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…

 

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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.

Flamingos Fly; Us, Not So Much.

DSC_0336Last week, we visited the Yucatecan coastal town of Celestun; the study-abroad students and I had a great time seeing birds, especially the iconic flamingos. Unsurprisingly, I chatted with the group about the landscape and ecology of the place—I believe appreciating the science and history of place only adds to the aesthetic enjoyment and fun of travel.

But let me add to that a bit. At Central College, we believe education (including study abroad) is about more than the individual student. Our mission is to be a force for good: the world should be a better place because of what we do. I hope that many travelers aspire to a similar mission: enjoyment and memories, of course…self-improvement, hopefully…but even more, our travels can make human connections, benefit the people we meet, and support preservation and enhancement of special places.

Celestun is surely such a “special place.” So, it’s great that we spent time and money there: we enjoyed the birds we saw, and our excursion fare financially supported the boat skipper and therefore, the local economy. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the beach, so the food-service staff earned income from our visit. We can all feel good about that!

DSC_0363Nevertheless, I look ahead to the future with some trepidation. Mangroves and other wooded areas of the Yucatan Peninsula are under threat. The loss of those mangrove forests, and the carbon added to the atmosphere as a result, exacerbates atmospheric warming…which in turn will accelerate sea-level rise. As the ocean surface creeps up, the shoreline will creep inland, submerging coastal areas. I’ve spent pleasant times in and near the coastal city of Progreso, and worry how it will fare—the whole town is barely above sea level today.

We have committed the world to an altered climate, for decades to come. Will the flamingos survive the resulting changes? Actually, I imagine they’ll have an easier time of it than we will. They are migratory, moving east-west across the Peninsula during the various seasons; they follow food, find nest sites, and will naturally adjust their behavior “on the fly” as it were. When the environmenta changes, they’ll adapt.

But what about the locals I met during my visit? Of course, they’ll need to adjust, as well. I’m optimistic that tourists will still come, even if the flamingos don’t flock and migrate in the same way at the same times. Those fishing/crabbing this inlet or the nearby Gulf may need to change their equipment and techniques, but let’s hope the seafood is still there and plentiful. I’m cautiously optimistic about some aspects of climate change.

DSC_0298However, the change could be scary, and I hope we will wisely think ahead and make appropriate plans. Part of my work while in the Yucatan was teaching a seminar called Climate Change: North & South. Students wrote term papers, including some predicting and planning for the world they will inhabit. With ideas like how best to warn coastal residents about the hazards they face; helping communities make climate-disaster contingencies; anticipating and avoiding climate-related health risks…the students are smart and energetic. They give me hope! I hope you’re mindful and determined, too.

To finish up: may I humbly request your assistance? Please travel to wetlands and other natural features, near and far, and support those working in them or to preserve them. Talk to others about climate change, and encourage our leaders to acknowledge and respond to the threat. And share your joy and wonder about our beautiful planet…we all need that uplift, now more than ever! Leave a comment here, post to your own blog, work the social media…or perhaps take a young person for a little fun in the outdoors. Have fun!!DSC_0291

“Eyes of the Water,” watching Flamingos!

DSC_0094Our study-abroad students and I recently beheld one of Nature’s most thrilling sights: flocks of hundreds of American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in in the wild! There are only a few places you can get “up close and personal” with these magnificent birds, and the shallow coastal waters around the Yucatecan town of Celestun is one of those spots. This trip was one of the last things we do with our group, and it was as much a celebration of this place and our love of it, as it was a chance to watch birds.

After a couple hours’ drive west of Merida, we came upon El Puente del Rio, a bridge over the river, although honestly the alternate name locals use (La Laguna, the lagoon) is more accurate. Really, this narrow body of water is simply a shallow, protected inlet of saltwater; it is directly connected to the Gulf of Mexico.  Mangrove trees border the water on all sides.

DSC_0089Near the bridge is a visitor’s center with restrooms and ticket office. Unlike olden days, the excursions to view the birds are now organized and efficient. Fine little boats await at a dock, and their skippers are knowledgeable and friendly, ready to take your ticket and begin your voyage. Hold onto your hats, because you’ll power over to the flock pretty quickly.

Guidebooks always caution readers against goading the guides into approaching the birds too closely, but I doubt it needs to be said. These folks appear to love the birds, and know full well that the flamingo’s well-being is more important than any particular visitor getting just the right photo or a closer look. All the questions I’ve asked the guides have been answered quite authoritatively, so they clearly understand the birds and the need to refrain from stressing them by getting too close. Moreover, the guides have been more than happy to point out other birds, too…and seem to have a really good eye for finding the various herons, osprey, cormorants, and more.

DSC_0105There surely are a LOT of birds, and other wildlife, to enjoy. Although the waterway appears uniform, it really isn’t. Note the patterns of upwelling and mixing occurring here and there, giving the water different colors and degrees of cloudiness/transparency. We should expect those differences will be important to the various small, planktonic organisms in the water, and therefore to all the  organisms up the food chain, including ultimately those flamingos.

I’m told that much of the inlet has a similar depth (obviously suitable for long-legged wading birds), but shallower spots are found here and there—your boat’s skipper will need to tilt up the outboard motor to navigate them. After tooling around the broad, open area, it’s time to visit an entirely different ecosystem: El Ojo de Agua, the “Eye of The Water.”

DSC_0135We navigate a channel through the mangrove forest, and deep within we find inside yet another type of forest entirely, one with taller trees and a diverse community or plants and animals. It all surrounds a series of pools, upwelling springs of freshwater (agua dulce, “sweetwater”). The freshwater has traveled through the karst (limestone shelf) that underlays the Yucatan Peninsula, flowing from the south (all the way back to the Puuc Hills, perhaps) and spreading out here as it finally drains to the ocean, bubbling up within a salty coastal wetland!

DSC_0141Our boat pulls up to a dock, and we step out onto a boardwalk through the forest. Some visitors swim in the clear, fresh pool, but not me—I am working. On some trips, I’m lecturing to the students; other times we may collect data on salinity or other characteristics of the water. Today, I’m mostly observing birds. This is a great place to see almost anything: songbirds of the forest, raptors, waterfowl of the coast, or perhaps hummingbirds working the flowering vines climbing up the trees. I pause to enjoy a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a common visitor to northern wetlands. I wonder if I’ll see him again in a month or two, up in Iowa…?

In the meantime, I will enjoy my time here in the Yucatan. Please come back next week for more about Celestun, and this part of Mexico. Thanks for your visit.

Strolling through the Mangroves

DSC_0159In my continuing adventures in the Yucatan Peninsula, I took a leisurely stroll in a mangrove swamp located just outside the coastal town of Puerto Progreso.

“But Paul,” you say. “Aren’t mangroves a tangled, impenetrable thicket growing in smelly, squishy, salty mud?”

Yes indeed! But THIS one has been adopted by the locals, and made into a popular tourist attraction (really!!). Let’s have a look.

DSC_0155We start at the visitors center, located on a busy road at the edge of Progreso. I took a taxi from the bus terminal downtown.

A couple of bucks and a five-minute boat ride gets you the easiest and most fun visit in mangroves you will ever have. The reserve has a channel cut into the swamp and a dock where your boat pulls up for your convenience. Step out onto a hard-packed, dry path through the swamp. You can walk right up to these amazing trees with their pyramid of trunks and roots…and never get your feet wet. Signs guide you around the site; benches and restrooms are available for your comfort. Heck, you can even buy bottled water or rent a hammock!

But most people come to visit the cenotes. These freshwater pools are formed by the unique geology of the Yucatan: the whole peninsula is a flat limestone shelf, with scattered holes revealing the water table below. Here, that fresh groundwater happens to spring forth in an otherwise salty mangrove swamp! These cenotes are all beautiful, and you may swim in three of the four (and perhaps birdwatch at the other).

The whole site is beautiful and comfortable. The local residents have created a fun, accessible attraction that is inexpensive and fun for the whole family. I heard about it in the local tourism magazine (Yucatan Today), and I hope it gains more notoriety and visitors. I want people to visit the swamp! I want folks here to benefit from these wetlands.

Regular readers of this blog know that wetlands are hard-working ecosystems, providing tangible benefits (cleaner water, reduced downstream flooding, a safer climate…) every day. The wetland’s neighbors may not receive as great a share of those benefits; how do we make sure they truly benefit, too? Those employed at this facility would obviously have something to say in that regard. But I also pondered other benefits as I dined on the beach at Progreso. These shrimp I enjoyed eating came from the water nearby; they were part of a food chain supported by…you guessed it, inputs from the highly-productive mangrove ecosystems. My delicious dinner (mariposas coco—butterfly shrimp with coconut breading) was a result of the work of the wetland. My purchase benefited the local restaurant workers and shrimpers…and I hope, encouraged everyone to protect the swamp. I look forward to visiting again in the future. I encourage you to do the same. Thanks for joining me!DSC_0197

“Land Without Soil Or Water”

DSC_0608Greetings from Mexico!

This is the first of several entries about my time in the Yucatan Peninsula, where I’ve been working as the visiting faculty member for my institution’s study-abroad program. I’m teaching classes on climate change and introductory environmental science, and of course I’m visiting wetlands when I can.

Yucatan_Peninsula

Map by Kaldari [CC0], at https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Peninsula sticks up into the Gulf of Mexico (separates it from the rest of the Atlantic Ocean), and is almost exactly due south of Iowa. The land is karst: most of it is a very flat, limestone shelf. Supposedly early Spanish visitors referred to it as “a land without soil or water,’ because of the thin soil and exposed bedrock; that karst is very porous, so no lakes or streams/rivers exist, either. Much of the region is scrub-shrub (very open, dry habitat) punctuated with sinkholes/caves (some filled with water).

The southern part of the Peninsula rises into the Puuc Hills, and is more lush and forested. Our Program participants visited the Millsaps College Biocultural Reserve known by its Mayan name, Kaxil Kiuic. What a wonderful place, and doing really interesting and important work on archaeology, rural development, and conservation.

DSC_0659AND THEY HAVE A WETLAND! Because of the geology, not many wetlands exist on the Peninsula (except of course along the coast—watch for more about that in future posts). This wetland was made by the staff here, and for a purpose: this is a working wetland. Specifically, this system “treats” (cleans) wastewater. It’s especially important to use care with wastewater here—in this karst landscape, any polluted water will quickly find its way down into the groundwater, and the pollution will flow through it.

And any surface water is precious to wildlife. Lacking ponds or streams, any little puddle is effectively a “watering hole” and valuable to the animals here. We visited such a water feature, and were delighted in all the birds we observed during our short daytime visit.

Of course, this is the land of the Jaguar, and yes, they can be found here. You are most unlikely to see one of these cats, but tracks and scat tell the story—but now, camera traps can “catch” El Tigre as well. And a watering hole is just the place to do it.

DSC_0673I hope to visit this place again, and take a closer look at this little wetland. There’s much else to see at Kaxil Kiuic, too…and some wonderful people. In the meantime, watch for future posts of my wanderings in the Yucatan. Thanks for stopping by!!

Mapping this blog…

Feb2019_map

A friend and regular reader pestered me for update on the 99wetlands project, with a special request for info on blog visitors with a MAP. Although on “semi-hiatus,” here’s a brief rundown. (If you have questions or suggestions, add a Comment below, or Contact Me).

The map above indicates where my readers live. I’ve had about 13,000 “views” or individual pages read by a visitor—some visitors read several pages at a time. As you can see, those readers live all over (58 countries represented), although the vast majority reside here in the USA. As might be expected, many visitors live in countries where English is widely spoken. African visitors are few. I might get a few more Latin Americans when I post about some Mexican wetlands in a few weeks, using some Spanish terms for wetland features.

DSC_0433To date, I have visited and blogged about wetlands in 85 out of the 99 Iowa counties. The remaining counties are clustered in the west and north of the state. I have visited countries in no particular order; really it’s been determined by other travels (family or business trips) or clusters of counties I’d visit together out of convenience (sometimes with an overnight stay in the area). I’m also sort of saving my home county for last, since I thought it would be a nice ending to the project—we’ll see if that works out.

This 99wetlands journey has been built on a certain geography, but is really about thematic connections. For example, the water in northern Iowa counties may flow downstream to affect residents in southern counties, or leave Iowa and join the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. A bird I will soon observe in southern Mexico might very well fly to Iowa this Spring, raising a family. The politicians who traipse across Iowa seeking support of its residents in a campaign, might later enact policies affecting our wetlands (and our way of life generally).

We grow as individuals, and make better decisions collectively, when we see connections. Recognizing the ecologic, economic, cultural and other connections between us and our wetlands, and with each other, is important to me. I’m pleased to be part of a community founded by immigrants. I’m proud of the contributions Iowa makes to benefit our friends and neighbors elsewhere. I hope this blog can help us appreciate the wetlands, and also help bring us together in conversation. Thanks for joining us!Calamus_Paul_square