Volunteer Spotlight: Kathy Sidles

From harvesting native seeds to picking up trash to surveying bees, Kathy helps conserve precious habitat.

How did you get started as a parks volunteer?

I started fifteen years ago, although I can do more now that I’m retired. Back then I had learned what garlic mustard was – a nice plant that you can eat. But without its natural predator (weevils), it takes over the forest floor, choking out our native species and pollinators.

It was taking over Frost Lake Park, so I called the city. Megan Manhattan was one of the naturalists then who trained me on three things:

  • How to pull garlic mustard. You put it in a bag and take it to an approved waste disposal site, otherwise it goes to seed and then everyone gets garlic mustard in their garden.
  • How to dig out Burdock. It takes over wetlands and the burrs get in your dog’s coat (and in fluffy hair like mine).
  • How to safely pick up trash.

No one had picked up trash at Frost Lake Park for a long time. When people see trash isn’t getting picked up, then they leave more. I pulled out piles and piles of it! I roped my husband and relatives into it. We’ve picked up five vacuum cleaners, TVs, computers, a bowling ball and even a small gun (I called 911 on that one)!

After we got the trash under control at the Park, I took on Phalen Blvd. Then, as a volunteer with the Washington Watershed District, I adopted the Bruce Vento Trail (that’s a long trail!). I found big tractor tires and lots of “legacy litter” (things that have probably been there since the 40s when it was still a railroad bed).

Not everyone wants to pick up trash!

Growing up as the first generation off the family farm, we used to throw litter along the road. Then Lady Bird Johnson came on TV and told us not to do that.  So we didn’t.

When COVID hit and people were asked to leave the homeless shelters to create room for social distancing, a tent city sprang up along the Bruce Vento bike trail between Maryland and Arlington. Of course no trash pick-up or city services. I kept picking up trash along there and handed out trash bags to tent campers. One homeless woman saw me and asked for bags to help. She picked up 20 grocery carts full of trash. I “sainted” her in the Pioneer Press.

For the annual city wide spring clean-up in April, I get my church group out to pick up trash with me.

You are famous for knowing a lot about bees and the birds.

My mom was a bird watcher and got me my first binoculars and The Little Golden Book of Birds. Back then the Robins were dying from DDT that was being sprayed as a pesticide. I’ve been a bird watcher ever since.

In 2016, I started surveying bees for the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. The program has three branches: one that works with farmers to add conservation strips to their fields; one for honeybees and beekeeping; and one that focuses on native bees. I also survey for the Bumble Bee Watch, which is online citizen science database like iNaturalist. Anyone can take a photo and upload it to the database. The great backyard bumble bee count week is at the end of the July. I go at least two places a day for 9 days to do the survey. We also walk every day and keep my eye out for bees.

So far I have logged 93 endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bees on the East Side.

I even went out along Hwy 35 south of Albert Lea to help with a capture-photo-release survey. As I was finishing up without seeing any, I saw some purple flowers in the distance. Their favorite flower is Bee Balm. I saw a Rusty Patched Bumble Bee! No one had surveyed a Rusty Patch in that county since 1951! It was fun to see a whole different habitat that day.

And you’ve joined us for hauling Buckthorn at Swede Hollow and harvesting native seeds at Trout Brook Sanctuary. How else do you promote native planting?

I’m always promoting the state programs that offer homeowners funds (now up to $300), to landscape with native plants, plant a rain garden or a pollinator garden through “lawns to legumes.”

I also belong to Wild Ones Twin Cities Club to landscape with native plants. I save native seeds and plant them in yogurt and milk jugs filled with soil for winter sowing. Now that I’ve planted my yard, I give them away to others to sow on their property. Right now I have 145 jugs sitting in the snow ready to grow this spring with my care then for other people to plant.

What do you find most rewarding about all this work?

I didn’t know how retirement was going to go after 35 years of working as an electrical engineer. No one hands me a to-do list anymore. And my favorite age to be was 10, off along playing in nature. With these volunteer efforts, I have my to-do list and I get to go out in nature to get it done. I didn’t used to see that many folks out on my walks, but because COVID drove more people outside in the last two years, I have more friends than before the pandemic.

Favorite Parks?

When I was working, I didn’t have time to discover new parks. Now, with my husband trying to get 7,000 steps in every day, we look for every park within a 30-minute drive. I love the parks along the Mississippi River, especially along the confluence of the rivers and Kaposia Landing. Pig’s Eye Park is my new passion. It is Saint Paul’s biggest park, but nobody knows about it. It was a dump until 20 years ago and is a super fund site. Now it’s self-healing and so rich in wildlife.


Inspired? Volunteer in Saint Paul parks! From Coaching to Wildlife Monitors to Park and Garden Stewards, there are ways to make a difference that connect you to health and wellness. Learn more.