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Thinking small: Wetlands are a whole other world

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek

I've always been drawn to tiny creatures. Maybe it's because I'm not very tall myself. For example, while sitting in my fish house this winter spearing northern pike, I've noticed that the water is full of tiny copepods or daphnia, which are tiny crustaceans — zooplankton — that swim about like fleas.

I've also enjoyed watching whirligig beetles and water boatman bugs surface in my spear-hole or swimming about below the ice. Whirligig beetles mindlessly spin around in the water seemingly not knowing where to go, whereas water boatman bugs, with their oar-like front appendages, swim with seeming purpose and direction.

Another "small" surprise that occurred in the fish house one day was when a giant water bug surfaced. This insect, a true bug and not a beetle, was at least four inches long and swam ominously on the surface of the water as if checking me out. These shockingly large predatory insect is capable of capturing and eating small minnows, among a host of other insect-prey that it stalks and captures.

Have you ever kicked or otherwise disturbed one of those giant anthills that are common in fields and forests? A disturbed mound causes a flurry of activity to occur that can be understood while simultaneously sparking a whole new set of questions.

How, for instance, do the worker ants know to seek out the perpetrator and struggle to carry the exposed eggs to the safety of another passage? And while this is occurring, others are busily rebuilding from damage done.

But watching an undisturbed colony is fascinating as well, if not more so. Moving to rhythms I cannot comprehend, are hundreds, if not thousands, of insects toiling in an altruistic, harmonious and hypnotizing manner; each with their own job, yet all working for the common good.

For obvious reasons, insects, and all the microhabitats they occupy, provides us with a wealth of wonderment. As such, it used to be that when I looked at a wetland I saw it as something like a gift-wrapped box. It's attractive on the outside, complete with water and green vegetation for wrapping, but I really didn't know much about the contents.

I contend that everyone should at least once in their lives slip into a pair of chest-waders or hip-boots and explore the brackish waters of a wetland to acquaint themselves, at the very least, with the cast members of such systems. I'm positive that everyone would come away with a different point of view after having experienced a walk in the water amongst the varied and diverse emergent and submergent aquatic plant life. For what's contained within all that herbaceous life is a whole other world.

For instance, the diversity and amount of life that exists in just one drop of water would in and of itself astound. The contents of that droplet — that we cannot see without magnification — contains a dizzying array of single-celled and multicellular organisms swimming about.

I have often peered into small windows of wetland waters for minutes on end, spellbound by what was going on below the surface. Did you know that the water boatman carry around with them a single air bubble for use later on? Or that the tiny sacs dotting bladderwort plants are really miniature traps designed to capture invertebrates? Or how about those confused-acting whirligig beetles that spin about like windup toys? Someone (not me) in fact determined that they can paddle their feet 60 times per second!

Perhaps it sounds silly, I don't know, but it's easy to get lost in the wild while knowing full-well your geographic whereabouts. I've hid in cattails while playing recordings of American bitterns and Virginia rails to coax them closer to me. To witness the air-gulping behavior of a territorial male and the head-tossing, strange vocalizations of his call is a sight and sound to behold.

Or, watching the diminutive Virginia rail taking tentative steps across floating vegetation as it searches for the "intruder" while calling loudly its unmistakable kidd-ick, kidd-ick call is equally as gratifying. And all of it, in both cases and entire splendor, occurs on a spot no larger than a welcome mat.

It completely captivates me to stand witness before a nighttime field of blinking lightning bugs on a warm June or July night. Of course, an entomologist will tell you straight up that the insect of your amazement is not a bug, but, rather, a beetle and, furthermore, is certainly no fly as another name — firefly — suggests. And he or she will also be able to tell you why the luminance is chemically possible and why such a show occurs in the first place.

But what I do know is that the annual arthropodal spectacle is as enthralling as it is bewildering. From the all-encompassing view of a thousand yellow, green, and amber lights blinking off and on, to a single glowing beetle at the end of a blade of grass casting a cone of light below itself (like some miniature organic yard light) such things leaves me feeling small in a very small world. And so it is with such things — small things as they are — that prove time and time again to be all the reason we need to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.