Beverly-Triton Beach Park in Edgewater, Maryland, is blanketed by snow on February 17, 2015. The park used to be a private beach open only to whites and gentiles until a civil rights lawsuit was filed in the 1960s. Now the park is managed by Anne Arundel County and is open to the public seven days a week, but its history calls to mind the fact that, for so long, ethnic and religious minorities were excluded from many outdoor spaces.
That history of exclusion has led in part to a perception that people of color aren’t welcome in nature. The most recent survey of visitors to national parks found that minorities made up just over 20 percent, even though they make up almost 40 percent of the population.
The National Park Service, seeing the disconnect between the demographics of its visitors and that of the country, is working to increase the number of minorities who visit national parks. At the same time, minority-led groups like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro are working to increase engagement in outdoor activities by people of color, and create new leaders in conservation education.
One way states are encouraging everyone to visit park lands is through First Day Hikes. Now in its sixth year, this national initiative encourages outdoor exploration and recreation in the New Year. On January 1st, all 50 states will offer guided hikes with park rangers, naturalists and volunteers who can share knowledge about a park’s natural and cultural history. Along with hiking, activities include biking, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, strolling and more. These activities are a great opportunity for everyone to get outside in the New Year, from those who have never hiked before to those who are just looking for a good excuse to get outside.
Find a First Day Hike in your area.
Image by Will Parson
About thirty minutes north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art sits on over 500 acres of protected forest land with the Wiconisco Creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna River, running through it. The Center offers a variety of educational programs about nature, art and conservation. But on this crisp day in October, I was meeting up with Jerry Hassinger, a volunteer at the center and a noted mushroom hunter, to see what kinds of wood-eating fungi we could find.
Often overlooked, wood-eating fungi are a key component of what keeps a forest ecosystem healthy and functioning properly. Forest land acts like a sponge, absorbing air pollution, trapping polluted runoff before it reaches waterways and stabilizing the soil while providing a habitat for a diverse group of critters. Keeping forests healthy leads to clean waterways, which in turn helps protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Hassinger is a regular volunteer at the Center and has written, photographed and spoken about the importance and beauty of fungi for most of his life. His passion for fungi and background in environmental science was immediately apparent upon my arrival, when he handed me a folder containing a piece of photo paper with beautiful images of fungi we were likely to see on our hunt that day. Each photo was neatly numbered and labeled with the common name and the page number where I could look it up in his edition of the National Audubon Field Guide. Hassinger, formerly with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, humbly considers himself a “fungi enthusiast”—not an expert.
The rest of our mushroom hunting party consisted of Beth Sanders, Director of Education for the Center, and Santino Lauricella, Environmental Educator for the Center. We set off at an appropriately slow clip, looking for what I assumed would be small, ground-dwelling fungi. Hassinger said he uses looking for fungi as an excuse to hike slowly along trails, “I just crossed the eighty year mark, so I don’t walk fast.” He did, however, scramble up a few slopes and down into the creek bed with more agility than I did.
In the few miles we covered, we saw more shapes, textures and sizes of fungi than I ever expected would exist. I learned about white cheese fungus, so-named because it looks like the wet crumbles of goat cheese; ceramic parchment, which covers entire fallen trunks in small, light brown segments resembling tiles; and pear-shaped puffballs that expelled a dusty brown cloud when squeezed. We also saw false turkey tails, deadly galorina, bearded tooth and hen of the woods.
A forest ecosystem is constantly regenerating, and wood-eating fungi play a major role in recycling fallen trees. They digest the dead wood and release nutrients from the bark back into the soil, supporting new growth and reducing fuel available for forest fires.
“Beth!” Hassinger shouted across a clearing as he tromped through the leaves off trail to point out our next mushroom find. “This next one is going to blow your mind.”
From a distance, I could make out an off-white mass that protruded from the bottom of a tree about a few hundred yards from the trail. Hassinger bounded over to it, obviously excited to show us this particular specimen that was about the size of a kid’s basketball. Long, white, hair-like structures covered the rounded form to make it look more like a mythical woodland creature than a mushroom.
Hassinger said it had survived for over a month already and that this fruiting body was just the visible part of what was probably a much larger web of mycelium. Mycelium is a network of millions of microscopic threads that attaches to roots and logs and grows through the soil, sometimes for miles. It forms mutually beneficial relationships: effectively expanding the reach of tree and plant root systems, protecting against some pathogens and providing minerals and water to the roots as it takes sugars produced during photosynthesis. Even more astounding is that mycelium acts as a kind of communication system for the forest. If a tree is attacked by insects, the mycelium will produce a chemical making it less desirable to eat. That chemical works its way through the network of roots and mycelium to other trees of the same species, prompting them to produce that same chemical and ward off the attack.
Walking through the forest with Hassinger, I gained a new insight on just how much is happening all at once, on so many different levels of the forest. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find when you take the time to look closely.
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
A group of tundra swans gathers at Beverly-Triton Beach Park in Edgewater, Maryland. Tundra swans breed during the summer in the tundra of northern Canada, but migrate to the Chesapeake Bay region in the fall and stay here throughout the winter.
Tundra swans aren’t the only birds that migrate to or through the Chesapeake Bay region in winter. The Bay sits on the Atlantic Flyway, a broad range covering the East Coast of the United States and eastern Canada that many birds follow on their annual migration. The Chesapeake Bay is an ideal resting point for many species of songbirds, shorebirds and raptors as they fly south, but also serves as the final destination for about 1 million swans, geese and ducks. Some of those birds come from as far north as the Arctic while others migrate as far south as South America.
Due to its location on the Atlantic Flyway, the Chesapeake Bay region is full of great places for birding. But if you want to be able to enjoy birds from the comfort of your home, there are many things you can do to make your home bird-friendly, even in winter. For example, you can provide a source of food for birds by planting species such as Virginia creeper or winterberry holly that have berries in the winter. If you don’t have yard, you can hang a bird feeder or set out a shallow dish filled with seeds. After attracting birds to your home, the next step is to identify them!
Learn more about how you can begin birding this winter.
Image by Will Parson
As 2016 draws to a close, we’re counting down some of our most-read articles of the year. Take a look back at our some of our most popular stories, from good news in Chesapeake Bay health to experts working on-the-ground to protect local waterways.
#10: Adult female blue crab abundance rises 92 percent in 2016
The Chesapeake Bay’s adult female blue crab population increased 92 percent since the population was surveyed last winter. While the current adult female blue crab abundance of 194 million is well above the overfishing threshold, it remains below the 215 million abundance target.
#9: By the Numbers: 458,000
When you imagine fish in the Chesapeake Bay, top predators like striped bass probably come to mind. But what some call the most important fish in the Bay measures no longer than the width of your hand. The bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli) is “the single most abundant fish on the east coast of North America,” according to fisheries scientist Ed Houde, and an average of 458,000 tons of the tiny fish are produced in the Chesapeake Bay each year.
#8: Water quality improves, pollution falls in the Chesapeake Bay
The amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay fell significantly between 2014 and 2015, helping improve water quality in the nation’s largest estuary. While experts attribute this drop in pollution loads to dry weather and below-normal river flow, local efforts to reduce pollution—including upgrading wastewater treatment plants, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—also played a role.
#7: Six free apps to help you explore the Chesapeake Bay region
From listening to music, ordering takeout, playing games or taking pictures of our pets, it seems like there’s a smartphone app for everything. Although our world is becoming much more digital, there are a multitude of apps that can help get you outside and introduce you to the natural world, including these six that can help you discover the Chesapeake Bay region.
#6: Data show drop in estimated nutrient, sediment loads entering Chesapeake Bay
Computer simulations show that pollution controls put in place between 2009 and 2015 have reduced the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the Bay by eight, 20 and seven percent. During the 2014 to 2015 reporting period alone, these controls reduced nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads by three, three and four percent.
#5: Monitoring finds more than 91,000 acres of underwater grasses in Chesapeake Bay
Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose 21 percent, bringing underwater grasses in the nation’s largest estuary to the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey and surpassing the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule.
#4: From the Field: Trash Trawl hauls microplastics from Bay waters
Follow Julie Lawson, Director of Trash Free Maryland, as she trawls the Chesapeake Bay, sampling for microplastics—degraded bits of waste less than five millimeters in size. Her research will help determine how much plastic—and what type—is in the Chesapeake Bay, helping to set a baseline to determine if the level of pollution is going up or down.
#3: Restoration Spotlight: Maryland farmer develops solution for agriculture runoff
As a farmer in Chestertown, Maryland, Sam Owings knew the challenges of controlling agricultural runoff, which makes up the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay region. He combined his knowledge of farming and stormwater to develop his own solution: what he calls the “cascading system.”
#2: Photo Essay: The blue crab winter dredge survey completes its course
From December to March, assessing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population means long stints on the water for scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The data they collect helps provide a Bay-wide estimate of blue crab populations and determine how many can be harvested without hampering the recovery of one of the Chesapeake Bay’s defining resources.
#1: Fourteen reasons to love the Chesapeake Bay
The Chesapeake Bay region is home to breathtaking natural beauty, rich culture and history and—of course—delicious food. From the first blue crab of the season to the last day out on the water, the Bay brings us so much joy that we had to share it.
Did you have a favorite Chesapeake Bay story from this year? Let us know in the comments!