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Kids: Discover Creek Critters

If you look at a creek, it's much more than just a bunch of moving water. There are nooks and crannies under rocks, holes in tree root clumps, and sneaky hiding spots in vegetation. These different areas provide awesome habitat for a wide variety of critters. Don't just look for just fish and frogs, there are many types of other animals like teeny tiny baby dragonflies, crawdads, and much more.

If you look in the areas where the water is shallow, but moving fast over the rocks, these areas are called riffles. As the water tumbles over the rocks, it adds oxygen, a basic need for all the animals. This is often the best place to pick up some of the rocks and look on the bottom of them. There are often lots of little creatures crawling around. Some creatures, like helgrammites (shown here) even live in the sediment in these area. Make sure to carefully place the rocks back, the same way you found them.

If you look in the larger pools, you might spot some creatures that prefer slow moving water (like this water scorpion), or even fish. Fish like to hang around tree roots as they feel protected. ODNR has a great guide on common stream fish and another on the sportfish of Ohio.

Also make sure to look at places where plants are growing in the water. Remember, each different habitat provides varying resources (food, shelter, etc), and so often has different critters for you to find,

Pollution and the Critters

We can have a massive impact on the critters we find in a creek. When we drop trash in our neighborhoods, or someone doesn't pick up after their pets, this pollution can wash into our storm drains. These drains go underground to the nearest waterway (creek, pond, river), and they don't get cleaned on this journey.

Pollution makes it harder for organisms to live in a stream. Some species are much more sensitive to pollution than others. By studying the animals in the creek, we can form an idea of how good the water quality is. This is due to some animals being able to live with more, or less pollution than others. Scientists divided these into different categories depending upon how much pollution they can tolerate (live with). Some charts use 3 groups, some 4.

Tolerant means that the plant, bug, or animal can survive with higher levels of pollution. They laugh in the face of danger! Examples are: leech, worm, and sowbug (aquatic cousin to a roly-poly).

Intolerant or Sensitive means these little guys can't live for much time with pollution as it will kill them. Examples are: water penny larvae, stonefly, and dobsonfly (another name for helgrammite).

Semi-Tolerant or Semi-Sensitive would be those critters that cn handle some pollution, but not too much. They would prefer perfect water quality, but can live with a little pollution. Examples are: dragonfly larvae, crayfish, and mayfly.

Identify the Creatures

This dichotomous key ID from the Izaak Walton League asks questions like "does it have legs?"

Great bug id chart available from the University of Wisconsin.

Biotic Index--University of Wisconsin
Download PD • 111KB

Life in the River ID Sheet

Download PDF • 583KB

Life in a Pond ID Sheet

Download PDF • 143KB


Creek Critters app was developed by the Izaak Walton League. This app guides you step by step through the process of finding and identifying bugs in your stream. Perfect for families, public programs, and even as a solo activity, Collect bugs by following simple step-by-step instructions, and identify your bugs with an interactive identification key. Once you’ve identified your bugs, Creek Critters does the rest! The app automatically calculates your Stream Health Score based on your findings. This score can tell you how healthy your stream is! Links to the apple and google play apps are available at

Wildlife Guides - ODNR has guides on a lot of creatures including, amphibians, stream fish, dragonflies, and spiders. They currently are experiencing technical issues with their website, but the guidebooks should be up and available again soon.

What do you need to get started?

You don't need much:

  1. Make sure everyone is wearing shoes that can get wet. It is not a god idea to go shoe-less. Some rocks are sharp, and occasionally you find broken glass.

  2. Nets are great, but not needed. You'll often have more luck, just picking up rocks and looking at their underside. If you do want nets, you don't have to spend big bucks. I've had a lot of luck using the tiny cheap nets that you can get in pet stores for aquariums.

  3. Container to admire your critters in. I usually take some old, clean tubs like those from yogurt or cream cheese to place the bug in briefly. Remember, to release them fairly quickly before they get low on oxygen.

  4. ID sheets like those I posted above are helpful if you want the kids to learn more about their finds.

  5. Sanitizer for when you are done.

Make sure you establish a few rules for your kids.

  1. When I lead creek programs (watch our website to see when/if these will resume this summer), I make a rule that the kids can't go deeper than knee deep, unless they have received permission. This is important for safety, and also if you don't want completely drenched kids getting back in the car. It is especially important at creeks such as Four Mile at Antenan Park in New Miami as the water gets really deep at the bend.

  2. Its also important to educate the kids that these are living creatures and so we have to respect them. Be gentle, and don't hold them too tight.

  3. Always use wet hands when you touch a critter you find in the stream (bugs, fish, salamanders, frogs, etc.)!

  4. If you have hand sanitizer on, do not touch any stream critters. They can absorb the hand sanitizer through their skin and it can be harmful to them.

  5. Don't keep aquatic animals out of the water as they won't be able to breathe - think of fish and their gills.

  6. If you turn rocks over, make sure you put them back the same way. If you flip them over, you may leave some of the critters high and dry. Kind of like a giant coming along and flipping your house upside-down: it would be hard for you to live there.

  7. Most importantly, don't kidnap the critters. The creek is their home, where they have all of their basic needs met, No matter how hard you try, you won't be able to replicate it at home.

Learn More about the Creeks and Park Access

Our typical creeking programs with Metroparks of Butler County are on hold due to the coronavirus. Each week, we hope to post more info and a short video highlighting the creeks that we are missing out on.

Rentchler Forest

Elk Creek at Sebald Park

Forest Run Pond Study

Don't forget the river banks

Make sure to check out the river banks as well as you can find evidence of animals that visit the creek such as raccoon or deer tracks. You can also find some other awesome critters like this horsehair worm we found near the edge of Four Mile Creek in Milford Twp.

Have fun and share your pictures with us #ButlerSWCD


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