A ray of hope

Photos submitted to Times Observer Water Chestnut once covered all of this area in Audubon’s Big Pond. Years of efforts to pull the plant out has resulted in open water, cattails and a much improved habitat for wildlife.

Nature is resilient. Wildlife and plants have survived asteroid hits, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and more violent disruptions than a person can see in a lifetime. One of the disruptions that is happening now is a slow, insidious moving of plants and animals from one part of the world to another. One of these disruptive invasive plants was found at Audubon in 2006: Water Chestnut.

Only a few Water Chestnut plants were found near the shore that year. A sample was dried and sent in to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where things like that are confirmed and identified. More plants sprouted the following year. A dedicated crew of volunteers and staff members pulled out as much as they could, but ran out of time.

In 2007, the great recession focused the energy of the organization on finding new and creative programs and events as the floor dropped out of the local economy. Water Chestnut was not forgotten, but moved to the bottom of the priority list.

Unchecked, the Water Chestnut spread to cover much of Big Pond, which is the size of over 40 football fields.

It stole the light from other plants trying to grow below it, crowded out other floating plants and degraded the habitat for fish and other wildlife.

Photos submitted to Times Observer In 2011, the invasive plant Water Chestnut covered much of Audubon’s Big Pond. The large masses of green on the surface are Water Chestnut.

The sharp spiky seeds washed up on shore and into the forest, making it painful to walk in places. Water Chestnut became the main plant in the pond and a bird could walk from one side of the pond to the other on the Water Chestnut’s floating mats.

When the plant showed up in Chautauqua Lake in 2011, it was recognized as a regional problem instead of Audubon’s problem. The following year, volunteer pulling parties were arranged and a pit, dubbed the “pit of death” by Audubon day campers who liked to leap over it, was dug to dispose of the plants in on higher ground.

The volunteers I talked to in those early years were discouraged. The problem was too large. The volunteers too few. It seemed that it was a war on plants and the plants were winning. I can remember going out to pull Water Chestnut and dumping the plants into a canoe that was towed to shore. By the time the canoe came back empty, another one was full. The task was daunting and overwhelming.

Over the years, Audubon began hiring people to coordinate pulling Water Chestnut. For a couple of years, some areas were sprayed with an herbicide to help bring the problem under control.

In the last three weeks, Audubon hosted the first large scale pulls of the season. Over the course of a week, New York PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) came and pulled. The Roger Tory Peterson Institute’s Wild America group came and pulled plants. Scout groups from the Rochester Area even stopped in to pull Water Chestnut as part of a 50-mile canoe trip. Volunteers came last week to pull plants from as far away as Gowanda.

Every group came back with the same problem. There was not much Water Chestnut left in the pond to pull. With the diligent effort of hundreds of volunteer hours and temporary staff hired to pull the Water Chestnut out of the water, financial aid from the state and some selective spraying of unreachable areas of the pond, Water Chestnut is much harder to find this year.

This is the point where you are supposed to cheer. This problem has been so big for so long that the idea of open water on the pond seemed to be lost under piles of Water Chestnut that kept on coming. Today, there are large patches of open water. If you visit, you may see volunteers in kayaks gracefully wandering the pond as they search for the plant. (Audubon doesn’t allow kayaks unless you are volunteering to pull Water Chestnut. Call if you are interested in helping.)

That doesn’t mean the pond is the same as it was. Areas that were once all open water have transformed to large patches of cattails and yellow water lilies. This has transformed the pond into a marsh where certain birds love to nest. The Water Chestnut crew talks of “pond monkeys” and being harassed by black, chicken-like birds that nest on floating mats of cattails.

It is different than it was, but, with a lot of help from the community, Big Pond has flourished. The Water Chestnut is steadily disappearing and native plants and animals are once again doing well. A huge thank you goes out to every person and organization that has made this possible.

Next year is a new year and may bring another spike in the number of plants and volunteers are still needed this year to seek out and pull the few remaining plants to keep them from planting new seeds in the mud, but it is still time to celebrate some success in a long, long fight.

Jeff Tome is a naturalist with the Audubon Community Nature Center.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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