July 6th, 10 am.
The fourth of July holiday is over and I am checking in on the north end of the mitigation lands. The Watson area is where the wetland habitat is dominant. There are plants that are called obligate wetland plants, which means they almost always grow where the soil is hydrologically unique making the soil moisture high for a significant amount of the year. The combination of plants and the moisture make this area quite biologically diverse. Because of the dryness everywhere else, it is with anticipation that I head out into this wonderful area.
The temperature is heating up, but the shade along the Ash tree corridor keeps me cool as I walk along. The Tree Swallows fly overhead darting in and out of a nesting box, appearing to be raising a second clutch of eggs. In the distance, I can see a sea of what looks like grass but as I get closer the different colors and heights tell me that there are many different species of plants in this field. The white umbel flowers of Water Parsnip, Sium suave, wave in the breeze. There seem to be hundreds of them. Walking through them I see the grey-green spiny leaves of the Button Celery, Eryngium aristulatum. This plant, when young, is soft and delicate but gets downright thistle-like as it gets older and taller. Walking in a field of it in late summer with shorts on is not a pleasant experience. Amongst the grasses, there is also a pink velvety plant growing in dense patches. It is Epilobium densiflorum, dense flowered spike primrose, an annual plant that loves moist places. The tall cattail-looking plant with a strange ball-like inflorescence is a wetland obligate called broad fruit bur reed, Sparganium eurycarpum. I admire its inflorescence of spiky globes and twisted stalks, it is artistically pleasing to look at.
Just then I hear some strange sounds coming from a small pool of water along the fence line of Ash trees on the south boundary of the marsh area. As I look over the first thing that is noticeable are the hundreds of dragonflies flying in pairs tapping their tails into the water. The sound of their wings is like soft leaves shaking in the wind. But this is not the sound that has my ears, the sound I am focusing on is coming from the water itself, a gurgling, bubbling is rising up from the muddy pool. When I get close I see bright red claws waving out of the water. These are the pinchers of the Red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii. This “crawdad” is a non-native, introduced from Mexico and can quickly dominate lakes, ponds, rivers, and wetlands. They feed heavily on plants, snails, fish, and amphibians, aggressively competing with native crayfish and other species for food and habitat. They can lead to declines in native crayfish and can carry crayfish fungus plague. This small pond is filled with bright red claws moving up and down in the water and along the shore. I watch as they get into tussles over holes or tunnels in the mud. It is a lively area with much movement all around.
At this point, I notice that above me in the trees there are a few species birds looking into this pond. Two young Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus, are looking intently down at the pool of water, a Green Heron, Butorides virescens, and then much to my surprise, two unusual birds land in the same tree, Great-tailed Grackles, Quiscalis mexicanus. All of these birds will eat crayfish if available and are obviously waiting for me to leave to enjoy their feast. Since the Red-swamp crayfish is an invasive species, I feel good about the birds taking advantage of this opportunity and help with balancing the native versus the non-native species.
Walking out of this fascinating and life-filled habitat, I once again reflect on how just taking a few moments to pay attention to what is happening around me never fails to astound my senses. It is a wondrous world.