burning nice island 2022

After navigating uncertainties about weather and electricity, we ventured up to western Minnesota for a promising burn window. Steady northwest winds, dry fuels, and suitable conditions left us eager to burn on Monday, May 16. Alex, Per, Stuart, and I worked all morning to ready burn breaks in preparation for the afternoon. We were joined by Brad D., Dwight, and Ed C.

Our first unit of the afternoon was the ironically named “nice island.” This unit comprises an eggplant-shaped peninsula of grass extending into an agricultural field. We are studying Green Milkweed and Rough Blazing Star reproduction at this site. After taking weather, discussing the burn plan, and orienting new crew members to their tools, we ignited a test fire in the southwest corner of the unit. The crew then split in half. One group secured the eastern burn break while the second group ignited and secured the western burn break. Once sufficient black had been established, Brad ignited west along the northern edge of the unit while I ignited east along the southern edge. Our hope was the fire would close on itself rapidly but this burn was much slower and smokier than expected (probably owing to the higher relative humidity and the abundance of brome that had greened up after rain and warm temperatures). Slowly but surely, the flames came together leaving a uniformly black burn unit. We are excited to see a nicer post-burn version of nice island this summer.

Temperature: 64 F
Relative Humidity: 44 %
Wind Speed: 11 mph
Wind Direction: NW
Ignition time: 1:32 PM
End time: 2:29 PM
Burn Crew: Jared, Stuart, Alex C., Per, Dwight, Brad D., Ed C.

burning nwlf 2022

Continuing our May 6 burning adventures, we departed mapp and drove west to nwlf. Our goal was to burn nwlf when conditions were most extreme to maximize burn coverage at nwlf.

After arriving at the site, staging equipment, and taking weather, I ignited a test fire in the NW corner of the unit. We were pleased with fire behavior and went ahead with securing the north edge of the burn unit. After rounding the tricky northeast corner, I tried extending the black in the ditch with little success. The fire did not carry well in the bottom of the ditch. We decided the best course of action was to ignite along the eastern edge of the unit before igniting in the ditch. I used a lot of fuel in the bottom of the ditch. This generated a lot of smoke but didn’t dramatically improve burn coverage in the bottom of the ditch at the north end of the unit. I ignited one more line along the western edge of the unit for good measure. The smoke soon subsided and we were left with a sufficiently charred ditch to leave us proud of our work. We packed up and departed for our last remnant burn of the afternoon.

Temperature: 69 F
Relative Humidity: 31 %
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind Direction: SE
Ignition time: 3:30 PM
End time: 3:58 PM
Burn Crew: Jared, Stuart, Alex C., Trygg

What we need in a data collection system:

Our current data collection system software is pendragon forms run on Handspring Visors. This system works well, we love the visors, they are cheap and do the job. However, the Visors are 2000’s technology and the system is starting to become somewhat precarious. So we are starting to consider alternative systems. Gretel looked into potential new systems in 2016 with minimal luck.

We are hoping in the past six or so years that technology has devolved that will allow us to potentially replace the visors!

What we need in a Data Collection System:

  • allow for pre-loading data (list of positions to be measured)
  • allow for fast and efficient data entry (including ability to switch between records using a back or next button)
  • allow for parent-child form relationship (plant — heads)
  • auto-repeat of child form
  • safeguard against data loss
  • allow viewing of form/data entry in record view vs. field view
  • include dropdown, multi-selection boxes
  • ability to hold more than 250 records without slowing down
  • physical hardware is backlight making it easy to read in the field

Growing Green Milkweed

This summer we harvested seed pods from 25 Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) plants in the study area. Green Milkweed is uncommon and seems to be declining in our study area. This species prefers similar habitat to Echinacea. Plants tend to be sporadically distributed across dry prairies on steep hillsides, sandy soils, and well-drained gravelly areas. Our experience has been that flowering plants often fail to produce seed. We rarely find more than a handful of plants that produce pods in a given year.

After harvesting and drying seeds, Jared cleaned seed by removing their fluffy coma. Jared then counted all the seeds and randomly selected a minimum of 30 seeds for x-raying. X-rays revealed variation. Some ovules lacked an embryo , others had whole, intact embryos. Many ovlues fell somewhere in between. They contained embryos that were undersized, shriveled, or fragmented. There was no external evidence of seed predation. The proportion of full ovules ranged from 0 to 100 percent. We are not sure whether “partials” reflect resource limitation and seed abortion, a form of late-acting self-incompatibility, or something else entirely. We are doing some research to help us interpret the biology underlying these patterns.

After cleaning, counting, and classifying, Jared prepared a subset of Green Milkweed seed for germination. CBG’s production greenhouse will germinate and grow 392 milkweed seedlings representing 15 maternal lines. We will plant these seedlings in an area south of P8. Although these plants grow slowly, our hope is that they will be an excellent resource for investigating milkweed pollination in a couple years. We also hope to harvest seed from these plants and include Green Milkweed in our seed mixes for restoration!

Caitlin McWilliams

Echinacea Project 2021

I am part of the Class of 2025 at Carleton College and I plan to major in Environmental Studies.

Research Interests

In general, I am interested in helping to conserve natural prairie areas through networks and corridors so that they can become more resilient to climate changes. I am also curious about how to connect with stakeholders and landowners to make this happen, but also how to combine my interest in GIS with prairie restoration.


I am from Rochester, MN, but my home away from home is our cabin near Lanesboro, where I help to restore the surrounding native prairies, forests, and savannas. I also greatly enjoy hiking the bluffs there with my family and dogs.

Collecting seed with my dad at our cabin for Project Wingspan

Wrapping up the field season

It has been a hectic couple weeks for the Echinacea Project. Last week we braved fog, wind, and rain to wrap up the 2021 field season. Mia and Alex drove up from Chicago to help finish planting and pick up flags in the remnants.

On Thursday and Friday, Mia, Alex, and I sowed Echinacea seed in the 76 transects that comprise our seed addition experiment. This experiment will help us quantify the effects of fire and other environmental variables on seedling emergence and survival.

The planting went smoothly, we averaging approximately 2 minutes per transect. Prior to sowing seeds, we located transects and found nails designating the start and end of focal 1-m segments. We laid a meter stick on the ground stretching from start nail to end nail. We then spread seeds evenly between the 5 and 95 cm marks of the meter stick in line with the transect. Once empty, each seed envelope was given one last flick to dislodge any stubborn achenes and we gently tapped the meter stick against the ground to ensure any achenes that landed on blades of grass or other vegetation were not catapulted across the prairie when we picked up the meter stick.

Barring a shift in the weather that brings more favorable conditions for burning, Team Echinacea has moved indoors for the winter.

Establishing seed addition transects

As part of the 2020 NSF grant to study fire effects on plant reproduction and population dynamics, we are implementing a seed addition experiment in numerous remnants. From previous studies, we know that fire can improve recruitment which is important for population growth. However, our previous observations of recruitment in remnants conflate the amount of seed entering the seed bank and the seedlings emerging from the seed bank. The goal of this seed addition experiment is to help us directly quantify the effects of fire on seedling emergence and early seedling fitness. We will use these data to parameterize demographic models for Echinacea.

For the seed addition experiment, we established 76 transects distributed across 32 prairie remnants with Echinacea. Transect locations were determined by generating an ordered list of random points (random integers corresponding with MN state plane coordinate system) within each remnant and selecting the first 2-4 random points that were located within ~5m of an adult Echinacea but avoided dense patches of flowering plants where we may have difficulty distinguishing experimental seedlings from natural recruits. Each transect originating at a random point is 4-m long and contains four 1-m segments. Most transects extend North from the random point but some extend East (in sites where North-South transects may span an entire ditch). One segment per transect was chosen at random to be planted in fall 2021 and one transect chosen at random to be planted during fall 2022. The study includes 9 sites burned during spring 2021 as well as 7 sites slated to burn during spring 2022.

Over the past week, I have been using a GPS unit to stake the transect locations. I marked the start and end point of each transect using a blue pin flag and installed nails at 1-m intervals using measuring tape (this will facilitate the use of meter sticks and/or measuring tapes in the field). We used 4 inch galvanized common nails. Pro tip: these nails were considerably less expensive at Fleet Farm than other vendors. I plan to finish setting up transects either this afternoon or tomorrow afternoon. Our goal is to begin sowing seeds later this week.

Days growing shorter and colder

After a balmy stretch of weather (at least balmy for Minnesota in October), colder temperatures and shorter days have descended upon western MN. We experienced a killing frost Saturday (Oct 16) morning. Dwight and Jean reported that their tomatoes and other frost-sensitive garden plants are done for the year. I also awoke to frost this morning after a cold and rainy Wednesday (Oct 20).

During two of the next three nights, overnight lows are predicted to dip below 30 F. The forecast is also calling for a chance of snow (mixed with rain) Sunday morning. We had hoped for a dry, sunny stretch of weather this fall favorable for burning but the next week looks iffy.

The Flog with a Frog

Today proved to be a day filled with various tasks and adventures. The team (minus Maris and Miyauna since they are leaving at the end of the week) went out to Riley to learn how to determine if an Echinacea head is ready to be harvested. We learned the four indicators and how to play the “Harvest Now” game, similar to rock paper scissors.

Next the team split up, a crew went out to do phenology while I was with Wyatt, Allie, and Kennedy to do total demo at Yellow Orchid Hill. Allie and I braved the west side and managed not to fall into the Grand Canyon, although we did have some moments where we thought we were going to fall. The biggest surprise while being out there was the temperature, both of us were cold! After last week it was much appreciated, until we both realized we didn’t have our sweatshirts and jackets with.

The number of people at lunch has fallen significantly since our first day in June, yet that doesn’t stop us from having great conversations over strange topics! Once we were full from our food (and some of us ready for a nap), the crew went out to P1 to continue measuring. Today Kennedy and I were partners, a sure sign for something fun to happen! Almost right away we find a big frog in our row, Maris came over to take a picture and she believes it was a Leopard Frog. Throughout our measuring adventure Kennedy and I found lots more critters, a spider neither of us liked, some strange exoskeletons, and a caterpillar we both loved which was sitting on a milkweed.

Part of our job when measuring the plot is to find staples in the ground where past plants were in order to stay on track. Kennedy and I were having quite the time with these staples, some rows we were struggling to find them while in other rows we would blindly reach into the grass and find them on the first try. At one position Kennedy and I each found a staple, meaning there were somehow two staples at one position. It was a good day to be working in P1, the sky was cloudy (allowing us to find plants easier) and the weather was cool.

The newest addition the Hjelm this week is Mia’s game for measuring P1. Every section we complete in the plot is one square we get to fill in on the road, all while a printed out picture of a gopher chases us. It feels good at the end of the day to be able to see how much progress we made!

Once chores were finished the team went out to the Andes house for a team dinner, Kennedy and I were both very excited for dinner after googling the dishes while we were measuring this afternoon. The first food served to us was chicken and vegetable samosas, which were absolutely delicious. Team Echinacea has now gotten very efficient at handing out plates and forks, passing each dish in a circle until each person is served. The second dish to come onto the deck and onto our plates was rice and curry, which was again delicious, even if it was a little spicy for me! The meal finished with some amazing mango lassi and a wonderful conversation discussing funny memories of science classes. It was a wonderful day ending with amazing food, thank you Andes House for hosting us tonight!

Echin Ending

We are getting to the part of the season when the Echin are mostly done flowering and we are going through the plots searching for basal plants (measuring). The MWF Phenologing has gone from taking the entire morning to taking 1.5 hours. On Tuesday, we finished measuring P2 and began P1. P1 is about 10% finished and we look forward to keep making progress on that. We are also keeping an eye on plants to see when we can begin harvesting the heads preparing for their transfer to the Chicago Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, we are also getting the part of the season when we are saying goodbye to our coworkers. Last week, Alex needed to back to Florida to begin her middle school teaching duties. This week we say goodbye to a couple of the College of Wooster coworkers, Maris and Miyauna.

Wyatt, doing his best imitation as a sword swallower at the end of the day in P2.
Part of the team playing leapfrog as they finish a section of measuring in P1.