Conservation biologist Anthony Zemba reached into a sparkling pool and pulled out a handful of mud on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon. The ground he stepped on gave way, pulling him into thigh-deep water with a pungent odor of decaying organic matter.
“You’re going to get wet when you do wetlands work,” he told a group of hikers who looked on with wonder as he sank deeper into the still water, but he was unfazed.
“You wouldn’t be able to build on this,” Mr. Zemba said. He showed the hikers three distinct layers of decomposing mud beneath the leaf cover in one of the pools that form the foundation of the forest food chain.
Mr. Zemba, director of conservation sciences for the Connecticut Audubon Society, led a guided hike April 20 of the ephemeral wetlands — or vernal pools — in the Trout Brook Valley preserve in Weston and Easton.
Close to two dozen area residents, from 6-year-old twins to adults 60-plus, accompanied him on the moderate to difficult terrain.
The vernal pools are filled by snow melt and spring rains and abound with life at this time of year: Insects, primitive crustaceans, amphibians, and sensitive plant and animal life depend on the seasonal pools for their existence.
The skunk cabbage borders the wetlands, delineating it from the uplands, Mr. Zemba said. The vernal pools don’t have fish because of their ephemeral nature. If they did, the fish would eat the larval species in the pools.
Amphibians, such as the wood frog, spotted salamander and American toad, lay their eggs in the pools, he said, and he showed the group a jellyfish-like egg mass.
“The pools are shallower than normal,” observed Princie Falkenhagen, Aspetuck Land Trust president.
Mr. Zemba agreed and said sometimes the pools don’t last long enough for the larval species to reach maturity. They sense the declining water and speed up their metamorphosis. This may cause them to become abnormally small adults. It also may lead to mass mortality, he said.
He scooped up a bucket of water and showed the hikers the springtails and water fleas it contained. He found a ferry shrimp and stink bug, all parts of the forest food chain, and held them in his bare hand.
“Some have larval stages that bite,” he said. “I don’t mind getting bitten on the hand, but I hate things biting my feet.”
To prevent that, he wears boots and watches out for leeches. He also looks out for poison sumac after an unpleasant encounter last year.
Land trust member Jacquie Littlejohn said that in a month or so the clethra, which is commonly known as summer sweet, would be growing, and would provide a fragrant aroma to the area around the pools.
Jeff Simon of the Long Island Sound Film Project filmed the hike, but he said afterward that he planned to go on another hike with Mr. Zemba to see more aquatic life since no amphibians were spotted on the April 20 hike.
When environmental activists successfully fought to preserve Trout Brook Valley in 1999, they accomplished more than simply preventing the tract from being developed into luxury homes and a golf course, Ms. Falkenhagen said.
They didn’t realize at the time that the Trout Brook Valley Conservation Area is a habitat for more than 100 plant and animal species of conservation concern, including the Eastern box turtle and Jefferson salamander, two of dozens of high-priority species.
Aspetuck Land Trust is a local nonprofit land conservation organization founded in 1966 to preserve open space in Westport, Weston, Fairfield, and Easton.
The land trust’s yearlong environment and conservation study, conducted by the Connecticut Audubon Society, details this critically important ecosystem. The land trust requests that visitors help protect the preserve’s biodiversity and sensitive plant and animal habitats for future generations by staying on marked trails and reading the new educational signs.
The land trust maintains 44 trailed nature preserves and conservation-only properties on more than 1,700 acres of land. More than 1,000 local members support the land trust through annual membership contributions.
For more information about the land trust and its guided hikes for children and adults, visit aspetucklandtrust.org.