Looking north to Quebec with a strong wind arriving cold in our teeth from the same direction, we were ready to net fish at 7:00am on October 2. The temperature there at Missisquoi Bay had barely topped forty degrees and we had to wade into Lake Champlain.
LCMM Ecology Programs Director Elizabeth Lee and I laughed off the chill, scoped the shaley shore for aquatic weeds among which fish might be lurking, and readied the 30-foot-long seine net. The water was brown as creamed coffee due to recent rains washing down the Missisquoi River. The puffs of white and brown cappuccino foam in the shallows belied the phosphorus that that river carries to the lake.
Given the challenges, and given that one session of our NOAA-funded “B-WET” training that day hinged on identifying fish, I invoked the freshwater spirits by calling into the 20-knot breeze: “Here, fishy-fishy!” Elizabeth looked amused but skeptical. Little did she know.
We made two passes with the net, grateful for the neoprene waders that kept our legs warm. First run was okay – at least we caught something – a few small yellow perch and shiners. The second netting seemed at first to be similar, bringing us some baby bluegills and a bass and then, in the very bottom of the net… a larger fish flopping angrily, splashing water in our faces…a pike! More than a foot long. Total victory for a short fishing jaunt in the littoral zone. Into the bucket of water the fish went, to be hauled off to jail for a couple of hours at the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refugenature center, where the workshop was to be held, starting in only a half-hour.
We had a wide variety of educators filter in that morning: teachers from Lincoln and Hinesburg Elementary schools; from Essex High; an environmental educator from Sutton, Québec, who works in Eastern Township schools; and two environmental educators from Franklin County. During our morning coffee break, it came out that four of us could chat with each other in French, which is not atypical of a gathering so close to the border, n’est ce pas?
The Wildlife Refuge staff warmly welcomed us, inviting school groups to explore the wetland treasures at the refuge. We used a dichotomous key to identify our several fish species. The northern pike was the star of the show. From Erin De Vries of the UVM Watershed Alliance we learned about the “River Continuum” – how stream characteristics change as they run from small headwaters to lower in the Champlain Basin and finally into the lake. Erin also led a dabble with nets in man-made ponds just outside the nature center, sharing many suggestions for equipment, activities and curricula to use with students. Despite being the recipients of the building’s grey water, the ponds were hopping with life, from mayfly larvae to diving spiders. Kurt Valenta, who runs an educational water-critter-based program called “Bugworks” – created in 2008 by the Missisquoi River Basin Association – was on hand to help identify the invertebrates that we netted and also to share his enthusiasm for discovering who lived in the muck and reeds.
After a quick lunch, it was out to the main stem of the Missisquoi for a motor launch ride to the river bank near Cranberry Pool, an impounded marsh that favors waterfowl habitat. Expert birder and wetland ecologist Jake Straub from SUNY Plattsburgh gave us a sex talk – and other behaviors, of course – as far as geese and ducks go. As he spoke to us on the dike that holds water containing wild rice and many other valuable wetland plants, we saw ducks, grebes, kingfishers, and songbirds periodically take flight. In the distance we spied a giant eagle’s nest perched in a copse of sliver maples. Someone noticed that, near where we stood, there was evidence of a mortal drama. Feathers of various hues and stripes lay scattered on the grass. After close examination, Jake guessed that a predator – either a raptor or canine – had killed a wood duck here.
Rounding out the explorations of the unique habitat features in the “Birdfoot delta” area of the lower Missisquoi, we dragged a plankton net along the surface of the water on our return trip to our launch site, and looked at the tiny critters through a very basic field microscope – just a few copepods and strands of filamentous algae showed up. We also set out with hand nets to catch leopard frogs that leapt now and then along the river bank. Participants caught a total of seven specimens, examined them closely for deformations of digits and legs, and pronounced them all normal.
We’d like to think our fellow educators, stoked up that day to see and do so many activities that would ideally enthuse young people about aquatic ecosystems, will convey their energy and new tools to their students. We plan to be in touch with participants, and hope to learn which activities worked well with their classes. Some will probably take advantage of our “loaner kit” which we are assembling this winter to be available starting in the spring. The kit will include a number of tools we used during our B-Wet workshops including seine net, plankton net, field microscope, river corridor assessment protocols, and other aquatic data collection methods.