Nature Watchers

Volunteers in the field monitoring the status of nature.

Slogging through snow, soaking up sun, volunteer observers log thousands of hours each year gathering information on Minnesota’s birds, lakes, butterflies, and more.

By Mary Hoff

Marty Harding just loves those little leadplants.

A Taylors Falls social services consultant, Harding has long enjoyed trekking through the forests and fields of Wild River State Park. Last year she added something new: She became a species steward, one of about 40 volunteers who monitor various plants as part of the park’s Prairie Care project.

Once a week or so during the growing season, Harding hikes out to sites where leadplant, a dusty gray prairie legume, is known to thrive. She records the condition of those she encounters—how healthy they look, whether they’ve been nibbled on, where they are in the cycle of blooming and setting seed. When the pods finally mature, Harding is there, gathering seeds for use in restoring the park’s prairies. Her watchful eye makes it possible to harvest far more than if ripening time were simply estimated.

"For what you get out of it, it’s a really small investment," she says. "It’s just part of caring for something that’s given me such pleasure. . . . I think everyone should consider doing this kind of stewardship."

Harding is one of thousands of Minnesotans who volunteer their time and talents through public agencies or citizen groups to track the what, where, and when of Minnesota’s natural resources. Some count critters; others watch the weather or monitor water quality. There are opportunities for folks who like to get their feet wet, who prefer prairies to pines (or vice versa), who love wilderness, who can’t leave the house. Some volunteer out of curiosity; others, out of civic duty; others, simply for fun. In doing so, they not only increase their own appreciation for the natural world, but also provide information that managers can use to better understand resources, track changes, and pinpoint problems.

Calling Attention

Dick Duerre signed on with the University of Minnesota’s (now the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s) Citizen Lake-Monitoring Program back in 1974 as a way to alert others to the issue of water pollution.

"The lakes were being overused; there was a lot of runoff," he says. "This was one way of calling attention to it."

It still is. Eight to 10 times a summer, Duerre tests water clarity in Gladstone Lake near Nisswa. He lowers a metal disk tied to a rope into the water. When he can’t see the disk anymore, he records its depth and rates water quality on a scale that runs roughly from "beautiful" to "you wouldn’t catch me swimming there." Duerre’s data are combined with those from hundreds of other citizens. State agencies and others use this huge database for various purposes. For instance, the Department of Natural Resources has used it to assess the impact of fish stocking on water quality.

Program co-coordinator Jennifer Maloney says last year 995 volunteers took 14,765 readings from 875 lakes across Minnesota. In doing so, the volunteers collected far more information about Minnesota lakes than PCA staff could gather on their own. And they strengthened their relationship with the resource. "It raises people’s awareness—‘Gee, what am I doing to impact the lake?’ They develop stewardship, and then they feel empowered," she says.

On the Move

Another volunteer water-watching program, Lake Level Minnesota, has some 700 volunteers who record readings on lake-level gauges once a week. The readings are available on the DNR web site for a variety of water-management uses.

The Wetland Health Evaluation Project, a multiagency effort, involves volunteers in assessing the biological integrity of wetlands by sampling plants and animals. Local planners can use the data to direct development in a way that minimizes adverse environmental impacts.

Those who prefer water on the move can tap into the PCA Citizen Stream-Monitoring Program or work with the nonprofit Rivers Council of Minnesota to develop a water-quality monitoring program through the group’s River Watch program. The data can be used to improve water quality. In Todd County, for example, citizen stream-monitoring information was used to help pinpoint and address a runoff problem that was fouling Big Birch Lake.

Water-monitoring programs are growing like a creek after a downpour: The PCA stream-monitoring program alone swelled from 17 volunteers in 1998 to 291 in 2001. Although that level of interest can introduce some logistical challenges, program coordinator Laurie Sovell says the positive impacts make it all worthwhile.

"The rewards are seeing the enthusiasm, seeing how people are getting connected to their river," she says. "Where they used to just drive over it every day, now they’re stopping and looking at it, getting to know it."

Nature Nut

Perhaps the most enduring citizen monitor around is B Kinghorn of Excelsior. At 86, Kinghorn is among the most senior contributors to the Minnesota State Climatology Office’s precipitation-monitoring networks, which gather rain-gauge readings to create a picture of precipitation as it varies over time and place across the state.

Kinghorn and her husband, R.S. Kinghorn, began their informal volunteer monitoring careers in 1946, when they began to track ice-out dates on Galpin Lake in Hennepin County, just for the fun of it. The couple took up rain-gauge reading in the 1970s, after a local media station handed out gauges to encourage citizens to get involved in weather watching.

Though her husband died 14 years ago, Kinghorn has kept the tradition going. At 8 in the morning on the day after each rainfall, she checks the tubular gauge mounted on her front-steps railing, recording her catch to the nearest hundredth of an inch. At the end of the month, she sends her log to the state climatology office.

"It’s interesting just to me," she says. "If they didn’t care, I’d still keep track of it, because I’m a nature nut."

But "they" do care—very much. The web site containing the Kinghorns’ many precipitation measurements—and those of more than 1,400 current observers and untold numbers of past observers around the state—was accessed more than 32,000 times last year alone, says assistant state climatologist Peter Boulay. Public agencies, citizen groups, and individuals use the information for everything from planning farm chores to defending against lawsuits—"just about anything you can think of," Boulay says.

Long-Term Changes

Visual acuity is an important trait for the two dozen or so volunteers who help DNR botanist Nancy Sather count Minnesota dwarf trout-lilies at three sites each spring.

A federally endangered species, this little flower has been found nowhere in the world but in Rice, Goodhue, and Steele counties. By helping to keep tabs on it, the monitors contribute to knowledge of plant population fluctuations that may be related to long-term changes in weather patterns or habitat degradation.

Sather—who also leads volunteers on a census of western prairie fringed-orchids in northwestern Minnesota each July and coordinates various other plant-monitoring projects—is grateful for the assistance. "These projects take so many eyes for such a short time that there’s no way our staff could conceivably do this without help," she says.

Folks whose auditory skills excel might like the volunteer project Tamra and Jim Kowalski of Independence chose: the Minnesota Frog and Toad Calling Survey.

Three times a year—in early spring, late spring, and summer—the Kowalskis drive or bike a pre-established route just after dusk. They stop at 10 sites along the way to listen for and take notes on the kinds and intensities of the calls they hear from any of Minnesota’s 14 species of native frogs and toads. Their efforts are helping herpetologists track amphibian populations, which have shown signs of trouble in recent times.

Hope They Don’t

Some citizen monitors look for things they hope they don’t find. Two years ago DNR aquatic biologist Gary Montz and colleagues at Minnesota Sea Grant started a volunteer program to look for zebra mussels, an invasive exotic species. Montz is delighted that the 200-some mussel watchers he’s enlisted so far have had no success in their quest to find the thumbnail-sized, striped invaders stuck to docks or other objects in the lakes they are monitoring. But he also knows that when and if they do find them, the early warning their vigilance provides could help biologists slow the disruptive critters’ spread to other lakes.

"There’s no way we could monitor all the lakes in Minnesota for zebra mussels," Montz says. "For the Land of 10,000 Lakes—that’s a little more than we can handle in one summer."

Cindy Hale would like the citizens who enlist in her monitoring effort to come up empty too—but she doubts they will. Hale launched Minnesota Worm Watch last year as a way to get a handle on the extent to which earthworms, which are not native to Minnesota, have infiltrated soils around the state. Research has shown that the worms have a negative effect on hardwood forests because they destroy the layer of organic litter upon which forest floor vegetation grows. Minnesota Worm Watch aims to increase awareness of the problem and to gather data on the extent and implications of the invasion.

"We know just anecdotally that there are worms in lots of these places, but they have never been documented," Hale explains. "Since worms are easy to sample, reasonably easy to identify, and seem to be naturally interesting to kids, we thought this might be a great opportunity for students and people from all walks of life to get involved in basic scientific research that directly relates to an emerging conservation issue."

Surprise Benefits

Folks looking for something a bit more charismatic than earthworms might choose the North American Butterfly Association’s butterfly count. Each summer around the Fourth of July hundreds of volunteers around the United States and Canada form teams to walk a designated 15-mile-diameter area within one day, recording the species and numbers of butterflies they see. The data they collect provide valuable insights into environmental factors that influence butterfly abundance and distribution.

Those who are wild about butterflies can also join the Monarch Larval Monitoring Project, based at the University of Minnesota. Volunteers spend two to three hours afield each week in July and August counting milkweed plants and the monarch eggs and larvae on them.

The monarch program offers an excellent example of the unanticipated benefits that can accrue from citizen monitoring. Last January, a killer frost wiped out millions of monarchs on their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico. Project coordinator Karen Oberhauser says the accumulated data now provide a base line that, when combined with this summer’s count, will help biologists assess the impact on the monarch’s abundance.

Balance of Nature

Avian aficionados can choose from all kinds of options. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, one of the biggest and oldest citizen-monitoring programs around, provides a valuable look at winter bird life in 123 Western Hemisphere countries. The Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch are both coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and provide additional opportunities to contribute to our knowledge about birds.

Volunteers with the DNR Loon Monitoring Project, begun in 1994, visit more than 600 lakes in midsummer and record the number of loons they see there in a single morning. So far, their efforts indicate that the state’s nesting loon population, which is larger than the combined counts of all other states except Alaska, is stable at about 12,000. Thanks to the volunteers, says program coordinator Rich Baker, "the DNR is confident of its ability to detect declines in the state’s loon population early enough that we would have time to react and remedy problems."

For much of his 69 years, Richard Hjort has been working to remedy problems with another Minnesota favorite, the bluebird. He first became interested as a child when he watched bluebird populations plummet under pressure from house sparrows, nonnative birds that outcompete and kill native bluebirds and other songbirds. Ever since, he’s been working to help bluebirds hold their own against the alien invaders.

One of 800-some Minnesotans affiliated with the Bluebird Recovery Program, Hjort periodically peeks into bluebird nest boxes he’s mounted along roads near his home in rural Chisago City. If he finds a house sparrow, he traps and removes it. If a bluebird has made its home there, he lends it a hand by scooping out parasitic blowfly larvae.

Sound like a lot of bother? Hjort echoes the thoughts of countless volunteer monitors when he says it’s worth it to help heal a world turned topsy-turvy by human negligence. "If we do this, then we have bluebirds in our yard. We have tree swallows in our yard. We return the upset balance of nature to a more normal mode, so to speak."

Hjort notes a recent report of a decline in purple martins, another cavity nester. "We’re failing as humans if we allow that to happen," he says. "I can’t have my grandsons come to me and say, ‘Grandpa, how did you let this happen?’"

How Useful?

How useful is the information collected by volunteer citizen monitors? Do scientists view it with the skepticism we might exhibit if, say, a volunteer citizen plumber came to fix our toilet?

"It’s something we think about a lot," says Monarch Larval Monitoring Project coordinator Karen Oberhauser.

Those who design and coordinate citizen monitoring efforts try to ensure that the data collected are as uniform and useful as possible. Programs that require technical expertise either choose experienced volunteers or provide training. Other programs are made as simple as possible to minimize the potential for error.

"There are some problems, but the benefits in terms of being able to accomplish a project of this scale outweighs those costs," says Rich Baker of the Minnesota Loon Monitoring Project. "We can’t always afford to do extremely rigorous work by professional biologists, so this is a great alternative."

Whatever the scientific goal, and no matter how well a monitoring program achieves it, it’s important to remember that the charts and numbers represent only part of the value. Observers and the environment benefit too.

"They learn how complex nature is, experience firsthand this complex web of interactions," Oberhauser says. "That is likely to make the volunteers more concerned about the environment."

Sign Me Up!

Would you like to get your feet wet with a citizen-monitoring project? Here are some of the many opportunities available in Minnesota:

  • Audubon Christmas Bird Count, 651-225-1830.
  • Bluebird Recovery Program, 612-922-4586.
  • Butterfly Count www.naba.org.
  • Citizen Lake-Monitoring Program, 651-282-2618 or 800-657-3864.
  • Citizen Stream-Monitoring Program, 651-296-7187 or 800-657-3864.
  • Lake Level Minnesota, DNR Information Center.
  • Minnesota Frog and Toad Calling Survey, 651-523-2945.
  • Minnesota Loon Monitoring Project, 651-259-5148.
  • Minnesota Worm Watch www.nrri.umn.edu/worms.
  • Monarch Larval Monitoring Project, 612-624-8706.
  • Project FeederWatch, www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/index.html.
  • Rain-gauge monitoring, local Soil and Water Conservation District office or Minnesota State Climatology Office, 651-296-4214.
  • Rare plant monitoring, nancy.sather@state.mn.us.
  • River Watch, 320-259-6800.
  • State parks opportunities, contact DNR Information Center.
  • Wetland Health Evaluation Project, 651-480-7734.
  • Zebra mussel monitoring, 651-259-5121.

In and Outs

qualifications for monitoring vary widely. Participants in the Minnesota dwarf trout-lily count don’t have to be fluent in English, but they do have to be able to see a rice grain at a distance of 4 to 8 feet. Monarch butterfly larval monitors need to be able to tell the difference between a monarch egg and a gob of milkweed juice.

Most Citizen Lake-Monitoring Program volunteers monitor a single lake for the season—although last year a well-traveled kayaker created a variation on the theme by collecting a single reading from each of 50 lakes instead.

The necessity of nighttime activity on isolated roads has created some unusual challenges for frog and toad calling survey participants. Several have discovered the hard way that their activities attracted another kind of monitor—the kind that checks licenses of folks behaving erratically in the middle of the night. Now program participants have special signs affixed to their windshields explaining their seemingly bizarre behavior.

Mary Hoff, Stillwater, is a free-lance science writer and production coordinator for the Volunteer.