Friday, October 11, 2019

West Marsh Structure 2: Update #3 (& Duck Opener!)

Woodies should be part of mixed bags this
coming weekend
The only day without progress on the job site this past week was on Friday (today) -- the eve of this year's duck opener. We asked that the guys move the construction trailer and relocate the larger equipment in preparation for what we hope will be a fun weekend for our hunters.

So Friday was all quiet in the marsh -- at least from a construction standpoint. But as the photos below will show, the crew made hay in nice weather Monday - Thursday and got a lot of welding accomplished. We'll have to feel our way through the next couple weeks (first split of the waterfowl season closes October 27th), and then hopefully the weather will cooperate to really push toward completion during the break (which runs October 28 - November 8th this year).

Our lease groups recognize that restoration activities have to be priority number one, especially while pressures from high lake levels are so acute. But we still want to do all that we can to encourage waterfowl activity and successful hunting. As I've written about several times before, responsible hunting is just too much a part of this amazing place's heritage.

I stuck around past sunset one evening mid-week and saw a decent number of birds "working" the marsh -- preparing to settle in for a restful overnight. Our punters had some similarly encouraging reports. It is supposed to drop from the mid-70s (this afternoon) to the mid-30s (by sunrise tomorrow). We'll see how it goes!

Structure 2 at the end of the work day on Thursday

Cross braces and angle steel, mid-installation

Once plate steel is added to the top of this angle, the crew will move on to prep for the floor and dike crossing

Friday, October 4, 2019

West Marsh Structure 2: Update #2 -- And Then There Was Sheet Pile

The drone was literally in the air for under 60 seconds before the first large rain drops started to fall late Wednesday
afternoon -- but the very brief window of opportunity afforded the chance for a good overview perspective of progress

Despite a couple rain-out days over the last week and a half, the project site has transformed pretty significantly since the last update. Where there was just a hole in the ground (or more technically a long, deep trench) during the last few days of September, there is now a complete channel of sheet pile connecting the "Main West Marsh" to the south (left in the photo above) to the "Rest Pond" to the north (right above).

This juvenile Pied-billed Grebe offered
some distraction while I was photo-
documenting progress at the project site
Earthen cofferdams still hold water back from both sides. This will remain the case until construction is about complete. The next steps are to 1) add a steel "cap" (upper frame of welded plate metal) to the top profile of the sheet pile walls; (2) add horizontal bracing at the top of each wall; (3) prep the bottom of the channel for the concrete floor; (4) prep the top of the cap for the eventual crossing; and, (5) backfill around the outside of each wall to add stability and to further prepare for the two concrete pours (channel floor and crossing deck).

It's our hope that much of this work will happen over the next week or two. With opening weekend of the main duck season set for Saturday, October 12th, the goal is to have the heaviest lifting behind us. By getting the largest machinery off the dike, we should be able to minimize the disturbance to the immediate area and the marsh in general.

Temps are FINALLY starting to normalize. After days of recording-breaking heat to end September and begin October, I dusted off the winter coat for the first time this morning when I went to take the dog for her morning run. We see a pattern of 60s/40s setting up in the 7-10 day forecast with more dry than rain. This should help move ducks and also should continue to help move the project along.

The crew setting one of the last "sticks" of steel on the southwest corner of what will become Structure 2

Another perspective of the newly constructed connection between our West Marsh management units;
this ~5'-wide channel will be a big improvement over the 18" pipe that currently serves as our only conduit

I never got a clear image, but I spent a good half hour trying -- this striking female Common Yellowthroat was seemingly
curious to monitor progress at the project site as well; despite fresh raindrops and this little warbler never holding still for more than a second, I couldn't help but try to capture a clear view before she continues on her migration south

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Here We Go Again -- Structure 2 Underway! (Update #1)

Site overview for Structure 2, looking west/southwest in Standing Rush's West Marsh;
40-acre Rest Pond in the foreground, 145-acre Main Marsh in middle, and Sandusky Bay in background

While equipment and building materials have been mobilizing on-site for going on three weeks now, our second new "water conveyance structure" (a.k.a. "Structure 2") is finally starting to look like something. "Structure 1" -- completed this past January -- connects Sandusky Bay to our West Marsh. The challenge is that it only provides ideal connectivity to the most adjacent management unit.

While we received the official green light on Structure 2 about a month ago,
the last few weeks have focused on mobilizing equipment and raw materials
(above: steel sheet piling being off-loaded from flatbed along highway)
When complete, Structure 2 will be an approximately 6' wide x 8' deep x 45' long steel and concrete, open-topped conduit (essentially, a simplified version of Structure 1) that will serve as connection between our 40-acre "Rest Pond" (adjacent to the bay) and the 145-acre "Main Marsh" on west side. As it stands today, any water exchange between these two units is limited to passage within 40-feet of 18-inch PVC pipe.

This immensely improved connection will encourage much broader access and use by a diverse population of fish species that benefit from moving in and out of the marsh. It will also allow us to convey much larger volumes of water across the entire site as we work to tie agricultural and surface water runoff (from the south) into the marsh.

Steel sheet piling lying in wait (Rest Pond to left; Main Marsh to right); Structure 2 will be built through this earthen
berm that was completely reconstructed by Standing Rush in 2016
With modest coffer dams in place and surveying complete, the trench within which Structure 2 will be built was cut
late last week (Rest Pond in background)
Temporary steel H-pile was placed last Friday as a guide
for the placement of the sheet-pile walls
(click here for a visual of  how it will eventually look)
Think improved water quality. Typical flows are south to north at the site, So Structure 2 will complete the structural infrastructure needed to "fully reconnect the kidneys." To complete the metaphor, as water from fields and ditches can be diverted into the upstream (south) end of the marsh, it can now gradually work its way downstream (north) through nearly 200-acres of wetland and near-shore estuary before entering the open bay. This significantly increased natural filtration area will provide dramatically  increased residence time, giving time for solids and particulates (which add to turbidity) an opportunity to settle out. Flow-through will also subject macronutrients like derivatives of both phosphorus and nitrogen (the biggest contributors to algae issues in the open bay and lake) to ideal conditions for uptake within the wetland footprint. Our mantra is we would rather "grow bigger cattails" than have those otherwise available fertilizers/nutrients bypass the marsh and enter directly into Lake Erie (to grow algae).

This project was originally conceived and proposed for funding in the spring of 2017. Funds were secured through GLRI (federal dollars) and ODNR (state dollars) for Structure 1 just over a year ago and construction took about five months (September - January). We kept at it over this past winter, resubmitted for Structure 2, and received confirmation this past spring of a second round of funding (utilizing the same awesome team of collaborators) that will allow us to complete Structure 2. Our goal -- especially consider this simplified design involves no pump, no electricity, and significantly fewer parts -- is to have this project buttoned up well before the snow flies. With temps continuing to bounce from the 50s or 60s at night into the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, that seems a long ways away. But as we know too well, you can never count on the weather.

Monday, September 23, 2019

A Story that Needs to Be Told (and Retold) . . . to Initiate Action

Black-crowned Night Herons are fairly consistent inhabitants at several locations at Standing Rush; a couple have been lurking on an island of woody debris in the West Marsh lately, so I was somewhat prepared -- this individual posed
long enough late last Thursday afternoon for two images: this one and a second (better composed, but very blurry)

Last week (Thursday), an article just published in the journal Science spilled almost redundantly into the mainstream media. Unlike so many biological or environmental subjects which are so often relegated to subtle margins of second sections and/or carried only by "niche" publications, news coverage of this story seemed as sweeping as the original title was bold: Billions of North American birds have vanished.

Greater Yellowlegs in last Thursday's late afternoon sun 
In literally a minute of web searching, here are a handful of some of the largest outlets' respective renditions:

This list could (and does) go on . . . and on. If you haven't caught up with specifics of these findings, pick your poison. No matter the source, the numbers are same: an exhaustive study recently completed concludes that nearly 30% of the entire population of birds (all environments, across all species) have disappeared from the skies over North America in under five decades. That means that in my lifetime, where there would have been four birds -- say in 1975 -- there are now fewer than three (see my caption on the top photo from my most recent post below).

American Bittern -- camouflaging as brown
cattails -- stands in vertical attention in
Standing Rush sun 
I stumbled onto the abstract of the primary source to this media blitz on my phone last Thursday afternoon following a full day in the marsh (escorting surveyors as we gathered site-wide elevation data). I have to admit, it really took the wind out of my sails. I had already slipped off my stealtoes and changed into tennis shoes for the drive home, but I felt compelled to make one more lap around the West Marsh, specifically to seek out anything and everything I could find on the wing.

The images herein capture the diversity that I could gather (in focus) with my camera in one 45 minute shotgun tour on the MULE. I needed the reassurance of seeing some birds, but I also still needed to get home in time for dinner!

Here are the other birds that I witnessed, but did not photograph (with estimated quantities in parentheses): Brown-headed Cowbird (200); Red-winged Blackbird (150); Great Egret (20); Morning Dove (20); Mallard (20); Wood Duck (16); Great Blue Heron (10); Blue-winged Teal (7); Blue Jay (7); Double-crested Cormorant (6); Bald Eagle (5); Trumpeter Swan (5); Common Gallinule (5); American Coot (4); Black-crowned Night Heron (4); Killdeer (4); Greater Yellowlegs (3); Lesser Yellowlegs (2); Green Heron (2); Caspian Tern (2); American Bittern (1); Belted Kingfisher (1); Red-tailed Hawk (1); Marsh Wren (1).

Trumpeter Swans -- once completely eliminated from Ohio
-- are now a common site at Standing Rush
So, if my math is on-point, that breaks down to twenty-three species and approximately 496 individuals. I can never help but wonder what I didn't see on a quick pass like this. My routine when time is limited is to drive for 30 seconds and then sit for 10 minutes. I have a fairly trained eye, but I would not put myself in the "avid" category. Plus, my ear is really untrained (that is, I can't ID much by vocalization like the true birders can).

On one hand, this is a lot of birds. But dare to imagine if there were another 30% or even 50% more? -- even if not in terms of species diversity but in relative abundance?

Three BILLION birds lost?! That's a staggering number. That's more than 5-times the human population of all of North America. And based on the findings, it's not just the uncommon birds that are struggling. Or the birds that rely on forests. Or grasslands. Or big birds or small birds. This mass extraction of life is broad and sweeping and seems to have no prejudice.

Three (not four) Great Blue Herons keeping vigilant watch on muskrat hutches Thursday afternoon

From my perspective, the primary questions introduced through this scientific revelation should be: How do we, as individuals and as a society, respond to stressors on our planet and its resources? Do we resign ourselves to denial or maybe as dangerously to acceptance and complacency ('the world is just changing' . . . 'numbers naturally ebb and flow' . . . 'this is just part of the natural process')? Do we simply allow this to be a headline in a single day's news cycle? Or do we recognize that the power of positive change truly is in our hands?

This scientific research and the systematically vetted conclusions it draws provide an incredible opportunity -- or perhaps more accurately, billions and billions of opportunities to alter countless decisions made each day. Rather than discard these troubling trends as myth or slip into a state of despair, consider what individual steps we can take to collectively reverse a trend. (We have bald eagles and trumpeter swans as feathered success stories.) But ultimately, this story has to do with a lot more than birds.

Individual Decisions that Help Birds (Other Wildlife, and the Planet)
  • Make windows safer (consider decals or contrasting tape);
  • Keep cats indoors (free-range domestic felines account for an amazing amount of mortality);
  • Look for habitat improvement opportunities (literally) in your yard -- plant native plants;
  • Reduce -- or wherever feasible, eliminate -- chemicals on your yard;
  • Drink shade-grown coffee (helps protect critical forest habitat);
  • Introduce someone new to the magic of birds and birding -- especially kids;
  • Support local conservation initiatives taking place at the community level;
  • Reduce consumption and waste wherever and whenever feasible -- use less plastic;
  • Don't be overwhelmed that it all has to happen all at once -- every step in a positive direction is positive . . . simple steps can become habits;
  • Click here for a more exhaustive list, not only to help the birds but to generally be better stewards of our planet . . . as has been said, "There is no Plan B."

Friday, September 20, 2019

Plenty of Welcomed Visitors

Seeing these three trumpeter swans make themselves at home in our Rest Pond these last few days has been a treat; but after
reading of the most recent findings on the precipitous decline in bird numbers in North America over the last 50 years
(more on this in the next post), it was hard not to think: wouldn't this scene be that much better with a fourth swan?

This week was marked by plenty of visitors at the marsh. With the seasonal calendar poised to flip, some of our guests arrived on the wing as our march into autumn continues. But several discrete groups made their way to us by car, by truck, by van, or by bus.

Nothing like getting to play naturalist
interpreter with a whole group of
naturalist interpreters!
(photo courtesy of Toledo Metroparks)
Tuesday, I accompanied seven naturalists from Toledo Metroparks on a morning walking tour of the West Marsh. Cloud cover was low, but enthusiasm was high for this group of dedicated interpretive scientists. As much as we truly revel in the opportunity to introduce the marsh to those totally unfamiliar, it is also always fun for me to share our mission and our restoration efforts with a group that really understands and appreciates the complexities and the magic of what is happening around our project.

But this group was especially special in that it included both a grade school classmate and friend (whose visit was LONG overdue) and two individuals who served as mentors when I interned for Metroparks all the way back in high school. It's always fun to be with old friends and have the opportunity to meet new ones.

I'm often struck by how different the marsh experience is depending on how you see it (e.g., on foot, by punt boat, by kayak, by power boat, by MULE, by truck, by helicopter or plane, etc.). We walked on Tuesday, and I realized that I don't take the time to do that enough. Wildlife activity was modest (relatively speaking), but we did get decent looks at black-crowned night herons, northern harrier, and an eagle "pre-building" a prospective nest for next spring. The gathering was an opportunity to enjoy the sites and sounds, but it was also a chance to compare notes: what can Standing Rush learn from Metroparks and vice versa? Especially with the Park's recent and significant investment in regionally and nationally acclaimed Howard Marsh -- about 30 miles west of Standing Rush, down the lakeshore -- there is no doubt they are upping their investment in coastal habitats. There's also little doubt that we'll find some way to actively collaborate from a programs perspective moving forward.

I hosted a couple more friends for a late afternoon driving tour in the MULE on Tuesday. The sun had broken through and 75 degrees again felt like 85. That only made the eagle viewing and the intermittent sorties of wood ducks splashing in and out of sun-drenched cover that much more enjoyable to take in. Tuesday was a lot of talking though (even for me), and I must admit I was ready for bed.

The group was all smiles as we pulled back to the bunkhouse; it definitely seemed to help the Conservation District
board members to see our projects first-hand

Wednesday offered another opportunity for a beautiful, dare I say, early autumn sunset driving tour, this time accompanied by select members of the staff and Board of Supervisors for the Erie County Conservation District. This dedicated bunch has served as a critical local conduit, offering both technical expertise and financial/administrative support for the important work we are doing in cooperation with ODNR's Office of Coastal Management, ODOW, and the U.S. EPA.

This sign was erected at the site of our first collaboration,
"Structure #1," completed in January; construction of
"Structure #2" began earlier this week
-- more on that very soon
As the light faded and the group departed for their scheduled board meeting, Roy and I leaned on tailgates and talked about (1) how sharp this group is, (2) how awesome it is to have local farmers and landowners taking a vested interested in all things conservation, (3) how important it is that they are willing and able to work closely with the District's technical staff, (4) how great it was to be able to show them our projects first-hand, and (5) how these types of collaboration are critical to the prospect of magnifying our collective efforts to preserve and protect wild places in harmony with other -- often competing -- land uses.

We could have kept talking. But ultimately, the short burst of evening mosquitoes that seem to be a hallmark of September on the marsh, forced us to call it a night.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Turning the Page to Autumn

The ever-striking Common Gallinule is becoming that much more common at Standing Rush thanks to expansion
of desirable vegetative habitat (and all the shelter and food options that come with a diversity of native plants)
Despite significantly shorter day length and considerably more hours of darkness in the evening, (candidly) it has still been a major challenge to regain the discipline of regular journal entries. Per usual, it's not for a lack of activity in and around the marsh. [More than at any time in this project's five years, I also continue to be very busy at my desk planning for future improvement opportunities.]

These types of distinctions, while always
appreciated, are a tangible reminder
of the importance of collaboration
-- no great work happens
in a vacuum
The images above and immediately below are in recognition and appreciation of an evening well-spent this past Saturday. I was invited as a guest of the Firelands Audubon Society to its Lake Erie Wing Watch banquet in Huron, Ohio to receive its conservation award on behalf of Standing Rush. A passionate ~125 attendees filled a room surrounded by exhibitors displaying all things birds. A very talented and articulate keynote gave an incredible talk about an entire year fully devoted to birding. But as I settled in to dig into my delicious meal (including homemade elderberry pie!), it became obvious that this group extends its enthusiasm not only to their ultimate pursuits -- the birds -- but to everything it takes to support their well-being.

It was an honor, of course, to be recognized for our efforts, but even more so, it was an honor to spend some time with this group. Our paths officially crossed when a couple of their active members -- Bill and Dorthy Baker -- took a tour of Standing Rush as part of the Biggest Week in American Birding this past spring. Their friendliness, enthusiasm, active curiosity, and professionalism all contributed to their instant appeal. And now we can hopefully add another talented group to a growing list of collaborators. We look forward to the opportunity to tour them on-site soon!

With so many projects going on simultaneously, we just haven't been as diligent about taking (and sharing) wildlife images;
that doesn't mean we haven't enjoyed watching broods like these gallinules grow up before our very eyes 

Other highlights over the last few weeks include:

  • Annual fish sampling in and adjacent to Standing Rush's West Marsh (once again in conjunction with BGSU's Fisheries & Aquatic Ecology lab and some scientists in-training);
  • installation of an initial pipe and screw gate to provide targeted connectivity between Standing Rush and an adjacent agricultural drainage ditch (to intercept storm water runoff before it enters Sandusky Bay);
  • berm rehabilitation on the interior of our West Marsh's bayfront dikes (including earthwork and seeding);
  • the start of another waterfowl season: with persistent hot and humid weather, teal and early goose season opened somewhat unceremoniously the weekend before last -- there have been a few mornings of activity (coinciding with brief cool-downs) thus far; we're optimistic that the best is yet to come . . . there's a lot of duck season ahead of us. 

The fish does not have to be big to capture one's attention; here we count rigid dorsal rays of a yearling crappie
to distinguish black from white

Fish sampling once again took the form of multiple, strategically placed Fyke nets and a good amount of seining;
plans to electrofish just outside our new water conveyance to the bay were scrapped due to high winds,
but the usual late-summer suspects were still identified, tallied, and released within the marsh

The nondescript pipe at the center of this image may look pretty uninspiring, but we hope it will be the start of some
really exciting water quality improvement opportunities at and around Standing Rush

This image was taken to document the amount of debris (mostly bladderwort and cattails) caught by the debris screen
in front of our new pump in just a few short hours, but the background is a good visual of the extra protection
provided by recent berm rehabilitation efforts (lower marsh water level to left; elevated bay water level to right)

Just like the early arrival of teal, seeding dikes is starting to feel like an annual right of passage;
like so many things that Roy does quietly and without fanfare around the marsh,
his careful attention now will bear dividends later

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Summer "Vacation"

Mom and I -- surrounded by a few dozen of my immediate family -- all of whom are joining me and Standing for Something Great
(photo taken in early August back at the family farm at our 19th annual Kraus Camp Out reunion weekend)

We are now inside ten days before our kids are back in school (which will be a full week, if not two, later than most have returned). Per usual, summer has absolutely flown by. Long days and late sunsets, lots of activity and some extended travel, and lots of writing -- for various grants and permits -- have largely put me on an unofficial . . . and unintended . . . summer "vacation" from both the blog and social media. It's high time I provide some updates because there has been PLENTY going on . . .

One of a variety of wetland habitats sprinkled
into the often arid Colorado Rockies
in summer (photo taken just outside
Silverton, CO in July)
Since day one of this project, I've said we are never going to be satisfied with treading water; we are always going to strive to be moving ahead, making improvements to the property and, where possible, the surrounding community. In 2015, we set a goal of accomplishing 1-2 "major projects" each calendar year. Over the last several years, this has translated to an average of two larger-scale initiatives each field season. Typically, at least one of these projects has required permitting through the US Army Corps of Engineers and other affiliated agencies. And whenever and wherever possible, we seek funding assistance to get the job done efficiently and done right.

With just over four months remaining in 2019, we are on-track to complete as many as SEVEN major projects at Standing Rush this calendar year:
(1) completion of what we call "Structure 1" -- the primary water conveyance structure to the West Marsh;
(2) re-armoring of over 1,000 linear feet of our bayfront ("exterior") dike;
(3) rehabilitation of 3,000 linear feet of earthen berm that makes up our southern boundary on the West Marsh;
(4) rehabilitation of more than 1,000 linear feet of interior berm to augment #2 above (awaiting final permitting approval -- haven't written about this one yet);
(5) rehabilitation of 2,000 linear feet of interior berm to augment restoration activities begun in 2016 (awaiting final permitting approval -- again, haven't written about this one yet);
(6) completion of what we call "Structure 2" -- the second phase of #1 above that will further enhance connections between the West Marsh & Sandusky Bay (slated for construction Sept-Nov); and,
(7) permanent legal protection of an additional ~200 acres of coastal marsh habitat through the USDA's Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) program.

News just came yesterday that ~200 acres
of our West Marsh have been officially
selected for funding through the USDA's
Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) Program
Clearly, there has been a lot going on. And clearly, there is plenty still to do on this list. The complexity of all these moving parts has been amplified by the fact that Roy was away for the last couple weeks of June and I was away for the first couple weeks of July (on a family road trip to Colorado). When you are a staff of two, this has a profound impact. But both of us needed to get away.

As with so much of the work that we do, success is predicated on persistence, collaboration, patience, talented subcontractors, good communication, and good fortune . . . or some would say, dumb luck. Weather is a constant wild card -- as is persistent high water (a reality that is apt to last well into 2020). Permitting is often largely out of our control -- at least after the application is submitted. And there is a chronology that often creates a chain reaction of cascading consequences -- intended or unintended -- as each project evolves.

But we feel generally fortunate as to where things currently stand. We continue to feel very much supported by federal, state and local partners. People are paying attention to our efforts (which isn't critical, but it's certainly helpful if they can help in the collaboration). [In fact, at one point last month, I was compelled to book a flight home from Colorado because Governor DeWine was planning to pay us a visit. That outing had to be postponed because of a stubborn budget process, but we did get the opportunity to show a US EPA representative around the property.)

TPS instructor Laura Kubiak took Standing Rush's
message with her all the way to Alaska this summer
And yet with all the progress taking place on the ground, what I'm perhaps most excited about is what's currently happening from our collective desktops.

Just yesterday, we received official acceptance into another round of WRE funding (see #7 above). This means we were one of perhaps a dozen properties from the entire state of Ohio that was selected for enrollment in the USDA's perpetual easement program. While we haven't yet "closed" on the easement (think real estate transaction), things seem to be aligning favorably such that we could in a matter of months. To see how important this is in the fulfillment of our broader mission, see the announcement of our first easement, which closed this past May. There is a ton of paperwork involved in this process, but the long-term benefit to the property far outweighs the headache, at least from our perspective.

Speaking of paperwork, much of my time recently has been spent developing a comprehensive plan that is intended to both guide and prioritize future management improvement projects and attract additional funding and technical partnership opportunities. This will remain a primary focus for me for the better part of the next couple months. It will mean a lot less time in the field, but I promise I'll keep on Roy to take lots of pictures. And as the sun sets earlier and we get back into an autumn routine, I promise to be posting more!

Three nieces "spreading the gospel" at Machu Picchu, Peru (photo by Ellen Dziubek Photography) --
remember to submit your photos in Standing Rush gear for a chance to win a tour of the marsh --
shop "marsh merch" here

Friday, July 5, 2019

Another Critical Improvement Project

Our drone's perspective of work in progress late last week, about five solid days into digging

For the second time in as many major projects, our excavating contractor proved us wrong. On both occasions he estimated the heavy lifting of their work would be completed in 7-10 days, on both occasions we were skeptical (at best), and on both occasions he got the job done -- both done well and on schedule. Seeing the long-reach excavator almost to the bay going into the holiday weekend has provided even more reason for celebration this 4th of July.

As with the last project (completed in 2016), this is a major victory for the broader project. And also as with the last time, the scope of the project involved the complete rehabilitation of ~3,000 linear feet of interior earthen berm (or "dike") on our West Marsh.

Makeshift repairs like this one were becoming more and more
frequent going into this spring; it will be nice to give the shovel
a rest and not have to go on daily patrols looking for leaks
This project quickly moved up the priority list as the water levels in the lake and bay continued to climb. We really started thinking about the need for this work in 2017. As repairs became more frequent in 2018, we started laying the groundwork from a permitting and funding perspective. But as water levels continued to press higher, it became evident that this really needed to be a 2019 project. It had reached emergency status.

We call this levee an "interior dike" (as opposed to a bay-front or lake-front "exterior dike") because under normal circumstances, it would be. But sustained historically high water levels in Sandusky Bay have backed water up on a neighboring property and in so doing exposed us to sustained water pressures that the original dike was never built to withstand. As a result, we leaked -- early and often through much of this spring. And the situation created a snowball effect that wasn't good for our near-term or long-term management goals.

Excessively high water on the neighbor's side of the dike meant one of two things. Either (1) we conducted business as usual on our side -- with lower water levels in the main West Marsh and sometimes daily breaches from head pressure differentials that were greater than the dike could withstand, or (2) we held our main West Marsh higher than we wanted (from a habitat development and broader earthen infrastructure perspective) to reduce the pressure and likelihood of regular leaks and blow-outs. Neither situation was ideal, but that's been the reality, really for the last couple growing seasons.

This image highlights the first couple days of
digging and the quality of the clay we found,
visible by the teeth marks of the excavator
seen in the lower-right (click to enlarge)
Fortunately for us, we had local knowledge that the clay we needed was available on site -- in fact, directly adjacent to the existing dike. Roy reminded me early on in this project that if there is high ground in a coastal marsh, there is usually deep water nearby. But fortunately for us, the "deep" water nearby (the channel from which the clay was excavated to build the original dike) wasn't too deep. And also fortunate for us, there was an ecological driver to dig the adjacent channel deeper.

The premise is this: by digging the channel deeper we accomplish two goals -- (1) we harvest the clay needed to rehabilitate the earthen berm over its original "footprint" in the marsh, and (2) we create deep-water habitat (8-10' deep) that will allow a broader diversity of fish species to survive weather extremes within the marsh . . . both extended heat spells in the summer and prolonged ice cover in the winter. This minimum depth tends to provide critical refuge from what would otherwise be fatally low dips in available oxygen. And it was this win-win that allowed us both to get the original permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and to begin the project before the typical July 1 start date. (The Corps and affiliated agencies typically restrict all "in-water" work through June to protect fish spawning, but in our particular case, the risk of waiting outweighed the risk of starting a couple weeks early, so we were granted a waiver.)

The first day of digging from another perspective (I'm standing on the far left of the new pile of clay for scale); we really
didn't know what the quality of the clay would look like until we started to dig -- we've been pleased from start to finish

This image depicts what ended up being the final day of excavation (before clay was "put up" onto the dike); with the muddy
bay water to the left and in the background, it serves as a stark contrast to the clear, stable water within the marsh (right)

Now that we are 95% finished with the excavating portion of the project, the risk of leaks or blow-outs is dramatically reduced. We will now wait for the excavated clay to de-water and dry, hopefully over the next couple/few months, and then the contractor will bring in a dozer to level the "crown" (top of the dike) and reshape the side slopes. By this time next year, we should be able to drive a pickup truck all the way around the West Marsh. This will be a first since we took possession of the property in 2015 and will probably afford the best access this site has seen since at least the 1980s.

One more fun perspective of this most recent work from the sky -- this one taken by ODNR
Division of Wildlife Private Lands biologist Mark Witt from the agency's helicopter;
two important notes: (1) Private Lands will once again be supporting this project financially --
which is immensely helpful, and (2) notice the water covering nearly all of the farm ground
on the very top of the page . . . absolutely amazing

The long-reach in action -- each bucket could be placed in 20-30 seconds

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Excitement Over a Shimmering Shiner (actually tens of thousands of them)

Jim taking it all in (click to enlarge)
Q: How have three weeks gone by since my last post?!
A: Continued historic high water (leading to daily vigilance in observing water levels within the marsh to detect and repair inevitable leaks); pressing for clearance from the USACE for the green light to start another dike rehab project (see aforementioned leaks -- I'll write a dedicated post on this very soon); tying up the loose ends from our first GLRI-funded project; prepping for our second GLRI-funded project; tours; meetings; another cooperative management agreement with ODNR Private Lands; more work on our WRE easements (East and West); and, of course, more fish!

Yep, it's been a busy month of June.

It's always difficult to recap a day in the marsh -- much less a week . . . or multiple weeks. So I'll just try to hit some high points. And per usual, I'll try to share representative images to help tell some individual stories.

The first is one we're particularly excited about because it's yet another example of "if you build it, they will come."

A little over a week ago we were hosting a group of a dozen or so biologists, ecologists, and water chemistry experts. Our tour ended at our new pump and water conveyance structure. Just as we were talking about the attributes of the "fish-friendly" design, Roy looked over the guardrail and noticed something we've never seen before . . .

Tens of thousands of shiners along with a "slurry" of juvenile fish <1" long had congregated in the 50-foot flume of our new structure. Although the pump had been running for several days with nothing but the occasional and isolated school of juvenile mosquito fish visible, something cued this mass concentration.

The emerald shiner is a favored baitfish, not only by fishermen,
but more importantly by yellow perch, walleye, bass, crappies, 
and any other predatory fish in Lake Erie
As soon as we concluded the tour, we were one the phone with our good friend Jim Johnson. As a Bay View native and lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Jim grew up hunting, trapping, and exploring the marsh. (I've written of Jim before because he is a true marsh lover and is our lead punter on the West Marsh.) Jim also happens to be a licensed commercial minnow fisherman and bait store owner who has seined and dipped for emerald shiners on Lake Erie for more than three decades.

Jim's truck arrived in a matter of minutes. Quite simply, he was awestruck. Jim confirmed what we suspected. The shiners were largely "emeralds" (with a few spottails mixed in for good measure) and they were there to spawn.

Moving water is a primary draw, but other factors like water temperature, photoperiod, water clarity, water chemistry, and even lunar cycle can all play a role in increasing numbers. It's always fun to see such a concentration of life. But it is particularly exciting with the context that emerald shiner populations have been on the sharp decline throughout Lake Erie for the better part of a decade.

These emerald shiners were dipped from within the structure
just long enough to be positively identified and then
were promptly released (unharmed)
Jim said he hasn't seen a congregation like we've witnessed (much less a spawning event) in years. He was so enthusiastic about seeing the phenomenon -- which lasted the better part of a week -- that he was more interested in sitting and watching than filling his nets, mobile tanks, or bait shop (even though he was running low). Reality is, we were all just content to sit and watch the shimmering ebb and flow of life . . . with smiles on our faces.

(1) To read more about the decline in the emerald shiner population on Lake Erie, check out this article from my friend, John Hageman. Contributing factors may be high predation from historically large populations of walleye and yellow perch; high susceptibility to a viral disease called VHS (Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia); increasingly volatile spring wind events (notably Superstorm Sandy in 2012); and potentially even mortality related to harmful algae blooms (HABs). Another reality though is that some populations tend to go through natural cycles. Here's to hoping Standing Rush can be contributing to an upturn!

(2) It turns out that the smattering of "little fish" in the structure are a mix of species that have hatched in our adjacent estuary or the open bay over the last several weeks. So far, I've confirmed white perch (and probably white bass), bluegills, crappies (probably both white and black), gizzard shad, and carp. I would suspect there are also walleye and probably a handful of other species. Interestingly, as recently as yesterday, only a few isolated shiners were visible in the structure -- now replaced by clouds of tiny (0.5") yellow perch. As I left yesterday, a solid mass of juvenile yellow perch covered an area 6' wide by about 20' long and were packed in from the surface to at least a depth of 2' -- where turbidity prevented visible confirmation at greater depths. If the entire water column (now about 6' deep) was full of these tiny fish, again, it would be safe to say there were tens of thousands just within the structure itself.

Even as the clear marsh water mixed with the wind-churned turbidity of bay water, the shiners put on a show
for the GoPro (each of these shiners is about 3-inches long)

More fun GoPro footage --don't miss the others lurking in the murky depths!
(Spoiler Alert: Sheephead and Largemouth Bass)

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Not Just a "Fish Collection" -- A Lesson In the Importance of Conservation & Biodiversity

Two breeding male sunfish, both less than 4" long, collected
right off our main dock -- the smaller is definitely an
Orangespotted Sunfish; the second, is perhaps less clear
(*see bottom photo; be sure to click to enlarge)
Earlier in the week, I started contemplating what I thought would be a straight-forward information share to explain another neat collaboration between Standing Rush, Toledo Public Schools, and Bowling Green State University. Essentially, I'm replicating an effort that I executed in the summer of 1997 with my undergraduate institution (St. John's, MN), the University of Minnesota, and the MN DNR -- embarking on what I called a "scavenger hunt" of freshwater fish biodiversity.

Twenty years ago, my target was fish of the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Today, through the cooperation and permitting oversight of the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife, we are building a collection of the fish of Ohio. With all the rain we continue to get, people might start calling me Noah . . . but in our particular case, we're not looking to collect mating pairs -- we are actually shooting to gather between one and ten individuals of as many different species of fish as possible. Each "specimen" (individual of a given species) needs to be in good condition, show characteristic physical attributes of the species, be of a target size, and be from Ohio waters.

Once collected (by net, trap, electrofishing, or even hook and line) and deemed appropriate, the particulars of the sampling location and sampling method are carefully recorded, and then the individual fish are euthanized and placed in a bath of diluted formaldehyde for 10-14 days. Each will then go through a series of water rinses over another 7-10 days before they are placed in lab-grade ethanol (rubbing alcohol) and stored in either glassware or plastic jars.

Brook Silverside (an elegant insectivore with an up-turned "beak" perfectly
evolved to target larval, terrestrial, and flying insects) are another
relatively common species in Standing Rush waters
According to A Naturalist's Guide to the Fishes of Ohio, a timely field guide packed with incredible reference photos and meticulously researched and well-organized species detail, Ohio boasts of some 187 species of freshwater fish (17 of which are either hybrids or invasive species). Our goal is not to collect them all, but instead to build a physical "library" of the most common 40-60 species that are encountered in the state.

These types of collections serve two primary functions: (1) They provide another form of hands-on learning so that students can physically touch and see the dizzying array of species that live and fight for survival in the waters we see around us; and, (2) because these collections can last literally decades, they can provide valuable insights to both students and researchers years and years down the road.
Either Black Bullhead or Brown Bullhead
(very difficult to distinguish & commonly hybridize)
 photographed along our new water control structure,
using a GoPro

As I've mentioned several times before, I am a self-proclaimed "fish freak" -- I can (and do) sit with child-like curiosity every time I get to intimately observe another species. From colors to textures, fin structures to body adaptations, I always marvel at how evolution and ecology intertwine.

Sure, it's my hope that several dozen specimen jars -- and the process by which the collection is assembled -- will spark more fish enthusiasts. But I am perhaps even more hopeful that it will get the gears turning for even more people about how our actions impact our landscapes and how our landscapes impact the life that can be supported.

Unless you are living under a rock, you've likely heard that a recent UN report suggests over 1-million (that's 1,000,000!) species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction -- that's permanent elimination from the planet Earth. Just today, I read of how this loss of biodiversity draws sobering parallels to the 'Great Dying' -- the global extinction of life of some 250 million years ago. (Please consider taking the time to read the two articles linked above for broader context.)

A recent article published in the journal Science also shines light on another sobering (and related) trend, the national and global reduction of protected lands, particularly since the year 2000. These forces are big, they're complex, and frankly, they're scary. At times, they can feel insurmountable. They also strike right at the core of Standing Rush's primary mission. So, in my mind, I have two choices: (1) stick my head in the sand and act like there is nothing wrong, or (2) fight for the mission of Standing Rush while helping to shine light on the broader challenges facing our world. To us, there really is only once choice.

A large Bowfin, or "dogfish" patrolling the waters off our old pump station

Golden Shiner, a relatively "common" member of the family Cyprinidae (the largest group of Ohio fishes)
and an important food source for many larger, predatory game fish

Pumpkinseed Sunfish can easily be mistaken for Orangespotted Sunfish (see top image) and identification is further
complicated by the newly recognized Northern Sunfish (Lepomis peltastes) that just achieved species status in 2013;
all three appear to be present at Standing Rush