Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hitler Pond

Wow! The resiliency of seedbanks never ceases to amaze me. Not far from Circleville, in Pickaway County, is a small former prairie slough named, at least by botanists, Hitler Pond. That's the name of the family that settled the immediate area. Legendary Pickaway County farmer/botanist Floyd Bartley is the one who put this postage stamp-sized wetland on the map, when he discovered a number of rare plants there long ago. Foremost among them was Rocky Mountain Bulrush, Schoenoplectus saximontanus, a prairie sedge normally found much further west; Floyd's Pickaway County record is by far the easternmost station. I think he discovered it at Hitler Pond in the 1940's. No one has seen it at this site in three decades or more.

The former prairie around Hitler Pond has long been converted to beans, corn, and wheat, and miles of subsurface drainage tiles works to siphon water promptly. I've been dropping by Hitler Pond annually for over a decade, and until last year it was dry as a bone. A few years of above normal precipitation, and possibly some clogged tiles, have reconstituted the hydrology of this remarkable little wetland. Not much came up last year, though, although for the first time in a long time the farmer couldn't plant crops over the entire wetland.

This year, Cincinnati botanist Dan Boone was first on the scene, making a stop at Hitler Pond a week or so ago. He was greeted by a stunning spectacle.

Hitler Pond 2008. Several acres of plants that make a botanist quake in his boots and tremble with excitement. This is the sight that greeted Dan on arrival, and I'm sure he quickly rushed in to settle the score with some longlost plants. And he did make some good finds.

An acre or so of this beauty!This is an arrowhead relative, endangered in Ohio, known by the geeky name of Bur-head, or Echinodorus berteroi if you will. Thousands of plants; the biggest site for it in the state, I suspect. Bur-head is conspicuous, it surely hasn't been above ground here in a long time.

Dan also quickly rediscovered the missing Rocky Mountain Bulrush; it had been here along, just dormant in the seedbank. Sedges like this have tiny seeds known as achenes, which are hard and bony. The plant's strategy is to come up in droves when conditions are favorable, produce bumper crops of millions of these minute achenes, which then permeate the soil. In habitats such as this, drought, overgrowth by larger plants, or other factors might mean that plants like the Bur-head and bulrush have but a few good growing years before being displaced. But their banks accounts are filled, so to speak. Those achenes can lie dormant in the seedbank for decades, probably centuries in some cases. Then, something stimulates favorable conditions, and BOOM! Everything is back with a vengeance. The Rocky Mountain Bulrush, pictured above, covered a big swath of the wetland. Inestimable thousands of its achenes will be produced this summer, refilling the dirt bank account.

I dropped in to Hitler Pond last Saturday, July 26, to see the spectacle, to which Dan had kindly tipped me off about. The Bur-head was obvious from the car. Didn't take long to spot the less conspicuous Rocky Mountain Bulrush. But as I waded out, one of the first things that caught my eye was this sea of spikerush. It looks a lot like the very common Blunt Spikerush, Eleocharis obtusa, but the very elongate cylindrical brown spikelets grabbed my eye. I collected a bunch, and took it back for later inspection. As confirmed independently by ODNR botanist Rick Gardner the next day, it is a major rarity: Engelmann's Spikerush, Eleocharis engelmannii. Prior to this find, this endangered plant was known from only one modern record in Ohio, up near Lake Erie. Now, we have a sea of it covering a large swath of Hitler Pond. Someone will need to go back and look at Bartley's collections of Blunt Spikerush. I suspect they'll find an Eleocharis engelmannii amongst them, collected long ago at Hitler Pond. If so, can't really blame Floyd for not recognizing it - these spikerushes aren't easy. If I had a good enough macro lens, I'd share a photo of one of the tiny achenes, the characters of which clinch the ID.

Not coincidentally, this wetland is perhaps two miles or so from the now famous Black Rail nesting site at Charlie's Pond. This has been a good year for Ohio's former prairies and the flora and fauna that once occupied them. The Bellevue sloughs and the nesting Black-necked Stilts are another example of some prairies doing well in a wet year.

Thanks to Dan Boone for checking in on a long-lost prairie slough and bringing these amazing finds to light.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great finds! a result of all the rains that have occurred this summer in central oh?

cece

Aaron Boone said...

Jim...is this property private or might there be roadside access? Too bad we didn't hit this area earlier in the summer. ~Aaron Boone

Jim McCormac said...

Hi CeCe and Aaron,

I think the resurgence of these plants is due to a few wet seasons, and probably also some clogged drain tiles. That's allowed the seedbank two full growing seasons to emerge, and the wetland isn't getting plowed over. Once we have some drier weather, and/or the tiles get fixed, I imagine the amazing Hitler Pond wetland will once again become arid and beans, corn, or wheat.

It is on private property, right along a road. However, because of the nature of the site and surrounding land uses, it probably did not produce much in the way of breeding birds. I think the magic bullet at Charlie's Pond, that stimulated the Black Rails, Least Bittern, and other good nesters, was the placement of hundreds of adjacent acres into CRP/tallgrass prairie. Hitler Pond is surrounded by corn.

Jim

Anonymous said...

FYI - The species was first collected from this site in 1936 and last collected in 1979. Rick G.

Tom said...

Amazing site. It is fascinating that it took so long for this plant to be added to "the list". Has anyone ever checked this pond for spadefoot toads tadpoles? They also respond to heavy rain years, although a little more frequently than this Scirpus.

Tom

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Tom,

Interesting thought about Eastern Spadefoots, but I think the soil may not be sandy enough for those little digging toads. Plus, the long-term surrounding land use probably hasn't been conducive to a relict population at Hitler Pond. But, never say never! You'll have to venture down on a warm rainy night and see!

Jim