The most important thing I have learned from the first week of this class is that there’s always something new to learn about a something you thought you knew. Throughout high school, my sciences classes (all 8 of them) included a field component, usually meaning we spent the entire class period once a week at a field location nearby. When Professor Lookingbill said we would be going on a walking tour of Westhampton Lake, I was excited to relive those field days but also expecting to hear much of the same ideas as I did at other field sites.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out how similar yet also different the Westhampton Lake watershed is from some of the rivers and marshes of southern New Jersey. The lake, like many others, includes a riparian buffer along one edge near a main road. The species in this habitat are different from other habitats I’ve visited, yet serve the same purpose: to filter runoff and pollutants from nearby residential and commercial areas. Completely different species serving the same purpose: nature’s way of customizing each ecosystem to its specific needs, further proving the amazing intricacies of nature and ecology.
Last summer, I conducted research in a Biology lab on freshwater sponges in the Greater Richmond Area. A few of our expeditions led us to explore the outflow of Westhampton Lake (which I now correctly call Little Westham Creek). Of course I knew there was an inflow to the lake, but I never explored the lake to find it. On our walk, we learned that there were not one, but 2 main tributaries to Westhampton Lake, one on each side. (Of course my next thoughts were whether there are freshwater sponges living in these streams, but no luck yet on that front.)
Little Westham Creek begins in a residential area a few miles upstream of Westhampton Lake where its waters pause before making their way south to the James River. Along the way, the creek collects many pollutants and much waste from the runoff of homes, roads, the University of Richmond campus, and a golf course. A lack of riparian buffer along parts of the creek and direct dumping of storm drain water in addition to the natural nutrient load of the creek’s watershed allows for much sediment and pollutants to make their way into the James River.
Many species of plants do however grow near and around the creek and lake on campus. River birch and Baldcypress act as riparian buffers on the edges of the water while Sweetgum, Yellow Poplar, and Sassafras are abundant in forests nearby. Snapping turtles and geese can be seen in and around the lake almost all year long. Residents in nearby neighborhoods frequent the lake to try their hand at catching some of the fish in the lake. I was lucky to see a young boy catch a small bass recently.
The weekend after our stream walk, I made a point to walk along the wooded side of the lake whenever I was going to our dining hall. And each time I saw something new. I saw the water level was lower than I remembered last year. I saw erosion along some parts of the lake’s banks. I discovered walking paths I hadn’t paid attention to before. I even spotted a few new trees species I’m eager to learn the names of. I learned that no matter how many times you look at something, you can always learn something new, and that each and every watershed on Earth is unique and beautiful in its own way.