Every Buckeye is an individual

Beautiful valley with sheer bluffs rising just off-photo to right

Recently I enjoyed the winding trail in the floodplain at the Middle River Forest Area (Adair County), as it bent around obstacles; the trail would undulate up and down and side to side, and it was a fun walk on a beautiful afternoon. I practiced a little winter tree identification, admiring the trees and shrubs. I noticed many Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) trees growing, colorful in the late afternoon sun, and I started to examine them closely. I noticed that the trees varied in branching pattern, twig and trunk bark color and texture, size and shape of buds, and numerous other characteristics. All had the telltale opposite leaf arrangement and large shield-shaped leaf scars containing three bundle scars. Overall they surely looked like their species. And yet, they each also each looked distinctive and unique. Which of course, they are! Among other considerations, this is useful to keep in mind when using an identification guide. The classic Tree Finder book by Watts admonishes the reader to “avoid freaks.” I solemnly point this out to students when introducing the book,  suggesting it as good life advice, perhaps to also apply in personal relationships? (I helpfully try to pass on my wisdom to the youth.)

But back to the Buckeye: as you might observe in this photo montage, they each look different, with a size and shape and spatial orientation all telling the story of that particular tree. The old argument of “nature or nurture” or “genes vs. environment” is tiresome, and frankly, wrong-headed. Let me settle this once and for all: every organism is the product of genetics and environmental conditions interacting. It is never one OR the other; it is always AND.  So, these trees grow that way, in that spot, because of the story of their lives. Those exact same seeds planted someplace else, or in the same spot a different year, would result in a tree that looked different. Trees are born with a genetic toolbox and start life inside a seed, with a lunch packed by Mom. After that, they are constantly growing, and their growth makes the best of the situation in which they find themselves.


Buckeyes and other plants in wetlands also tell another story: the story of wetland hydrology. Among the growth conditions to face is flooding. All plants need water of course, but too much water can “drown” the plant: every cell in the plant need oxygen, and generally that oxygen comes from the air…and submersion in water makes that unavailable.The plant may have the ability to “hold its breath” for a while, but eventually the physiological constraints will be too much. Unless of course, you are a hydrophyte, specially-adapted to grow in flooded conditions. Then it becomes a question of how deep can the flooding be, and flooded for how long, before it is too much.

As described by Ralph Tiner in a classic article, the hydrophyte concept is useful in wetland determination. We have a list, now available as part of the on-line PLANTS database, and the so-called Indicator Status tells us the probability that we are in a wetland if we see a certain plant species. An OBL plant is OBLigated to grow in wetlands (99% probability), an UPLand species less than 1% chance, and so forth. And our Buckeye friend? It is FACultative—implies equal chance wetland, or not.

But, as pointed out in Tiner’s article, it may not be so simple. In fact, FAC plants are species that may very well be wetland-tolerant, in some cases. Within a species, certain genetic types, populations, or individuals may be well-adapted for wetlands, and they are ecologically hydrophytes, even if the species overall doesn’t have a narrow tolerance. Tiner recommends looking more closely at species with broad tolerance to wetland conditions, to see if we can identify the true wetland plants with more specificity. Some individuals will not only appear different, but will have different tolerance to flood conditions. My colleagues elsewhere have started to take up this challenge. But in the meantime, we should look beyond hydrophytes for a variety of indicators of wetland conditions.

And we should be aware and accepting of all our Buckeye trees. Here in Iowa, I see them mostly in valleys, and I have often noted those habitats as floodplain wetland sites. Perhaps our hotter, dryer summers restrict them to lower, wetter areas compared to typical Ohio populations? Perhaps we happen to be on the edge of the species’ range, and out here on the fringe, interesting genetic differences arise? In any case, the Buckeye trees at Middle River, and their river-edge comrades (Boxelder, Acer negundo, or Bladdernut, Staphylea trifolia) all grow beneath the canopy of Iowa’s favorite floodplain species, Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum). And every one…is an individual.



Your Dream Classroom

Think back to your childhood “school days.” What if you could have visited an “outdoor classroom” with a grove of trees, tallgrass prairie, a pond, and a wetland? Would you have enjoyed learning about the flora and fauna, analyzing the water, enjoying fresh air, and perhaps even helping care for this special place?

I’ll bet the answer is “yes,” it would have been a real treat. Well, I visited the dream classroom you never had! It’s the CAM Outdoor Classroom near Massena in Cass County.

Wetland, farm fields beyond, and wind turbine in the distance.

According to Micah at the Cass County Conservation Board, the CAM school district “Man and His Environment” class conducts water testing, bird counts, plant inventories, and  also assists in care of the area. Formerly a working farm, 80 acres were gradually planted to native species, water control structures installed, and the property donated to the school district. It proved to be a bit too much to maintain, and so the County Conservation Board assumed possession and now it is open to the public. Aside from hunting, most uses are allowed.

BBQ grill, Adirondack chairs…my kind of classroom furnishings!

A rustic classroom building with big patio doors, looks down the hill to the water features. The wetland is perhaps 2.3 acres (0.95 hectares) and is just downslope of a similar-sized pond. The shoreline is irregular (several jetties and an island). Water levels are controlled by adding or removing vertical slats (stop logs) at the in-line control structure. Stacking more slats raises water surface, and removing them lowers the depth. Such manipulations are useful both to encourage proper ecological functions (drawdown to encourage plant germination, flooding during waterfowl migration) and for utilitarian reasons such as draining the wetland during maintenance.

Oops—I think a mower might have whacked this? Well, it provides a “cut-away view” I suppose.

What do students learn by visiting a place like this? What educational activity occurs that can be done better here, than in a traditional classroom? Sure a visit must be fun, but does it provide real academic benefits? As both a parent and an educator, I believe those are important questions. Below I list educational benefits of outdoor education, based on my observations as a naturalist, teacher, Scout leader, and in outings with my own kids.

Children crave connections. They learn better when they connect with their teacher. They read better when they connect with an author. They play better when they connect with other children. And…they are more curious, enthusiastic, and dedicated when they connect to nature. A wise teacher recognizes a teachable moment in this, and can work wonders in the great outdoors.

Students recognize authenticity. “Real-life” stories, or stories that at least relate to familiar life experiences, are valued and memorable. Being in Nature is as real as it gets! Wise teachers encourage original observations, hands-on work that will have a real effect on the world, and helping students ponder how the activities relate to their own lives.

We all need a change-of-pace! A different setting, combined with a novel set of  activities, encourages engagement with the lessons. There’s no desk to slouch into. Students who are normally quiet are more likely to speak up. Unfamiliar surroundings make us pay attention. A wise teacher uses this to advantage, focusing students and digging a bit deeper (sometimes, literally!).

This “painted” duck is rather faded. And quite tame!

Can we use outdoor activity to foster creativity with language? Collect scientific observations and use math to analyze data? Train the “artist’s eye” with a new point of view? Well-equipped teachers do amazing things outdoors (including at your local wetland).

Can you recall a lesson from Nature (whether organized schooling or not)? I would love to hear your input in the comments! Thanks for visiting this “wetland classroom.”

A Swedish wetland in Iowa!?


I recently visited Bjorkboda Marsh near Stanhope in Hamilton County. It appears that this is a little bit of Sweden right here in Iowa! The sign tells the story, but better still, I encountered a bird that could very well be from Sweden (or, visit there someday). I’ll reveal that in a moment, but first let me tell you about the search.


Bjorkboda is not so easy to find, rather out of the way on back roads. After arriving I enjoyed a climb up the viewing platform to the blind. Nicely placed near the water, and an easy walk from the parking lot. It was already late afternoon, and the sun was coming at my eyes, so everything before me was back-lit. This created pretty silhouettes of the vegetation, the muskrat mounds, and the birds. Ah, the birds…what ARE those waterfowl?

As it turns out, seeing them first in silhouette may have been fortuitous, as the most notable feature became even more obvious: the bird has a shovel built into its face! I was looking at a group of four Northern Shovelers.


I love birds, but I confess I’m no ornithologist. I’m grateful for the help of good field guides. I recall reading in a field guide, that an automobile can serve as a blind for bird observation. I climbed in the car, drove along the road a short distance, and looked at the birds again. This time with the sun behind me, the colors were all visible and other features (not available in silhouette) were apparent. The birds were actively feeding, sort of swishing their bills back and forth through the water, almost as if constantly shaking their heads no-no-no

I was also impressed by the large size and great density of muskrat mounds. The wetlands straddle the road, and the south parcel has a wonderful stand of snags (standing dead trees)…unclear if those are part of the site or a different property? I’ve encountered fewer muskrat mounds of late, and I am not the only one to wonder about our muskrat populations. Perhaps that’s a post for another Wetlands Wednesday.

Back to Bjorkboda. Brian from the county conservation board gave me a bit more information about this place: Ruth Weeds donated this land after it had been in the family for a century! I enjoyed hearing the stories of Native Americans camping here even after the Swedish-American settlers started farming; preservation of the wetlands  despite surrounding intensive agriculture; research and conservation efforts. It’s helpful to remember that although the shoveler birds come and go, the marsh goes on. Past caretakers preserved this beautiful place for us, and we can pass it down to others who come later.

So head to Bjorkboda and bring your binoculars and camera. Leave a comment or two and impress us with your observations!

An Iowa enclave in Nebraska


Look closely at this map of Pottawattamie County, and you’ll notice a polyp-like attachment on the other side of the Missouri River, surrounded by Omaha, Nebraska. That’s the city of Carter Lake, and one must cross the river and drive through a bit of Nebraska to visit it. Which of course I did—who could resist?

I imagine it must be a bit odd to be a resident of Carter Lake. Every official function (drivers license, taxes, street work, utilities, etc.) must be arranged remotely, from across the big river. There’s been a bit of an identity crisis over the years, and legal wrangling. This newspaper article tells a bit of the story, calling the town “either a feisty little Liechtenstein squeezed between Nebraska and Iowa or a gallstone in Omaha’s gut.” Hah! The essence of the story is that the Missouri River had been considered the border between Iowa and Nebraska, but one day it changed course…and left behind a shallow, crescent-shaped “oxbow” lake…and that land whose status was suddenly disputed. This riverine switcheroo has happened elsewhere along the Missouri and other rivers, and in modern times it is more common to survey a line we all agree represents some historical norm, and lock it in legally. This is useful because rivers meander back and forth like a snake slithering across the floodplain. It’s best we prepare to adapt!

Despite the unusual back story, including a shady history of quasi-legal gambling, what I found was a pretty typical urban area: a big tank farm, various commercial properties, hotels, River City Star riverboat, and the large airport (Epperly) nearby. The National Wetland Inventory maps show some of the commercial property as wetland (marsh) but I saw no indication that this is in fact the case. A large levee separates the area from the river, and combined with plenty of sewers keeps the area dry. Such structures are common where humans and rivers interact. I found another over on the other side of the river, too.


I hiked around the riverfront near Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs, yet another example of an oxbow lake. Several small developments ring the water, and a State Park with campgrounds, shelters, boat ramps and other amenities. But I was especially intrigued by the levee and the mix of habitat on either side. The official wetlands map shows five different forested or marshy wetland types in this 500 or so acres (200 or so hectares)…but, there are several others wetland types, too. It’s ground with variable topography, land use-history, plant colonization…and the river working it all: sweeping past quickly, draining slowly, depositing nutrients, leaving behind sediments. These wetlands are a giant canvas painted by a river, and constantly under revision.


Combined with  a walk along the riverbank itself, one surely sees the dance between humans and this river. We put in a boat ramp, and the river knocks it around. The water deposits sand and gravel, so we mine the floodplain for building materials. We plant crops or trees and the river covers them with water. We build a long, strong levee parallel to the river, and it towers high above today’s river channel (I’ll estimate 30 feet/9 meters elevation above the river surface that day). But tomorrow the river may be…somewhere else entirely. This river and its wetlands sure seem to get around.



The many types of “Public Land.”

Hoffman Prairie in Cerro Gordo county seems like a good place to talk about “public land” and how it is managed and used. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer! Feel free to weigh in on legalties and analyze your way through the Comments section. I’ll stick to the basics, and sweeten it all with pretty pictures. I’ll start with a chilly autumn morning vista, showing the prairie dropping down into our wetland…


Public (conservation) lands in Iowa exist on a continuum of human use. Hoffman prairie is at one extreme, being a State Preserve. Such sites are protected for their unique value (natural, historical, cultural, etc.). In this case, beautiful prairie and wetland habitat are of such high-quality that they are to be kept pristine and with limited use by humans. Nature study and photography are about the only activities allowed. Photography?? How about a nice photo of a muskrat mound!


I suppose at the other end of “public lands” are State Forests. These are managed to provide nursery stock (trees for planting wherever needed) and revenue (leases sold to logging companies to harvest trees). You might even be able to find a sawmill on site: I have visited the mill at Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa; it has had tree stand management and a working mill since the 1940’s. Various recreation activities are allowed in these lands as well. These are “working public lands.”

Between these extremes are lands managed for a more or less natural habitat, and various human uses: recreation such as hiking, camping, boating, fishing (State Parks); hunting or trapping of waterfowl and furbearers (Wildlife Management Areas); or relax in luxury (State Resort).

Under the ice, some plants remain green…

And those are just properties owned by the State! The various size and type and use of county or municipal lands are all quite varied. In general, a “park” is a place to play, and anything with a habitat in its name (marsh, woods) or just “Area” is used for hunting. Much of the land in Iowa falls into these categories.

The Federal government also owns land which may be leased or managed by local governments, such is true for lands around my local reservoir (Lake Red Rock). Will land be planted to native species? Cropped as food plots for wildlife? Allowed to flood, be mowed or burned, or slowly change to woodland? Ultimately it will be the land managers who make such decisions, based on the goals for each parcel and its use “to benefit the public.”


We’ll think about these issues as we wander the 99wetlands and learn the lessons. But here at Hoffman Prairie we can also consider the benefits of cooperation between those in charge. According to Dale at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the site

…is both a State Preserve and TNC Preserve.  We purchased the property from Larry Hoffman in 1985, then the following year it was dedicated as a State Preserve giving it legal protection beyond our ownership.

And so we see an example of the power of working together: purchasing power, management know-how, and durable protection for the land in perpetuity. I think of these beautiful places as both our inheritance, and as a legacy we leave for those who came after us.

Dale also told me a little of the challenge involved in managing for an “imperiled” species (aka R/T/E, or Rare/Threatened/Endangered). This spot must be managed for an R/T/E and that would ideally include deliberately-set (“prescribed”) fire to control weeds and woody encroachment, promote biodiversity, and so on. Unfortunately, such fire might directly harm individuals of the R/T/E species. Tough spot—I wish them well, working through that!

I’m delighted to have legal protection for valuable, biodiverse habitat including Iowa’s wetlands on public ground. I am grateful for the work of dedicated public employees, workers at conservation organizations, private landowners and volunteers. Join me every week at 99wetlands as we tour the sites of their handiwork and hear their stories.

Binoculars as icebreaker

DSC_0249I’ve found that binoculars are a great icebreaker: hanging around my neck, they invite people to stop and chat when they otherwise might not. The conversation often starts with a query about bird sightings—“any good birds,” “what’s moving around today,” etc.

At the boardwalk crossing the Yellow River in Effigy Mounds National Monument (Allamakee County), two of the rangers stopped and asked us what we’d seen. As it turns out…not much, just the usual suspects: blue jays, cardinals, robins, gray catbirds. Could see those anywhere, pretty much. But we also saw a few ducks, and an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus),  one of the Tyrant flycatchers (I have a photo to prove it!). We spoke briefly about how birds and other animals use this wetland as habitat.

Flycatcher (Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus) perched on a stump, in the center of this photo. (if you have trouble spotting it, try using binoculars)

So…I really enjoy seeing, hearing, and learning about birds. But truthfully, I’m not much of a “birder.” I don’t even (*GASP*) keep a “life list” of species I’ve encountered over the years. When I’ve gone on birding trips, it was always more about the beauty of the landscape and about enjoying the company of the fellow enthusiasts. It was about studying Nature generally, through birds specifically. I was never a “trophy hunter” as a birder. I just wanted to enjoy it all, not win a competition of some sort.

Birds have always been admired for their plumage, and song, and graceful flight. But maybe they have other amazing abilities, being able to cut through our cluttered, busy lives and capture our attention. Birds can fuel our imagination (animals such as birds and insects taught The Wright Brothers how to fly). Watching birds helps us build community with other nature-lovers and spend our time and effort on a shared pastime. Maybe we even begin to notice, and care more about our environment, and are motivated to work on conservation. I’ve seen this happen. I suppose it was important to my own development as a conservationist.

Anyway, the Park Service personnel spent a few minutes telling us about the birds they’d seen, followed by a discussion of other topics. I’m always impressed by how hard-working, knowledgeable and cordial our park rangers are; their saintly patience with the crazy questions and misbehavior by visitors is most impressive. They took time to tell us about this site, including information about the flooding by the Yellow River and its connection to the nearby Mississippi (the confluence of the two rivers being just off-site). They were encouraging when they heard about this 99wetlands project. And they wished us well.

I like to think those binoculars around my neck that day, connected me to the birds and to some fellow humans as well.

High water from the Yellow & Mississippi rivers flood the site, scouring trees and leaving drift lines of floating duckweed, flotsam, etc.

March of the Clones

At Rutland Marsh in Humboldt County, I waded into a wide-open wetland vista with a big sky and scattered farmsteads on the horizon. And as I wandered in, I noted a line of small willow sprouts, and went for a closer look.


The open, shallow water wetland is dominated with herbaceous plants such as Cattail (as expected) and an impressive thicket of Horsetail (an unexpectedly large patch). But here I found a large Willow (Salix) tree, trunks split down to the ground and offering up numerous sprouts from its sprawling, decaying trunk. I was looking at a Willow cloning operation!


This is a type of vegetative reproduction, and is quite common in willows. Stems readily sprout from the trunk, even if it has fallen over. Essentially the plant is activating special growth tissues (i.e., buds) located along the trunk, “turning them on” so to speak. Most trees have plenty of such options, with buds located on the trunk or shallow roots, allowing for regrowth after damage. Imagine a stump resprouting after the trunk and crown are cut down or damaged by fire.


More interesting is the propensity of willows to propagate from cuttings. A little snippet, removed from the rest of the tree, readily grows wherever it finds itself. This was delightfully illustrated by cuttings my wife made a couple years back, from a willow in our yard at home. The pretty, vibrant green twigs looked lovely sitting in a in a vase with water. Soon enough however, those twigs sprouted roots. In fact a willow is ridiculously easy to propagate in this way: you can literally tear off a brittle side-branch from a trunk, and drop it on moist ground, and you have planted a tree. It’s easy to imagine this as an effective reproductive strategy for a tree growing near water, spreading itself pretty much everywhere. Perhaps in the future those clones at Rutland will each grow into full-sized willow trees? I suppose that depends on future hydrology and management. Fire for example would not be a friend to our Willow.

Todd from the County Conservation Board told me a little more about the site. The property consists of 67 acres and was former farmland (including several agricultural drain tiles on site, unsurprisingly). Several cooperating groups provided funding to purchase and prepare the site, including Habitat Stamp Grant program, Ducks Unlimited, and Pheasants Forever. Interestingly, the state DNR has set up a well nest on the site; these wells are used to monitor water quality in the Mississippian aquifer. Once again, wetlands at your service: waterfowl habitat/hunting, wellhead protection and water quality…and a Willow nursery. Come out sometime and we’ll add “wetland wandering” to the list.