What The Wetlands Say

DSC_0062I’ve now traveled throughout all of Iowa, meeting amazing people and seeing remarkable wetland ecosystems. Across 124 blog posts, I’ve tried to share my excitement with readers about the sights, sounds…and yes, smells…I’ve experienced.

“But Paul,” you say. “Just what is The Big Picture of Iowa’s wetlands…?”

Well, certainly no one can deny that Iowa has more diversity than is immediately obvious. Despite the loss of more than 90% of the State’s wetlands, I still found natural fens, potholes, sloughs, bottomland forests, brushy swamps, wet meadows, and marshes. I observed resident and migratory amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and insects. Gorgeous wildflowers, intricate mollusk shells, gnarled driftwood, and the water itself, all have unique beauty.

DSC_0382My interest in history appears in stories about Native American burial mounds, traditional uses of plants, a profile of “Ding” Darling and the modern American wetland conservation movement, “ghost towns” and changing land use, and Superfund and other serious contamination…and how we’ve addressed our legacy. The story I didn’t tell, and the sites I couldn’t show, were the countless missing wetlands. The landscape still has scars and remnants of drained or filled wetlands, often quite obvious in Spring when fields are still wet, or at high flow events in streams and rivers which attempt to reclaim old oxbows or floodplains where the water naturally moved from time to time.

Sometimes a blog entry was less about the site itself, and more about what we do at wetlands—the business of wetland science and management. It’s fascinating to “read” signs of hydrology (water movement or characteristics) when a site is in fact very dry. Identifying plants and animals is a useful tool, and Iowa has knowledgeable and generous naturalists—mostly unpaid, yet quite expert—who help each other to learn the species and about their biology. We all use maps, aerial photographs (including fancy Infrared or decades-old historic shots), soil samples and marker horizons (glitter, anyone??), chemical analyses, and a well-developed series of procedures to accurately identify, delineate and classify wetlands.

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Redheads are handsome, yes…? 😉

I haven’t talked much about how to care for our wetlands, and I’d love to do more with that in the future. Science and my personal observations all confirm that wetlands are never isolated, but are connected to other elements of the landscape. Healthy ecosystems are dynamic and adaptive, always-changing. Although we attempt to isolate or standardize the condition of a wetland, that’s always a bad idea, even if well-intentioned.

This blog is proof that, deep down, I’m a teacher…and in particular a teacher who loves to share stories. Most of my favorite memories are of wetland visits spent with my students. We get wet and muddy. We try to observe the organisms close-up (but hopefully, gently and respectfully). We learn about the conditions of water and air and soil that together, over time and through the work of life itself, make these unique and beautiful places.

bottle_itFor some additional reflection on this quest, I encourage you to listen to an interview I gave with the news director at our local radio stations, KNIA-KRLS. You’ll find answers to questions like why wetlands are important, which of the 99 was my favorite site, recurring themes through the project, and what this all means for my other professional activity.

What was your favorite memory? What would you still like to learn?DSC_0264

Ecosystem Sales and Service…

In days past, at the end of every email I sent out was my name and address and the tagline “Ecosystem Sales & Service…at Reasonable Rates!” I thought I was pretty cute and clever, but it also served to prompt the question: why do we build wetlands, and how will we know if we’re doing it properly? It’s a type of question that is both obvious and yet far more complex than at first seems. It’s also imperative to answer, and worthy of the efforts of many smart, hard-working wetland scientists.

And so I found myself last August in Winnebago County with Paul Bartelt, a colleague  at Waldorf University. He is familiar with my interest in how wetlands function, especially how the presence of different plants may be important.  As it happens, Paul has for years been studying animals in wetlands, and as we chatted recently, we realized we both were curious about amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders.

DSC_0493Amphibians seem a good candidate to show us how wetlands function: they spend their entire lives, or at least their most vulnerable juvenile stages, in wetlands. Breathing through and absorbing toxins across their skin, being “cold-blooded” and responding to changes in weather and climate, being sensitive to various pathogens…amphibians may be “the canary in the coal mine” for wetland stresses, or strong evidence for success when we do things right. And Paul knows amphibians and wetlands, even tracking the movements of individual animals with telemetry (radio transmitters). Tricky work.

DSC_0487As we visited several field sites together, we were discussing population-level questions: how do amphibian numbers and diversity compare across wetlands of different ages? How does the type and structure of cattails or other plants affect amphibian population ecology? In general, how can we better understand the function of Iowa wetlands? I’m fortunate that Paul has access to a group of sites restored up to 30 years ago, and that some have multiple basins. Even better, Paul is a personable guy and referred to conversations with local landowners—knowing and working with them can make all the difference.

Perhaps in future posts, I can detail specifics of the research. I do hope that Paul and I find some way to collaborate, perhaps with Lakeside Lab classes. His previous work has provided fascinating insights into Iowa animal life. I’m hoping that we can not only better understand the population ecology of amphibians, but also use that knowledge to help us better manage our lands and water. For example, during our conversation in the field, I learned that small but thoughtful actions by a landowner can greatly increase the ability of frogs or toads to move between sites, find food or safe spaces to rest, and in general avoid a fate Paul referred to as “toad jerky.” (yes, it’s what you’re imagining…). If I learn such helpful strategies, you’ll hear about it here at 99wetlands! Thanks for reading.

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In Good Hands…

DSC_0131Last year, I visited The Land of the Swamp White Oak Preserve, in Muscatine County. This 4,000-acre (1600-hectare) facility is truly outstanding, and open to the public. I recommend a visit! Let me tell you why this place is so special, and show a few photos and stories. We start with some Oak…but note that it blends with Willow, sedges, and glorious, sticky  mud.

DSC_0149As I’ve explained in past posts, the concept of “public land” varies widely. Who owns a property, who may visit, various uses and maintenance of the land can all differ. My observations suggest that the Nature Conservancy is a most pragmatic organization, focused on preserving the ecological integrity of the land forever. That goal still allows for a variety of ownership, partnership, care, and use. For example, I’ve stayed on a facility that had a beautiful cabin for groups (like my Ecology class) and yet is also was a working ranch. Other sites may allow only very restricted use. Land may be privately owned, and even worked, with the conservation goals nevertheless achieved through partnerships and various legal arrangements.

This particular property has a focus on wetlands and savanna habitats, and the amphibians, reptiles, and other animals found there. Dale and his crew from the local office showed me around, answering questions and explaining their work. It’s impressive! Let’s start with a look at some of those “herps,” the amphibians and reptiles.

Perhaps the variety and abundance of reptiles and amphibians tell us more about the quality and health of the wetland ecosystem, than any other indicator. These animals are exquisitely sensitive to disruptions of water dynamics and chemistry, weather patterns, alteration of structures in the habitat, etc. I’m delighted to report the presence of many such species, a few of which I got to see close-up! Check out the Newt with its bright yellow belly, or the fancy scutes (think treads on an armored vehicle) on a snake.

Care for some Arthopods? I’ve got some photos from around the site. Land, water, or…both? Check out the Mantis, some Odonates (Dragonfly/Damselfly nymph). Dale had a dip net, and we sampled slough, fen, and pond waters.

These habitats (and nearby uplands) are ideal for Crustaceans, and I love this duel of the great pincers. (Hey…what do YOU call these guys? Leave a comment with your preferred common name.)DSC_0217

This place is fun, even if you never see that wildlife. Just a nice walk along a stream, a bounce on the quaking peat, beating through a “reedswamp,” or rolling logs in a floodplain Bottomland Forest. This is time well-spent, and an amazing beauty to linger and appreciate.

I’m gladdened that The Nature Conservancy will protect this unique, ecologically-important site. Even more, I was delighted to interact with such dedicated, energetic young conservationists. With friends like these, our wetlands are in good hands.

 

 

Wetland lessons and beauty

DSC_0533Hello again, fellow enthusiasts! Sorry to keep you waiting (my last blog entry was in January…and today is the start of July!!) but all is well, and I intend to finish this journey through Iowa’s 99 counties very soon. Today we visit the Calkins Nature Area in Hardin County. [Actually, these photos are from my visit to the site almost a year ago: August 2019.]

DSC_0527The County Conservation Board has a well-designed nature center just outside the town of Iowa Falls, complete with informative displays and helpful staff. Regular readers of this blog know my fondness for public outreach and education. I especially enjoy effective interpretation, in other words telling a story—putting the observations you make at the site today, in a context of the geology and history of that place.

Outside is a delightful butterfly experience, then the trailhead. As expected, we’re heading downhill to where the water will sit.

Sitting near the river, in a wooded bottomland setting, is a wetland pond with a control structure to impound the water. Really, the walk to the wetland, and the trail leading further along the stream, is just as lovely as the wetland itself. Flowers near water’s edge and along the path, dragonflies swooping around me, and sections of till and rolling hillside made it a scenic walk.

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Lately, I’ve had reason to think more about how to tell the story of the wetlands of Iowa…actually, how to tell the story of Iowa! More about those musings later. For now, I welcome you back to my trek, and ask you to join me as I visit a couple more counties in coming weeks, and then step back and ask what we’ve learned. Please join me, add your thoughts and questions, and stay well, friends.

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

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!