Scotch Grove Prairie in Jones County has a small, constructed wetland, described in my Sportsman’s Atlas as a “seasonal wetland.” My initial, sarcastic question was “what ecosystem is it outside of wetland season?” Of course, the label almost certainly refers to seasonal inundation: the system only has standing water in Spring, after snow melt and April showers flood the site. A solid earthen dam likely holds back a sizable volume, flooding deep and wide, leading into the growing season. No doubt waterfowl and wading birds make use of the spot, at least most years.
But I visited in late summer. No standing water, just a small patch of mud at the deepest spot. What value is there, in a wetland that’s not wet??
Plenty, as it turns out. Let’s start by looking closely at that mud. It is criss-crossed by deer tracks, and the soft grassy vegetation is flattened where they’ve bedded down. I suspect the animals feed in the corn field or browse on the woods nearby, but they like to hang out here, for the soft bed or the sheltered spot or other reasons known only to the deer.
Growing from the dried, cracked mud I found a small, bright yellow wildflower. Looks like a mustard, perhaps Bog Yellowcress, Rorippa palustris. Undoubtedly a wetland plant, one I’ve seen elsewhere growing this way, taking advantage of exposed mud. Note this photo shows an individual growing amongst grass, and their blades are present in the photo near the blossoms. The flower’s own leaves are farther down, hard to see here. It’s a pretty little plant, surely enticing pollinators and supporting a food chain.
Speaking of food chains, I was surprised to find grasshoppers jumping around in the tall vegetation. Some might be caught in the spider webs I also encountered. I hesitate to suggest these small animals are characteristic of wetlands, but they are surely found there, at times. Part of a lively ecosystem.
More stereotypical of wetlands, no doubt, are the Wood ducks I might have found earlier in the year. The nest boxes stood empty, but the trees nearby are no doubt active throughout the growing season…so leaf-out to leaf-drop is their season.
Perhaps the church and its graveyard put me in a mood, but I kept thinking about wise, ancient words: “to everything, there is a season…and a time for every purpose under Heaven…” The crayfish burrowed in the mud, the fungi growing through the matted fallen leaves, the birds who left feathers behind on the nesting mounds…they all know it: a wetland is an ecosystem for all seasons.