A Muddy Floodplain


Unfortunately, due to the fickle nature of cell phone batteries in the cold, this is the only photo documentation I have of my last visit to the intervale

The last time I visited my phenology place the landscape was covered in a thick sheet of ice. A month later, that ice has been traded for mud. Once the tires of my bike left the firm surface of maintained roads, it immediately became clear that the infamous New England mud season is upon us. Nearly all of the ice present just one month ago is now gone, aside from some larger slabs on the bank of the Winooski. The river itself has melted too, and it was flowing at a much higher level. Melt at the surface supported by a still impermeable layer of frost in the ground has caused the whole floodplain forest and agricultural fields to become waterlogged.

The center of my phenology place was at a transition point, caught in a tug of war between spring and the remnants of winter. The weather reflected that: it was lightly snowing, with temperatures in the mid-30s. The ground was still covered with thick, though crumbling, slabs of ice. On top of that ice, however, the river has deposited about two inches of sediment, causing the area to be a treacherous mucky mess full of sinkholes and thin ice that made walking a challenge. I still find it almost unbelievable that the river could reach a level high enough to wash sediments several feet up the shore, but the evidence of flooding is there. I’d like to see the river when it is swelled with melt and rainwater, but maybe only from a safe distance. The power of the river is fascinating, but also makes me wary of the how much of an influence hydrology has on the landscape.

The battle I saw last month occurring between a leaning silver maple and river ice has continued, and the Winooski is winning. The silver maple in the cover photo of the blog that arcs at nearly a 45-degree angle over the river is now leaning almost level with the ground. The continuous pull of ice that has embedded the tree in conjunction with the suddenly muddy terrain seems to have caused the tree to lose its footing.

There were more signs of active wildlife yesterday. Crows had a heavier presence than ever. Hundreds flocked in the fields around my place, and there was rarely a silent moment uninterrupted by their incessant cawing. Birds-maybe a crow, maybe something else, also left white specks from their droppings on top of the otherwise brown mud. That mud that now covers everything also tells another story. A small set of tracks with a gait that was unmistakable as that of a bounder pattered across the ice on the shore. Due to the small print size, about 1″, I would guess that the animal that left the trail was most likely a weasel or a mink. I expect to see even more signs of life in the coming months as spring truly takes its hold on the landscape.

Aside from direct observations, I’ve learned quite a bit about the landscape of my place through Vermont ANR’s Biofinder site as well as the field guide Wetland, Woodland, Wildland. My phenology place is located in a Silver Maple-Ostrich Fern Riverine Floodplain Forest. The site is on a riverbank with the dominant tree being Silver Maple. The substrate is course, wet sediment at low elevations, which supports species such boxelder and invasives like buckthorn. I didn’t note the presence of ostrich fern when there were herbaceous plants present at the site, so I’ll have to look for them later in the spring. My site bears a strong resemblance to the Silver Maple-Ostrich Fern community, and Biofinder confirmed my observations. Biofinder also identified the area surrounding my place as a home to rare aquatic animals, a key point of riparian wildlife connectivity, all nestled in a high priority interior forest block. The Winooski River is a body of water with critical significance to the natural surroundings, and it intersects my phenology site in a place that is a patchwork of agricultural and natural landscapes. Doing a bit of research on the area has made me realize that my phenology site is a very interesting place to study, but also a place that holds huge ecological importance.


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