Some Like It Wet

By Rod Doolen | May 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2004

My son really knows how to party! For his tenth birthday, for example, he asked me to take him and some of his friends for a romp through some salamander pools. I was glad to comply. Outdoor excursions are a lot more fun, and a lot less expensive, than video games, and besides, I enjoy stomping through the mud as much as he does.

It was a warm March day with a light wind. The trees were still bare. Our destination was a 20-acre field that held four ephemeral pools. Ephemeral pools are shallow, temporary bodies of water that appear in both lowland and upland areas during spring. They are shallower than ponds but bigger than puddles. The four pools in this particular field are important habitat components for seven amphibian species.

All of these species need shelter. At the first pool we turned over wooden slabs and small tree trunks that had been placed in the pool to make hiding places for salamanders. Boy, did we find a lot of them! Wading through shallow water pools and watching wildlife was a great way to spend time with my son and his friends.

These shallow pools did not exist three years before our trip. They are products of wetland habitat improvement projects on land managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Wetlands have been altered, destroyed and generally reduced all across the country. People seldom consider that shallow pools could be important wildlife habitat so they fill them with earth or dig them out deeper. Thousands of ephemeral pools, along with their benefits to plant and wildlife species, have disappeared.

A large variety of plants and animals use these pools. Salamanders, frogs, toads, wetland plants, reptiles, deer, turkey, quail and many other species, including herons and ducks, take advantage of ephemeral pools. Fortunately, for all of these species, small, shallow, ephemeral pools can be restored or created with little effort.

First a location for a pool must be identified. Topographical maps can be a big help in identifying low sites. Depressions or old stream channels noted on maps may be excellent places for pools.

Ideal locations are low spots in fields or pastures that tend to hold standing water during rains. Seeing where and how the water acts after a rain is one of the best ways to locate potential sites. The amount of water accumulating in an area and the direction it flows are important to know when planning a pool.

The amount of time water stands in a spot indicates the soil's ability to hold water after the pool is built. The direction water flows will indicate how dirt should be moved to avoid altering the natural flow of water. It's also important to know which way the water flows if you need to build a berm or small levee. However, many times levees are not needed when building ephemeral pools. Simply scooping out a low site may make a fine pool.

Ephemeral pools don't need much runoff water. The best locations are those that catch and hold water. If a series of pools is planned, connecting them will be important for water flow.

Try to build ephemeral pools near fencerows or blocks of forest so that salamanders and other slow-moving creatures can visit them without exposing themselves to predators.

Another indicator of a good pool site is vegetation. The types of vegetation present in an area can tell you whether a particular location is suitable for a pool. Smartweed, bulrushes, sedges and many other wetland plant species will grow in moist sites that provide adequate habitat for the kinds of creatures that colonize ephemeral pools. The boundaries of these areas are often clearly defined by where wetland vegetation stops and upland vegetation begins.

The topography or lay of the land, also marks where the pool may expand and contract. Pools wrap around higher ground to make points, and extend up into small "valleys." The varied contours of the shoreline provide a diversity of habitat. The floor of the pool should be irregular, not flat. This provides a mix of water depths for a variety of creatures.

Once a pool site has been located and the potential boundaries defined, construction can begin. Building pools usually requires machinery. A tractor out-fitted with a blade may be all you need to form a pool, but disking will loosen the soil and make it easier to move with the blade. Thick, deep-rooted plants make it hard to move dirt with light equipment. In that case, a small to medium bulldozer may be more appropriate.

Pool size depends on the site. An average pool may be 10 to 15 feet wide and 30 to 60 feet long, and the best ones will be no more than 20 inches in depth. However, smaller or larger pools are common and also produce valuable habitat.

In some situations it might be possible to construct a series of connected pools. These would simulate a meandering stream through which water would move during periods of high water flow.

Building ephemeral pools can be fun and rewarding. Identifying possible sites, designing the pools, and doing the actual dirt work all involve being in the outdoors and accomplishing work that will benefit many species.

Be careful to avoid locations that are already functioning wetlands. If there's any doubt about the status of a site, have it checked by a resource professional, such as a private lands conservationist.

Once it is built, you can make your ephemeral pool more user friendly to salamanders, crayfish, frogs and other wetland species. They need structure for protection. Good sources of ephemeral pool structure are sawmills. Ask for slabs (edges of trees that are cut off during sawing). These provide excellent places for small creatures to get under for protection. Trees and limbs also make good structure. Almost any tree or limb will work. Just lay the structure you have available in the pool area. The critters will do the rest.

One important characteristic of ephemeral pools is the fact that they usually contain water in spring and early summer. This is when many species of wildlife bear young. By the time the pools dry in mid to late summer, the young have grown large enough to travel to other water sources.

Even after ephemeral pools dry up, plants continue to grow there. These plants provide food and shelter for the animals that use the pool once it refloods.

The pools may reflood any time it rains, but spring rains commonly fill ephemeral pools, beginning the cycle again.

When it rains in early spring, salamanders move to ephemeral pools where they can breed and lay eggs. This short migration is sometimes called "running."

Each spring, salamanders migrate across a section of road near my home. Even though our kids are older, all four of us went this spring to watch the salamanders. We saw several on the road and 21 in a small ephemeral pool.

It wasn't on his birthday this year, but we still had a great time!

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler