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
Flying low over the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not actually the water that draws your attention—except for the sporadic glint of sunlight reflected off of its calm surface. Instead, it’s the patchwork landscape and the rate at which a quiet farm field gives way to grids of streets or wriggling stretches of wetlands.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to all that land: because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow—its average depth is just 21 feet—and because so much land area feeds into it, the health of the Bay depends greatly on how the land is treated.
With the support of a volunteer pilot from the nonprofit organization LightHawk, we took a look around the northern edges of the Chesapeake Bay to see some of the ways the land has been shaped by the people living there.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Photographs and text by Will Parson
Sometimes, even a single tree can make a difference. And it helps when that tree is a big one.
For six seasons, Baltimore County has held a Big Trees sale in an effort to put big, native trees in Maryland backyards. Since its inception in 2009, the program has sold more than 750 trees to Maryland residents, augmenting the state’s existing forests and moving Baltimore County closer to its pollution reduction goals.
Big trees are integral to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests clean polluted air and water and offer food, shelter and rest stops to a range of wildlife.
But big trees can be hard to find. To provide homeowners with the native trees that have high habitat value and the heft that is needed to trap polluted runoff, species like pin oak, sugar maple and pitch pine are grown in a Middle River, Md., reforestation nursery. The one-acre nursery, managed by Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability (EPS), began as a staging ground for large-scale plantings but soon expanded to meet a noticeable residential need.
“We used to give incentives to homeowners to buy large trees at retail nurseries,” said Katie Beechem, Environmental Projects Worker with the EPS Forest Sustainability Program. “But we found that homeowners were buying smaller species—flowering dogwood, crape myrtle—that didn’t achieve the same benefits…that large native trees like oaks and maples and river birch can provide. We were able to fill this big tree niche.”
Emails, signs and word-of-mouth spread news of the sale to homeowners. Some travel from the next town over, while others come from as far as Gettysburg, Pa., to walk among rows of seedlings in black plastic pots.
Staff like Jon-Michael Moore, who supervises the Baltimore County Community Reforestation Program, help residents choose a tree based on growth rate and root pattern, soil drainage and sunlight, and even “urban tolerance”—a tree’s resistance to air pollution, drought, heat, soil compaction and road salt.
One Maryland resident picked up 15 trees to line a fence and replace a few that had fallen. Another purchased two trees to soak up stormwater in his one-acre space. And another chose a chestnut oak simply because she had one when she was a kid.
Out of the 12 tree species that are up for sale, oaks remain the favorite.
Whether red, black, white or pin, oaks are often celebrated as the best big tree. Oaks thrive in a range of soils, drop acorns that feed squirrels, woodpeckers and raccoons and create a home for thousands of insects.
Discussing the oak, Moore mentions University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy. The entomologist once wrote that a single oak tree can support more than 500 species of caterpillars, which will in turn feed countless insect-loving animals.
But can one big tree make a difference for the Bay? Moore nodded: “Every little bit helps.”
When a tornado hit John Long's home in June 2009, the last thing on his mind was the Chesapeake Bay. He lost the entire back half of his home, as well as ten trees on his property. After a few weeks of waiting for insurance proceedings, Long was permitted to pick up the debris scattered across his backyard, which just so happened to border Bread and Cheese Creek, a tributary of the Back River in Dundalk, Maryland.
When Long ventured down to the creek to gather the pieces of his broken home, he found more than he was expecting.
"Beneath my shingles and siding was several years of shopping carts, fast food trash, and just about anything else you can imagine," Long explains.
(Image courtesy Michael Wuyek/Flickr)
The trash wasn’t limited to Long’s property. "As I walked through more of the stream, I discovered it was the same everywhere. I was saddened because the beautiful little stream I remembered from my childhood was gone."
Long transformed his devastation into action. He contacted Baltimore County officials, who repeatedly told him that there was no money for a cleanup operation. But he didn't let that stop him. Eventually, the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability loaned him a dumpster, trash bags and a small crew. Clean Bread and Cheese Creek was born.
At the group’s first-ever cleanup, Long and 40 volunteers roamed a small portion of the creek, using their own tools to clear brush and their own bags to collect trash. Long’s parents grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for the hungry workers.
"Since then we have grown to generally draw about 140 people each cleanup, but we are still entirely funded through donations and staffed entirely by volunteers," explains Long.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek's goal is as simple as its name states. However, funding the cleanups and enforcing illegal dumping policies isn’t quite as easy.
"Garbage bags, tools, first aid kits, flyers, posters, gloves, bottle water, food and other supplies are all from donations," Long explains. "We have the volunteers and the will, but the resources keep becoming more difficult to come by."
The group’s biggest source of funding is bake sales, courtesy of Michelle Barth, the group’s treasure and an acclaimed baker. Gold’s Gym has also been the group’s biggest sponsor, donating bottled water and advertising for cleanups.
While bottled water and bake sale profits may seem insufficient, Long explains that his “Type A thriftiness” allows a little go a long way.
“If I’m not at a cleanup, I’m at a flea market or yard sale, picking up supplies. You can buy shovels for five bucks, instead of thirty at the Home Depot.”
One may think that witnessing the overwhelming amount of trash in Bread and Cheese Creek (and often hauling it up stream banks) would change Long's view of his neighbors. But he does not speak of Dundalk residents as inconsiderate, lazy or lacking in environmental stewardship. Rather, he says that his volunteers' hard work outweighs the illegal dumping activities of others.
(Image courtesy Thomas Schwab/Flickr)
"I have volunteered at other cleanups throughout the state and you will never find people more dedicated and proud of their community," Long says. "I have worked with these people in the heat, the cold, and in the rain and they continue to laugh and joke while digging out shopping carts or pulling plastic bags from briars."
Of course, there’s only so much volunteers can do by themselves. A challenge occurs when the group hauls tires and shopping carts out of a section of the creek on Saturday, only to find a washer and dryer in their place on Sunday.
In addition to cleaning up after dumping events, Clean Bread and Cheese Creek is working to prevent them. "The illegal dumping we encounter seems to be from contractors and businesses more than individuals," Long says. "This dumping occurs primarily at night and behind business bordering the creek. We are currently working with businesses to have cameras installed in areas where the dumping occurs."
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
Another challenge to Bread and Cheese Creek is Dundalk’s stormwater management system. When rain falls on lawns, parking lots, shopping centers and other paved surfaces, it carries trash and toxins (such as oil, gas, antifreeze, pesticides and fertilizer) directly into Bread and Cheese Creek.
"The only way to stop this from occurring is for there to be a complete overhaul of the stormwater managements systems in the Dundalk area so we can meet modern standards," Long says. Sustainable stormwater management techniques such as rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the soil, rather than running off into streams.
"Unfortunately, every time this problem is addressed with Baltimore County, we are told there is no money for this. However, how much will this cost everyone in our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay?”
The Bread and Cheese Creek of Long's childhood was rarely affected by litter; but its pristine condition in the early 1800s is unimaginable today. British and American troops camped along the creek's banks during the War of 1812's Battle of North Point. The creek got its unusual name from these soldiers, who would sit by the stream as they ate their rations of bread and cheese.
The creek is perhaps best known for the heroic sacrifice of two young American soldiers. In 1814, Daniel Wells (age 19) and Henry McComas (age 18) waded through the stream to sneak up on British General Robert Ross. They shot and killed the general, but were killed with the British's return fire.
"American soldiers died along this creek defending our county in our nation’s second war for independence," explains Long. "This important part of our history should not be left the eyesore it currently is."
Long sees honoring the creek’s past as one way to create hope for the future. To commemorate the stream's significance in the War of 1812, Long and volunteers are attempting to clean the entire length of Bread and Cheese Creek by 2014, just in time for the War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration.
Because the creek played such a significant role shaping America's history, it will be added to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
Since Long organized the first cleanup in 2009, 608 volunteers have removed a total of 52 tons of trash, including some odd and "vintage" items like bathtubs, part of a tombstone and an unopened bottle of Pepsi from the 1980s.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
From these numbers, it may seem like Long and his team must work 40 hours a week collecting trash. But like all Clean Bread and Cheese Creek members, Long has a day job.
Clean Bread and Cheese Creek understands that other commitments may prevent residents from thinking they can offer any help.
"Everything makes a difference, no matter how small," Long says. "We have volunteers who call on the phone and say 'I can only volunteer for an hour, is that okay?’ We are happy to have their help for fifteen minutes! During those fifteen minutes they are picking up trash someone else would need to clean up!"
The smallest efforts add up; over the last three years, streamside residents have noticed a significant improvement in Break and Cheese Creek.
"Minnows, crayfish and frogs which were once abundant in the stream are coming back – at night we can hear the bullfrogs singing again," Long testifies.
As wildlife reappears along the creek and eyesore trash is removed, Dundalk residents have come to appreciate the group that tramples through their backyard creek on Saturday mornings. This community support has led Long to transform what was initially a simple cleanup effort into an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Long is completing the process in the next few months, and is eager to acquire a label that will enable him to apply for grants.
(Image courtesy John Long/Flickr)
With this potential for additional funding, Long will expand the group’s effort beyond trash pickup. Invasive plant removal and native planting projects are at the top of his list. Such projects will help enhance wildlife habitat and protect water quality along Bread and Cheese Creek.
If you live in the Dundalk area, you’ve probably already seen signs along Merritt Boulevard advertising Clean Bread and Cheese Creek’s April 14th cleanup. If you can’t make that event, the group has several other upcoming cleanups and fundraising events listed on its website.
Don’t want to get dirty? Don’t sweat it. There’s plenty of ways businesses, schools, groups and individuals can help.
If you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into, be sure to check out Long’s extensive photo library of volunteers, trash and the creek.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls along Gwynns “Falls,” the 25-mile-long stream that originates in Reisterstown, Maryland, and empties into the Patapsco River in Baltimore City. You won’t find any. Despite the stream’s name, there are no natural waterfalls along Gwynns Falls’ course.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
The term “falls” was first used by Captain John Smith, the first known Englishman to navigate the stream. Smith wrote how the stream tumbled over “felles,” or large rocks and boulders. This confusing reference to rocky streams as “falls” was also applied to Baltimore’s Jones Falls and Gunpowder Falls, neither of which have natural waterfalls.
Although Gwynns Falls’ rocky bottom prevented the stream from being used for navigational purposes, its fast-flowing waters powered 26 mills that boosted Baltimore’s industry into the 20th century. Perhaps the most successful of these mill operators was the Ellicott family, which built a series of millraces and a dam that diverted more water towards their mills. Several historic mill sites are located along the Gwynns Falls Trail, one of the largest urban wilderness parks on the East Coast. The 15-mile-long greenway connects 30 Baltimore neighborhoods and transverses five public parks.
(Image courtesy Jim Carson/Flickr)
An afternoon along the Gwynns Falls Trail is a lesson in both history and nature. Go back in time as you explore the site of the historic Windsor Mill; awe at the miniature railroad and Crimea mansion at Leakin Park; look for a waterwheel that pumped water to the Crimea mansion; and walk among tulip poplars, sycamores and sweetgum trees. It’s all just a few miles from the Inner Harbor, but you’ll feel worlds away from urban life.
Gwynns Falls also cuts through Owings Mills, an area that has experienced a high rate of development in recent years. Fortunately, additional public land holdings have allowed a portion of this area to remain forested. Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area consists of 1,900 acres of unique serpentine habitat that protects rare insects and endangered wildflowers. Soldiers Delight’s seven miles of trails are open to hikers and hunters most of the year.
More to see and learn about Gwynns Falls: