The Big Picture

My friend (and loyal 99wetlands reader) Jon asked me how I find my sites, and how I know what to expect when I visit. Actually, I do some reading, a bit of professional networking, and use specialized tools of the trade to find my sites. Let me give you a peek into how I find those 99 wetlands.

Word of Mouth is perhaps the best source: students or colleagues at the state’s field station (Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, Dickinson County) or at our other academic institutions are an obvious, and important, source of leads. Nothing quite like a personal recommendation! I wasn’t in Iowa long, for example, before colleagues told me to check out Silver Lake Fen. I’m so glad I did! You should check it out, too.

County Conservation Boards are found in every Iowa county. Many have web pages describing their various parks; in some counties, these might represent the only appreciable public lands in the vicinity.

The Sportsman’s Atlas is exactly what it sounds like: large pages with a base map (the highway department maps) of every county. A red overlay upon the B & W base maps indicate the various parks, preserves, recreation areas and the like. Alongside the map is a brief description of the outdoor activity available at each site (emphasis on fur, fins, and feathers). If I see hints about waterfowl or mentions of “marsh,” “bottomland,” or “slough,” I am interested.



Aerial photos are an amazing way to see the landscape. In grad school I took a remote-sensing class (highly recommended!) and learned that the “birds-eye” view with a natural-color camera (from a helicopter or plane) is just one perspective. We now also have high-quality satellite imagery with high resolution, freely available on a service like Google Maps. And for those with special training, multi-spectral images beyond what the human eye can perceive give additional information. For example, details about the type of vegetation, and even its health, can be revealed by examining an image taken in the infrared (IR) spectrum of light. These are often displayed as “false-color” such that certain greens appear pink, others rosy, and others crimson. [Compare the two images here, taken simultaneously at Silver Lake Fen, in IR spectrum and natural color.] Such images are available from the Geographic Information System (GIS) lab at Iowa State University. You can search any of several ways, and then display current or historic photos or maps. Even though I don’t do much fancy interpretation of these images, I get a few helpful clues, and I just think they’re beautiful!


Maps such as the US Geologic Survey 24K Topographic map (a.k.a. the 7 1/2 minute Quadrangle) are hugely popular, and rightly so. Again, a little investment in learning to read a map scale and symbols for water features and contours, pays off in a wealth of information. These maps are of the highest quality. You paid for them, dear taxpayer…why not use them?

NWI map of Chichaqua Bottoms. Note the new channel running diagonally from left edge, and old channel snaking through middle of the image.

For years, the Fish & Wildlife Service printed special 24K topo maps with a little something extra: an overlay of National Wetland Inventory (NWI) polygons. In other words, the maps included specially-coded colored areas indicating wetlands, with alphanumeric codes indicating the wetland type represented. How we keep inventory of The Nation’s Wetlands is a discussion for another blog post, but you can always check out the maps yourself—they are available online (now using aerial photos as the base, rather than topo maps) at the NWI Mapper website. This is a useful tool, but be aware that it simply doesn’t have the resolution nor is it sufficiently up-to-date for much of the work of wetland science. Still, it sure comes in handy!

Journal Articles and technical reports are the ultimate scientific communication. Not only will you read about a particular wetland where your colleague worked, you’ll learn something about wetland science itself. Posts on 99wetlands will refer to work of my fellow wetland scientists. Sometimes we’ll take stock, asking if an ecosystem has changed from the time of a previous study. Sometimes we’ll look at a previously-studied wetland in a new way. And sometimes we’ll just…muck about. Thanks for joining me on the journey.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

3 thoughts on “The Big Picture”

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