survive, and this year it was evening primrose’s turn.

blurry photo of two four-petaled yellow flowers

Allium: perhaps fading like other perennials, perhaps just overshadowed by
bigger, flashier plants around them.

two blooming and one budding purple allium

New plants

From the Landscape Revival plant sale: bishop’s cap, native false indigo, and three kinds of milkweed. (More stories to come another day about milkweed.)

five small potted plants lined up next to a retaining wall

Lobelia from a friend. This is one of my favorite photos of the year because I have no idea how I managed to get the tussock moth caterpillar to photobomb this flower. One day I was transporting caterpillars from the backyard (which ran out of milkweed) to the front yard (which had plenty) and apparently chose that moment to stop and take a picture of a lobelia!

purple flower in focus on the right, with a blurry finger holding an orange-and-black caterpillar in the top left corner

Donated plants

Purple giant hyssop, yellow coneflower, joe-pye weed, and pearly everlasting, dug up from our front yard to donate to a Wild Ones fundraiser:

cardboard fruit box holding about a dozen small potted plants


Squash plant that volunteered in the flower garden — though it waited until October, so no actual squash were produced:

short squash vine with one yellow flower, viewed from above

Bishop’s cap, which I bought in June and normally blooms in the spring, apparently didn’t want to wait for next year, and bloomed in its original pot in July:

closeup of the top of a narrow stem, with four white star-shaped flowers and six buds

New bugs

Peachtree borer moth:

black moth with a narrow orange band around its abdomen

I wasn’t sure how to describe this one on Google to find its name, so I posted it on Instagram and asked for help. Within minutes, I got an answer: brown marmorated stink bug nymph.

roundish reddish bug with darker red stripes and black spots around the edges, facing downward on a milkweed leaf

(More posts to come about new bugs.)

Fun photos

Culver’s root with a stalk that split into six:

green plant with one stem that became six

Four-petaled spiderwort:

purple flower that usually has three petals, but with four

Rabbit caught in the act:

rabbit with its body facing away but turned back toward the camera, visible in the space between plants

Pretty American Lady butterfly next to a faded coreopsis:

black-and-orange butterfly with big circles on its wings, with its proboscis in a yellow flower

In closing

Here’s what I wrote on Instagram in June, on my first master naturalist anniversary. I think it summarizes my year’s exploration nicely.

Today is my master naturalist birthday: one year ago I earned a certificate for completing the prairies and potholes course. Taking this class was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it reinforced my growing interest in the natural world. Since then I’ve learned a lot and committed to environmental stewardship through events such as invasive species removal, wildflower planting, and seed collecting. But my favorite place to explore remains my own front yard.

large monarch caterpillar eating common milkweed buds

Previous garden recaps

In 2017 I started to get more involved in learning about the environmental movement. The public side of that work is not an easy thing for an introvert.

Climate change workshop

In March I participated in a three-day workshop about how to teach about climate change issues (for people who are not educators), led by Climate Generation at the beautiful, peaceful, sustainable Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, Minnesota.

facing the front of a classroom, with a slide on the screen, and students sitting at a table

I started the session feeling out of my element, since most of the rest of the attendees work in an environment-related field. I worried I lacked credibility, but quickly learned that interest and passion are enough.

students in winter coats and hats measuring the circumference of a tree

I wanted to learn about the science behind climate change, as well as to be able to discuss the facts when needed in everyday life, because at this point I am not planning to be directly involved in advocacy work. Not surprisingly, my interest comes from a love of nature, particularly wildflowers. I want to make sure nature is available for future generations.

colorful sticky notes with handwritten comments and questions, stuck to a large white paper

These words spoken by one of the instructors made so much sense, but I thought it was important to write them down and remember them: Being outside in nature instills a value. Do it often. Take time to be quiet and observe. People see changes when they observe multiple times.

And so did these words, written by another attendee:

one sticky note with the message Creating a social movement - we're all in this together - makes things less scary for people

Water Action Day

I walked to the Minnesota State Capitol over the lunch hour on April 19 to observe part of this all-day event that gives citizens the opportunity to talk to legislators about water issues. I was there only long enough to see the crowd gathering for a rally in the rotunda, but there were also trainings and scheduled meetings with state representatives.

looking up at the second level of the rotunda, with a long Mni Wiconi Water Is Life banner across the image

looking down at the rotunda from the third floor, with lots of people holding signs on the first and second floors

March for Science

On a bright, sunny, warm May morning, I joined a huge crowd in St. Paul for a positive, uplifting show of support for the science community. I loved all the clever homemade signs. My favorite, which I saw on my way out when I didn’t have my camera ready: “March for science? Every month for science!”

a green hillside with dozens of people standing, many holding homemade signs above their heads

People started by gathering near the cathedral, walking around looking at each other’s signs and admiring the clever slogans or asking people to pose.

a woman taking a photo with her phone of a woman holding her If You're Not Part of the Solution You're Part of the Precipate sign

overlooking a large crowd of people, mostly from behind, with one large sign visible - I have reached my 100o C

looking across a group of people, one large sign the focus - The oceans are rising and so are we

looking up at a sign at the top of a long stick - I got measles, but my grandson won't. Thanks science!

closeup of a marcher holding a yellow sign - The good thing about science is that it's true whether you believe in it or not

And then the crowd began moving down the hill toward the state capitol.

looking back up the hill at people walking toward the camera

crowd facing the capitol, backs to the camera, one sign visible at right - Let us now pause for a moment of science

standing on the curb as marchers are facing the capitol, one group five across each with a sign on a stick, the sign on the left reads Let's Always Have Paris

I had to leave early for a family wedding shower, so this was as far as I went along the route, and I missed the rally:

closer in view of the capitol with a crane on the right side, a sea of people in front, lots of neon green signs visible

Other education events

On a very cold morning in St. Paul, I learned how to identify trees that have been hit by emerald ash borer. The branches on the left side of this image have some flaked-off bark, which is a sign of EAB. Not visible in this photo, but also present, are lots of woodpecker holes from birds looking for the bugs, which is another sign. The trunk on the right side shows a section where a human manually removed the bark to show tunnels below, left by an EAB. This tree was scheduled for removal, which made it a perfect example to study.

ash tree with the trunk on the right, a large section cut away to show three areas of tunnels, and branches to the left

I attended part of an interesting prescribed burn workshop in February (could only stay for the first half, due to a family lutefisk event)…

classroom with a screen showing a picture of a prescribed burn and information about fire return intervals

…and Aldo Leopold Day presentations about bees at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

a woman in a dark room pointing to a bright powerpoint with a Google map with lots of red pins over Minnesota, and four pictures of bee blocks

A new car

Right before the end of the year, it was time for a new car. My old car, a Honda Civic, served me extremely well for 17 years — yes, 17 — and nearly 250,000 miles. But when it had an electrical problem the week before Christmas, we knew it was finally time to make the move we’d been considering for probably two years.

I knew I wanted either a hybrid or an electric car, as an environmentalist who isn’t even close to being ready to go car-free. While I’m hoping for electric someday, I don’t feel that I am ready personally, and the local infrastructure isn’t quite ready enough, either. So, hybrid it is.

And while I was a couple years too early for a Civic hybrid when I bought my car back in 2000, I was too late in 2017 because Honda has discontinued them. But fortunately, on the very day we decided to look for a used car, we found one at a local dealership. I’m still getting used to the “newfangled” features like keyless start and bluetooth connection, but I love being able to see the miles-per-gallon updates instantly and know how much the heat or highway-vs.-street-driving is affecting that.

closeup of the word Hybrid on the back of a dark gray car