Late in the month of January, late in the day, I visited a wetland northwest of Osceola in Clarke County. This was the the fourth and final wetland I visited in that long day of field work. I admit to being rather fatigued, and was fighting a headache. The day was bright, but my mood was dim. Yet when four Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) came over, chattering and flitting around me, I suddenly felt just fine. Among other special powers, Bluebirds lift my spirits, surely one of the reasons they are a favorite wetland species of mine.
“But Paul,” you say. “Bluebirds aren’t a wetland species! Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), sure, Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) maybe…but not Bluebirds!”
Well, I saw those other bird species at the wetland too, sure enough. And they are known to eat the organisms in the wetland, for example fish or aquatic insects. But the Bluebirds were using cavities (holes) in a dead tree in the middle of the wetland. It’s not uncommon for flooding to kill or weaken trees in these habitats, allowing their trunks to be hollowed by animals; so yes, Bluebirds like to hang out in wetlands! I have at other times and places, observed Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus), Red-Headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) and many other non-waterfowl in wetlands, too (even owls!!). It might be helpful to recall that a wetland is an ecotone, an ecosystem having characteristics between two types (i.e., aquatic and terrestrial).
Another terrestrial species I didn’t expect to encounter out on the ice: the hedge apple (Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera). I found a old, browned fruit just sitting there, apparently intact. Did something drag it out there and leave it (maybe scurried away in a rush)? Dropped it from above (unlikely—these fruits are large, and heavy!!). Leave your idea in the comments. In any case, Osage Orange is an interesting tree (I’ve even been interviewed on the radio about it); a tree of farmlands rather than a wetland species, yet there is that fruit, sitting out on the ice. The wetland is connected to the surroundings in many ways, I suppose.
Behind the ecological stories is an encouraging tale of conservation. This property now belongs to the State, administered by the Department of Natural Resources. But earlier it was a hobby farm (of marginal agricultural utility), transformed through conservation work by the far-sighted vision of the owners (John and Susan Aschenbrenner) working with both public and private conservation agencies. You can read about the history of the property, and the easement instrument protecting its natural features on the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation website. Suffice it to say, in addition to the wildlife habitat I enjoyed on my visit, this is another working wetland, capturing sediments and nutrients out of South Squaw Creek which would otherwise pollute the nearby lake. It’s a real success story! Once again…wetlands at your service.