When you ask someone what they think when you say the word “summer” to them, most people will reply with no school, lemonade, late nights, swimming, fireworks, warm weather... When you ask a Blue Thumb team member what they think of, they’re probably going to say “fish collections.”
July has been filled with fish collections with Blue Thumb staff, working mainly in the central part of the state in Oklahoma City and Norman, with a few collections taking place in the southeast, based on a rotating water basin schedule that happens every 4-5 years. What is happening on these fish collections? Why are they important? What are you seeing?
While fishing days are long and hard, they are absolutely rewarding. Blue Thumb is out in rain or shine, cool or blistering heat, low flow or high flow performing these collections. They start in the morning with a habitat assessment of the creek, starting at a monitoring point and walking 400 meters downstream, stopping every 20 meters (called a transect) to take note of the habitat. This includes what substrate was in that transect, the depth and width of the stream at that transect, erosion, vegetation, and riparian area. This helps us better understand the creek and it’s health at a visual level, where we can go back and see how it has changed over the years, as well as assess the habitat that any fish might be utilizing.
Once those 400 meters are finished, then the real fun begins. We start at the upstream site and use a seine to catch the fish. A seine is a specialized net that you pull through the water using 2 poles, and as you pull downstream, the frightened fish will swim upstream-straight into the net. After dragging it a few yards, the net is pulled up on a bank and the fish are counted by amount of individuals and number of species.
It’s always fun to see what fish we catch, especially in these urban creeks where we assume pollution is prevalent. Fish like Longear, Bluegill and, Green sunfish, all manners of bass, carp and shads, are pollution tolerant. We’ve found quite a few of these fellows this year, which came as no surprise, and hasn’t differed from the past fish collections a few years ago. However, some true minnows, like the Suckermouth minnow, are moderately intolerant to pollution and habitat issues, and there have been a few urbanized creeks where we’ve found some. This is good news for the creek, since it means that the pollution level is decreasing enough for these critters to live happily.
One thing that we’ve noticed in doing these collections, is that while each stream is different, the fish in them are also different. Sure, we’ve found mostly Longears and Greens and Bluegills in almost every creek, but because each stream is unique, the fish (though the same species), differ as well. The Bluegills in Crutcho Creek in OKC have much darker bands on them and are easier to tell apart from their Green and Longear counterparts. If you go a little ways out by Choctaw, the bands on the Bluegill are much lighter, and they sometimes look like Green sunfish. The Longears in OKC are much brighter with several arrays of colors on them, whereas the ones we’ve found in Norman aren’t quite as varied. Catfish size is different for every stream, and the bass vary in size and color everywhere. It can make things challenging when it comes to identifying them, but it’s fascinating to see and figure out these differences.
Fish are a great way to determine the health of streams and creeks, just like bugs. Depending on the number of fish that are pollution tolerant or intolerant in a creek, we can assess the health of that stream. If we find a greater number of pollution tolerant species and little to no pollution intolerant fish, then we need to see what, exactly, is going on with the creek. On the other hand, it’s always good to see an increase of sensitive species over previous years.
Summer months are always busy with Blue Thumb's biological collections around the state. Bug collections happen at every site that is monitored by a volunteer, which is currently around 80 sites. Fish collections happen in a specific region of the state and that region rotates so that each area gets collections every four or five years. During most summers, the Blue Thumb team is joined by an intern who is primarily with us to help with fish and bug collections. Typically a local college student, they spend the summer getting in creeks and getting lots of experience with professional field work. It's also valuable educational experience in stream ecology, water quality, wildlife biology, stream habitat and how biological collections provide important information and data in those areas. This summer, we are excited to be joined by Matthew Moelling. Read on for more about Matthew, his background and what he hopes to gain from his experiences with the Blue Thumb program.
Where do you currently attend school and what are you studying?
I currently attend Oklahoma City University and am majoring in Biology with minors in Environmental Science and Chemistry.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoy hiking, playing basketball, and watching movies
What is your background or prior experience, if any, to the kind of field work you are doing with Blue Thumb?
I have not had any prior experience with this kind of field work so it's a new experience for me!
How did you find out about the internship with Blue Thumb?
I found out about the internship through one of my professors at school.
What made you decide or want to apply?
After reading the description of the internship I immediately became interested, as it involved topics related to my studies. I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn and discover more about where I want to take my interests in the future.
What excited you the most about the internship with Blue Thumb?
The field work and hands on aspect of the internship excited me the most. The chance to work outside and be immersed in the habitats was exciting for me, as well as the valuable experience I would acquire in the field.
What do you think might be the biggest challenge about this internship with Blue Thumb?
Having the work schedule be so unpredictable as weather and other factors come into play. You have to learn how to be flexible and be ready to adjust. Some field days may be really long and others might be a little shorter. It just depends.
What do you most hope to gain out of this internship?
I hope to gain valuable work experience in the realm of biology and environmental science. Acquiring knowledge in this type of setting will serve me well in the future. I also hope to walk out with great connections with my fellow Blue Thumb team and my Conservation Commission coworkers.
How does this internship with Blue Thumb fit into your overall career plans and goals?
Although I am still discovering what subjects, specifically, within environmental science interest me most, this internship will help me get my first taste of work in the field I am interested in. Hopefully, this will help springboard me into a career that I love by providing me with a good background in field biology as well as natural resource conservation.
There are a number of things you can count on every spring, like clockwork. The temperature rises quickly as summer fast approaches (this year, maybe even faster than usual). You hear the sound of the crack of the bat as baseball and little league games begin. And the Blue Thumb team will be extremely busy for two whirlwind months of educational events across the state.
This year was no different as we crisscrossed the state and reached more than 7,000 people during April and May combined. With Earth Day towards its end, April is always busy with opportunities to bring environmental education to community events, including Earth Day events and nature festivals. Many conservation districts also plan their yearly natural resource day or outdoor classroom during this month.
We had 14 of these events scheduled this April, in 12 counties, including Oklahoma, Caddo, Pontotoc, Pawnee, Cleveland, Tulsa, Kingfisher, Johnston, Kay, Murray, Stephens and Noble. Four of these events were related to Earth Day, while the others were mostly natural resource days or outdoor classrooms. One exciting aspect of this year is that we reached people in counties where we had little or no presence last year. Kay and Noble are two such counties, with natural resource days that did not feature Blue Thumb in 2017. In Caddo County last year, we held a groundwater screening but no educational event, so it was great to be at their outdoor classroom this year.
Our calendars did not slow down in May, they actually sped up a bit, with 16 scheduled events. This included eight new counties, plus some counties that were visited twice, in both May and April. May’s new counties included Harper, Washington, Pittsburg, Cotton, Ottawa, Haskell, Bryan and Beaver. In Harper County last year, we had a groundwater screening and were excited to be able to also have a Blue Thumb volunteer educating at their outdoor classroom this year. Similarly, in Beaver County last year, we had monitoring activities but no educational event, which we changed this year with a presence at a youth conservation day. Bryan and Pittsburg are two counties where were had no monitoring or education in 2017. This year, we made it to an educational event in Pittsburg County and a Green Schools Summit in Bryan, two invaluable opportunities to educate students and the public about stream protection and nonpoint source pollution while introducing them to the Blue Thumb program.
These are all exciting developments as the program grows and expands into even more areas of the state. Another exciting occurrence this year has been the involvement of Blue Thumb volunteers at many of these events. Thirteen different volunteers worked these events for us, spanning a range from long-time veteran volunteers to some who just joined Blue Thumb this past January. They worked at Earth Day events, water festivals, natural resource days, outdoor classrooms and large community events such as OutdoorFest here in Oklahoma City. To Vanessa McKinzey, Susan Smith, Bill Hickman, Shelly Gaines, Rachel Giles, Theron Blunck, Phil Morris, Beth Landon, Karen Chapman, Don Hayes, Kurtis Koll, Ashleigh Barnett, and Susan Henning, we say a very sincere and heartfelt thank you!
This volunteer involvement also helped us achieve one of Blue Thumb’s important objectives, the support of local conservation districts and their educational programs. Last year, we did this with 11 different districts during April and May. This year, we were able to expand on that, working alongside 14 districts, some repeats from last year and some that were new. Thank you to all of the districts who invited us to be a part of their event and gave us the chance to educate your local youth about water quality. We hope to see you again next year!
Early this month, we were joined by our new Blue Thumb Field Educator, Becky Zawalski. Hailing from Ohio, Becky brings an excitement and enthusiasm about field work and benthic macroinvertebrates to the team. I spoke with Becky about her background, what excites her about working with Blue Thumb and what has already surprised her about Oklahoma.
What is your educational background? Where did you go to school, what did you study?
I went to the University of Findlay in Findlay, OH for undergrad. I graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology. After 2 years, I went back to school at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX and graduated in the summer of 2017 with a Master’s of Science in Population and Conservation Biology. My Master’s thesis was entitled “Macroinvertebrate Metacommunity Structure of the Guadalupe River Basin, TX”. (Can be found in the digital library archives on Texas State University’s website). It is currently undergoing revisions for publication.
What is your background related to creek bugs and field work?
My thesis dealt with macroinvert community structure encompassing an entire river basin from the headwaters to the mainstem. I sampled using a Hess sampler and took several water samples to look at nutrients in addition to measuring water quality. However, I also have done field work with salamanders, toads and frogs (including headstarts and call surveys), and wildlife camera traps.
How did you find out about the job with Blue Thumb? What made you decide or want to apply?
I was looking for a position in my field and had an alert so that any time a job concerning macroinvertebrates came up, I would get a ping to alert me. I found the job on Indeed when such an alert happened and decided to apply because I enjoy field work and educating people about what I do and why it is important.
What excited you the most about the job with Blue Thumb?
I’m most excited about field work and being able to play in the creeks. I also am looking forward to bug picking and being able to share my knowledge with other people.
What do you think might be the biggest challenge about your new job with Blue Thumb?
The biggest challenge will probably be the driving and the heat. Even after living in Texas for 2.5 years, the heat was something I never got used to. But at least I’ll be able to cool off in the creeks!
What has been the biggest surprise about Oklahoma since arriving here?
The greenery. I was expecting it to be similar to Texas; full of cacti and giant mounds of rock and instead, I get a diverse landscape with greenery and lush grass (at least to the places that I have been so far).
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I like to watch movies and TV shows and read occasionally. I also dabble in writing short stories. Going on walks with my dog Poe is always something I enjoy, especially when the weather is nice.
How does this job with Blue Thumb fit into your overall career plans and goals?
I’m looking to expand my knowledge (not just with bugs, but fish as well), and gain some good relationships with a lot of different and diverse people. I love doing research so I’m very happy that I can continue to contribute to science in a fun and exciting way.
Towards the end of last week, on the 15th of March, we officially ended the winter bug collection season. Occurring twice a year, in winter and summer, bug collection seasons are often unique or different in their own way, even though they include many, or most, of the same creeks. Summer of 2017, for example, was remarkably rainy. The prevalence of rain caused a lot of collections to be delayed or cancelled altogether, which can happen due to too much rain or too little.
A lack of rain during this winter’s bug collection period was noted by Candice when I asked her if anything was unique or different this time around. “There has not been anything particularly unique about this collection season. Some notable things are that we were in drought the first part of the collection season for most of the state and remain in drought for part of the state. Temperatures this collection season have also been overall colder than the several previous seasons.”
Drought conditions, even minor, can impact the density of bugs in a creek and the diversity of species. Severe drought, which can and often does cause creeks and smaller streams to dry up entirely, and do so for extended periods of time, will have even more severe impacts. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, “Abnormal dryness or drought are currently affecting approximately 2,422,000 people in Oklahoma, which is about 65% of the state's population.” Check out their website for maps and charts that illustrate that point.
The Oklahoma Drought Monitor Map, which can be viewed through the Oklahoma Mesonet, indicates much of the state remains in drought conditions, ranging all the way from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” We observed this firsthand during bug collections, with a number of creeks having no collection due to lack of water.
I asked Kim the same question about this year’s collection season and she noted, “I have noticed WAY more algae in almost 100% of the creeks I have been to this winter for bug collections. My thoughts on why there would be more algae then usual or ever before include: it has been dry so no rain water to flush out the creek systems; the outrageously warm/sunny days we’ve had this winter really aids the algae to grow; population keeps increasing, as does development, so more yards getting fertilized.”
This is something I saw firsthand when I visited Spring Creek here in Oklahoma City. Having been to that creek many times, it’s located in Martin Nature Park, around the corner from my house, it was shocking to see so much dark green algae. It is probable that a major reason for the extreme increase is all of the homes in the residential areas surrounding the park. With the much warmer, spring-like weather lately, people have likely been working on their lawns, including spraying fertilizers and nutrient-rich chemicals. With some recent rain, those nutrients would have washed right into Spring Creek.
The nutrients in question are nitrogen and phosphorus, which are a natural and essential parts of the ecosystem in any creek or stream. Too much of these, though, is a problem. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency states that, “Nutrient pollution is one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.” This is because too much of these nutrients causes algae to grow at an increased rate, to the point that it can severely degrade and/or take over the ecosystem and habitat of the stream. An overabundance of algae can make it difficult for aquatic organisms to find food or places to breed or hide from predators, and can clog their gills, making it difficult to breathe. Too much algae also severely depletes the water’s dissolved oxygen content which is required by all the stream’s aquatic organisms, occasionally leading to fish kills.
While Spring Creek had a lot of algae, it also had a lot of life, albeit very tiny. There were small mayflies, midge flies and black flies aplenty. Candice also noted that she saw many black flies in her creeks this collection season, saying, “Some years there are none and other years there are lots!” This was one of those years when there were lots of the small, bowling-pin-shaped critters attached to rocks and other surfaces in the flowing water of a creek. There are almost 2,000 species of black flies in the world, with over 250 present in North America. Once the black fly larvae, who require flowing water, typically with a good level of dissolved oxygen, attach to a smooth surface using silk-like threads and tiny hooks on their abdomen, they let the current bring them food which they filter and collect. Their filtering behavior makes food available for other organisms while they are also an important food source for larger creatures. They spend one to six months in the larval stage before spending about a week in the transitional pupal stage then emerge from the stream as a fully-formed adult fly.
Black flies are described as “fairly” or “somewhat” tolerant to pollution, depending on who you ask, and usually are found in very large number when present. During bug collections and picking, they can be more of a nuisance than anything else, but they are still an important member of the stream’s ecosystem and can tell us a lot about its health.
We’ve all heard the old saying, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change.” They say that in lots of places but there may be few other locations where it's as true as it is in Oklahoma. Things change around here very quickly. During one recent week, there were single digit temperatures with zero degree wind chill on a Tuesday but it was sixty degrees by Friday. That’s a pretty regular occurrence these days, actually. While it’s in the seventies, possibly reaching eighty, on this February day, winter is supposed to be back this weekend, with temperatures dropping back down into the low-to-mid thirties.
These conditions can make for some interesting winter bug collections, which are happening right now all over the state. During the week I mentioned a moment ago, I was in Tahlequah doing a bug collection on Town Branch Creek on the frigid Tuesday, when our weather app noted a “real feel” temperature of zero degrees. The creek was flowing, though, and had no ice, making a bug collection possible. Volunteer Jahna Hill, pictured here, prepared for the weather, and I got in the water and did three good bug kicks into our net, which froze solid after the third and final attempt. As soon as we had our bug sample in a mason jar for safe keeping, Jahna completed most of her quality assurance work in the warmth of her pickup truck.
Jahna and I were certainly not alone in our chilly experience. Our new volunteer David Mayes made his first visit with Kim to Hog Creek, a few miles south of Choctaw, in similar below freezing temperatures. Temps were a bit better, at least above freezing, when Kim visited the creek she monitors with her mom, Crutcho Creek, under Interstate 40 in Del City. At another end of Crutcho Creek, Karen Pryor, daughter Katie, and friend Ava McCaffrey wrapped themselves in layers of winter apparel when they monitored and picked up trash on a cold day at their site. Chase Iddings and Makenna Hakill are brand new volunteers, having just completed a volunteer training workshop a few weeks ago. For their first visit to a creek and first bug collection, they were bundled up against the cold at Rock Creek, where the nearby pools were completely iced over. Lightning Creek was also frozen over, and had basically been turned into a lake, making a bug collection impossible for volunteer Josh Campbell.
Not to be left out, Candice has also been making visits to creeks with hardy volunteers willing to get in the water and kick for bugs no matter the temperature. Her volunteers at Stillwater Creek at Babcock Park, in Stillwater, arrived at the creek at 8:00am, ready to go, even though it was cold enough that Candice reported her camera stopped working. Some of our youngest volunteers have been among the bravest about getting in their creek in the cold, including students from the Oklahoma School of Innovation and Experiential Learning in Bixby and students from the town of Hogden, who collected bugs in the Black Fork of the Poteau River in the southeast part of the state. Interestingly, Candice has also been seeing lots of problems with low flow at her creeks, due in part to the lack of precipitation during what has been a very dry winter. During one of her recent collection days in Tulsa, only half of the streams got bug collections due to the low flow conditions. The situation is pretty drastic in some of these creeks, like the completely dry Cotton Creek in Nowata County, pictured below.
Visit our Facebook page for lots more great photos of all of these frosty winter bug collections.
And many thanks to all the volunteers who participated in them!!
Picking up right where 2016 left of, 2017 continued the trend of change and growth for the Blue Thumb program. The staff changes began almost immediately when I arrived to take on the role of Blue Thumb educator and spent my first weeks attending events like the Water Quality Staff Retreat, the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts State Meeting and the Biodiversity Forum. These events gave me the opportunity to immediately begin networking and making connections across the state. At the same time, I was traveling across the state with Kim, Candice and Jeri, getting to know them and Blue Thumb. Joining them on winter bug collections gave me the chance to visit numerous creeks and meet many of our dedicated volunteers.
Late in 2016, Jean had taken over as Blue Thumb Director. During 2017, even though she worked primarily from Tulsa, she continued to lead the Blue Thumb team, including joining us in the Oklahoma City office at least one day per week, attending Blue Thumb trainings, joining us in the field for fish and bug collections, and representing Blue Thumb at numerous educational events throughout the year. Another change occurred when Jeri transitioned away from work in the field so she could focus on outreach/promotion/P.R. work. That work promoting Blue Thumb achieved a number of successes, including articles in small and large newspapers and a semi-regular appearance on a local television news broadcast.
Jeri’s transition away from field work gave the rest of us an opportunity to change our areas of responsibility, which allowed me to take on the management of volunteers and monitoring in my own parts of the state. Kim continued to manage volunteer sites, monitoring and events in the Oklahoma City metro area, the nearby cities of Edmond and Norman, and the southwestern part of the state. Candice retained all sites in the Tulsa area as well as sites in the southeastern region of the state, while picking up the city of Stillwater and that area. I was given responsibility for the northeastern part of the state, including Tahlequah and Muskogee, the south-central part of the state, primarily Ada and the surrounding area, and the sites to the far northwest, in the panhandle region.
A final change concerning the staff came late in the year when Jeri left the Conservation Commission for a position at the University of Oklahoma. This opened the door for an examination of the program among the other staff members and discussions about the program’s future direction and focus. We will be bringing on a new Blue Thumb staff member in the very near future who will be another exciting addition to the team.
There have been a number of other changes and successes in 2017, beyond just the changes in team members and their roles. At the end of 2016, Candice took over the position of statewide Project WET Coordinator. In her first year, she organized, promoted and executed 10 educator workshops and one facilitator training, attended by a total of 90 people. Blue Thumb trainings also had a very successful year, with more trainings in one year than ever before. This year’s trainings demonstrated an important increase in collaborations between Blue Thumb and other organizations/professionals and the demand for trainings from those groups and individuals. All of the trainings have led to a large number of new volunteers joining the Blue Thumb ranks and a number of new volunteer monitoring sites around the state. The year included a variety of other highlights, including a highly successful educator’s workshop, Riverology 101, and not one but two successful educational summer camps for kids, A Journey to the Bottom of the Creek in Tahlequah and A Grand Adventure in Langley.
Those achievements only scratch the surface of what Blue Thumb accomplished in 2017, including all of the many educational events across the state where our staff and volunteers brought stream protection through education to thousands of people of all ages. Many thanks to all of those who supported us this year in any way or helped in any way to make this such a great year. We can’t wait to see what 2018 brings!
During the fall and spring, Blue Thumb volunteers join us for macroinvertebrate subsampling, or what we like to call “bug picking.” At these events, volunteers meet with us at an indoor location, where we bring the bug sample that they helped us collect from their stream the previous winter or summer. We divide the sample into a small fraction of what’s in a mason jar and put it into a tray separated into numbered squares. Then, the volunteers use a magnifying lamp and tweezers to pick through the bugs in each randomly selected square, at least five squares, until they find at least 100 bugs. Blue Thumb staff then put the bugs into a vial to be sent off to a taxonomist for further identification. Many volunteers have asked about that process, who identifies the bugs, what they look for and how or why the identification takes place. While we have been sending bugs to a taxonomist in Texas, our colleague here at the Conservation Commission has been working hard to become our in-house bug identifier. Here's his story:
Hello, I’m Nathan Carter and I live in rural Northeastern Oklahoma with my wife and our three daughters who luckily, are accepting of my various quirks that allow me to be what I am! Actually, my home is not far from where I spent my childhood and the stream that ignited my curiosity about the creatures that live in our streams. One of my favorite activities as a child was to go to the creek on my family’s property and flip rocks to see what I could find hiding underneath them. As I grew older, my interest led me to finding deep holes in the creek and fishing with rod and reel and eventually I even started seining the creek with whomever I could get to help me. I was always fascinated by the variety of bugs and fish that I could find! I could recognize a few of them but many of the creatures I found I could only describe by their appearance or how they acted when I captured them. Just like the majority of rural children, I maintained that close tie to the outdoors into adulthood and that tie influenced me greatly when I considered what I should do after high school. I began a meandering journey toward higher education that eventually led me to Northeastern State University. The majority of my time at NSU was spent studying the life that could be found in the many Ozark streams that surrounded the campus, those streams are where I really honed in on what I wanted to do after college. My introduction to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) was purely by chance. I didn’t keep in close contact with my advisor so it was odd that I happened to bump into her and she let me know about an internship advertisement for the OCC. I interviewed and was selected to be an intern during the summer of 2010. My experience was such that I could not see myself doing anything else. I returned for the summer of 2011 and was hired as a full time employee in the fall of 2011.
Since I’ve been with the OCC, I have received many opportunities to expand my knowledge and competency beyond just carrying backpack shockers and keeping up with paper work. While there is still plenty of both of those, I am now a crew leader for summer fish collections and habitat assessments, I act as our fish taxonomist and I identify all of the fish samples that our crews and Blue Thumb collect every year. I can measure high flow discharge with the OCC’s ADCP, I get opportunities to help educate groups of professionals and students about fish identification, and now I am a certified benthic macroinvertebrate taxonomist with the Society for Freshwater Science. My work with the macroinvertebrates has been my most interesting venture yet. It began with subsampling many hundreds of bug samples that are collected in the summer and winter. Over time, I became familiar with the organisms that I was removing from the sample to be sent off for identification but I wanted to know more. After researching what it would take to become a taxonomist myself, I learned about the Society for Freshwater Science and their certification program. I was fortunate in that there were endless supplies of preserved bugs for me to practice with, so I found the recommended text and began keying out bugs one by one. Once I had familiarized myself with my collection, I set about becoming certified and I have now passed two ID tests. This process took me well over a year before I felt that I had even the most basic knowledge and continues now even after being certified.
When I begin identifying a bug sample, I remove the bugs from the vial that they are stored in and place them in a petri dish so I can look at them under my microscope. Next, I start looking at each individual bug, one by one. At this point, I know many of them just by sight but at first I had to use a key to key each of the bugs, a process that would take hours. The ID process is made much more difficult if the bugs are damaged at all because in order to correctly identify them you need to look at minute details like the shape of their gills or even the tiny hairs on the bug’s mouth parts! It is necessary to look at them at that level of detail because of the great diversity among benthic macroinvertebrates, with Oklahoma having hundreds of genera and many thousands of species. It is that diversity that makes them so interesting to me.
The bugs that we find can tell us about a stream’s water quality. Simply put, bugs can be divided into two groups, those that are intolerant to pollution and those that are tolerant of pollution. Any time the majority of the bugs in a sample fall in the tolerant group, it is an indication that there is something bad occurring in that stream. That is an extreme simplification but is the general premise for our analysis. Bugs that I hope to find and that are universally recognized as good indicators are members of EPT group. EPT is made up of the families Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, and Trichoptera, more commonly known as mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. These bugs are all generally intolerant to pollution and are used as indicators of water quality. Conversely, many true flies, dragonflies, and leeches are tolerant to pollution to varying degrees. Just because a sample contains bugs that are tolerant to pollution, does not necessarily mean that the stream is polluted as long as there are plenty of members of the intolerant group as well. However, if the sample is made entirely of tolerant bugs or worse, there are no bugs found, then there is a definite pollution problem in the stream.
My work with identifying bugs feeds my curiosity. I love the diversity of the organisms and I relish the instance where I find a bug that I have yet to see in person or when I come across one that is very rare. Surprises are not uncommon and it is a treat when I find a bug that I think could never have come from a particular stream because on the surface that stream appeared to be far too polluted and yet they are there. I enjoy finding hidden gems like that across the state and for me it is a sign that our work at the OCC can pay off when streams improve to the point that these very interesting bugs can live there once again.
In March’s blog, I talked about Blue Thumb Trainings, an invaluable and essential tool in the Blue Thumb water quality monitoring and education program. Our trainings allow us to give new volunteers the skills and knowledge to begin monitoring a creek and educating their communities about water quality, watersheds, nonpoint source pollution and other water-related topics. Through the trainings, we get to know our new volunteers and hope to inspire and motivate them to become as involved as possible in our mission of stream protection through education.
This year has been an especially exciting one for Blue Thumb trainings. This is partly due to the number of trainings that we have held. For comparison, let’s look at the past few years. In 2013, we had 5 trainings (Tulsa, Tahlequah, Hinton, Spiro and at UCO in Edmond). 2014 also saw 5 trainings (Tulsa, Hugo, Norman, Stillwater and UCO). Another 5 were held in 2015 (Medicine Park, Tahlequah, Tishomingo, Tulsa and UCO). Finally, last year included 4 trainings (Norman, Owasso, Stillwater and Sulphur).
We are already at 8 trainings in 2017 and we’re not even finished yet. So far, we’ve held two trainings in Ada and one training each in Beaver County, Idabel, Oklahoma City, Pawhuska, Stillwater and Tahlequah. There will be one last training for the year in Broken Arrow during the first weekend of November (contact Candice Miller at email@example.com for information or to register). This amount of trainings is unprecedented, as the previous high total for a year was 6.
Something else has made this year’s trainings unique and exciting. In the past, trainings were often organized by the Blue Thumb staff according to population centers or areas of interest. There has always been an annual training in Tulsa, an area where we have a lot of interest and volunteers, and where Blue Thumb got its start. There’s also an annual training in the Oklahoma City metro area, often at one of the local universities, University of Central Oklahoma or Oklahoma City University. We’ve also had a number of trainings in Norman and Stillwater, where the university students often have interest in getting involved.
These past trainings were scheduled by Blue Thumb staff who then promoted and marketed the events in and around the area communities. A wide variety of promotion and outreach tactics were used to spread the word about the training and attract interested community members, students, etc. This year, though, the script has been flipped, with a number of people coming to us first and asking for a training, then doing much of the promotion for the training on their own within their organization or community.
When we had our training in Pawhuska, Blue Thumb staff worked with Electa Redcorn, a representative of the Osage Nation, to set up the training. Electa and Jeri worked out all of the details for the training and Electa had a large number of people, including many from their youth council, already signed up to attend. Similarly, when we had a training in Beaver County, Oklahoma Conservation Commission Commissioner Karl Jett asked us to hold a training in that region, specifically so that his youth board could begin monitoring a creek. Karl worked with Jeri to plan and organize that training, which also included a few community members from the surrounding area.
These kinds of requests for training continued throughout the year. Oklahoma City’s chapter of the Sierra Club has contacted us requesting a training for their group and they plan to attend one in the near future. This summer, we received requests for a second Ada training from two different people, Sunhawk Hill from the Chickasaw Nation and Teresia Harrison from the Institute for Math and Science Education at East Central University. Along with Blue Thumb staff members, they came together to plan, organize and promote that training (the first training to occur mid-week, on a Monday and Tuesday). Blue Thumb volunteer Jahna Hill, who is also the Tahlequah Stormwater Manager and head of the Friends of Town Branch Creek, asked us to have a training in Tahlequah. She requested the training to help Friends of Town Branch start monitoring and hopefully get the community involved. Those two trainings, Ada and Tahlequah, along with a training in Stillwater, made for three successful trainings in one month!
With so many trainings, you may wonder what happens next. An important part of the Blue Thumb program is fostering and maintaining relationships with our amazing volunteers who do so much for us. We take pride in the strength of those relationships and the work that we put into supporting, encouraging and empowering our volunteers. That effort begins at the trainings and continues long after the training ends. Lines of communication with volunteers are kept open and we reach out soon after a training to follow up with them.
Often, that follow up includes visiting a creek site with them to check out a potential monitoring spot. This has happened recently when I visited a potential site in Tahlequah, where two groups of volunteers have expressed interest monitoring a site and are excited to get started. I’ll be traveling back to Tahlequah again in the near future, to visit with those two groups and discuss possibilities. I’ll also be in Ada next week, visiting a possible site with another new volunteer, and a second group of volunteers from the last Ada training will be visiting possible sites in Sulphur with us in the coming weeks.
These visits allow Blue Thumb staff and volunteers alike to check out the site and see if it’s viable. Does it have enough flowing water, is the flow consistent and likely to be year-round, is there a riffle for bug collections, is there easy access to the creek, is there a place to park, and other questions are taken into consideration. Once we decide a site is going to move forward, Blue Thumb staff start the process of gathering the site’s information, such as latitude/longitude, surrounding landowners, water body ID number, etc. Meanwhile, we work with the volunteers to set up a time to meet again at the site and go through their first monitoring session with them, taking them through the entire stream-side process. It’s always a fun and exciting moment when a new volunteer begins the journey of discovery at a new creek site.
In our last blog, I talked a bit about our fish collections which occur every summer. Fish collections are a tremendous opportunity to compare and contrast different creeks while learning about and experiencing the physical and biological characteristics of those creeks, all while working with our awesome volunteers. By looking at the habitat and the fish that live there we can compare our results against known high quality streams for an indication of the overall health of the stream. Here is a sampling of what we experienced and learned this summer.
Most of our collections this year were in the northeast part of the state in the Ozark Highlands ecoregion. It was interesting to experience the similarities and differences between each of the creeks. Each has clear water over cobble/gravel bottoms and the native streamside vegetation is similar. Some of the creeks are in a rural setting and others are urban.
For the collection at Spring Creek in Cherokee County, the entire Blue Thumb staff met at the home of Blue Thumb volunteer Kay Frank, and were joined by volunteers Cath and Newell McCarty, who currently monitor the site, as well as Sherry Davis and her daughter, Silver. This stretch of Spring Creek is gorgeous, winding back through the woods for the 400 meters of our habitat assessment. It’s an area made up largely of rock and gravel, where the loose rocks of the creek banks slide down into the water when you step on them, indicating it has been newly deposited. Much of the gravel appears to be coming from upstream clearing that allows bank erosion during flood events. Even with the gravel, this site is a place with some wide, deep pools which would make fantastic swimming holes. For our purposes, they were great places to pull a seine across the clear water, collecting fish. We found many types, including madtoms, darters, sunfish, shiners and a large Northern hogsucker.
It was quite a different experience the next day at Town Branch Creek in downtown Tahlequah. It was also a much cooler day, cloudy with a light rain falling and a chill breeze from time to time. Kim, Candice, Jeri and her grandson, and I were met by Blue Thumb volunteer Jahna Hill. Our group headed up the fairly narrow creek which at times wound its way through dense vegetation with a thick canopy overhead. It occasionally felt very wild and nothing like being in the middle of an urban area. The creek remained fairly shallow for stretches although we did encounter some deep pools farther upstream, perfect spots for seining and the spots where we had some of the best fish collecting success.
There’s another monitoring site on Town Branch Creek, located at Basin Street, and it was there we met again the next day, though this time it was just Kim, Candice, Jahna and me. This end of Town Branch Creek seemed wider and shallower than the farther upstream section we encountered the day before. Here, the creek bottom was mostly gravel, sand and rocks and the banks were often eroded, with very little riparian area for quite a way on one side. Kim and Candice noted that the creek appeared much different than it did during a previous collection about five years ago, now much shallower and featuring more bedrock, likely due to flooding and being washed out. The gravel has filled in most of the pools and the number of riffles required a different fish collection technique of kicking through the riffles rather than pulling a seine.
Collecting on Ross Branch in Tahlequah the following week allowed us to see how another corner of the city is impacting a creek. Ross Branch runs through a highly developed area with a number of commercial properties along its bank. There’s a facility that makes cement as well as a Farmer’s Co-Op. We encountered a number of sights and smells that may have been the direct result of activities happening at those places. This creek also featured quite a few other impacts from human use, including signs that lots of people hang along parts of the creek. On the other hand, we did find a number of fish, including the surprising find of a small largemouth bass right under a roadway bridge over the creek. There was also a northern hogsucker which was observed but unfortunately never caught in the net.
A day later, we were in a very different spot, at Tyner Creek in Adair County. This creek is off the beaten path and getting there takes a trip quite a way off the main road. It’s located adjacent to land where restoration projects have been happening to help protect a landowner from losing more of his property to erosion. For this collection, it was just us Blue Thumb staffers up and down the creek doing the habitat assessment and fish collection. It was an opportunity for us to enjoy a tranquil, peaceful and beautiful place as we encountered many fish species, including banded sculpins, madtoms, darters, creek chubs, cardinal shiners, a northern hogsucker and lots and lots of dace. We also got to share a moment of fun and relaxation when the collection was over, sitting in the cold, crystal clear waters of a lovely rural creek.
The next fish collection was in a different part of the state, a different ecoregion, and quite different in terms of the creek’s habitat, surroundings and physical characteristics. That’s to be expected when you go from a rural corner in far northeast Oklahoma to the south-central part of the state and the much more developed town of Sulphur. Rock Creek runs right through Sulphur, quite close to downtown, but also runs through the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, giving it a wide variety of influences. Our collection occurred along the stretch through town, where the creek bottom was extremely sandy and the habitat considerably different than in past years. Kim and Candice both noted how much shallower the water was, now ankle or knee deep where it used to be chest deep. It will be interesting to see the final results of our collection and compare it with previous collections at the same site to see if the sediment has changed the quality of the stream. It was another great opportunity to see the wide variety of creeks we have here in Oklahoma and how they can be so different from each other and even from the way they were just a few years ago.