Looking at Bob Ingersoll’s farm, you’d never know that he had been growing hay for over 15 years. The fields that had produced hay—and corn before that—are now covered in native grasses and wildflowers. Last year, Ingersoll enrolled his almost 60-acre farm in Chestertown, Maryland, into the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s (CES) Natural Lands Project.
This September morning, Ingersoll and Natural Lands Project Coordinator Dan Small walk around Ingersoll’s fields, observing the growth and pointing out the different species of wildflowers and grasses they planted only five months earlier.
Ingersoll got involved with the Natural Lands Project through the Chester River Association, one of the project’s sponsors. While he chose to enroll his entire farm, CES typically works with farmers and landowners to plant 100-foot grassland buffers on their land. That way, they can still get money from agricultural production and rented-out land for hunting—as well as a small income from the Natural Lands Project—but also sow the benefits of grassland buffers.
These buffers are known as a best management practice, or BMP, because they can absorb nutrients that run off of farm fields and prevent sediment from entering waterways. But alongside their water quality benefits, buffers can also provide ideal habitat for many species of animals.
Quail and habitat restoration
A large component of the Natural Lands Project is creating suitable grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail. Quail used to be prevalent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many people in the area grew up hunting quail, but their populations have declined drastically since the mid-1900s—due in part to habitat loss.
When it comes to installing grassland buffers, Small says, “we found that there’s no real tangible benefit to the landowners or farmers if we just talk about water quality on the land.” However, if they grew up hunting quail, they have an emotional connection to the bird.
Quail require three types of habitat to be successful: open areas, grassy cover and woody cover. “We’re specifically looking to create warm season grass habitat,” says Small. Cool season grasses, like those typically found on lawns, grow thick—meaning small grassland birds like quail that require open ground can’t move through them. “Think of your lawn,” he says. “If that grew up, there’s no way a quail could walk through that.” Warm season grasses, on the other hand, grow in clumps, leaving plenty of space for quail.
One of the factors associated with the decline in quail populations is the lack of woody cover. The disappearance of hedgerows—a row of shrubs or low growing trees that typically form boundaries between farm fields—has had a huge impact on quail, according to Small. As farms got larger, those hedgerows were taken out, and quail lost an important place to go during the winter when the rest of the landscape is covered in snow.
For that reason, dispersed throughout the grasses and wildflowers, are colored markers labeling where they planted hedgerows. “Not only are we adding nesting habitat in all the grass, but we need to add winter habitat as well.”
Creating habitat suited for quail doesn’t just benefit them, but many other species as well. “We have a lot more small birds here than we did any year that I can ever remember, because there’s something there for them to eat,” says Ingersoll. “And butterflies! I’ve never ever seen so many butterflies.” He points out bees and finds a fuzzy caterpillar on one of the wildflowers. Small points out the call of a bobolink, a bird that requires grasslands on its migration. Even deer take advantage of the tall grass cover, as evidenced by the imprint from where a deer had been lying not too long before.
A long-term commitment
It takes about three years for the grasses to get established, but once that happens, they still need to be managed. “You can’t just put it in and walk away,” says Small. After they’re established, they will be managed in part through controlled burns. As the grasses grow, they begin to lay down on top of each other, making it difficult for the quail to move on the ground. “Controlled fire is a really good method to wipe the slate clean,” says Small. “You don’t really hurt the native [plants] because they can respond to that and pop back up.”
Landowners who enroll in the Natural Lands Project sign a 10-year contact with CES. This long-term commitment is a promise both to CES that there is sufficient time committed to establish habitat on the land, but also to the landowner that CES won’t plant the new habitat and then leave. They work with landowners over that time to make sure that the land is in good condition.
“The landowner, somebody like myself, is relying on the best information I can get from Dan to make this as successful as I possibly can,” says Ingersoll. “If we didn’t have the backup, it’d be like learning it all over again. And I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Will Parson
A small crayfish is found along the banks of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The thousands of rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay are home to many species of native crayfish—also called crawfish, crawdads or mudbugs—which are freshwater crustaceans that resemble small lobsters. But several species of invasive crayfish also call the waterways home, displacing native species of crayfish and reducing the amount and diversity of underwater plants.
Certain species of crayfish are commonly eaten or even kept as pets in freshwater aquariums. But the widespread use of live crayfish by fishermen as bait has led to their introduction in waterways across the region. Unused buckets of live crayfish are often unknowingly dumped into rivers and streams, where they aggressively establish themselves at the expense of native crayfish populations.
Some of the most infamous invasive crayfish in the region include the rusty crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii) and the virile crayfish (Orconectes virilis). According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), virile crayfish populations in the state are nine times more abundant than all native crayfish species combined. And because removing invasive crayfish would harm other, native species, prevention is the only effective way to stop the spread. The DNR recommends never moving caught crayfish from one waterbody to another and either disposing of unused bait humanely or saving it for future use.
Learn more about invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Image by Will Parson
Not all the animals who live in and along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are as cute as a playful river otter or as majestic as a soaring bald eagle. Whether hidden in cracks and crevices or buried deep in the mud, a multitude of scuttling, slithering and swarming critters call the Bay home. Celebrate the spookiest time of the year by learning about a few of these creepy-crawlies.
Common Spider Crab
Covered in spines and coated in algae, this slow-moving crustacean probably wouldn’t win any beauty contests. Also known as the portly spider crab or the nine-spined spider crab, the common spider crab belongs to a group known as “decorator crabs”: several species of crabs that use materials from their environment to hide from predators. For the common spider crab, this includes attaching algae, debris and small invertebrates to the hook-like hairs that cover its spiny shell.
Spider crabs eat mostly detritus—bits of dead plants and animals—which helps keep the ecosystem free of rotting materials. Their eyesight is poor, but they use the sensitive tips of their legs to identify food in the water or mud as they walk.
Slender, stick-like and mostly transparent, the alien-looking skeleton shrimp is an underwater resident of the mid- to lower-Bay. These tiny, gangly amphipods—a type of small crustacean—use their hooked, grasping rear legs to latch on to hydras, sponges and vegetation, leaving their folded front legs free to capture algae, plankton and detritus. Some species of skeleton shrimp can even change color to blend in with their surroundings.
Crawling, burrowing and covered in tiny appendages, bristle worms can be found along the shorelines, mudflats and shallow waters of the Bay and its rivers. More than 110 species of bristle worms—also known as polychaetes, which translates to “many hairs”—have been recorded in the Chesapeake Bay region, including the common clam worm and the creatively-named ice cream cone worm.
Some species of polychaetes crawl freely throughout the shoreline and shallow waters, while others prefer to tunnel deep into the mud, seldom leaving their tube-like burrows. By feeding on plankton, algae and detritus, and being eaten by fish and birds in turn, bristle worms play a key role in the Bay’s food web.
Although named for their similarity to common cockroaches, sea roaches or wharf roaches are not insects. They’re actually small isopods—a type of crustacean that often has a rigid, segmented outer shell instead of a skeleton. While sea roaches live mostly above water, they breathe through gills that must stay wet in order to work properly. This means these critters are most often found scurrying close to the water line—on rocks, piers and jetties—scavenging for decaying bits of plant and animal matter.
Experts aren’t sure where sea roaches are originally from, but the first record of one of these critters in the Chesapeake Bay region occurred in the early 1900s. While not a native species, scientists haven’t found a significant negative impact from sea roaches on the native species of the area.
The “devil” in this crayfish’s common name could refer to several of its characteristics: the red highlights that appear around its eyes and claws, its habit of spending most of its life in underground chambers or the painful pinch its claws can deliver. Resembling a miniature lobster, the devil crayfish is found primarily in freshwater rivers and streams, where it burrows deep underground and seldom emerges. Burrows can be recognized by their cone-shaped “mud chimney” entryways, formed by mud the crayfish carries from the burrow and places by the entrance.
Want to learn about more creepy-crawlies that live in the Bay? Check out our field guide!
More than 145,000 lost or abandoned crab traps may be resting on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program. Once lost, these so-called “ghost pots” can continue to catch crabs, fish and other species, resulting in the loss of an estimated 3.3 million blue crabs each year. Though this makes up a small proportion of the total number of blue crabs in the Bay—estimated at 553 million in 2016—the study suggests that the targeted removal of derelict fishing gear could help boost commercial crab harvest.
Each year, an estimated 600,000 crab pots are actively fished by watermen on the Bay. But whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, 12 to 20 percent of these traps are lost each year. Lines connecting traps to buoys can come loose or be cut, strong storms can relocate the gear or pots may simply be abandoned.
This lost fishing gear can continue to “ghost fish,” trapping crabs, finfish and other underwater animals. According to the study, more than 6 million blue crabs are caught—and 3.3 million of those killed—by ghost pots each year. More than 3.5 million white perch and close to 3.6 million Atlantic croaker are also estimated to be trapped each year. And derelict gear can harm sensitive habitats like underwater grass beds and salt marshes as well.
In addition to the environmental impacts of derelict crab pots, the team of researchers—which included experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science—looked at how abandoned fishing gear could affect commercial crab harvest. By catching crabs that could otherwise be caught by actively-fished traps, ghost pots can potentially result in a loss of harvest. The study estimates that the removal of derelict pots from 2008 to 2014 resulted in an increased Bay-wide blue crab harvest of more than 38 million pounds—valued at $33.5 million—over the six-year period.
Removing derelict pots from heavily-fished areas could be a cost-effective way to boost harvest and reduce the gear’s harmful ecological effects, the study suggests. Biodegradable escape panels, which are inexpensive and easy to install, are another option that have been successfully tested in the Bay.
The report, Ecological and Economic Effects of Derelict Fishing Gear in the Chesapeake Bay, can be found online.