A great egret (Ardea alba) lands in Kenilworth Marsh in Washington, D.C. Growing to more than three feet tall with a 55-inch wingspan, great egrets are the largest of the three egret species that call the Chesapeake Bay region home.
In the United States, great egret populations are not currently listed as endangered. But in the 19th century, the birds were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumage. In breeding season, long, delicate plumes—called aigrettes—grow from the egret’s back, and these feathers were in high-demand in the fashion world. Experts estimate that at the height of the feather trade, millions of egrets, herons and other birds were killed for their feathers.
In the late 1890s, cousins Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall began a boycott of the feather trade. The pair formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which would eventually grow to become the National Audubon Society—the symbol of which is the great egret. Decades later, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected migratory birds like the great egret from human activities like hunting and capturing.
Image by Will Parson
In June, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) removed the Lafayette River from its list of rivers contaminated by bacteria. The Lafayette, a branch of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Virginia, now meets the state’s water quality standards for recreational use, including swimming, boating and other recreational activities.
Virginia DEQ monitors the state’s rivers, reviewing the data every six years to update its list of impaired waterways. In its most recent water quality report, Virginia DEQ delisted a majority of the Lafayette River—except for a small tributary called Knitting Mill Creek—for bacteria, meaning the river’s levels dropped to those considered safe for recreational activities.
Despite this achievement, the Elizabeth River Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to the restoration of the Elizabeth River, still urges caution when on the water. They advise against recreational contact with the Lafayette within 72 hours of rain, as well as avoiding narrow, shallow areas such as the river’s small creeks. Stormwater runoff can wash disease-causing pathogens into waterways, and the smaller creeks can have higher bacteria numbers since they don’t flush out bacteria as well as larger rivers. They also note that swimmers should always take precautions such as avoiding the water if they have open cuts and showering or washing hands after contact with the water.
The new status of the Lafayette reflects the hard work of local groups and organizations. The City of Norfolk, along with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, have been working together to upgrade sewer lines to prevent leakages into the river. The city is also restoring seven acres of wetlands along the Lafayette, in addition to 15 acres already restored by local partners. The Elizabeth River Project, in partnership with the City of Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is working to restore the river’s natural oyster population by constructing over a dozen reefs. Their River Star Homes program, which began in 2011, now has over 3,300 participants who have pledged to take action toward protecting local waterways. "This is a great example of how the efforts of a small organization, the Elizabeth River Project, working with the community and other partners over a sustained period of time, can achieve such incredible results,” noted Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “Hats off to ERP."
On a June morning at Baltimore’s Middle Branch Park, a few steps from the Patapsco River, Molly Gallant addresses a group of eighth graders like a drill sergeant in a life vest.
“Hands up if this is your first time in a kayak, ever,” said Gallant, the high sun irradiating her tanned, freckled shoulders and red hair. Gallant, an Outdoor Recreation Programmer with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, counted aloud six raised hands.
“For those of you that have not been out before, the secret to kayaking is pressing your knees to the sides, okay?” Gallant said. “And you let your hips rock with the water and your upper body stay straight.”
The few dozen students had come that morning from Collington Square Elementary School, located roughly two miles northeast of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, for a program called Kids in Kayaks. In its first year, roughly 500 Baltimore students have taken part in the program, funded by the National Park Service and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. It has given many children their first experience on the water that has defined their hometown.
The program began with in-classroom orientation by staff from the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office.
“We went out to the schools beforehand to talk to students about what was going to happen,” said Kate Marks of the National Park Service. Marks said the overview also included discussion of “the history of the region and human impact on the landscape over the past 400 years.”
Participating schools then made two trips—in fall and spring—to the 150-acre park for entry-level kayak lessons taught by Gallant and other Recreation and Parks staff as well as on-land activities hosted by various partners including the National Park Service, the Maryland Zoo, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
“Every organization has their own mission, their own reason why they’re doing this,” Gallant said. “I think the common interest for all of us is that it’s really, really important to start engaging urban populations in the natural resources that are available to them.”
During the primer on water safety and paddling, expressions on the students’ faces ranged from giggles to frightened anticipation. A boy asked if there were any animals in the water.
“There is nothing the water that is going to eat you,” Gallant said, sensing the boy’s concern.
Gallant first talked with the National Park Service about the idea for Kids in Kayaks as an outdoor recreation program in order to get Baltimore children engaged in the historical, cultural, and ecological heritage of their hometown.
She said the environmental aspect is the first one the children pick up on.
“It’s this secret way of developing stewardship where you cannot go out on the water and have a good time and not start forming those connections,” Gallant said. “It makes you think twice about throwing litter on the ground.”
“You get to look out there and see this big massive green area that is Ft. McHenry—you get to see the flag flying out there,” Gallant said. “You get to see why this is important to Baltimore, why Baltimore was developed as a port town, why we are where we are.”
That day, as half of the children took to the water, the other half followed Peter Martin, a Naturalist at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, for a guided nature walk to learn about some of the animals and insects living at Middle Branch Park.
“We’ll see those same things out on the water,” Gallant said. “So it’s really very complementary.”
The trips are intended to be entry-level kayaking lessons, but Gallant has also seen a lot of personal growth in the children—something that was never written into the program.
“One of the young ladies that had come to us this spring was extremely fearful,” Gallant said. “It took us about 20 minutes to even get her in the boat. Tears. Anxiety. She just did not think that she could do it. So by the end of the trip, not only was she able to do it, she was actually towards the front of the pack. So that second trip for her—no hesitation.”
The newcomers from Collington Square struck a similar chord of confidence on the water.
“It happens in different variations on a lot of different levels with a lot of different kids,” Gallant said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, photos and text by Will Parson
Rodney Stotts, left, of Wings Over America, lets high schooler DeShawn Wheeler touch a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk at the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore, Maryland, while classmate Ramond Thomas looks on. More than two decades ago, Stotts left behind a past life of drugs and violence to begin working with birds of prey.
In 1992, Stotts worked as one of the founding staff members of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that pairs unemployed community youth with conservation work along the Anacostia River and beyond. From ECC arose Wings Over America, a group that provides at-risk young adults with opportunities to rehabilitate injured raptors, such as hawks, falcons and eagles. The group is currently working to establish a bird sanctuary at their headquarters in Laurel, Maryland—close by to New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a rehabilitation facility for young men.
Image by Will Parson