Be Your Own Birder

Celebrating Wetlands

Wetlands are a treasure trove of birding, well worth celebrating and enjoying every day of the year. One specific day, however, is dedicated to these rich and varied habitats – February 2 is World Wetlands Day. How will you celebrate wetlands and all the birds within them?

What Is a Wetland?

What we call a wetland today has had less enticing names in the past – marsh, swamp, bog, mire, quagmire, muskeg, slough. We’ve even called them fens, bottoms, billabongs, and everglades, depending on the part of the world they’re found.

Diverse Wetland - Photo by Christian Collins
Diverse Wetland – Photo by Christian Collins

Regardless of the name, these habitats are rich ecosystems characterized by flooded areas that support aquatic vegetation. The flooding may be constant or seasonal, and helps make these habitats some of the most biologically diverse on the planet. Wetlands are found on every continent except Antarctica, and they can vary widely in water chemistry, vegetation types, and the species they support.

Northern Harrier Hunting - Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Northern Harrier Hunting – Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

Birds of the Wetlands

All wetlands are outstanding habitats for different types of birds. While it is no surprise that aquatic birds such as ducks, geese, and swans, as well as familiar wading birds like herons, egrets, and rails, are comfortable in wetlands, many other birds also thrive in these ecosystems, including:

  • Sparrows that forage in reedy or grassy edges
  • Warblers that flit in the foliage of wetland trees
  • Raptors hunting for rodents and other prey
  • Limpkins, storks, ibises, and other waders
  • Grebes, coots, and other pond swimmers
  • Pelicans that may use deeper waters for fishing
  • Kingfishers, cormorants, terns, and other fishers
  • Swallows soaring above open water
  • Grackles, blackbirds, and other opportunistic species

Clearly, there are many, many birds that can be seen in wetlands, and they are popular birding hotspots year-round. Many birding festivals feature trips to wetlands, and even smaller wetland regions can be amazingly productive with short trails, boardwalks, and nature centers. Many wetland areas also have blinds that are perfect for up-close views as well as bird photography.

Why Wetlands Need Our Help

Wetlands, however, do get a bad reputation and aren’t always seen as the most desirable habitats. The anaerobic decay deep in muddy spots can create noxious gasses, and many wetlands have distinctive aromas that aren’t always a pleasure to the sense of smell.

Algae Bubbles in a Wetland - Photo by NC Wetlands
Algae Bubbles in a Wetland – Photo by NC Wetlands

Not only do wetlands have thriving bird populations, but also many insects, snakes, salamanders, frogs, turtles, and other reptiles and amphibians call wetlands home. Different wetland plants may have thorns or be toxic, and the sucking mud and slow-moving water can seem dirty and contaminated. Because these habitats can look messy and disorganized, they are often seen as an eyesore, and their soggy, flooded spaces are not considered as useful for humans, since they cannot be developed, farmed, or otherwise made conventionally productive without tremendous effort and work.

Yet natural wetlands provide many benefits that may not be immediately apparent. Not only do these habitats improve natural diversity and support amazing wildlife – birds, butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, mammals, and so much more – but they also…

  • Provide flood control to manage watersheds, especially for storms
  • Support groundwater replenishment and storage as reservoirs fill
  • Filter water runoff and wastewater, removing toxins and contaminants
  • Support local economies with eco-tourism, including birding and hiking
  • Provide commercial products, including dyes, fibers, and wood
  • Stabilize shorelines and minimize erosion in delicate areas
Wetland Boardwalk - Photo by Karen Kleis
Wetland Boardwalk – Photo by Karen Kleis

Despite these benefits, however, wetlands are at risk from additional development, misuse, and mismanagement. Because of that, wetland areas need strong conservation and protective measures to keep them balanced and healthy.

World Wetlands Day

This is where World Wetlands Day comes in as a day to raise awareness of how wetlands help us and what we can do to help them. This day is celebrated annually every February 2, and includes collaboration with many conservation agencies and wetland preserves to spread the word. While World Wetlands Day has been celebrated since it was first established in 1997, it wasn’t until 2021 that the day was officially designated by a UN General Assembly resolution.

How Wetlands Help Us

Celebrating Wetlands

Everyone is welcome to celebrate World Wetlands Day and to enjoy wetlands throughout the year. Because wetlands help us all, we can all support and enjoy them – from students and school groups to photographers, conservation organizations, news media, birders, hikers, and more, everyone can be part of conserving wetlands. Consider such options and activities as…

  • Joining a cleanup or restoration project in a local wetland.
  • Organizing a wetland visit for a youth group, school class, senior center, or other group.
  • Volunteering to help with maintenance, tours, or manning a wetland visitor center.
  • Writing to local officials to express support for preserving wetlands.
  • Reducing at-home resource use to preserve local wetlands and other habitats.
  • Learning more about wetlands and all they offer us throughout the year.

Even simply visiting a local wetland and signing the guestbook can help – many publicly-supported wetlands receive additional funding and resources if they attract more visitors. This will also let you enjoy wetlands in the best possible way – by seeing their biodiversity firsthand, and gaining better appreciation for these remarkable habitats and all the wildlife, birds and otherwise, that are part of their extraordinary ecosystems.

Wetland Sunset - Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ
Wetland Sunset – Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ

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