Run Noisy, Run Shallow

in_culvertBoth a recent wetland visit, and a recent news item about wetlands, made me think of the phrase “run silent, run deep” which of course is a famous novel and movie about submarine warfare. However, my experiences are quite the opposite—both hydrology, and news about wetlands, appear noisy and shallow.

In Worth County in far northern Iowa, I found a wetland complex (designated a Waterfowl Production Area or WPA) called Hanlontown Slough. It’s a miniature Everglades: broad, flat wetland with scattered higher and lower areas, but generally a “river of grass” (or cattail). The area has classic wetland conditions: most importantly, it’s plenty wet! As I drove around, I found a spot where the WPA boundary met a farm field and a culvert going under the adjacent gravel road. I stopped to snap a photo, and heard…hydrology! Specifically, I heard noisy, rushing water emerging from a pipe and entering the surface channel.

DSC_0507It reminded me of a demonstration I do with my Aquatic Ecology students at Iowa Lakeside Lab. We stop on a roadside along the north edge of Lakeside’s property, and look over an adjacent farm field. It’s dry on the surface and all is quiet. But a few steps onto the Lakeside property, and we encounter an old clay tile (buried pipe) containing a thunderous torrent! Seriously, the water rushing through is amazing…all the more so, since the nearby farm field gives no hint of all this water rushing just beneath the surface.

At Hanlontown Slough, that noisy torrent enters a large wetland complex, spreading out into a wide, shallow “sheet flow” with deeper ponds here and there, and backwaters where water just sits. Unless you identify an outflow under another road, you might not realize that a large volume of water is moving through the site.

DSC_0510So much for noisy, shallow water flow into a wetland. Out in the public sphere, we have lots of discussion about wetlands (and other environmental issues), and it can be a bit noisy and shallow, too! While this blog is based on the idea of a political campaign (traipsing through all of Iowa’s 99 counties), I actually prefer to stay away from politics. The most recent policy news about wetlands, however, deserves our attention: a Trump administration action eliminates key protection for wetlands. This is unfortunate (I’ve already written about my opposition), but sadly it is just another chapter in a checkered history of national wetland policy. For decades, we scientists have demonstrated the “ecological services” that wetlands provide to reduce flooding, improve water quality, and store climate-damaging atmospheric carbon (CO2). For decades before that, conservationists recognized and worked to preserve the value of wetlands to wildlife. The value of wetlands, and that they deserve protection, has been well-established.

And yet, we must once again argue about wetland protection and the “law of the land.” Truly, I believe we need to revisit policies when we have new information, and we need a thoughtful, honest discussion of how to best understand and interact with our environment. However, our current political climate doesn’t seem to lend itself to this approach. We have a more “noisy, shallow” approach it appears. Clearly this decision ignores all the science and other facts about the value of wetlands. Folks, we need to honestly accept the reality on the ground, and use a “conservative” approach (in the root sense, to conserve, as in conserving our environmental quality). We shouldn’t roll the clock back to the 1980’s and lose the progress we’ve made.

Soon, I’ll have visited all 99 counties, and my quest will be complete. But I hope the conversation continues. I’d love my kids, and future generations, to have a healthy environment…including my beloved wetlands. We need to continue to study, visit, enjoy, and advocate for wetlands. I hope you join me and together, work to protect these amazing ecosystems.DSC_0509

Dragonflies Common and Rare

DSC_0312Is it just me, or are there more dragonflies around lately??

Quite possibly, this is merely a sign that I’m becoming more aware, and fascinated, by these amazing insects. I owe that awareness to readers of this blog, and to several friends and colleagues who share their knowledge passion with me. I’m convinced that after the fanatical birders and the ardent butterfly enthusiasts, the dragonfly lovers are the next most dedicated animal observers. (Check out IowaOdes or Odonata Central webpages, for example).

One such observer, and successful researcher of the Odonata (Dragonflies and Damselflies) is my colleague at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory field station, Bob Cruden. He’s been associated with Lakeside for decades, probably working there longer than anyone else. I love visiting with him every summer and learning about…just about everything, really. He’s a trained botanist, published expert on insects, and a dedicated academic and conservationist. Recently, he took time to look at photos of dragonflies I spotted at Nelson Park in Crawford County. He kindly identified* two species for me, and remarked that I had encountered one of the most common species in Iowa, and one of the most rare. I believe I also saw a third (related) species.

DSC_0327Calopteryx maculata, the Black Jewelwing, was abundant and active. The striking, shining blue body and black wings would make a hot-rodder envious of such a body color. The wings flashed at me as the insects surrounded me.

Calopteryx aequabilis, the River Jewelwing, certainly is photogenic: Bugguide.net has about a million images for your enjoyment. Sorry, I don’t have a great photo of this one.

According to the Iowa Odonata Survey, Argia tibialis, the Blue-Tipped Dancer, is known from 61/99 Iowa counties…although Crawford is not among those listed with a record. Have a look at my photos, including several joined together for a group shot!

DSC_0326At Nelson Park, I was delighted to find a streamside wetland just upslope of the small constructed lake (reservior). The habitat was a mix of stream channel with various depths, widths, and substrate (sand, gravel, silt) with a mix of herbaceous vegetation and downed woody debris (logs and snags) in the adjacent bottomland floodplain. In a short walk, one can visit dense wooded slope, floodplain wetland with a stream snaking through, the lake, and a mix of physical structure and organisms throughout. Such variety (habitat heterogeneity) is ecologically valuable. Better still, you can enjoy the beauty and learn a little something—there’s an app for that! Ah, the wonders of technology: we live in an age of miracles.

DSC_0301I was content to just enjoy the dragonflies zooming around me in great numbers. Hovering, diving, racing past and shining in the sun (many are iridescent and brightly-colored). Their beauty and fascinating, lively behavior might explain their great popularity. My inner scientist began to needle me, however. I began to wonder about what these insects need in their habitat. Specifically, I was revisiting the questions I’ve asked lately about the consequences of plant “architecture” on other organisms. Would different sorts Cattails, for example, present different cover in flight or for nymphs swimming in the water? Could eggs be laid as well, or mature nymphs emerge from the water to molt as readily, on different emergent plants? Would water shading or temperature or wave action or litter accumulation affect these animals (or others)? So many questions!

In any case, wander the trail and cross the bridge at this wetland, or a wetland near you, and enjoy our lovely Odonata. Perhaps I’ll see you out in one of Iowa’s amazing wetlands!

*Note: I am not a professional photographer, and Bob had to work with my vague descriptions, too. Any mis-ID is on me, surely.

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Cattail As Architect

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Anna (left) with Central Iowa cattails

Meet Anna.

Anna & I have been busy this summer conducting research in…you guessed it…wetlands. Specifically, we have surveyed several sites in central Iowa, collecting data on cattail growth form and habitat. The basic question we hope to answer is “how similar are the plants we find, to Broad-leaved cattail (T. latifolia), to Narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia), or to their hybrid (T. x glauca)?” Other researchers are calling into question our past identification of the species, and recent work has suggested that whatever the species identity, growth form has important ecological consequences (especially after the above-ground parts die back and become litter). We aim to investigate what all this might mean. We’re also wondering if we can relate growth form—what I sometimes refer to as “plant architecture”— to interactions with the rest of the wetland.

Watch for future posts with findings from that research. I imagine this to be ongoing work, involving future collaborations with students and faculty colleagues. The questions seem important, since cattail is so common (and often dominant) in our wetlands. My 99wetland wanderings frequently bring me into contact with cattail, all over Iowa.

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A sea of cattails ring Finn Pond

A recent visit to Finn Pond in Greene County provided some inspiration for my cattail curiosity. There’s plenty of cattails on this approximately 20-acre (8-hectare) wetland. Such a large site feels rather like a sea, or perhaps more colorfully described as a cattail jungle? Towering over my head, and so dense I can see less than arm’s-length in front of me, the cattails feel like an impenetrable thicket. Wouldn’t a wall of cattail be an interesting and important ecological phenomenon? How would this habitat compare to shorter, more sparse, or more diverse, vegetation?

I encounter several animals in the cattails in just a short walk. I imagine the structural characteristics of cattail leaves would be of great significance to birds. At least, if I were building a suspended nest attached to cattail leaves, I’d consider whether they were rigid, or slippery, or tall, or…well, any of the specs of this construction material of the marsh. Then I stop and look closely at the cattail…

DSC_0404Snails glide on the cattails as they scrape food off the leaf surfaces. I was surprised to find them congregating on the flower spikes, high above the water..actually, up above my head in some cases! What they are doing up there I can’t say—leave your thought in the Comments section.

DSC_0410Almost certainly, dragonflies will be affected by cattail architecture. As larvae, they swim in the water around the cattails, and frequently crawl up a cattail stem when it’s time to molt their juvenile exoskeleton and emerge to fly away. Here at Finn Pond, I watched an adult Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) as it perched on cattail leaves between flights, glamorous in its bright “racing stripes” and skillful in flight.

Later, I recalled these animal sightings, and what I know about the processes at work in wetland ecosystems. Anna and I talked a lot about how things work in a “cattail marsh,” and how the plant architecture might be important. I’m encouraged by the intriguing ideas we discussed, and delighted to explore Iowa wetlands, learning side-by-side with my student-collaborator. And I invite you to read future blog posts, and learn right along with us!

Noticing the little animals

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This frog has sprouted legs, but needs more time before maturing to adulthood

Most of these blog posts are about Big Things, taking a whole-ecosystem or landscape-level view of wetlands. No surprise, as my PhD work was a big project advised by a big thinker. But, I do enjoy a close look at the little things, and in particular if I have a dip net with me at a wetland, it’s fun to get up close and personal with the animal life. At Christy Pond in Carroll County, I did just that.

You’ll most likely find the animals near plants which provide cover (shade, hiding space). Big “emergent” plants like cattail and bulrushes grow up out of the water, but how about Common Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza)? This species holds pretty yellow flowers up in the air, but is a tangle of stems in the water. Attached to those submersed stems are bag-like traps (bladders) which catch and digest animals. (Admittedly, they will catch only really tiny animals).

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Bladderwort plant with aerial stem bearing flower, and a tangle of bladder-laden aquatic stems

You’ll find plenty of “primitive” or “lower” animals in a wetland pond. Sneer at them if you wish, but their lineage goes waaaaayyy back, and they have been very successful at what they do, for a very long time. For example, few animal movements are as graceful as a leech swimming, it’s like a ribbon undulating in watery flight. Snails adhere (even upside-down) to slippery, slimy surfaces, using a mouth shaped like a paint scraper to graze on surface growths.

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Medicinal leech with a bunch of snail comrades

Amphibian larvae (tadpoles or polliwogs) come in many forms, some hopping about on land in one season; some frogs take years to develop in the pond, becoming in some cases almost as large as your fist!

I should probably have a whole blog just for aquatic insects—so diverse in form and lifestyle and rich in species. Let’s look at this water bug as just one representative. Now, I’ve heard people refer to just about anything as a “bug,” from butterflies to earthworms (seriously!). But technically, a “true bug” is a particular type of insect with sucking mouth parts. Either as a member of the Hemiptera (“half-wing”) or specifically grouped as Heteroptera (“different-wings”), they all wear the mark of their clan on their back: a big X where the wings cross (one folded over the other). The leading portion of the wing (forewing) has a heavy, protective texture (it even looks like a shield!), while the trailing portion (hindwing) is thin and flexible. To my eye, this animal looks like a little, streamlined dinosaur. Fierce and beautiful.

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Water bug, ventral (belly) surface…sorry, I didn’t get a photo of the X-back.

If you visit this park, bring a snack. The wetland is on the lower part of the property, but near the street is the old farmstead. It’s a nice shady spot to rest, and you can even explore an old farm outbuilding. All in all, I’d call this an excellent spot to experience rural Iowa and its wetland life. Enjoy!!

On the (wetland) Road Again

DSC_0286I’m glad to be exploring Iowa again after my hiatus, working my way through those 99 counties. To help pass the miles. I made a “mix tape” of road-worthy songs, and first on the list (naturally!) was On The Road Again by Willie Nelson. Little did I know that I’d find a wetland “on the road,” or perhaps a “road on the wetland,” during my travels. In Monona County, the Badger Lake WMA complex sprawls across, and is bisected by, Interstate 29. It’s a good spot to think about highways and wetlands, a topic we’ve considered a bit in past travels, such as at Heron Marsh in Henry County, Brush Creek in Jasper County, and Indian Slough in Louisa county.

Here at Badger Lake, we have a series of natural and human-made/modified wetlands, some being old meanders of the nearby Missouri River, and the whole site part of the Missouri River floodplain. Laid onto this low, wet land is a large divided highway, County Roads K-42/E-24, several smaller roads, and associated overpasses, ramps, ditches, and other road infrastructure.

DSC_0294I’m always amazed when plants and wildlife successfully adapt to our built environment. The traits to weather flooding and drying, to withstand assault from salt and oils and exhaust fumes, to navigate across huge mountains of roadbed and whizzing vehicles, the drone of road noise…I am a bit overwhelmed thinking about it! And yet I saw and heard plenty of life around the roads. Kingfishers perched on a tree branch over water tells the story of an aquatic food chain—the birds are eating fish which in turn eat other life. Calling Red-Winged Blackbirds and Common Yellowthroat advertise a vibrant marsh community. Raccoon scat and tracks in the mud tell about a variety of food sources and cover for that animal. Waterfowl on the water at least find a “rest area” along their travel routes, even if not sticking around to raise a family (although they might, at least in the large marsh east of the highway??).

DSC_0298On my travels, I’m looking for pretty sites to share with readers, and stories of the organisms living in the wetlands. But…I am also asking questions, and I hope you do, too. What changes in the landscape accompany our highways? What consequences of site selection, construction techniques, maintenance practices, and traffic patterns are important to nearby ecosystems and their organisms? Can we make changes to our highway infrastructure to provide the transportation services we require, while minimizing hazards to the non-human neighbors and visitors? If we create wildlife habitat near roads, can we assure they are nurturing environments for wildlife, rather than “traps” which kill the life we wish to encourage?

Let’s explore our roadsides and the wetlands nearby—but please be safe, obeying the law and using common sense. Happy motoring!

Somewhere, All Of The Time

DSC_0155A professor once explained the concept of Conservation of Matter using the truism “Everything has to be somewhere, all of the time.” Therefore water (and all other matter on Earth) can change form or location, yet is always still somewhere, and it is always, undeniably, water. That’s also why we should thoughtfully consider the hydrologic (Water) cycle, and the role wetlands play in that cycle.

In many parts of Iowa, the Spring of 2019 has been a challenge. Record flooding has occurred in areas, in some cases with catastrophic results—enough to be an official, declared disaster. But any flooding is a problem for the landowners or residents affected—it’s a disaster to you, when it’s your basement, field, town, or a place you live or work that’s flooded. The functioning of the water cycle has very real, even deadly, consequences.

 

This was on my mind as I recently drove around a very soggy northwest Iowa. Teaching at Iowa Lakeside Lab gave me a home base to see some really wet areas and the effects of flooding. For example, just a little east of the Iowa Great Lakes in Emmet County is Estherville, site of significant flooding by the Des Moines River. I believe these photos tell the story of sandbags and flooded roadways and what happens when “the river is up.” I took the photos while scouting for a trip to Fort Defiance State Park, located just outside Estherville. I was later surprised and relieved to find that the river flowing through the park, School Creek, was only a little high, and I could still work in it with my Aquatic Ecology students. How fortunate for us, but…why such a dramatic difference in the water near Estherville??

DSC_0165No doubt, many factors affect a river’s flow. I certainly don’t believe that wetlands are the only difference between the Des Moines River and School Creek at Estherville. Nevertheless, School Creek does in fact drain a large nearby wetland complex, Fourmile Lake. Recall from previous blog posts, how wetlands “smooth out” hydrology, absorbing large amounts of rainfall or snowmelt, and then slowly releasing it to groundwater or surface outflows. So if water has to be “somewhere, all of the time,” perhaps a wetland is a good place to be—as opposed to a “flashy,” flood-prone stream.

As it turns out, my students and I also discovered that this wetland complex is beautiful, and filled with amazing plants and animals. For example, we enjoyed catching inverts in our dip nets, seeing red-wing blackbird nests and adults, hearing marsh wrens call, and much more.

 

I’m not the only Lakeside Lab instructor to visit Fourmile Lake! You might consider checking out the work of my colleague Alex Braidwood of the amazing Artist-In-Residence program (Lakeside AIR).

Have you ever visited the Fourmile Lake wetland? Are you familiar with the flooding situation this year? Leave a comment or question! Thanks for reading…

 

What I Did On My “Summer Vacation”

DSC_0062Hello, friends and fellow wetland enthusiasts!

Soon, I will resume my regular blogging activity—I’m excited to resume my journey across Iowa!! To date, I have profiled wetlands in 85 different counties. I also wrote essays on topics of general interest, and most recently a few profiles of wetlands in the Yucatan Peninsula (Southeast Mexico).

In addition to Mexico, I’ve spent time in northwest Iowa (The Iowa Great Lakes). On the shores of beautiful West Lake Okoboji is the field station of the State universities, Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. A remarkable aspect of Lakeside is the Artist-In-Residence Program (Lakeside AIR). A recent participant, Jeremy Eichenbaum, made videos. I encourage you to check out the Aquatic Ecology mini-documentary he made. I’m honored to be featured. I’m amazed at how he gives the viewer an amazing overview of my class and my teaching style in a minute and fifteen seconds!! It’s amazing.

DSC_0280One day I took Jeremy, other AIR participants, and my own class to the bog at Dead Man’s Lake, Pilot Knob State Park. I profiled the site already in this blog, but I have an update: WE FOUND THE ELUSIVE SUNDEW!!! We were unable to find this carnivorous plant during my last two annual visits, so it was delightful to see it again. And who spotted it first, but one of our artists. How cool is that!!

DSC_0264Thanks for your past support of the 99wetland project. I hope to visit the remaining Counties in the coming months, and post more-or-less-regularly, so please visit regularly. You can also subscribe for automatic updates.

“But Paul,” you say. “What happens at County Number 99?” I suppose an appropriate celebration will be in order. Contact Me if you have ideas. And please, spread the word—wetlands are beautiful, hard-working ecosystems worth protecting and enjoying. Join me, please.