Watching the Grass Grow, Really?
Some may think that there isn’t much to see in a wetland during the summer. With spring migration long since passed and several sultry months to go before the activity of fall migration begins, what is there to look at and enjoy in a wetland? It is a good question.
For me, it takes some work to change pace and slow down…to look and listen more closely…and to focus on the small activities that are occurring right under my nose. However, if you can make the transition, there is a ton of action in the air and in the water. As this season’s leaves grow up and last year’s stems break down, there is a whole micro-world of creatures capitalizing on the emerging and disappearing plant structure. At first glance, it may seem like I’m suggesting the not-so-exciting hobby of watching grass grow.
Without looking closely, the shallow pools on a wetland seem still and devoid of life. However, upon further examination, the 2-10 inches of water is actually stacked with life. Buried just below the muddy bottom, dragonfly larvae lurk as they practice the art of predation. Sliding along the scummy floor, snails can also can be seen slurping down algae and nutrients leached out of residual stems and leaves. Just above them, small tadpoles dart back and forth in the pool snacking on chunks of algae that dot the puddles. Intermittently, diving beetles dodge and weave from stem to stem looking for their next small unsuspecting meal. And gliding on the surface, small broad-shouldered water striders feel the vibrations of the commotion and potential prey below.
Above the water and stratified at different heights in the vegetation are other quasi-concealed critters. It turns out that the plants grown in the summer for fall waterfowl consumption have multi-seasonal benefits. For example, during the summer, the hop sedge is a host plant for the pearly-eyed butterfly. Later in the year as the seeds ripen, this robust sedge feeds a variety of birds. Higher up within the growing green architecture, spiders can be seen waiting in the wings. Some cling silently to flower petals waiting to capture their next meal, while others molt—some so successful in this endeavor that they are literally splitting at the seams. Trying to blend in caterpillar larvae of moths and butterflies silently munch on leaves to quicken their transformation. A little higher up and out of the fray, a variety of native bees perform aerial acrobatics as they navigate flower to flower collecting pollen, slurping nectar, and steering clear of those lurking spiders. Whizzing overhead or standing post on sprigs of vegetation, mature dragonflies survey and defend their aerial territories throughout the swamp.
Without the often-overlooked and underappreciated hierarchy of invertebrates, heaps of dead plants would pile up higher and higher and the pollination of thriving plants would be inefficient and unproductive. Conversely, without plants, these bugs wouldn’t have the food, structure, and cover for them to complete their life cycles. Once you take a step back and think about it, you realize that if the grass didn’t grow with all of this associated activity, the spring and fall migration wouldn’t be nearly as spectacular each year. Maybe taking time to slow down and watch grass grow is worth a closer look after all.