In late March, Pennsylvania’s South Mountain was already weeks into spring’s thaw, but a stinging breeze and sinking sun meant jackets and beanies for a group forming under the tall, swaying pines near Kings Gap State Park.
Devin Thomas, almost ten years old, from nearby Carlisle, showed up in shorts and sneakers but came prepared with a headlamp he made using an old pair of underwear and faithfully equipped with enthusiasm for the outdoors.
“He won’t even kill bugs,” said Ray Thomas, Devin’s father—also wearing shorts.
As more people arrived, they took turns dunking their boots in a bucket of soapy disinfectant, used to get rid of harmful microbes, seeds, and any other invasive species. It was a precaution justified by the group’s destination, the vernal pools of Forest Pools Preserve.
Vernal pools are ephemeral forest ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater, and blanketed in leaves from a healthy forest. They host a wealth of animals and only stay wet for about seven months, which is just long enough for a cascade of frogs and salamanders to use them as a home for their developing young.
You won’t find fish—they would eat all the eggs—but if you get the timing right, you’ll hear the clucking chatter of spawning wood frogs or the car alarm call of camouflaged spring peepers. You might see yellow spotted salamanders wriggling among the leaves, and you might see tiny fairy shrimp, the country cousins of the commercial pet Sea-Monkeys.
If you were visiting the area ten years ago, you would also see piles of trash and hear the sound of broken glass underfoot.
“I guess back in the olden days you would see these depressions in the forest, and before we had trash pickup I think that’s where a lot of people would just put their trash,” said Molly Anderson, a volunteer program manager with The Nature Conservancy. “You’d walk and you’d just hear ‘crunch crunch.’”
The Conservancy purchased the preserve’s 70 acres in 2007, and for three years it held volunteer trash cleanups and monitored the vernal pools there. A Conservancy scientist started noticing that some of the pools weren’t holding water long enough for the young amphibians to develop.
Several theories arose. One was that growing development, with people drilling wells, had lowered the water table below the groundwater-fed pools. Another was that it might be just be a naturally drier period than normal.
“I also heard that maybe the clay liner that was holding the water, that it was popped by all the trash that was laying in it,” Anderson said.
In 2010, with grants received by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy held a workshop to restore some of the ailing pools. Volunteers Mike Bertram and Kathy King, a local married couple, were instrumental volunteers overseeing the effort, and nearby Dickinson Township provided equipment, Anderson said.
The work involved raking away leaves, setting aside mosses and other plants, using heavy machinery to remove layers of soil and carefully replacing everything above a synthetic liner placed in the depression. A season’s worth of leaf litter was the finishing touch.
“The restoration took place in the beginning of August, and we came back in the fall of the same year and it was hard to tell that anything was done there,” Anderson said.
In the years since, the restored pools hold water when the pools that weren’t restored are drying up, Anderson said. Now Forest Pools Preserve serves not only as critical habitat but as a means to raise awareness.
“One of the things that we’re concerned about is that because vernal pools are really small and kind of unnoticeable, they’re not protected really under any kind of laws protecting water,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the Conservancy is trying to educate local governments about the importance of vernal pools and address issues raised by landowners, such as the threat of mosquitos. Aiding the effort, the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program has a vernal pool landowner incentive program and an online registry.
“In a really healthy vernal pool, you’ll have a lot of different predators on mosquito larvae that would keep the mosquito numbers in check,” Anderson said.
Conservancy volunteer Andy Green helps monitor the pools and led the walk that the Thomas family attended. A retired doctor who grew up in Carlisle, Green managed remnant prairie and stormwater programs in Illinois before returning to Pennsylvania. He lives just down the road from Forest Pools Preserve.
“It’s interesting, there are none of these pools in the North Mountain, or many of these mountain ridges north of here,” Green said. “This is essentially a South Mountain phenomenon.”
Bringing the group to a pool fed by groundwater, Green pointed out the telltale masses of wood frog eggs. Wood frogs love a 40-degree night with rain, he said. The eggs were a sign that the frogs had already found a break in the cold weather, came, and left before anyone could spot them.
“They fooled everybody,” Green said.
Smaller in number were masses of eggs belonging to Jefferson and spotted salamanders, attached to sticks where the male of the species first places a sperm packet, or spermatophore.
As the adults listened to Green, the younger members of the group dispersed once they learned that they could find salamanders underneath rocks. They became the most avid explorers of the night, flipping rocks and logs, finding tiny red-backed salamanders, and replacing them as they were—at Green’s urging—before moving on to crouch low and face the water’s surface at each pool.
At the site of another pool, Green was dismayed to find nothing but a depression full of leaves. Under some of the leaves were wood frog egg masses, still moist, but the pool protecting them had dried up, and without a rain the eggs would dry up as well.
Green led the group to a final stop just over the boundary with Kings Gap State Park, which the Conservancy acquired in 1973 and transferred to the state. The sound of spring peepers became louder and louder as the group approached a pool, until the chorus seemed to be coming from every direction at once.
One of the adults held a spotted salamander she had found near the pool, showing it to the admiring group and periodically wetting her hands in the pool to keep the salamander’s skin moist—just another measure to keep the vernal pool community healthy.
The peeper’s call that had been so piercing faded quickly as the group left the low-lying bowl holding the pool, giving way to the crunching of leaves and excited recounting of what the group had just seen.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Though they spend most of their lives at sea, American shad are nonetheless dependent on the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay every spring. They are the largest of five species of river herring that swim upstream to spawn in freshwater, a fact that once made them easy pickings for nearby residents. Native Americans and European colonists—tipped off to the shad’s return by the blooming of the aptly-named shadbush—would use baskets, nets and traps to catch the fish.
But population growth put more pressure on the species, and the construction of dams and other structures blocked migrations to shad habitat. The 1980s and 90s saw the closure of commercial shad fisheries in Maryland and Virginia.
To see the efforts of shad restoration today, one can simply follow the shad as they make the same upstream migration they always have. First efforts tap into the same seasonal migration. Adult shad are caught just before spawning, and their fertilized eggs are sent to hatcheries to help restock tributaries. Some dams have been removed, while others, like Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, have implemented fish lifts or other measures to allow shad and other anadromous species to pass. Between 1989 and 2015, more than 3,300 miles of fish passage were opened in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
By 2014, shad numbers in some tributaries had improved significantly. Shad were above targets in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, though they were less established in the lower James and York and negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
The Chester River Association (CRA) measured a slight improvement in the health of the Chester River in 2015, giving the waterway a “C+” on its latest report card. While the grade is step up from 2014’s “C” score, nutrient and sediment pollution continues to threaten many of the creeks and streams that flow into the river.
CRA assesses the river’s overall health based on water clarity, dissolved oxygen levels and nutrient pollution, as well as algae levels in the tidal portions of the waterway. Although progress is encouraging, the report notes there is much restoration work left to be done, particularly in upstream portions of the watershed.
Highlighted in the report is the importance of land use on local water quality. CRA has found that areas with installed restoration projects—Riley’s Mill, Corsica Creeks and Radcliffe Creek—have shown consistent improvements in water quality.
For more information, visit the Chester River Association’s website.
More research is needed to understand the effects that nearly imperceptible bits of plastic, called “microplastics,” could have on underwater life in the Chesapeake Bay, according to a report from an advisory committee of scientific experts.
In response to growing concern surrounding microplastic pollution, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) was asked by the Chesapeake Bay Commission—a tri-state legislative body representing Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia—to investigate the issue. The resulting technical report provides information on the fate and transport of microplastics, potential impacts on wildlife, treatment options and the urgency of the issue.
Estimates suggest trillions of pieces of plastic persist in surface waters around the globe, including in the Chesapeake Bay. At five millimeters or less in size, much of this pollution is classified as microplastic. A subset of this category is microbeads: plastic particles roughly the width of a strand of hair that can be found in products like face wash, cosmetics and cleaning supplies.
Although the panel found more information is needed to understand the impacts of microplastics on underwater life, research is growing. Among the concerns is the ability of microplastics to accumulate chemical contaminants from the surrounding water, potentially exposing aquatic plants and animals to harmful chemicals.
According to the report, the simplicity of removing microbeads from products has helped propel regulations like the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which requires companies to stop using the beads in their products by 2017. But the report stresses that microbeads are just one type of microplastic, and that solving the greater issue would require the management of more than microbeads alone.
For a close-up look at microplastics from the Chesapeake Bay region, view our photo essay.
The report, Technical Review of Microbeads/Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay, is available on the STAC website.