Like most human beings, I find myself attracted to landscapes that are “aesthetically appealing.” I put those words in quotation marks because, of course, any definition of an aesthetic is highly subjective. Still, there are certain vistas – the view across the Grand Canyon, the sight of Half Dome towering above Yosemite Valley, the Grand Teton covered with snow – that captivate nearly everyone.
Because we love beautiful scenery, we’re often careful to preserve it – although, with our increased population we are managing to love even our protected sites to death.
We generally don’t do as good of a job ensuring the health and future of landscapes that are valuable ecologically but aren’t especially scenic.
Case in point: wetlands. Wetlands are areas of land where water covers the soil for part or all of the year. They host an incredible number of species, rivaling rainforests and coral reefs in biodiversity. In addition, wetlands produce an immense amount of food for a variety of creatures; in fact, the EPA’s website refers to these ecosystems as “biological supermarkets.”
Decomposing plant matter, silt, and minerals combine to create a fertile environment for microbes, algae, and insects – all of which can nourish fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Wetlands also serve as migration stopover sites, and it is important that they be geographically distributed to enable birds and mammals to refuel during their journeys.
Despite their critical biological roles, wetlands usually aren’t that aesthetically appealing. Sometimes there are dramatic mountains or hills surrounding them; but, in general, wetlands areas are flat swampy zones that don’t tend to grab the attention of the human eye. Sometimes they even give off unpleasant odors, thanks to the decomposition taking place.
Because of this, and because wetlands also happen to be located in areas where human beings like to live, their acreage in the US is currently decreasing at a rate of 60,000 acres per year. The EPA estimates that 220 million acres of wetlands existed in our country in the 1600’s. We’re down to 100 million acres currently, and many of these remaining acres are less healthy than they once were. We’re losing wetlands to development, flood control, mosquito control, pollution, grazing, and invasive species.
Lately, I’ve been trying to appreciate landscapes as much for their ecological functions as for their looks – an effort that requires a shift in mindset. One of the spots that is helping me make this shift is the Kachina Village Wetlands, a 70-acre preserve that lies about a mile from the apartment I am currently renting.
This preserve was created by the Kachina Village Improvement District in 1988 to hold wastewater from the nearby treatment plant. Eight ponds were constructed with the intention of accommodating future growth in this Flagstaff commuter settlement. At this point, only two of the ponds are regularly filled with water.
These ponds aren’t all that pretty. For starters, they’re rectangular. They’re edged by uniform levees that look anything but natural. There are concrete inflow and outflow ducts punctuating their borders, and, well…the water is coming out of treatment plant. It’s former sewage that’s headed for evaporation.
When I walk, run, or ride to the wetlands, I approach from the south – the side rimmed by the empty ponds side. As I pass through the gate, I always find myself wondering why I’m choosing to visit such a scarred landscape. By the time I get to the filled pond at the far end of the preserve, however, I quickly remember. Once I see water, I see and hear birds – lots of them.
There are always Canada geese, mallard ducks, pied-billed grebes, and swallows. There can be anywhere between one and four Great Blue Herons, which, as one fellow spectator joked, might be the most-photographed birds in the state. I saw a yellow-headed blackbird there once, and I’ve seen shorebirds like killdeer, sandpipers and plovers in the mud. The local Audubon Society claims that the site hosts over 200 bird species, 65 of which are wetlands-specific and would not be there without the ponds.
I seem to find the most satisfaction from visiting the wetlands with a camera. In the quest for the perfect in-flight heron photo or the most balanced arrangement of ducks and cattails, my thinking brain shuts off. I go into “hunting” mode, a way of being in which I am observing keenly and reacting quickly.
In this process, I manage to learn quite a bit about various bird behaviors without being aware of doing so. I notice which ones hang out where, how long they linger before taking off, and whether or not they congregate in groups.
Of course, birds are still pleasing to look at, so I haven’t quite yet abandoned the aesthetic altogether. But my project’s gotten off to a good start.