Finding the Zone

Riparian zone schematic typical of the Florida...

Riparian Zone Schematic image from Wikipedia

Our neighborhood is a hidden gem in our suburban town. In fact, as I enter the pastoral subdivision, heading down the first of several, rolling hills and then across the meandering creek, I am aware that my breathing slows. The tranquility of the open space seems to bring with it an immediate sense of calm, as if I’ve entered an altered dimension of our hectic world. Devoid of streetlights, we like to joke about the fact the Domino’s Pizza delivery person came to deliver a pizza one, moonless night and a week later has yet to find their way out. Perhaps this magical place, complete with its riparian zone, is our own little ecological utopia.

A riparian zone is a wondrous place in its own right, a place where the land meets a river or creek, supporting one of Earth’s specialized biomes. Water, as well as climate and soil conditions, defines a plant and animal community within the riparian zone. Water is always present in the creek area. Its presence is the most influential force on all the plants and animals that one finds along the creek.

Adaptation to both the water’s excesses in spring and the scarcity in summer is required for all of the plants growing in the riparian zone. Any plant that cannot tolerate having their roots stripped of soil or submerged under water will not grow in a flood zone. Most state EPAs, as well as other countywide soil and water conservation agencies, offer geographically specific publications relating to shoreline plant use, stabilization, and buffer strip practices. Illinois’ EPA offers a web-based publication describing the ecological benefits of creating a natural shoreline buffer, as well as a list of Illinois native plants to be used in the creation of the buffer.

Woodduck photo by Jim Schuler

The animals of the riparian zone are also adapted to the water. Ducks, herons, and minks swim up and down the creek looking for fish as dragonflies zoom overhead. Frogs, crayfish, and turtles swim in the slower areas of the creek in search of aquatic insects. Toads abound along the creek’s edge scrounging for spiders and very small insects. Water striders live on the surface of the water, dancing across the plane of the creek in search of insects and larvae. Aquatic insects are found everywhere, but principally under rocks in areas with current. I marvel at the bucolic ecosystem nature has created and know as I gaze in wonder that it is worth restoring and preserving.

Mink photo by Jim Schuler

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