Wild Stewardship

As we entered the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy’s Wells Bay Preserve, we headed straight to the lakeshore. Sort of. I have to admit we were distracted and delayed quite a few times along the way by some wonderful wildflowers and spring ephemerals. But we got there as fast as nature nerds are able to walk through the woods. When we were still a few yards from the lake, we spotted what looked like a black and white blob in the water just offshore. We froze as we tried to decide what we were looking at. Then, the blob rolled over, and we realized it was a loon. Farther out, we could see another. I snapped several photos as they stretched and flapped their wings, then slowly swam away.

On another fieldwork excursion to the Dobbins Woods Preserve, I noticed a small orange figure sitting completely still atop a log. This very cooperative little red eft didn’t seem to mind the paparazzi at all as I snapped away with my camera. We walked through a stand of hemlock and yellow poplar, admiring some deep red lacquered polypore fungus, trillium and tiny hepatica flowers along the way, until we came to a mucky depression full of skunk cabbage and lovely marsh marigolds.

Rewind to my very first visit to the Chautauqua Creek East Branch Preserve last spring. The beaver pond was like an oasis. I couldn’t wait to get down there and explore. As I made my way down the hill and through the muck, my eye was drawn to dark silhouettes in the sky. A hawk was being chased by two crows. I took photos as they maneuvered through the air, the crows dive-bombing the hawk. Eventually the hawk left, and the crows went back to their business. I tried not to trip over all the small chewed-off stumps as I continued along the edge of the pond, admiring the extensive work of the beavers. There were multiple dams, creating a series of beautiful ponds all at different levels. Frogs squealed and launched into the water as they heard me coming. I found coyote tracks in the mud, and a little closer to the water, there were heron tracks. Dragonflies whizzed past me as a red-winged blackbird called. Then, another dark silhouette in the sky and a familiar “croak!” The great blue heron scolded me for interrupting her fishing trip.

I could recount a myriad of similar experiences I’ve had on field visits to CWC preserves, each one an illustration of why we’ve conserved these important watershed lands. The Common Loon is listed as a Species of Special Concern in New York state. As a bird that spends most of its time in the water because its short legs can’t maneuver on land, the loon is dependent on clean, healthy lakes and the streams and lands that deliver clean water to them. Amphibians like the red eft absorb water (and any contaminants in that water) through their skin. Because they are continually threatened with habitat destruction and degradation, the conservation of forested wetlands is critical to their long-term survival. When beavers build their dams, they create rich wetland habitat for a slew of other species as well. Wetlands filter out sediments and contaminants from water on its way to our lakes. Conserving wetlands like the impressive series of beaver ponds at the Chautauqua Creek East Branch Preserve protects both habitat and water quality.

To have some fantastic nature encounters of your own, I encourage you to visit our 17 Nature Preserves located throughout Chautauqua County. If you’d like to get more deeply involved in helping to protect your favorite CWC Preserve, we invite you to become a preserve steward. Because “conservation” doesn’t end when a property is acquired, we need the help of dedicated, nature-loving volunteers. That’s where stewards come in. CWC Preserve Stewards help with the yearly monitoring and maintenance of a specific preserve, and they are an invaluable aid to our conservation efforts. Stewards make a real difference in watershed protection by doing what they already love to do. We are currently seeking several preserve stewards, so please contact us if you’re interested in learning more about how you can get involved.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit land trust and watershed education organization that works to protect water quality through the conservation of lands that store, filter and deliver clean water to the county’s lakes, streams and wells. The CWC promotes healthy watershed practices and offers technical assistance and land consultations to landowners through its Healthy Landscaping-Healthy Waters Program. For more information or to sign up for CWC’s eNews club, visit chautauquawatershed.org or email info@chautauquawatershed.org.