Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds and seed pods are arranged in a still life. Native throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the plant’s bright-orange coloring and copious nectar production attract bees, hummingbirds and other native pollinators. Milkweed seeds’ fine, feathery fibers—called silk or floss—allow the seeds to be carried on the wind.
As its name implies, butterfly milkweed is perhaps best known for its importance to butterflies. Also called butterfly flower or butterflyweed, the plant—along with other types of milkweed, including common milkweed and swamp milkweed—is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. Milkweed produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in the insect’s body, making them poisonous to predators.
But historically, milkweed has played an important role for humans as well. Pillows and mattresses have been stuffed with milkweed silk for centuries. During World War II, the plant gained national fame when war with Japan cut off access to the soft, cottony fibers of the seeds of the kapok tree, which the U.S. had used as filling for military life jackets. Through a national campaign, an estimated 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected—primarily by children using pillowcases—as a substitute filling.
Although potentially poisonous, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma. Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor, or to thicken soups—although special care was needed in the identification and preparation of the plant, to avoid its toxicity.
Image by Will Parson
When Mike and Laura Jackson wanted to restore wildlife habitat on their slice of a forested Pennsylvania mountainside, they did something you might not expect. The husband and wife, who live on 114 acres in Bedford County, started cutting down trees.
The Jacksons were motivated to drastic action in part by a small gray bird with flashes of yellow on its head and wings.
“We’ve always been birders, so we keep track of what we see,” Laura said, while she and Mike followed the trails that wind through their land. “And we’ve had golden-winged warblers on our property—but the last one we saw or heard was in 2009.”
The golden-winged warbler is a migratory bird that breeds in the Upper Midwest and Appalachian Mountains and winters in Central America. Its population has declined by roughly two-thirds in the past 50 years, in pace with the decline of the early successional habitat it needs—a young forest.
After becoming Pennsylvania Forest Stewards through a program at Penn State University in 2000, Mike and Laura began to recognize why the forest on their own land wasn’t healthy.
“That really opened our eyes to forest management—things that we could do to help the property because we saw that we were getting invasive species,” Laura said.
The Jacksons worked with a service forester from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) in 2002 to develop a ten-year forest stewardship plan for their property. Their goals were to improve forest health, control invasive species, increase native plant diversity and manage for wildlife.
Meanwhile, the golden-winged warbler was listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2004.
Though Laura was still teaching, Mike took advantage of his retirement to implement what they were learning at the many classes and workshops they were attending. He built trails and wildlife amenities such as brush piles, bird houses, squirrel boxes and owl boxes. He removed invasive species like multiflora rose and Japanese barberry, and he planted native shrubs, trees and wildflowers. He applied a technique called crown release, which thins out vegetation to give valuable wildlife trees like wild cherry, oak and hickory more sunlight and room to grow.
“Then, in 2010 we donated an easement to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy so the land can’t be developed,” Laura said. “They don’t accept just any property but they liked our property because of its good wildlife value—we have a lot of box turtles on it, a lot of birds.”
Laura said it also helped that the land is part of a roughly 9,000-acre stretch of forest that includes Pennsylvania state game lands and Tussey Mountain.
“Even though [golden-winged warblers] nest in very young forest, they take their young after they’ve fledged, and they spend time in mature forest feeding and trying to teach them what to do as survival techniques.” Laura said.
In late 2011, the Jacksons attended a workshop for land managers to learn about best management practices for the golden-winged warbler. They were the only private landowners at the meeting.
“And we thought, ‘Wow, if we can work with people who know what they’re doing and who will try to help us with our invasive species control, we could get a healthy forest again,’” Laura said.
“Which meant cutting some trees,” Mike added.
A few months later, the Jacksons invited experts from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, DCNR and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) Research Institute to look at their land. They determined it was a good fit for a golden-winged warbler habitat restoration project.
With support from the Game Commission, a forester returned to mark which trees to keep inside a 27-acre area, then invasive plants were treated with herbicide on all 108 acres of the Jacksons’ forest.
Mike and Laura interviewed a number of loggers before settling on a company that uses low-impact methods to remove trees.
The cut unveiled at least one surprise on the Jacksons’ property.
“We discovered that once we got rid of some of the trees, there are a couple spring seeps,” Laura said. “So we have a nice little wetland to walk through that we could never see before.”
Funding for the logging came from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife program. NRCS also paid for a fence around the restoration to keep out deer, allowing new plants to flourish.
“I was just surprised it came so fast,” Mike said.
Where the Jacksons had battled invasives for years, Mike said they are mostly gone.
“So as we walk through the area we’re looking for invasive species that still need to be maintained,” Laura said. “And we’re looking at this thick underbrush—and that’s what golden-winged warblers need.”
Monitoring for the project began the year following the cut, looking for regeneration as well as the golden-winged warbler.
“We’ve done [the monitoring] now two times after the logging, and we still have not seen or heard any golden-winged warblers,” Laura said. “But that’s not unexpected because there’s still a lot of regeneration yet to go and they need really thick, really heavy vegetation on the ground, and we just don’t have that yet.”
The Jacksons are prepared to wait, and said it might be another three years before the golden-winged warbler returns to their property. Through surveys they do for the Game Commission, they know that there is an active golden-winged warbler breeding site eight miles away, which puts them in the vicinity, even if it is still pretty far away.
“But what was neat was the very first spring when we were monitoring, we heard cerulean warblers,” Laura said. “And cerulean warblers are also a species of concern.”
Other at-risk birds in the project area include hooded warblers, Kentucky warblers and wood thrush. Monitoring overseen by IUP Research Institute has also identified six bird species present in the project area that benefit from young forest, including ovenbirds, chestnut-sided warblers, common yellowthroats, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings and eastern towhees.
For their years of effort to restore wildlife habitat in their forest, Mike and Laura were honored as Exemplary Forest Stewards by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay at the 2016 Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, last fall. Nowadays, Mike and Laura also host several tours a year and enjoy answering visitors’ questions about their property.
The Jacksons’ land shows that dealing with nature can be counter-intuitive, that intervening can sometimes help it rebound.
“It’s nice to see people who might think that logging is bad and really a detriment to the woods.” Laura said. “[We can] turn their thinking around a little bit and help them realize that we did something that...even if we don’t get golden-winged warblers, we’ve done something to create a healthy forest. And that’s really the important thing.”
Photos and Video by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page
Cold weather in early December may have driven more waterfowl to migrate to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast, according to the results of Maryland’s 2017 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. Experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more ducks, geese and swans in their aerial surveys than in 2016, resulting in a nearly 23 percent increase in the results of the annual survey.
An early-December cold snap throughout the eastern United States spurred the migration of waterfowl to the Chesapeake region, according to a DNR release, resulting in an overall count of 812,600 birds—higher than last year’s 663,000 and slightly above the five year average of 795,240.
This year’s total included 87,900 dabbling ducks (an increase from 69,800 in 2016) and 283,600 diving ducks (up from 246,000 in 2016). The increase in diving ducks can be attributed to teams observing more scaup and canvasbacks. Survey teams also observed more Canada geese than in 2016: 394,700 birds, a 34 percent increase from the previous year.
Marshes, mud flats and shorelines—which offer plenty of fish, underwater grasses and aquatic invertebrates to feast on—make the Bay region a perfect winter stopover for migrating waterfowl. Tracking the abundance of species like the American black duck helps scientists assess habitat health and food availability to support both migrating and resident waterfowl populations.
The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management combines these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that follows the Atlantic coast of North America.
Learn more about the results of the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.
For 383 miles, the Potomac River flows steadily down from West Virginia, through the nation’s capital and past Maryland’s Point Lookout State Park until it reaches its final destination: the Chesapeake Bay.
For the group of Ojibwe women leading the Potomac River Nibi Walk, their destination is the same as the river’s.
In Ojibwe tradition, a Nibi Walk is an act of spiritual devotion. These women have traveled from their home in Minnesota to the river’s beginning in West Virginia to perform the walk. The goal is to carry water collected at the headwaters of the Potomac in Fairfax Stone, West Virginia, down to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, praying to and honoring the spirit of the water with every step.
Sharon Day, the organizer of the walk, says that she and others from her community took this act of prayer and meditation out of their homes and communities into the “geopolitical landscape” because they feel that waterway health in the United States needs to be a major concern.
Day’s trying to bring this message around the country. Other walks have covered the Cuyahoga, James, Minnesota and Ohio Rivers among others. “I urge all the walkers that the walk is just the beginning,” she says. “How do we–every single one of us–be a part of the solution?”
The last day of the walk takes on a certain rhythm: the steady pace of the human body punctuated by fluid handoffs and quick footsteps on asphalt. One or two people walk with the water at a time, down stretches of road that may or may not be pedestrian-friendly. They relay the water every mile or so and keep it moving from the early morning until about the time the sun goes down when they rest. In Ojibwe life, women are the keepers of the water, so they are the ones who carry the vessel. Men act in supporting roles, such as carrying the eagle staff.
The group completes the last 20 or so miles of their journey and ends on a rocky shoreline at Point Lookout State Park as the sun sinks low in the sky. Once people steady themselves on the jagged rocks, a moment of calm settles over what had been a day of constant movement. The water laps and gurgles beneath as Day removes the beaded cloth that covered the copper bucket and acted as a metronome throughout the walk, clinking against the vessel with every step. She raises the water three times before releasing it from her possession into the waves of the Chesapeake Bay as the group lets out cheers of excitement.
The light fades as the travelers reflect on their journey, complete an offering ceremony and sing for the water all together one last time on the Potomac River Nibi Walk.
Video, photos and text by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson