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
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!
A spotted salamander rests near the edge of a vernal pool in Edgewater, Maryland. Named for their bright yellow spots, these amphibians thrive in the swamps and bottomland forests of the Chesapeake Bay region.
The first warm spring rains prompt the annual migrations of these salamanders, along with wood frogs and other vernal pool breeders—species that depend on these small, seasonal bodies of water to reproduce. Vernal pools are short-lived forest ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater. They only stay wet for about seven months, just long enough for a cascade of frogs and salamanders to use them as a home for their developing young.
Areas that house vernal pools are often vulnerable to development, endangering the breeding grounds of critters like the spotted salamander, which will return to the same pool year after year to reproduce. But conserved lands like the Forests Pools Preserve near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, provide an oasis for these ephemeral ponds—and the species that depend on them.
Photo by Will Parson
Native species are the key to any ecosystem, and the Virginia Living Museum is a paradise of plants and animals that are native to the commonwealth. The state’s wealth of biodiversity is condensed—perhaps nowhere else does a tiger salamander share a roof with a school of striped bass—and expertly organized according to the habitats of the mid-Atlantic. There are over 250 species of native animals, and exploring the galleries and the outdoor boardwalk gives you the feeling of traveling hundreds of miles as you pass through forests, coastal plains, cypress swamps and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Virginia Living Museum is in the middle of celebrating its 50th anniversary, and it has changed considerably over the years. What began as the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium in 1966 has grown and shifted to the use of living exhibits to connect people with nature. The museum provides a sanctuary for injured or non-releasable animals—including an aviary.
In 2008, the museum was certified as a Virginia Green attraction, after a commitment to prevent pollution from the museum. It opened the Goodson “Living Green” House, an environmental education center, in 2009 to demonstrate sustainable building technologies and Bay-friendly practices like rain barrels and a green roof made of living plants. In the same vein, the Conservation Garden highlights alternatives to pesticides and fertilizer and shows how landscaping can keep stormwater runoff from polluting nearby streams and harming wildlife.
The result of a short walk through the museum’s varied campus, then, is to see the plants and animals that benefit from these sustainable practices, and to learn how to use those practices at home.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Smartphones are becoming a normal—if not essential—part of our everyday lives. From listening to music, ordering takeout, playing games or taking pictures of our pets, it seems like we’ve developed an app for everything. Even though our world is becoming much more digital, there are apps that can help get you outside and introduce you to the natural world. We’ve put together a list of six apps that can help you discover the Chesapeake Bay region.
The Chesapeake Bay region is huge—over 64,000 square miles—and teeming with beautiful landscapes, fascinating history and a rich cultural heritage. There’s a lot of territory to cover and a lot to do within it, and that’s where the Chesapeake Explorer app comes in handy. Created by the National Park Service, Chesapeake Explorer allows you to easily find something to do no matter your interest. You can search by activity, such as hiking, biking or kayaking, or if you want to visit a museum or state park, you can search by place. If you want to stay local, you can use Chesapeake Explorer’s map feature to find out which sites are nearby. The app makes vacation planning easy as well, offering pre-set driving, biking and walking tours, and even allows you to create your own route. Whether you’re trying to fill an hour or a whole weekend, Chesapeake Explorer has something for you to do.
Audubon’s field guide to North American birds is the perfect one-stop app for birders of all feathers, from beginners to expert. This app is full of information for 821 bird species, including their appearances, behaviors, calls and ranges. It has a detailed search feature, allowing you to describe characteristics of the bird you see—plus, you can include your location to narrow your results to include only regional birds. You can even separate your search results into common and rare species, if you’re torn between the two. For those new to birding, or those who’d like a refresher, the app contains a lot of supplemental information about birding, bird families, bird anatomy and conservation.
The Merlin Bird ID app is another great choice for birdwatching. By answering five simple questions, Merlin helps you identify which bird you are likely looking at. Containing thousands of photographs and audio recordings, as well as identification tips and range maps for each bird, Merlin is a clear and simple app that makes bird identification easy.
Project Noah is a great way to get outside and involved in citizen science. With this app you can photograph wildlife in your area, tag the photos and upload them to the Noah website, where they’re combined with other sightings from around the world. One of the things that makes Project Noah so fun is that you can join missions—such as documenting squirrels—and earn patches as you contribute. Don’t worry if you don’t know the name of a species you see; you can always upload the photo and whatever information you have so that the rest of the Project Noah community can identify it (or you can check your field guide app!).
SkyView is a simple tool to introduce you to the stars. As you move your phone along the night sky, information about stars and planets will show up on your screen, including outlines of the constellations. You can also switch the display to night vision with red light, so the screen’s light doesn’t hurt your eyes.
Looking for real-time, on-the-water observations from across the Bay? The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office’s Smart Buoys app allows users to track data from the ten buoys that make up the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS). Get a snapshot of safety conditions in the Bay before heading out on the water, explore the science behind the health of the estuary or track how storms and weather events are affecting water conditions.
What apps do you use to explore the Chesapeake Bay? Tell us your favorite in the comments!
The need for land and resources has led to fragmented and degraded habitats across the Chesapeake region, impacting the health of many species. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bay Program’s Vital Habitats Goal Implementation Team are leading an effort to exemplify scalable, strategic habitat conservation in action across the Chesapeake landscape.
For the first time, our partners now have the regional context and scientific horsepower—through tools and information developed by the North Atlantic and Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs); the Atlantic Coast, Appalachian Mountain and Black Duck Joint Ventures; and the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (NEAFWA)—to identify and agree upon priority "surrogate" species. Surrogate species are animals and plants that can be used to represent the habitat needs of many other species using similar habitats throughout the watershed, and include the black bear, woodcock, black duck, saltmarsh sparrow and brook trout.
Together, we are determining the habitat needs of these surrogate species—what kind of habitat, how much, and where—to understand and plan for habitat changes due to climate change and development. Our aim will be to conserve enough of the right kinds of habitat throughout the Chesapeake landscape, in the right configurations, to sustain these surrogate species, and by extension all the other species whose needs they represent, at desired population levels.
FWS is helping to coordinate the contributions of established, successful conservation partnerships that impact the Chesapeake region, supporting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and Chesapeake Bay Executive Order. By aligning the ground-breaking science of LCCs, the organizing power of Joint Ventures and Fish Habitat Partnerships, and the capacity of NEAFWA and other non-governmental organizations to address our mutual priorities, we are bringing new leadership and resources to bear on the goals of the Executive Order and Watershed Agreement.
Conserving healthy habitats is essential to the long-term health of the ecosystem and the region’s quality of life. All of our work adds up to measurable gains for fish, wildlife and plants and the natural benefits they provide to people living in the Chesapeake watershed.
Written by Mike Slattery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The sky is gray, the wind blows cold, and all the earth seems devoid of life. It’s winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. But if you venture outside, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of many critters that are most common during the coldest months. Some of these animals only visit our region this time of year. (That’s right – they actually like our winters!)
Get your winter critter-fix by learning about these six beautiful Bay animals. Then leave us a comment letting us know about your favorite wintering Chesapeake Bay critter!
Chesapeake Bay locals experience their fair share of sea nettle stings during summer swims. But very few of us have been stung by a lion's mane jellyfish: the largest known jellyfish species in the world! Thank goodness that these jellyfish only visit the Bay from January to April. But if you're doing a Polar Bear Plunge, be careful!
Lion’s mane jellyfish prefer to hang out in the northern latitudes, and travel to the Bay in the winter because the water is cold. The further north you travel, the larger the lion’s mane jellyfish becomes! The largest recorded specimen washed up along a beach in Massachusetts in 1870, had a bell (body) with a diameter of 7.5 feet and tentacles 120 feet long.
(Image courtesy Vermin Inc/Flickr)
Sure it gets cold here in the winter, but it’s even colder in the Arctic! That’s why these beautiful white waterfowl take refuge in the Chesapeake Bay from late October to March. Tundra swans, also known as whistling swans, breed in the Arctic and subarctic tundra's pools, lakes and rivers. They fly in a V formation at altitudes as high as 27,000 feet before arriving at their wintering habitat, which is usually coastal marshland and grassland.
Looking for a place to view tundra swans? The coast is best (I've seen them near Salisbury as well as Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland), but if you're inland, you may be in luck, too! Last winter, I was lucky enough to see a flock at Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland.
(Image courtesy oakwood/Flickr)
The bald eagle is not only the national emblem of the United States, but also the face of an environmental movement born out of its near extinction. Pesticides (particularly DDT) and increased development left this beautiful raptor on the brink in the mid-20th century. But bald eagles have since made a remarkable comeback, enough so that the federal government removed them from the "threatened" species list in 2007.
Winter provides an excellent opportunity to view bald eagles. They are often found perched on the highest branch in loblolly pine forests, scouting for prey in nearby fields and wetlands. Although these birds prefer areas that are not human-heavy, one bald eagle family moved into Harlem in New York City last February. Closer to the Chesapeake, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland, and the Conowingo Dam near Port Deposit, Maryland, are excellent places to view bald eagles in big numbers.
(Image courtesy InspiredinDesMoines/Flickr)
If you see large, reddish-brown heads out on the Bay this winter, they may be canvasbacks! These diving ducks spend winter in the Chesapeake Bay before returning to the Prairie Pothole region to breed. Why do they fly across the Mississippi River Valley to splash around in the Chesapeake all winter? One reason may be food: the canvasback (Aythya valisineria) was named for its fondness of wild celery (Vallisneria americana).
However, diminished populations of wild celery and other bay grasses has meant decline in "can" populations, too. In the 1950s, the Chesapeake Bay was home to 250,000 wintering canvasbacks – about half of the entire North American population. Today, only about 50,000 winter in the Bay. But these numbers seem to be increasing.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Unlike most mammals, bobcats don't hibernate during the winter. In fact, female bobcats increase their home range during the coldest time of year, meaning there's a greater chance one will end up near you! These cats start breeding between January and March, when males begin travelling to visit females. These winter warriors also have padded paws, which act like snow boots to protect them from the cold weather. They are excellent hunters and are most active during dusk (before sunset) and dawn (before the sunrises), often travelling between 2 and 7 miles in one night!
Bobcats may be found in Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, and other natural areas in the northern and western portions of the watershed.
(Image courtesy dbarronoss/Flickr)
A brilliant flash of red can brighten up any dreary winter scene. The northern cardinal is a permanent resident of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and its plumage never dulls like some birds. The female cardinal is one of the only female birds that sings, although it is usually during spring, when she tells the male what to bring back to the nest for their young. In the winter, cardinals can be seen foraging for seeds in dense shrubs near the ground, usually in pairs.
(Image courtesy Bill Lynch/Flickr)
The Chesapeake Bay region is home to an amazing diversity of animals. From birds to fish to mammals, all of these creatures are an important, meaningful part of the Bay’s delicate ecosystem.
You probably know something about the Bay’s most popular critters, like blue crabs, ospreys and blue herons. But there are thousands of other important, unique critters that live in the region.
Here are some interesting facts about 10 of the Chesapeake Bay region’s critters.
Found near swamps, forests and farms throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these reddish, dog-like mammals can run up to 30 miles per hour and jump 6 feet in the air!
Admittedly, aquatic sponges may not seem very exciting, but that’s not why this critter is called “boring.” The boring sponge gets its name from its habit of boring holes into oyster shells, which weakens or damages the shells. If you’ve ever found an oyster shell covered with pock marks, that oyster was once infested by a boring sponge.
Female sea turtles each lay about 100 eggs on beaches from Virginia to the Caribbean during spring and summer. Once the eggs hatch, the young sea turtles have less than a 1 percent chance of surviving to adulthood. But if they make it, they could live to be more than 50 years old!
Contrary to popular belief, horseshoe crabs are not actually crabs. These hard-shelled arthropods are more closely related to terrestrial spiders and scorpions. Their external appearance has not changed in more than 350 million years, either. Talk about prehistoric!
These large, black birds can see both above and under the water. They fly low over the water and dive under to catch their pray.
Sturgeons are prehistoric fish that has been around since dinosaurs roamed the Earth! They can also live to be 60 years old.
This black and white bird nests in depressions in marshes. After the chicks hatch, the female leaves the nest. The male will continue tending them for another two weeks.
When they are born, summer flounders have one eye on each side of their head. However, as they grow older, the right eye gradually moves over the head to join the left eye on the other side of the body!
The only time male and female bobcats interact is when they are mating. After they are finished, they go their separate ways.
This beautiful bird’s scientific name, Aix sponsa, means “waterfowl in a bridal dress.”