Photo © Chesapeake Bay Program

Losing Ground

Wetlands have historically been regarded by land stakeholders as unusable or undesirable. As a consequence, much of the U.S.’s wetlands have been converted to agricultural use and otherwise developed over the last century. A handful of people around the country, those who converse easily about the virtues of different hip waders and pluck leaches off without ceremony, have long recognized what makes wetlands such valuable wildlife habitat: productivity!

Aquatic plant and invertebrate diversity is very high in wetlands, and there is a corresponding high diversity of other animals, including birdsopen_in_new. What separates wetlands from ponds is their higher percent coverage of emergent vegetation-think lots of plants to eat and hidden places to tuck away nests. Wetlands and marshes are usually shallow enough to support a variety of wading birds, like Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, or White-faced Ibis, but deep enough to foster populations of fish, amphibians, snakes, mammals, and invertebrates. From bitterns and rails to blackbirds and sparrows, you would be hard-pressed to see a wider array of birds in one habitat type than are present in wetlands. This concentration of birds also prompts avian predators, like Peregrine Falcons, to stalk the marshes and mudflats for an easy meal.

American Avocet

This elegant American Avocet is making mud look fashionable.

Photo © Cynthia Mathre-Thayer

The Glory of Mud

Mudflats, or the mud exposed at low tide or by deliberate drawdown, may seem like a mucky mess to the untrained eye, but the savvy birdwatcher knows that mudflats attract flocks of shorebirds migrating from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to their southerly winter homes. In fact, mudflats are so important to birds that many National Wildlife Refuges intentionally create mudflat areas in some of their wetlands. Most of the feeding action happens very quickly, making it hard to see what exactly the birds are eating (but you can get a glimpse here). At inland areas, mostly invertebrates and their larvae (like midges) are eaten. At the coast, horseshoe crab eggs, shellfish, and worms are a significant component of the shorebird diet. Many shorebird species face declining numbers due to challenges such as the loss of habitat, over-hunting (both of the birds and of their favorite foods), and disease (such as botulism). You can help by birdwatching from a safe distance and not allowing dogs off leash at the beach.

Green Heron

A Green Heron prepares for liftoff in this mucky wetland.

Photo © Gary Witt

Bald Cypress

The buttressed bases of the Bald Cypress are a familiar sight in southeastern swamps.

Photo © Robyn Bailey

Pro Tip

When you buy a Federal Duck Stamp, 98 cents of every dollar spent is used to purchase or lease wetlands for habitat protection for waterfowl. As a bonus, your stamp also gets you free admission to any National Wildlife Refuge!

Don’t Be a Wet Blanket

Wetlands provide the greatest benefit to birds when a mixture of plants are available, so if you have a wetland on your land, try not to allow one species of plant to dominate the habitat. Invasive species, like purple loosestrife, are especially prone to colonizing wet areas, but natives such as cattails can spread prolifically, too. To protect water quality while managing invasive species, exhaust manual methods of weed-killing first before applying herbicides. Cutting, pulling, smothering, or burning can be effective, and if you decide that herbicides are necessary to reclaim a choked-out marsh, consult a professional. Inappropriately-applied herbicides (such as those not approved for wetlands or incorrect amounts of approved products) will harm the integrity of the marsh and counteract your good intentions. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for help with identifying invasive plants which could quickly threaten your wetland. Plant native aquatic plants instead, especially productive ones like arrowheads, common duckweed, Pennsylvania smartweed, Sago pondweed, or bulrushes. Encroaching woody species, even native ones, can turn your wetland into a brushy field, so if you’ve noticed a gradual drop in the wetland birds using your property, it might be time to consider measures for keeping your wetland, well, wet. To learn more about how you can help out with a wetland improvement program near you, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s Adopt a Watershed program.

Add a Wetland to your Map!


Photo ©

First, find the wetland habitat tool to outline the wetland area on your map. It is located in the Tool Shed under Second. Scroll to the right using the arrows on the toolbar that pops up to find the wetland habitat. Click it once to select it then click on the map where’d you’d like to start tracing the habitat.You can always change it’s size, shape, and position using the lock/unlock from editing box.


Photo ©

Double click on the wetland on your map to add important data and show off your conservation efforts. You can give your wetland a name or title in Basic Information. Then click Characteristics to tell us about it. Is it a fen, a marsh, or a vernal pool? Do you manage it for native plants and wildlife? Don’t forget, you can also make comments about the wetland and upload pictures. Show us the plants and wildlife that use this habitat.