Exploring the Biology of Whiterock Conservancy

Jun 7, 2017 | 8 min

(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 703, June 7, 2017.)

Take a walk in nature and you're likely to see a variety of critters and plants along the way. At Whiterock Conservancy near Coon Rapids, they have preserved, protected and restored a diverse landscape. Each year, scientists and the public come together for a day long BioBlitz.

On a sunny, late spring day, new life and new discoveries are popping up across Whiterock Conservancy.

Dr. Peter Levi, Drake University: What do you think bugs are eating in this stream? Do you think some bugs are predators?

Participant: ...Yeah, eating other bugs.

Peter Levi: Absolutely, they eat other bugs.

Here, visitors are learning about stream insects.

Peter Levi: Have you guys ever heard of a mayfly? This is a littlemay fly larvae and he is swimming around like crazy right now.

It's the right time of year to find may fly larvae, something these kids probably wouldn't search for or see on their own.

Peter Levi: If you were a bug here you might get a lot more sun on you than if you were a bug in that little stream.

Dr. Peter Levi of Drake University shares information about how these bugs live, what kind of environment they like and he gets the kids thinking about what they're observing and why.

Participants: Ooh!… See him?… What is that?

Peter Levi: Is that a may fly as well? So it's the same thing, just bigger. Can everybody see it okay? So let's get him in water.

Daniel Musel, participant from Des Moines: A may fly larvae I think and a couple of other things. I thought it would be cool to study bugs and look at them under microscopes and learn more about them.

A series of workshops throughout the day give people a chance to explore new landscapes and ecosystems, learning about the environment around them and some of the animals, critters and plants that call it home.

Rob Davis, Conservation Land Manager, Whiterock Conservancy: So a true BioBlitz your objective is to go out and identify as many new species as you can within a 24 hour period. And so the former ecologist at Whiterock, Elizabeth Hill, did that for a couple of years, accumulated a huge species list and so we have kind of transitioned from a true BioBlitz to more of an educational component. So we do sessions and we get people out here to learn more.

For a group of Boy Scouts, it's a good opportunity to work on their merit badges and learning is made extra fun when you get to be outdoors studying hands on.

Bob Volp, participant, Des Moines: How will a boy know, hey, do I want to be a reptile person when I grow up if they have no chance, no opportunity? Do I want to be a geologist if I've had no opportunity to do geology? So it's get our boys outdoors and a perfect opportunity to meet with these experts in the field and learn all this stuff.

In the frogs, snakes and turtles session, hunting for them and capturing them is a challenge. But the kids learn how to identify species and what makes each of them different and how they're important to the environment.

Will Rubach, participant, West Des Moines: Yeah, they're very slippery, they have very long legs. They lay their eggs in puddles like that because then most predators live in the lakes and when the puddles dry up the other frogs can just, they have grown by now and they can just go into the lakes and fend for themselves.

Whiterock Conservancy is a large natural landscape more than 5,000 acres near Coon Rapids. It is the third largest recreation area in the state. The diverse habitat supports a wide range of wildlife and plant life and an extensive trail system.

Conrad Kramer, Former Executive Director, Whiterock Conservancy: Whiterock is different, it's a museum. People here are recreating in an artifact of the past. The savannahs that we're restoring and the prairies that we're restoring are what Iowa used to be. And so people come here and they look around and say, what am I seeing? And it takes them a while to understand. But they're always stunned. 

The mission focuses on conservation, sustainable agriculture and public recreation. But education and outreach is important at Whiterock too. 

Kramer: Every year I'm learning things I didn't know or correcting things that I thought that aren't right. It's a really dynamic place. You go out onto a prairie and not only will the prairie look different from week to week but it will look different from year to year and it will look different over 20 years. The prairies are always evolving. 

During a fish demonstration, John Olson of the Iowa DNR used a low voltage shock to stun fish in the Middle Raccoon River and make them easier to collect for identification. They also tried a large, old fashioned net. Cooler temperatures and the high, fast moving water were not ideal conditions for finding a large variety of fish species on this particular day. But even with only a few species of minnows, there was still plenty to learn. 

John Olson, Iowa DNR: This is called a sand shiner. It's a very common minnow, kind of an attractive minnow I think. 

The kids got out their nets again and they learned about dragonflies and damselflies. 

Participants: ...Finally got a red one… Yes you did! …It's a female. It is?… Yeah, you can see the little spines right there… Yeah!

They would capture one, identify it, record it and then let it go. 

Steve Hummel, Iowa Odonata Survey, Dragonfly Society of the Americas: You scored every dragonfly, damselfly that we've seen today. 

Steve Hummel: Dragonflies can see in front of themselves, above, below, left, right and behind all at the same time. So if you're trying to catch them the best thing to do is swing from behind and below and come up through them because they've got that one blind spot. 

Unknown: We're just going to pop this up a little bit to give you a little idea. You can actually just kind of hear it tearing because there's so much root mass in this. 

For some of the adults, a session studying the soil was eye opening and helped them begin to connect the dots among various environmental concerns and hot button issues like water quality. They compared the soil in a restored prairie and a cornfield. 

Unknown: The real lesson to be learned there is that these roots help improve and build organic matter in the soil and they also help the water to soak in. 

The day is full of information and learning. And whether or not the kids and adults remember it all, they have fun exploring this rural slice of history and connecting with nature and they walk away with a greater appreciation of the natural world around them. 

Bob Volp: To have this area where you have the nature, it's not just a little puddle, it's a huge, wide area that you can walk for hours and still see something new, the different landscapes, the different forms, the different environments here. It's a shame that more people don't know about this little jewel sitting up here. 

Rob Davis: We don't want to be the best kept secret forever. We want people to come out and explore Whiterock. 

Gilchrist Foundation