Citizen Science

Schaefer Prairie Preserve Citizen Science

September 11, 2014

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Morning dew on asters (Aster) at Schaefer Prairie. Photo © Chris Anderson/TNC.

What is Schaefer Prairie Preserve Citizen Science Project? 

Do you love to see the first flower blooming in spring? The first leaf change in fall?

Would you like to explore one of the remaining patches of eastern tallgrass prairie and contribute to science?

If you live in Minnesota, then you will love the Schaefer Prairie Preserve Citizen Science Project.

Through the project, citizen scientists collect data about the changes in Schaefer Prairie Preserve plants as they change with the seasons from March-October.

The study of seasonal changes in plants is called phenology. Interested in phenology, but live elsewhere? Check out Project BudBurst – covered in a previous post.

Why is it important?

Preserve volunteer David Astin began the project in 2010 and their first report was for 2011-2012. The early years of the project provide baseline data that can be used to track changes in the prairie over time.

As volunteers collect more data, they will be able to see trends. For instance, if asters bloom earlier than usual one year, it could be due to the unique conditions of that year, but if asters regularly bloom earlier, the change in phenology could be related to climate change.

“On a longer time frame, phenology can be important for monitoring how prairies are shifting in response to climate change and from a management perspective, phenology of the plants is important when you are considering when to burn a prairie or treat the invasive species,” says Marissa Ahlering, Prairie Ecologist for Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Regular fires keep prairies healthy. The Nature Conservancy uses controlled burns on the preserve to mimic natural fires while minimizing the risk to people in surrounding areas.

There are plans to incorporate data from the Schaefer Prairie Preserve Citizen Science Project when planning the best time of year for a controlled burn.

While at the preserve, the volunteers pay attention to more than the plants – they also keep track of bird, mammal, and reptile observations. Combining the observations provides a more complete picture of how life on Schaefer Prairie Preserve changes throughout the year.

They submit plant observations to the National Phenology Network and bird sightings to eBird.

“Tracking phenology is an especially great process in prairies because throughout the summer you see clear changes in the colors of the prairies as the different waves of wildflowers bloom,” says Ahlering.

Volunteers spend time on the prairie, developing a connection with nature and learning how nature impacts their lives.

“The most important aspect of phenology and this project in my mind, is to create a doorway of entry into nature. The coolest thing is to have people develop a sense of being a part of this eastern tallgrass prairie,” says Astin.

How do you get involved?

Visit the project website and contact David Astin to volunteer.

Citizen scientists visit the preserve once a week starting at or near sunrise from March through October each year. Each visit lasts for roughly five hours. You can choose how often you attend. Updates and photographs of the beautiful flowers and wildlife are available online.

There are also special events to attend, like an open house and a bird banding morning.

If you are in the area, enjoy the beautiful prairie and record your observations.

Then, share your story in the comments!


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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