Shallow, marshland habitat is ideal for wetland wildlife.
Anatomy of a wetland restoration
Build it and they will come.
Story by William Hirt, photos by Jack Hirt
It was late in the afternoon before the second opener of Wisconsin's southern waterfowl zone. Standing on the front porch of Bill's small cabin I watched in awe, with the sun fast–setting over the neighborhood's rolling farmlands and the cloudless, deepening blue sky above his wetlands filling with swirling flights of mallards. Ranging in size from five to 150, the flocks — happy ducks all — scooped hard, rushing to settle onto the security of "their" roost ponds, soon covering any open water I could see.
Then the geese joined the fray. Pumping in low and slow in family–sized flocks from feed fields to the west and south, surely more than 200 Canadas in total eventually muscled their way into the marshlands. Aw, it was a beautiful thing!
So the stage was set. Or was it? If we went out and gunned this roost — the one great shoot aside — it would be party over. The birds would be outa' there. And even worse, the ever–gratifying "show" would be over for the year.
"Well, we sure can't hunt this!" I offered to Bill as he finally rolled in, typically late from work. He grinned and nodded in the affirmative, relieved, no doubt, that I understood.
"But we can hunker down in the corn and maybe pass shoot a late–rising goose or two," he replied.
After thrilling to the sights and sounds of dawn's heart–warming, duck–filled spectacle, that's just what we did. Getting out of the field and giving the wetlands back to them before the birds returned from the morning feed; it made for a short, but oh–so–memorable hunt. One that I, anyway, would never have imagined after first laying eyes on the property a couple years earlier.
I was glad to be asked to tag along; but all I could see when Bill dragged me out to see the roughly 100–acre chunk of ground in northern Wood County that late winter day was one big, basically featureless piece of snow–covered cropland. With his professed interest being acquiring a property he could work with — a property he could develop from a wildlife habitat and wetland perspective — I was hardly impressed. Layman that I am, I just couldn't see it.
But Bill had done his homework. And he wasted little time explaining the then subtle, but potentially stunning beauty, in the case of this property, lay more than skin deep.
By Jack Hirt
My father, Jack Hirt, wrote that story, recapping his initial reactions to what would later become our family property in Wood County. The stage was set. The potential was there. I set out to do my part and went about restoring the artificially–drained farmed wetland to about nine acres of shallow water marsh.
Vision and implementation
Following our property's purchase in the spring of 2004, I slogged out across the soggy fields, and in boots pleasantly caked with heavy, reddish–brown clay mud, gazed across a gridwork of straight–line ditches put in place years earlier to expedite runoff through what were basically two natural, but parallel drainages.
It was then that I began to envision plans to plug these ditches, thereby restoring the natural hydrology, and to strategically site low–head earthen berms across the two main drainages to create the classic, shallow, marshland pond habitat ideal for wetland–oriented wildlife. After doing some preliminary design work and on–site soil investigative work, my hopes would be confirmed later on that fall after the crops were harvested. Through elevation surveys, it was shown the farm would easily support a pair of 4– to 5–acre wetland basins.
In a two–phase, learn–as–we–go, process we built one the next year, and the second, roughly parallel to the first, the summer following.
The upland component
With the wetland construction complete and the marshes filling, we could turn our attention to the wildlife habitat potential of the adjacent uplands. My background as a waterfowl hunter and natural resources professional weighed heavily into the decision to establish quality upland grass and forbs cover on the lands surrounding the two wetland basins.
Natural prairie cover would play many ecological roles. First, it would provide secure nesting cover for waterfowl (often second to wetland habitat in terms of what is needed for waterfowl production, yet mightily important). Next, grass cover would filter runoff and prevent erosion, protecting the wetland from excessive nutrient loading.
Furthermore, native prairie would provide habitat for a multitude of wetland edge species and upland species including white–tailed deer, wild turkeys, prairie chickens, amphibians, turtles, American bitterns and upland songbirds.
Another important habitat component to the farm, one which wasn't made fully apparent to us until after wetland construction work began in 2006, was the presence of agricultural crops.
After the first wetland began to fill during the fall of 2006, we witnessed a large flock of mallards (500–plus birds) feeding on waste grain left in neighboring harvested grain fields. The birds would make numerous trips per day from our pond to these harvested grain fields to feed. They began to use our newly created pond as a day roost and, eventually, a night roost.
What we witnessed that first fall opened our eyes to the potential value of retaining some of our farmland in agricultural production. More specifically, we would work with neighboring farmers willing to rent our land for grain crop production, including small grains like winter wheat or oats. Having some small grain production on our farm seemed important because these crops are often harvested in late summer and provide feed in the form of waste grain for waterfowl early in the fall staging period.
By 2013, I had witnessed our wetland and grassland restoration work mature into a highly functional habitat. It seemed that with every passing year, I saw more and more species calling it home. From the small and reclusive sora rail to the large and stately tundra swan, we welcomed them all.
We have observed successful Canada goose, mallard, blue–winged teal and wood duck production. The wetlands shine in their role of staging waterfowl in the spring and fall. We have had every migratory species that funnels through central Wisconsin stop to feed and rest for a time in the spring. In the fall we see periodic buildups of local ducks starting in early September. Geese come and go all fall long.
The upland cover has produced turkey and white–tailed deer hunting opportunities. We apply relatively little hunting pressure overall, content for the most part to enjoy having the critters — the fruits of our labor — around.
It should be noted that we are proud hunters. And we do hunt the waterfowl that use our wetlands a couple of times per season.
The work continues, though, as annual maintenance is key.
Berms are mowed annually to maintain vegetation and eradicate tree growth. Wetlands are surveyed annually for the presence of invasive species such as purple loosestrife and reed canary grass. We control the invasives by chemical (spraying) and mowing. At times berm repairs are needed to address muskrat and groundhog tunneling and we've used local trappers for rodent control. With the exception of an initial planting of 10 pounds of wild rice seed, the lush stands of native aquatic perennials currently present (broad–leafed arrowhead, burreed, soft–stem bullrush, sago pondweed and water plantain) have occurred naturally.
The whole process, from early design stages to finished product and continuing maintenance, though not always easy, has been one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had. Dad's field of dreams is a wetland restored.
William Hirt is a DNR wildlife technician at the Mead Wildlife Area.