Wetlands ‘right-now’ – what’s happening?
Although International Wetlands Day happens on 2nd February each year, this is the time of year when wetlands, in the northern hemisphere, are almost dormant. If you go to visit a wetland on 2st February, you won’t see much happening.
Many of the plants and animals that normally live in the wetland are going through their winter dormancy now.
In February you will see the bare stems of the reeds and lots of dead vegetation. Under the surface however lots of things are already happening. Many of the animals that live in the mud on the floor of the wetlands are already preparing for spring. The larvae of the dragon flies are already actively feeding on other small animals in the detritus at the bottom of the pond. These larvae are fierce predators and this video link shows you how they behave on the bottom of the wetlands at this time of year if they can find prey dragonfly larvae feeding (see below).
When the risk of severe frost has passed, some of the plants will begin to emerge…..
….and when the weather warms up a bit and the average daily temperature stays above 6 degrees or so, the first obvious signs of life will appear.
In fact, it is at the wetlands that you can first see the stirrings of the new spring. The green shoots will appear on the reeds first of all. Then other smaller plants like the bog bean and the mayflower will begin to push up their foliage.
Then you know for sure that the winter is over!
The common reed (Phragmites australis)
is very common in the small freshwater wetlands in Ireland. In mid-summer the reeds form tall, dense ‘stands’ of vegetation which provide very effective cover for birds and other wildlife. Sometimes the reeds can grow up to 19 feet high (more than three times the height of an average person). This year (2013) the emergence of the new shoot on the common reeds is very late because of the cold spring. If you are interested in taking a look at the common reeds, you should be able to observe them ‘in-leaf’ from now up until next November. After the leaves die, the tall stems remain standing and they survive to produce new leaves next year. At first sight you might think that the reeds are not all that interesting. However, from a heritage perspective reeds which grew in the freshwater wetlands, and indeed in the brackish wetlands near the coast provided early settlers on this island with a very crucial raw material – thatch for the early houses, without which people could not have sheltered from the cold and the rain. Without ready access to this amazing building material, early settlers would have had a difficult problem finding an alternative material to roof their huts with.
The picture on the right shows how the common reed was used to roof the huts and houses built by the early settlers in Ireland. This particular house is part of the interpretative display at the Irish National Heritage Park (Wexford, Ireland). You can also see large stands of the common reed growing there, on the edges of the Slaney River. A beautiful wetland walkway is maintained at the Heritage Park, and if you are in the locality it’s well worth a look. (Check out the website: www.inhp.com). During May & June the wetland walk is full of beautiful wild flowers and an hour or two there would do your heart-good!
The small wetlands attract and provide homes and breeding grounds for many birds. Many of the birds in the wetlands are not commonly found near our homes or in the town, so it’s a real pleasure to sit quietly neat the wetland and watch the birds, just for fun!
The Marsh Marigold
The Marsh Marigold is a very recognisable flower of the small freshwater wetland in Ireland. This flower will come into bloom in April and May and usually heralds the end of winter and the beginning of the proliferation of life in the wetland in the summer period. The flower had strong connotation in old-Irish culture, when it was regarded as having the power to ward off evil influences. The flower was collected on May Eve and placed around the door of the house or even placed on the roof to repel evil spirits at the dawn of summer.