Went to the swamp; found myself

Last week, I described what I found out on the land during my tour of Iowa’s 99 counties. That entry, and this whole blog, is about wetlands. But with your indulgence, I’d like to engage in a bit of self-reflection. I’ve learned about more than just wetlands, as it turns out. While slogging about these past three years, I’ve come to understand three truths: the value of being myself, of being in community, and of being connected to place.

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Student artwork, inspired by a lesson on “modular growth” of cattails

To be myself

We scientists (at least, those of my generation) were trained to conduct science in a dispassionate, disciplined way. Our goal is to ask questions and seek answers mechanically, avoiding bias as much as possible. Even the dry, stilted writing we employ when describing our work (“data were collected…” “…these results may reasonably be interpreted to suggest…”) encourage us to pretend to be science-robots.

Although this approach has noble intentions, it is still flawed in two important ways. First, it suggests we might somehow avoid bias (we can’t), thus avoiding the difficult and messy work of actually confronting our bias. Second, it places an artificial barrier between scientists and others (young would-be scientists, or the general public). Why are we are then surprised that science is seen as elitist and out-of-touch?

This 99wetlands project was an acknowledgment that today, society needs scientists to remember to be human beings, and to make a personal connection with non-scientists. We need to share our passion as well as our knowledge, and to engage in important conversations. Time spent driving to the slough or writing a blog entry was also time spent asking what’s really important to me, and why, and how to convey that to my readers. I hope I’ve done that in this blog.

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Tour of Bee Branch project, Dubuque

Living in community

I don’t own a wetland. Every site I profiled belongs to a private landowner, or is public land. It was important that this 99wetlands story include stories about the people who own, love, work in, and enjoy wetlands. I was delighted that in sharing their ecosystems, they shared their stories: what makes this place special, what should my readers know about it, how do you care for this place, what are we learning through this work? Getting to know the wetland meant telling the stories of my fellow wetlanders, and I loved it!

Including my students in my forays was both natural and a delight. These young people bring such energy and enthusiasm. Their questions and observations make me think about my work in new ways. Teaching brings great meaning to my life, and introducing young people to the beauty and the business of the ecosystem is truly a privilege.

And where would a writer be without a reader?? Almost 10,000 viewers from 60 different countries…that’s worth my effort! The blog format encourages readers to post comments and questions, and that’s the best part. I enjoy hearing additional points of view, examples from others’ experience, and the occasional gentle correction when I make a mistake. Much like my media interviews, I hear a comment from time-to-time out in The Real World, about how someone learned something new, or that I shared something that brought a little joy to their day. It means so much to me.

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Landowners invest much thought into wetland construction and management

Connected to a place

I’ve lived in Iowa for over 20 years now; Iowa feels like home. What better way to get the “sense of place” every environmental scientist needs, than to explore? So now, I have a better sense of Iowa geography—river to river, woods to prairies, farms and cities. I know more Iowa history, even pre-history of ancient peoples. I’ve met a few more Iowans—from ranchers to scientists to photographers. My wanderings and adventures make me love the place even more!

This quest was part of the inspiration for a class I’ll be teaching in a few weeks called, “Iowa: A Sense Of Place.” It’s one of those first-year college seminars where we introduce students to the academic life, to many ways of learning and knowing. You better believe I plan to have a good time with the class! Like this blog, I want to tell lots of different kinds of stories. Like this blog, I want it to be interactive. Like this blog, I hope it is life-changing.

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This rustic sign ifts right in, don’t be ofFENded

Some Final Thoughts…

I finish the 99 wetlands in a tumultuous time, indeed. As I write this, our country grapples with racial injustice in a most public way, perhaps more directly than at any time since the 1960s. It suffers from an economic depression not seen since the 1930s. We’re living through the worst pandemic in a century.

I haven’t exactly enjoyed these past six months, to be honest.

One of the things that has proven a comfort at this time, is the joy I feel when I’m in nature. I encourage you, if you can, to go find a pretty spot and just be still. You can find all sorts of studies about the mental-health benefits of spending time alone, contemplating the natural world. You can experience the aesthetic of nature-inspired art. You can reflect on the spiritual writings of ancient mystics and prophets who communed with Nature. Or…you can just go, and have that time away from the stifling oppression of the stresses and demands of everyday life.

Maybe you’ll choose to go to a wetland in Iowa. Maybe you’ll see me there.

I plan to keep exploring the wetlands, but informally and intermittently. I’ll still blog from time-to-time. Maybe I’ll make some videos. I’m told I should write a book, and maybe I will. I’ll keep you updated on whatever crazy shenanigans come next.

Until then…thanks again, and stay squishy!

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End of the Trail…at least, the 99 quest is completed…I hope the fun continues!!

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

Number 99 at last!!

HOME AT LAST, to the final visit in my tour of Iowa’s 99 counties: my home for 20-some years, Marion County! In fact, this wetland is right on the campus of my home institution, Central College, where I’ve worked since moving to Iowa.

It seemed fitting to profile a site in my own backyard, as a sort of homecoming. Better still, I can turn over the blog to my students for this one! They’ve worked hard at the site, an old farm pond on the west end of campus, and I will let them tell the story. Please visit the web page they created as part of a group project for my colleague’s class (link below). But first, let me add a little background for context…

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The environs near the wetland/pond, part of the athletic complex. Service Day started with a rare October snow…melted off as the day warmed.

This pond has been used for years, by myself and other profs, for aquatic ecology activities. When we did bathymetry in Limnology class years ago, we found the bottom to be fairly uniform, with firm footing and water depth of about 60-70 cm throughout. Obviously siltation has occurred since then, and it is shallower and more “squishy.” However, the notched outflow on the berm (earthen dam) has eroded a bit, likely to decrease the maximum water depth as well.

As far as I know, runoff from surrounding grassy fields—combination golf practice area and cross-country course—provides the sole water input aside from direct precipitation falling on the surface. During dry weather, no water flows out; however I haven’t seen the pond actually dry.

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The pond is visible in the right half of this photo. It is almost completely covered by the tiny duckweed plants. Extensive trees and brush surrounded the pond before the crew got to work

The pond has minimal emergent macrophytes (cattail, bulrush) around the edge. Filamentous algal blooms in early Spring are followed by a thick covering of Duckweed, so an impetus for the project was my observations that the duckweed diminished both the habitat quality and our ability to use the pond. I suspected that clearing the dense plant growth from the slopes around the pond might help reduce the duckweed, and facilitate access for visitors.

Link to the student web page:

https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6cd2c0ff4997425d8063650c97589e34

Pretty great, isn’t it? They did an outstanding job with both organizing a Service Day project (and follow-up extra work day), and then all the additional analyses. The web page tells the story, although there’s yet another product of their labors (I’ll share THAT, next week).

This is the last of the 99 wetlands for my epic trek across Iowa…but this is certainly not the end of the story. This campus wetland will allow this coming semester’s classes, and many well into the future, to learn more about wetlands and their inhabitants and functioning. I’m looking forward to that. But beyond this, I believe we need to step back and review the journey, and consider what it all means. Come back next week for my musings on 99wetlands, and beyond. Thanks for visiting!!

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TEAMWORK. I really do appreciate the student’s hard work and the willingness of my colleague to “loan” me her Environmental Studies class…

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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Run Noisy, Run Shallow

in_culvertBoth a recent wetland visit, and a recent news item about wetlands, made me think of the phrase “run silent, run deep” which of course is a famous novel and movie about submarine warfare. However, my experiences are quite the opposite—both hydrology, and news about wetlands, appear noisy and shallow.

In Worth County in far northern Iowa, I found a wetland complex (designated a Waterfowl Production Area or WPA) called Hanlontown Slough. It’s a miniature Everglades: broad, flat wetland with scattered higher and lower areas, but generally a “river of grass” (or cattail). The area has classic wetland conditions: most importantly, it’s plenty wet! As I drove around, I found a spot where the WPA boundary met a farm field and a culvert going under the adjacent gravel road. I stopped to snap a photo, and heard…hydrology! Specifically, I heard noisy, rushing water emerging from a pipe and entering the surface channel.

DSC_0507It reminded me of a demonstration I do with my Aquatic Ecology students at Iowa Lakeside Lab. We stop on a roadside along the north edge of Lakeside’s property, and look over an adjacent farm field. It’s dry on the surface and all is quiet. But a few steps onto the Lakeside property, and we encounter an old clay tile (buried pipe) containing a thunderous torrent! Seriously, the water rushing through is amazing…all the more so, since the nearby farm field gives no hint of all this water rushing just beneath the surface.

At Hanlontown Slough, that noisy torrent enters a large wetland complex, spreading out into a wide, shallow “sheet flow” with deeper ponds here and there, and backwaters where water just sits. Unless you identify an outflow under another road, you might not realize that a large volume of water is moving through the site.

DSC_0510So much for noisy, shallow water flow into a wetland. Out in the public sphere, we have lots of discussion about wetlands (and other environmental issues), and it can be a bit noisy and shallow, too! While this blog is based on the idea of a political campaign (traipsing through all of Iowa’s 99 counties), I actually prefer to stay away from politics. The most recent policy news about wetlands, however, deserves our attention: a Trump administration action eliminates key protection for wetlands. This is unfortunate (I’ve already written about my opposition), but sadly it is just another chapter in a checkered history of national wetland policy. For decades, we scientists have demonstrated the “ecological services” that wetlands provide to reduce flooding, improve water quality, and store climate-damaging atmospheric carbon (CO2). For decades before that, conservationists recognized and worked to preserve the value of wetlands to wildlife. The value of wetlands, and that they deserve protection, has been well-established.

And yet, we must once again argue about wetland protection and the “law of the land.” Truly, I believe we need to revisit policies when we have new information, and we need a thoughtful, honest discussion of how to best understand and interact with our environment. However, our current political climate doesn’t seem to lend itself to this approach. We have a more “noisy, shallow” approach it appears. Clearly this decision ignores all the science and other facts about the value of wetlands. Folks, we need to honestly accept the reality on the ground, and use a “conservative” approach (in the root sense, to conserve, as in conserving our environmental quality). We shouldn’t roll the clock back to the 1980’s and lose the progress we’ve made.

Soon, I’ll have visited all 99 counties, and my quest will be complete. But I hope the conversation continues. I’d love my kids, and future generations, to have a healthy environment…including my beloved wetlands. We need to continue to study, visit, enjoy, and advocate for wetlands. I hope you join me and together, work to protect these amazing ecosystems.DSC_0509

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!

Somewhere, All Of The Time

DSC_0155A professor once explained the concept of Conservation of Matter using the truism “Everything has to be somewhere, all of the time.” Therefore water (and all other matter on Earth) can change form or location, yet is always still somewhere, and it is always, undeniably, water. That’s also why we should thoughtfully consider the hydrologic (Water) cycle, and the role wetlands play in that cycle.

In many parts of Iowa, the Spring of 2019 has been a challenge. Record flooding has occurred in areas, in some cases with catastrophic results—enough to be an official, declared disaster. But any flooding is a problem for the landowners or residents affected—it’s a disaster to you, when it’s your basement, field, town, or a place you live or work that’s flooded. The functioning of the water cycle has very real, even deadly, consequences.

 

This was on my mind as I recently drove around a very soggy northwest Iowa. Teaching at Iowa Lakeside Lab gave me a home base to see some really wet areas and the effects of flooding. For example, just a little east of the Iowa Great Lakes in Emmet County is Estherville, site of significant flooding by the Des Moines River. I believe these photos tell the story of sandbags and flooded roadways and what happens when “the river is up.” I took the photos while scouting for a trip to Fort Defiance State Park, located just outside Estherville. I was later surprised and relieved to find that the river flowing through the park, School Creek, was only a little high, and I could still work in it with my Aquatic Ecology students. How fortunate for us, but…why such a dramatic difference in the water near Estherville??

DSC_0165No doubt, many factors affect a river’s flow. I certainly don’t believe that wetlands are the only difference between the Des Moines River and School Creek at Estherville. Nevertheless, School Creek does in fact drain a large nearby wetland complex, Fourmile Lake. Recall from previous blog posts, how wetlands “smooth out” hydrology, absorbing large amounts of rainfall or snowmelt, and then slowly releasing it to groundwater or surface outflows. So if water has to be “somewhere, all of the time,” perhaps a wetland is a good place to be—as opposed to a “flashy,” flood-prone stream.

As it turns out, my students and I also discovered that this wetland complex is beautiful, and filled with amazing plants and animals. For example, we enjoyed catching inverts in our dip nets, seeing red-wing blackbird nests and adults, hearing marsh wrens call, and much more.

 

I’m not the only Lakeside Lab instructor to visit Fourmile Lake! You might consider checking out the work of my colleague Alex Braidwood of the amazing Artist-In-Residence program (Lakeside AIR).

Have you ever visited the Fourmile Lake wetland? Are you familiar with the flooding situation this year? Leave a comment or question! Thanks for reading…

 

What I Did On My “Summer Vacation”

DSC_0062Hello, friends and fellow wetland enthusiasts!

Soon, I will resume my regular blogging activity—I’m excited to resume my journey across Iowa!! To date, I have profiled wetlands in 85 different counties. I also wrote essays on topics of general interest, and most recently a few profiles of wetlands in the Yucatan Peninsula (Southeast Mexico).

In addition to Mexico, I’ve spent time in northwest Iowa (The Iowa Great Lakes). On the shores of beautiful West Lake Okoboji is the field station of the State universities, Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. A remarkable aspect of Lakeside is the Artist-In-Residence Program (Lakeside AIR). A recent participant, Jeremy Eichenbaum, made videos. I encourage you to check out the Aquatic Ecology mini-documentary he made. I’m honored to be featured. I’m amazed at how he gives the viewer an amazing overview of my class and my teaching style in a minute and fifteen seconds!! It’s amazing.

DSC_0280One day I took Jeremy, other AIR participants, and my own class to the bog at Dead Man’s Lake, Pilot Knob State Park. I profiled the site already in this blog, but I have an update: WE FOUND THE ELUSIVE SUNDEW!!! We were unable to find this carnivorous plant during my last two annual visits, so it was delightful to see it again. And who spotted it first, but one of our artists. How cool is that!!

DSC_0264Thanks for your past support of the 99wetland project. I hope to visit the remaining Counties in the coming months, and post more-or-less-regularly, so please visit regularly. You can also subscribe for automatic updates.

“But Paul,” you say. “What happens at County Number 99?” I suppose an appropriate celebration will be in order. Contact Me if you have ideas. And please, spread the word—wetlands are beautiful, hard-working ecosystems worth protecting and enjoying. Join me, please.

Flamingos Fly; Us, Not So Much.

DSC_0336Last week, we visited the Yucatecan coastal town of Celestun; the study-abroad students and I had a great time seeing birds, especially the iconic flamingos. Unsurprisingly, I chatted with the group about the landscape and ecology of the place—I believe appreciating the science and history of place only adds to the aesthetic enjoyment and fun of travel.

But let me add to that a bit. At Central College, we believe education (including study abroad) is about more than the individual student. Our mission is to be a force for good: the world should be a better place because of what we do. I hope that many travelers aspire to a similar mission: enjoyment and memories, of course…self-improvement, hopefully…but even more, our travels can make human connections, benefit the people we meet, and support preservation and enhancement of special places.

Celestun is surely such a “special place.” So, it’s great that we spent time and money there: we enjoyed the birds we saw, and our excursion fare financially supported the boat skipper and therefore, the local economy. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the beach, so the food-service staff earned income from our visit. We can all feel good about that!

DSC_0363Nevertheless, I look ahead to the future with some trepidation. Mangroves and other wooded areas of the Yucatan Peninsula are under threat. The loss of those mangrove forests, and the carbon added to the atmosphere as a result, exacerbates atmospheric warming…which in turn will accelerate sea-level rise. As the ocean surface creeps up, the shoreline will creep inland, submerging coastal areas. I’ve spent pleasant times in and near the coastal city of Progreso, and worry how it will fare—the whole town is barely above sea level today.

We have committed the world to an altered climate, for decades to come. Will the flamingos survive the resulting changes? Actually, I imagine they’ll have an easier time of it than we will. They are migratory, moving east-west across the Peninsula during the various seasons; they follow food, find nest sites, and will naturally adjust their behavior “on the fly” as it were. When the environmenta changes, they’ll adapt.

But what about the locals I met during my visit? Of course, they’ll need to adjust, as well. I’m optimistic that tourists will still come, even if the flamingos don’t flock and migrate in the same way at the same times. Those fishing/crabbing this inlet or the nearby Gulf may need to change their equipment and techniques, but let’s hope the seafood is still there and plentiful. I’m cautiously optimistic about some aspects of climate change.

DSC_0298However, the change could be scary, and I hope we will wisely think ahead and make appropriate plans. Part of my work while in the Yucatan was teaching a seminar called Climate Change: North & South. Students wrote term papers, including some predicting and planning for the world they will inhabit. With ideas like how best to warn coastal residents about the hazards they face; helping communities make climate-disaster contingencies; anticipating and avoiding climate-related health risks…the students are smart and energetic. They give me hope! I hope you’re mindful and determined, too.

To finish up: may I humbly request your assistance? Please travel to wetlands and other natural features, near and far, and support those working in them or to preserve them. Talk to others about climate change, and encourage our leaders to acknowledge and respond to the threat. And share your joy and wonder about our beautiful planet…we all need that uplift, now more than ever! Leave a comment here, post to your own blog, work the social media…or perhaps take a young person for a little fun in the outdoors. Have fun!!DSC_0291

“Eyes of the Water,” watching Flamingos!

DSC_0094Our study-abroad students and I recently beheld one of Nature’s most thrilling sights: flocks of hundreds of American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in in the wild! There are only a few places you can get “up close and personal” with these magnificent birds, and the shallow coastal waters around the Yucatecan town of Celestun is one of those spots. This trip was one of the last things we do with our group, and it was as much a celebration of this place and our love of it, as it was a chance to watch birds.

After a couple hours’ drive west of Merida, we came upon El Puente del Rio, a bridge over the river, although honestly the alternate name locals use (La Laguna, the lagoon) is more accurate. Really, this narrow body of water is simply a shallow, protected inlet of saltwater; it is directly connected to the Gulf of Mexico.  Mangrove trees border the water on all sides.

DSC_0089Near the bridge is a visitor’s center with restrooms and ticket office. Unlike olden days, the excursions to view the birds are now organized and efficient. Fine little boats await at a dock, and their skippers are knowledgeable and friendly, ready to take your ticket and begin your voyage. Hold onto your hats, because you’ll power over to the flock pretty quickly.

Guidebooks always caution readers against goading the guides into approaching the birds too closely, but I doubt it needs to be said. These folks appear to love the birds, and know full well that the flamingo’s well-being is more important than any particular visitor getting just the right photo or a closer look. All the questions I’ve asked the guides have been answered quite authoritatively, so they clearly understand the birds and the need to refrain from stressing them by getting too close. Moreover, the guides have been more than happy to point out other birds, too…and seem to have a really good eye for finding the various herons, osprey, cormorants, and more.

DSC_0105There surely are a LOT of birds, and other wildlife, to enjoy. Although the waterway appears uniform, it really isn’t. Note the patterns of upwelling and mixing occurring here and there, giving the water different colors and degrees of cloudiness/transparency. We should expect those differences will be important to the various small, planktonic organisms in the water, and therefore to all the  organisms up the food chain, including ultimately those flamingos.

I’m told that much of the inlet has a similar depth (obviously suitable for long-legged wading birds), but shallower spots are found here and there—your boat’s skipper will need to tilt up the outboard motor to navigate them. After tooling around the broad, open area, it’s time to visit an entirely different ecosystem: El Ojo de Agua, the “Eye of The Water.”

DSC_0135We navigate a channel through the mangrove forest, and deep within we find inside yet another type of forest entirely, one with taller trees and a diverse community or plants and animals. It all surrounds a series of pools, upwelling springs of freshwater (agua dulce, “sweetwater”). The freshwater has traveled through the karst (limestone shelf) that underlays the Yucatan Peninsula, flowing from the south (all the way back to the Puuc Hills, perhaps) and spreading out here as it finally drains to the ocean, bubbling up within a salty coastal wetland!

DSC_0141Our boat pulls up to a dock, and we step out onto a boardwalk through the forest. Some visitors swim in the clear, fresh pool, but not me—I am working. On some trips, I’m lecturing to the students; other times we may collect data on salinity or other characteristics of the water. Today, I’m mostly observing birds. This is a great place to see almost anything: songbirds of the forest, raptors, waterfowl of the coast, or perhaps hummingbirds working the flowering vines climbing up the trees. I pause to enjoy a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a common visitor to northern wetlands. I wonder if I’ll see him again in a month or two, up in Iowa…?

In the meantime, I will enjoy my time here in the Yucatan. Please come back next week for more about Celestun, and this part of Mexico. Thanks for your visit.