Friday, December 27, 2013

Scenes from a year at Coldwater

As New Year rises, here's a trip back through 2013 at our park.

In January, vandalism destroyed a young tree.

 Thanks Jeffers Family Foundation for providing
cocoa to warm dozens of snowshoers.

Early in the year, dozens of visitors explored the park, some on snowy ranger-led tours, and many more people strapped on snowshoes during two popular February events.

No matter the weather, we saw scenes
of beauty and life at the park.
Don Shelby plants a tree at Coldwater

 More than a hundred people came to Coldwater in June for BioBlitz, a 24-hour scavenger hunt when citizen scientists search for all kinds of species. 
Nighttime brought intrepid bug hunters.
Volunteers seined the reservoir to find what's living in the water.
Thanks to the Bell Museum, which keeps the data on the 418
species found at Coldwater's first BioBlitz.

Throughout the year, volunteers continue to come to Coldwater, to pull buckthorn, water trees, and help restore the park to an oak savanna.
Target staffers were among many corporate volunteers. Thanks!
In July, we lost one of the park's longtime volunteers, crew leader Ned Krahl.
Ned Krahl was known for his big smile, cool shades, and wicked humor.
All of us who knew Ned will miss and remember him. He was a a true friend of the park.

In late September, for National Public Lands Day, a hundred volunteers earned their REI "Get Dirty" shirts.
Thanks to REI for once again providing great shirts and goodies.

Volunteers of all ages braved blustery rain to plant trees and shrubs. Volunteers and donors have helped plant some five hundred trees at Coldwater in the park's in the past two years.
October opened with a low point for the park. 
In October, the federal government shutdown closed the park, put rangers out of work and canceled programs. After 16 days, the shutdown ended and visitors returned to Coldwater for a fossil walk.

From shells thousands of years old to remnants of a century-old railroad track, the park shows the connections between the past and future.

 This year seemed to fly by as quickly as the juncos and American Tree Sparrows darted about the hillside during Ranger Sharon's Winter Bird Walk.Winter birds have found a home at Coldwater, just as deer, and other animals have too.

This young park is thriving, thanks to many people: staffers and volunteers, along with donors, both individual and group. Coldwater Spring couldn't have made the progress it has without the support of groups like Wells Fargo, Target, the Mortenson Family Foundation, and REI.

To all those who've helped build Coldwater-- by donating money or time, or simply by visiting, we say thanks. And we hope to see you at the park in 2014. Cheers.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Citizen Science and the Christmas Bird Count

Watching and listening for birds to aid bird sciences.
This month groups of volunteers are venturing out into parks, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and office parks with binoculars, bird identification books and bird tallies in hand. What’s happening here? Science. Citizen Science. This type of scientific research is done by ordinary people, for the joy that comes with being outdoors, helping the birds they care about, and contributing new information to the scientific community. The specific citizen science project I’m talking about here is Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, which over the years has helped shed light on such diverse topics as avian diseases and climate change’s effects on bird populations.
This window says it all.
The Christmas Bird Count is the largest and longest-running citizen science census in the world. Last year 71,454 people contributed data to the 113th year of the Christmas Bird Count. The size and sheer scale of this event is great, but specifically what makes this count really amazing is the amount of data collected and its availability to the public and scientists. Scientists use the data to study topics that are quite diverse: where which bird species are in the winter, how weather affects the accuracy of the census, El NiƱo Southern Oscillation’s effects on bird populations, how West Nile virus is impacting the yellow-billed magpie, and if new management practices are actually helping birds.

Jim and Steve with their official Christmas Bird Count vehicle.

This is why new and experienced birders alike venture into the winter weather to count birds. On Saturday the 14th of December, I met up with Steve and Jim, Christmas Bird Count volunteers from the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter to learn more about citizen science and to count birds around the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. This team has been birding together for several years and knows the territories of many birds within their count area. Since some birds tend to return to the same place every year they can go out with a good idea of what they’re likely to see, but even they can be surprised.

From the warmth of the Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center at Fort Snelling State Park we watched house finches, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, and a hairy woodpecker flutter around bird feeders and trees. Steve and Jim were carefully counting the number of each species present when they realized there was a white-throated sparrow hopping about on the ground! This species is rarely found in Minnesota winters. For the most part, these birds stay in warmer parts of the eastern United States during the cold winter months, and then as spring arrives they migrate north into Canada. Some white-throated sparrows spend the warm months in northern Minnesota, but most of the population uses our state as little more than flyover land.

Map of white-throated sparrow distribution in January. Note that they are not particularly close to Minnesota in winter.
Click here to see a video of their movement through the year.

Steve and Jim enjoy the surprises and sense of adventure that comes with watching birds, but the Christmas Bird Count is special to them for other reasons as well. They take pride in knowing that by contributing their counts to the scientific database they’re helping the birds that inspire them to go outdoors time and time again.  

Turkeys in Mendota Heights.
Citizen science is a great opportunity to work for the causes you care about. Projects like the Christmas Bird Count provide valuable information that is used to help evaluate past actions and determine what should be done in the future. If you’re interested in citizen science in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area we have a few opportunities to get involved. In the spring we’ll be asking for volunteers to help us with a cottonwood restoration project. We’ll need to prep study plots, plant young trees and record how the cottonwoods are doing throughout the season. The information from this study will help us improve cottonwood restoration techniques throughout our National Park and will help guarantee that these trees continue to grace the river well into the future.

If you can’t wait for spring, we also have an opportunity to take pictures in the park for an ongoing phenology study of the Mississippi River’s most treasured places. Volunteers head out to record scenes of the park throughout the year to track seasonal changes. Over time we will be able to compare flooding, ice on/off on the river, water flow, etc. A new group of volunteers will be beginning their phenology photo projects in January, so let us know if you want more information about how to get involved.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Adventure in the air: A Birding Scavenger Hunt

By Kate Havelin

December in Minnesota can sometimes seem like living in a snow globe. We’ve got sparkly swirling snow, glittering ice, and oh yeah, lots of lung-chilling air.  But no dinky snow globe can match what’s in our sky: a never ending bird show, replete with raucous sounds, a few cool colors, and a flock of weird words (read on for more about naked birding, pishing, and oology). 

More than three hundred species of birds regularly inhabit Minnesota and now is the perfect time to start seeing birds. This week starts the 108th Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest running citizen wildlife survey. The count starts this Saturday, December 14 and runs through January 5. (For details or to register, see the Audubon link below)

This Saturday, Dec. 14, you can also head to Coldwater Spring for our Winter Bird Walk with National Park Service Ranger Sharon Stiteler. From ducks and sparrows to woodpeckers, juncos, and eagles, we’ll see which birds are using Coldwater in winter. The walk starts at 3 PM, so we might get a chance to see some of the larger groups of Twin Cities crows heading to their urban roosts. And if we’re lucky, we could spot one of Coldwater’s resident barred owls. No reservations needed for this free walk; just show up.

Walking with a ranger who knows her birds is an easy way for non-birders like me to see and learn more about the winged world. The National Eagle Center in Wabasha offers half-day Eagle Field trips that include a classroom program, coach bus tour to prime eagle viewing locations, and refreshments. (Two tours are scheduled for January; see the National Eagle Center link below for fees and other details.)

If bird watching outside leaves you cold, just brush up your birding indoors. Stay cozy inside the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum and savor a gorgeous exhibit, Audubon and the Art of Birds, which runs through May. Websites like the Minnesota Ornithologists Union and Audubon Minnesota offer terrific pictures and facts about local birds. The Audubon’s FAQs are quite helpful, ranging from what to do about downed birds (turns out, more than 75 percent of all “rescued” young birds don’t need help) to what to stock in your backyard feeder (artificial suet that’s sold in bird food stores is better than raw suet, which melts easily.)

I loved the fun facts in 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. Reading it taught me that naked birding means looking for birds sans binoculars, notebooks, or guides. The book explains that pishing is the sound of birders whispering “pish” to attract warblers. And oology is the collection of wild bird eggs—a cool-sounding word for an antiquated and cruel hobby. Author Sharon “Birdchick” Stiteler has a breezy style that makes birding seem like an endless adventure. She calls bird watching “a scavenger hunt, and the objects fly and sometimes change color!” A birding scavenger hunt seems like a lively adventure fit for our wintry snow globe.


Monday, December 2, 2013

The Wild in the Heart of the City

by Katie Nyberg, Executive Director

Last month, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Thanks to the leadership of Bruce Vento and David Durenburger, Congress established the 72-mile, 54,000 acre park in 1988. Of the Mississippi River’s 2,350 mile journey, this 72 miles best represents our nation’s heritage and beauty. The boundary of our national park starts at the Mississippi River in Ramsey / Dayton and extends south just beyond Hastings.
Many people I encounter are surprised when they hear about this national park because they typically think of the big parks out west—Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Glacier—but in fact, there are more than 400 national parks in our country—each with a unique set of resources and compelling stories to tell. Those of us who live here often overlook the places and stories that are part of the American narrative and contribute to what makes America and the Mississippi River great.

So, what does it mean to have a national park in the heart of the Twin Cities?

Our park owns little land and has minimal regulatory authority. There is no grand entrance. But where we lack in real estate, we are ample in community engagement. Each year, the park serves 15,000 kids with content rich educational experiences on riverboats, canoes and on foot. Urban parks like this one play a huge role in introducing thousands of young people to the very idea of national parks.

In addition to exemplary public programs, the park partners with dozens of local and state government agencies to provide thoughtful insight into riverfront development, water quality issues, and protection of our community’s rich history. I could go on with the long list of many worthy projects the National Park Service has made possible, from Nice Ride Minnesota bikes in St. Paul to organizing partners to face the threat of Asian carp, but most people I meet just want to know “What can I do?” “How can I get there?”

At the Mississippi River Fund, our job isn’t only to raise money for park programs. We also help connect the community to the great resource we all share. I encourage my fellow Twin Citians to take advantage of our national park this winter. You will be amazed to have a wild experience right in the heart of our city. There is nothing better than being at the river’s edge in the winter and seeing snowshoe tracks mixed in with tracks of deer, otter and beaver. Go on a park ranger-led hike at Coldwater Spring, view soaring bald eagles from Indian Mounds Park and stop by the park’s visitor center located within the Science Museum of Minnesota. Or, join the 3,000 people who volunteer for the park every year—even in the dead of winter! 

So the next time you drive over the river, bike along a river trail, or visit a historic site on the Mississippi, remember that you are in a national park, and you didn’t have to drive 1,200 miles to get there.