Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Summer "Vacation"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 5, 2019

Another Critical Improvement Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 3, 2019

No Replacement for Hands-On Learning: #TPSProud

Students from Toledo Public School's Natural Science Technology Center (TPS-NSTC) help process the catch from a Fyke net
set at Standing Rush last Friday morning; a voluntary field trip to release fish provided the perfect opportunity to catch fish
(not to mention identify them, hold them, and marvel at their unique physical features and incredible diversity that can
best be appreciated through hands-on learning)

If the first half of May was dominated by birds at Standing Rush (and with the awesome diversity, it sure felt like it was), our migratory visitors on the wing were forced to share the stage with fish during the latter half of last month. Considering that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just recorded water levels on Lake Erie to be the highest ever recorded in the month of May, I guess it's fitting. Whether we like it or not, water, water (truly is) everywhere . . .

This year's northern pike release featured fingerlings
that started off smaller and ended up bigger
(on average) as compared to last year
But lucky for us, so are fish. And thanks to TPS's Natural Science Technology Center -- through an ongoing collaboration with Standing Rush and now Bowling Green State University -- we've just added more than 100 more healthy, happy northern pike fingerlings to the watery fray.

The release took place on a picture-perfect late spring morning late last week. But for the dozen or so students (and dozen or so parents, families, teachers, and adoring fans), it was actually one of the first days of summer vacation. That made the turn-out to Standing Rush even more impressive.

It was truly gratifying and awe-inspiring to witness the enthusiasm. And after another semester of working together, it was wholly satisfying to witness the attentiveness, genuine interest, and passion with which these kids experienced the marsh. Volunteers were eager to pull on hot neoprene waders to lend a hand, to get mud boots muddy, and to zip on life jackets to accompany there carefully nurtured foster fish to their new homes.

Roy returning with a couple happy students and an empty plastic bag, having released a couple dozen more
northern pike fingerlings into the West Marsh
Students were as eager to learn fish identification (as with
this black crappie) as they were to man the 15' seine net
used to catch 
And while releasing fish was the primary focus of the day, we wanted to make sure that we gave these students the hands-on opportunity to do some "sampling" as well. Fish sampling or monitoring goes way beyond capture by hook and line. It is important not only because it provides a glimpse into the diversity of fish species using a specific water resource, it also offers hints on population trends as well as how the environment can be augmented to support either higher numbers, use of the habitat by specific targeted species, or in some cases, both.

Sampling is also very important to this collaboration because (a) follow-up monitoring by BGSU with the hope of recapture of a subset of the released individuals will hopefully shed more light on the reproduction and early development of northern pike that is central to their specific research, (b) because fish monitoring in general can help us better understand how our newly improved connection to Sandusky Bay is improving fish stocks within our specific marsh [and shed light on how similar structures can help fish stocks in similar habitats on Lake Erie and beyond], and (c) because Standing Rush is assisting TPS in building a reference and teaching collection of the fish of Ohio -- I'll write more on this exciting project very soon.

A forth reason fish sampling is important is it's just plain fun. It gives people a unique glimpse into an underwater world that can be difficult to see and appreciate otherwise. And especially for young people, seeing and handling all the different shapes, sizes, and colors can ignite a spark of interest. In my particular case, that spark was fortunate enough to be nurtured into a lifetime flame -- a lasting passion for all things fish.

Here are some more photos from a great day in the field (and in the water) and from the final day in the lab leading up to the release.

Three students made hauling in the Fyke net a lot easier on Roy (foreground, left)
and me (center, top near float)
A captive audience taking in the details about another (temporarily) captive fish

Me with a couple of TPS's most devout fish enthusiasts (both holding nets) with their equally enthusiastic and devoted
instructor, Laura Schetter Kubiak [note all four of us are donning our Standing Rush graphic T's!]

Nate Stott, lead researcher from BGSU, tagging a fingerling northern pike in the TPS lab the day before release

An incoming TPS sophomore helping with fish "tattooing"in the TPS lab last Thursday morning

A newly "tattooed" northern pike at TPS (note florescent dye at base of anal fin)

One enthusiastic bunch -- smiles were broad and fresh stories were already being retold as the students loaded into their vehicles 
and caravaned the 50 or so miles back to their school . . . so close, but in some ways a world away from the marsh

Friday, May 17, 2019

A Week in Review: Historic High Water & A Marathon Mow

The west roadside ditch along SR 269 (right) as it overtook the road last Thursday afternoon; eventually, high water
backed up from a rising Sandusky Bay closed the road in two places between that night and last Sunday afternoon

It has been a volatile (and stressful) week along the lakefront. My post from early March regarding a consistent uptick in water levels over the last few years and particularly over the last few months -- not just on Lake Erie but throughout the Great Lakes -- provides some context . . . and in hindsight, some foreshadowing. Historically high water levels are now front page news locally, regionally, and even nationally.

I feel like I could write a book on the complexity of the situation: not just the variety of environmental factors that directly impact these vast watersheds, but on the layers of scientific research that are grappling with how to make accurate near-term and long-range forecasts. Chapters could also be written on the far-reaching impacts to all those who live and work on or near the lakeshore. These are macro-level forces. They're big, they're vast, and when they are trending into the "uncharted waters" (pun intended) that we find ourselves in now, they are scary.

A shallow excavation reveals the source
of our most pressing issue -- dike breaches
from burrowing muskrats & groundhogs
Roy spent most all of his Mother's Day weekend readying us for the worst and scrambling to react to what Mother Nature was throwing at us. The bayfront stone fortification we did back in March has already proven to be crucial in protecting the main West Marsh, but historically high water levels are now putting physical stress -- in the form of new head pressures -- on portions of the property that would have seemed out of reach just three or four years ago.

We are in the permitting process to rehab the dike that serves as our southern boundary on the west marsh. It is really our last area of significant vulnerability unless water levels just continue to march up (which would have huge impacts not just on marshes but on communities all up and down the southern lakeshore of Lake Erie). This rehab project moved to the top of the priority list about a year ago, as we continued to see water levels and projections tip ever-higher. But until we can get the green light from a regulatory standpoint, we are forced to patch problems as they arise.

High water has caused thousands of dollars in unforeseen damages on this dike in the last twelve months (a few thousand dollars just in the last week). The good news is, we do set aside a "contingency budget" each year because we know to expect the unexpected. The bad news is, we've already about surpassed out budget and it is only May. As water levels surged with three days of sustained east/northeast wind last weekend, we witnessed new leaks forming about as fast as we could repair them. We are holding on -- hopefully until the permits come through and the water starts to recede for the summer. Historically, that trend starts sometime about mid-June. It can't happen soon enough.

The main culprit of our leaks right now (other than the water itself)? Our good friend the muskrat. Because we need to maintain higher water levels within the marsh (to reduce head pressure from rising water outside the marsh), muskrats are given access to new soil within which to dig. And these furry, little excavators are pretty darn adept at digging -- especially when the soils are soft and saturated.

Rats: they can look so "cute" and harmless when basking in the afternoon sun of a dry dike

Sheri Amsel does a nice job depicting what a conventional muskrat "hutch" would look like, say in a pile of decaying cattails. As I wrote on very early on, these water-loving rodents play a vital role in the health of coastal wetlands. However, as they make Swiss cheese of our aging south dike, they risk compromising the very habitat that they depend on -- because if we loose our dike (via a major breach), the water levels within the marsh will surge, the rooted vegetation will be lost, and the muskrat's habitat will go with it. As with so many things in the natural world (especially when human intervention has become complexly intertwined), the balance can be tenuous.

ASIDE: One other side effect of the high water is that we are reluctant to bring a heavy tractor onto our earthen berms to mow. This meant that I got to burn off some of my high-water stress walking behind the 30" deck of our brush mower these last couple days. About eight hours and ~26 miles of walking later, the entire East Marsh has been mowed. I'm a bit sore today, but it feels really good to have this project behind us . . . at least for another few weeks.

Before (left) and after (right) mowing our eastern-most dike. The "before" photo features poison hemlock that was about sternum high.
Now at least we can see if muskrats create any new issues.

Friday, May 10, 2019

One BIG Week

Green heron in full spring splendor
(just outside our field office)
As our official involvement in this year's Biggest Week in American Birding draws to a close, I'd like to again thank the Black Swamp Bird Observatory for its tireless energy and passion, remarkable organizational skills and event choreography, and general professionalism. What has been built in the last ten years is truly something remarkable, and the benefits extend WAY beyond just our feathered friends (not just to other groups of animals [including humans] but to the root of conservation itself).

I'd also like to thank all those who attended Standing Rush's presentation at Maumee Bay State Park and those who took the time to come see us in person. Guests this year again represented a staggering spread geographically (Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana, Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Colorado, and even Ecuador -- just to name some off the top of my head). It was also really gratifying to have a decent number of true locals join our tours this year. As we've experienced in the past, it is a real shot in the arm to realize that people are paying attention to our efforts and that people are genuinely thrilled to see the progress first-hand.

We also received some satisfying confirmation that at least some people find our online ramblings to be not just informative but entertaining. In fact, I was introduced to the term "binge reading" as it relates to this online journal. Again, this is both flattering and a motivation to keep up the good fight.

One of our furthest human "migrants" to visit Standing Rush this week (from Ecuador), chasing swallows on the wing
with his camera when he wasn't helping to guide the group
In our interaction with Biggest Week, tour participants are highly motivated to visit Standing Rush for a unique encounter that's a little different than the traditional bird watching tour: to learn from on-the-ground restoration by experiencing it first-hand. That said it never hurts to have some decent bird activity. Yesterday, in particular, offered that perfect combination. Participants were very much engaged in the restoration stories, but they were equally enthralled by a stunning variety of birds brought in by Wednesday night's south wind (a rare occurrence thus far this spring).

I haven't seen the final list, but our talented guides tallied somewhere on the order of eighty (that's 8-0!) species of birds on the property in under four hours of touring. They were quick to underscore that "it's not about the numbers," but at the same time, we were all in awe that we surpassed 20 species before we even left the area around our field office. If you do the math, a handful of birders witnessed a new species about every 3 minutes for the entire morning on the property. I'll try to post more specifics at some point, but here are some of the highlights that I was able to capture with my own camera. I'm really hoping our guests contribute some of their favorites from their own cameras so that I can share those, too.

Yesterday marked the first time this year that we witnessed the striking Blackburnian warbler; the first three we saw eluded
my camera, but I caught this one, the fourth -- literally minutes before I left for the day (and the rains came)
This northern parula (another warbler) seemed as happy as we were to be out of the wind and in the sun;
I love photographing in soft willows and newly budding trees this time of year
White-crowned sparrows were a dime a dozen, particularly along stone-covered paths yesterday; but it's still pretty
hard to take this elegant "little brown bird" for granted when you get him magnified and in focus
This blue-gray gnatcatcher literally refused to sit still long enough to pose for the camera; we just lucked out and
captured perpetual motion in this fun still
Yellow warblers remain the dominant warbler species on the property (we literally witnessed hundreds yesterday alone),
but this singing female made for a pose I couldn't resist
Speaking of poses, this American tree swallow sat with a companion bird (on the dead-fall in the background) and
just waited for us to get our fill with our cameras
For every one decent image, there were probably a dozen subjects that just never cooperated, as this black-and-white warbler
demonstrates (that said sometimes out of focus can still make for a neat shot)

Sora, typically pretty secretive rails, have been both very reliable to find on and around our southern boundary and
quite cooperative in posing for the camera these last few days
This single row of dogwoods and willows could have kept us entertained all day

Standing Rush on display at Maumee Bay State Park -- thanks, as always, to the growing list of individuals
who are helping to support our mission

P.S. Just because the festival is wrapping up this weekend, the spring migration is FAR from over. In fact, with all the wind and cool weather we've had over the last several weeks, the best could still be yet to come! If you can't get out right away, make sure you check out the newly released documentary on the importance of our region and the coastal marshes along Lake Erie as they relate to bird migrations. As of this morning, it is now available any time from just about anywhere (free) at https://www.wgte.org/tv/programs/flight-path-world-migratory-birds-0. Thank you public media!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Tune In -- FLIGHT PATH: The World of Migratory Birds

Last evening I was able to participate in the private viewing of a new documentary produced locally -- but quite literally filmed internationally -- that showcases the tremendous importance of northwest Ohio as a stopover for neotropical bird migrants who are currently making their way north from their "wintering grounds" in Central America, the Caribbean, and even as far away as South America to their "breeding grounds" in the northern U.S. and Canada.

As I find myself smack dab in the middle of "The Biggest Week in American Birding," I quite simply don't have the time to elaborate much right now. I had about a 16-hour day yesterday and I have to get back in the truck to get to the marsh now.

What I will say is that this one-hour production is the first of what we hope could be as much as a 13-part series. It lays the groundwork for a much broader curriculum that a whole host of talented contributors envision will ultimately educate both the general public and more specifically targeted youth demographics (through companion teaching tools that will be made available for schools).

Episode one will be released locally tomorrow evening (Thursday, May 9th) -- airing on WGTE at 8:00 p.m. It will be available online starting Friday morning and then will be released statewide in the coming weeks. The ultimate goal is to have this first episode, and ultimately the entire series, "picked up" nationally by national public media. This is a story not only worth telling, but worth sharing with the rest of the country (and the world).

Standing Rush has been honored to be involved in this very worthwhile project. Whether your interests lie in birds and birding specifically, or conservation in general, this is a program that will provide new insights and a renewed hope. If you are new to the subject entirely, please consider tuning in to learn just how important our very own backyards are to this incredible story.

UPDATE #1: Initial air times on WGTE --

Thursday, May 9 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, May 10 at 2:00 a.m.
Friday, May 10 at 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 12 at 12:00 a.m.
Sunday, May 12 at 10:00 a.m.

UPDATE #2: Information for those outside of NW Ohio interested in watching should check in on WGTE's website to stream the documentary online. As of today (5/9/19), it is available here.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Moment(s) in the Marsh -- Snippets from a Neglected Trailcam

Check out a new video that we just posted to our YouTube channel -- we just made updates to make it more publically available

When I first contemplated how to begin this blog project over two years ago, one of my first challenges was to come up with a fitting name. Moment in the Marsh came to me pretty quickly actually because I wanted something that would communicate my most fundamental goal -- giving any and all readers the chance to be transported from wherever they viewed their screen to give them a sense, even for a moment, for what it would be like to be in the field that day.

A somewhat rare glimpse of a coyote during full daylight, blurred by hasty
movement across the camera's view (click to enlarge)
My writing offers some additional opportunity to inform readers with context. The written word provides a venue to communicate challenges and lessons learned and/or simply allows me to journal (something I hope I can look back on years from now to appreciate even more). But it became pretty clear pretty fast that what readers really want to see -- understandably -- are the photographs. Short of being there in person, they really are indispensable as a means to communicate current conditions. Plus, they just convey life in their own unique way, especially when plants and animals are involved.

That's what makes this post so fun. Late last week, I came across a trail camera in our West Marsh that had a memory card that hadn't been fully downloaded in a while -- as it turns out, a long while. The files that I accessed this past fall where in one folder, but there was another folder with a mysterious name. When I clicked it open a couple days ago, I discovered that it had several THOUSAND images from the same vantage point, dating from just before Christmas 2017 through late May 2018. That's several thousand moments; and they all help tell a story.

One of my favorites of a doe in early spring light;
note that she's not alone
(click to enlarge)
A snapshot of nearly every day was photo-documented over this ~five month season. Not surprisingly, many of the stills are simply shots of passing deer, solitary birds flitting past, or grasses blowing in the wind. In all, the list of mammals included not just whitetails, but coyotes, red fox, raccoons, opossums, mink, squirrels, mice, and even a feral cat. Bird species included cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, song sparrows, marsh sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, catbirds, and yellow-rumped warblers. The cattails, reed canary grass, dogwoods, and lesser-dominant plant species transitioned from snow-covered and dormant to lush and green.

None on this list is particularly noteworthy. Most sightings are actually fairly common. The collage above was assembled for a different reason: I was drawn by the tremendous diversity of visible life that was attracted to one solitary downed limb (toppled by wind and then cut by chainsaw). Starting with a common fox squirrel, I counted twelve species of birds and mammals perched on this woody lookout over just five months. In fact, I counted a fox squirrel -- maybe the same fox squirrel -- on 46 days out of roughly 150. Seems this little critter likes the view at Standing Rush as much as I do.

Even by early July, the familiar vantage point looks pretty markedly different than it did back in December (or any time in
the winter or spring, for that matter); the max temp (in the direct sunlight) is also a pretty sharp contrast from the lowest
recorded temp on this camera series (-12 degrees F) on a snappy overnight in late January