Fortuitously, I spotted on my calendar that May is American Wetlands Month (by the decree of somebody). This is also a time of year, when in the northern climes at least, there are more wetlands present than later in the year.
Snow melt and spring rains create a soggy landscape for us.
Some areas tend to be wetter than others, some permanently so. In fact, for a bit of land to be considered a wetland it must have standing water for at least seven consecutive days. That means that that low spot on your driveway that holds water for three days after a rainstorm doesn’t count.
However, the “pond” down the street that is dry and cracked by July does.
In the Midwest, wetlands contain the most biodiversity over any other type of ecosystem. Mammals like beavers, muskrats, and water shrews tend to be year-round residents. Birds of all feathers rest, feed, nest, and breed in wetlands. Amphibians and reptiles spend their time slithering, sunning, swimming, and jumping in the water, on logs and rocks, and nearby land. Fish are…well, fish are where fish should be. Countless invertebrates dwell below the water’s surface and on the plants and land and in the sky above. Lastly, many specialized plant species can only be found in wetlands.
Wetlands serve a purpose beyond their beauty. They provide what is known as ecosystem services. In a crass so-called economic age, we sometimes have to assign a dollar value on the things that nature provides for free.
Wetlands purify and filter water. They can trap and neutralize something as disgusting as sewage waste and can decompose toxic substances, too.
As was seen with Hurricane Katrina (and others) in the American South, wetlands provide a buffer against flooding and erosion. They hold water during drier times as well.
Wetland plants cycle nutrients through the ecosystem and provide food and shelter to all kinds of creatures. Additionally, they add oxygen and are part of the flood control built in to wetlands.
Lastly, wetlands provide numerous recreational activities from hunting and fishing to photography, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, and simply enjoying the space.
According to a late 2013 AP article,
The eight-state Great Lakes region — extending from western New York to eastern Minnesota– was the only section of the U.S. where coastal wetland acreage increased during a five-year period when scientists took extensive measurements with satellites and field photography.
The gain was modest — 13,610 acres, an area not quite as large as the New York City borough of Manhattan. Yet it happened as the rest of the nation’s coastal wetlands shrank by 360,720 acres. The loss amounted to less than 1 percent of the U.S. total, but continued a longtime negative trend.
Historically, 75% of wetland loss in Michigan can be attributed to agriculture. Though nationwide, industry, commercial and residential development have contributed to their drainage and disappearance.
Michigan had an estimated 11 million acres of wetlands prior to European/American settlement. Now we’re down to about 3 million. That’s not a few dead frogs.
Wetlands can be classified into five kinds (these are freshwater only–you salties have some different kinds particular to you).
Marshes are essentially flooded grasslands with perhaps a few trees per acre. They contain standing water anywhere from an inch to several feet. So, find out the depth before you go trudging out there.
Swamps are the woodier cousins of marshes as they are flooded woodlands with many more trees per acre. Up until the last ten years I didn’t know the difference between swamps and marshes and used the terms interchangeably. You can no longer use ignorance as your excuse.
Bogs are closed systems where rainfall is the only “new” water that enters. Bogs are highly acidic (unlike fens, which are alkaline). Sometimes they have open water and others are covered with saturated peaty soil topped with a lovely layer of sphagnum moss. If you want to find carnivorous plants, bogs are the place to be.
Vernal ponds, most likely there’s one in your neighborhood if you have some green space are temporary and almost always dry by high summer. If you look carefully you might find fairy shrimp flitting around in the water or salamanders lurking nearby.
The Great Lake states also have coastal wetlands, too.
Given the copious, emergent vegetation, wetlands can be difficult to explore at times. But if you can find a clearing you should be able to observe fish, crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, and terrestrial and aquatic insects. It’s worth the effort. Next to Atlantic tidal pools, Great Lakes wetlands are my favorite ecosystems.
Obviously, get outside, explore your wetlands. They might not be there come July.