Sweet Briar will be quieter in the last days of September, when classes are suspended for two reading days and many students travel home or afield. In their place will be more than 40 ecologists, wildlife biologists and forestry professionals from nine states.
They will be on campus for the Isolated Wetlands Conference and Vernal Pond Building Workshop Sept. 28 through 30. Participants will learn how to restore fragile wetlands and create new ones. Mike Hayslett, a natural resource educator and researcher, is organizing the workshop. U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Tom Biebighauser will be a featured presenter.
Best of all, the campus’ spotted salamander population will have its revenge against alien predators.
“Here’s one of them now – the notorious red swamp crayfish,” said Hayslett, pulling a black-meshed trap out of Guion Pond. “They’re big. And we’re going to fry these guys.”
As part of the conference, participants will be treated to a reception and crawfish boil prepared by Elston Inn catering chef Glenton Goodwill. They will snack on crayfish caught in Hayslett’s trap.
“We’re going to try and eat our way to a solution,” said Hayslett, explaining that someone introduced the foreigners – the same species raised in Louisiana farm ponds – into Guion a few years ago. Now their numbers are staggering.
“The college campus has a really nice-sized population of [spotted] salamanders,” Hayslett said. “The problem is that they don’t have a happy home. They don’t have the traditional vernal pool that they need to successfully reproduce.”
Instead, the salamanders migrate each spring to Guion Pond to lay their eggs. Guion, because it is a permanent water source, also harbors creatures such as the crayfish that eat the salamanders’ eggs and young. Although a recent survey found a strong spotted salamander population on campus, the presence of these predators threatens its long-term health.
The salamanders are an example of why vernal pools and isolated wetlands – which typically exist seasonally and apart from traditional water sources – are so important. They are protected breeding grounds for many species.
“It could be a little tiny thing walking through the woods, and there’s a little damp spot, and unless you’re a naturalist, it may not occur to you that it’s a really special habitat,” Sweet Briar biology professor Linda Fink said.
“I think it can be very invisible. These things can be disappearing without many people really knowing they were there in the first place.”
Enter the workshop. The focus of the weekend will be on restoring and creating wetlands.
On Saturday participants will restore a wetland on the College’s campus. Located below Sweet Briar House and above the Nature Center, it likely was destroyed during Sweet Briar’s days as a plantation. Archaeological evidence suggests the area was ditched and drained with clay tiles for agricultural use, Hayslett said.
On Sunday the conference will venture off campus to an industrial site in Amherst County, where Hayslett and Biebighauser have been constructing a true vernal pool (see story in the
Amherst New Era-Progress) to host salamander and freshwater shrimp.
“It’s kind of like a cooking show,” Hayslett said. “Saturday is where people get to see the baking process start to finish. Sunday morning, we’ve got a cake ready to come out of the oven.”
“I think it’s a great workshop to help the broader community learn how to restore wetlands,” Fink said. “I think it’s a wonderful outreach project that can be done at Sweet Briar because we have all this land.”
More than anything, Hayslett is optimistic about spreading the message about the importance of preserving wetlands.
“Hopefully [the conference] will help influence other folks to recognize, ‘Hey, this is worthwhile. Preserving these wetlands is worthwhile, because they’re a unique kind of habitat.’ ”
— Katie Beth Ryan ’08