With its attractive mix of forested uplands, tidal marshes and intertidal mud flats, beaches and manmade rocky shores, the Chesapeake Bay offers a wide range of habitats to waterbirds. Even in the dead of winter, the productivity and position of the nation’s largest estuary—which offers fish, grasses and aquatic invertebrates to eat and is located in the center of the Atlantic Flyway—make it a perfect place for those birds that depend on aquatic resources to take up residence. Indeed, according to a report from the Center for Conservation Biology, the Bay supports 87 species of waterbirds during winter months.
Of these wintering waterbirds, 14 species rely on the Bay to serve as habitat for more than 10 percent of their continental populations. Learn about five of these species below.
1. The canvasback (Aythya valisineria) is the largest species of diving duck, with a long, sloping profile and wedge-shaped head. Because the birds keep their breeding plumage for most of the year, males are often seen with chestnut-colored heads, black breasts and white wings, sides and bellies. Canvasbacks feed on the roots, leaves and buds of underwater grasses—with wild celery a favorite winter food—as well as snails, clams and other aquatic invertebrates. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 64,200 canvasbacks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is one of the state’s highest canvasback counts since the mid-1960s, and close to the survey’s 2014 estimate of 68,400 birds.
2. The horned grebe (Podiceps auritus) is a small, duck-like waterbird whose plumage is black and white during winter months. During the breeding season, it has black and chestnut plumage and two golden patches of feathers behind its scarlet eyes. It can raise and lower these “horns” at will, and these give the species its common name. Horned grebes can use their straight, stubby bills to pick insects out of the air or off of the water’s surface, but most often dive into the water to hunt for aquatic invertebrates.
3. The long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a medium-sized diving duck that has been reported to forage for food at depths of up to 200 feet. In the Chesapeake Bay, however, the birds usually dive to depths of 25 feet to reach the plant matter, small fish and aquatic invertebrates on which it feeds. Male long-tailed ducks have two long and slender tail feathers—which give the species its common name—and often have a pink band near the tip of their black bills. The birds often swim in small groups within a large, loose gathering of several hundred individuals. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 100 long-tailed ducks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is the state’s lowest long-tailed duck count of the last five years, and continues the decline that has been recorded since 2012, when 800 birds were observed.
4. The ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) is one of the smallest ducks of the Chesapeake Bay. The chubby bird has a long, stiff tail—which it often holds upright—and a wide, gray bill—which on males turns blue in the summer. Ruddy ducks dive into the water to search for aquatic plants and invertebrates and to seek refuge from predators, diving instead of flying when frightened. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 20,000 ruddy ducks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is just below the state’s short-term average ruddy duck count.
5. The Atlantic brant (Branta bernicla) is a small goose with a small, black head; short, black bill and neck; white necklace; and light gray belly. Brants graze on land, dip their heads underwater and upend their whole bodies to feed on aquatic plants and invertebrates. Eelgrass is a favorite food and staple of their diet. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 900 brants along state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is just below the state’s short-term average brant count.
When it comes to scientific data, older isn't typically better. But when you are teasing out environmental trends, like temperature change, it helps to have a long record. The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL) in Solomons, Maryland, is the oldest state-supported marine laboratory on the East Coast, and it touts the longest continuous record of water temperature in the Chesapeake Bay.
CBL's 750-foot research pier on the Patuxent River was first built in 1936, and in 1938 scientists started walking out to collect thousands of daily temperature and salinity readings. Today, anyone can observe live water conditions at the pier online. In the 70 years after 1938, the laboratory documented a 2.7 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase in the water around the pier.
"And that's given a unique, long-term record that’s shown the essential elements of climate change,” said Dr. David Secor, a fisheries ecologist at CBL who first reported the trend. “That motivated our group to begin to look at how young fish that we collect here by the pier may change."
Secor’s lab has performed seining studies since 1999. His team first used a 100-foot seining net to focus on bluefish, which morphed into a project on menhaden. “We’ve basically shoe-stringed this effort along,” Secor said, describing short-term funding sources. “And I think we have a dedicated, motivated group of students and myself that will hopefully continue this on throughout my career.”
The most common species caught by the seine are Atlantic silverside, bay anchovy, and Atlantic menhaden. Another 10 percent is bluefish, blue crab, white perch, striped bass and spot. Secor said future observations depend on how well species can adapt to temperature change as well as seasonality—the conditions in spring and winter that “set the clock” for what fish are present later in the year.
“What we may see in the future, with warming, is a disruption of that clock,” Secor said. “Maybe we’ll see higher production of some things like blue crabs, but we may see diminished production of fish that don’t do so well in warmer waters such as striped bass, perch and black sea bass.”
“We saw a kingfish last year for the first time in our series,” Secor said. “These kinds of fish that we already see visiting the lower Chesapeake Bay will be coming up this way more frequently.”
Regardless of the fish that will be seen, one fair prediction for the future is that the CBL pier will be there to support the science.
“This pier has been here in purpose for 70 years but it’s been replaced several times, and that too is the result of climate events,” Secor said. “Hurricanes and tropical storms have really taken a bite out of this pier on occasion.”
In 2010, after several recent storms, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science received a $1.7 million grant to rebuild the pier from the National Science Foundation as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. In 2011, Hurricane Irene dealt additional damage before construction began the next year. The pier received several new pilings, an upgraded pump house, and new instrumentation to measure greenhouse gases in the air.
“It’s been rebuilt now,” Secor said, sitting on the pier’s new deck. The full length of the pier is now covered in a corrugated material designed to allow water—and fallen car keys—to pass through uninhibited.
“It’s made out of much more flexible, much more enduring materials.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, Images and Text by Will Parson
The Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay dead zone measured slightly smaller than average this past summer, supporting scientists’ June prediction of a smaller than average hypoxic zone in the nation’s largest estuary.
Dead zones are areas of little to no dissolved oxygen that form when nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose. This decomposition process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished, and the resulting low-oxygen conditions can suffocate marine life.
Each summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collect water samples to measure the hypoxic volume of the Bay. At 3,806 million cubic meters, the Maryland portion of this year’s dead zone was the 13th smallest in 31 years of sampling.
According to a report from the DNR, the size of the dead zone was likely due to reduced rainfall earlier this spring.
Federal agencies are seeking feedback on a set of short-term water quality goals, or milestones, as part of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order and in support of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
The “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” calls upon the federal government to join the seven Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—in establishing two-year milestones. The draft water quality milestones for 2016-2017 were selected because they represent activities that can result in considerable environmental improvements, require significant resources or directly support the jurisdictions in meeting their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs).
You can provide feedback on the draft water quality milestones through December 17, 2015.
Visit the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order website to learn more about the federal strategy to protect and restore the Bay.