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 end of summer

As summer’s vibrant greens give way to fall’s golden glow, Team Echinacea remains hard at work in western MN. A skeleton crew is diligently wrapping up the field season. Our most important task is harvesting seed from study species so that we can quantify fire effects on plant reproduction in remnant prairies. Here is a brief update on progress for our focal species:

Echinacea angustifolia harvest: 383/383 plants harvested

Andropogon gerardii harvest: 370/370 plots measured and harvested

Liatris aspera harvest: 202/231 plants harvested

Lilium philadelphicum harvest: 79/80 plants harvested

Asclepias viridiflora: all plants harvested (~30, Jared forgot to check harvest data sheet…)

In addition to wrapping up the harvest, we are beginning to make preparations for fall burns and getting materials organized to implement a seed addition experiment designed to assess fire effects on seedling emergence and survival.

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.

An orchestra, a road grader, and a debate about faces (a typical Monday)

Today we started the week off strong by pulling birdsfoot trefoil along Tower Road since it was wet from the rain last night. Reports differ based upon location, but Team Echinacea members were able to deduce that last night there was lightning, thunder, rain, and hail in west central Minnesota. Once we pulled everything we could find, the team split up for phenology. Wyatt, Kennedy, Allie, and I were assigned the NorthWest loop, aka landfill and surrounding sites. Allie took the GPS to shoot newly found plants at the smaller sites while the rest of us went to landfill. My favorite part about this morning was that, unlike last Monday, the hill did not smell! Once we finished at landfill, Wyatt, Kennedy, and I met up with Allie to finish the remaining sites. Notable stories include Wyatt meeting some biting ants and all three of us looking amazing in our blaze orange vests. After phenology we had some extra time before lunch so I was in a group helping John sort flags in g3, the flag bin is looking better every day!

After a quick (yet delicious) lunch the crew headed out to measure P2. We grabbed our visors, flags, candy canes, and measuring sticks and tapes. Once we got to the field we ran the measuring tape down the field and got to work. Allie and I were partners and managed not to fall into any holes while working, but unfortunately I learned the lesson that if I yell at the visor when it doesn’t work, it will not listen to me. Once I talked to it nicely, it seemed to work fine. As we worked down the field, we would move the measuring tape with us. This involved everyone ducking while three or four people would lift it. It made life more interesting when none of us were allowed to stand up for ten seconds! While packing up supplies, Laura and Maris perched on their rock and managed to produce music from a piece of grass, allowing us to relax after a hot afternoon.

To add to the excitement of the day, today the P2 crew got to see the road grader drive by and make the road look nice for us. Please enjoy the above picture of the view of the road!

In order to minimize the amount of cars parking on the side of roads and driving, we filled two cars with people. This meant that one person would be riding in the middle of the backseat of Mia’s car. This also meant that Mia would get to look at this person’s face every time she looked in the rearview mirror. On the way out this person was Wyatt, meaning it was not a rearview mirror, but instead, as Wyatt liked to call it, a “Wyatt-view mirror.” On the way back I ended up in the middle seat, and Mia made it clear as to whose face she liked to look at more (mine), and who had the best face in the backseat (me). The rest of the car ride consisted of talking about food and rocking out to Taylor Swift, as well as admiring the view of Minnesota’s fields. We finished out our day by doing our chores and waving goodbye to everyone!

The Gopher!

Monday morning we started out by doing our phenology routes, I was in the northwest/landfill group with Wyatt and Allie. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and it made for a stinky morning at landfill! The morning was the fastest morning of phenology yet, we were all back and finished well before lunch. The reason it was so fast was because so many plants were done flowering so we didn’t have to check them. Last Friday we did independent estimates of how many heads we thought were going to be excluded from our routes as of Monday morning. Alex won with an estimate of 521, only 2 off from the correct answer of 519 heads!

Our afternoon consisted of working on independent projects. For me, this meant heading out with Kennedy to P2 to asses style persistence and dust more echinacea for Team Dust. While we were there we saw lots of different critters, ranging from a robber fly (if you haven’t seen one, just know that you don’t want this fly to bite you) to a gopher. The gopher didn’t seem to notice that we were there, it came right up to us! As a future gopher, I was very excited to see my mascot in the field.

Since there was still more time in the afternoon, we went back to Hjelm to see what we could help with. I went out with Wyatt to search for liatris in remnants for his independent project assessing liatris and butterflies in the remnants. Some sites didn’t seem to have any, but others were promising! At the end of the day Wyatt and I helped Allie with the aphid project and we searched for aphids and looked at different echinacea plants in P1. While we were successful in finishing assessing all of plants, none of us found any aphids. Once we did our chores, we were able to head out for the day and get ready for Tuesday!

Jul 6 Orchid Trip Adventure Recap

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, really it was morning, but the dark and stormy part is true. Regardless, the inclement weather during Tuesday’s early hours wasn’t enough to keep Team Echinacea from taking a road trip to monitor orchid populations in Fertile, MN.

Eight of us, about half the team, left the field house around 7am and drove north for two and a half hours. We stopped only for the necessities, namely the bathroom and donuts. The rain forced us to wait in our vehicles when we arrived at our site, and we were finally able to get to work around 10:30.

The first location we visited required a short hike to access. Though it’s acres upon acres in size, you’d never find it if you didn’t know where to look, which is why we were fortunate we were joined by Gretel Kiefer, who has worked with these orchids and the Nature Conservancy for over decades. A long-time member of Team Echinacea, Gretel is spending most of her summer at the Chicago Botanic Garden, but was able to join us this week for the trip.

The work itself consisted of moving in groups of four searching 10m by 10m plots for orchid plants. Whenever we found one, we would gather some data on its flowers, give it a numbered flag and use a GPS to mark its exact location. The plots themselves were sometimes a bit difficult to keep track of because many of the markers were fallen over or missing; I can only imagine how difficult it may have beef if there was standing water. Fortunately for us—but perhaps not the plants—this year is a dry one.

After finishing up at the first location, we ate lunch before traveling to the second and final location for the day. Because it would have been a long walk carrying all of our equipment, to get there we all piled in to Stuart’s pickup truck and drove down what I would hesitate to call a road, though we did all make it in one piece.

Our task for the second location was the same as before, but took much longer due to its larger size. By the time we were finishing up, the sun had come up after hiding behind the clouds all day. We were fortunate that it had been cloudy for most of the day; not only does cloud cover provide some relief from the heat, but, somewhat counter-intuitively, direct sunlight also makes it more difficult to spot individual plants. Once we wrapped up our work around 7pm, we headed south, stopping at a pizza place in Ada on the way back for dinner.

Despite the rain in the early hours, the consensus was that the orchid trip was successful, and indisputably a blast.

Some bonus photos: