Creating habitat in your creek
If you have a creek on your property, you can expect to see some great wildlife. As you know, water is necessary for life, and your creek may be the only drinking water in the area for many animals. There are a number of simple steps that you can take to make this great resource even more beneficial to wildlife.
Identify habitat requirements in short supply
Habitat provides sources of food, water, shelter, and space. Just to keep things tricky, not all animals like the same type of habitat. When looking at a creek as habitat, the more diverse the creek and its surroundings, the greater it will be for a diverse mix of species. If you have a creek that has no change in flow, no shade, and is in a deep eroded channel, then the only way you can go is up. A healthy stream habitat has bends (meanders). These naturally provide areas of fast and slow, and shallow and deep, areas of water. A healthy stream has vegetation shading the water. This shade keeps the water cooler, increasing it ability to hold dissolved oxygen for fish and other aquatic life to breathe. A healthy stream has a variety of plants surrounding it providing food and shelter. So how can we create this in our own creek?
Creating a Diverse Habitat
To create a diverse stream habitat, we have to think about two different areas: in stream, and the riparian area (land surrounding the creek).
Riparian: Leave a buffer around the edge
If you mow grass all the way up to the
edge of the creek, it can cause problems for you as well as the wildlife. Lawn grass does not have deep roots, and so it is unable to provide protection to erosion of the stream bank. Prairie plants, trees, and shrubs, with their long roots act as natural armor for your creek banks. These same plants will also provide shelter to wildlife as they will not feel as exposed then they stop off for a drink.
Riparian: Be careful with chemicals on your property
Anything you use on your land has the potential to wash into the creek. With water flowing downhill, it has the energy to pick up pollutants and carry these to the creek. When you use chemicals such as fertilizer, make sure to read the instructions so that you do not over apply. Also keep a buffer between where you use these chemicals and the creek.
Riparian: Look for sources of erosion
Eroded soil not only carries pollutants that can be bound to it, it also covers up all the nooks and crannies which make great habitat on the creek bed. Look for eroded areas on your property, and assess the best way to remediate it. This could be through a simple fix such as adding groundcover plants, or could involve more work such as adding in terraced landscaping. If you are having an erosion issue on your property, whether residential or agricultural, you can contact Butler SWCD for free technical advice.
Riparian: Vertical structure
Vertical structure describes the different layers of vegetation extending from the ground up to the tree canopy. These layers of structure provide cover, nesting, roosting and food for a diversity of wildlife. Birds generally tend to forage, nest and spend most of their time in a particular canopy layer. Eastern towhees and brown thrashers feed on the ground and use dense brush found in lower layers of vegetation. Wrens, northern cardinals and northern mockingbirds also forage for food in low-growing shrubs and use the mid-canopy of trees. Red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers and many warblers tend to nest and forage in the upper canopy of mature trees. (Missouri Extension).
In Stream: Shade
Just as we appreciate the shade in the summer time, so does aquatic life. Temperature sets the pace of nearly every living organism—from caddisflies to the bacteria that cycle essential nutrients. Most notably, water temperature affects fish. Direct sunlight is the primary contributor to daily swings in water temperature. The changes in sunlight not only effect water temperature, it also leads on to changes in the amount of oxygen available to fish and other aquatic life.
Although water molecules contain an oxygen atom, this oxygen is not what is needed by aquatic organisms living in natural waters. A small amount of oxygen, up to about ten molecules of oxygen per million of water, is actually dissolved in water. Cold water can hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water. In winter and early spring, when the water temperature is low, the dissolved oxygen concentration is high. In summer and fall, when the water temperature is high, the dissolved-oxygen concentration is often lower. This is true also for ponds and lakes, (USGS.gov). Essentially, shade is important for keeping creeks cool and oxygenated in the warmer months. As a bonus, this shady vegetation will also provide habitat for birds, squirrels, and other critters that visit your creek.
In Stream: Overhanging vegetation
Overhanging vegetation not only provides shade, but if it is hanging into the actual water also provides shelter and food. Many creatures such as dragonflies utilize his overhanging vegetation to climb out of the water prior to their final molt as they develop into adults.
In Stream: Woody debris in the creek
Traditionally, large wood is removed from streams in an effort to clean up stream channels and to prevent localized flooding. However, it provides many habitat benefits. Exposed logs are used as basking and perching sites for reptiles and birds. Fallen trees create cover and hiding places for fish and other aquatic organisms. As water flows over and around large wood, localized scouring of the bed and banks creates pools and undercut banks that provide additional shelter and act as resting areas for fish. Finer substrate, such as small gravel, is typically deposited upstream of large wood as flows are slowed, which is an important spawning habitat for some fish species. Large wood helps feed the aquatic food chain from the bottom up. Wood provides a surface for algae to grow on and often traps smaller sticks, leaves, and other organic material, all of which are food sources for a variety of aquatic macroinvertebrates, which in turn are food for many species of fish, amphibian, reptile, and bird. (Penn State Extension).
Go with the Flow
A creek is a naturally dynamic landform. We should never expect them to stay the same. Erosion may cut back into the bank in one location, but in another you may have deposition creating more land. Take time to appreciate this wonderful wildlife asset that you have on your property. Remember, as you improve the habitat, you may be paid back by nature. Freshwater aquatic habitats that are functional for a diverse number of species are less likely to have issues with problem critters such as mosquitoes!
Know the Law
Under Ohio common law the owner of the land beside the stream also owns the land beneath it. If the land on each side is owned by two different owners, then each owns to the center of the stream unless otherwise specified by the landowners' deeds. This does not provide landowners with permission to make changes to where the stream flows on their property, etc. Any in-stream work requires permits from the US Army Corp of Engineers and the Ohio EPA depending upon the size of the stream and the project. You also need to check with the local Flood Plain Manager and the Zoning department to determine if there are any other requirements. The Ohio Stream Management Guide has a wealth of information on this.
If you have questions or concerns over the creek on your property, feel free to contact Butler Soil and Water Conservation District at 513-887-3720 or at firstname.lastname@example.org