The well-being of the Chesapeake Bay watershed will soon rest in the hands of its youngest residents. For many, efforts to instill in students a connection to the natural world—and in turn, a desire to care for it—begin with greening the buildings in which students learn. Whether by installing rain gardens and water bottle filling stations like Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia; turning an unused open-air space to a light-filled atrium like Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.; or installing a geothermal heat pump and two thousand solar panels like Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, schools across the region have made big strides toward sustainability.
Sustainable schools are built around reducing environmental impact, improving human health and strengthening environmental literacy. Because certification programs often require progress in each of these three pillars of sustainability, the benefits of sustainable schools are varied, from the conservation of water and energy to the improved test scores that have been linked to hands-on environmental education.
But building a sustainable school can take time and dedication on the part of principals, teachers and facilities staff. While the benefits of sustainable schools are proven—and outweigh costs 20 to 1—resources aren’t always distributed evenly and buy-in is not always easy to get.
“If a school administration does not understand the benefits of a sustainable school program and does not support teachers or other school staff investing time towards school sustainability, then it’s going to be difficult for any school to achieve it,” said Kevin Schabow, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Education Workgroup, which advances the partnership’s environmental literacy goals. “There are many priorities for administrators, and school sustainability may not be on their radar.”
That said, making a school sustainable can begin with grassroots enthusiasm. “Student voice is a powerful thing,” Schabow said. Whether the driver is a desire to compete with other schools or the knowledge that sustainable schools are good for staff and students alike, motivation can come in the form of a superintendent who encourages principals to go green, a teacher who excites students about stewardship or a group of students who lobby their principal for a change.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a total of 502 public and charter schools—or 12 percent of all public and charter schools—are certified sustainable by one of the following programs: U.S. Green Ribbon Schools, Eco-Schools USA, Maryland Green Schools and Virginia Naturally Schools. Maryland is home to most of the sustainable schools in the region, in large part because their robust in-state program was established almost 20 years ago. Indeed, state-specific programs are not equal: in some states, these programs are robust; in others, these programs are not well-established; and in others, these programs do not yet exist. The Chesapeake Bay Program will continue to monitor sustainable schools in the region and provide support through funding and other means.
Schabow notes that the partnership’s sustainable school goal—which was adopted in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and aims to continually increase the number of sustainable schools in the region—has increased awareness around the sustainable school initiative. “I’m hopeful that we can continue supporting state projects and see increased interest and participation in these programs,” Schabow said. “That’s really what we’re looking for. We’ve got the baseline [counted], but we want to see more.”
Learn more about our work to increase sustainable schools in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
A tray at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) holds the remnants of some of the unique organisms found in the stomach contents of fish. Depending on the species, a fish’s diet may include smaller fish like bay anchovy and menhaden, or underwater invertebrates like mysid shrimp, worms and bivalves.
Fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay are an important part of the region’s culture, economy and ecosystem. As key species in the food web, larger fish like striped bass and bluefish rely on “forage”—the smaller fish, shellfish and invertebrates that underwater predators feed on. But despite their importance, uncertainty remains about the species that make up the forage base and how they interact with their environment.
Programs like the Chesapeake Bay Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program (ChesMMAP) and the Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (NEAMAP), which collected the samples above, help scientists understand which forage species predators rely on by looking directly at the source: the fishes’ stomachs.
"The main objectives of the survey are primarily to get a handle on the abundances of all the different fishes and invertebrates that are inhabiting the Bay," said Jim Gartland, an Assistant Research Scientist at VIMS, one of the many organizations who partner to conduct the surveys. With a better understanding of the interactions between predators and forage species, experts can work to better support both predator species and the Bay ecosystem as a whole.
Learn more about forage in the Chesapeake Bay by watching our Bay 101: Fish Food video.
Image by Will Parson
For many of us, cold weather means digging your coat out of the closet and turning up the thermostat. But for the animals that call the Bay home, it means adapting to spending winter outdoors: by hiding in hibernation, by growing their own warm winter coat or by traveling south to warmer weather. Below, learn how a few of these native critters spend their winters.
Many animals stay in the Chesapeake Bay region year-round—but others are quick to leave once temperatures cool. While some striped bass remain in the Bay throughout the winter months, many head south to the warmer waters of the Virginia and North Carolina capes. In spring and early summer, they’ll return to the Bay’s tidal tributaries to spawn.
As water temperatures in the Bay start to cool, blue crabs retreat from the shallow areas where they spend the summer into deeper waters. After burrowing into the mud or sand at the water bottom, the crustaceans lie dormant for the winter months. While not technically considered hibernation, dormant crabs remain inactive until water temperatures rise above around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the cold crabs are slow and sluggish, they’re easier to track down—which is why experts in Maryland and Virginia conduct their annual survey of blue crab population between December and March.
Blue crabs aren’t the only critters that spend winter in the mud. Typical residents of saltwater marshes and mudflats, diamondback terrapins bury themselves into river banks and at the bottom of creeks and rivers to hibernate. There, they remain completely submerged and inactive until temperatures begin to warm.
The wood frog can be found in forests throughout the Bay watershed, particularly in the northern reaches of Pennsylvania and New York. These tiny amphibians have garnered attention for their winter survival method: they freeze. Many frogs are known to survive winter by freezing a portion of the water that makes up their body and are able withstand being frozen for a couple of weeks at temperatures a little below freezing. But wood frogs are remarkable in the length of time—and extreme temperatures—they can tolerate. In the most frigid areas of their range, like Alaska, wood frogs have been known to stay frozen for up to seven months at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Delmarva Fox Squirrel
While many critters go dormant to endure the winter, others remain just as active as ever. With the help of its soft, fluffy coat, the Delmarva fox squirrel is able to keep warm nesting in tree hollows. Like other squirrels, the Delmarva fox squirrel buries nuts and acorns in the ground to feed on throughout the winter.
The Chesapeake Bay region may be too cold in the winter for some animals, but for the tundra swan and other waterfowl, it’s a warmer destination. As their name implies, tundra swans live for part of the year in the Arctic tundra. As temperatures drop, they migrate to the wetlands and marshes of Bay region in late October and early November, where they stay until returning to the Arctic in early spring to breed. The Bay’s underwater grasses provide much-needed food for tundra swans and other migrating waterfowl.
Curious about how other Bay critters spend the winter? Learn more in our Field Guide!
For 117 years, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has seen thousands of birders organize for what is the oldest citizen science project in the country. It began in 1900 as a proposed alternative to winter hunting traditions. Today, the data helps Audubon and other organizations monitor the health of bird populations and inform conservation work.
At the ground level, it involves small groups of volunteers undertaking count circles that are 15 miles in diameter and making a note of every single bird they see or hear. Often starting in the pre-dawn hours, participants are out almost all day, with tallies compiled in the afternoon. This winter, the count was conducted from December 14th through January 5th. The tally is still moving upward, but last year’s total for the United States was about 54 million birds.
Along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay near Deale, Maryland, Marcia Watson and Gene Scarpulla began counting gulls and other shorebirds at a private harbor where they had secured permission ahead of time.
“This area is a little tough because it's mostly private property; there's very little public access,” said Watson, a retired professor and college administrator.
While scanning the water, Watson described how she and other birders have observed pelicans farther up the Bay this year, possibly because of below-average rainfall letting saltwater come farther north.
Watson said she has observed another change in the various counts she and Scarpulla have participated in—fewer birds in general. For example, she said the Chesapeake Bay region used to host huge mixed flocks including common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, and brown-headed cowbirds.
“I remember counting twenty-some years ago in Cecil County, standing in one spot from about 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and counting continuous streams of blackbirds coming in to roost,” Watson said. “They numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now, you might see one or two flocks numbering in the hundreds.”
At another count circle in Baltimore County, Kevin Graff left his vehicle near the bank of the Back River and started making sound by forcing air through his teeth, spotting a chickadee and a few song sparrows while scanning some trees.
“It’s a trick that bird watchers use when they want to bring some more of them in, so they can see them,” said Peter Webb, a member, along with Graff, of the Baltimore Bird Club.
Webb said the pishing sound resembles the noise that Carolina wrens make when scolding, which attracts a lot of small birds.
Graff and Webb, like Watson and Scarpulla, have also had issues with public access during the count.
“We actually used to do it including the harbor in downtown Baltimore, but most of the places we had access to we lost access to,” Webb said. “Gradually more and more places got industrialized and ‘no trespassing’ signs came up on fences all over the place.”
Webb said it got to the point where it wasn’t worth doing the count there anymore, and they moved to the new circle about five years ago.
But on this count, which happened to fall on New Year’s Eve, Graff and Webb came away with a satisfying list of birds. Among the species they spotted or heard calling were bald eagles, red shouldered hawks, American black ducks, winter wrens, several kinds of woodpecker, greater and lesser scaup, red breasted mergansers, vultures, a kingfisher, a kestrel and a rusty blackbird.
Not much further into the new year, Audubon returns with the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), happening from February 17th through the 20th. While the Christmas Bird Count is an all-day affair, the GBBC makes it even easier for everyday folks to participate. People of any age can count birds for as little as 15 minutes and report their findings using an app called eBird. And, as you might guess, they don’t have to leave their backyard.
Photos and text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page