Relief from the dog days of summer is as close as the nearest spring-fed stream. With just a face mask, a snorkel and an old pair of sneakers, you can observe aquatic life on its own terms — underwater.
Snorkeling is a great way to introduce children to nature in the water.
First, a few words of warning. Make safety your top concern. Never snorkel alone. Stay in shallow water. And never explore under large rocks or submerged logs.
Before getting wet, walk a length of stream, and notice two parts: slow moving pools and rapidly flowing riffles. Pools may be as small as a birdbath or as large as a swimming pool.
When you find an inviting knee-deep pool, put on your mask and snorkel, float face down and watch. Within a few minutes, curious fish approach.
As your body cools, watch for colorful sunfish. In bigger, darker pools, scan under roots or floating logs.
These dark refuges provide excellent cover where larger predatory fish such as trout and bass await passing prey — insects, smaller fish, frogs and snakes.
The smaller fish found in the shallow, rapidly flowing riffles are also interesting. This is the noisy, “gurgling” part of a stream.
Here, where the flow rate is often so fast it seems every living thing should be swept away, is where darters live.
Facing upstream, lie down in a riffle to view the darters. Inch into the current and scan the rubble. Notice the small fish darting among the stones.
Darters are suited to life in swift currents. Some anchor themselves near the cover of larger rocks.
Others wedge themselves among stones on a tripod consisting of the tail and pelvic fins. Still others bury all but their heads in fine sand or gravel.
Masters of disguise, darters can be drab and difficult to see. Some, though, display almost gaudy patterns of reds, blues and oranges.
Think of brightly colored darters as the butterflies or warblers of the fish world.
Many freshwater invertebrates stay hidden beneath large flat rocks. Gravel stream bottoms are home to many species of freshwater clams, mussels, snails and larval aquatic insects.
Flip large flat rocks, let the current clear the sediment and you’ll observe an impressive diversity of aquatic life.
The flat-bodied creatures clinging to the undersides of submerged rocks are stonefly and mayfly larvae. From the tip of the abdomen of stonefly larvae, you’ll notice two tail-like filaments.
Larval mayflies have three such tails. The presence of stoneflies and mayflies indicates clean water.
My favorite aquatic insects are caddisfly larvae. If you notice a bundle of tiny pebbles or twigs moving across the stream bottom, watch closely. Pick one up, and you’ll discover it’s home to an insect.
On one end there’s a head, thorax and legs. Soft tissues of the abdomen are protected by the surrounding case. Caddisfly larvae build their house and carry it on their back.
The weight of the case helps anchor the larvae in moving water, and it’s excellent camouflage when the larvae rests.
The materials used to make such cases include grains of sand, tiny pebbles and sometimes plant material.
Some of the pebble-users build a spiral case that can easily pass for a snail shell.
The biggest surprise in a clear, cold stream awaits under large flat rocks.
Hellbenders are huge salamanders that spend the day under large, flat rocks on rocky stream bottoms. At night they dine on crayfish (about 90% of their diet) and other small aquatic creatures.
Mature hellbenders are 17 (males) to 21 (females) inches, and the body seems wrapped in flabby folds of skin. The eyes are small, beady and positioned on top of the head.
If you do find a hellbender, gently return the rock to its original position.
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