Water words and tiger tales

beetle larvaOver 100 years ago, there was no quarry here on these 50 acres. Cranberry Run was a meandering trickle. When the digs and blasts began, this place’s namesake was one of several in these parts. Over time, most closed or consolidated operation. Springs kept the abandoned holes filled. People and animals fished them. Picnics were eaten on the shores.

Before his body failed him, my dad spent a lot of sticky hot summer time rebuilding a stone wall between our quarry and Cranberry Run. This happened nearly 50 years after human hands and earth movers stretched, straightened, and deepened the natural engineering of the stream to push water through various townships to others downstream. The quarry was opened to heavy sediment loads forced through via the Run. Over the course of 50 years, the quarry depth went from 20 feet at its deepest point to no more than four of water and muck.The Quarry

As soil, grasses, and trees further rooted the wall, the quarry began to change again. Aquatic plants, their seeds held for generations in the floodplain, took root beneath the water’s surface. Some are rare, others not so much, but most are native and blooming to attract pollinators and migrating birds to shelter among the green.

unnamed.jpgTwo weeks ago, heavy rain flooded the quarry. Kayakers paddled through the preserve, weaving through trees well above the Run’s banks. The footbridge floated, held fast by heavy chains, thanks to Engineer Dave Seitz’ design. After the flood wave crested and rolled north toward the Blanchard, I kayaked under it and on to Riley Creek, past the 20170513_141555absent M-6 bridge, Putnam Aggregates and the Riley Creek United Methodist Church. The banks were surprisingly clear of debris, with one exception on the east bank in Riley Township. There, an old car follows a wave of cans and other discards toward a detonated washing machine on the bank below.

About a month ago, the water in the quarry was crystal-clear. You could lean out over the bank and watch spring life move in and out of the sprouting aquatic plants, except for those areas that were wriggling black with toadpoles. You could reach in and pick up handfuls of the fry if you wanted to. Steve used a dip net instead, keeping several in a five-gallon bucket to show to visitors at Lima’s Faurot Park Earth Day celebration.

20170502_201309_LLSThe week before that, Steve came back to the house with a bucket of fairy shrimp in quarry water. I love to watch these tool in healthy circles, especially since their presence tells me that the wetlands are doing such fine work sponging sediment and impurities in the floodplain. The pools did such a great job that the bucket also contained a salamander larva with waving spaniel-ear-gills, and a predaceous diving beetle nymph.

My dad would have been so excited to see the contents of this bucket. His artist’s eye would note the analogous brown and gold patterns of the amphibian skins and the scarlet jaws of the young beetle. The latter is nicknamed “water tiger.” You don’t have to spend much time to understand why. Steve said he started up the path between the quarry and home with 10 toadpoles. At the door, there were seven left.

After lots of people oo-ed and ah-ed over the catch, we released them. Though many were surely washed away, we know that quite a few are still there. Grown frogs and toads sing through the nights. Great blue herons, raccoons, and ducks feast in the shallows while perched raptors wait for their one false move.

 

at the root of the problem, something wonderful

P1020028As a race, humans have found a lot of ways of saying that no matter what — somewhere, somehow — there’s a little bit of good in every bad situation: it’s an ill wind that blows no good, every dark cloud has a silver lining.

As it turns out, what we found out here at The Quarry Farm, there’s truth to be found there. But first, a little bit about bush honeysuckle.

In the early 1970s, before anybody was paying attention, it was common knowledge that planting honeysuckle was a good thing, particularly if you wanted to attract birds. And while there are honeysuckle species native to North America, more than a few that aren’t were allowed to proliferate. Morrow’s and Amur honeysuckle were particularly popular for their dense foliage and bright red berries and now particularly troublesome as two of the most invasive species of honeysuckle unadvisedly planted. Both can grow as tall as 15 feet and both are monoculture plants; they crowd out everything  around them and nothing grows beneath their spreading branches. There’s even evidence that they engage in chemical warfare, releasing toxins into the soil to kill off any competition until there’s nothing at the base of these plants but bare soil. While they typically don’t do well in shaded environments, preferring to grow at the verges of woodlands, both take advantage of any disturbance in the upper story of a woods to move in and establish a fortified foothold at the first opportunity. And while it’s true that birds love their bright red berries, they offer little in the way of nutrition. Sure, they brighten the feathers of cardinals and the burning breasts of robins, but they’re junk food, the natural equivalent of candy bars and potato chips.

In short, they’re a nightmare for any organization or agency working to develop or maintain native habitat. And they’re here on The Quarry Farm in numbers too vast to count. We’ve adopted a multifold approach to getting a handle on this problem, but the most effective method is to simply pull them up by the roots whenever and wherever it’s possible.

Recently, we accepted an application from Emma, a first-year student at Antioch College, to assist us in our many efforts. One of her primary responsibilities is to help control bush honeysuckle on The Quarry Farm. Right away, we put her to work, yanking up the pest.

And here comes the silver lining.

P1020031Emma set to work first along the Cut-Off, a man-made wetland created when the county opted to straighten the stream in the 1960s, thereby isolating what was once an oxbow in Cranberry Run. At the end of her third day, while making her way back to her temporary home, she stopped to pull one last medium-sized clump of honeysuckle…and found a salamander nestled beneath its roots.

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To say the least, we’re thrilled. It’s a wonderful start to what we know will be a productive 10 weeks.

Thank you, Emma, and welcome.

Signs

I woke up this morning with this in my head:

[In Just-]
by e.e. cummings

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

it’s
spring
and
the

goat-footed

balloonMan whistles
far
and
wee

I have a passion for poetry and cummings is one of my favorite artists. Inevitably, this particular piece of work comes to mind at some point in March. While not the first sign of Spring, it is a significant one for me. Still, you needn’t look to the page, or even delve into the convolutions of my sleep-addled mind to find the artistry of onrushing Spring.

Fox Squirrel Geese CabinOf late I’ve seen the return of turkey vultures and red-winged blackbirds and American robins in arguing masses so large that they’ve painted an acre of the big back field nearly white with their droppings. I’ve heard the buzz of a woodcock and the whickering of its wings as it flew toward the moon to prove its worth to a potential mate. Skunks and ‘coons and squirrels quarrel and fight in the woods and Canada geese and mallard ducks, in flocks and individual pairs, holler from the quarry.

Fairy Shrimp CircleTracksIn the lowest lying areas of The Quarry Farm, back in the woods and well below the quarry itself, on the ground referred to by locals as Coburn’s Bottom, vernal pools have already formed. These temporary ponds serve as habitat for a host of ephemeral animals: fairy shrimp and salamanders and mayfly nymphs and dragonflies. Within a few months, the pools will have evaporated, but their inhabitants remain in burrows underground or as eggs, tiny packets of a potential future.

MossAnd then there’s the greening of the woods, with mosses already climbing up the trees and laying soft blankets on the ground. It’s easy to forget that this whole area was once rainforest. It’s easy to forget, that is, until you take the time to walk into an Ohio woods and take an honest look around. And if it’s not a matter of forgetting – if, in fact, you didn’t know – then the realization of where you are is an epiphany and you’ll never look at a stand of trees in Northwest Ohio in quite the same way again.

(e.e. cumming’s [in Just-] was originally published in The Dial, Volume LXVIII, Number 5: May, 1920)

Made My Day

Even though there are over 25 species of salamanders native to Ohio, and we should be able to find them under practically every rock, rotting log and leaf pile, we frequently don’t in much of Northwest Ohio. And that’s why we’re so excited that Quarry Farm friend, volunteer and advisor Alaina Brinkman Siefker shared this photo today. She captured this little guy’s image in the Quarry Farm north floodplain, aka “Coburn’s Bottom”, this past Sunday. This animal looks to be a Jefferson or Blue-spotted salamander, or a hybridization of those two species.

Salamanders, frogs and other amphibians usually require both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. They are born in water, develop and move onto land. Talk about your primordial creature. Much of their natural habitat has been destroyed. Not just around here, but all over the world. And if that habitat hasn’t been wiped away, it has been disturbed or chemically altered. Top that off with an impaired atmosphere and you get severely declining amphibian populations.

Researchers consider amphibian populations an indicator of overall environmental health. The salamander that Alaina and her family saw this weekend tells us that we are doing something right around here. Next spring, look for announcements for the First Annual Quarry Farm Salamander Count.

For more about Ohio’s salamander populations and monitoring program, visit http://www.ohioamphibians.com/salamanders/Salamanders.html.