Waterbugs at Beaver Creek—EcoWatch strikes again

Waterbugs at Beaver Creek—EcoWatch strikes again

By By Quinton E. Hamp ,EcoWatch volunteer & home student

While the rest of you were picking up the children from school and preparing for the Memorial Day weekend, I was sitting cross-legged on a sandbar of Beaver Creek picking macro invertebrates (tiny critters usually only seen, enlarged 50 times, in horror movies) from bits of roots and leaves with a pair of forceps. (Roles reversed—I got to be the monster this time.)

I was not, however, a star in the movie Waterbugs; I was a volunteer for EcoWatch, helping to monitor the stream’s quality. Each spring, volunteers for RiverWatch, EcoWatch’s aquatic branch, spread throughout Illinois gathering data (and macro invertebrates) which are then sent into EcoWatch to be processed and stored as an archive of the state’s environmental health. This was my second year to participate.

I began my morning by oversleeping to exactly 8:37:34 (military time) at which point Mom hollered down the steps something about being late. After inhaling breakfast and swinging by Walgreens to pick up one of those neat electronic mosquito repellers, I managed to arrive at our meeting place before the other volunteers: a biology teacher from Kishwaukee College who led our study, and one of his former students.

When they arrived, I loaded myself and my gear into the professor’s blazer, and discussing intelligent things such as bag cell phones and LPs, we headed for our destination. Upon arrival, we slathered up with insect repellant—mine being the herbal stuff that repels all insects (and humans) within a 20-mile radius, and divvied up the supplies (I took the smallest load) for a short hike to the creek.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the area, an oasis in a desert of cornfields. Picking a strand of Garlic Mustard to chew on (the deer won’t touch the stuff), I set out helping to mark 200 feet of creek for our study area.

After determining the air and water temperature, my next job was to draw a sketch of the creek area. With my most recent drawings dating back to kindergarten, I spent the next hour or so scratching out something that vaguely resembled the gurgling stream in front of me. (I plan to submit it in the next modern art competition I find.) Thankfully, the other volunteers didn’t want the job, so my sketch passed easily.

While I was sketching, the other two had put on the waders and were conducting various experiments such as foliage density, for which you have to stand in the creek in four different places and stare straight up to determine the amount of foliage above (“I can’t see, the sun’s in my eyes!”), or digging around the creek bottom for any number of reasons specified in “The Manual.”

Then we tried to determine how much mud there actually was on the bottom. Half an hour later, we came to the profound conclusion that there were actually four types of mud. Our creek was predominately silt and gravel with a smaller percentage of larger rocks defined as “cobble” and one boulder. All of this went dutifully into my notebook, along with the percentages, in the writing of a wannabe doctor.

The Manual said to determine the speed of the creek, so I fished a plastic golf ball from the pile of equipment and tossed it to my partners, who were “exactly” 10 feet apart from each other. With me officially clocking the time, we floated the plastic ball downstream three times. I think I’ll apply to clock the duck race this year.

We then came to the “rock shuffle” (believed to be a Native American dance invented by the Creek Indians) that lasts three minutes and thoroughly exercises all of the lower muscles. I squeezed my size 13 foot into the size 8 waders and, with cramped toes screaming, began kicking around in the rocks upstream “one foot from the net” my partner was holding. (A note to all future rock shufflers—don’t try this with Garlic Mustard in your mouth.) This procedure was repeated twice, once in calm riffles, and once in fast, flowing water. The rocks from both events were emptied into a bucket from which we would later extract the macro invertebrates.

After that, we waded around looking for a pile of organic matter to which creepy crawlies cling. We finally found one, and dumping it into the bucket alongside the rocks, began the process of sorting through with forceps, looking for the macro invertebrates.

This is actually the best part, as it allows you to rest your weary legs on the pointed rocks as you chase one critter after another and try to not pinch them in two. In fact, the official count was somewhere around “45-1/2 macro invertebrates” after one of my partners decided I wasn’t allowed to count both halves of one unfortunate little feller.

The final section consisted of cleaning our supplies, collecting our markers, and determining if we had seen any Zebra mussels, in which case we were to collect a sample. I asked how I was supposed to tell a zebra’s muscles from a horse’s muscles; had the zoo in Cherry Valley been missing any to begin with, and what about MY muscles, which were beginning to hurt? OK, so I do know what Zebra mussels are, and if you ever see them, please report them to your local Department of Natural Resources. Also, don’t forget to check your boat’s hull before and after use to ensure you don’t spread these hitchhikers.

Overall, I found the day to be very rewarding, and was pleased that my ode’ de Pennyroyal and “skeeter scarer” seemed to do the job… although its constant whine had the same monotony of the classical performance, Mosquito in F Minor. In my opinion, I thought the creek was in great condition, although I must admit that the official decision is best left to the poor scientist staring at my sketch.

Quinton Hamp is a Rockford home school student with an interest in medicine and the environment. He served as an EcoWatch volunteer this year.

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