Stewards of a Stream

It was a sunny day in April 2018 in a peaceful section of Ridley Creek. Bass, trout, sunfish, fallfish, minnows and common shiners swam along a slow, rippling current. American eels slithered along the stream’s muddy bottom, and mayflies buzzed along the reedy banks.

Suddenly, the water parted and a rubber boot appeared, followed by another, and another. A team of Academy scientists was wading into the river, gear in hand, to capture this tranquil moment in time. They were there thanks to Academy members Lynn and Tony Hitschler, on whose Chester County property this scene was unfolding.

Scientists and others of all ages wade in a stream with nets and electroshocking gear

“We invited the Academy to come assess the stream because we were curious about the real health of the stream, how much life it supported, the quality of the water and the biodiversity within the stream,” says Lynn.

Both Tony, who was previously involved with the Nature Conservancy, and Lynn, who is on the board of American Rivers, are members of the Academy’s Lewis and Clark Circle of Giving. As avid fishermen and passionate naturalists, they have been supporting the Academy since the mid-1970s. The Hitschlers are adamant about being good stewards of the environment, including the waters that run through their property, which has been legally protected.

They have learned how to plant properly along stream banks to maintain streamside insect populations and have avoided clear cutting to prevent stream bank erosion.

“Every stream goes to a river, and rivers go to the oceans,” Lynn says. “We understand the value of a stream that has been protected.”

Male scientist in blue shirt, waders, and baseball hat measures two foot long eel with help from others
Academy scientist Paul Overbeck measures a 20-year-old American eel.

The Hitschlers wanted to know if their work had paid off, so they invited Academy fish scientists Rich Horwitz, Paul Overbeck and Mark Sabaj to assess and record the species in the stream. They also brought in Lauren McGrath and Nora Deramo from Willistown Conservation Trust to identify aquatic insects. They invited friends and relatives to bring their children to participate in the stream electrofishing and to learn from the work.

“We wanted the kids to experience the knowledge of the scientists and to actually
see, touch, feel and hear about what was being discovered in this little part of the world that we all work so hard to protect,” Lynn says.

Girl in purple shirt measures small fish
The Hitschlers invited children of friends and family members so they could witness science in action.

Everyone — from the scientists to the Hitschlers to the children — put on waders and gear and got into the water. The scientists explained how and why you electrofish a stream, which involves sending an electric current into the water to temporarily stun (but not injure) the fish to assess abundance, density and species composition. They made sure everyone understood what they were doing and why, and then they helped the children scoop fish into nets, handle them carefully, identify them, measure them and record the information for science.

“It was magical, sticking your hand into the belly of mother nature,” Lynn says. “What stood out to us were the teaching abilities of the scientists. They were so communicative and helpful at teaching everyone, from the very young to the very old.”

Lepomis auritus (redbreast sunfish)
Lepomis auritus (redbreast sunfish)

Not only were the Hitschlers and their friends thrilled to work alongside the scientists, but they also learned that their stewardship of the stream is well worth their effort. The Academy returned this spring to reassess the stream and record how its biodiversity is changing over time.

Even the scientists were surprised at the variety of life they found in the stream. With an abundance of American eels (some 2 feet long!), white suckers, rock bass, pumpkinseed and redbreast sunfishes, bluegills, minnows, common shiners and many more species, it took the scientists nearly a full day to assess and record their finds.

Luxilus cornutus (common shiner)
Luxilus cornutus (common shiner)

When it comes to their property, cultivating the stream is among their highest priorities.

“It is our mission as caretakers of this stream for a period of time until we pass it on to the next generation,” Lynn says. “We are very fortunate.”

By Mary Alice Hartsock

This article originally appeared in Academy Frontiers, the Academy’s member magazine.

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