Thursday, February 27, 2014

Migration - in all its flavors

Sandhill Cranes Migrating (Serge Melki)
Migration is one of the wonders of the natural world. Millions of animals move thousands of miles every year in an attempt to produce as many offspring as possible. When most people think of migration they think of Canada geese flying south for the winter and their return in the spring. You might not realize, that while these birds demonstrate impressive feats of migration, there are others kinds of migration in the bird world.

What makes all these things migration is they involve going back and forth between two places. It doesn't matter if its 2000 miles south or 3 miles up a mountain.  No matter the difference, birds are always migrating in some way during the year.

'Loop' Migration
Loop migration is what you'd normally call migration, where birds arrive in the spring and leave in the fall. Loop migration can be broken down further into a few categories, long distance, medium and short distance migration. All of these are annual movements for the same purpose. Birds migrate to take advantage of seasonally abundant food. In northern latitudes insect populations, fruit and seeds BOOM in a huge way in the summer. Taking advantage of these resources allows birds to produce more young than they would have in the tropics. Northern latitudes also provide an advantage because the tropics have constant competition for resources and higher predation.

Migration is not without it's risks of course but if you reproduce enough it offsets the high risk of dying during migration. In this way, you and the rest of your species can continue into the future, so you win. 

Altitudinal Migration

Unless you are lucky enough to live in the mountains, birds migrating up and down in elevation is the kind of migration you are probably least familiar with. Many mountain species take advantage of the perks of loop migration without traveling as far. Altitudinal migration presents unique challenges like extreme weather and changes in snow pack.

Altitudinal migration is quite common in tropical areas, where moving up and down in elevation can help mitigate the impacts of the rainy or dry season on food supplies. By moving around the landscape a bird can take advantage of the habitats with the most food and increase their chance of survival. Birds who live on small remote islands also demonstrate altitudinal migration. Instead of migrating several thousand miles to the next land mass they move up and down the mountain throughout the year. They are likely migrating up and down in response to the annual wet/dry cycle on the island.

Altitudinal migration is unique since its not always done just for the purposes of breeding. Some species migrate up in elevation to take advantage of seasonal abundances of insects so they have plenty of energy to molt their new feathers quickly [1]. It is extremely expensive energetically, which means it takes lots of food and energy to accomplish. Birds feathers go through extensive wear in a years time; replacing them is important for keeping the bird the correct temperature and flying efficiently.

Irruptive Migration

Irruptive migration is an odd kind of migration because it doesn't fit the way most people think of bird movements. Irruptive migration doesn't  happen every year, instead they are normally triggered by an abundance or shortage of  food. When food is scarce in the north birds come south looking for other resources; this is often why crossbills irrupt. When food is abundant, such as a boom of lemmings, birds are able to produce large numbers of offspring. A boom in the lemming population is what we think is going with Snowy Owls this winter. Boone did a post awhile back that covers their irruption in more detail. 

American Redstart (Derek Bakken)
Differential Migration

Differential migration can happen in every kind of migration. It means a subset of bird populations migrate differently. When males and females migrate separately and winter in different places, or when juvenile birds go south their first year and don't return north for several seasons, they are both demonstrating differential migration.

For example, female Cooper's hawks migrate significantly earlier then males. Arriving earlier may allow them to take advantage of extensive resources and put on weight in preparation for egg laying or to find the best nesting locations [2]. American Redstarts males and females migrate to different areas for the winter [3]. This segregation is caused by behavioral dominance by the older males who set up territories and force other individuals (usually female) into less desirable habitats. The exact reason for most differential migration is still unknown, but understanding the different ways a population migrates help us to better conserve their habitats

It bears mentioning birds are not the only group of animals who migrate. We'll try and round up a post on those as well here sometime soon. In the meantime, keep on the look out for signs of spring migration near you! SPRING IS COMING!

- Auriel



[1] Rohwer, V. G., S. Rohwer, and J. H. Barry. 2008. Molt scheduling of western Neotropical migrants and up-slope movement of Cassin’s Vireo. Condor 110: 365-370.

[2] Hull, J.M. Pitzer, S., Fish, A.M., Ernest, H.B., and Hull A.C. 2012 Differential Migration in Five Species of Raptors in Central Coastal California. Journal of Raptor Research 46(1):50-56.

[3] Marra, P.P, Homles, R.T. 2001. Consequencces of Dominance-Mediated Habitat Segregation in American Redstarts During the Non-Breeding Season. The Auk. 118(1):92-104.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Migratory Birds Ignore Puxsutawney Phil

I for one am tired of the cold. Don't get me wrong, this winter in Delaware has been great. We've had an abundance of snow and few days of freezing rain, but this Texans had enough. I was raised on a steady diet of 6 months of hot, 2 months of cold, and 4 months that are only kind of hot. By mid February it's time to start buying swimsuits and stocking up on suntan lotion.

Punxsutawney Phil the Perpetrator
  (Alessandro M.)
Unfortunately, I don't live in Texas anymore. Punxsutawney Phil, the infallible weather muse, has predicted six more weeks of winter for the east coast. We'll forget for a second that our rodent friend is less than stellar at prediction and take his words at furry face value.

Just 2 weeks from now, the lucky residents in Texas will herald their first of the season main land migrants, and in 3 weeks every gulf state from Texas to Florida will see their very first migratory species. This may sound early to some of you, and indeed it is, but certain individuals in a population will try to get an early start to their breeding season. These include the southern breeding species like the Golden-cheeked Warbler, southern U.S wintering warblers like the Northern Parula , the early gulf migrant Louisiana Waterthrush, and the seemingly always migrating Purple Martin.

This winter has been brutally cold. We've seen record snowfalls in the south, and the great lakes ice coverage at it's highest extent since 1994 (90%). If this years weather and our furry friends ominous prediction is right, these early birds will be in a heap of trouble. So why would an individual migrate early when its still cold and how do birds cope with the wildly inconsistent weather in spring?

The extent of the ice on the great lakes this year (
Lets start of first with an easy question:
Why even show up early?
Birds benefit from arriving early in a variety of ways. They get the best pick of territories, avoid predators, and have more chances to succeeded. All of this equates to better breeding success (the chance of successfully raising chicks to adulthood).

Males arriving to a breeding site first get the best pick of territories. If these males choose the highest quality habitat, they'll have an easier time feeding their nestlings. This increases not only an individual chicks chance of surviving, but increases the numbers of chicks a pair can raise.

Common predators for nesting songbirds include snakes and raptors (birds of prey). The time of the highest nest predation coincides with the middle of the breeding season. Nesting hawks have to forage more as their own nestlings grow up. This increases predation as the seasons progresses. With the progression of seasons, temperatures heat up, leading to more snake species migrating out of their winter dens. This all culminates in peak nest predation in the middle of the breeding season. Earlier migrants can skip this dangerous phase by nesting earlier before these factors peak.

Most songbirds nest multiple times in a season until they finally succeed. Some crazier birds may even renest after they've succeeded in raising the first nest.  In the case of Willow Flycatchers, some parents begin nesting before the first brood is even able to fly! So, with an early start to the breeding season, you get not only more chances to succeed, but more time to raise even more young!

It's clear, there's a real advantage to showing up as early as you can.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well mainly weather.
The top weather-related killer of birds is the cold. Untimely snow storms routinely kill birds who aren't prepared. Particularly wet snow can quickly saturate a birds feathers, forcing it to land freezing and wet. Situations like this kill even hardy snow birds. It's no surprise that species who aren't used to cold temperatures regularly die of exposure when an unseasonal cold front penetrates into the south [1].

Ice can also be particularly tricky for birds. Waterbirds, like ducks, require open water to feed. When all available water is frozen over, many starve before they can find water. Because of this, ducks often fly hundreds of miles south in search of open water in the winter. This permanent relocation leaves many of us in the Northern States (yah I just said that Auriel) with a lack of ducks for the rest of winter.

Surf Scoters, Indian River inlet, DE
Birds who usually experience extreme weather are well adapted to it. It's when temperate birds run into this weather that there becomes a problem. These birds spend the majority of their time in warmer locations and tremendous amounts of energy flying thousands of miles north to breed. These exhausted tropical vacationers are ill suited in maintaining their internal temperatures. In spring, spending a night below 10 degrees Celsius (50F) costs a songbird the same energy as flying for 3 hours. [2]. To a small song bird that's ~90 miles! [3].

So what keeps them from showing up early?
The range map of Golden-Winged Warblers
Migratory birds react strongly to temperature. The correlation between the average temperature at a migrants wintering grounds and summer grounds is both fascinating and complicated (We'll go indepth on this at a later date). Many studies have shown some species won't migrate north unless it's certain temperature.[2][4] Unseasonably cold temperatures in spring are usually brought about by a cold front from the north. This all but guarantees the northern latitudes are also cold. Migrants can dictate their future weather patterns by monitoring temperatures and delaying their departure till situations improve.

The pattern of migration is generally where southern migrants move through first and northern populations arrive later.  This keeps migrating birds at a manageable latitude, but can lead to highly incongruous breeding seasons. A warbler breeding in the southern Appalachian Mountains in late April has entire month head start over it's twin breeding all the way in Canada in June.

Despite evolutionary traits, some birds still fly straight into bad weather.

Last year, a late arctic blast ran straight through the Midwest. Migrating rails, already on their journey, were faced with frozen wetlands with no where to go. Lucky for them, these hardy wetlands species have adaptations to survive in conditions similar to this. Rail species like the Virginia and Clapper rail are routinely found all the way into Delaware and New Jersey in winter. The northern most breeding rail, the Yellow Rail, breeds just shy of the arctic circle. Their bigger bodies, water resistant feathers, and terrestrial foraging allows them flexibility when it comes to surviving temporarily in variable temperatures.

Two Clapper Rails taking the ice in Delaware raily well
If a birds particular tolerance or adaptations fail, we unfortunately find large scale mortalities.  In March 1904, an estimated 1.5 million birds were found dead buried in the ice and snow after a blizzard in Minnesota. In 1964, 100,000 king eiders died when water ways refroze in the spring. This impact can sometimes be quite extreme on populations. A study populations of cliff swallows in the great plains, lost 54% of their population when unseasonable weather hit the region in 1996 [1].

This extreme consequence acts as a natural checks and balances system for  birds. Nature maintains a hard line that punishes birds that arrive at the wrong time.  Without it, birds would casually move their timing earlier and earlier.

Interestingly, we're actually seeing migratory timings shifting earlier in the spring. Over all global warming trends have lead to earlier plant blooming and migratory bird timing. We're seeing not only earlier migrants but northern range expansions of sub-tropical species into the north. Clearly the cold hasn't stopped them. [5][6].

Migratory timing is a large field in science, and this article has just touched the tip of the iceberg. We haven't for example mentioned birds being tied to high concentrations of bug activity, or the consequences of freak storms (hurricanes and tornadoes) on migrating birds (my masters research ;)). Clearly there's a lot for us to get to and always more to learn.

If you have any questions or would like to suggest a topic we cover, feel free to email us at

[1]Newton, I. (2007). Weather-related mass-mortality events in migrants. Ibis, 149(3), 453–467. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.2007.00704.x
[2]Wikelski, M., & Tarlow, E. M. (2003). Costs of migration in free-flying songbirds. Nature, 423(June), 2003.
[3]Alerstam, T., Chapman, J. W., B├Ąckman, J., Smith, A. D., Karlsson, H., Nilsson, C., … Hill, J. K. (2011). Convergent patterns of long-distance nocturnal migration in noctuid moths and passerine birds. Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society, 278(1721), 3074–80. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.0058
[4]Gauthreaux, S. A. (1991). The Flight Behavior of Migrating Birds in Changing Wind Fields : Radar and Visual Analyses. American Zoologist, 31(1), 187–204.
[5]Gordo, O. (2007). Why are bird migration dates shifting? A review of weather and climate effects on avian migratory phenology. Climate Research, 35, 37–58. doi:10.3354/cr00713
[6]Marra, P. P., Francis, C. M., Mulvihill, R. S., & Moore, F. R. (2005). The influence of climate on the timing and rate of spring bird migration. Oecologia, 142(2), 307–15. doi:10.1007/s00442-004-1725-x

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Common Bird Profile: Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird (Mike Baird)
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

I didn't really appreciate Northern Mockingbirds till I lived in Arkansas. I grew up with watching mockingbirds in Ohio but there are so many of them here in Arkansas. They live in all the bushes around my apartment complex and fight constantly. Their beautiful song fills the spring air and their complex mimicry fools even the best birders.

What mockingbirds are known most for is their ability to mimic a wide variety of sounds. Many birders who have been sent on wild goose chases after one species or another only to find out it's a mockingbird.

One of the main reasons birds sing is to attract or maintain a connection to a mate. Some species have elaborate dances, flight displays or vibrant colored plumage to attract mates. Mockingbirds look plain, but they make up for it in their singing ability. Female mockingbirds have been found to choose mates with larger repertoires [1]. Mockingbirds don't only imitate other birds songs, they have also been documented imitating a wide variety of other sounds from their environment. A friend of mine had a mockingbird learn to imitate her alarm clock, much to her annoyance since the mockingbird started singing far earlier then she wanted to wake up each morning.

We still don't know exactly how they learn these songs, but researchers in North Carolina have found mockingbirds learn songs that  are the easiest to mimic and the most similar to the songs they already know [2]. Over time this could lead to a wide range of vocalizations as they gradually expand their repertoire. Mockingbirds often mimic sounds in repeats of three, which can make picking them out as opposed to the actual birds song a bit easier. Why they repeat songs is not well understood. It may be connected to how they learn the songs or have something to do with maintaining the songs in their memory [3].

What we do know is mockingbirds are singing machines which may sing for hours and hours, even all night during the breeding season. Mockingbirds ability to pick up any sound in their environment has caused some problems for scientists studying other species. Mockingbirds in northern California mimic Black Rails. This made it challenging for the scientists who were out surveying for the elusive rails because they had a hard time distinguishing between the mockingbirds and the actual rails [4].

This video is a great example of the repertoire of these birds, see if you can pick out the different species this mockingbird is imitating, and the car alarm about 10 seconds into the video.

Northern Mockingbird (Manjith Mainickara)

While mockingbirds are plain in coloration they are a great example of coloration with a purpose. The color white is rare in nature, except in cases where it's used for camouflage (like in Snowy Owls) white is typically used as a form of communication.

The white tail of the white-tailed deer is a sign of alarm to the deer around it and lets an approaching predator know it has been seen. By letting the predator know it's been spotted it can decide if it wants to pursue a prey item without the element of surprise [5].

Northern mockingbirds have been shown to use the white on their wing patches in a similar way. When they are faced with a predator they 'wing flash' to make themselves appear larger, intimidating the predator and to signal to other mockingbirds that there is a predator nearby [6].

Mockingbirds are a fantastic species to find in your neighborhood. Their fearless behaviors and diverse voices make them fun to watch. So spend a little time now and throughout the spring looking for some mockingbirds as you explore your local area and see if you can discover any unique noises your mockingbirds have learned!

- Auriel

[1] Howard, R.D. (1974) The Influence of Sexual Selection and Interspecific Competition on Mockingbird Song (Mimus polyglottos) Evolution 28:3 (428-438)
[2] Gammon, D.E. (2013) How is model selection determined in a vocal mimic?: Tests of Five hypotheses. Behaviour. 150:12 (1375-1397)
[3] Gammon, D.E., Altizer, C.E. (2011) Northern Mockingbirds produce syntactical patterns of vocal mimicry that reflect taxonomy of imitated species. Journal of Field Ornithology. 82:2 (158-164)
[4] Conway, C.J., Gibbs, J.P., 2001. Factors influencing detection probability and the benefits of call broadcast surveys for monitoring marsh birds. Laurel, MD. [5] Bildstein, K.L., (1983) Why White-Tailed Deer Flag Their Tails. American Naturalist 121, 709–715.
[6] Dhondt, A.A., Kemink, K.M. (2008) Wing-flashing in Northern mockingbirds: anti-predator defense? Journal of Ethology. 26:3 (361-365).

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count

One great thing about ecology and biology is we can use observations of the outdoor world from everyone, not just those with scientific training. These observations can help scientists better understand birds across the country and around the world.
Chickadees at the feeder (Ano Lobb)

One of the ways everyone can contribute to our understanding of birds is by submitting your observations to eBird. Many don't feel their observations of birds in their backyard isn't important but that is not the case! Tracking the patterns of backyard birds can help us better understand the impacts of weather, pollution, urbanization and other forces on all bird species.

Since this backyard bird information is so important the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was created as an annual four day event to encourage everyone to pay attention to what is in their backyard and submit data so we can compare across big areas and between different years.

The count is done in February before most species start migrating so it will help us understand the distribution of bird species which are residents, or of species like Juncos which may only be around during the winter months.

The 2014 GBBC is February 14-17th and I encourage all of you to spend a few minutes watching the birds out your window, or along your drive/ride to work and submit what you see. It's really interesting to see what people find. Some species, like Northern Cardinals have made big expansions recently, where as others ranges have reduced.

All the GBBC information will be submitted to eBird and participating in the GBBC is a great way to get familiar with the website and maybe start a habit of submitting your sightings more often!

Friday, February 7, 2014

How to Cook in Your Car

You're cheap.

Like barely have enough gas money for this trip, cheap.

Four hours into your weekend warrior adventure, and you're just now realizing you forgot all about eating.

It's ok, we've got you on this one. This is the definitive guide to eating (cheaply) in your car.

Starting off, fast food is definitely the wrong way to go.

If you ate out for 3 meals a day that would cost you at least $15 (and that's being conservative). Multiple that by 7 days and you're already spending $105 on food. That doesn't even include snacks and drinks along the way! We can't be efficient Travelers on a Budget if we keep spending so much money.

They are various ways to save money on food, some are more extreme than others.We'll break them down into 3 categories of extremeness: Amateur, Intermediate, and Advanced.  That way you can choose how crazy you want to go.

This is the classic example where buying food early rather than for convenience will save you money. If you're the snacking type buy all your goods at the grocery store before your leave. Common cheap snack items include:

-Chexmix (don't be afraid of off brands)
-Granola bars
-Sunflower Seeds
-Trail mix
-Peanut-butter Crackers
-Fruit (you can buy a whole bag of apples or oranges for cheap that lasts you for a week)
-Dried fruit
-Cereal (works double as breakfast and a snack)

One thing to watch out for is the amount you snack on the road. Driving can be boring, and idle snacking leads to not unnecessary eating and spending. Try to keep the snacks to every couple of hours.

If you really like to drink soda, buy a 12 pack beforehand. The $3.00 for 12-12 ounce sodas is a much better deal than $1.50 for every 20 ounce at the gas station.

A well seasoned road warrior and camper always brings water with them. It's a good idea to buy a couple gallon jugs of water before you leave, and then fill them up as you need too. That way you don't waste too much plastic and are more likely to have enough water with you. Its easy to forget to drink enough water while driving. That morning coffee and afternoon soda are only going to make it worse. To incentivize drinking water, I buy powdered Gatorade. For about $4 you can buy enough Gatorade to make gallons of Gatorade. Just use a fraction of what it suggests, and you'll find yourself drinking more water and wanting soda less.

If you're traveling a lot, don't forget to buy ice. Just having a cup of ice with whatever your drinking makes you feel more satisfied and happy. Cutting costs at the expense of comfort can start to put a toll on someone mentally and  emotionally. Little creature comforts, like ice, can help cut that cost.

The middle ground is where you strike the balance between saving money and not coming off as crazy. Good ideas are to bring your own food fixings for meals, and make them at rest stops.

We love rest stops. To the savvy traveler they are like mini hotels on the road. You should feel just fine bringing your peanut butter, jelly, and bread to the picnic tables to make lunch. What you may not know is most place are fine with you cooking on a small cooking stove. As long as they're up off the grass and on a surface you're fine. Which means your favorite cooking friend can now be your favorite travel companion!

Some stoves like these coleman are fairly bulky but pack up well
Others like this MSR are great for backpacking
These stoves come in various types including ones that are more compact than others. Once you start using camp stoves a whole world of food opens up. Good items you can mae with minimal effort include:

-Hot dogs
-Mac and Cheese
-Ramen (add a can of veggies for a cheap and easy soup)
-Oatmeal (dress it up with peanut butter, chocolate chips, fruits, nuts, or honey)

As summer approaches we'll be highlighting good traveling recipes, and a section on camp stove.


Make sure to bring a can opener
This is the hobo level of eating cheap. Here you stop caring about what others think, and even what you feed yourself. Economy and efficiency are key.

Canned foods like tuna and chili don't need to be heated up and don't sacrifice too much in taste. The key I found to eating canned food cold is bringing spices and hot sauce. One quick dab of hot sauce can upgrade any food to a higher pallet. Adding other items like bread add variety and texture to an otherwise boring meal.

Many foods out there just require water, they dont necessarily even need hot water, just luke warm water and enthusiastic mixing. These items are great because they require very little cooking and preparation. These include powdered mashed potatoes, eggs, and basically anything dehydrated

Some items specifically require hot water, which can be hard to get a hold of. For this it's great to buy a cheap mugwarmer. Many of these models will plug into a usb outlet or car port. They're great at maintaining a beverages temperature but vary in their effectiveness of heating up lukewarm water. Plug one in about 30 minutes before you need hot water. Once it's a little painful to stick your finger in it's ready to use. The lower temperature usually require at least twice as long of cook time.

It's good to remember they're not designed for boiling hot water. There's a battle between making something that heats up to a high temperature and being a fire hazard. Don't get too frustrated if it heats up slowly.

Gas stations usually have a special spout on their coffee machines that just dispense hot water. They'll charge you for the cup (~$0.25) but you get steaming hot water for your tea and oatmeal in the morning.

Some items you can make with just a little warm water:

-Ramen (cup of soup)
-Easy Mac


God put caffeine on this earth for the same reason he made saturday morning cartoons, to force man to wake up early.

Making hot tea in the desert
The problem is most cheap forms of caffeine require hot water. While it would be hard to call tea and coffee 'expensive' the trend in the last 10 years is to charge as much possible for someone else to make it for you. For the travel less worried about this, truck stops usually do a good job providing coffee, and many places will charge you less if you're bringing in your own mug. The larger truck stop are usually so stuffed full of coffee types and creamers you'll feel down right spoiled.

If you're looking for a cheaper way you can make your own coffee and tea. Tea is an especially great traveling item. I would highly suggest switching over to tea while travel. It's cheap and always easy to make.

Unfortunately many of us refuse to switch to tea, so we're stuck trying to make do.

Instant Coffee-

Natural Austerity does not condone the use of instant coffees, except one: Starbucks Via. You pay for the better taste (~12 for a $10), but they're pretty delicious. The way they make it is sort of a secret, but from the description their process is legitimately different from  instant coffee creating a unique taste almost like real coffee. The price per unit (~$.83) is cheaper than a cup of a coffee at a gas station, but only marginally so. But they're indispensable for camping trips!

Make your own-

Wikicommons: Leland
The best way to make your own coffee is with a french press. You mix coffee and water together, wait a couple minutes, and then 'press' it, separating the coffee grounds from the water. The great thing about french presses is you can always add strength by letting it sit in the carafe longer. This is actually one of the better ways to make coffee, the problem is lugging a french press around can get a little annoying. They're usually made of glass and can break easily. REI sells a traveling mug/press. You have to pour it into another container after pressing it, otherwise the ground at the bottom with make the coffee more acidic the longer ti sits.

If you want to make iced coffee, put less grounds in, and let it sit overnight. In the morning, add ice and you've got tasty iced coffee.

**Protip: For easy tea without hot water, put 2 tea bags in a your water bottle and throw it up on the dashboard. It may take an hour, but eventually you'll have sun brewed tea! (Not so ironically this works well in the desert where there's an abundance of heat coming in your windows)**

The Numbers
So we sacrificed junk food for more miles, what did we really save here?
Lets say in the morning you made instant oatmeal in the morning ($0.30) and drank a cup of tea ($0.50) plus ($0.25) for the hot water to make it.  For lunch you made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (we'll say that you can make 20 sandwiches for $10 of materials) that's $1 for 2 sandwiches. After lunch you snacked on an apple($0.75) and a granola bar ($0.50). Then for diner you ate a hearty meal of chili ($1.50) and mashed potatoes($1). All together you spent $5.80 the entire day.

Compare that to the $15 you were spending earlier, and you saved ~$9. That's almost 2 days extra worth of food or 100 extra miles!

Thats it for now.
So stock up on food, start driving, and don't forget the coffee!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why YOU need wetlands

Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri 
The southern shores of Lake Erie are where I fell in love with wetlands. I started exploring them in middle school and was captivated by the endless complexity and their year round beauty. Wetlands are home to unique plants and animals, like American Bitterns who make a song kind of like a milk jug being poured out and wetland plants with aerial roots which help them deal with the suffocating conditions of having their roots underwater 24/7. But beyond the interesting parts of wetlands there are some solid reasons everyone should care about them.

I'm here to tell you there are more reasons then just scientific interests for why YOU should care about wetlands and should be celebrating World Wetlands Day today!

From vernal wetlands who only have water a few weeks a year, to coastal wetlands which gain and lose their water every day with the tides, wetlands come in many shapes and sizes. Each wetland is the result of a specific set of environmental conditions, rain, ground water, soil, topography. But no matter what caused the wetland, they are all important to all of us.

This might seem like a broad generalization but it's true! Wetlands clean our water, protected us from floods, and provide habitat for wildlife including many different species which are commercially harvested and eaten round the world. They are also vital habitat for the wildlife we don't eat, including 1/3 of the threatened and endangered species in the U.S. [1]. 

B.K. Leach Conservation Area, Missouri 
Wetlands are Economically Important 

You might not think about wetlands as a resource for anyone other then wildlife but wetlands protect us and our food every day!

Three-quarters of the northern Gulf of Mexico's fish and other aquatic life depend on Louisiana's wetlands for survival [2]. While many of these species spend their adult lives in the gulf, they rely on wetlands as habitat for breeding and protecting their young. 

New York City found it could avoid spending $3-8 billion on a new water water treatment plant by investing $1.5 billion in the purchase of land around reservoirs in Upstate New York. These wetlands purify the water supply FOR FREE [3]. These wetlands also provide great wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, so it's a great win-win situation for the city of New York and its wetlands. 

A U. S study of the role of coastal wetlands in reducing the  impacts from hurricanes found they provided storm protection services with an estimated value of $23.3 billion per year. [3] This is HUGE! While flooding is a part of the natural cycle the kinds of floods we often hear about aren't natural ones. Before we had lost so many of our wetlands they would have absorbed these large rain events and gradually released the water, helping to keep our rivers flowing year round.

Wetland Loss

We've lost over 53% of our wetlands in the U.S in the past 300 years and approximately 26% of our wetlands globally (most of those losses being in North American and Europe) [4, 5]. Much of this loss is due to draining for agriculture purposes and conversion into other kinds of human development. Wetland loss is a BIG problem, when wetlands are destroyed they can't serve their ecological roles. They can't absorb flood water or clean it, they can't be habitat for wildlife species, and often what replaces them almost works as an anti-wetland. Parking lots are designed to shed rain as quickly as possible, taking runoff and sediment along with them. Excessive runoff clogs up waterways with rain faster than they are built to handle, which can cause big problems for both the environment and people. These reasons and many more are why it is SO important to protect the wetlands that are still around and make sure that they are as healthy as possible. We don't have that many left so we need them to work overtime.

Ways YOU can help wetlands
Wetlands are awesome! (USFWS Pacific)

-Support local organizations who work to protect wetlands (Land trusts, state and federal agencies, county and city parks and other groups).

-Support legislation to protect wetlands.

-Volunteer and help restore and protect wetlands in your community!

-Recycle and help pick up letter so it doesn't end up in wetlands.

-Most of all, Go out and enjoy wetlands!

Wetlands are a treasure trove just waiting to be explored.

There is something to do every time of the year, whether you have 10 minutes or an entire afternoon new things can be found and explored in your local wetlands. Here's a few seasonal suggestions.

- Go out in the spring and look for the wildflowers and birds, stop by in the evening and listen for the frogs.
- Adventure out in the summer, look for snakes sunning themselves, birds feeding their young.
- Return in the autumn to see the beautiful colors and migrating birds.
- Visit again in the winter to see the beautiful patterns in the ice and to check for any winter visitors.

Needs some help getting started exploring your local wetlands? Check out these great resources.
Murky and Quirky - Appalachian Mountain Club
Wetland Scavenger Hunt - Wisconsin DNR
Walnut Creek - A guide to exploring urban wetlands.