If you’ve been reading my recent posts, you know that our Platte River Prairies, along with most of Nebraska and the larger region, is in the middle of a drought. The Platte River is mostly dry, groundwater levels and soil moisture are low, and a lot of prairie vegetation is dry and brown. But not everywhere is showing evidence of the drought.
One of our restored wetlands, which we call the Sandpit Restoration, always seems to resist drought impacts. It is located along a creek that goes dry upstream of the wetland, but water starts flowing again right before it hits the wetland restoration site. Regardless of regional rainfall or groundwater levels, I’ve never seen the wetland itself without standing water. It’s almost as if it draws from its own independent (and apparently rich) water supply. As a result, it’s a nice place to hang out when everything else is dry. Nice for me, but even nicer for animals and plants that require wetland habitat!
The 25 acre Sandpit Wetland is the result of about 10 years of staged restoration work that restored an old sand and gravel mining site to a meandering stream channel and adjacent wetlands. Most of the work was pretty simple – just taking out trees and pushing piles of spoil sand into the lake to reshape the habitat. The results have been really great in some ways. We’ve taken advantage of the constant ‘wetness’ of the place and birds, turtles, amphibians, freshwater mussels and wetland plants really thrive in the new shallow water and moist soil habitats.
On the other hand, the connection to the upstream creek and the downstream Platte River has some negative implications. Invasive plants are constantly moving downstream into the restored site, making it nearly impossible to keep up with them. Invasive fish, including mosquito fish and common carp dominate the aquatic community, along with largemouth bass, green sunfish, and a few channel catfish. None of the really neat minnows and other small native fish you’d expect to see are present, despite that habitat conditions looking ideal for them.
Despite those challenges, it’s a special place and there’s more than enough good to outweigh the bad. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that since I’m no longer the one who has day-to-day responsibility for trying to manage the invasive species issues! I just get to wander down to the water and enjoy the cardinal flower, dragonflies, and shorebirds (while conveniently avoiding eye contact with purple loosestrife, Phragmites, cattails, reed canarygrass, carp, mosquitofish, etc. I did just that earlier this week before starting some nearby fieldwork.
Cody and his stewardship crew (our Hubbard Fellows and a seasonal technician) spend a lot of time knocking out the big patches of invasive plants without eradicating the nice areas of diverse native vegetation. Since the invasives are constantly being wiped out and recolonizing, much of the area is dominated by short-lived opportunists like beggarticks, annual sedges, and other rushes and water plants that are good at popping up quickly. Other places seem to resist invasion and have more developed plant communities with lots of perennial wildflowers, as well as prairie cordgrass and large populations of rhizomatous sedges and rushes.
This week, the lobelias and nodding beggarticks were hogging the spotlight. A frustratingly stiff morning breeze made photography challenging, but I still managed to capture some of the gorgeous floral color. There wasn’t any dew to hold insects in place for me, so between that and the breeze, the number of insect photos was lower than what I’d hoped but I tried my best with them.
After spending a lot of time in brownish prairies, it was really nice to be in a place where I had to wear waterproof boots and got my knees and elbows wet when I got down close to the ground for macro photos. Lush green vegetation was all around me, and despite the inclusion of some plants I’d rather not acknowledge, it still felt good. After a while, I finished my wetland photography and climbed just a few feet up in elevation into the adjacent prairies, where I was quickly returned to drought conditions again. There was beauty there too (as seen in my last post) but it was very different than the opulent moisture of the restored wetland. I may never understand why that site stays so wet but I sure am glad it does.