The Waters Linger…

DSC_0285De Soto National Wildlife Refuge sits in an oxbow of the Missouri River, along Iowa’s western border. I visited in late October of last year, so I could X-off Harrison County on the 99wetlands map. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. The migrating waterfowl were present in force, and I was enjoying myself, being right there and living in the moment.

Or, I was trying to. But memories of the previous spring’s flooding were ever-present. Trails closed, roads and culverts washed out, high water under the Visitor’s Center building. Perhaps the Redheads, Coots, and Ibis all benefited from the water sitting here and there on soggy fields. But I had heard all the trouble it caused to the Refuge personnel. Emergency conditions, and all-hands working to keep things safe and secure. Up and down western Iowa, areas along the river were inundated, and the effects will be felt for years to come.

But let’s be thankful for the good news. De Soto is a beautiful facility in the perfect spot: a major flyway for birds such as the iconic Blue Goose, symbol of the entire Refuge System. When I visited, they had (finally!) reopened most areas of the Refuge, including the terrific Visitor’s Center, complete with attractive and informative displays, helpful staff, and—as I was excited to discover—an excellent bookshop!! You should come visit.

The staff here, and all those living along the river, are inexorably tied to a mighty force of nature. It affords opportunities for recreation and trade. The waters are always changing as they flow; one day a lovely vista, the next a dangerous threat. But…we really shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders at the inevitability of flood risk. As regular readers of this blog have discovered, we humans have changed the very nature…of Nature. We have altered the drainage of Iowa’s surface, delivering more water, more quickly to streams—thereby increasing flood risk along this river. We are also changing our climate by dumping huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. Climate change is happening, and it includes alterations to the water cycle. Expect more flooding here at De Soto, and elsewhere across Iowa…and beyond.

DSC_0303In less than three weeks, I’ll head to my local caucus. We Iowans are the first Americans to express our opinion about those running for President. You can count on this: I’ll chat about climate change with my friends and neighbors who share my party affiliation, if an opportunity presents itself. I will urge those around me to step up to the challenge of climate, and call on our leaders to do the same. I hope that you’ll have that conversation in your caucus, or with a parishoner over coffee after church, with a friend at the pub, or through social media. Please…we need to talk about the future, about the climate, about our wetlands…and what we leave as a legacy. Let’s make sure our care and dedication are what lingers after us.

Looking in holes for rattlers!

DSC_0094Yes, my idea of fun is squishing around a wetland looking for venomous snakes! But, where to even look? Well, “I know a guy.” Dr. Steve Main, a retired colleague from Wartburg College, spends time at Lakeside Lab every summer. We’ve enjoyed many chats about Iowa nature (and wetlands!), and he invited to host me when I visited Bremer County. Turns out, he showed me around two different wetlands, and he and his wife were kind enough to put me up for the night and feed me, too. I had a great visit!

DSC_0071Full disclosure: I seem to be the “Anti-Dr. Doolittle.” I should have warned Steve before the visit: people taking me out to view nature all too often mention that on similar trips—without me present—they find the (bird/blooming flower/butterfly/whatever), but with me present…no luck. Such it was with the “Swamp Rattler,” the Massassauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) at a site near the Wapsie River. Such a wetland has a soggy meadow dotted with “mud volcanoes” made by crayfish (crawfish? crawdads? I’m ecumenical regarding Crustacean names). These holes in the ground lead to a tunnel suitable for overwintering by the snakes. And those (imperiled) snakes are found in these wetlands.

This isn’t the big, noisy rattlesnake sunning on a rock, familiar from Western movies. It’s likely to be in dense vegetation, and hard to see. And unfortunately, there aren’t too many to see—they are endangered in Iowa. It causes quite the excitement when seen.

DSC_0088No worries, we still saw plenty of wetland beauty: an excellent population of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), various Bulrush, Smartweeds, water-lily, Dock, and more. And really, wetland conservation is a package deal: protecting and managing habitat for a snake also benefits the other reptiles, and amphibians, and birds and insects…you get the idea.

Steve generously took additional time and showed me a large nearby DNR wetland complex, Sweet Marsh. We enjoyed the birds, butterflies, and frogs. But I was especially excited to see my beloved tall wetland plants. A healthy stand of Common (Broad-leaved) Cattail, Typha latifolia. We so often see the narrow-leaved species (T. angustifolia) or the hybrid between them (T. x glauca). Even more exciting was a stand of Wild Rice (Zizania sp.)! Despite the various waters named “Rice Lake” you may know, I don’t see it growing in the wild in Iowa too often. I’ll be sure to discuss this when I teach Ethnobotany next semester. I was also pleased to pass this along to some practitioners of traditional plant uses. (Wetland networking at its finest!)

What a great time I had exploring these wetlands, talking shop with a colleague and friend, and celebrating these special places. And now, you’ve joined the fun. Please join me on my remaining wetland adventures, won’t you?DSC_0109

Fractals in the Wetland

DSC_0252It’s surprising what my wandering mind will stumble upon during my wetland wanderings. On a recent walkabout at Littlefield Recreation Area in Audubon County, I was thinking about fractals, of all things! It actually made sense in context, and may be helpful to bear in mind when thinking about habitats and the living things therein.

Fractals are a concept from mathematics, applicable to art and ecology and many other topics. The idea is that a geometric pattern repeats itself across scales: a certain shape is contained within a larger version of that same shape, and also has within it smaller versions of that shape, and so on. They make beautiful and interesting designs for illustrations, but I wonder if they might also apply in an ecological sense for wetlands?

DSC_0258If any ecosystem could be a fractal, wetlands are likely to do it. An aerial view of Littlefield shows a variety of watery habitats, from the 70-acre (28 hectare) lake, to a pond, ditches or swales, wetlands, streams, and various connections between all of them. I’m unfamiliar with this site, but such places sometimes have high water spreading across the land and submerging it all, or dry conditions where low wet spots are isolated or even dry up entirely. The variable hydrology of wetlands makes them larger, smaller, connected, disconnected…perhaps a fractal pattern across the land, and over time?

The idea of “winking patches” in landscape ecology, where habitats appear and vanish, would have profound implications for organisms. As one example, think about frogs and toads. The concern about “amphibian decline” has a lot of attention as populations, and whole species, are in danger of being lost forever. But having habitats where predators or diseases can’t establish, because of their ephemeral nature, can be really important. The long-term stability of an amphibian is accomplished through short-term, unpredictable or temporary habitats.

DSC_0259The ponds and wetlands and lake may connect by surface water during wet times, and groundwater at other times. But algae and bacteria and seeds will blow around the site at other times, too. Animals will hop and crawl and slither and fly between the various habitats. And it’s all part of a larger network of inter connected ecosystems, too. Streams flow onto this property, are dammed to form ponds or lakes, and then release to contribute to streams and rivers running downslope from here. A map of Audubon, like many Iowa counties, has wiggling blue lines joining together here and there, giving an overall impression of a tree: the aptly-named “dendritic drainage” (from the Greek word for tree, Dendros).

So although the old adage may be true that “we all live downstream,” that’s only part of the story here. We all live in a fractal landscape, perhaps. Thinking about the little habitats, and the larger landscapes to which they contribute, and the connections between these fractal elements, may help us both better appreciate and care for our wetlands.

Perhaps that would be a worthy resolution for us. (Happy New Year!!)DSC_0254

Remembering and Anticipating

DSC_0001This blog project will cross the finish line soon: I have only a handful of Iowa’s 99 counties remaining to profile. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus lately, but my intention is to finish posting the remaining profiles in the next two months.

I’m in a contemplative mood! Actually, my visits to wetlands almost always both evoke memories, and invite speculation and planning for the future. Certainly my time at Beaver Valley Wetlands in Blackhawk County in August had me both looking back, and looking ahead.

It began as I walked along a backwater surrounded by trees. Perfect spot for Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) nesting, and sure enough I saw a female with her fledglings paddling through the duckweed. I watched her lead them away from me, and later circling alone, keeping herself between me and the young. Was she glaring at me with annoyance? You read her expression and decide for yourself. Anyway, a wildlife family is a hopeful sign for the future.

A short walk brought me to a well-constructed boardwalk/viewing platform. The air around it was busy with swallows diving, darting, and swooping about. Tough to photograph on the wing, but I did get a shot with a Barn (Hirundo rustica) and Tree (Tachycineta bicolor) swallow perched near each other. Nearby an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) surveyed the situation from a lofty perch, and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noisily landed on a section of large open water. I took the opportunity to birdwatch a while and eat lunch.swallows

DSC_0056I reflected on the legacy before me. My predecessors loved this place enough to preserve and manage it as a natural area; better still, to provide amenities like this sturdy platform and comfy bench. And I pondered the names of donors or their families and friends carved into this “Tom Carter Memorial Walkway.” I’m truly grateful for people who, like me, love wetlands and work to preserve these amazing places.

I wondered about the future. A few more wetland wanderings for me, some blogging, and…then what? Hopefully, continuing this conversation at the very least. Presenting my own research, or reports on what others are doing to/for our wetlands. Musing about how best to protect, enjoy, learn, and teach about these amazing ecosystems. Hearing your questions and thoughts, too. And, most of all, I wish for a future where we, together, protect these wonderful wetlands…DSC_0061

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!