This rare and tiny fish has become a catalyst for restoring Birmingham’s springs and connecting communities. Find out how.

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Seven Springs at Faith Apostolic Church. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Have you ever seen a Watercress Darter? Chances are you haven’t…up close.

Watercress Darter. Photo by David J. Aarons

But the Watercress Darter, which resembles a brightly colored tropical fish, has many fans here in Birmingham. For example, near East Lake United Methodist Church, a 15 foot by 30 foot mural features the tiny fish.

Birmingham, Alabama
Watercress darter mural across from East Lake United Methodist Church – Photo by Pat Byington

In Powderly, on the west side of Birmingham, at the Faith Apostolic Church, the Seven Springs Ecoscape has a metal crafted entrance depicting the rare fish.

Faith Apostolic Church in the background of the Seven Springs entrance. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Why such an interest in a fish smaller than your pinky?

This tiny and colorful darter, discovered 55 years ago in Jefferson County, Alabama, is found nowhere else on earth. The Watercress Darter needs fresh clean water and unpolluted springs. As a result, it has become the catalyst and symbol for spring and creek restoration in our community.

In this, our final installment in a three-part series exploring Birmingham’s lost lakes, parks and springs, we examine efforts to restore Birmingham’s springs and the waters in and around them. This effort has been led in no small part by the tiny but mighty Watercress Darter.

Birmingham Blessed with Springs

Roebuck Spring on the east end of town. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Birmingham was once blessed with innumerable springs, according to biologist Mike Howell, a Samford University Professor emeritus, whose discovery and identification of the Watercress Darter in 1965 enabled the fish to become the first species listed in Alabama under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“I could imagine, that at one time, Village Creek, Five Mile Creek, and Valley Creek, all these creeks that flow from the Birmingham area into the Black Warrior River, were crystal clear, spring fed water throughout the valley,” said Howell. “They likely had the Watercress Darter and all kinds of darters in them. As the Magic City grew in this valley, overnight, all the homes, buildings, mills, parking lots, ballparks, covered up many of the springs and polluted the creeks.”

Where did the darters go?

Photo of a Watercress darter. Via USFWS.

Howell surmises, several darter species were likely extirpated, while the Watercress Darters sought refuge in the headwaters – the spring heads – where the actual springs were coming out of the ground. The springs that were protected are where the watercress darters and other fish such as the rush darters reside today.

How important are these springs where the darters live?

Over 20 percent of the endangered species in the U. S. depend upon spring ecosystems. They are also a primary source of clean drinking water.

“We must protect springs at all cost,” added Howell.

Protecting the Watercress Darter Restores Springs

Over the past half century efforts to protect and restore habitat for the Watercress Darter have also preserved and restored springs throughout Jefferson County.

Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge

The Thomas Spring pond at the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

In 1964, after the Watercress Darter was discovered at Glenn Spring, near Bessemer, the search was on to discover another population.

Years later, in 1976, another population was discovered in Thomas Spring, also within the city limits of Bessemer. Dammed 20 years earlier, the place was an ideal habitat for the Watercress.

By 1980, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased 7 acres around Thomas Spring to ensure the habitat would thrive and give the Watercress a second sanctuary. Even though it has more than tripled in size, today, the 23 acre Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge is the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the nation.

More Discoveries and Creating Habitat

In the late 70s, Howell discovered an additional population of the Watercress Darter at the spring head of Roebuck Springs, adjacent to Birmingham’s Hawkins Recreation Center. The spring run flows through the Roebuck Municipal Golf Course and into Village Creek.

In the mid 1980s, a reserve population was “planted” in Tapawingo Springs (also called Penny Spring) in Pinson. That population thrived, while an effort to stock them in the springs coming out of Avondale Park failed.

Seven Springs – a Spiritual Place

Entrance of the Seven Springs Ecoscape and meditation garden. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

By the 2000s, Howell and Dr. Larry Davenport, another biologist from Samford, discovered a Watercress Darter population in a spring in front of the Faith Apostolic Church in the western part of Birmingham.

Faith Apostolic Church’s pastor, Bishop Heron Johnson, who passed away in 2015 at age 95, was described as a “Modern Day Noah”, resulting from his efforts to protect the Watercress darter.

“Bishop Johnson said it best when he was alive – ‘who knew such a tiny creature could bring so many people together,’” remembered Wendy Jackson, former Executive Director of the Freshwater Land Trust, and now Vice President at the Land Trust Alliance.

Left to Right – Bishop Heron Johnson, Mike Howell, Wendy Jackson and Roald Hazelhoff. Photo taken in 2008 at the groundbreaking of the Seven Springs Ecoscape by Pat Byington for Bham Now

“The fact that you have this super rare, endangered and endemic fish that lives in Jefferson County and nowhere else in the world, that’s magical to begin with. But it is bigger than that. We called Bishop Johnson the Modern day Noah, but that moniker now extends and applies to the entire church, it is a legacy they continue to champion.”

Groundbreaking by church and community leaders in 2008 at the Seven Springs Ecoscape. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

In 2008, the coalition held a groundbreaking in front of the church and springs to create the Seven Springs Ecoscape.

Eleven years later the garden looks like Birmingham 140 years ago.

“Seven Springs is a snapshot of what Jefferson County may have looked like in the 1880s. It would be with less privet (chuckle), perhaps bigger ponds and spring head than we have now,” said Jeffery Drummond with the Freshwater Land Trust.

Seven Spring near Faith Apostolic Church. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Added Jackson, “I think it is important to recognize that every member of Faith Apostolic Church – with their dedication to this tiny fish – they are heroes for their commitment to one of God’s tiniest creatures. And that dedication and commitment is on display 365 days a year. They are the stewards of God’s creation. They are all modern day Noah’s.”

Restoring Roebuck Springs

Roebuck Spring in 1979 before the tennis courts were built. Photo from Mike Howell

One of the latest successful Watercress Darter projects is the restoration of Roebuck Springs.

After a fish kill in 2008 occurred near the Roebuck Spring spring head and pond, steps were taken to restore watercress darter habitat and the spring run. The Freshwater Land Trust and its partners reconfigured and provided buffers between the parking lot and the spring run.

The old parking lot at Roebuck Spring run. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now
Roebuck Spring buffer created between the parking lot and spring run. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

They have turned the Roebuck Spring/Hawkins Recreation Center into a Watercress Darter friendly place.

“People can make a difference today with development up front,” proposed Freshwater’s Drummond.

“It would have cost Birmingham a lot less money if they had done buffer zones and bio-retention ponds upfront when the parking lot (at the Hawkin’s Recreation Center) was constructed, People making conscientious decisions, understanding that we all live in watersheds and everything filters down to these places. Jefferson County is one of the most biodiverse places despite urbanization. Imagine how much it was when these springs were natural. We can at least help bring some of it back. Stop the bleeding and protect some of what we have.”

Birmingham’s Darters and Springs Need Allies

Planting native trees at East Lake Park near spring fed Village Creek. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

There are many groups that are allies of the watercress darter, springs, parks and lakes in the Birmingham region and no shortage of ways to get involved.

The Nature Conservancy of Alabama has an outstanding urban environmental restoration program focusing on neighborhoods around Birmingham, including Woodlawn and East Lake.

Some local community groups include Friends of Avondale Park, Friends of George Ward Park, and Friends of East Lake Park. If you can’t find a “friends group” in the Magic City connect with one of the leaders of the local neighborhood association.

Birmingham Alabama
Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. Photo by Pat Byington

And of course, volunteer and support the folks at Faith Apostolic Church, Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham Southern College (with Turkey Creek in Pinson and Seven Springs), Birmingham Historical Society, Friends of Turkey Creek (they are the keeper of the vermilion darter), Friends of Shades Creek and the Freshwater Land Trust.

Clean, fresh springs and gorgeous darters are symbols of our healthy, natural resources. By caring about this tiny fish and its habitat, you can help preserve the things that make Birmingham and Jefferson county so special.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.