Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Flying Frogs, On the Cusp

Just a few degrees make a huge difference, and so when temperatures climbed into the mid-forties it looked, felt and smelled like spring. It was a prime opportunity to get into one of my favorite creeks to see if things underwater were changing as fast as they seemed to be on land. I was specifically trying to learn the timing of a large darter gathering at a local waterfall. I watched them congregate here for the last 2 years, and wondered if it was just a fluke, or if this meeting was intentional and specifically timed with season. The air might be warm but the water still stings. I’m used to it now, and soon the cold doesn’t register. No darters, still and I’m starting to get a little concerned. There were darters here this time last year. In fact they were here 2 weeks earlier last year, and I hope they return. The water temperature is 3 degrees colder this year than last and maybe that slight difference explains their absence. I inched my way down a shallow riffle and saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t make out what splashed into the deeper faster moving water, but I assumed it was some kind of fish. I slid over algae covered rocks and sailed into a deeper pool, with a strong recirculating current. A frog twirled in the strong eddy, and did slow turns between the surface and sand bar bottom. I thought it was dead, and thought what a waste. I wondered what killed it as I circulated with its motionless body through an eddy. It looked so clean. Its legs were a creamy white and brilliant yellow. Its abdomen looked strong, and its body intact as we twirled together in a kind of a post mortem dance. It lifelessly flew through the water. I reached out, grabbed it and felt one of its hind legs push slowly but firmly against my hand. The frog wasn’t dead. It was cold. Some frogs must have also taken advantage of the warmer day and emerged. The movement I saw earlier that I assumed to be fish wriggling for deeper water I now think were frogs, right on the cusp of the breeding season, wanting to be the first ones out to increase their chances of attracting a mate. I placed the frog into a clam shallow pool near the shore, and it assumed the usual frog position, legs under body, poised to jump. Soon this river will be full of darters and trilling frogs, hopefully migrating herring too. The pent up biological energy is almost palpable. We are right on the cusp of spring, and the frogs are flying.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Only Thing Constant is Change

It has been frigidly cold for a while and so a 33 degree rainy morning felt warm. I took advantage of the perceived warmth to visit an old friend, Big Branch. I know Big Branch well. I snorkel here frequently, and lead trips here through the spring and summer. It’s a place I know well, at least as well as a stream can be known. It was apparent that this area flooded recently. Fine mica flecked silt was deposited high up on the flood plain. The stream bed seemed shallower and filled in. But the water ran clear today and as I scanned upstream it seemed that a lot of the large woody debris that really makes Big Branch unique compared to other rivers in the area was significantly rearranged. The cold water stung for a few minutes as I worked upstream. Big Branch is deceiving. It looks like there isn’t much flow, until you get into it. Then you realize the real force this river carries. A northern hogsucker made itself a bed by carving out a divot in the sandy bottom and pushing a few cobbles out of the way. In warmer weather hogsuckers usually dart into the distant underwater haze with a few powerful flicks of their tail. But this one didn’t budge. Cold water slows everything down, and I appreciated the opportunity to get close and watch. I approached what used be the first water scoured hole. I was here just a month ago, and I didn’t recognize this spot at all it was so different. I picked my head out of the water to get my bearing, to make sure I was where I thought I was in the river. What used to be a large hole was now small and half as deep. A new linear hole formed just upstream behind the remnants of a beaver dam. This was shallow water where the dam trapped sediments as they flowed downstream. But now it was scoured deep and minnows wriggled into the protection of the leaves trapped on the upstream side. An extensive sand flat now contained dramatic changed in depth and topography. A tree fell across the river and trapped floating debris to form a strainer that forced the flow of the river underneath. A new deep hole was carved where just a month ago shallow sand riffles existed. Long buried logs were re-exposed. A large fish darted into the shadow of the new cover. Rivers are dynamic and Big Branch is no different. So much change in such a short span of time. I can’t wait till things start to reemerge with the arrival of spring. The structure of the river is different so I’m sure the pattern of life will be too. The only thing constant is change.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Biological Doldrums

Sometimes it’s the structure of the stream, the way water sculpts rock. Sometimes it’s the force of the water itself, sometimes it’s the life. This time of year it’s more the first two. We seem to enter a biologic doldrums towards the end of January that lasts through the middle of February, where life becomes a little scarce. While we are approaching the end of this dormancy, we’re still in it, so I expected todays swim to be more about geology and hydrology rather than biology. But exploration underlies it all. It’s hard to imagine that two weeks ago this place was under 10 feet of rushing muddy water. We got a few inches of rain in a short time that rapidly raised this creek beyond flood stage. Clear water fills the stream today and the only evidence of the torrent are redistributed gravel bars that embed more and more of the rocks in the rapid and a tree that was placed on top of a large boulder as the waters receded. Ice formed on grass and twigs that hung low enough for the water to lap them, which resulted in oddly shaped ice formations hanging in midair. The creek water hovered right around freezing. The air wasn’t much warmer, so creek water readily froze to anything hanging into it and the dropping water level of the stream was evidenced by gravity defying bell shaped ice globs. A mayfly clung to a rock next to a chunk of ice. I thought it got the timing of its emergence wrong, crawled out of is old exoskeleton a new being a few weeks early, and died there stuck to the freezing rock. It’s awful cold out for an insect. But as I watched I saw one antenna move, then the other and the mayfly inched one leg forward. This animal was far from dead; in fact its adult life was just starting, right at the end of the biological doldrums. Maybe this is the beginning of spring.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Empty Falls But Not For Long

There isn’t any life here, at least not yet. Regardless, snorkeling in a waterfall is always interesting. It not really a true falls. The river here tumbles through a series of cascading pools down a 45 degree slope. The falls are empty right now. There aren’t darters or river chubs or herring here. But I really didn’t expect them to be, at least not yet. A week from now I should start to see an explosion of darters here if they follow the pattern they did last year. On February 19 2012 the falls area was packed with them. But today, they aren’t here. I going on the hunch that the congregation of darters here is a seasonal thing and they haven’t congregated or emerged yet. I’m not sure which they do. I just know they became really abundant while the water was still cold in the biological idle of February last year. The hole in the middle of the falls was full of river chub last year. I’m not sure how they swam up the falls to get to this little pool, but there they were. And now I’m not sure where they went. I expected to see them in this deeper spot. The force of water is intense, and I cautiously plan my moves as I traverse the flow to keep from getting swept down the falls. They aren’t big, but the cascade over successive 3 foot falls for the total 10 foot drop would hurt. Life is here. It’s just not as obvious. A garden of algae covers the rock, even in the middle of the most forceful chute of water. I hope the darters return. I hope I see the herring return. I hope the big river chub fill the middle waterfall hole too. This spot remains a bit of a mystery to me. I didn’t expect to see the large congregations of fish here that I have over the past 2 years. I didn’t expect the herring to disappear last year. I wonder what unknown expectations these falls hold as the spring approaches. The falls might be empty right now, but they won’t be for long.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

New Faces In Old Places

I saw motion as soon as I put my face in the water. It was a little unexpected since its winter and things move slower when they’re cold. The Appalachian brook crayfish stopped squirting backwards, settled on the pebbly bottom, and slowly crawled away from me. I have been in this creek, in this very pool, hundreds of times. It is close to where I live and it is where I go when I need to get into a creek but don’t have the time to go somewhere bigger. I have never seen this kind of crayfish here. I wonder if it’s new to the creek or if I have just missed them on past trips. I crawled upstream against the hard current. Caddisfly covered every rock bigger than my fist. A smudge of olive grey shot out to the side. Another surprise. I followed the darter from crevice to crevice until the small fish let the current wrap its body around a rock. For as many times as I have been in this creek, I have never seen these animals here before. I checked the Maryland Biological Stream Survey which regularly samples this pool to see if they have encountered crayfish and darters. The darter was listed. The crayfish wasn’t. I’m not sure if this species is unknown from this creek. But it is unknown to me in this creek, and that is exciting. There are three species of invasive crayfish in my region. They are increasing in number and appear to decrease the diversity of other bottom dwelling organisms. The crayfish I watched isn’t one of the three so it’s especially nice to find something native to this creek. Creek snorkeling lets me see ecology happen and play out in front of me, whether it’s native or not. I get to watch species come and go seasonally and on longer time scales. I get to witness struggles for individual survival, and community balance. And for as much time as I spend underwater it is still just a small fraction. I get to experience rivers and streams for such short windows of time under water, it’s no wonder I see new faces in old places.