Study aims to save critters' watershed homes
By DON BEHM
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: April 21, 2001
T own of Grafton - Warm spring rains and mild temperatures
earlier this month were signals to crawling, slithering and hopping
creatures that it was time to get on with life.
As salamanders, turtles, snakes and frogs in the Ulao Creek watershed
emerged from hibernation, a legion of volunteers was waiting to note
their presence and habitat preferences.
The volunteers are combing Ozaukee County's Ulao Creek with an eye
toward identifying homes of rare species in need of protection.
The information will help landowners in planning future developments,
said Ginny Plumeau, president of Cedarburg Science and a member of the
Ulao Creek Partnership that has organized the effort.
The group's amphibian and reptile search, known as a herptile
inventory, is part of an ongoing Ulao Creek restoration and management
project. The local landowners, county and state agencies, and
researchers participating in the partnership expect to prepare a
watershed land-use plan in a few years.
"Our land-use plan will say that here are the two, or 50, sites that
could host rare critters and then we can recommend protective measures,
such as a purchase of development rights or conservation easement or
even restoration of wetlands," Plumeau said.
"The goal of this work is not to block development but to locate the
habitats critical for survival of these species, their breeding ponds
and nesting sites, and inform the landowners."
Their work, which will continue through October, requires wading into
ponds or standing in the shin-deep muck of swamp forests in search of a
"Hot spots of diversity or abundance will be marked on maps to help
identify those areas that are most important for protection and
management efforts in the future," said Gary Casper, manager of
herpetology collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
In addition to common amphibians, such as leopard and green frogs,
Casper and the team of researchers organized by the Ulao Creek
Partnership also are seeking rare species in the watershed.
If they find Blanding's turtles or Butler's garter snakes - both
threatened with extinction in Wisconsin - then their homes, too, will be
marked on maps.
Another of the rare animals they hope to encounter are spotted
salamanders, which are generally found only in small, isolated groups in
this rapidly developing region of the state, according to Casper, the
project's technical adviser.
Underpasses for wildlife
Recommendations could include the construction of wildlife underpasses,
such as a culvert, when local roads that bisect the watershed are
rebuilt in the future, Casper said.
On a recent rain-drenched evening, he identified leopard and green
frogs, toads and even a few uncommon wood frogs, on roadsides. A few
dozen of their cousins already had been flattened by vehicle tires.
As more and more subdivisions are built within the watershed,
however, increasing traffic likely will yield more amphibian casualties.
"This high mortality could easily be prevented with wildlife
tunnels," he said.
Ulao Creek drains a narrow stretch of land between the Milwaukee
River and Lake Michigan, generally south of Sauk Road in the Town of
Grafton and north of Highland Road in Mequon.
To the east, the watershed boundary is framed by Highway C. The
western boundary includes Highway W north of Highway 32, Cheyenne Ave.,
and River Bend Road.
The creek drops nearly 150 feet in elevation from the watershed's
northernmost reaches to the stream's confluence with the Milwaukee River
south of Bonniwell Road in Mequon.
During the second week of April, Casper and several project
volunteers set traps in ponds and swamp forests from one end of the
8.5-mile-long creek to the other.
The traps, which are two funnel-shaped pieces of plastic or metal
hooked together, do not kill the animals. And they are tied to willow
shrubs, tree branches or trunks to ensure they are not fully submerged.
Volunteers check the traps daily, note the species, and then release
their prey back to the wild.
Adult breeding salamanders were not cooperating in the early weeks of
But plenty of minnows and frog tadpoles were taken captive,
Past the dead end of Stonecroft Drive, on the eastern edge of the
490-acre Ulao swamp, lie the headwaters of the creek. There, Mike Grisar
and Randy Hetzel found numerous mud minnows, identified by the black
spots at the base of a rounded tail, water beetles and the tadpoles of
Other traps enclosed brook sticklebacks, a minnow species, and small
black bullheads. The presence of the bullheads, however, does not bode
well for salamanders. The fish are predators of young salamanders,
Migrating birds on view
Fieldwork in the watershed also offers close-up views of migrating
birds, from the tall great white herons to the northern shovelers
spotted by another volunteer, Sheri Mount.
Teal, mallards, canvasback, wood ducks and grebe also are passing
through at this time of year, taking advantage of the numerous ponds and
flooded forests in the watershed, according to Grisar, manager of the
herpetologic survey project.
A separate bird survey will count the species that pass over the area
and those that nest here.
Hetzel spots kinglets, brown creepers and warblers as he moves
between aquatic traps.
The birds take flight when researchers come too close, however,
prompting Casper to comment on the relative immobility of amphibians and
"They have small activity ranges," Casper said. "Herptiles are
entirely dependent on local management of their habitat, more so than
birds, which can fly a mile or so to a new habitat."
Tiger salamanders live in open ponds.
Blue spotted salamanders, which are common here, prefer wet areas
beneath a closed canopy of mature trees.
The uncommon spotted salamanders are forest creatures, too, but less
tolerant of human disturbances than the blue spotted, Casper said.
Both must inhabit a patch of hardwood swamp that provides a diverse
landscape to accommodate each stage in its life cycle.
In spring, there must be an ephemeral, or temporary, wetland without
fish where it can lay eggs away from fish predators, he said. By fall,
it is looking for an upland site, near water, for its winter den.
Such vernal pools adjacent to Bonniwell Road could harbor the rare
spotted salamanders, Casper said. Those ponds are home to fairy shrimp,
a favorite food of the amphibians.
If children living in the watershed bring home a trophy frog,
salamander or turtle, families are encouraged to call Plumeau at
Cedarburg Science. The telephone number is (262) 376-0735. Casper or
other volunteers would like to document each species before they are
Woodland restoration planned
The Ulao Creek Partnership also plans to restore several woodland areas
this year by planting trees and shrubs at several demonstration sites,
said county conservationist Andy Holschbach. The first planting is
scheduled for Saturday.
Another piece of the creek management project is an inventory of the
plant communities in the Ulao swamp, south of Port Washington, at the
headwaters of the stream.
Jill Hewitt, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee biological sciences
graduate student, will continue walking through the swamp this summer to
document plant species at 80 sites.
One of Hewitt's goals is to explain how human disturbances, from
drainage ditches and roads to mining and tree cutting, have changed the
face of the area. Prior to settlement of the region, surveyors found a
conifer swamp of cedars and tamaracks.
Today, there are no conifers, and the swamp is a mosaic of various
types of hardwood and shrub dominated wetlands, Hewitt said.
READ MORE ABOUT IT
Three separate inventories - amphibians and reptiles, birds, and the
Ulao swamp plant communities - will be summarized by the Ulao Creek
Partnership in a publication.
The first draft could be completed by this May, but a longer version
likely will be printed a year from now.
This spring's edition of the "Flora and Fauna of Ulao Creek
Watershed" will be distributed at a field day and open house
scheduled for May 17. From 3 to 6 p.m. that day, area residents are
invited to observe turtle trapping and water quality monitoring in ponds
on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property along Ulao Parkway.
After 6:30 p.m., the partnership will hold an open house to discuss
the creek management project at the Town of Grafton Hall, 1230 11th Ave.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April 22,