David Astin is a citizen scientist. He’s a volunteer, making observations that can help professional scientists conduct research that might not otherwise be possible. Citizen scientists gather data for The Nature Conservancy all across North America, and Astin is leading the Conservancy’s first citizen science project in Minnesota.
Specifically, Astin is observing phenophases – those events in the life of plants or animals that tell us the season and more. He’s paying close attention to what’s happening and when on the Conservancy’s Schaefer Prairie Preserve.
David starts watching the Schaefer Prairie in March and visits it every week throughout the growing season and into October. “The buds on willow trees are expanding in March, and by April the willows are flowering and attracting pollinators,” says David. “They’re done flowering by late April, and that’s when you can see the earliest new growth on the prairie grasses, close to the ground, under the leaves from last year.”
Phenophases are recurring life stage events like bud formation in plants or nesting in birds. Observing when these events occur in nature, recording their relationship to weather and the seasons is the study of phenology. It’s a way of compiling nature’s calendar, gathering information that can provide important insights about how the plants and animals that make up a prairie live together.
It’s a natural topic for Astin. He taught environmental biology at both Golden Valley and Wayzata High Schools, and realized that students engaged in hands-on learning in the field can gather valuable scientific data – data that can reveal trends useful to scientists. Astin enjoyed this citizen science and wanted to continue when he retired. A friend introduced him to The Nature Conservancy where he met Marissa Ahlering, a prairie ecologist. Ahlering suggested Astin help her learn more about Schaefer Prairie’s phenology and he began visiting the preserve in 2010. His frequent visits since then have provided data that Ahlering couldn’t possibly have gathered – she travels throughout Minnesota, North and South Dakota and cannot visit Schaefer as often as Astin can.
There’s a lot to observe at Schaefer Prairie. The preserve includes dry, mesic and wet prairie habitats, home to an estimated 275 plant species of which 245 are natives. It’s a rare remnant prairie just 45 minutes from downtown Minneapolis near Glencoe, Minnesota. The Conservancy bought the property in 1967 from Lulu Schaefer Leonard whose mother purchased the land from the Dakota Indians in 1881. Periodic prescribed burns maintain this grassland and the Conservancy is also restoring a 45-acre old field within the preserve to prairie. Astin’s observations may help guide these efforts.
Astin records a variety of seasonal events such as when various migrating birds arrive or plants flower. Twenty-seven bird species have been recorded at Schaefer, and Astin expects to find more. It’s good habitat for grasslands birds such as bobolink, clay-colored and grasshopper sparrows. Wilson's snipe nest on the preserve. Many kinds of warblers can be seen at Schaefer during migration. Ebird now includes Schaefer Prairie among Minnesota’s birding hotspots.
Astin also gathers very specific data within a selected study area, using protocols established by the USA National Phenology Network. Three plants each from six different species are carefully checked every week. Indian grass, purple prairie clover, common milkweed, big bluestem, blazing star and rigid goldenrod are checked for evidence of first spring growth, first leaf, bud formation, pollen production and seed formation. Recording these important events, these phenophases, tells Astin and Ahlering critical dates for these native plants on the prairie, and recording them over successive years reveals how factors such as precipitation and temperature affect the plants’ growing cycles. When the data are posted on the USA National Phenology Network, Astin and Ahlering can compare their phenophases dates with those for the same plants elsewhere. Astin also observes exotic, non-native plants like Kentucky bluegrass or red clover at Schaefer. These exotics typically grow best earlier than native plants, allowing Ahlering and the preserve manager to use Astin’s data to fine-tune prescribed burns and other management tools to encourage native plants
Observing Schaefer’s phenology does more than guide management. “What’s so amazing to me about prairies is how dynamic they are,” says Ahlering. “You can see that by visiting a prairie throughout the year.”
Astin’s observations document the changes week-by-week in individual plants that are part of that dynamism. It’s a way to witness the seasonal life of the prairie; a way for people to connect with nature.
With a little training, anyone can do it and David Astin is looking for volunteers. Send him an email if you want to join him at Schaefer Prairie.