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The Magic of Wetlands

Newts from the Field is a seasonal installment bringing you the wonders of nature from out in the wilderness. This fall we have a special feature from guest writer Eric Bailey, who served as NEWT’s Wildlands Ecology Intern this year.

Summer in Vermont often can feel like you’re walking through a dream – the wind pushing through the canopy of leaves allowing the sun to glimmer towards the forest floor like sparkles from a fairy tale. Throughout this summer, working as the Wildlands Ecology Intern, I have spent much of my time exploring different wild areas protected by NEWT, experiencing this feeling of dreamy Northern Woods more than ever before. While working I have encountered many unique wetlands, each of them carrying a feeling of a fairy tale setting unlike many other ecosystems.

There are many different types of wetlands that occur throughout Vermont including beaver ponds, beaver meadows, seeps, forested swamps, fens, bogs, and more. Each of these can be further divided into more specific natural communities, based on key species that grow within them and their location. Most people, myself included before I had learned about wetlands, tend to think of them as areas of open water bodies. This however is not entirely true – many wetlands can be forested, but still wet due to the hydrology of the area. So in some cases, you may be walking through a wet forest without ever realizing you are in a wetland.

The different types of wetlands each have their own feeling of magic. A Red Spruce-Cinnamon Fern Swamp can be found throughout Vermont and New England in small pockets – it is an uncommon spectacle. Often characterized by a red spruce (Picea rubens) dominated canopy and cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) throughout, creating a feeling of otherworldliness and beauty. I often enjoy taking my shoes off (if I’m even wearing any) to feel the thick carpets of Sphagnum mosses (Sphagnum sp.) on my bare feet as I walk, molding to my every step, and allowing me to feel more connected with these mystical places. The thick carpet of mosses shimmer as the sun peeks through the needles of Red Spruce, the flowers and ferns dance as the wind blows through the forest. Since Red Spruce-Cinnamon Fern Swamps are uncommon, conserving them is critical to protect the biodiversity that they contain.

Many Vermont wetlands are home to species and natural communities that are uncommon or rare. The protection of these areas are important for rare species and communities, as wildlife use them for food, shelter, water and more. In beaver meadows and ponds, moose (Alces alces), black bear (Ursus americanus), and other species use the area for drinking water, as well as cooling off on a hot summer day. Wetlands also tend to thaw out in the spring much earlier than upland areas, usually allowing plants to begin growing sooner. This can be important to wildlife as early spring forage. This is another reason why wetlands in the northern forest have such a magical feeling to them – they are so important to a vast amount of wildlife, and yet many are not as common as they once were.

Hemlock-Balsam Fir-Black Ash Seepage Swamps are another wetland that I encountered many times over the course of this summer. Characteristic tree species of this natural community include hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and black ash (Fraxinus nigra). Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), dogwood species (Cornus sp.) and cinnamon fern are often common in the shrub and herb layers. These wetlands have a much different feel to them, often darker with a much thicker canopy, the light has a harder time reaching the forest floor. The sun peeks through the space in the leaves, littering the ground with specks of golden light. This is another uncommon wetland, oftentimes found in sizes of ten acres or less. Uncommon lady slipper species can be found on these sites such as showy lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae) and large yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) which is all the more reason for their protection and conservation.

As we continue to think about ways in which we can protect our environment, taking into account our broad diversity of wetlands is important for conservation. Continuing to allow these areas to grow undisturbed is important to further understanding how wetlands play a key role in the ecosystems of the northern forest. Additionally, wetlands have a feeling much different than other natural communities and forest types, due to their small sizes, ecosystem importance and plain beauty, wetlands should be cared for and admired for both humans and the non-human world.

Photography by Eric Bailey