Minnesota’s natural observers do their part
ST. PAUL – In the name of science, Minnesotans are counting loons at the lake cabin, listening for frogs, and peering at milkweed for monarch caterpillars. They’re catching dragonflies, measuring the clarity of local streams, and noting the date when the first lilacs bloom.
Using members of the public to gather data is nothing new. The national Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count is an early example of putting volunteers to work for science. But the scope of citizen science projects has grown as the Internet and cellphone apps make recording and sharing data easier. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists nearly 200 national and regional projects on its website (www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit/projects), ranging from volunteer bumblebee watchers to an effort to get Alaska cruise passengers to photograph whales.Here are examples of how volunteers in Minnesota are using their curiosity and passion to further understanding of the natural world. They include networks that track precipitation, a county wetland-monitoring program and a new effort to get Minnesotans to record what so many already do naturally – looking for the first signs of spring.RainfallOne of the simplest ways to contribute to science is to measure rainfall. In 1970, the State Climatology Office, the National Weather Service and the University of Minnesota started recruiting people to put a rain gauge in their backyard.“We were trying to get a better handle on the patterns of rainfall,” said assistant state climatologist Peter Boulay. “It can varya lot from place to place.”About 1,400 Minnesotans now send daily rain measurements to MNGage, usually via their local soil and water conservation district. The data is tapped by the National Weather Service to predict flooding and checked by everyone from scientists to mosquito-control districts, farmers and insurance adjusters. Getting many people to contribute readings results in what one researcher calls a “high-resolution” picture of what’s happening.It’s been a success because Minnesotans care about their weather. And few people care as much as Dave Wierstad, 77, North St. Paul retiree whose answering machine says, “I can’t answer the phone right now because I’m outside checking the rain gauge.”Wierstad has been measuring the weather continuously in North St. Paul since 1962. He has an entire weather station mounted on a three-quarter-inch steel pole on the roof of his garage with instruments to measure rain, wind, humidity, sun and temperature that send automatic readings to his computer. At least once a day, he also checks a second rain gauge on his cedar fence where the wind won’t splash out water.He reports to MNGage, the National Weather Service Cooperative Network and the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (cocorahs.org), which maps daily online reports from thousands of people nationwide.In winter, Wierstad measures snow in his yard with a ruler to get average depth and then melts and measures the snow that falls into his rain gauge.“It’s a hobby,” said Wierstad, who retired as a dispatcher for Northern States Power Co. “Some people go out fishing. I do weather. With the weather, every day it’s something different.“It’s boring if it’s nice for a week,” he added. “I like to have some rain and thunderstorms.”He’s had an exciting past few weeks.WetlandsOn a weeknight in June, three people stood in rubber waders waist deep in a swampy pond in South St. Paul. The water was high from a recent rain running off nearby U.S. Highway 52. Red-winged blackbirds called and bits of cottonwood fluff in the air caught the setting sun. The volunteers had just dragged a net through the water and upended a pile of water weeds onto a floating tray, and were poking it to dislodge any bugs and other tiny creatures.Every year, about 100 volunteers monitor about 30 wetlands across 10 cities in Dakota County through the Wetland Health Evaluation Program (www.mnwhep.org). They measure the diversity of the plant life and tiny invertebrate creatures such as leeches and mayfly larvae. The data help cities answer such questions as whether a new housing development damaged a wetland or whether new plants around a wetland’s perimeter helped to filter chemicals in the road runoff.“I like to say that the program turns regular people into citizen biologists,” said Paula Liepold, coordinator with the Dakota County environmental resources department. The program, one of a few of its kind in the nation, was started in 1997 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which continues to train volunteers for Dakota and Hennepin counties.“It’s a fun activity,” said Michelle Skog, a volunteer for eight years and leader of the small South St. Paul team. Skog has a conservation biology degree but ended up with a day job indoors as a lab supervisor, so she enjoys getting outside and working with nature.“It’s also interesting,” she said. “Before I could say, ‘Those are cattails,’ but now I have a much deeper understanding. And, of course, the conservation part is also important to me. Hopefully, some of my information goes on to the city and there may be improvements.”Back on shore, Skog’s team carefully sprayed water onto the water weeds one last time to rinse off any remaining creatures and then poured the water samples into containers.“Whoops! We got a bee. That’s not supposed to be in there,” said first-year volunteer and college student Sabrina Greene of Inver Grove Heights as she fished out the soggy intruder.This was the team’s first of three visits during the season to LeVander pond. They would return two days later to collect a half-dozen bottle traps they had set underwater to catch swimming bugs. This month, they will return to identify vegetation. They also planned to spend several hours in donated lab space at Inver Hills Community College peering through dissecting scopes to identify what they had sampled.A healthy wetland will have a diversity of life, everything from leeches and snails to caddis fly larvae and the tiny shrimp-like amphipods called scud. The absence of one creature or too many of another can suggest an unhealthy wetland. Water boatmen beetles, for example, survive in polluted waters that kill other insects, and an abundance of them is not a good sign. In contrast, dragonfly larvae survive only in clean water.“Why do we want a healthy wetland? Well, all that water after a torrential downpour has to go somewhere,” Skog said. “The water that falls on Highway 52, most of it goes into city wetlands, and the wetlands filter it and clean it before it goes into the ground.”Tracking natureUniversity of Minnesota professor and plant ecologist Rebecca Montgomery says her lab’s mantra could be “timing is everything.” She researches how Minnesota forests might respond to climate change. What species might benefit from predicted earlier springs, for example, and what species might decline? For answers, she’s looking to phenology, a strange word for something humans have done for a long time as they’ve watched the seasons unfold.“Phenology is really the study of the timing of biological activity,” Montgomery said. “Things like when do leaves break bud in the spring, when do daffodils come up, when do birds migrate north for the summer or when do they leave for their winter nesting grounds? It’s all about timing.“And timing for a number of species is related to the temperature and moisture,” she added. “So globally, it’s become one of the best indicators that plants and animals are sensing something different in their environment.”Simply noting year after year when a tree leafs out can provide helpful data. University of Minnesota entomology professor Alec Hodson, for example, observed a dozen trees on his daily walk to work from 1941 to 1991. Montgomery’s colleague started watching the same trees a couple of years ago and found that the aspens seem to be leafing out two weeks earlier than in the 1940s. More data could answer more questions, and for that, Montgomery and colleagues across the country are turning to the public.“The solution is gosh, there is this whole public out there, and they notice when the leaves come out, they notice when their crocus come up in the spring. Maybe we can get them to take that extra step to write down when it happens,” she said.“It’s not rocket science to look at a tree in your yard or your flower bed and say, ‘Oh, I see some leaves.’ “Montgomery’s team is collecting historical records from nature centers and amateur naturalists. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Phenology Network (https://www.usanpn.org/mnpn/home), an informal group of naturalists and academics, is encouraging Minnesotans to monitor seven species, including the common loon, the ruby-throated hummingbird, the monarch butterfly, Eastern bluebird, tamarac, lilac and red maple.Observations are entered through the National Phenology Network website (usanpn.org), run by the U.S. Geological Survey at the University of Arizona. There’s even a “Nature’s Notebook” mobile app to make it easy and ensure all participants report observations the same way.Josh Leonard of St. Paul signed up this year to watch a pin oak in his backyard. It broke bud May 12 and a week later burst into flowers.“It seems like things happen so slowly at first,” Leonard said. “No bud burst, no bud burst. No bud burst. Then there are a few, then suddenly there are a thousand, then ten thousand, then suddenly there are leaves, then flowers and everything is happening.”Leonard is director of education at Belwin Outdoor Science, the St. Paul Public Schools’ environmental education program in Washington County. He’s also watching 10 trees at Belwin: a birch, a pin oak, a burr oak, a basswood and six aspens.“I would totally lose interest if this was just something I wrote on my calendar for myself,” he said. “I’d think, ‘What’s the point?’ This way, I know that even though I’m doing just this one little thing, a huge amount of information is being collected that will help research.”Like most people who contribute to citizen science, Leonard also has enjoyed the side benefits. This year, while looking for buds on an oak tree, he noticed a wasp laying eggs on a leaf. Another day, he stumbled into a migrating flock of cedar waxwings.“They’re just gorgeous,” Leonard said. “I think there were at least a hundred of them, and I’m not exaggerating. They were migrating through and they were starving, and they were eating every little berry and everything they could. I felt like I was swimming in cedar waxwings. And I wouldn’t have had that experience if I hadn’t gone out to check for bud burst.“It’s just a very cool way to pay attention to nature,” he said.The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.