I’m at the end of my second year as a master naturalist, and this time I had an entire year to get my 40 hours of volunteering in. Once again I concentrated on stewardship activities, with just one event that was another volunteering category (citizen science).

There were lots and lots of events to remove invasive species, but this year it went well beyond buckthorn — mostly to garlic mustard, but also several others. On the other side of the spectrum, I got to plant native plants on several occasions. The fall once again brought some seed collection events, my favorite activity of all, though I was pretty disappointed that two long sessions were rained out.

In addition to those familiar activities, I got to try several new-to-me opportunities this year: my first BioBlitz, a super-fun bumblebee survey, a creekside live-staking planting, collecting acorns, and not just seed planting but also tending (inside my own home). One thing I missed doing this year: tagging monarchs.

My volunteer events

2/4 Allemansrätt Wilderness Park (Lindstrom) for Great River Greening, 3 hours: Back at Allemansratt Park to volunteer for the third time in five months, this time for a buckthorn burn. Not surprisingly, I wiped out with an armful of brush because we were walking on snow-covered ice – or maybe the surprise is that it only happened once. 82 volunteers cleared 5 tons of buckthorn from 1.5 acres.

pile of sticks on snow, the top left on fire

2/16 Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and Park Connection, 1 hour: Planted seeds into 144 native wildflower plugs (sky-blue aster, prairie onion, and rosinweed). Then I took them to my house to tend them until they were ready to be planted at Coldwater Spring in June.

plastic flat with dirt-filled cups and 2 or 3 large, light-brown seeds in each spot, a wooden marker reading rosin weed

3/18 City of Roseville, 1 hour: Hauled pre-cut buckthorn and other brush into piles for Stantec to remove and chip later.

a series of piles of sticks and logs in a wooded area

3/25 Lost Valley Prairie SNA, 2 hours: Raked pre-cut buckthorn, sumac, honeysuckle, grapevines, and dogwood, none of which belongs in a prairie. Made three giant brush piles that will be burned next winter.

closeup of a pile of very straight sticks, with a garden rake resting in front

5/2 Coldwater Spring at Minnesota National River & Recreation Area, 1 hour: My first time pulling garlic mustard. It rained a lot over the last couple days, so the picking was pretty easy.

gloved hand holding a bouquet of garlic mustard leaves

5/4 Lebanon Hills Regional Park, .5 hour: Showed up just 10 minutes late, but I couldn’t find the crew and “had” to take a hike through the woods instead. By the time I found them, there was only half an hour left in the session. But every little bit counts! (I need to be more creative with the photos since this is almost the same as the previous one.)

almost the same image, a gloved hand holding a bouquet of garlic mustard leaves, with a walking path in the background

5/13 Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, .75 hour: Brought my husband and we picked a big bag full of garlic mustard in a “maple bowl” outside the wildflower garden. The group had been there a week before, and now this area is essentially all clear of second-year garlic mustard. (There are a lot of first-year plants sprouting up, though.)

tall red cylinder lined with a clear plastic bag, nearly full of wilting  greens

5/27 Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, 1 hour: Garlic mustard pull. Plants were past flowering, so it was not easy to find them. This area was pulled last year, and that must have been effective, because we found very few plants.

one green plant with no flowers but long seed spikes instead, lying on a paved path

5/30 Ole Olson Park for Friends of the Mississippi River, 1.5 hours: Dug and pulled weeds (Canadian horseweed and absinthe wormwood, but mostly dandelions) from the demonstration prairie on the west bank of the Mississippi River, just north of downtown Minneapolis.

white tub sitting on the ground, full of small plants of various shades of green

5/31 Tamarack Nature Center, .5 hours: Joined a garlic mustard removal crew already in progress.

the ground covered in small, round, scalloped green leaves

6/6 Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, 1.5 hours: My first time pulling leafy spurge. Most of this was in a thistle patch, unfortunately. Then we got to plant some flowers and grasses — which were grown from seed that I helped collect last fall. Very exciting to see that work pay off already!

a pile of yellow-flowered plants between full plastic bags on the edge of a gravel path

a hand holding three plastic tubes with small green plants

6/13 Coldwater Spring at Minnesota National River & Recreation Area, 1 hour: Planted the surviving plugs from the MNRRA seed-planting event in February. A handful of scrawny prairie onions were the only visible plants; none of the rosinweed sprouted; and several sky-blue asters sprouted but faded. Scattered the remaining dirt, too, in hopes that there are still viable seeds that will germinate in the future.

a black plastic flat with lots of small dirt cups, just a few thin green plants visible

6/22 Hastings Sand Coulee SNA for Friends of the Mississippi River, 1.5 hours: Dug cow vetch from the dry prairie, while fighting the rain — until lightning drove us away. Lots of interesting plants, and lots of poison ivy.

yellow plastic bag with greens and purple flowers on the ground next to yellow gloves and a small shovel

6/27 Grey Cloud Dunes SNA for Friends of the Mississippi River, 1 hour: Lopped sumac, which is native but forms dense colonies and crowds out other plants in this fragile prairie, in two areas. Toured the area that was cleared last year and saw so many plants thriving, which was a rewarding sight.

a pile of sumac branches on the ground with a loppers resting on top

7/8 Blanket Flower Prairie SNA, 2 hours: PlantBlitz in which my husband and I were the only members of the public to show up despite beautiful weather. The naturalist and site steward decided to carry on, anyway. We found blanket flowers that had already lost their petals, special-concern hill’s thistle, bright orange wood lilies, purple and white prairie clovers, and several grasses (I am no help with identification of those). I’ve unfortunately already forgotten dozens of other flowers we identified — some familiar names, most unfamiliar; total number of species TBA. We got back to the parking lot covered in porcupine grass seeds.

one stem with a yellow globe with red highlights - a blanket flower without its petals

7/11 Indian Mounds Regional Park for Friends of the Mississippi River, 1.5 hours: Invasive species removal on a muggy evening. My group pulled crown vetch. Others dug burdock, wormwood, and knapweed.

a lot of light purple flowers in a mass of green, with one flower in focus at the bottom left and a green seedhead that looks like a hand with many slender fingers

8/25 Xerces Society, 1.5 hours: Back to volunteering after an unintentional hiatus that was simply due to the busy-ness of summer. Helped Great River Greening and the Xerces Society with a bumble bee survey, collecting bees in the final summer of a three-year monitoring project. The team caught (and released) 50 bees despite a slow start when rain struck briefly at the kickoff. All were just three species — brown-belted (Bombus griseocollis), common eastern (B. impatiens), and black and gold (B. auricomus) – and most were found on Canada goldenrod or a native thistle.

a hand holding two upside-down plastic containers, each with a bee visible, against a background of goldenrod

8/29 Indian Mounds Regional Park for City of St. Paul, 1.5 hours: Kicked off my favorite volunteering season, seed collecting, with Saint Paul Parks & Recreation. Collected Golden Alexanders (super easy, but came with lots of little round beetles), yellow coneflower (relatively easy), and bee balm (required a fair amount of patience).

sunny image with many plants in the background, and slender maroon umbels in the foreground

9/15 Lebanon Hills Regional Park, 1 hour: Collected acorns for a planting project to take place on National Public Lands Day. This was a particular challenge for me because trees are not my strong suit, but I tried my best. We were to collect acorns from bur oaks or white oaks but NOT from red oaks or pin oaks. More than once I found myself accidentally under one of the wrong trees, but I’m fairly confident I ended up with all white oak acorns.

a hand holding about a dozen acorns, only one with a cap

9/16 Crow-Hassan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 2.5 hours: Collected seeds from a number of wildflowers: purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, cinquefoil, anise hyssop, tick-trefoil, black-eyed susan, common milkweed, and butterfly weed. We cleaned the milkweed seeds, too. Rain threatened all morning but held off.

purple prairie clover seedhead tilting to the left, on the right sidea mostly red caterpillar with a yellow stripe near its feet

9/19 Coldwater Spring at Minnesota National River & Recreation Area, 1.5 hours: Invasive species control: burdock, curly dock, mullein, buckthorn, crown vetch, all over the park. We didn’t find much — only one garbage bag among nine of us.

blurry image of six spiky burdock seedheads

9/20 Spring Lake Park Reserve / Schaar’s Bluff for Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, 1.5 hours: Collected hoary vervain seeds from a remnant prairie, and yellow coneflower seeds from a restored prairie.

a hand holding three long, brown seed spikes

9/21 Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, 1.5 hours: Pulled weedy absinthe from a triangle-shaped patch, then planted several types of native flowers and grasses. Quite muggy on the last day of summer.

a tall pile of light-green plants that have been ripped out, their long roots visible

10/3 Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, 1.5 hours: Seed collection: one hour of purple prairie clover, a half-hour of big bluestem. Gorgeous early-autumn evening after rain all day, though the sun set before the end — at just 7 pm.

about 10 short, dark prairie clover seedheads, with two big grasshoppers

10/14 Phalen Regional Park for City of St. Paul, 1.25 hours: Collected seeds from partridge pea (a new one for me) as well as little bluestem.

a plant with dark brown seedpods that have curled open, with another plant with straight, unopened seedpods in the background

10/22 Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, .75 hours: Removed buckthorn. In my area the soil was so loose, and most of the plants so small, that most could be pulled by hand; the rest were dealt with via weed wrenches.

an orange weed wrench clenched around a small woody plant, with roots coming out of the dirt on the right

11/4 Grey Cloud Dunes SNA for Friends of the Mississippi River, 2 hours: Cleared an entire field of staghorn sumac, and started on the invasive honeysuckle. We got to leave the debris in place because the area will be burned next spring.

long view of a grassy field littered with small cut branches

11/18 Middle Creek at Meadowview School for Friends of the Mississippi River, 1.75 hours: Planted dogwood live-stakes on the banks of Middle Creek, part of the Vermillion River Watershed, on a chilly morning. Friends of the Mississippi River is hoping that 50% of these stakes will “take” next year and eventually provide stabilization and habitat. This creek has been recently re-meandered (my favorite new term) to a more natural and healthy curved shape that supports plant and animal diversity, and today’s project will continue the restoration. This project was a last-minute addition for me (I had already planned to do another event later that morning) but I was so curious about the live-staking process that I had to add this one too.

light-brown grasses to the right of a brownish creek, with two bright red sticks poking out of the grass and one poking out of the water

11/18 Lost Valley Prairie SNA, 2 hours: Hauled precut brush such as sumac and honeysuckle and maybe some sumac into giant piles that will be burned when there’s snow, followed by treating the stumps to try to prevent them from growing back.

a hand touching a dauber to freshly cut small stumps

12/16 Central Park Arboretum for City of Roseville, 1 hour: Cut, hauled, and treated buckthorn and honeysuckle.

snow scene with two medium-sized stumps, two small stumps, and lots of small broken branches and leaves

Other volunteer hours I’m not reporting:

  • White Bear Lake Seed Library: packaged seeds twice, but I worked on mostly tomatoes and not native plants
  • Pulling garlic mustard at a middle school softball game
  • Friends School Plant Sale: inventory three nights/afternoons, about five hours
  • Collecting and processing milkweed seeds from my own yard (even though I donated them)

Final tally

  • Friends of the Mississippi River: 6 events
  • Coldwater Spring / MNRRA: 4
  • Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary: 3
  • Dakota County Parks: 3
  • Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden: 2
  • Great River Greening: 2
  • Lost Valley Prairie SNA: 2
  • City of Roseville: 2
  • City of St. Paul: 2
  • Other: 4
  • Total: 30 events

New Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) visited

  • Grey Cloud Dunes SNA, Cottage Grove
  • Hastings Sand Coulee SNA, Hastings
  • Blanket Flower Prairie SNA
  • Lost 40 SNA (though that was just for fun, not volunteering)

Invasive species removed

  • Absinthe wormwood
  • Buckthorn
  • Burdock
  • Canadian horseweed
  • Cow vetch
  • Crown vetch
  • Curly dock
  • Dandelion
  • Garlic mustard
  • Leafy spurge
  • Mullein
  • Sumac

Seeds collected

  • Anise hyssop
  • Bee balm
  • Big bluestem
  • Black-eyed susan
  • Butterfly weed
  • Cinquefoil
  • Common milkweed
  • Golden Alexanders
  • Hoary vervain
  • Oak
  • Partridge pea
  • Purple prairie clover
  • Tick-trefoil
  • White prairie clover
  • Yellow coneflower

2017 service hours: 42.50. Travel: 14.25. Preparation: 0.00. Miles: 730.

2016 volunteer service

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

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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