At sunrise on an unseasonably cold, drizzly May morning, you might expect most people to still be curled up in bed, huddled under the blankets and dreaming of warmer weather. But on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore, the birds are up and active, which means so are the bird banders at Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory.
“We start an hour before sunrise, so right now that’s about 5:15 [a.m.],” says Amanda Spears, one of the banders at Foreman’s Branch. “It’s really busy the first couple of rounds, but it dies down later as the birds settle in after migrating all night.”
Part of Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society and named for the branch of the Chester River that flows nearby, Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory is the only major migratory bird banding station on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. From March 1st through the end of May, Spears and her colleagues spend up to eight hours each day catching and banding birds as they migrate through the area.
Between spring and fall migrations, the team bands close to 15,000 birds each year. Spring migration in particular flies by. “Once the birds leave the tropics, they’re where they want to be in about two weeks,” explains Jim Gruber, director of Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory. A retired Natural Resources officer, Gruber has been banding since he was 15 years old and now volunteers his time and expertise at Foreman’s Branch.
Foreman’s Branch and other bird observatories use mist nets—fine-mesh, polyester nets that hang loosely between two poles—to catch and monitor migrating birds. Each bird is carefully carried back to the banding station, where information is recorded on its age, sex, weight, body fat and more. New avian visitors are fitted with a small, stamped aluminum band on one leg; others, like return visitors, may already have a band. Researchers can use this band number to track how long ago a bird was banded and the places it may have stopped along its travels. Some species may travel thousands of miles from their wintering grounds to spring and summer habitat.
Data that the banders collect—along with banding data from across the country—is sent to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland: home of the Bird Banding Laboratory, which partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Bird Banding Office to form the North American Bird Banding Program. As of 2012, the Bird Banding Laboratory received more than 1.2 million banding records each year. The information helps scientists understand migration patterns, population dynamics, the effects of management actions and the status of threatened or endangered species.
For the birds themselves, though, the banding station is nothing more than a quick stopover. As banders finish with each bird, it’s released out a window and sent on its way. Some pause on a nearby shrub or tree limb, but most fly quickly out of sight, off to fill up on food and prepare for the next leg of their journey.
To protect the safety and health of migrating birds, bird banding is a strictly controlled activity in the United States. Banding permits are only given to trained professionals whose projects aid in bird conservation and management. If you find a banded bird, report the band number at www.reportband.gov or 1-800-327-BAND along with where, when and how you recovered the bird.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
May is National Biking Month, and the Chesapeake region has hundreds—if not thousands—of miles of bike paths and trails to explore. Biking can make for a fun afternoon and is a great way to explore an area while getting some exercise! From short loops to long regional trails, here’s a list of eight paths to explore by bike.
Originally serving as a way for horses to pull coal-filled barges down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the C&O towpath is now a multi-use trail stretching 185 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The trail runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac River, is mostly wooded and offers sights of beautiful scenery and wildlife.
The trail has restrooms, camping areas, lookout points, historic sights and much more. While there are some paved sections, the path is mostly an even, hard-backed dirt trail. If 185 miles isn’t enough biking for you, once you reach Cumberland, you can continue another 150 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Pine Creek Trail, located at the bottom of Pine Creek Gorge (also known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon), is a 61-mile trail that runs along the river that gives the area its name. Running from Stokesdale to Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, this paved, low grade trail has multiple restrooms and runs through several small towns, making it perfect for a quick ride or a multi-day tour through northcentral Pennsylvania. Almost the entire trail runs along Pine Creek, offering spectacular views of the water, rock outcroppings, waterfalls and wildlife like eagles, osprey, wild turkeys and otters.
Originally a railroad line, High Bridge Trail stretches over 30 miles from Burkeville to Pamplin, Virginia. The main attraction of the trail is its namesake, High Bridge, which stretches 2,400 feet across the Appomattox River, and is 125 feet high. Built in 1853, High Bridge is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia and is among the longest in the U.S. It is both a Virginia Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.
High Bridge Trail is wide, generally flat and made of crushed limestone, with restrooms and picnic tables along the trail. The trail is over 30 miles long, but those who want a shorter ride can start off in nearby Farmville and bike the four and a half miles from downtown to the bridge. No matter the length, High Bridge Trail offers beautiful views of central Virginia’s woodlands and rural farmlands.
The Cross Island Trail offers views of woods, farmland, marshes and the Bay as you bike across Kent Island in Maryland. This flat, paved trail runs six miles, making it ideal for an easy afternoon bike ride. Start in the west at Terrapin Beach Park and take a break at one of the restaurants on the eastern side at Kent Narrows. Or, if you’re starting in the east, Terrapin Park is a great place for a picnic break or a short hike before biking back.
Located in Laurel, Delaware, Loblolly is a five mile trail in Trap Pond State Park. The trail loops around the pond and also takes riders through forests, across bridges, over dams and past the historic Bethesda Church’s cemetery. Visitors can access a hiking path via Loblolly Trail that takes them to Cypress Point where they can also get a view of bald cypress trees.
Jones Falls Trail is located in Baltimore, Maryland, and runs over nine miles from the Inner Harbor to northwestern Baltimore. While this trail is relatively hilly, it never exceeds a five percent grade and follows along the Jones Falls stream for much of its route
It begins in an urban setting, starting at the Inner Harbor and heading through downtown Baltimore up to Penn Station. For those who prefer more nature on their bike rides, the trail then runs past Penn Station along the Jones Falls stream and crosses into Druid Park, a 745-acre park which houses Druid Lake, the Maryland Zoo and the Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. The trail remains mostly nature until it ends at the Cylburn Arboretum and Cylburn Mansion.
Completed in 2015, the Virginia Capital Trails runs for 52 miles from Richmond to Jamestown, Virginia’s current and former capitals. This flat and paved path follows along the James River and offers scenic ride, going past several historic sites and properties. The trail is dotted with amenities—spots for bike rentals, repair stations, rest areas and even opportunities for geocaching.
8. Bacon Ridge
While still a new trail and undergoing a new phase of development, Bacon Ridge is a great place for those more interested in mountain biking. Located in Crownsville, Maryland, Bacon Ridge is ideal for families and beginning riders, due to its relatively few obstacles such as rocks and roots. The trail’s first two-and-a-half mile loop was completed in 2015, but the trail will ultimately extend up to 12 miles.
Where do you like to bike in the Chesapeake region? Let us know in the comments. If you want to find more bike paths close to home, check out Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, American Trails or SingleTracks.
Marsh periwinkles cling to saltmarsh cordgrass at Money Point in Chesapeake, Virginia. The periwinkle is a small snail that lives in tidal marshes and wetlands near the mid- and lower Chesapeake Bay. Periwinkles rise and fall with each tide, feeding on algae growing on the blades of grass. The small snails are also known to practice “fungiculture” by chewing holes in the cordgrass and spreading waste across the cuts, allowing them to “farm” fungus.
Previously a 35-acre “dead zone,” Money Point is located along the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. It was once so polluted that the river bottom was nearly lifeless. Recent restoration projects led by the Elizabeth River Project and others have significantly improved the health of the waterway.
Learn more about the recovery of the Elizabeth River.
Image by Will Parson
As humans have shaped the world around us, we have ensured that lakes, rivers, oceans and even Arctic sea ice have something in common: these waters now contain microscopic pieces of plastic from our cosmetics, cleaners and synthetic clothing capable of harming the growth, development and behavior of marine life.
Known as microplastics, these debris are smaller than the width of a common drinking straw and are appearing in more regions and in bigger quantities around the world. In 2014, scientists reported the presence of microplastics in four Chesapeake Bay rivers: the Patapsco, Rhode, Corsica and Magothy. In 2015, scientists used a manta trawl to skim the surface of waters across the Bay and visually observed microplastics in many of the 60 samples that were taken.
The danger of microplastics is in their size, their makeup and the things that can happen to them once they are in the water. Microplastics are incredibly small and can be absorbed or ingested by a wide range of animals up and down the food chain. Microplastics are made from synthetic polymers that contain chemicals that can leach into the environment. And microplastics can “pick up” exotic organisms, pathogens and toxic contaminants and carry them over long distances. Research shows that microplastics have been ingested by hundreds of species—including some that we consume as food—and can affect the reproduction rate of zooplankton, the weight of benthic worms and the behavior of fish.
One kind of microplastic that has been the focus of media attention—as well as a successful movement to ban the item from personal care products—is the microbead: synthetic polymers that have replaced pumice, oatmeal and other natural exfoliants as abrasive scrubbers. Their fate is inherent in their design: many microbeads are meant to be washed down the drain, moving through wastewater treatment plants and into rivers and streams as direct effluent or as so-called “biosolids” applied to farm fields and pushed by rain or wind back into the water. In the United States alone, an estimated eight billion microbeads are released into aquatic habitats every day. Assuming these beads are 100 micrometer spheres—close to the diameter of a human hair—you can wrap them around the earth more than seven times.
Because microbeads are a significant source of microplastics, any effort to eliminate them removes a significant source of microplastics from the environment. In a technical review of microbeads and microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay, our Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) called federal legislation to ban microbeads from rinse-off personal care products “laudable,” but found the regulations’ scope is too limited to address the whole microplastics—and even the whole microbead—problem.
As experts noted in the STAC report, a focus on rinse-off personal care products does not eliminate all sources of microbeads from the environment. Cosmetics, deodorants, lotions and non-personal care products like industrial and household cleaners aren’t addressed. So this legislation could be seen as the beginning of a suite of management strategies for microbeads and microplastics. To maintain momentum in the fight against microplastics, experts recommend improving techniques to detect the presence, composition and quantities of microplastics in the environment; initiating a long-term study on the amount, sources and sinks of microplastics in the Bay; improving waste management and promoting sustainable product design; and leading educational outreach and legislation on the topic.
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program's work toward its Toxic Contaminants Research Outcome, partners have committed to gathering more information on microplastics and other issues of emerging concern. Learn about our efforts to combat microplastics and how you can help.