Monday, May 14, 2018

Circling Back: Tree Planting -- Kinda Like Eating an Elephant

Shelters are finally getting added to the hundreds of trees we just finished planting -- this photo captures about 75 tubes,
or roughly 7% of the new seedlings to be protected

Recently, a lot of people have been asking, "How do you hand plant over 1,000 trees?" My answer: One tree at a time. In my experience, it's not a project where you can look too far forward or too far back. You are best to get as efficient as you can be, and just keep planting.

My oldest two spent a Sunday afternoon/evening planting
with me -- another 75 trees in the ground . . . 
Two poorly timed rain events -- both big ones -- derailed plans to have school groups come out to assist with the manual labor. If that could have happened, we would have likely been finished in mid-April, likely in 7-10 days. But this is a busy time of year for everyone. So ultimately, it just became most logical for us to hand-plant them ourselves. There is a lot of bending and kneeling involved, two verbs Roy's body doesn't like too much -- especially by the hundreds/thousands, so he contributed immensely toward the site prep, and I focused on the actual planting.

My wife came out twice and helped to the tune of 100+ trees;
it looks like she is in the witness protection program,
but she'll still kill me when she sees this
(she never likes photos of herself)
We also had a few locals pitch in for single days of planting -- which helped a ton. It actually became a bit of a family affair, too, with my wife and kids happy to lend a hand.

I have written plenty to provide the broader context for this project, but here are some specifics that I (and hopefully others) can learn from the next time a similar project is contemplated. (ASIDE: We are slated to plant another 2,800 trees next spring. The stock will be smaller though, and the site conditions are much more favorable, so it should theoretically be a simpler job.)

Species Planted: Pin Oak (200), Swamp White Oak (200), Burr Oak (300), Red Maple (100), Shellbark Hickory (100), Sycamore (100), and Ohio Buckeye (100).

Trees were planted ~12' on center in a random fashion (relative to species), but they were planted in rows (to simplify mowing, spraying, and general maintenance). We did pick a line that was not easily visible from any common vantage point. So from the road, for example, they do not appear to be in rows, but instead completely haphazardly planted. The goal was to plant larger stock, so most were 2-4' tall. The hickories and the sycamores were on the smaller side (some more like 18"), but all looked really healthy.

24" Sycamore, in the ground
<2 weeks and already
leafing out nicely
Because many of the trees had larger, more developed root systems, the nursery (Porcupine Hollow Farm - Central Lake, MI) suggested that we plant into a 6" hole. There is much more to this story, but we ended up drilling about 800 of these holes (~15 deep, on average) using a walk behind Dingo (power auger). Nate -- our intern from last year -- did the first 150-200 and Roy did the rest. We rented the equipment for two full days, and the auger ran more or less continuously for at least 8 hours each day. Some of the holes had to be drilled twice because the heavy rains came before we could get the trees planted in all of them, and the surrounding soil swelled and seeped back into the hole.

Low-lying areas were like working in peanut butter -- at least after the rains -- but the soil itself is surprisingly dark, organic, and workable at this particular site when it's not too wet. We did import 8 cubic yards of very sandy top soil from a local yard to supplement each planting. There was a lot of labor involved (hand-delivering ~1/3 of a 5-gal bucket of topsoil to each hole), but in the end, I think we had a much better finished product. Especially when the imported topsoil could be kept dry, it was great for backfilling around the vulnerable roots such that air pockets could be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced. Void spaces are a main culprit for seedling mortality soon after transplanting, so we got in the practice of (1) pinning each seedling against the outside of the hole -- at the right elevation relative to where it was growing at the nursery; (2) backfilling and compacting loose topsoil under and around the newly placed roots; and, (3) straightening the seedling as we gently but firmly compacted more soil into and over the auger hole using our boots.

Matt, my student shadow from
last week, adding a protective
tree tube
On a good day, with holes drilled and topsoil placed around each opening, I could hand-plant 175 trees in a 10 hour day by myself. I did have an hour or so of prep (e.g., getting organized and wrapping bundles of seedlings in wet burlap to protect them from drying from sunlight and wind). I also had to allow some time for clean-up each day. If in a rhythm, I could plant about 20-25 trees per hour, once I was set up and ready to go.

When I look back on my notes, I spent three full days (8-10 hours) and five half days (4-5 hours) planting from 4/12 - 5/8/18. When the site was just too wet or the temperatures got too high (didn't like planting when it was above 65 degrees), we just kept the seedlings wrapped in moist burlap, loosely contained inside plastic within large cardboard boxes and housed them either in our field office (if the temps stayed below 55 degrees) or in a neighbor's storage room. The neighbor's was preferred as it got warmer outside because it was dark, cool (50ish), stable, and humid (because it was adjacent to a large minnow tank). Ideal storage is 40 degrees and dark, but even though our temps crept up a bit, we didn't have any issues with mold, and nothing started to leaf until it was in the ground. Keeping dormancy is important because it really helps minimize shock to the newly transplanted seedling.

Protection is the next step in this process, and it is no small task. While we are not obligated by our funding partner (NRCS - EQIP) to do so, we are going to place 4' tree tubes over as many of the newly planted seedlings as possible. Despite the high cost (tubes and accessories cost more than the trees themselves), we have purchased enough to shelter all 1,100. These biodegradable plastic structures serve several important functions: (1) they reduce browse from mice, voles, and rabbits from below and deer from above; (2) they conserve moisture and create a greenhouse-like environment to accelerate vertical growth; (3) they hold back competitive weeds from smothering the seedling; (4) they protect the young seedlings from harsh winds; and, (5) they help keep the seedlings growing straight.

Each tube is fastened to a 48" x 1" x 1" pine post that is hammered within 3" of the seedling's trunk (but not through the roots!). The tube is connected to the post using pre-installed zip ties and is capped with a mesh net to prevent song birds from getting trapped inside the plastic (tubes/stakes are common perches and smaller birds think they might make a good place for a nest, but they often can't get back out once they get in). We are also adding a 2' x 2' plastic square (stapled on each of the four corners) to provide extra protection from competing weed growth. Studies have shown that these investments can more than double survival to a mature canopy. Even if 25-50% of our trees survive long-term, we will consider the planting to be a tremendous success.

A young (30") red maple seedling in a newly installed 48" tall "tree tube" by Tree Pro
All this seedling needs is the bird net
on top and it is ready to grow --
1 down, 1,099 to go!

P.S. If you ever want to read more on a particular subject, don't forget about the "Search This Blog" feature on the right sidebar. For example, if you enter "tree planting" into the search box, you can catch up on all posts related to this particular subject.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

BSBO and the Biggest Week in American Birding

Special thanks to BSBO staff, leaders, volunteers, and guests for two enjoyable mornings
afield this past week at Standing Rush

With 1,100 trees now planted, 200+ northern pike to attend to, 140 tree tubes installed, nearly 100 bird species identified, 2 guided birding walks completed in collaboration with the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), and 1 student from St. John's Jesuit HS shadowing me, (in addition to the routine happenings of a typical week at work,) this truly was a "Biggest Week."

One of literally dozens of species of warblers, small 
migratory songbirds that draw birdwatchers to our area 
by the tens of thousands each year
(Yellow-rumped Warbler)
This weekend marks the official end to BSBO's Biggest Week in American Birding festival -- an annual ten day celebration highlighting NW Ohio's significance in a transcontinental migration that pulls hundreds of bird species . . . and now 100,000+ birdwatchers . . . to and through our area. Lake Erie (and all the Great Lakes, for that matter) present quite an impediment for our winged guests, who -- in springtime -- are flying back north from the southern U.S. and even Central and South America to find suitable nesting and summering habitat further north. So our south shore becomes a magnet for large concentrations of all things birding -- birds and people. And as an oasis of food and shelter, the marshes of the Western Basin of Lake Erie become the epicenter.

As readers of this blog may recall, last fall we were the lone recipient of BSBO's conservation fund, an inspiring reinvestment in local, grassroots efforts to protect and improve local habitats that benefit resident and migrant bird populations -- along with the broader ecosystem. These funds come $5 at a time from "Biggest Week" registrations. So again, we say thank you.

Lighting was poor, but it was still exciting to
see this Sandhill Crane -- only the second
we've seen on the ground since we took
possession of the property
This was our first spring as an official participant in a logistical marvel. Dozens and dozens of guided trips are offered to dozens and dozens of diverse locations from Oak Openings to Erie County. Federal and State properties absorb tremendous numbers of birders, but this is also an opportunity for enthusiasts to tour private properties, like ours, that have limited or no access any other time of year.

Photos probably summarize our two morning walks better than my words can. But essentially, the goal was to open the floor to the main attraction -- the birds -- while sprinkling in some of the history and promise that makes our property unique. There was definitely a genuine interest in our restoration activities, and I have to admit, it was a shot in the arm to hear people from all over the country enthusiastically endorse what we are undertaking.

Birders are a rare breed, from my experience. Most revel in the detail and the diversity of their most highly prized subjects, but most also appreciate that they are part of a broader ecosystem. It's pretty tough to have one without the other, so our growing collaboration with BSBO makes a lot of sense. Sure, our guests loved compiling their "list" of nearly 100 bird species seen on the property (not bad for ~10 hours of walking and observing over two spring mornings), but they also appreciated hearing where the land has been and where we hope to take it into the future.

Thursday's group in action -- participants came from as far afield as Texas and North Carolina; in fact, I would say
we had as many guests from out of state (and considerably so) than we did from Ohio
I lucked into some pretty cool composition with this photo; I love the unique bend of the log beneath the on-legged perch
of a bird that is typically most at home standing in mud
(I'm not confident with my shorebirds, but I'm pretty confident that this is a Solitary Sandpiper)
We pulled water off our 40-acre Rest Pond over the last week in the hopes of drawing some shorebird diversity;
these Short-Billed Dowitchers (along with a dozen-plus other species of long-legged guests) didn't disappoint
This Palm Warber winters in Central America or the Caribbean, but it contributes not only to Northwest Ohio's
designation as the "Warbler Capital of the World" but also to stiff necks (see below)
A familiar scene -- not only at our property, but all over the region as spring migrants push north

For those interested in a comprehensive list, here are the 80 species of birds we collectively observed and recorded on one of the two (~5 hour) walks at Standing Rush this past week. I haven't seen the list for the other outing yet, but it was amazing to me how certain species made their presence known one day but not the other. I guess it's a testament to the logic of a biggest week. Truth is, there have been migrants flying through our region for months now, and their will be for another couple months. And just as one thinks migrations north are all wrapped up, birds begin passing back through on their way back to wintering grounds. Upshot is: keep the binoculars and handy.

P.S. Parts of our property were part of what was referred to historically as "Medusa Marsh" (because of the influence of the Medusa Portland Cement Company's plant physically located just to our north at the unincorporated community of Bay Bridge -- just east of Bay View). We aren't even sure what marked the boundaries associated with this name, but for most birders, Medusa Marsh is anything loosely located around our highway exit. People are almost apologetic to use this name for the property; I like it -- it's part of the heritage and history of the land.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Month of Milestones

When one wooden stake represents one new hardwood seedling, one starts to appreciate what 1,100 new seedlings
looks like -- that's a lot of trees! Here is the Tower woods, about half planted (4/25/18)

The last four weeks represent the most physically demanding month in my history with this property. I have not completed a publishable entry here since April 12th. Coincidentally, it was two days earlier (on April 10) that the first shipment of bareroot tree seedlings arrived (unexpectedly early) at our doorstep. It has been a full-court press ever since to work around heavy rains and periods of above-average temperatures to effectively get them in the ground.

So technically, I don't have any one excuse for not keeping current with blog entries -- I have 1,100 of them! But I am happy to report that as of about 4:30 pm yesterday, the entire 5.7-acre site is planted. Now the focus will shift to protecting the vulnerable seedlings (from animal browse, drought, competition/smothering by surrounding weeds, etc.). But more on all that in a pending entry.

While we won't have much time to revel in our success, we did recognize the accomplishment last evening around the dinner table. Jenny, the kids, and I celebrated the milestone as any family of little ones would -- with dessert. I didn't have the energy to make a run out for ice cream, so a raid of the Girl Scout cookie cabinet had to suffice. Once again, I slept hard last night.
Much has happened in and around these tree getting in the ground. So at the risk of giving away punch lines, I've decided that I'm going to try to circle back and write entries for some key happenings over the last four weeks. I can't promise I'll have them online immediately, but my goal is to write a handful of posts to continue to recognize milestones and progress.

Progress on a project like this is kind of like tree planting: one at a time.

More to come soon . . .

Friday, May 4, 2018

Circling Back: Northern Pike at TPS

An awesome GoPro perspective of TPS's fish, two weeks after their move to Toledo (5/4/18); they are about 10 weeks
old in this image and average about 5" in length (although they range from 4-7")

(Written 5/9/18: I have been getting a lot of inquiries as to the status of this project, so I am circling back to provide an update.) Back in early March, I explained how a budding collaboration with Toledo Public Schools Natural Science Technology Center had evolved into an aquaculture project involving the rearing and (hopefully) ultimate release of fingerling northern pike into the waters of the marsh. Here's a progress report.

The tank that I sourced for TPS is a 300-gal, self-contained
recirculating system with an additional 100-gal capacity
for course and enzymatic water treatment
(the two vertical drums to the right of the circular tank)
Step 1 was determining what infrastructure the lab needed to support such an undertaking. The image to the right depicts our ultimate set-up.

Step 2 involved finding a willing and able outside partner, not only to source the fish but to educate us on the finer points of raising pike that are just 3-6" long. Very few hatcheries "tank raise" northerns -- meaning grow the fish indoors. The ODNR has suspended northern pike production entirely (to focus on species that have a broader geographic impact). Private hatcheries and most regional state hatcheries that deal with northerns hatch the eggs and then release the tiny fry into "growing ponds" when they are half the size of a penny (i.e., about immediately). This simplifies the process on one hand in that the developing fingerlings can feed on zooplankton and size-appropriate food items. They are then re-harvested at a target size and stocked into other waterways -- typically in the fall. This method wasn't an option for us, so a fortuitous cold call to the New Jersey DEP, Division of Fish and Wildlife proved to be the break that I/we needed.

I am so glad that I got the opportunity to visit the hatchery in Hackettstown, NJ in person -- not only was the history of the 100+ year-old facility impressive, but so was the modern rearing room that I visited (above, right), where literally hundreds of thousands of northern pike fingerlings were growing before my very eyes 

Step 3 proved to be more challenging than I expected -- namely getting the fish from western NJ the 521 miles to the lab in Toledo. It turns out next-day airing 200+ fish, albeit 3-4" fish, isn't as easy as one might think. And while we thought we had a taxi service setup (capitalizing on a cousin of mine driving through at what seemed to be just the right time), ultimately, I ended up taking a drive myself.

Tyler counting out ~75 fingerlings
into each ~10-gal aerated cooler
Heavy rains had put a hold on our tree planting efforts at the property, so I had to take advantage of my window of opportunity. I left late-afternoon on a Thursday (4/19), got to a hotel within 15 minutes of the hatchery before midnight, and was at the facility gate by 6:30 am to meet an unbelievably accommodating hatchery crew supervisor for a quick tour, orientation, and fish transfer.

My visit was way too short, but I learned a lot in a hurry. I was surprised at how similar their set-up is to what we have now established at TPS. They, too, utilized 300-gal poly tanks. The main differences are (1) their tanks utilize a flow-through system of local, spring-fed water, and (2) they are raising 3,000 fingerlings per tank (not 200 like we are). The good news is, we have room to grow!

We are trying to mimic what they do exactly -- down to the exact auto-feeder and dry feed that we are offering. Seeing this equipment in action not only built understanding but confidence.

I was really overwhelmed at how incredibly friendly, informative, and eager to collaborate my primary contact (Tyler Tressler) and his Hatchery Superintendent (Craig Lemon) were and continue to be. It gives me high hopes that this project will be successful this spring, and hopefully into subsequent springs.

Me with Tyler posing in front of three coolers and 227 fish,
just before departing for a 500+ mile return trip to Toledo
(amazingly, we didn't loose a single fish!)
So, Step 4 has been the really fun part -- transitioning the juvenile fish to their new (temporary) surroundings in the TPS lab. So far, so good. We anticipated up to 20% mortality due to adjustments to new water chemistry. We also have to expect some losses to escape (jumpers) and cannibalism.

The fact is, there is plenty of art to this science, so we have had to feel our way through a bit. But I am really pleased with where things stand as of today. We have lost fewer than a dozen fish to water quality-related issues. We have also eliminated the possibility of casualties due to jumping by making some modifications to the tank. Now, our challenge is to adjust the quantity and frequency of our feeding so that these little buggers will stop eating each other! Man, are they predators. [Aside: Dry feed is offered in very small quantities every 5 minutes, 24 hours/day in the hatchery to try to maximize growth while minimizing the pike's predatory instinct. We are now feeding every 15 minutes, but because we only have ~200 fish in our tank, I am constantly trying to feed enough without feeding too much -- too much leads to deteriorating water quality.]

Most importantly, the students, staff, and even the TPS administration have taken a real interest in the project. To date, the fish have received visits from the Toledo's mayor, local media, and many other visitors to the lab. I said from the onset, even if we end up with ~100 healthy fingerlings to release into the marsh, this first iteration will be a tremendous success. Beyond the numbers, we are connecting dots for people -- how do fish relate to wetlands, and how do wetlands relate to a better quality of life.

We're getting there. We hope to release (Step 5!) in the next three weeks. To be continued . . .

Fittingly, Roy captured this ~24" male northern this past week on the marsh side of our West Pump
(right where I staged the PhotoShop picture in my March 5 post);
this marks the first confirmed pike on the property since we started our work -- it likely came in back in April when
a strong NE storm temporarily pushed bay water over and around our aging pump structure;
it was at the pump because the water temps are probably telling it to head back to the Bay -- pretty exciting

P.S. Here's my first crack at some GoPro video. I plan to do some more to capture feeding behaviors. I'll shoot to post soon!

Friday, April 27, 2018

Circling Back: Starting to Look More Official

One of 76 placards erected on our East
Marsh over the last two weeks  
(Written 5/14/18): While it certainly is still not official, the roughly 8" x 12" signs recently installed along the boarder of our ~200-acre proposed easement area by USDA's contracted survey crew (Hull & Associates), is a very positive step in a very positive direction for our site and our broader mission. The surveyors have been on-site for about the last two weeks, and they wrapped up their work this morning.

I haven't written on this subject since last September, but trust that progress continues to be made as we work with the NRCS to close on our first conservation easement. Now that the preliminary survey work is complete, we anticipate extinguishing any relevant title exceptions to be our last major obstacle ahead of closing.

Again, this will not change the ownership of the land. Standing Rush will still own and manage the property. A conservation easement is merely a legal agreement that forfeits traditional development rights (e.g., building, converting land uses) and insures that what is wetland habitat today will be wetland habitat in perpetuity.

We benefit through the "sale" of the easement, expressed as an agreed upon dollar amount per acre paid by the USDA. The general public benefits because it secures the long-term benefits and functions of this critical ecosystem without having to actually purchase and maintain the land.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Official Green Light on Another Important Improvement

A good perspective of the "before" status
(dare I say, click to enlarge)
Consider this a classic "before" photo: lots of browns and grays, poor lighting, lots of erosion, plenty of debris, and a hodgepodge of makeshift adaptations and management accessories. Except for the most familiar, it seems to exemplify general disarray.

While it has never been a thing of beauty (at least during our tenure on the property), our "West Pump" and the associated infrastructure has served the site well for over 50 years. I refer to this area as the "primary plumbing" for the West Marsh in that it is the direct link between Sandusky Bay and nearly 200 acres of "hemi marsh" -- the mix of emergent vegetation [growing out of the water], submerged vegetation [growing under the water], and open water that we are working hard to improve on the inside of our bayfront dike.

This is a specific area that I've written on before (More Really Exciting News -- 9/29/17, and Inside Priorities -- 12/20/17), but the milestone reached today is that we officially received our Section 404 Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is noteworthy not only because it is the culmination of months of preparation and communication, but it is also critical because it officially permits us to proceed with our improvement project in conjunction with the ODNR Office of Coastal Management and the Erie Soil & Water Conservation District. We hope to have an RFP (request for proposal) out by mid-next month so that we can select a contractor and complete the project this summer. It will be another huge win for the project.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Blue Bill Encore

As a final postscript to my post from this past Monday, April 9th, I couldn't resist reaching out to Toledo Aerial Media after my visit to East Harbor State Park. I had a really nice exchange with one of their co-owners, Phil Myers, and before long, I had him set up to come out to see -- and record -- things for himself.

If you haven't seen their work already, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Either way, enjoy their first-hand account below. Pretty awesome.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Calling All Tree Enthusiasts . . .

Most of the stock we will be planting is currently 2-3' in height;
all are hardwoods native to the immediate vacinity
Well, I'm finding ourselves in a predicament that I was really hoping we could avoid: yesterday, over 1,000 trees were delivered to the marsh three days before we expected them, and now a major rain/wind event is predicted for this upcoming weekend (when a decent number of volunteers were on-deck to help with the planting effort).

Candidly, we are in a bit of a bind.

Bare root seedlings do best if transplanted quickly -- in a matter of days -- and while still dormant. The early delivery is going to make the "quickly" part of this equation difficult. This project was choreographed to begin Friday, not Tuesday, and days matter with this type of work. The evolving (deteriorating) weather forecast and the availability of volunteers (impacted by weather) also introduces complications. The good news is, considering the forecast next week (highs in the upper 40s to low 50s), we should be okay on the dormancy front.

So how can you help? If you live in the vicinity, you may be able to assist in two ways:

(a) If you have access to tree planting hand tools (specifically dibble bars or hoedads), we may be able to utilize them for the next week or so if we can align volunteer availability with suitable weather, and

(b) if you have interest and availability during the work week to assist with on-the-ground tree planting, we could likely use your help. If you have interest in contributing either way, please Contact Us.

If you want more background on this specific project within the broader context of our woodland restoration efforts on the site, see my post from a couple weeks back. As always, thanks for the interest and support.

P.S. 4/19/18 UPDATE -- This past weekend's major storm (3"+ of rain and sustained and strong NE winds) put us further behind the eight ball. For those still interested in hands-on volunteering, we will likely host people this coming Monday (4/23) and Tuesday (4/24). All volunteers must be at least 18 years of age unless accompanied by a guardian. No experience is necessary, and the work does NOT involve any heavy lifting -- just repeated bending, if you are actually planting trees.

We may be able to host some people this weekend (4/21 & 4/22) if we continue to dry out. We will need to continue next week (4/23-27) as weather allows, but rain is once again in the forecast for mid-next week. The marsh is approximately 1 hour east of Toledo and 1 hour west of Cleveland. Come for a couple hours or come for the day. We will give marsh tours for those interested at the end of each work day. Please Contact Us if you have interest and time to help out. Thanks!

Monday, April 9, 2018

A "Spectacular Concentration" of Divers

This afternoon's view of Middle Harbor (just north of Sandusky Bay);
"One of the most spectacular concentrations of ducks I've ever seen in Ohio. . . Unbelievable!" -- E. Moxley

While my family and I were down in South Carolina for spring break (the cause for my ~week absence here), the next installment of "Spring Ducks" was building in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Roy reported "swarms" of blue wings and green wings (teal) along with persistent numbers of pintails, gadwall, wigeon, and shovelers and a typical smattering of other species (blacks, mergansers, etc.) at Standing Rush over the last 7-10 days.

The woodies haven't arrived yet, but that's not unusual, especially considering how stubborn it's been to warm up. One of the only other common species yet to be common thus far this season -- ironically -- is the most iconic of them all: the mallard. We just aren't seeing big numbers. That is strange.

Less than ideal lighting makes these bluebills
(Greater vs. Lesser Scaup) even more
difficult to differentiate
Speaking of big numbers . . . what has become noteworthy has been the diving ducks. We are seeing some in and around our marsh, but just about ten miles to our north at East Harbor State Park's Middle Harbor the "bluebills" have congregated in jaw-dropping quantities and densities over the last few days. While the photo at the top of the post looks like nothing but Greater and Lesser Scaups, there are Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads, and even some Canvasbacks sprinkled in.

While all of these "divers" are accustom to gathering in large groups as they migrate (in spring and fall), this is a regionally significant push of birds. I've come to learn it is unusual when Roy is taken aback in the marsh, and when a 350-acre expanse of recently restored open water harbors an estimated 100,000 birds, it's grounds for being taken aback.

In fact, the quote that accompanies the first caption is from a friend, former neighbor, and long-time Erie County landowner who has seen A LOT OF DUCKS in A LOT OF PLACES. But he has spent a lifetime tracking them along the shores of Lake Erie. His enthusiasm for this specific gathering is telling. There is a natural spectacle underway. Nothing beats seeing it in person, but at least these images provide a taste.

Greater or Lesser? -- I'd say Lesser, but you decide . . . 
P.S. This mass of diving ducks most certainly warranted the detour on my way home from Erie County this afternoon. It was so awe-inspiring, in fact, that I'm trying to coordinate with Toledo Aerial Media to visit the site tomorrow to capture some drone imagery -- before it's too late. They won't stick around forever. I'll update if they are able to capture them from above.

Blue-winged Teal
(two drakes and a hen)
Green-winged Teal
(solitary drake)

Back at Standing Rush 
. . . just a touch of early spring color
(as always, click to enlarge)

Two more bluewings on the feed in our West Rest Pond

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

About Everything But a Unicorn

A beautiful drake Northern Shoveler (1 of 2) contently taking in the afternoon sun
Yesterday's relative warmth (low fifties) and brilliant sunshine made for ideal conditions to observe spring ducks "being ducks" (see explanation from last spring). We are slowly building a library of solid images of each of these visitors. Yesterday helped, as I kept the camera at the ready as we drove the entire property by truck and by Mule.

Dikes were very dry for this time of year. But we knew that wouldn't last long -- there is soaking rain in the forecast for today and for Thursday of this week and the "winter-like pattern" is supposed to return fast and extend well into April (the ten day forecast now shows plenty of 40s, 30s, and even 20s with decent chances of precip and lots more northeast wind -- yuck, I just hope we don't jump from winter to summer and skip right over spring).

So while we checked water levels,  monitored the extent of dike wash, opened and closed some gates, and filled a good number of low spots on the West Marsh dikes (from a strategically positioned clay stash), the camera was never far from reach. As Roy rightly pointed out, the second you don't have the camera is the second you're sure to see a unicorn.

No unicorns yesterday, but I did see (and photograph) plenty of ducks. I can confirm seeing nine of what I consider our "Top Ten" -- all but the wood duck. Pintails were still dominant with decent numbers of shovelers, gadwall, wigeon, and green-wings. I can also add mallards (though not as many as one would expect), black ducks, common and hooded mergansers. Sprinkle in a few individual blue-wings and blue bills, tons of geese, a dozen or so swans, plenty of grebes, and rafts of coots, and there was plenty to observe and enjoy on the water and on the wing. Makes for a nice way to spend a day.

2 of 2 . . .
Just like last year, these guys are
prevalent in the marsh this spring
This drake Gadwall was paying careful attention to his full spring plumage;
unfortunately, all his preening took place behind a curtain of willows
and dead loosestrife
While the Pied-billed Grebe is often overlooked as a non-game "fish eater," I never tire of watching and hearing them;
they are to be commended for tireless fishing/hunting and their shrill call takes my mind right to the water
Poor lighting can't even take away from the beauty of these Northern Pintails
-- as of yesterday, they were still the dominant duck in the marsh
with flocks in multiple units approaching, if not exceeding a thousand
Common Mergansers (females or non-breeding males)
uniquely stationed atop a decaying Phrag root clump
(as always, remember to CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Friday, March 23, 2018


You don't have to be a tree hugger (like my daughter) to help with a significant reforestation effort
taking place at Standing Rush this April

This is a first call for volunteers to help with the planting of more than 1,000 hardwood trees over nearly six acres in Erie County, OH. Preparations for this reforestation effort have been ongoing for more than a year, but we now have a delivery schedule for our new trees!

Dates and times will be finalized soon, but we will likely host volunteers for planting and related tasks on Friday, April 13 and Saturday, April 14 with marsh tours to follow for all those interested. We will likely need additional volunteers throughout the week of April 16. If you are interested, please reach out via the Contact Us page. If you can't join us this month but would like to be involved, there will be ample opportunity for support with ongoing maintenance.

High quality woodlots are painfully scarce in this region of Ohio, particularly within such a short distance of Lake Erie. It will take time, but these efforts will pay dividends!

For some additional backstory on this project, check out:

Step 1 of a Woodlot Restoration
Step 1 of a Woodland Restoration, continued . . .
Treework, Field Mowing & Indian Summer

Also, know that this is the first of two significant reforestation projects that will be taking place at Standing Rush. This year's planting will include 1,100 trees. Next year, we will be planting an additional 3,800 seedlings.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pintails Galore

Drake pintails (with a lone hen hiding in the background); just plain photogenic

I just got back from an annual pilgrimage to extreme northern Minnesota (a very late season ice fishing trip). Seems fitting somehow that I was greeted home by an inbox full of photos of Northern Pintails. Roy has been having some fun while I've been away. While the mercury remains stubborn in the 30s and low 40s for highs with lows often below freezing, the sun continues to gain strength and the day length continues to stretch. Compounded by the shift of daylight savings time, we're definitely in the midst of transition once again. Roy's photographs are a vivid reminder of one big payoff in the marsh that often comes on the heals of a long, tough winter: spring ducks!

Pintails basking on what is officially the
last day of winter
This blog entry is largely going to be a visual tribute, both to the specific waterfowl that dominates these images, but also to all the effort over the last two field seasons that have built to this explosion of life. Quite frankly, this wouldn't have been possible just a couple short years ago. The vegetation simply was not present, so as a result neither were the food options -- via seeds, tubers, stems, and associated invertebrate life.

The congregation of pintails in the image to the left and immediately below are particularly gratifying because this is the Dinky Track, the 100-acre unit that makes up our eastern-most habitat. This area was a largely sterile, almost lunar landscape when we took possession of the property. The dominate physical features were: (1) Phragmites, (2) hundreds if not thousands of massive root clumps from dead and decaying Phrag and loosestrife [still visible amidst last year's vegetation], and (3) open water with little if any vegetation beneath the surface. None of these attributes are apt to attract much less hold waterfowl -- at least in any great numbers or over any notable time period. Already that has changed.
More loafing pintails taking in all the sun can give them

A mix of stately drakes (with the long tails) and less showy but hardly drab hens

Spring pintails on the wing

A comparable aerial explosion out of the West Rest Pond
(second year millet with increasing stands of desirable annuals and perenials)

P.S. I purposefully set this post to go live at 12:15PM on 3/20/18. It is now officially spring! It's also the one-year anniversary of this blog's existence -- my first post was one year ago today, 3/20/17. Man, does time fly!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Collaboration Through a Slimy Fish (well . . . 200 slimy fish, to be more accurate)

While I readily admit this image is "Photoshopped" (not me and the fish, but the two of us and the background),
it is my sincere hope that the project I am undertaking with Toledo Public Schools Natural Science Technology Center
may someday yield these results at the marsh

A Facebook post this evening prompted me to create the deliberately crude mashup shown above: me with a ~42" northern pike (caught and released in Canada a handful of years ago) and the West Marsh Rest Pond (captured on a bright afternoon last summer). While this combination may be far-fetched at present, it was very much feasible in years past . . . and thanks to an evolving collaboration with the TPS Natural Science Technology Center -- and our ongoing restoration efforts -- it may be once again . . . and sooner than some people may think.

While we certainly don't have a perfect understanding of the fish diversity currently utilizing the marsh, I do have some educated guesses based on both observation and training. For those who don't know, I am a self-proclaimed and hopefully never recovered fish fanatic. I love just about everything and anything that swims under the water. So even though we haven't done any quantitative monitoring, I have been paying attention -- since day one. And we do have a good sense for what historically roamed these waters and what currently utilizes other "high quality" marsh environments along the Lake Erie coast.

An early northern pike "fingerling" -- likely 2-3" in length;
even at this size these fish are both predator and prey
So, while I could literally write till I've bored every single one of you to submission about what we've seen to-date and what I anticipate we could see beneath our often murky waters, I'll concentrate this entry on the project at hand: an attempt to collaborate with 20-or-so high school students and their instructor to establish an in-lab aquaculture system to raise and eventually release 100+ northern pike into our marsh in Bay View. We have the support of the Division of Wildlife (ODNR/DOW), the project was just officially given the green light by the school district, the primary infrastructure is ordered and on its way, and we now have the necessary permits from the Department of Agriculture to import and raise the fish.

If all works out, our northerns-to-be are currently incubating in a state hatchery in New Jersey;
the facility is one of very few in the U.S. that tank raise northern pike after they hatch to fry
(which typically takes 8-12 days after fertilization)

So, what is the motivation and what is the process -- at least as we anticipate it? First off, we chose this aquaculture project in an effort to make a tangible link between the classroom and our broader efforts in the field. We could have chosen largemouth bass or yellow perch (or many other species), but these and others exist in fairly robust numbers in and around the marsh. "Northerns," by contrast, are not just one of Ohio's true "apex predators" (meaning they sit atop many fish food chains -- which makes them pretty exciting), but their numbers are also relatively low regionally compared to historical benchmarks.

Don't let their skinny stature fool you -- even at a couple
inches long (the size we hope our adopted fish will be
when we get them), northerns are built to eat
(if you're not really careful, they'll even eat each other!)
Northerns have traditionally played an important role in contributing to the balance of many aquatic ecosystems, particularly in water bodies like Lake Erie and those north of Ohio that historically would have had vast expanses of shallow, nutrient-rich "backwaters" (wetlands and vegetated shallow bays). "Water wolves" or "slimers" (a couple of my favorite nicknames for NP) are voracious predators, but they are also prone to sharp declines if they do not have proper habitat (a familiar refrain in wildlife management).

Coastal marshes serve as a critical lifeline -- providing both nutritious and dependable food and vital protection from the elements. As with many fish, wetlands are a protective "nursery" for northern pike.

In all likelihood, northerns have been seeking this refuge over the last several weeks across the Great Lakes. They are one of the earliest spawners of any of our native sport fish. It is not uncommon for spawning to occur beneath the ice, and it's likely that some are making their way from vast expanses of relative open water (in the main lake) to spawning grounds -- even as you read this.

Timing will dictate how large our
"advanced fingerlings" will be
prior to release -- we're shooting
for 6-inches+
The complexity of habitat they seek should offer vegetation upon which they can adhere their vulnerable eggs. But again, those plants also provide protection from unpredictable winds, habitat for a tremendous diversity of food items, and cover from which the northerns can ambush that same prey. Nature has a way of knowing what its inhabitants need, and for a young northern pike, needs are most certainly met in a fully functional wetland.

To me, that's what's so cool about this project. We are working hard in the field to improve ecological function, and the students (with my help) will hopefully be able to introduce a unique species that will be able to directly benefit from our actions.

Additionally, our primary infrastructure improvement for this field season (the water conveyance structure that connects our entire West Marsh directly to Sandusky Bay and all of Lake Erie) is being designed with "fish-friendly" amenities. We not only want TPS's new guests to be happy when they are introduced in late May or early June, we want to make sure that both they and natural populations will have easy access to and from our wetland for years to come. Fingers crossed that we can get the pieces to continue to fall in place to make that puzzle a reality.

P.S. All the photos beneath my creation at the top were sourced from various state agencies. Speaking of state agencies, if anyone is driving between New York City or eastern New Jersey and northwest Ohio in early to mid-April, and would be willing to be an Uber driver for 200 tiny northern pike fingerlings, please contact us -- I'm still trying to figure out the best way to get the vulnerable young fish from a state hatchery in Hackettstown, NJ to Toledo. We may even be able to pay a driver a nominal fee for helping out!