American bittern perches on reed in shallow wetland.
American bittern Like many species, it's dependent upon healthy wetlands to survive. © Jeff Timmons

Stories in Indiana

Indiana Nature Notes for May

Alyssa Nyberg Restoration Ecologist

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Thunder-pumper

On this chilly May morning, I’m bundling up for a pre-dawn excursion. With binoculars 'round my neck and bird book in hand, I meet up with other Kankakee Sands staff and volunteers for our annual Kankakee Sands Bird Survey in the bison pasture.

We are looking and listening for all the birds that utilize the prairies of Kankakee Sands—those birds that are just stopping for a brief rest and refuel before journeying further to northern breeding grounds, and those birds that stay for the summer.

During these surveys, we hear a wide variety of bird calls, but whenever we hear ploonk-a-doonk, ploonk-a-doonk—the deep-throated, throbbing song of the American bittern—we always exchange quick and quiet smiles.  

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A bird by any other name . . .

Thunder-pumper, water-belcher and mire-drum are other names for this two-foot-tall wading bird that weighs just a pound and a half but can send its song a mile and a half out over the prairie. Despite being two feet tall, the American bittern is extremely challenging to spot. The mottled brown feathers blend in with the surrounding marsh vegetation. When it really wants to vanish, it stretches out its stout, boldly striped brown-and-white neck and points its long, straight bill up to the sky. Driving past, you’d think it was just a reed growing in the marsh.  

Camouflage is a good thing—it keeps the mire-drums safe from predators, such as owls and falcons. Camouflage also allows the bittern to more successfully stalk its prey: water striders, water beetles, water scorpions, dragonflies, tadpoles, frogs, salamanders and even voles. After a meal, bitterns will regurgitate the undigestible bits of bones and fur in the form of pellets, much like owls do.

Even though bitterns prefer to remain unseen, their deep, strong song allows them to communicate over distances where the vegetation is tall and dense and clues us humans in to where they are located.

We’re really lucky to hear the American bittern. Like the heron, egret and ibis, it’s a wading bird reliant on large wetlands. We know that wetland habitats in the United States are in steep decline. Indiana has lost 87% of its wetlands since the 1780s. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates that the American bittern has experienced a shocking 43% decline in the U.S. between 1966 and 2015.

American bitterns winter in the southern United States and California, then migrate north through the central band of the U.S. to summer breeding grounds in the northern half of the United States and Canada. Thus wetland habitats in all these spaces are vital to preserving the American bittern.

Here at Kankakee Sands, TNC has spent more than 20 years restoring prairie and wetland habitat, and having the American bittern here for the summer shows that we’re providing the habitat it needs to breed and rear its young. Thunder-pumpers are not the only species to be negatively impacted by the draining of Indiana’s wetlands. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates that 900 animal species in Indiana are dependent on wetlands for some portion of their life cycle, and of these 60 are listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern in Indiana.

May is American Wetlands Month. Celebrate the month by visiting Kankakee Sands to look and listen for the water-belcher. Try a visit to the Bird Viewing Area, located west of US 41 on CR 400 N. The bitterns have been heard from that location. They have also been seen in the ditches along the Bison Viewing Area entrance. As you drive the roads of Kankakee Sands, roll those windows down and listen for that unmistakable song.

Have your passengers be on the lookout for feathered reeds with eyeballs!

Springtime Wetlands (April 2022 Nature Notes)

There’s something about having your feet in water that is a thrill. As a kid, I jumped and splashed in puddles and ponds just to see how big an impact I could have. Now, as an adult, I enjoy watching kids jump and splash, but my way is different now.

I prefer to walk slowly through the water, studying the ways that my movements create ripples through the system and observing all the creatures moving in the water. Even without the splashing, being in and around water is still a thrill.

I feel so lucky to get to work in wet places—planting native plants, harvesting seeds, removing non-native plants. Most folks know that at Kankakee Sands we have been planting thousands of acres to native prairie. Unknown to some is that interspersed in all that prairie are many wet places and wet spaces of varying shapes and sizes.

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The Many types of wetlands at Kankakee Sands

At Kankakee Sands, we have natural ephemeral depressions, which fill with water in the spring and dry up as the year progresses. These are the spaces without fish, where salamanders and fairy shrimp take advantage of a watery world that lasts only several months.

We have low spaces created by wallowing bison, which are shallow enough to hold water for just a short period of time in the spring. These are the places where turtles have laid their eggs. Soon the hatchlings will emerge and crawl off to more permanent waterways.

We also have deep wetlands created by backhoes and bulldozers, which hold water all year long and are a stable place for waterfowl to stop over during migrations or stay and raise young.

The water that fills our Kankakee Sands wetlands does not come from the sky above; it comes from the high-water table below. We estimate that nearly 1/3 of our total 8,000 acres at Kankakee Sands are wetland acres. Those wet acres support so much life.

According to the US EPA, wetlands are on par with rainforests and coral reefs in terms of their productivity and the diversity of species within them. I believe it! Our Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates that 7,000 species of plants grow in Indiana wetlands!

Ode on a wetland

When walking in a wetland, there is so much to see, as noted by this poem penned by a young friend of mine for this very article:

There are backswimmers and sideswimmers and pokey ol’ snails
Crawdads and little squirmy things that wriggle their tails
River otter, muskrats, beaver and mink
Deer and possum come in for a drink
Birds skim the surface looking for a meal
Butterflies, too, keeping it real
Frogs galore, their calls make a chorus
Thanks wetlands, for all you do for us!

Indeed, so much life!

Benefits of wetlands to the human species

At Kankakee Sands, we take great pride in our wetlands and know how important they are not just for plants and animals, but also for people and our local communities. The US EPA estimates that one acre of wetland can store up to a million gallons of water!

This water storage helps to minimize flooding during strong storm events, which we know have been happening more regularly in recent years. Wetlands, with the massive diversity of plants and roots that grow there, help to filter out pollutants from the water as it moves through the wetlands and into the aquifers from which we get our drinking water.

All wetlands across the entire state of Indiana, and the nation, are important. But not all wetlands are created equal. We must remember that no recreated human-made wetland can ever rival a natural wetland and its complex set of interrelationships between the plants and the animals in the wetland ecosystem.

Wetlands are precious and must be protected. In Northwest Indiana, we remember the story of Beaver Lake, the largest lake and wetland complex of the Grand Kankakee Marsh—second only to the Florida Everglades in terms of plant and animal abundance and diversity—that was drained in the early 1900s to make way for cattle grazing and agriculture. We’ll never be able to recreate that magical place, but we can honor it by creating and protecting wetlands today.

Enjoying a wetland firsthand

I’ve read about the relaxation benefits of having an aquarium. I agree, but, well, take a walk in a wetland, my friend. Now that is relaxing! The green rushes and sedges brushing together as they sway in the wind. The call of the frogs around you, the whirls of the dragonflies zipping past, the gentle slurp of a turtle slipping into the water. Bend near to the water’s surface and watch all the activity zipping around. Truly mesmerizing and meditative…all the benefits of an aquarium, but it’s free and you don’t have to clean out a tank!

Too many mosquitoes, you say? Good news! If you visit a wetland in the spring, you’ll be delighted to find that the mosquitoes are still eggs and larvae, not flying adults that bite.

Grab those boots, or old tennis shoes, and head to a wetland near you to appreciate all it has to offer. Late spring and early summer are great times for a wetland walk. The Wet Prairie Trail in the north bison pasture at Kankakee Sands is currently open, while the bison are in the south pasture. This trail has natural low wet depressions, bison wallows and a large ephemeral pond dug by a backhoe—all currently filled with water.

By midsummer many of these shallow wetlands will have turned to moist mud, happy to rob you of one of your boots! So take the opportunity this spring to slip into the water, walking stick in hand—breathe in, breathe out—and enjoy being a part of the wetland ecosystem you just entered.

Alyssa Nyberg is restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands project in Newton County, Indiana.