[Tweeters] I Watch Plankton

jeff gibson gibsondesign at msn.com
Tue Mar 26 10:56:39 PDT 2013

While a birdwatcher, I also watch other things, you know, like Plankton.

Yes it's true, I've been watching Plankton for years, ever since I was a little kid. I think Plankton is pretty cool.

I had an interesting experience last week here in Everett. Early in the week I took a brief stop off at the waterfront's 10th street boatlaunch. It was warmish but pretty windy, the flags at the marina standing straight out. But then there was a couple of lull's in the wind, and all of a sudden my little truck windows and windshield were awash in quite a number and variety of small flying insects. "Hey, that's Aerial Plankton!" I said to myself.

Plankton comes from the Greek (to me) word for "drifting". While traditionally applied to aquatic creatures, it has also been used to describe all sorts of lifeforms that drift about in the atmosphere - everything from viruses and bacteria, protists, spores, algae, etc. , including lots of little flying bugs. Sure those bugs can fly on their own, but once up into the sky, don't always really have control of where they're going. Blown about by the vagaries of weather, they are then Plankton. Drifters.

"Aerial Plankton" is food to birds. Those swallow's aren't just flying around up in the air to look good- they're hungry! Ditto for swifts, nighthawks, bats, dragonflies, and whatever strong fliers up there that can collect this food resource. Summer mountaineers might notice quite a fallout of windblown bugs and spiders on our snowfields and rocky slopes which provide food for our local mountain bugs and birds.

After watching the bug plankton "fallout" down at the waterfront the weather turned "anti-plankton" later in the week, with cold torrential rain, hail, and finally snow. After weather like that I imagine the early swallows, hiding under shelter somewhere, possibly saying to themselves " I just flew 2000 miles just to sit through this?" Too many cold wet days in a row couldn't be to good for such aerial feeding birds. The good news is that air temperatures are very "mercurial" and could be good for bugs just about any hour now.

For water not so much. Water takes some time to warm up enough, and for the solar energy to jump start some photosynthesis in our local phytoplankton, which then gets the whole food chain going again for the year. Down at the Lowell- Snohomish River Rd. ponds the day after my waterfront aerial plankton fallout, I saw my first swallow of the year, and also checked out the ponds- which were still pretty clear, quiet and dormant plankton wise. But I'm watching and someday soon will be jumping around the shores of a pond shouting "the plankton are blooming, the plankton are blooming!" as I witness the first emergence of water fleas (Daphnia), Copepods,(both tiny crustaceans ), or whatever. Actually I'm pretty quiet in the field.

Then out to sea, where plankton acts on the grand scale. Still not appreciating plankton? Well, just imagine a world with no plankton, and you are going on a pelagic birding trip. Without plankton your species total is gonna be a big fat zero, because no plankton, no fish, no this no that, no birds. Furthermore, you probably aren't gonna get to the ocean without a couple of oxygen bottles, one for you and one for your car, because something like 50 percent of the worlds oxygen is produced by phytoplankton! Your Infernal Combustion Engine needs that good ol' oxygen to combust. How about that! Whale watching trip? Better forget about it. Crab dinner? Nope; crabs start out as plankton- little bitty larvae about the size of a small pinhead. Just sayin'.

For those of you who must have more drama in your nature experience, remember that plankton can kill you! How about a little Clam Roulette for you clam diggers out there. "Red tide", a type of plankton (a dinoflagellate) is the source of the toxin that causes Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. That's pretty exciting. Out on our ocean coast some recent seabird die-offs have been found to be caused by dinoflagellate blooms which after dying and being pounded by winter storms, produced a soapy goop that cut through the oils that "waterproof" seabirds, which introduced them to that trickster of our Pacific Northwest climate, hypothermia, whereupon they all croaked.

So sure, plankton is important and all, but also beautiful. The most amazing experience I had with the beauty of plankton was years ago kayaking at night along the South shore of Bellingham. I was really getting into the shining moonlight on the water, when I realized that the moon wasn't out- it was phosphorescence caused by billions of bio luminescent plankton. I then noticed that my paddle strokes were all illuminated, along with the whirls the paddle created. Pulling into Chuckanut Cove, my haul out spot, the plankton (dinoflagellates again, as I understand it) was so thick in the shallows, that every moving creature created a light show. Big crabs plodding along the bottom lit up in interesting ways, and big Sculpins, and whatever other fish moved about created bright comets or blinking constellations of brilliance.

So there you go - Plankton Watching, a great adventure for all ages. A lot can be seen by the naked eye, or even with close-focusing binoculars (5' or so). Get a dissecting microscope, or a compound scope and you'll really be amazed at what you see!

Jeff Gibson
watching plankton in
Everett Wa

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