By Katie Finch
I look out across the wetlands at Audubon for a moment. My first thought is how dull the landscape looks. What was a riot of sounds and a tangle of green in summer now looks still and bland. Of course, it is glorious with a blanket of fresh snow. But on this early winter day, it spreads out in a monochrome of browns and grays. If all I knew of this habitat was this moment, I wouldn’t think much of it at all. I would find it hard to find the value and the beauty.
Wetlands are a rich and dynamic habitat, changing with the season, over time but also in the moment. From my office window, I catch moments when the light plays across the 40 acre wetland habitat of Big Pond. As the sun peeks from behind the clouds, the change in light enriches the landscape. It reflects off the patches of red Winterberry Holly, warms up the brown grasses and brings deep shadows and white highlights into contrast. On this classic cloudy day, the flashes of illumination are sporadic and short lived. They are exciting in their rarity.
The definition of a wetland is a place where water is at or near the surface all or part of the year. It is a place of both land and water, sometimes overlapping. A place where one would want good rubber boots rather than new sneakers. Marshes, both salt and fresh water, along with bogs and fens are other types of wetlands. Each type is characterized by hydrology, soil type and the plants and animals found there. For example, a swamp is a wetland dominated by woody plants, such as trees and bushes.
Wetlands were long thought to be wastelands. Not good for building or farming. Places that needed our remediation to be useful. Now, we understand more about the vital functions they perform. Like a filter, the soil, plants and living things can remove sediment and impurities. Like a sponge, this low-lying habitat can soak up water from large rain or snow and ice melts. And like a nursery, wetlands are rich and safe habitats for a variety of living things to raise their young.
At Audubon, we lower the levels of many of our ponds in our wetlands to prevent winter flooding, but we do it earlier in the fall so all the creatures that burrow in the mud for the winter have adequate time to prepare and aren’t disturbed by a drastic change in water level as they go dormant for the winter. Frogs such as Bullfrog and Green Frog will nestle on the muddy bottom. Turtles may bury themselves in the mud. Their heart rate and breathing slow drastically, but they are still alive, just on pause. On warmer winter days, they may become more active, even swimming below the icy surface.
There is more life beneath the ice. Fish move to deeper water but continue swimming. All the insects that are around in the summer and still there, taking a winter pause in one stage of their life cycle or another. And occasionally, they are active. I remember the excitement of day campers when we found a tadpole in February while exploring winter wetlands.
The open water in late fall and early spring provide important stops for both migratory birds and winter residents. Tundra Swans are often spotted around the time of the first snowfall. Audubon’s Big Pond is just one of their many resting places as they travel between their nesting grounds in the Arctic and their wintering grounds along the mid-Atlantic coast. They join the abundance of year-round Canada Geese, ducks and more in the open water. On a walk, Bald Eagles are occasionally spotted soaring above or perched in a tree.
Even in winter, the wetland is alive with other mammals, specifically adapted for moving in and out of water. On an early morning or twilight walk, it would not be unusual to catch a glimpse of a River Otter or Beaver. Mink, coyote and fox may also be about traversing the land with warm winter coats.
On a walk along the paved trail from the backyard, I almost feel I am alone. I can hear the distant quacking of Mallards that always sound like they are chuckling at a bad joke. But near me, even the wind is still. Then there is a quiet munching sound. I stop, look and look again. Finally, I spot the muskrat on the edge of the ice. It dives down into the water and brings something dark, wet and lumpy to the surface and continues to much. Perhaps an aquatic plant root. Its brown fur lets it blend in with the winter landscape seamlessly. If it wasn’t for the subtle noise and movements, I would have passed by without noticing it.
In winter, wetlands seem like quiet places. It is mostly the frigid or frozen water we see. The plants that lay brown and dormant, energy stored in their seeds or roots for the next growing season. But looking beyond that, there is still abundant life – on pause or still active – in this valuable habitat.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, Indoor Nature Play Area and most exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.