Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Different Type of "Quad" (This Ain't No MULE!)

Pause the video above a few times as the drone gains elevation (particularly between 0:07 and 0:37). The color contrast in the vegetation below is not only neat to see, it's valuable from a management perspective.

Since very early on in this restoration project, I saw the value of a bird's eye perspective on the marsh. All the way back in July 2015 -- just after taking possession of the property -- a friend and neighbor of one of my brothers (who happens to be a professional videographer and drone enthusiast) offered to come "fly the property." The fifty or so photos and couple dozen short videos that we captured that calm Saturday morning were eye-popping then . . . and have been unbelievably useful ever since.

The raw footage above is one of my favorites. I particularly love the ~30 seconds of footage that starts at or about 0:07. Not only is the marsh incredibly beautiful when looking straight down starting from about 25-feet, the story that unfolds is extremely useful from a technical perspective. If you pause the video at 0:10, you start to see why I get so excited.

Bryan Ellis of TPS getting acclimated on our main West dike
(pun very much intended) with the school's drone --
equipped with a thermal imaging camera
The individual sprig of mint green among the sea of dark green is a hint. (Sorry, I'm a guy, so my color palette is a bit more limited than an Eddie Bauer catalog. I digress . . .)

As the drone gains elevation and the color contrast becomes more apparent, a trained eye can not only easily differentiate the color, it can also identify the plants! In this simplified case: dark green = broadleaf cattail (a desirable cornerstone plant in our region) and mint green = Phragmites (a monstrous invasive we are tirelessly trying to fight back). So in one ~1:30 video, we confirmed an initial hunch: drones can help confirm what we are seeing on the ground and offer a unique perspective to provide valuable management direction.

All of this makes a lot more sense when you realize that one of our primary tasks each summer is to "map" vegetative cover -- essentially, determine what's growing, where. This is important for a whole host of reasons. It can be done (and very effectively, I might add) the old fashion ways -- in the brain (through on-the-ground, in the wader, or in the punt boat) observation . . . that can then be transcribed to crude pencil sketches and field notes. And it can also be done in much more technical ways.

Yesterday, I hosted an instructor and friend from Toledo Public School's Natural Science Technology Center -- an established component of the new Aerospace & Natural Science Academy of Toledo (ANSAT). First and foremost, Bryan is an extremely passionate and enthusiastic person (which I love). He is also extremely talented and knowledgeable in a wide array of subjects that are very relevant to what we do at the marsh. One of his many talents: a drone pilot. So yesterday, we set two goals. First, we wanted to give Bryan a basic tour (somehow, this was the first time we were able to lure him out!), and secondly, we wanted to get the bugs worked out so that we could try using their program's extremely hi-tech "quad" to prepare a thermal fingerprint of the entire property. Each color will theoretically help us map individual plant species.

Vegetative polygons overlayed atop an aerial of the marsh;
in this case, red would mean spray and green would mean don't spray
I am running low on steam myself right now, so I'll have to elaborate on this on a future post. But the punchline is we need to prepare a visual similar to the one above within the next few weeks. Each shaded "polygon" will correlate to a unique string of coordinates that can then be uploaded into an on-board computer to guide a helicopter as it systematically sprays only the areas we shade and tell the computer (and linked sprayer) to mist with herbicide. The areas could be a couple hundred square feet up to several acres in size over the 500+ acre site.

We did this back in 2015 (combining my brother's friend's traditional drone images and the old fashion ground-truthing techniques) and it worked pretty darn well. We're going to see if we can improve on things with this fall's spraying campaign via our collaboration with TPS. Thank you, Bryan! Should be fun!!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Back to Business

Other than lots of leaves, an electrical mess, an empty gas tank, and a bunch of bird poop, the MULE
wasn't too much worse for the wear -- it's now back in business

Miraculously, our Kawasaki MULE has been recovered . . . and only ~1,000' from where it was brazenly hot-wired and stolen from our shop a month or so ago! "Good neighbor" vigilance lead to an early morning text to Roy -- the UTV had been spotted in a neighboring woodlot, driven (or perhaps pushed) into a thick tangle of dogwood and wild grape less than a quarter mile from our shop. After a call to the sheriff, it was ours to tow home.

I'll spare you all the gory details, but suffice it to say we weren't expecting this. I had already settled with the insurance company, and was resigned to eating a few extra thousand dollars of losses, even after the "replacement" check had cleared. I spent the better part of three weeks scanning Craiglist, Ebay, and other online forums for resale -- both shopping for a replacement and holding out (fading) hope that I might stumble upon our beloved ride.

Even after the recovery (which happened a week ago now already), my communications with the sheriff's office continue -- as they press on to pursue other items that were stolen. Amazingly, the neighboring marsh was broken into just last week. A day or two later, nearly a half million dollars worth of similar equipment was just recovered in Wood County (none of it seems to be ours).

It's a sad state of affairs when you need to convert a conservation project into Fort Knox. But we've definitely had to change our tact. Motion lights are installed. Cameras are now in place. Alarm systems are poised, and locks are now fortified. Anyone highly motivated enough can get into about anything, but we now have a much tighter line of defense.

I feel like the UTV recovery has allowed me to turn the page a bit. It's been a rough month. But now, the insurance check has been returned. The minor damage to the vehicle has been repaired. We are back to management and back to tours. Thankfully, I'm feeling more ready to get back behind the camera . . . back to writing . . . back to business.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Tough Week

Dad surprised me the spring of my freshman year in college when he arrived to pick me up with his boat and motor in toe. We spent a week together fishing our way home, through Minnesota and Wisconsin. We caught a ton a fish, had a TON of laughs, and ate a ton of burgers and coleslaw. It will be a memory that I will hold with me forever.

Last week will be a memorable one: it started with the peaceful passing of my 85 year-old father -- a tremendously consistent and positive influence in my life -- and evolved into a blur of family gatherings, community outreach, laughter, and of course, tears. Many of my siblings, in-laws, and nieces and nephews were privileged to be with him or very nearby as he took his last breath.

A newly acquired Hospice bed allowed him to pass where and how he always wanted -- in his home, surrounded by family, overlooking his beloved backyard. Mom was at his side. Fittingly -- considering Dad was my introduction to my passion for fishing and my mentor in loving all things outdoors -- I was getting some fresh air and was taking a few quiet casts on the dock just below his window as he died.

It has been a roller coaster of emotion.

Two days later, as I was driving to the marsh for a couple important meetings with potential contractors for our collaboration with Coastal Management, I got more tough news. Our field office and adjacent shop were burglarized on Monday night (June 25) or early Tuesday morning (June 26). 

The loss of this vehicle goes beyond its monetary value;
if you know of anything that might be able to lead to its
recovery, please contact the Erie County Sheriff's Office
(all tips can be made anonymously)
The perpetrators did their dirty work sometime between 6PM and 8AM -- likely in the cover of darkness. They knew what they were after . . . not only did they hot-wire and steal our Kawasaki MULE (our four-wheeler), they took a smattering of power tools, hunting gear (decoys/waders), and other miscellaneous equipment. Tracks through our adjacent field showed that they drove the UTV south from the property, but where they ended up is anyone's guess.

It was a shot in the gut -- especially considering the timing. Of our tangible losses, losing the vehicle will be the hardest pill to swallow. Despite insurance, we will be out thousands of dollars . . . and the time and inconvenience to rebuild and refortify. Maybe the biggest bummer though is that our trust and security has been compromised. We will do all that we can to make sure this doesn't happen again.

[NOTE: The Erie County Sheriff's Office asked that we post about this break-in. If you are local and can pass along any tips -- either regarding this burglary or any other local criminal activity -- they will take your information seriously and pursue it to the fullest extent that they can.]

This morning, I have to admit, I am still feeling pretty numb. I feel like a dish rag that has been repeatedly dunked and squeezed almost to dry. It is tough to refocus, especially with a mid-week holiday, but I think I'm ready for something closer to routine. Life marches on.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

FOR SALE: Alweld Jon Boat/23 HP Mud Motor/Trailer - $6,000

This set up would be ideal for excursions on rivers, lakes, and backwaters. It has an open hull design
(bench in the front and one in the back), so it can be easily customized

Attention Hunters, Fishermen, & Marsh Enthusiasts: We have decided to sell our larger Jon boat, motor, and trailer!

The package includes the following:

  • 2015 Alweld Jon Boat (Model #1542SS: ~15'L x 42" W)
  • 2015 Backwater 23SS SWOMP Classic long tail mud motor (23 HP: Made in USA)
  • 2015 Yacht Club Trailer (Model 1612)
  • Accessories: 2 safety keys, factory external fuel tank, grab bar (never installed) 

These motors are not only versatile -- they are tons of fun! This rig can fly over water just a few inches deep, and the
guarded prop is designed to bounce harmlessly over logs and rocks as you go
All items purchased new in July 2015 from dealer in Fenton, MI. List price of entire package exceeds $7,000. Fewer than 20 hours on water. Winter stored indoors.

Exceptional setup, just too large for our needs (needed to down-size to better accommodate some of our marsh management tools). Too nice to use as a straight work boat.

Want to get excited about these motors? Check out:

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Classic Mantra of the Modern Environmental Movement: Think Globally, Act Locally

Inside the Old Woman Creek State Nature Preserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitors Center
-- Huron, Ohio; less than 20 miles east of Standing Rush
Photo courtesy Deb Platt &

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time – often time when truthfully, I should be asleep –brainstorming on how to make our efforts on Sandusky Bay more relevant to a larger/broader audience. Since this project’s conception, I have dreamed of ways to ignite grassroots passion by building local buy-in to ultimately magnify it locally, regionally, and even globally.

When I allow myself to “think big” this way, I envision a multi-use facility on or near our project site that could potentially serve multiple complementary purposes:
(1) offer interpretive learning to make wetland preservation tangible and relevant;
(2) host target audiences – in my current thinking, particularly 10 to 20 year-olds – who, independent of their backgrounds or future professions, will have a significant and lasting impact on the future of wetlands and other natural areas, as the future stewards of our communities and our planet;
(3) serve as a hub for hands-on learning and field research;
(4) provide fitting refuge for a broad smattering of outdoor enthusiasts – birders, photographers, fishermen, hunters, and trappers (to name a few); and,
(5) house the managers who will continue to steward this specific land well beyond my time on this unbelievable blue marble.

Note signage for "Ecological Wetland,"
just down river of the Ipo-ri damn on the Han River,
Ipo-ri, Geumsa-myeon, Yeoju-gun, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Photo courtesy of C. Dziubek
I don’t know if this facility will ever come to fruition – or even if it needs to. As I lay awake at night, I recognize that there are plenty of worthy organizations pursuing similar ends just on the drive from Toledo to Cleveland. All are a little different, but all are important. And all are part of a much broader network of entities around the country and around the globe that are working to emphasize the importance of wetland habitats.

I have really found myself thinking globally recently. I have fallen asleep the last few nights reading a Handbook on Best Practices for the Planning, Design and Operation of Wetland Education Centres. (Who knew such a publication would exist much less be accessible from my couch?) The handbook is “organized by” the Ramsar Convention Secretariat – as in Ramsar, Iran. It is “prepared in collaboration with” the Environmental Ecosystem Research Foundation (ERF), Republic of Korea, with financial support from the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Korea.

"Visitor Village" at Brockholes Nature Reserve -- Preston, England
This is truly a global endeavor . . . it is written by team of professionals from around the planet who have real-world, practical experience. The various sections of the handbook all strike a chord with me for various reasons. But what really has stuck with me over the last day or two is how similar we all really are: it doesn’t matter if we are in NW Ohio or Sub-Saharan Africa, the depths of a South American rain forest or the peaks of western Europe – we all need clean water, and a subset of every population is trying to figure out how to make (or keep) clean and reliable water – and all life that relies on it – a priority.

Two quick global anecdotes that may help tie the importance of wetlands back to current events:

First, my brother-in-law has loyally served our country both in active military and civilian (reserve) capacities for his entire career. Over three decades, he has made marked professional advancements in large part because of his hard work, dedication, and unwavering critical thinking (among a much longer list of positive attributes). Earlier this spring, he was in South Korea. I don’t know – or need to know – the particulars of why he was there. But as with all of his foreign tours, I slept well knowing that he was working to be a voice of reason and peace in our world. It only seemed fitting that he texted my wife and me the photo enclosed here (click to enlarge the image above to read the road signs). As foreign and complex as the issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula might feel – we are united in a common recognition of the importance of wetland habitats. I found hope in that reality.

A satellite perspective of Kaliningrad Stadium (Kaliningrad, Russia),
constructed to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, was built atop October Island,
the last natural wetland in the region
CNES 2018, Distribution Airbus DS via AP, File
My second anecdote is less uplifting, but just as relevant. It is “torn from the headlines” of the World Cup, which is currently being hosted in Russia. My boys in particular are riveted to the TV whenever we let them watch, but as with any major sporting event (e.g., pick most any Olympics), there is so often an environmental cost. I was pretty disheartened to read this article from -- World Cup Stadium Built Over Russian City’s Last Rare Wildlife Habitat.

We have made great strides, just in the last several decades, to put priority on our finite environmental resources. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

[ASIDE: I have adopted a common refrain voiced from agencies and advocates in and around Ohio who reference “more than 90% loss” of wetland habitat along Lake Erie’s western shoreline since European settlement. (Truth be told, the same statistic unfortunately holds true statewide.) Usually, when I explain that the habitat 150 years ago was larger than the Everglades, it gets people’s attention. But yesterday, I heard it perhaps explained even more powerfully. If the Great Lakes experienced “more than 90% loss” of the lakes’ water itself, everything except Lake Ontario would be bone dry. Think about it: Lake Superior AVERAGES nearly 500’ deep! If we lost 90%+ of our fresh water, do you think we’d be calling it a catastrophe? In my mind, losing 90%+ of the kidneys that protect our Great Lake is not much less alarming.]

Friday, June 15, 2018

13 Special Trees/Happy Father's Day

I noticed last week that the new Tulip Tree just to the left of our entrance
door has already stretched just past the peak of our roof 
Last fall, I wrote a post that alluded to a pretty special addition to our property -- 13 special additions, more accurately. The thirteen large trees planted last November at the entrance to our field office -- or "bunkhouse," as we often affectionately refer to it -- provided some welcomed and tangible benefits right out of the gate: improved privacy from the sometimes loud and surprisingly busy rural highway nearby, a visual softening of the landscape immediately surrounding the building, and a promise of much-needed and much- appreciated future shade . . . at least once the leaves emerge again in the spring (in the case of the hardwoods).

Well, emerge they have . . . And so now it's time to tell the rest of the story. These beautiful trees are not just another tree planting project. They were made possible by a handful of generous donors (who have asked to remain anonymous).

Yesterday, Roy and I -- with the unexpected help of last year's intern, Nate -- placed posts and placards at the base of the first ten trees. My goal was to start to recognize some of the many people who either (1) have loved this marsh over the years, (2) have helped protect this special place, or both. Thirteen trees is hardly enough, so my apologies to anyone who has yet to be formally recognized. Trust that I have plans for more trees -- and more placards!

But I thought it important to start to identify some of the individuals and families who have been stewards of this land . . . and to recognize those who have served as models of stewardship as significant positive influences in my life. Thanks to all who have contributed to this collective effort. As I say nearly every day and have said since the beginning of this project, I feel blessed to be able to see and experience this story as it continues to unfold, one chapter at a time. Again, we look forward to enjoying the solitude and the protection that these trees can provide for years and years to come!

This species holds a special meaning for me personally -- there is a uncharacteristically broad specimen just outside
the kitchen window of the first house my wife and I bought just before we were married; I also planted two on 
the hill beneath  my parents' home when I was just out of college . . . they are growing happily alongside 
many others in the nearby woods and both are now 50'+ tall
Mom & Dad:
heartfelt thanks for all that you have done for me, and now my family, along the way --
Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Cocktail Sauce Anyone?

No doubt about it: these guys were clearly shrimp from the moment I laid eyes on them
(the two facing off here -- on our kitchen counter top -- are probably just under an inch long -- "nose" to tail)

Earlier this week, I had the thought to throw a dip net and clean five-gallon bucket into the truck before heading out for a (FINAL!) day of tree sheltering. I knew I wouldn't have a lot of time, but I wanted to do a little "critter-getting" of my own at some point during the work day.

The weather was ideal -- low 70s with a light NE breeze, which made long-sleeves viable all day long. About perfect June in my book. And the day was productive -- not only did I get the final ~75 tree tubes installed, but our neighbor also got the first mowing finished around the 1,100 newly planted hardwoods.

[As a continued aside: The newly planted woodlot looks amazing (photos to come), and more importantly, (1) the trees look happy and (2) our USDA/NRCS partners are satisfied. I got the final tools and remnant materials put away just as the State Forestry representative stopped by to officially sign off on a successful initial planting. Good news. We should receive a modest financial reimbursement in the next couple weeks.

At any rate, I spent the balance of my day planting and sheltering some surplus oaks that I have been babying in the bunkhouse -- stashed in a cool, dark corner in cardboard boxes. We'll see what happens there, but if any of the couple dozen trees make it, it will be a few hours well spent.]

Note the characteristic morphology of their saltwater
cousins; also notice the dark mass in the individual
in the upper right corner
(click to enlarge)
As the sun started its initial afternoon decent and I realized I would need to be getting cleaned up and on the road, I remembered my net and bucket. The plan was to spend ten minutes at the bunkhouse dock trying to gather enough small minnows to feed the four northern pike that we are "adopting" for the summer (carryovers from our TPS efforts that we are trying to grow out in an 80-gal aquarium in our basement so that we can show the kids some larger fish next fall).

What I found -- pictured here -- was all together unexpected. The handful of "young of year" bluegills was far outnumbered by a quick couple dozen freshwater shrimp. Shallow scoops on the sparsely vegetated shoreline produced several nearly-transparent but still very familiar looking crustaceans in each net. It was only their nearly clear form and telltale "jumps" (produced by a quick flick of the tail) that made them difficult to quarantine in the pail. Considering that I covered 20 square feet of a 10+ acre expanse of water (which is part of a 185+ acre marsh), I can't even imagine how many of these critters reside with us.

Maybe equally miraculous to the find in the water, one simple Google search on my phone from the shoreline for "freshwater shrimp + Sandusky Bay Ohio" yielded these results: Notes on a Sandusky Bay Shrimp, Palaemonetes Exilipes Stimpson. This is a 1907 publication from The Ohio Naturalist, a related publication to the Ohio Journal of Science that is now tied to The Ohio State University's institutional repository. Gotta love Google.

You can read up on this species and know as much about them as I do. I'm hoping to learn more about their natural history (e.g. native range, diet, maximum size, place in the food web, etc.). Roy tells me he thinks of them as a positive water quality indicator. Hopefully, that's the case. If I had my guess, they are a filter feeder that subsists largely on plant material and planktons of various makes and models. I have heard of freshwater shrimp generically as "ghost shrimp" for visually obvious reasons, but I'm curious to know more about the dark mass that is visible in some of the larger individuals (see above). I could see it being food, internal organs, or an egg mass.

Fifteen of them, or so, now reside in our basement aquarium -- at least until the northern pike figure out what to do with them! Good news is, there seem to be plenty more where that came from.

A shot of the shoreline where I caught the shrimp (taken just after sunset about a month ago) --
my camera never seems to fully capture the in-person beauty of a marsh sunset

Thursday, May 31, 2018

R.I.P. "Beast"

This 60-second video clip demonstrates not only how hardwired northern pike are to be voracious predators, it also shows how one 8" fish can quickly capture the imagination -- not only of a high school student, but really . . . of anyone who is willing to marvel at this amazing creature's innate ability to hunt and grow.

The fish recorded here was affectionately called "Beast" in the TPS lab. At the time of this filming, it was just 10 weeks old. Isolated for its proclivity to eat its neighbor (even if it was the same species), Beast's aggression and appetite ultimately became its downfall. Record-setting heat late last week coupled with too many emerald shiners in the tank (going belly-up before they were all eaten) led the water to sour. It was a loss for the lab, but taught yet another lesson.

A handful of fingerlings were held back from the release earlier this week. As surrogate "parents" for the summer months, my kids and I will house them in our basement. The tank was set up last evening. The goal will be to keep at least a couple pike alive and grow them as much as possible until they can be returned to the TPS students next fall. The biggest challenge will be keeping them well-fed enough that they don't eat each other! Something tells me my 10-year-old son is up to the challenge.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TPS Proud -- Northern Pike Release: The Final 65 Miles!

A successful aquaculture project can be measured in healthy fish, but in our case, it can also be measured
in broad smiles and a hands-on introduction to the marsh . . . for all those involved

Back on February 28th, several dozen mature northern pike -- both females and males -- were collected on an unseasonably mild, early spring afternoon from Budd Lake in northern New Jersey. Housed in holding troughs, they made what must have seemed to be a lengthy (and bumpy) ~6.5-mile commute to a state hatchery and rearing facility in nearby Hackettstown.

These early spawners would serve as the broodstock for tens of thousands of fry that began hatching on March 8th at the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife's Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery. While our planning started well before, this is where a unique collaboration was born -- quite literally. Within this multitude of growing fish was a very small subset of young fingerlings that would soon be making a much more lengthy over-the-road journey -- another 521 miles to Toledo Public School's Natural Science Technology Center.

Some might consider these guys the stars of the show . . .
they were obviously important, but the true stars
are pictured below
Earlier posts document how this diverse partnership grew and evolved, but yesterday, as we successfully released 150 healthy, happy 5-6" northern pike fingerlings into the marsh at Standing Rush, I couldn't help but think of those first 6.5 miles. Because between 2/28/18 and 5/29/18, our little northerns traveled no fewer than 592.5 miles by road -- with the final 65 miles being via escorted caravan to their new home along Sandusky Bay.

Some might think that's a lot of fuss for a few bags of fish. But for those involved, I think yesterday brought consensus that there was a "greater good" at play. The students not only handled the media and agency representatives with grace, they got to get their hands dirty -- again, quite literally -- in the marsh. To me, that's what this is all about.

Some of my favorite "moments" from yesterday, in pictures:

Three dozen northerns (and one student) -- all eagerly awaiting an introduction to a new home

Release #1 (first of four locations where fingerlings were released over ~185 acres of Standing Rush's West Marsh)

Always cool how every release brings anticipation and excitement

Special thanks to (left to right): Laura Kubiak (TPS Wildlife & Sustainability Instructor) and ODNR, Divisional of Wildlife representatives Travis Hartman, (Lake Erie Program Administrator) & Kevin Kayle (Fish Hatchery Program Administrator); not only was ODNR administratively supportive, they also took the time to be with us in person to support the kids’ effort

Ms. Laura Kubiak (back, left in sunglasses) with six of her proud students
just prior to the final release

NOTE: These students were so invested in this project, that they came to Standing Rush on one of their first full days of summer vacation. Quite a group.

P.S. Thanks to WTOL (11)/WUPW (36) for their coverage of our efforts yesterday on their evening news. Keep an eye out for additional coverage via other local media outlets. We appreciate good news being made newsworthy!

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+ 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.