Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Little Piece of Swampy Heaven

To celebrate Andrew's and I's Wetlands Week, I'm going to gush on reason #532381 that I love the Saint Louis Zoo: the Cypress Swamp (or, Erin's Thinkin' Place).

The 1904 World's Fair Flight Cage is the one of only two standing structures left from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (yes, it's true! The World's Fair Pavilion in Forest Park wasn't built until 1910. The Art Museum is actually the other building). The people of St. Louis loved the aviary so much that it was purchased from the Smithsonian and handed over to the Saint Louis Zoological Society (which was, and still is, municipal supported) and became one of the cornerstones of the Zoo as it is today.

In 2004, the walk through aviary received a major facelift and became the Cypress Swamp. Missouri and Southern Illinois are part of the Mississippi delta and boast some of the most beautiful wetlands in the United States; the Cypress Swamp is a beautiful ambassador to the majesty of these rapidly declining wetlands.

The thing is, before people realized wetlands were really great at keeping upland places dry and biodiverse, they were basically seen as mosquito factories with no applicable value (a detrimental thought process that proved to be a huge mistake on Florida's part, which I'll write about later this week!). However, because wetlands are great places for nutrients to gather as groundwater gets recycled, when drained the land becomes excellent farmland with nutrient-rich soil. As agrarian as the Midwest (and North America in general) is, one can see how it is that wetlands themselves are on the verge of extinction. 

Today we know so much more about the necessity, both inherent and applicable, of watersheds and wetlands and yet the public perception surrounding the importance of these places still has a long way to go. The Cypress Swamp is an excellent retreat as well as an essential educational tool.

Boasting a variety of  native Facultative (can do equally well with or without water innundation), Obligate (must be inundated at least part of the year), and Upland (don't do so hot being submerged) plants, the Cypress Swamp greets you as an oasis of green. Upon entering, the sights, sounds, and smells of a Cypress Wetland surround zoo visitors while various North American native birds go about their business in the aviary.

Egrets, Ibis, Green Herons, Night Herons, Canvasback, Ruddy, and Wood ducks are just some of the birds encountered swimming in the water, walking on the boardwalk, or watching from the trees. One of my favorite species of bird, the Double Crested Cormorant, even has a few locals taking up residence. It's amazing how many people living in Missouri and Southern Illinois had no idea that these interesting birds lived in the area - often I hear "are they from Africa?" or they assume these came from China, where other species of cormorants call home. The three cormies in the Swamp have especially big personalities and are found most often sitting near (or on!) the boardwalk as if they themselves are just passing through on a leisurely visit. 

By far, the most colorful birds in the Cypress Swamp are the Roseate Spoonbills. Although only found once in a blue moon in the Midwest, these pink birds are very common in southern wetlands. I remember being excited at seeing one in the wild when I moved to Tampa for college - previously, I had only seen them at the Zoo! The Spoonbills are probably one of the best named birds (can you see why?). They use their spoon-like bills to scoop up aquatic insects, crustaceans, and small fish from shallow water and gain their pink plumage the same way flamingos do - caratenoids from their diet. Currently, there is a pair nesting in the Swamp. The morning is my favorite time to be in the Swamp - the birds are active, the shade is plentiful, and the air is cool. It's a very peaceful time and maybe one of the most serene experiences found at the Zoo. 

Of course, 16 or so species of birds and various species of plants an ecosystem does not make. To compensate for the lack of biodiversity within the Cypress Swamp, there are interactive exhibits and signage that weaves a tale of how wetlands provide homes for a variety of different kinds of life. Pressing a hand to a sign, one can hear the call of a Bald Eagle, or feel the heat generated by a patch of Skunk Cabbage, find a Swamp Rabbit, or watch an Alligator Snapping Turtle blow bubbles in the water (not adequately represented: the fact that they facilitate oxygen through their cloaca, i.e, breathe out their butt). The Cypress Swamp wouldn't live up to its name if it didn't represent the pneumataphores (knees) of cypress trees sticking up out of the water (these knees help plants, like cypress and mangroves, to take in oxygen despite being rooted underwater). There's a soft groundspace to stand on, where one can feel what a wetland's soil is like standing on top of. It's kind of bouncy because the soil is so inundated. And the smell! The smell of wet, decaying plant matter, although offensive to some, is earthy and refreshing to me. 

People think I'm crazy that a swamp - one of those icky, nasty, bug filled stink factories - is one of my favorite places to be, but really I'm just simulating the experience of the grandeur of a real swamp until the time comes when I have the time and income to explore the wild wetlands of the world myself. I love educating people about the importance of wetlands* and I urge, for my sake, for your sake, for the sake of these beautiful, mysterious, and oh-so important ecosystems, that you go out and explore a swamp as soon as possible. Take pictures. Wade in the muck. Look for birds, and mammals, and dragonflies, and try to figure out which plants need to live in water and which ones don't. Explore. And if you can't do that, you're always welcome to visit me at the Zoo. You know where to find me. 

* There is another part of the Zoo, on River's Edge, that is supposed to be a Missouri Ozark cabin. It talks about the importance of wetlands and how flooding can be alleviated by wetlands (which act as a natural sponge for rainwater and flooding), but rarely is used to its full potential. It's on my to-do list.

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