A field ecology internship in the time of COVID-19

by Karen Schik

Michaela Hackbarth, now beginning her senior year at the University of Minnesota, spent 14 weeks as FMR's summer field ecology intern, assisting ecologists Alex Roth and me. Although nothing in 2020 has been "normal" due to the pandemic, we were able to salvage most internship activities, and we certainly didn't short-change Michaela on a full experience of mosquitoes and hot humid weather!

We asked Michaela to share a bit about herself and her internship experience.

Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in ecology.

I was born in Rochester, MN and grew up attending my local nature center. My interest in ecology and wildlife started from visiting and volunteering at this nature center and caring for my own insect collection, plants, and exotic pets. I started at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 2017 and am currently an undergrad studying in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology. The classwork I have had throughout my college career piqued my interest in community ecology and in studying wildlife interactions with the environment.

What projects did you work on with FMR this summer?

This summer I worked with FMR on surveying birds, plants and pollinators at a number of different sites. I took data at these surveys, entered data, and monitored wildlife cameras throughout the summer. I assisted at FMR volunteer events such as invasive species removals. Additionally, I worked with FMR and John Lampe on honeysuckle treatment research.

What was the purpose of the bird surveys and plant surveys? What were we hoping to learn?

Bird and plant surveys are an important part of ecological restoration because they are a way to document the restoration's effects on the land. Monitoring surveys are able to provide information on species diversity before restoration, during and after. We are looking to learn if the restoration is beneficial to the communities it is meant to support.    

Do you have any favorite birds that you saw or heard during your bird surveys?

One of my favorite birds to hear was the gray catbird. At first I was never able to identify their call right, but by the end of the summer I got it down and I love it. A series of random calls/phrases makes its song, and I think it’s very unique. One of my favorite birds to see however was the northern flicker. They are just so majestic looking!

Did you have a favorite project site? Which one and why?

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I can give my top three. My favorite project sites were William H. Houlton Conservation Area in Elk River, Hastings Sand Coulee, and Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings. I think these sites stuck with me because of how expansive they felt. All three sites created a feeling of being far from the city, surrounded by nature, even though the city was only a few miles (or less) away. Albeit, many FMR sites produce this feeling, which is wonderful as it gives opportunities for city residents to experience nature near home.

Michaela with flowers
Michaela collecting plant data at one of her favorite sites, the prairie restoration at Spring Lake Park Reserve in Dakota County.

What did you take away from the internship — what did you learn and how will it help you on your career path?

This internship gave me a lot more insight on field work and what a job working in the field would feel like. Having had this experience, I feel more confident about applying for other field-based positions as I continue down my career path. I feel far more capable and interested in spending time out in the field to collect hard data.

Additionally, I became a lot more familiar with IDing native and non-native plants, birds and pollinators. This will be beneficial not only to the remainder of my college career, but to whatever career I end up in. Being knowledgeable on a variety of taxa makes me a stronger candidate for future ecological employers.

It also opened my eyes to all the planning, scheduling and funding that goes into restoration work. I didn’t consider how much work in land conservation requires working with people. Amongst meetings, working with city officials, contractors and volunteers I was reminded that people skills are always important.

I found that I thoroughly enjoyed working with volunteers and talking to volunteers about the importance of what FMR is doing. In the following year I want to apply to positions where I can educate volunteers or the public on conservation-related topics.

What was your favorite part of the internship or most memorable moment?

My favorite part of the internship was participating in a small mammal survey with St. Paul Parks and Recreation and U of MN grad students at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. I found this the most memorable because it provided hands-on experience with wildlife.

As previously mentioned, I really enjoyed participating in volunteer events, working alongside and educating volunteers.

What was the hardest part?

The hardest part was probably the weather conditions during some surveys and events. We sometimes still worked in rainy conditions or high heat, which could be exhausting after a while. However, everything was still very manageable, and the weather could’ve been much worse!

How was it to do this internship during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I am thankful I still got to do this internship during the COVID-19 pandemic! The internship ended up a little different than expected because of COVID changes and there were less projects and events overall, but I was still happy to be a part of what I could. Working outside most of the time was a relief given the pandemic. A downside is that I feel like I wasn’t able to connect as well with much of the FMR staff since I didn’t get to meet many of them in person at all. Thankfully, Zoom exists and I was able to virtually meet everyone and get a window into the other FMR departments through staff meetings.

Thank you, Michaela, for all your help this summer! You did an excellent job and effortlessly weathered the 2020 weirdness. We wish you all the very best as you pursue your career. And we hope we'll see you back at FMR events!


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