The other night I sat outside in the shade and enjoyed the cool breeze and pondered the weather, the function of a good multi-tool like a Gerber or Swiss-army knife, and their relation to wetlands. Bear with me for a minute and I'll highlight the linkage between these three potentially unrelated topics.
Overall, I'd have to say this summer's weather has been pretty darn good. Statewide this is reflected in the good to excellent crop conditions for 84% of the state's corn and 76% for the state's soybeans. If we reflect a little about the past couple years, we can't say that this is the norm. In southeast Missouri, during 2011 we had the big flood, followed by drought that extended through 2012. Last summer's weather shifted gears again back to a wet period and then we had one of the coldest winters since the late '80's.
With the seasonal ebb and flow of water, wetlands are naturally diverse. During hot, dry summers conditions can get bone dry. Different plants might germinate due to the shift in soil moisture and there might be less aquatic habitat available for fish, frogs, and other water birds. On the flip side, after a hard rain water sprawls out of the ditches and across the flats and depending upon the time of year all sorts of critters can use the flooded conditions. From one year to the next and even one spot to another, in a wetland, conditions may vary.
One aspect of the renovations at Duck Creek that we have tried to incorporate has been wetland diversity. Throughout Units A and B we have enhanced the topographic diversity by restoring sloughs across the units. These aren't really large features. They only encompass 8% of the total 1,000 acres, but I think they are kind of cool.
Over the last couple years we've seen them go from bare dirt to shallow channels dotted with floating plants or sloughs skirted with a fringe of lush aquatic vegetation. Some of these species have come from natural germination of seeds in the seed bank or those deposited by foraging and defecating ducks. Other plants were given a head start by being propagated and planted by Department staff. Overall, we've been very pleased with progress the plants have made.
These plants point towards another positive. The vertical and horizontal structure provides shade, cover, and food for a host of critters. In my last post, I mentioned all of the bugs that can be seen this summer by slowing down and taking a look. Over the last month, we've taken a closer look in another direction. We wanted to see what kind of fish and amphibians were feasting under the water and between the plants on all of these bugs. After setting out nets overnight and pulling them the next day, we were able to get a snapshot of this underwater community.
Overall, we were able to catch 25 different species of fish using these shallow sloughs. Most were only a couple inches long, but their presence highlights another group of species that is contributing to the overall diversity of these wetlands. Interesting enough, last year we did a similar sampling effort and were able to document two species of conservation concern, the lake chubsucker and flier. This year we were able to document six species of conservation concern, which included bantam sunfish, starhead topminnows, brown bullhead, and pugnose minnow, along with the same two species found last year. Now this doesn't mean that Units A and B are going to be the next location to pull a master angler award winning fish. However, all of these species prefer clear, calm water with extensive aquatic vegetation. These are good indicators that habitat recovering from the wetland construction and that a wide range of species have access to a diversity of habitats.
Now here's my connection to the multi-tool. If you're out camping or working in the field, it is helpful to have a tool that provides a variety of functions. You never know what you might encounter and might need to get the job done. Sometimes you need the pliers, while other times you need the knife. Heck, after lunch it might be good to use the toothpick every now and then. There is no doubt about it, the weather is and will be variable. From one year to the next this will alter wetland conditions. By providing a range of habitats across the area from dry to wet, a variety of species will be able to find what they need during most years. Finding fish in our restored sloughs, which is only a small part of the area, doesn't negatively impact food for fall waterfowl, but adds another function to our wetlands. So in the same way a multi-tool is helpful in handling the uncertainty of field work, wetland habitat diversity helps us manage the unknown of what next year's weather will be.