A Fantastic Morning in the Marsh

Why are wetland areas important? How can soggy, mosquito breeding grounds covered by plants and occasionally standing water have any value unless it is drained and used as farmland or developed? Wetlands in fact provide many benefits! Wetlands are natural first line of defense to mitigate flooding, improve the River’s resiliency to climate change, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat. I write this blog to give good in-depth view of one of the most interesting and visible of these values – the amazing creatures that need wetland areas and benefit greatly from their protection and restoration.

Wetlands are natural first line of defense to mitigate flooding, improve the River’s resiliency to climate change, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat.

Due to their wet, muddy, and often thick cover of vegetation, wetlands are difficult, at best, to access. Due to this, the average person typically does not get to see them as anything but an obstacle and hindrance. If you have the ability and access to such an area, they can be a wonderland of sorts. To help illustrate this for you, I would like to recount a trip I was lucky enough to take last spring with my 10 year old nephew Aaron.

As you can likely infer from the picture; Old Uncle Chris has, very effectively, passed on his addiction of fishing to his nephews.  It is from that addiction that the idea for this trip originates.  Early spring is a time of amazing growth and renewal for most of nature, but if you are a young man who loves sports and fishing, there really is not much to do yet.  When Aaron hears that there are fish biting near home in the Upper Mississippi, the logical thing to do is call up your Uncle and ask him to take you fishing.  Taking into account my intense desire to get outdoors after a long winter, and my love for my nephews and fishing it was impossible to say no.  It also helped that some nice weather had made it a good bet that some of my favorite wild edibles would be coming into season.  So, off to a nearby US Fish and Wildlife restoration area in the Upper Mississippi quickly became the plan.

It was easy to convince Aaron to help.  With his abundant energy and good eyes, while walking into the refuge area, he would be a great help me looking for Morel mushrooms, harvesting Watercress and some young Basswood leaves. These three wild edibles would make an excellent addition to the dinner of fish we were hoping to catch.

Due to the fact that there are several large Basswoods growing adjacent to the area where we parked, it was a logical first stop on our journey to the Mississippi with our fishing gear.  My explanation of how to identify the Basswoods from the shape of their leaves and the abundance of shoots sprouting from the trunk, known also as suckers, was fairly simple and inspired many more questions.  My favorite of these was, “why are the lowest, easy to reach leaves gone on this tree?”  Aaron thought perhaps someone had been here before us and harvested them.

I then pointed out the fact that there were no Basswoods in the grove with a leaf within four feet of the ground.  On noticing this, he was amazed that anyone would want or could take the time to pick all the lowest leaves and why anyone would want so many.  The mystery was partially solved when he noticed the abundant tracks under each tree left by the local whitetail deer.  “Wow, they must really like them! Why do they like them better than leaves from the other trees and bushes they can reach?”  I solved this by handing him one of the 50 cent piece sized young leaves after popping one into my own mouth, smiling while I chewed.  The amazed grin and statement that resulted from him doing the same was worth the entire trip and we had only just begun.  “Oh my gosh! They taste like candy!”  We collected a bag full of young leaves that we could enjoy with dinner and he could share with his parents and sister.  We quickly deposited them back in the vehicle.  Then got back on the trail towards the river where the fish were, hopefully, waiting.

While carefully descending the steep slope with our fishing gear, the sounds of the migrating and nesting birds is completely immersive.  I stop for a moment to digest the range and number of different species of birds that I could identify.  Identifying birds by their vocalizations became hobby of mine when I was taught in one of my undergrad Ornithology classes, that birds are much more efficiently and dependably identified by their songs than by sighting them.  As a side note, identifying birds in this way is not nearly as difficult and intimidating as it seems.  Beware though! If you decide to follow my advice and learn to identify birds by their song; this skill will annoy you during MANY movies and television shows.  Hollywood very rarely bothers to identify the species and ranges for the background bird sounds they use in their productions.  If they did they would realize that many of the birds supposedly in their productions are hundreds even thousands of miles from where they are ever seen.  On that particular morning I was easily able to identify over 18 species in around five minutes.

Amongst the racket generated by the honking of Canada Geese and rolling trill of Sandhill Cranes the calls from Mallard and Northern Shoveler Ducks were readily apparent.

Digging a bit deeper into the vast cornucopia of bird song, I was able to also pick out multiple songbird species such as the Robin, Red Wing Blackbird, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriel, Chickadee, Yellow Warbler, Grackel, and Scarlet Tanager.

Adding to the chorus were several species of shore birds, Killdeer, Kingfisher, and the loud discordant cry of an alarmed Great Blue Heron.  As something of a cherry on top, a couple raptors decided to chime in as well.  The eerie “HOO-WHOOO COOKS FOR YOOU” of a Barred Owl looking for a mate could be heard just before A Red Shouldered Hawk and a Bald Eagle decide to tell everyone how much they appreciate the beautiful spring morning.

Aaron and I manage to reach the bottom of the steep bluff without embarrassing ourselves by falling in front of the amazing chorus of birds.  We are both excited to see if the fish are biting so we decide to just scan for morels beneath the Maples, Elms, and Cottonwoods towering along the route to the fishing access area.  Our impatience to get fishing helped me in deciding not to make the fairly long detour to a spring fed bluff side pond.  In which I knew there would be a large amount of Watercress growing. We could stop there after trying our luck at fishing.

Oddly enough, our hurried, less than thorough morel hunt did manage to net us about 15 to 20 of what I consider to be the world’s best fungi. The search also led to an encounter with a rarely seen and little known forested marsh dweller.  While my partner for this morning adventure was excitedly collecting a nice trove of morels he had discovered at the base of an old dead Elm tree, he nudged a large piece of dead bark with his foot, uncovering this spotted salamander.  “Uncle Chris! Uncle Chris!  Come here quick. Look at this!”  I quickly trotted over to see what was causing the ruckus.  I ended up nearly as excited as Aaron was to see this little guy cowering there dead still.  Immediately after asking me what it was, his next logical question was if it was dead because it was so still.  I explained to Aaron that they spend most of the daylight time underground or under logs and bark like this one had been.  Spotted salamanders are very nervous being exposed in the daytime.  Many of the other creatures here in this wetland area love to eat them.  It is sitting still like that hoping we cannot see it, then like most other creatures when they find them, grab it and eat it.  Aaron’s response was classic 10 year old, “Yuck, no way!  It is all slimy and gross…What do they eat then?”  “At night they crawl around finding the worms, bugs, and all the little creepy crawlies that live down under the leaves in the mud and muck.” was my answer.  Aaron then surprised me by reaching into the bait bucket and dropping a night crawler down near the little fella before gently replacing the piece of tree bark before we continued on to the fishing area.

“Uncle Chris! Uncle Chris!  Come here quick. Look at this!”

After reaching the fishing area, we were treated to the sight of a group of White Pelicans.  An animal that just 40 years ago was depleted nearly to extinction due to the effects of the chemical DDT.  This amazing species is now making a fantastic recovery because of the discontinued use of DDT and the presence of restored and preserved wetland areas.

I do admit that the morning’s fishing was a bit anti-climactic, when compared to the other exciting events of the morning.  I was hoping to catch some of the many species, such as largemouth Bass, Northern Pike, and Channel Catfish that need the shallow wetland waters for spawning areas and access to the abundant food living in them.  Unfortunately on this day the larger more exciting predators did not seem to be hungry.  Aaron still had a blast as we did manage to catch a number of Blue Gills, several Ring Perch, and a Walleye that would suffice in making a great meal.

The biggest excitement of the fishing ended up being Aaron hooking a large Carp which gave him a long titanic battle before his fishing line unfortunately broke.  I tried to console him by explaining that we would have just thrown it back into the River anyway because they really are not very good to eat.  As I am sure you can imagine, that reasoning did not at all improve Aaron’s disappointed mood.  As it was getting close to noon, I decided that it was time to head to the pond with the Watercress and then home for some lunch.

As we were hiking to the small spring fed pond where the Watercress grows we could hear some splashing in a slough running between the areas of relatively dry ground upon which we could walk.  Curious as to what could be splashing, we snuck up over the slight rise and saw another creature rarely seen.  As we looked over the rise we got to see a River Otter slipping out of the water with a Bullfrog in its mouth!  It proceeded to crawl a short distance up the slope to a sunny spot where it quickly ate its meal then curled up to take a nap.

After watching the Otter for a while, it took a promise to stop at Dairy Queen for lunch and ice cream to convince my little buddy to finish the detour to the spring with the Watercress.  In his defense, I was getting tired and hungry as well.  Also the sun warming things up and the mosquitoes were becoming more than just an occasional annoyance.  We did make it there ok, proceeded to set our fishing stuff down, and started reaching into the pond to harvest the Watercress.  I am sure Aaron will be a bit annoyed that I am sharing this with you, but his next actions simply cannot be left out.

There happened to be a number of Leopard frogs in and around the little spring fed pond.  Catching a frog tends to be much more interesting and irresistible for a tired, hungry nephew than helping me pick and stow Watercress.  Unfortunately, the average Leopard frog is much more agile than a tired little boy.  It was still something of a surprise to me when I looked up from my bag of Watercress at the sound of a squeal and a splash.  Now, to Aaron’s credit and my eternal amusement, instead of growing angry and upset as he was having very difficult time getting his bearings and feet under him as he struggled in the middle of the pond.  I was flabbergasted to see him spitting out inhaled water while laughing hysterically!  I, of course, followed suit with laughter so intense I nearly fell into the freezing cold pond myself.

Our bag of Basswood leaves was waiting for us when we got back to my vehicle with our bag of Watercress, morels, and bucket of fish.  The drive through burgers and ice cream were second only to our dinner that evening, composed of our morning’s harvest, as one of the best meals we have ever eaten.  The stories and the memories of that trip that we shared have inspired much interest from other family members and friends.  Because of that, as I write this, the plans are coming together for another similar trip this weekend with several more adventurers, weather permitting.  I am sure many things will not happen the same way but I am certain that there will be plenty of learning, excitement, and resultant tired children (uncle too).  I hope the story of our outing into this amazing wetland area amused, occupied even educated you a bit.  As a Conservation Biologist, I also hope it gave you a glimpse of the awesome diversity and scope of the creatures that are dependent upon wetland areas for their survival.  The species listed in this story just manage to scratch the surface of the amount and variety that depend on such areas.  All of these creatures help enrich our planet in uncountable ways.

The species listed in this story just manage to scratch the surface of the amount and variety that depend on such areas.  All of these creatures help enrich our planet in uncountable ways.

I hope you received even a fraction of the enjoyment from reading this story, as I did in getting to re-live it through recounting it to you.  Experiences like Aaron and I had that morning, are just a tiny facet of the values that can be had through preserving and restoring our wetland areas.  We all can have a positive impact on this and other issues that our great Mississippi River system faces. To learn more visit 1mississippi.org and become a River Citizen today!

My sincere thanks to long time River Citizen Mike Schwenker for the donation of you amazing photos.

Chris Stangl, 1 Mississippi WI/IA Regional Outreach Coordinator

Can the River count on you? Become a River Citizen today!

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River Citizen

Yes! The River can count on me!

I am committed to protecting the Mississippi River and will take at least three actions to care for this valuable resource. Please keep me informed about actions I can take to protect the Mississippi River as a River Citizen:

Step 1

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Yes! The River can count on me!

I am committed to protecting the Mississippi River and will take at least three actions to care for this valuable resource. Please keep me informed about actions I can take to protect the Mississippi River as a River Citizen:

 

Step 2

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Nutrient pollution

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