Thursday, February 2, 2017

World Wetlands Day: time to save a duck, a gator, your drinking water...

Another busy day at Reifel.
"When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum…"
- Henry David Thoreau

Today is World Wetlands Day. (Yeah, it's Groundhog Day too - but he already gets enough publicity.)

In case you're not quite sure what a wetland is, according to the US EPA, it is: "... areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season."

Still not sure about the value of wetlands? Well, they:
  • act as natural sponges
  • filter pollutants, helping provide clean drinking water
  • absorb rainfall, reducing floods and droughts
  • reduce the speed and height of storm surges
  • provide food and habitat for huge variety of birds and wildlife
  • provide a lace for recreation and reflection

I've visited a number of wetlands around North America. Three of my favourites are located in three very different environments.

One of my favourite places to hang out near my Vancouver home is the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary just outside Ladner, B.C. It's part of a coastal wetland jutting onto the ocean in places, and just a half-hour's drive from the Vancouver International Airport. There you'll find yourself in a wetland paradise full of ducks, geese, cranes, and herons - not to mention songbirds like red-winged blackbirds or raptors like bald eagles or marsh hawks (a.k.a. northern harriers).
Black crowned night heron.
 I won't go into too much detail about the sanctuary itself, its history and its functions; that can all be gleaned from the sanctuary website .
I will say that although it is a stopping place for birds migrating north and south in the spring and fall, respectively - an avian "motel" of sorts - it is also a year-round home for many other birds.
Reifel is one of those rare spots you can visit again and again, and never tire of going there. It's a special place where you can get close to nature without having to drive too far from your front step, if you live in the Greater Vancouver area. 
The experiences there are pretty much the same every time, but for me, there's always one gem of an experience I have that's a bit different each time, something that sets that visit apart from others.  
Once I saw a great blue heron fly across a pond and alight on a log right in front of me. It then proceeded to spend several minutes grooming itself while I shot videos and images of the bird.
Another time, I was able to watch and record a pair of sandhill cranes strolling along the edge of the marsh. You won't see these large, rare and beautiful birds every time you go to Reifel, but I have seen them on more than one occasion.
A blue heron grooms at Reifel.
I saw my first  black-crowned night heron there; also, my first northern shoveller, my first bufflehead, my first...well, you get the idea.
It's a great place to take kids, too, and get them to experience and enjoy nature.


Oak Hammock is a prairie wetland located, in southern Manitoba near Winnipeg. I spent a day there several years ago and I was amazed at the variety and diversity of bird life there. Of course, it helped that I was paddling; there’s no better way to see birds – especially wetland species – than from a canoe.
The Coot family.
A total of  296 different bird species have been recorded there. While I certainly did not approach that number, I was not disappointed. Just minutes into our journey, we spotted an American coot with babies. 

During my day's paddle, I spied gulls, terns, blackbirds, and several other species. 
The highlight came as we paddled quietly toward a small island covered with American white pelicans. 
When we came too close for their comfort, it was as if someone pressed a button - they took off en masse, a white cloud of flapping feathers rising up into the sky.

Just north of the Florida panhandle in southern Georgia, in the middle of a wild, wet southern wilderness, sits this gem locals call simply, "The Swamp." 

I once spent three days canoeing and camping in this wonderful reserve with Okefenokee Adventures, the go-to adventure tour operator for the area. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the area.

Like the other two spots described above, it's a great place for birds. While there exploring it, I saw a sandhill crane, several egrets and a green heron.
You'll see plenty of gators in "The Swamp."

Because it's so not as close to an urban centre as the other two, it boasts a far wider variety of wildlife in including deer, black bears and its iconic reptile: the American alligator.

I saw many of them, and a few deer, but no bears.
It's a wonderful place for a naturalist to hang out, and like Oak Hammock, it's only accessible by canoe. 

The point to all this? 

Without wetlands, none of these creatures would have homes. And surely that's reason enough to be concerned and to practice wetland conservation by supporting groups that focus on conserving wetlands, where it's a big national organization like Ducks Unlimited or a smaller local group like the Reifel Sanctuary or the Burns Bog Conservation Society. 

Then go out and enjoy a wetland.


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