Imagine walking or paddling along your favorite stretch of marshland and coming across something hiding in the grass. It's three feet tall and its wings, which open when it sees you, span an impressive four feet across.
The creature is an American bittern, a rare heron with distinguishing moustache-like cheek markings and a talent for blending in with marsh grass.
Such a sighting is unusual; the American bittern is listed as endangered in Maryland and Pennsylvania. So we were surprised to hear that these birds were seen along Pierceville Run, a Susquehanna River tributary that was added in 2002 to Pennsylvania's list of impaired waters and removed just earlier this year.
An American bittern on the banks of Pierceville Run. Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of the Environment
The American bittern's wetland habitats have declined by as much as 50 percent over the last two centuries, due to sediment pollution, development and an excess of man-made pollutants being pushed into the water.
How did Pierceville Run go from an "impaired" waterway to the home of an endangered bird?
Pierceville Run was listed as impaired because it contained an excessive amount of sediment pollution. In other words, there was too much dirt in the water.
Sediment pollution can cloud water and prevent sunlight from reaching aquatic plants and animals. It can even block the flow of creeks, streams and other waterways.
In agricultural areas, like the Pennsylvania county where Pierceville Run is located, livestock can often cause sediment pollution. When cattle are allowed to run through a stream, they can take portions of the stream bank with them. This can lead to the erosion of stream banks and to excessive sediment in the water.
Another source of sediment is the clearing of land for development. When soil is no longer home to trees and plants whose roots can hold it in place, it loosens and can end up in nearby waterways, especially after a severe storm.
To curb Pierceville Run's sediment problems, partners restricted livestock from entering streamside areas and installed trees along the banks to hold the soil in place.
Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of the Environment
More from Pierceville Run:
Fall brings with it cooler weather and a rainbow of red, orange and yellow foliage, making it the perfect time to get outside for a hike.
From the coastal marshes of the Chesapeake Bay to the rocky hills of the Appalachian Mountains, scenic vistas and mountaintops await.
Tip: To plan your outing, find out when "peak fall foliage" occurs in your region with this map from the Weather Channel.
Here are some of our favorite sites to take in the changing colors of fall:
1. Old Rag Mountain Hike, Shenandoah National Park, Va. (7 miles)
Image courtesy David Fulmer/Flickr
Be prepared for a challenging rock scramble and a crowd of tourists, but know that it will all be worth it in the end. Some consider this hike to have the best panoramic vistas in Northern Virginia, and it remains one of the most popular hikes in the mid-Atlantic.
2. Loudoun Heights Trails, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, W.Va. (7.5 miles)
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is located along the C&O Canal—a hot spot for those looking to find fall foliage. But if you're tired of the canal's flat views as it runs along the Potomac River, check out the trails in Loudon Heights. It may be an uphill battle, but you'll find yourself overlooking the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers from what seems to be the highest point around. This is certainly a good hike for a cool fall day (this blogger took to the trails in the heat of summer and was drained!). Be sure to grab ice cream in town afterwards!
3. Flat Top Hike, Peaks of Otter Trails, Bedford, Va. (3.5 miles)
Image courtesy Jim Liestman/Flickr
The Peaks of Otter are three mountain peaks that overlook the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. While a hike to Sharp Top is an intriguing one with stunning views, a hike to Flat Top promises to be less crowded. Keep in mind, there are many other trails and lakes near the Peaks of Otter worth exploring!
4. Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock Loop, Catoctin Mountain Park, Thurmont, Md. (5 miles)
Image courtesy TrailVoice/Flickr
Give yourself plenty of time to take in the unique rock formations and two outstanding viewpoints found along this hardwood forest trail. If you're not up for a long hike, visit the park's more accessible viewpoints and make a stop at the nearby Cunningham Falls State Park to see a scenic waterfall just below the mountains.
5. Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail, Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md. (184 miles)
Image courtesy sandcastlematt/Flickr
This trail follows the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md. While bikers and hikers often tackle the entire trail, the canal path can also be enjoyed as a leisurely day hike.
From Great Falls to Harpers Ferry to Green Ridge State Forest—the second largest in Maryland—a walk along this rustic trail traces our nation's transportation history with sightings of brick tunnels, lock houses and the beautiful scenery that surrounds it all.
If you plan on making a multi-day journey, watch the color of the leaves change as you move north along with peak foliage.
6. Pokomoke River State Forest (Snow Hill, Md.) (1 mile)
Image courtesy D.C. Glovier/Flickr
Whether you explore the 15,500 acres of this forest from land or from water, you are sure to find breath-taking scenes of fall—in stands of loblolly pine, in bald-cypress forests and swamps and even in a five-acre remnant of old growth forest. Take a one-mile self guided trail or opt for an afternoon fall colors paddle in the nearby Pocomoke River State Park, sponsored by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
7. Waggoner's Gap Hawk Watch Hike, Cumberland County, Pa.
Image courtesy Audubon Pennsylvania
This rocky site is located along an autumn raptor migration flyway, making it popular among bird-watchers. During the fall, however, it is a must-visit for birders and non-birders alike. From the top of Kittatinny Ridge, also known as Blue Mountain, you can see South Mountain and Cumberland, Perry, York and Franklin counties. The land is cared for by Audubon Pennsylvania.
8. Pole Steeple Trail, Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Cumberland County, Pa. (.75 mile)
Image courtesy Shawnee17241/Flickr
This trail offers a great view for a short climb. While the trail is less than one mile long, it is steep! From the top, you can see Laurel Lake in Pine Grove Furnace State Park and all 2,000 feet of South Mountain. Plan this hike around sunset to see fall colors in a different light.
This school year, teens from the District of Columbia's Wards 1, 6, 7 and 8 will give up their Saturdays for the Chesapeake Bay.
Instead of watching television or playing sports, they will install wetland plants along the Anacostia River and even hike the Appalachian Trail. The ninth, tenth and eleventh graders hailing from Washington's underserved neighborhoods will develop confidence and leadership skills during the 12-month experiential learning program known as WILL (Wilderness Leadership and Learning.)
Image courtesy WILL
WILL takes learning out of the classroom, introducing participants to outdoor scenarios where teamwork and leadership skills are applicable and visible. It also allows participants to learn about the Bay without using a textbook; when participants spent three days at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Karen Noonan Study Center this year, they dredged an oyster bar, set crab pots and learned about Harriet Tubman, who was born just down the road.
After service days along the Anacostia, ropes courses, a scavenger hunt on the National Mall and a trip to the Newseum, students will wrap up their year-long experience with a final test: a seven-day trip along the Appalachian Trail.
Charity walks, charity marathons—and charity paddles? From a nine-day paddle that spotlights the Potomac River to an 11-stop float plan from northeast Maryland to southeast Virginia, more organizations are getting out on the water to fundraise for the Chesapeake Bay.
In one effort to garner grassroots support, the District of Columbia-based Potomac Riverkeeper sent two paddlers down a stretch of the Potomac and documented the nine-day, 150-mile trip online. Joe Hage and Whit Overstreet—one the caretaker of the Sycamore Island Canoe Club, the other a member of the Potomac Riverkeeper staff—used Twitter, Facebook and regular blog posts to publicize their paddle and solicit mile-by-mile donations, raising more than $3,000 for a project that will create a Potomac River water trail designed for people in self-powered crafts.
Image courtesy Potomac Riverkeeper
Hage and Overstreet made their trip along Virginia's shore in red and orange sea kayaks, which held their camping gear, provisions and a couple of good luck charms: for Joe, a stuffed dog, and for Whit, a rubber duck, both found in piles of onshore trash. The trip, started each morning before sunrise, solidified the two paddlers' connection with the Potomac. But, as Overstreet said, it also opened a window for others to experience the river "from the comfort of their PCs."
Image courtesy Potomac Riverkeeper
As Hage and Overstreet paddled down the Potomac, travelers-in-spirit stuck at their desks could also check in with a third paddler: Lou Etgen, making an 11-day charity paddle down the entire length of the Bay. And just as the Internet helped Hage and Overstreet share their stories—a Tweet about the waves and water, a Facebook post signaling their arrival at a campsite—the Internet allowed Etgen to show his friends, colleagues and even complete strangers the sights and sounds of the watershed.
Image courtesy Lou Etgen
The Associate Director of Programs with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay made the sojourn from Havre de Grace, Md., to Cedar View, Va., for a number of reasons: to celebrate his 50th birthday, to reconnect with the water and to fundraise, first for the Alliance and second for Autism Speaks. Joined by a gear boat and an ever-changing group of fellow paddlers, each day Etgen spent on the water was a memorable one, whether he was marveling at underwater grasses on the Susquehanna flats or paddling alongside blue crabs and bald eagles. Throughout the trip, Etgen remained impressed with the water's health, while his readers remained engrossed in his writing.
"I spoke with many folks on my return who told me of waking up and going to their computer to check in on the blog from the night before," Etgen wrote in an online epilogue. "The blog comments from friends and folks I did not know were tremendous and helped to spur us on."
For Etgen, this show-and-tell turned out to be an integral part—even his favorite part—of the trip.
"This wasn't my trip," Etgen said. "This was our trip. It became so much bigger than my journey."
Image courtesy Lou Etgen
Overstreet and Hage also garnered online support, amassing countless "likes" and comments on the hundreds of photos taken with a smart phone and posted to their Facebook page from the water.
"We were able to show people that this is a feasible trip, rather than a challenging odyssey," Overstreet said. "People really seemed to enjoy it."
To read more, visit the Potomac Riverkeeper and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay websites. To get out of cyberspace and into the water, find a public access site near you. Or, join the Waterkeeper Alliance on September 15 for the Rally for Clean Water, where a morning paddle on the Potomac will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.