A peregrine falcon flies from its nest at the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station, or Conowingo Dam, in Conowingo, Maryland, on March 11, 2015. The dam sits across the lower Susquehanna River, about ten miles from where the waterway meets the Chesapeake Bay.
Just below the dam is an area well-known for bird-watching—most famously for bald eagles and great blue herons, drawn there by the high availability of fish around the dam’s outflow. Also known to frequent the site are peregrine falcons, whose preference for hunting by diving leads them to nest high on natural and man-made structures, like the nearly-100-foot-tall Conowingo Dam. Highly territorial, only one to two birds typically nest at the site at a time.
Although peregrines can be found on every continent except Antarctica, the falcons are uncommon in many parts of their historic range: in the mid-20th century, widespread pesticide use led to a drastic decline in peregrine falcon populations. By 1964, nesting peregrines were extinct in the eastern United States.
In 1979, a recovery plan was established to restore breeding peregrines to the eastern U.S. Through the program, 174 pairs of nesting peregrine falcons were established by 1997, with at least 27 pairs originating from the Chesapeake Bay region. By 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List—and in the years since, the Chesapeake Bay has reestablished itself as an important region for nesting and migrating peregrines.
Peregrines in the Chesapeake region are perhaps best-known for their tendency to nest on man-made structures: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Francis Scott Key Bridge, as well as skyscrapers in downtown Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg and other cities. Each spring, the Chesapeake Conservancy streams live video of a pair of peregrine falcons nesting on Baltimore’s Transamerica Building. Last year, peregrines “Boh” and “Barb” raised three young falcons at the site.
Learn more about the peregrine falcon.
Image by Will Parson
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
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
Canada geese fly along the Mattaponi River in Walkerton, Virginia. The characteristic honking and “V”-shaped flying pattern of Canada geese are distinctive sounds and sights of autumn in the Chesapeake region.
As part of the Atlantic Flyway—one of the major bird migration routes in the United States—the Chesapeake Bay is an important stopover for migrating geese. But these migratory birds are not the only type of Canada geese found in the area. While many flocks leave the area in early spring to return to their northern breeding grounds, countless others remain year-round. “Resident” geese, as they’re known, may appear nearly identical to their migratory relatives, but they actually make up a distinct population.
Most resident geese originated from flocks that were brought to the Chesapeake region in the early 1900s, through government stocking programs and for use as live decoys. These non-migratory geese are typically larger, begin breeding at a younger age and produce more eggs than their migratory counterparts. And because they tend to live in urban and suburban areas—like lawns, parks and golf courses—resident geese are less likely to be exposed to hunting, meaning they live longer as well.
In the Bay region and beyond, populations of resident Canada geese have grown exponentially since the mid-20th century, bringing with them a variety of environmental problems: from threatening the health of waterways and humans with their droppings to overgrazing on aquatic vegetation that might otherwise sustain migratory birds on their long journeys. Both resident and migratory Canada geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but experts have worked to identify ways to reduce the damage caused by resident geese. The National Park Service, for example, sought public comments last year on its plan to use border collies to chase away Canada geese on the National Mall.
Image by Will Parson
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 pileated woodpecker chips away the bark on a fallen tree before probing for insects in Chenango Valley State Park in Broome County, New York.
Growing up to 20 inches in length with a nearly 30 inch wingspan, the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopous pileatus) is one of the largest species of woodpecker. This striking bird with its bright-red crest can be found year-round throughout most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But don’t expect to see a pileated woodpecker as a backyard birder: this bird is most likely to be found in mature, old-growth forests full of dead trees and fallen logs (although it can sometimes be found in young forests, as well).
With a characteristic thunk sound, the pileated woodpecker uses its long neck and chisel-like bill to powerfully strike logs, stumps and dead trees, leaving behind a distinctive rectangular-shaped hole. It then uses its spear-like, barbed tongue to feed on ants, termites, beetle larvae and other insects.
Experts believe populations of pileated woodpeckers may have declined in previous centuries, due to the clearing of forests in the eastern United States. But since the mid-20th century, populations have steadily increased as the forests rebounded.
Image by Will Parson
A great egret (Ardea alba) lands in Kenilworth Marsh in Washington, D.C. Growing to more than three feet tall with a 55-inch wingspan, great egrets are the largest of the three egret species that call the Chesapeake Bay region home.
In the United States, great egret populations are not currently listed as endangered. But in the 19th century, the birds were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumage. In breeding season, long, delicate plumes—called aigrettes—grow from the egret’s back, and these feathers were in high-demand in the fashion world. Experts estimate that at the height of the feather trade, millions of egrets, herons and other birds were killed for their feathers.
In the late 1890s, cousins Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall began a boycott of the feather trade. The pair formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which would eventually grow to become the National Audubon Society—the symbol of which is the great egret. Decades later, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected migratory birds like the great egret from human activities like hunting and capturing.
Image by Will Parson
Rodney Stotts, left, of Wings Over America, lets high schooler DeShawn Wheeler touch a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk at the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore, Maryland, while classmate Ramond Thomas looks on. More than two decades ago, Stotts left behind a past life of drugs and violence to begin working with birds of prey.
In 1992, Stotts worked as one of the founding staff members of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that pairs unemployed community youth with conservation work along the Anacostia River and beyond. From ECC arose Wings Over America, a group that provides at-risk young adults with opportunities to rehabilitate injured raptors, such as hawks, falcons and eagles. The group is currently working to establish a bird sanctuary at their headquarters in Laurel, Maryland—close by to New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a rehabilitation facility for young men.
Image by Will Parson
A colony of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) roosts on an uninhabited portion of Smith Island. A non-native species in the Chesapeake region, the brown pelican’s range has been expanding north into the Bay in recent decades. Once found only in the lower Bay, the birds can now be found breeding on islands in the mid-Bay in summer.
In the mid-20th century, widespread use of the pesticide DDT caused populations of many birds, including brown pelicans, to decline significantly. In 1970, the brown pelican was listed as an endangered species, but had recovered enough to be de-listed along its Atlantic Coast range in 1985 and throughout the rest of its range in 2009.
In 1987, only five known pairs of pelicans were nesting in the Chesapeake Bay region—by 2008, more than 1,000 pairs were nesting on Holland Island alone. Many experts credit the influx of pelican visitors to climate change: warmer weather and milder winters may be prompting the birds to expand the northernmost reaches of their range to include the Chesapeake Bay.
Image by Will Parson
An American robin pulls a worm from the grass at Jeff Robertson Park in Norfolk, Virginia. Although often considered harbingers of spring, most robins actually stay in their breeding range year-long. But because they spend the winter roosting in trees instead of hopping across the lawn, you’re less likely to see them. Robins hunt for one of their favorite foods, earthworms, by cocking their head to the side so they can see—contrary to popular belief, they don’t actually hear the worms. These birds can often be seen after a rainstorm, feasting on the worms that rise to the surface.
Due to their susceptibility to pesticide poisoning, robins can be an indicator of pollution in the environment. Chemicals like DDT, which was banned in the U.S. in 1972, can persist in the soil for decades, where earthworms can absorb them and pass them to feeding robins. In one Michigan town, sick and dying robins were one of many indicators that DDT was still contaminating the environment. By studying the health of robins and other wildlife, experts can continue to monitor how ecosystems recover from DDT and other harmful chemicals.
Learn about how chemical contaminants affect the health of the Bay and its rivers and streams.
Image by Will Parson
At sunrise on an unseasonably cold, drizzly May morning, you might expect most people to still be curled up in bed, huddled under the blankets and dreaming of warmer weather. But on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore, the birds are up and active, which means so are the bird banders at Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory.
“We start an hour before sunrise, so right now that’s about 5:15 [a.m.],” says Amanda Spears, one of the banders at Foreman’s Branch. “It’s really busy the first couple of rounds, but it dies down later as the birds settle in after migrating all night.”
Part of Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society and named for the branch of the Chester River that flows nearby, Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory is the only major migratory bird banding station on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. From March 1st through the end of May, Spears and her colleagues spend up to eight hours each day catching and banding birds as they migrate through the area.
Between spring and fall migrations, the team bands close to 15,000 birds each year. Spring migration in particular flies by. “Once the birds leave the tropics, they’re where they want to be in about two weeks,” explains Jim Gruber, director of Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory. A retired Natural Resources officer, Gruber has been banding since he was 15 years old and now volunteers his time and expertise at Foreman’s Branch.
Foreman’s Branch and other bird observatories use mist nets—fine-mesh, polyester nets that hang loosely between two poles—to catch and monitor migrating birds. Each bird is carefully carried back to the banding station, where information is recorded on its age, sex, weight, body fat and more. New avian visitors are fitted with a small, stamped aluminum band on one leg; others, like return visitors, may already have a band. Researchers can use this band number to track how long ago a bird was banded and the places it may have stopped along its travels. Some species may travel thousands of miles from their wintering grounds to spring and summer habitat.
Data that the banders collect—along with banding data from across the country—is sent to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland: home of the Bird Banding Laboratory, which partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Bird Banding Office to form the North American Bird Banding Program. As of 2012, the Bird Banding Laboratory received more than 1.2 million banding records each year. The information helps scientists understand migration patterns, population dynamics, the effects of management actions and the status of threatened or endangered species.
For the birds themselves, though, the banding station is nothing more than a quick stopover. As banders finish with each bird, it’s released out a window and sent on its way. Some pause on a nearby shrub or tree limb, but most fly quickly out of sight, off to fill up on food and prepare for the next leg of their journey.
To protect the safety and health of migrating birds, bird banding is a strictly controlled activity in the United States. Banding permits are only given to trained professionals whose projects aid in bird conservation and management. If you find a banded bird, report the band number at www.reportband.gov or 1-800-327-BAND along with where, when and how you recovered the bird.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
After a long, cold winter, spring’s arrival brings a vibrancy of life to the Chesapeake Bay region: critters are awakening from hibernation, birds and fish are migrating back to the area and countless animals are starting to raise their young.
For most of us, it would be difficult to see these critters in the wild. But a growing number of wildlife cameras are allowing us to get a glimpse into the lives of animals native to the region, from bald eagles to black bears. We’ve compiled a list of just a few of the types of critters you can watch.
Also known as the fish hawk, the osprey is an unofficial sign of spring for the Bay region. The birds begin arrive to the Bay in early March and remain through the spring and summer. Since 2009, the Chesapeake Conservancy has been streaming live video of a platform on Kent Island, where “Tom” and “Audrey”—a pair of ospreys—build their nest each year.
2. Great Blue Heron
This tall, blue-gray wading bird can be found year-round throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Herons nest and breed in colonies—called “rookeries”—high in the treetops of isolated areas. With the help of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a camera was installed near the top of a 100-foot loblolly pine tree on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Live video of the rookery shows activity from multiple nests.
3. American Black Bear
One of the most common bears in North America, the American black bear can be found throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2015, the Wildlife Center of Virginia rescued seven bear cubs who were separated from their mothers and possibly orphaned. Today, the Wildlife Center runs a wildlife camera showing the bear yearlings. But get your viewing in soon! The organization expects the bears will be ready for release in mid-April 2016.
4. Bald Eagle
Many of these iconic birds can be found year-round throughout the Bay region, but the area is also an important stop for eagles migrating from other parts of North America. One pair of the raptors, “Mr. President” and “The First Lady,” can be seen raising two fledglings at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. A live stream from the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, shows another pair of eagles (nicked named “Belle” and “Shep” by fans) caring for their eaglets.
5. Peregrine Falcon
Widespread pesticide use in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s led to a drastic decline in the number of peregrine falcons: by 1975, only 324 known pairs of the raptors were nesting in North America. But a robust recovery allowed the birds to be removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999, and the Chesapeake Bay has again become an important region for nesting and migrating peregrine falcons. Watch the Chesapeake Conservancy’s falcon camera to see “Boh” and “Barb” nesting on a skyscraper in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor; tune in to the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries’ falcon webcam to watch a pair of peregrines nesting in downtown Richmond, Virginia; or check out the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s falcon cam to watch a nest in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
6. American Shad
Birds and bears aren’t the only types of critters you can watch online: the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries runs a shad cam at Bosher Dam along the James River. Beginning in late March, you can catch a glimpse of American shad and other fish as they travel upstream to spawn.
Have a favorite wildlife camera you love to watch? Let us know in the comments!
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!
It’s a cold morning in Chestertown, Maryland—just above freezing. Greg Cole is waiting outside of his silver pickup truck, covered head to toe in camouflage, his bright white beard the only solid color on him. Today is Groundhog Day, but Cole’s not looking for rodents’ shadows; he’s keeping his eyes on the sky looking for an entirely different critter: the Canada goose. Cole is a hunting guide, and today is the second-to-last day of the migratory goose hunting season.
The term “migratory” is key, because Canada geese fall into one of two categories: resident and migratory. Resident geese live permanently in populated areas. They hang around golf courses and other open areas, and they’re considered a nuisance by many because they overgraze areas and generate a lot of waste. Migratory geese look similar to their homebody cousins but lead very different lives: they breed up north in Quebec, migrate to the Bay region in early autumn, stay throughout the winter and return to their breeding grounds in the spring.
Cole’s hopeful for a good hunt today. The waterfowl hunting hasn’t been good this year, he says, “mainly because of the weather.” The warm weather kept the geese from migrating south until later in the season. “This lake,” he says, gesturing to a slow-moving arm of the Chester River about a quarter of a mile away, “I’ve seen it hold as many as 10,000 geese, and this year, there’s probably [been] an average of about 500 geese all through the season.”
Despite this year’s low turnout, the number of breeding pairs has been healthy for the past few years—but that hasn’t always been the case. In the late 1980s, the population of migratory Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway began to drop dramatically. A mixture of bad weather and overharvesting led to a serious decline in the migratory goose population, so much so that in 1995, Maryland instituted a moratorium on hunting them.
Cole has been a hunting guide almost continuously since 1980 and remembers when the moratorium was first instated. “It was tough to take, when they said we were going to close it down,” he says. “We didn’t know if it was going to be shut down for two years or ten.” The moratorium was set in two-year increments and ultimately lasted six years.
Now Cole guides at a private hunt club of about 30 on Chino Farms, a part of the Grasslands Partnership, which was placed under conservation easement in 2001. At over 5,000 acres, it’s the largest conservation easement in Maryland’s history. It contains a 90-acre waterfowl sanctuary, three miles of shoreline along the Chester River and 600 acres of Delmarva bay, making it a great habitat for rare and endangered plants, Delmarva fox squirrels and other woodland critters. In 2006, the land was designated as an Important Bird Area by Maryland-DC Audubon.
Cole leads us to a nearby field where three club members will be hunting today. His two-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Geena, tags along, anticipating the chance to run our and retrieve birds. There is a group of geese grazing in the field, but as we approach, none of them fly away—in fact, they don’t move at all. These are the decoys used to attract the geese, and this group of about 60 taxidermied Canada geese is pretty convincing. Each is in a different position: some are standing tall starting off in different directions, others are posed to look like they are pecking at the ground.
As we wait, geese begin to fly by; some are in large groups with 20 or 30 geese, while others are smaller with just two or three. Alternating between short blips and longer whines, Cole uses the call, a sort of goose-whistle, hanging around his neck to “speak” their language and convince the geese to fly down towards the decoys “grazing” in the field in front of us.
A half hour passes and still no geese get close. “You know it’s a slow day when the dog goes to sleep,” Cole says, laughing as he looks down at Geena who is lying on the bench, no longer exuding the excitement and anticipation she had been earlier in the day.
Despite today’s silence and this season’s luck, Cole isn’t pessimistic about the future of goose hunting. “The biggest problem this year has been the weather—without a doubt. And I don’t think they had a real good hatch.” In terms of the moratorium, while it shook up hunting on the Eastern Shore, Cole maintains, “It definitely was a success story.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
As the days shorten, the last of the leaves fall and temperatures start to drop, we often find ourselves spending more time huddled indoors than discovering the landscape. But the Chesapeake region still has plenty to offer in the winter months—whether you decide to brave the outdoors or explore from the warmth of your own home.
1. Watch for winter wildlife. Chilly temperatures may send many critters into hibernation, but there’s still plenty of activity outdoors—including some animals that are only found in the region during the winter months. Waterfowl like tundra swans are part of the approximately one million ducks, geese and swans that overwinter in the Chesapeake. Other critters like the shy Delmarva fox squirrel are active in the region year-round. Plan a wildlife hike or bird walk through one of the many parks in the region and see how many critters you can spot!
2. Take a hike. Many of the area’s parks are open year-round—and with fewer crowds in the winter months, you might have these picturesque views all to yourself. If there’s snow on the ground, activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing can help you glide through the still, snow-covered landscape.
3. Go ice fishing. Below-freezing temperatures might only last for a few weeks in some parts of the watershed, but their arrival means a tradition beloved by some and puzzling to others: ice-fishing. While this activity takes plenty of patience and lots of warm clothing, enthusiasts can be rewarded with catch like yellow perch, bluegill and even the occasional walleye.
4. Visit a museum. Can't convince yourself to brave the cold? That shouldn’t stop you from learning more about the Bay! The watershed is full of museums where you can learn more about all aspects of the watershed. The Great Valley Nature Center in Devault, Pennsylvania; the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News; and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum are just a few of the places where you can learn about the Bay and its rivers, wildlife and history.
5. Snuggle up with a book. On those days when the wind and snow is too much to bear, you can stay indoors and learn about the Chesapeake while curled up on your favorite chair. From the travels of Captain John Smith to the life of a waterman, our suggested reading list offers dozens of options for books that will let you explore the Chesapeake from your own home.
6. Take a virtual tour. Winter weather can often make it difficult or dangerous to get on the water. But with virtual tours of the region’s waterways, you can explore the beauty of the watershed on your computer or smartphone! The Chesapeake Conservancy offers several virtual tours—including the Susquehanna River, Nanticoke River and Mallows Bay—to connect you with these waterways and help you plan for your visit when warmer weather arrives.
Do you have a favorite way to enjoy the Bay in the winter? Let us know in the comments!
The bald eagle, a national symbol of strength and resiliency, may be a common sight today, but just a few decades ago toxic pollutants working their way up the food chain had the species toeing the line of extinction. Prevalent use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a harmful insecticide, on agricultural fields caused eagles to produce eggs that were too delicate to support the incubating bird, lowering hatch rates in a drastic way. The decline was so severe that by DDT’s ban in 1972, only 482 breeding pairs were left throughout the entire continental United States.
Following the ban, one nesting pair of bald eagles remained in the state of New York, and their eggs were too contaminated with chemicals to be considered a viable means of repopulation. Restoration efforts began across the nation, but two researchers in particular, Peter Nye from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Tom Cade of Cornell University put New York on the map as a key player in eagle repopulation tactics. They took to using an ancient falconry practice called hacking to raise eaglets in a controlled, but wild, environment, to ensure that the birds would learn the proper survival techniques to independently prosper after fledging the nest.
“Their goal was to establish 12 nesting pairs in New York. By 1988, they had achieved the goal of 12 nesting pairs, and here we are in 2015 with more than 300. I know down in Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay area there are even more, so the reintroduction has been very successful,” said Michael Clark, Senior Wildlife Biologist for New York DEC. Clark and his colleague Scott Van Arsdale, Wildlife Technician for New York DEC, were mentored by Nye, and have taken over the legwork of tagging and monitoring the birds since Nye’s retirement.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
Winter can be a wonderful season for bird watchers and wildlife seekers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Parks, wildlife refuges and backyards around the region provide a range of habitats for animals that have adapted to spend the cold winter months in the mid-Atlantic.
Game species like the white-tailed deer and wild turkey are often seen in wildlife refuges and agricultural fields adjacent to wooded areas, where they can find protective cover and food. Both deer and turkeys can be found throughout the watershed year-round and are valued by the region’s many hunters.
While cold-blooded species—insects, worms, reptiles and amphibians—and some mammals—the black bear, woodchuck and chipmunk—hibernate in the winter, mammals like the muskrat, gray squirrel and fox remain active and visible year-round.
The Delmarva fox squirrel is another such mammal. The endangered species can be found in small, isolated populations on the Delmarva Peninsula, and forages for nuts, seeds and acorns in quiet wooded areas throughout the year.
The Bay is renowned for its waterfowl habitat and is visited each year by an estimated 75 percent of the waterfowl that migrate along the Atlantic flyway. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), approximately 1 million ducks, geese and swans overwinter in the watershed.
The most prolific species of migratory waterfowl in the watershed is the Canada goose. Frequently seen in farm fields and near lakes, rivers and streams, they are an important game species that, because of their foraging habits, can damage farms and vital habitats when gathered in excessive numbers. A lack of natural predators and an increase in available food during winter months means that some Canada geese now reside in the area year-round.
Snow geese and tundra swans breed in the Arctic, travel down the Atlantic flyway and overwinter along the Bay. Although the white birds may look alike at first glance, snow geese are smaller and stouter and travel in large flocks. Tundra swans, on the other hand, are larger birds with long necks and black bills. Both species can be seen near open water or blanketing agricultural fields while foraging for food
Even the Bay’s shoreline remains an active habitat during the winter. From the coast, surf scoters and other sea ducks can be seen diving for buried crustaceans.
Iconic wading birds like the great blue heron and great egret make for memorable viewing experiences. Found at wildlife refuges and along rivers and streams, the long-legged birds move slowly while hunting for food, but strike quickly at fish, frogs and other prey.
Forests make up 55 percent of the watershed and in winter support several species of woodpeckers, including the red-bellied woodpecker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of all North American woodpeckers. They can be found clinging to trees and visiting backyard feeders near wooded areas.
Several species of warblers live in the brushy areas of the watershed’s woods, but only the yellow-rumped warbler remains in the region through the winter. Warblers feed mainly on insects, but have adapted to eat fruit—particularly bayberries—during cold months.
Passerines or perching birds like the Northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee and tufted titmouse are common throughout the watershed and, thanks to their tendency to visit backyard bird feeders, can provide an accessible and rewarding wildlife viewing experience.
Each with its own unique song and behavior, birds like the Carolina wren, white-throated sparrow and white-breasted nuthatch also frequent backyard bird feeders during winter months when their natural food sources of seeds, fruit, nectar and insects are scarce.
To learn more about wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, visit our online Field Guide.
To view more photos in this set, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
“You’re going to want to take those off for this.” Alicia points to my gloves.
Exposing my hands to the cold – the kind of bitter cold that strikes only in the middle of winter, in the middle of night, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay – did not seem like something I’d ever “want” to do. Why did I volunteer for this again?
But Alicia Berlin, leader of the Atlantic Seaduck Project, has given me the job of untangling something called a "mist net." The net’s delicate fabric is quick to catch on fabric as we stretch it forty or so feet across the Chesapeake Bay. So I reluctantly shed the gloves, exposing my bare hands to winter’s icy chill.
Alicia and her team hope to capture surf scoters and black scoters in the mist net, and then arm them with GPS-like trackers that allow researchers to monitor the ducks’ migration patterns and feeding habits.
Since sea ducks only visit the Chesapeake Bay in winter, and since they are most active in the pre-dawn hours, Alicia’s team works in the cold darkness to assemble the mist net and trap these vacationing birds.
I quickly realize that unraveling the mist net is the easy job. The other volunteer I’m working with is leaning over the edge of the raft, his bare hands in the water; his headlamp the only source of light to illuminate his task.
He’s huffing and puffing and shivering as he pulls our raft along the anchor line, waiting for me to untangle the net above him before we can move forward. I stand nearly on top of him, praying I don't trip and fall overboard into the black, bone-chilling water just a foot below us. It’s so cold I can smell it.
Minutes later, we’re staring at our end product: what looks like a large volleyball net floating in the middle of the water, surrounded by two dozen decoys (plastic fake ducks) bobbling on the frigid waves. The darkness is turning gray, so we rush to our second location and set ourselves on repeat.
Once we finish our setup, there’s nothing left to do but wait. I try to force myself to stay alert – to listen for ducks calling, to search the horizon for flying silhouettes coming towards our decoys – but I can't. The frosty weather is numbing every part of my body, even though I’m wearing a ridiculous-looking "survival suit," a garment reminiscent of Randy's snow suit in A Christmas Story.
I’m not the only one who’s falling asleep sitting up. I met Alicia and her team on the Eastern Shore at 1 a.m., giving me just three hours of sleep. The more consistent volunteers are completely exhausted, pulling all-nighters followed by eight-hour work days. This collective sleep deprivation leads to an interestingly honest team dynamic and contributes to a plethora of freak accidents. (Alicia somehow drove our boat directly into a mist net just minutes after we had set it up.)
One can only hope that our lack of sleep will pays off, but not a single duck has flown into the mist nets all week. Perhaps tonight will make up for team’s previous disappointments.
Apparently, mist netting isn’t the most effective technique to capture sea ducks. According to Alicia, night lighting is far more successful. A team goes out on the water in the middle of the night, preferably in rainy weather, and shines flood lights on the water to locate ducks. Volunteers then capture the unsuspecting ducks in nets.
Captured ducks are kept in cages on the boat until morning. Then they’re transported to Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, where a surgeon implants the tracking devices in the ducks. (Alicia assures me the ducks can't feel the device.) The next evening, lucky volunteers set the sea ducks free on the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Andrew Reding/Flickr)
The number of sea ducks wintering on the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in recent years due to food availability and the effects of climate change. Many sea ducks rely on bay grasses that only grow at certain depths and are affected by algae blooms and high temperatures.
I’m awakened at sunrise by honks and quacks. My raft mates and I scope out the skies in different directions, identifying packs of ducks that will hopefully visit our mist net. My eyes follow pair after pair flying toward the net; but at the last minute, each one goes over or around it. Perhaps these birds are smarter than we give them credit for.
The larger boat that’s watching the second net has similar bad luck. That team decides to sneak up on a pack and drive the birds in the general direction of our nets. After a mess of quacking and fluttering, the ducks head not for the net, but directly toward our raft!
We chase the ducks around the Bay until 10 or 11 that morning, but not a single sea duck gets caught in the nets we worked so hard to set up. 'Tis the unpredictable nature of wildlife biology, the team says. Everything is a constant experiment: from the team's capture technique to the location of the nets to the weather. Failure is simply part of the learning process. Alicia is confident that tomorrow will bring better luck, and that night lighting next week will guarantee results.
We disassemble the mist net and head toward the shore, just in time to beat the growing waves that signal an approaching rain storm.
I've never been happier to bask under an automobile's heat vents.
The return of ospreys whistling through the air is a surefire sign of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region. But even those who can’t make it to the Bay’s shores can enjoy a glimpse of this remarkable raptor through online osprey cams at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The Blackwater osprey cam is located on an osprey platform in a marsh on the wildlife refuge’s grounds in Dorchester County, Maryland. The VIMS osprey cam is trained on a nest at the top of a water tower on the school’s campus in Gloucester Point, Virginia.
The two osprey cams provide real-time views of osprey pairs during their annual nesting and breeding season in the Chesapeake region. Both osprey cams include a blog, where you can view photos and journal entries chronicling the lives and milestones of each osprey family.
Want to learn more about ospreys? Visit our osprey page in our Chesapeake Bay Field Guide.
Every Sunday morning at 8, a handful of bird enthusiasts flock to Dyke Marsh, the only freshwater marsh along the upper tidal Potomac River. The Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, located south of Alexandria, Va., is home to almost 300 species of birds. The marsh is classified as a “globally rare” habitat, one that’s particularly unique in this dense, urban area just outside the nation’s capital.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Since 1975, the nonprofit volunteer group Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) has helped preserve, restore and celebrate this rare ecosystem. In addition to arranging weekly bird watching trips, FODM sponsors scientific surveys, leads school groups, removes invasive plants, organizes cleanups and builds public appreciation for the marsh.
FODM supports scientific surveys that illustrate the marsh’s irreplaceable habitat. Freshwater tidal marshes are flooded with fresh water with each incoming high tide, and include a variety of rare emergent grasses and sedges rather than shrubs.
“Dyke Marsh is a remnant of the extensive tidal wetlands that used to line the Potomac River,” explains FODM president Glenda Booth. “It provides buffering during storms. It absorbs flood waters. It’s a nursery for fish. It’s a rich biodiverse area in a large metropolitan area. We think it’s important to preserve what little is left.”
With the support of FODM, a Virginia Natural Heritage Program employee completed a survey of dragonflies and damselflies on the preserve in spring 2011. In addition, members conduct a breeding bird survey every spring. Last year, FODM recorded 78 species. The highlight? A confirmed breeding eastern screech-owl, the first documented in 20 years.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
“Our biggest challenge is to stop that erosion and restore Dyke Marsh,” says Booth.
Dyke Marsh was already destabilized in 1959, when Congress added it to the U.S. National Park system. USGS scientists largely attributed this to human impacts: sand and gravel mining that gouged out substantial parts of the marsh and removed a promontory that protected the wetland from storms, leaving Dyke Marsh exposed and vulnerable.
FODM works with the National Park Service to enhance wetland habitat and slow erosion of the marsh’s shoreline.
Educating neighbors about their connection to Dyke Marsh and fostering appreciation of this scenic area are also essential components of FODM’s preservation goals.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Like most other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, invasive plants are a problem in Dyke Marsh. “A lot of people plant things that are aggressive and not native, and these plants end up in the marsh.” And pollution that flows into streams throughout Fairfax County eventually empties into Dyke Marsh, threatening its wildlife and habitat.
Preserving Dyke Marsh is a goal that extends beyond the marsh itself, according to Booth. “We have to make sure that activities on our boundaries are compatible with preservation goals.” That means advocating for regulations that prohibit jet skiing, which disturbs the marsh’s nesting birds in spring.
Visit FODM’s website to learn more about upcoming outreach and educational opportunities and to find out other ways you can enjoy Dyke Marsh.
If sixty-degree days weren’t enough to convince you that winter has bid us farewell and spring is just around the corner, these harbingers of the changing seasons surely will! Take a look around your backyard, community or local park for these five telltale signs of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region.
(Image courtesy bbodjack/Flickr)
If you happen to live near a pond or wetland, you may be accustomed to hearing a chorus of “peeps” in early spring. The northern spring peeper is one of the first to breed in spring. This small amphibian’s mating call is described as a “peep,” but it can be almost deafening when hundreds of frogs sing in one location.
(Image courtesy bobtravis/Flickr)
These yellow beauties are the first bulb plants to pop up each March, sometimes emerging through melting snow and always signaling warmer weather ahead. Any gardener will tell you there’s no way to tell exactly when daffodils will bloom, but they seem to pop up almost overnight. A website tracks photos and reports of the first daffodil sightings each year around the world.
If you can’t get enough of these buttercup blooms, head over to the American Daffodil Society’s National Convention in April in Baltimore.
(Image courtesy Martin LaBar/Flickr)
Where there are flowers, bees should follow – but native bee populations have fallen rapidly in recent years. Find out how you can make your yard a bee haven and help give bees a home! (Don’t worry – most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s native bees don’t sting!)
A bee-friendly backyard will benefit you and your garden: bees pollinate plants and crops, a service that’s worth millions each year to our economy.
“PEENT! PEENT!” The mating call of the American woodcock may be a familiar sound if you stroll through in open forests this time of year. Males put on an elaborate show most evenings in early spring. After repeated “peents,” he flies upward in a spiral, reaching a height of about 300 feet. Then he begins chirping as he dives back down in a zig-zag pattern, landing right next to his chosen female.
Read how renowned nature writer Aldo Leopold described the woodcock mating ritual in A Sand County Almanac.
(Image courtesy Lynette S./Flickr)
This bright green, large-leaved wetland plant that appears in early spring may actually help melt leftover snowfall. Skunk cabbage generates temperatures up to 59-95 degrees above the air temperature, allowing the plant to literally break through frozen ground and sprout when temperatures are still too cold for other plants to sprout.
The plant’s foul odor attracts pollinators, including flies and bees, and discourages predators.
“Everything you film today, everything on camera, everything you walk on, was created. None of it was here in 1998. We’d be in several feet of water right now a little more than a decade ago.” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Chris Guy
It’s warm for a January morning. But out of habit, the team from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office (FWS) is armed with coffee thermoses and dressed in construction-orange floatation gear. The hot coffee and “survival suits” gain importance as the winter wind stings our faces on the hour-long boat ride from Annapolis to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The team embarks on this trip most mornings throughout the year, even in the coldest months.
In fact, today’s task must be completed in the first weeks of the new year. We’re hauling discarded Christmas trees to build waterfowl habitat on Poplar Island, a place where, ten years ago, wildlife habitat had nearly disappeared – because the land had disappeared. In 1997, just 10 acres of the original island remained.
Today, Poplar Island has grown to 1,140 acres, thanks to a partnership between FWS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Environmental Service and Maryland Port Administration that uses dredge material from the Port of Baltimore to rebuild the island. Many places (such as parts of Washington D.C. and Philadelphia International Airport) have been “built” using this technique, known as “fast-landing.” But Poplar Island is distinctive: it’s being constructed not for human use, but to provide the Chesapeake Bay’s wildlife with island habitat, a rarity in an era of quick-sinking shorelines and rising sea levels.
“What's unique about this project is the habitat aspect,” says FWS biologist Chris Guy, who’s helped run the project since 2005. “It's a win-win, because you get a dredge disposal site, which is hard to come by in the Chesapeake Bay, and it's long term, and you're getting much-needed habitat restoration.”
According to FWS biologist Peter McGowan, who began working on the project in the mid 1990s, wildlife are now flocking to Poplar Island. “Back in 1996, we had ten documented bird species using the island,” he says. “Now we have over 170 species that have been documented, and over 26 nesting species.”
Every January since 2005, residents of Easton, Maryland, have put their old Christmas trees on the curb for trash pickup, unaware of the fact that their discarded holiday greenery will soon become shelter and nesting habitat for black ducks, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds and diamondback terrapins.
Like so many Chesapeake Bay islands before it, Poplar Island fell victim to both rapid sea level rise and post-glacial rebound: the counteraction of glaciers during the last Ice Age that’s making the Bay’s islands sink. The combination of rising water and sinking land caused shorelines to quickly erode, and eventually vanish.
Here’s a summary of Poplar Island’s life, near death and revitalization:
How do scientists and engineers turn open water into land you can confidently step on? With dried and processed dredge material that’s used to build up the land over time.
Dredging is a process of clearing sediment (dredge) out of the bottom of waterways. Dredging is necessary on many rivers leading into major ports because sediment naturally builds up over time. This sediment must be excavated so large ships can pass in and out of ports.
Maintenance dredging of the Port of Baltimore is critical to Maryland’s economy: the port contributes $1.9 billion and 50,200 jobs to the state’s economy. It’s also the number one port in the U.S. for automobile exports.
It also contributes a lot of sediment. The port estimates that maintenance dredging in the next twenty years will generate 100 million cubic yards of sediment – enough material to fill the Louisiana Superdome 25 times. Finding a place to store this massive amount of dredge material has been a problem – that is, until the Poplar Island project came calling, requiring 68 million cubic yards of dredge.
When dredge material arrives at Poplar Island through large pipes, it spends a few years drying. Then bulldozers and heavy equipment move in to dig out channels for wetlands and streams. When the topography is set, the area is planted with grasses, trees and shrubs.
A first time visitor to Poplar Island may be surprised to see bulldozers and pipes gushing black dredge material at a site renowned as a world wonder of habitat restoration. Although it’s necessary to use this heavy equipment to rebuild the island, the staff has found a way to balance these activities and still attract wildlife.
“Let's call it a ‘dance,’” says Guy. “We have to work with the construction, obviously, but we have to be sensitive to the needs of the birds.”
The Christmas trees that Guy and McGowan have been bringing to the island since 2005 give black ducks a place to lay their eggs. Black duck populations have fallen dramatically in the Chesapeake Bay region, causing the bird to be listed as a species of concern.
One reason for the species’ decline is a lack of food, including bay grasses, aquatic plants and invertebrates that have dwindled as pollution increased. Development and other human activities have encroached on its wintering and breeding habitats.
“[When we began the project], we looked at what others around the country used to attract nesting birds,” explains McGowan. “Christmas trees were a good resource. Instead of going into landfills, they could be reused.”
Discarded Christmas trees imitate shrubs that black ducks typically seek out. They’re warm, sheltered spots to raise young. Since the first tree plantings on Poplar Island took place just ten years ago, none are mature enough to provide adequate nesting habitat. So until the real trees grow tall enough, Christmas trees will have to do.
“Black ducks like to nest in thickets in the marshes,” McGowan explains. “Christmas trees help provide the structure they need. It keeps them covered and safe from predators.”
And the trees seem to be working. As we take apart last year’s piles, we find a handful of eggs underneath the dead trees.
“Seeing that we have these leftover eggs demonstrates to us that ducks are using these nest piles successfully,” says Guy. “Just about every one of them we find a few eggs, so we think they’re having multiple clutches.”
The eggs we find in the six or seven piles that we disrupt belong to mallards, but McGowan and Guy claim that black ducks are nesting on Poplar Island as well.
“We've had six or seven black ducks nesting on the island,” says Guy. “You may say six or seven isn't a big deal, but when you're down to the last few hundred black ducks nesting in the Bay, going from 0 to 6, where they're used to be thousands, that's a big success story. That's not the only thing that these trees do, but it's one of the main drivers to get these trees out here.”
Guy and McGowan have long envisioned Poplar Island as prime habitat for black ducks.
“Back [in 2005], we went around the curbs in Anne Arundel County and threw the trees in the back of my pickup,” Guy tells me. It took the pair the entire month of January to collect the trees and transport them to Poplar Island.
Seven years later, the project is finished in just one day with help from Easton Public Works and volunteers and employees from FWS and Maryland Environmental Service.
Black ducks aren’t the only critters on Poplar. The island is home to hundreds of birds, reptiles and other species that now rely on the restored landmass for food and shelter.
For more information about Poplar Island and other wildlife habitat restoration projects around the Chesapeake Bay region, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office website.
The number of ducks, geese and swans wintering along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic shorelines was down slightly in 2012 compared to 2011, according to scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Survey teams counted 633,700 waterfowl this winter, as compared to 651,800 during the same time in 2011.
An unusually mild winter in the Mid-Atlantic region likely contributed to the lower population. Scientists counted fewer Canada geese, but more diving ducks, particularly scaup. Canvasback totals were the second lowest level ever recorded; however, more birds of this species were observed arriving after the survey was finished.
Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure the population and distribution of waterfowl up and down the Atlantic Flyway, according to Larry Hindman, DNR’s waterfowl project leader.
Visit DNR’s website for more information about the waterfowl survey, including a complete list of species and survey population figures.
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, it’s easy to use winter as an excuse for, say, drinking lattes, neglecting your exercise regimen and catching up on your favorite television show instead of getting outdoors. These indulgences provide me with some comfort in the face of frigid temperatures, high winds and slick road conditions.
But as my jeans get tighter and my skin gets paler, I’ve become inspired to conquer the season and all its hazards (realistically speaking, that is). Rather than hibernating like an animal, I’m putting my four-wheel-drive to use and showing winter who’s boss!
From cross country skiing to bird watching to doing donuts on frozen lakes, there are some outdoor experiences you can only have during our coldest season. We’ve compiled a list of six great places across the Bay watershed to experience winter. Just think how much better that hot cocoa will taste after you’ve felt the winter wind in your face!
If a winter flu’s got you down, a dip in Berkeley Springs may save your health. George Washington himself frequented Berkeley Springs to bathe in the warm mineral waters that flow from five main sources in the town. The springs discharge 2,000 gallons of clear, sparkling water per minute. The water remains at 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. It isn’t quite hot tub temperature, but it’s still warmer than a typical winter day.
The town even holds a Winter Festival of the Waters each year to celebrate the springs!
(Image courtesy @heylovedc/Flickr)
A drive through rolling hills, orchards and farmland will bring you to Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park, located the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Rock climbing, trout fishing, cross country skiing, winter hiking and horseback riding are just a few of the activities these recreational areas offer.
(Image courtesy Compass Points Media/Flickr)
The forests covering the parks are known as “second growth.” The “first growth” forest was logged extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to support local agriculture and produce charcoal for the nearby Catoctin Ironworks Furnace. In the 1930s, the land was set aside and reforested by President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration.
Hikers and cross country skiers will come across waterfalls and large, 500 million-year-old boulders. These rocks have been exposed as the Appalachian Mountains have flattened out over time. Trails at Cunningham Falls center around the waterfall for which the park is named. Known locally as McAfee Falls, it is the largest cascading waterfall in the state of Maryland.
Venture to Hills Creek State Park, near the Pennsylvania/New York border, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but forests. Four hundred acres of state park land are bordered by nearly 13,000 acres of state game lands, making the park an ideal destination for trappers and hunters. Winter sports fanatics will be in heaven – the park’s five and half miles of trails are open to hiking and cross country skiing in winter.
(Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
Take the kids sledding on the hill near the seasonal beach; with adequate snow cover, you’ll be able to fly! If you’re lucky, you may be able to ice skate on the 137-acre Hill Creek Lake. (The park doesn’t monitor ice thickness, but does provide updates on winter conditions.)
In the winter, scenic mountain vistas are all the more impressive; without any greenery in the way, you can see for miles. For breathtaking winter views, visit Loyalsock State Forest, part of Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountain region. The park’s elevation is relatively high for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which means you can count on winter conditions every year.
The park manages two trails specifically for cross country skiing, but skiers are welcome anywhere. Thirty-five miles of trails transverse the park, connecting visitors to a 130-mile regional trail system. Snowmobiling is also popular here.
(Image courtesy Richban/Flickr)
(Image courtesy Patuxent Research Refuge)
If winter travel isn’t in the cards for you, look no further than Patuxent Research Refuge, the 13,000-acre wildlife refuge halfway between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. You’ll be surprised by how secluded you’ll feel just 20 minutes off I-295 (Baltimore/Washington Parkway).
Borrow binoculars and birding guides from the visitor center and walk the family-friendly trails to catch a glimpse of cardinals, tundra swans and Canada geese. The visitor center also hosts public programs for kids and houses life-sized “stuffed” animals and interactive exhibits that explain the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Seasonal hunting is also popular on the refuges’ North Tract.
If you’re still itching to get a little snow, head to the southernmost selection on our list. During this time of year, Shenandoah’s weather is unpredictable – often 10-20 degrees cooler than temperatures in the valley. Leafless trees allow you to see for miles across the park’s nearly 200,000 acres. Portions of Skyline Drive and visitors’ services are closed through March, but hiking, backcountry camping and simple Sunday drives are still welcomed! Look for bobcat tracks in the snow along the trails. If you’re brave and fit, check out the magnificent view at the top of Old Rag.
(Image courtesy Brandon Feagon/Flickr)
Now you tell us: what’s your favorite Chesapeake Bay place to explore in winter?
Gulls call to each other, belted kingfishers swoop down into the seagrass, monarchs chase the wind, and Alicia and I snap photographs of as much of it as we can. Fisherman Island is only open to the public during this time of year, and it is very likely that this trip will be our only opportunity to visit the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Although thousands of motorists pass over the 1,850-acre land mass each day as they drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, few of them know that this area is one of only 17 sites classified as a “wetland of international importance.” Thousands of migratory birds stop here each fall and spring, and monarchs feed on native plants as they make their winter trip to Latin America.
The refuge is closed to the public because many of these species, such as brown pelicans and royal terns, are sensitive to threats from humans.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages Fisherman Island. Refuge law enforcement makes sure that the public – and yes, even fishermen – stay away.
Alicia and I were afforded access to Fisherman Island through Chesapeake Experience, a non-profit organization that offers summer camps, eco paddles, corporate retreats and experience-based environmental education for educators and students. Chesapeake Experience Director Jill Bieri and two refuge staff members led a morning walk on the island’s nearly unspoiled beach and an afternoon kayak tour from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.
But this trip is a different kind of Chesapeake experience for us, coming from Annapolis, where the Bay’s brackish water forms a distinctive landscape.
Most of the tour participants are avid birders and have come prepared with binoculars. We see many yellow-rumped warblers, or “butter rumps,” (Dendroica coronate) squeaking back and forth across the path.
There are plenty of other interesting features to observe at Fisherman Island, including:
Although we find treasures that we’re not likely to see in Annapolis, we also saw something disappointing: plastic bags that have washed up on shore and are now buried deeply in the sand.
To me, this illustrates why efforts to restore the Bay need to collaborative, involving agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, non-profits like Chesapeake Experience, and regular people like you and me. Although this tract of land is hardly touched by the public, and managed meticulously by the government, it is still vulnerable to the pollution that is happening throughout the Bay.
That afternoon, we paddle to where the Chesapeake Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, following the meandering path of the water through the marsh. Sitting on my kayak in this water, I feel it drift in and out of the Bay, and realize that the boundary lines between ocean and bay are fuzzy, or even, invisible.
A great blue heron watches us kayak into the waves. Our group slowly paddles to him, waiting for his five-foot wing span to cast a shadow over us. His flight makes our cameras snap and mouths hang open.
Jill instructs us to turn back before the waves get too rough. After all, we’re only novice kayakers!
Our homeward bound drive along Route 13 reveals abandoned homes alongside tents selling Virginia pecans, fireworks and cigarettes, all of them advertising their products with home-made, home-painted signs dotting the side of the road.
Mobile homes, their porches decorated with pots and pans and people in rocking chairs, sit on large tracts of land that I imagine to once have been profitable tobacco or cotton farms.
As the sun sets, these surroundings disappear, and we have only the stars to look at until we reach Annapolis.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purchased 825 acres of land along the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to expand Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The purchase conserves two tracts of land: one along a section of the Nanticoke River near Vienna and another to the north on Marshyhope Creek near Brookview.
The land has been identified as prime habitat for migratory waterfowl such as black ducks, blue-winged teal and wood ducks, as well as for bald eagles and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Additionally, the southern land tract is located along the Nanticoke section of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation’s premier national wildlife refuges. It consists of more than 27,000 acres, including one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and some of the most ecologically important areas in the state.
Visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s website to learn more about the refuge and the expansion.
When you think of the Anacostia River, you may not think of it as being a place that’s abundant with wildlife. But did you know that more than 170 species of birds call the Anacostia River and its watershed their home?
(Image courtesy Anacostia Watershed Society)
From the American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), a notable species during this time of the year for its Halloween symbolism, to all the raptors, herons, chickadees, warbles, vireos, ducks and turkeys, the lands and waters of the Anacostia watershed have lot to offer for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts.
To learn more about the Anacostia’s important role as wildlife habitat and see some great bird photos, visit the Anacostia Watershed Society’s blog.
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.”
I have come across quite a few hobbies and crafts in my day that I never knew existed. When we visited the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace recently, I was introduced to yet another.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the museum and you are in the area, I would suggest taking a few minutes out of your day to do so. The decoys really are works of art.
The museum displays hundreds of these creations, but also gives a detailed history of the art form itself. You can see a few examples in the photo slideshow below.
While we were there, we took some time to get out and take some pictures of the shoreline and wildlife. As the weather continues to warm, we look for more and more of these opportunities.
Do you have any memories associated with decoys or waterfowl? We’d love to hear from you, leave a response below.
Scientists observed more than 640,000 ducks, geese and swans along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline this winter as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. This is a decline from 2010, when approximately 787,000 waterfowl were counted.
The decline is largely due to fewer Canada geese and snow geese being counted for the survey. Large numbers of geese likely went undetected because they were on farms and other inland habitats. Overall, the wintering Canada geese remained high.
More ducks were counted in 2011 (199,300) than in 2010 (173,700) due to snow and cold weather north of Maryland, according to DNR. In particular, there were more mallards and canvasbacks, as well as an exceptional number of gadwalls on the Susquehanna Flats.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey has been conducted annually throughout the United States since the early 1950s. Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure wintering waterfowl distribution and populations throughout the Atlantic Flyway, according to DNR Waterfowl Project Leader Larry Hindman.
“The survey is conducted in a coordinated manner across the Atlantic Flyway states to provide an annual index of the population size for important waterfowl species like black ducks, Atlantic brant and tundra swans,” Hindman said.
Visit Maryland DNR’s website to view the full survey results.
Our resident birder Peter Tango is back with his experience counting birds during last weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count. Read on to hear about some of the 58 different species of birds he counted around his hometown of Deale, Maryland. If you missed his two-part series on birding in the Chesapeake Bay region, check it out here: part one and part two.
The count started 12:01 a.m. last Friday. In years past I have stayed awake on Thursday nights to listen for owls. This winter however I have not seen or heard any owls, so I slept in until predawn.
Friday was a work day, and the coffee was hot just before daybreak. I was up and waiting with my wife at our windows watching the feeders, the yard, the creek and the sky for anything with feathers. Recall that Friday was a nearly 80-degree day with no wind – a fine day for any spring or summer month, but it was February after a long, cold winter.
On the water, we saw mallards (23), black ducks (3), ring-billed gulls (25), tundra swans (86), Canada geese (2) and belted kingfishers (2). At the feeders, birds flit in and out. There we saw Carolina wrens (2), starlings (2), Carolina chickadees (2) and blue jays (2). Within earshot we heard the calls of a robin (1), a downy woodpecker (1), American crows (2), a fish crow (1), a house finch (1), juncos (5) and goldfinches (2).
Day 2 – The Big Blow. The weatherman claimed we would experience 60 mile-per-hour winds. Little birds seemed to be hiding. The Great Backyard Bird Count allows you to do some roadside birding, office birding and farm birding. I consider Deale pretty much all mine, so I do some roadside birding to get some extra lists and represent our town for the other 800 or so folks that look at the birds but don’t participate in the count. On the search for ducks on Rockhold Creek, the water looked empty. Oh – there they were, ducks and geese resting on docks, out of the wind. The surprise today was a green-winged teal, the last bird on a dock full of mallards.
Day 3. The winds were over. We did our coffee, breakfast and window birding to start the day. The Great Backyard Bird Count also allows you to do a little hiking. I usually spend one day walking for hours through the diverse habitats of my community – deciduous woodlands, conifer stands, creekside, Bayside, wetlands, beach, mudflats, yards with feeders, yards without. With binoculars and a spotting scope, I stretch the boundaries of Deale offshore a bit. The count continued…tundra swans (116), buffleheads (30), a surf scoter (1), great black-backed gulls (5), long-tailed ducks (7), mallards (4) and swamp sparrows (3).
A tiny, overgrown cemetery up the street had become home to an uncommon winter bird in Maryland: the brown thrasher. However, a group of people cleared all the wonderfully scrubby brush that my brown thrasher hid in. Still, I went there and tried my counting luck. I ‘pished’ at the cemetery, a common technique to attract the attention of birds hiding in the brush. For my effort, I counted a yellow-rumped warbler (1), white-throated sparrows (2) and Carolina wrens (2). It didn’t look hopeful for the brown thrasher. But across the street, the scrubby growth had thickened in the last couple of years. I saw movement in the brush and brought my binoculars up. There was my bird…a brown thrasher (1). Ahhh, the counting is good. I follow calls of chickadees, tufted titmice and house sparrows nearby. On a lawn I count robins (7) and spot something else – much to my surprise, they were fox sparrows (2)! Way cool! Day 3 was excellent.
Final Day – Monday. Washington’s birthday celebration means a day off from work. During a mile-long walk, I finally find the elusive mockingbird (1) I knew was in the neighborhood. Another pleasant surprise was cedar waxwings (25), then bluebirds (2), both excellent finds among the more common cardinals (6), cowbirds (13), mallards (34), tundra swans (52) and a few mute swans (3). Red-breasted mergansers (12) show up on the creek by our home; their displays are remarkable, with males’ heads whipping about and males chasing other males at amazing speeds across the water as they attempt to impress the females. The calls, the displays – birding can be so much more than just counting. Watching their behaviors can also be amazing.
I spent Monday afternoon entering my lists into the phenomenal Great Backyard Bird Count database. I reported 57 total species. Since 2006 I’ve counted approximately 54 to 64 species each year. Deale usually ranks as one of the top 10 of some 300 towns in Maryland for species richness. I feel that reflects well on the quality and diversity of habitats here.
At dusk on Monday, I was putting laundry away and happened to glance out the window at the feeders one more time. Birds scattered and there was a puff of feathers floating in the air like dandelion seeds. I got closer to the window and there on the ground was a sharp-shinned hawk dining on a female cardinal! Sharp-shinned hawk (1), species number 58 for Deale in 2011. The final and unexpected bird of the 2011 Great Backyard Bird Count.
These counts contributed to the nearly 10 million birds and more than 580 species reported in North America this weekend. I encourage you to go to the GBBC website to explore bird counts in your area!
We're getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count here in the Chesapeake Bay region! The Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place Feb. 18-21, creates a real-time snapshot of where all the birds are across North America. Bay Program monitoring coordinator and expert backyard birder Peter Tango helps us get into the bird-counting spirit with his two-part blog series on birding at his home in Deale, Maryland. Read part one of his blog entry to get caught up with his story.
Back to our yard. Regardless of bird name concerns, we use a bird bath with a heater to keep fresh water open on even the coldest days. Fresh water is a precious resource when it’s freezing cold and you are surrounded by salt water. This little pool brings in gorgeous flocks of bluebirds, our resident mockingbird, an occasional robin and small groups of spastic starlings – that can never seem to figure out if they want a bath, a drink, a walk in the water or a place to evacuate themselves. In the end they generally seem to do all of those things before quickly flying away. A squirrel even stops by for a drink sometimes. He’s the trouble maker, leaning on the heater to take a drink and sometimes popping it out of the water. Needless to say, the bird bath needs daily attention.
The transition from autumn to winter birds around the yard is magical. Ospreys leave, filtering south on northern breezes from late summer into autumn. The same breezes finally dive down out of the arctic and bring us wonderful flocks of northern-summering birds such as black ducks, hooded mergansers, then tundra swans. The “hoodies” mow through the creek, working together in search of small fish – the often abundant silversides and mummichogs of our shallow shoreline habitat. The tundra swans love to feed in the creek, sharing the water with mallards, the seasonal black ducks and the mixture of resident and migratory geese.
All that is fun to watch until the creek freezes over. Then it gets amusing as gulls, swans, ducks and geese track the thawing edge of the water daily. Some will inevitably sit upon the ice, seemingly waiting for it to thaw beneath them so they can get the best eats right there instead of where the crowds of birds are sharing the water. It’s kind of cute.
When the nasty weather hits, it usually gets really interesting at the feeders. Ground-feeding birds may be cut off from their food sources, forcing them to range out further from their typical hideaways. Twice I have encountered my favorite sparrow around our feeders: the chubby, rusty and gray, plump and cuddly fox sparrow. In the first case it was during the 12-20 inch storm that rocked Maryland in 1996; the second case was during 2010, when Maryland was buried under the blanket of three significant snowstorms. In each case, fox sparrows showed up at the home feeding station and for a few days and fed heavily on seed we provided. As the snow disappeared, so did the sparrows, presumably returning to their hideaways and preferred secluded dining spots.
Fox sparrows weren’t the only interesting visitors during those storms, though. We had an amazing diversity of sparrows at our feeders when feet of snow covered the Bay area. In a typical winter, we see good numbers of white-throated sparrows, and a token song sparrow or two around our feeding stations. During the storms last year, however, there were chipping sparrows, field sparrows, tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows and song sparrows along with the fox sparrows. The trick to identifying them is no trick at all, but rather being ready for likely but nonetheless surprising arrivals at the feeders. Studying bird guides (multiple guides if you have them) for identification clues and tips helps when you look out the window and think something looks different.
A common error I hear is people looking at birds in their yards and saying, “Oh yes, we have tons of purple finches.” Chances are they are not purple finches, but rather the non-native house finches that are now common, hungry visitors at the feeder. Might you get purple finches? I look all the time. Last winter, again during the snowstorms, a single female purple finch stood out like a sore thumb among the house finches. The plumage patterns on the face are distinctly different in the two species. I was tickled inside to see the real deal.
Yet another surprise showed up last year during the storms. Among the grayish little birds that are picking at the thistle seed are goldfinches and female house finches. But then there appeared a goldfinch-like bird, except it had stripes on its flanks and belly. Ohhhhhhh yeah, I know this one. I use to spend time in the Adirondacks and Catskill Mountains of New York, and pine siskins are a bit more common there than here. During irruption years coupled with the bad weather, the birds may range farther south in greater numbers. And there outside the house was a pine siskin among the LGJs (little gray jobs) flitting and feeding. Shortly after the really cold weather hit this winter, pine siskins once again arrived at our feeders, vying with the goldfinches for their share of thistle seed. Growing up a good part of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line, I feel a sense of home from my youth when my familiar northern feathered friends visit me now in the south.
Up north, where I grew up, I had little problem identifying big, black, crow-like birds. American (Common) crows ruled. When I went to Adirondacks, I had to contend with ravens versus crows. Not too tough for most birders, I would say. In Maryland, around the creek and therefore in the yard, there might be fish crows, there might be American crows. Looking at them is mostly useless; however, listen for their calls and presto! They give themselves away. There is the very nasal call of the fish crow contrasted against the deeper, more guttural call of the American crow. And when they don’t call? Call it “Crow sp.” for “crow – species unknown.” It’s ok to be honest if we don’t know what some bird is and we do the best we can with the identification.
You probably don’t see as many crows as you used to either. When West Nile Virus was introduced into the U.S. in 1999, it swept across our country’s bird community. American crow populations were severely affected by the virus and their numbers took a nose dive. Fish crow populations experienced a lesser but no less significant decline. Most people will remember hearing about dead birds here and there, maybe even encountered some themselves. It wasn’t just crows; it was robins, chickadees, titmice and more. The toll has been large. Why should you care? An introduced pathogen has changed the face of bird communities in our country in our lifetimes. Additionally, mosquitoes had fewer birds to feed on and we warm-blooded humans were a more frequent target. The dead crows preceded and were an indicator of the human epidemic that followed from West Nile Virus. Birds died, but people died too.
Programs like the Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count, with their thousands of volunteers across the country, provide insight into bird community makeup, patterns of bird movements, changes in response to climate shifts, irruptions and species stability and declines. Up until this year, we commonly had small flocks of doves at our feeders. Sure, the overwintering Cooper’s hawk got one now and then. How amazing it can be to watch such a hawk take off from a couple of hundred yards away, gliding low almost skimming across the water, and taking dead aim at the bird feeding station for a potential meal. One day, however, the Cooper’s hawk landed right in front of a squirrel. The squirrel not only stood his ground to protect his food source, he chased the hawk! Cooper’s hawks are generally bigger than squirrels, mind you. Not only did he chase the hawk once, he chased it again until it flew onto a bush. Not satisfied with that result, he chased it completely out of the yard following behind it as it flew across the street. We called him ‘psycho squirrel.’
As for the doves, we have almost none this year. Not coincidently, we have been chasing not one but two neighborhood cats from our yard. The cats now seem to think our bird feeding station is a great part of their daily walk through the neighborhood. Aside from random flights into buildings, windows, cars, trucks and buses, untethered cats are a common issue because they kill thousands of birds each year. Feral cats have reduced or led to extinction of bird species, mammals and even lizards, specifically on islands. Restoration activities on islands across the globe now include efforts to eliminate feral cat populations in order to reintroduce native species that can’t survive the predatory pressure of the cats. Since I haven’t seen more than a sharp-shinned hawk in the yard lately looking for a meal of junco or house finch, the two new cats prowling the neighborhood are the most significant negative change in predator-prey relationships around our area.
I have come to dearly love our town of Deale, its land, its water, its people. But over a decade ago, moving from my homeland of the north to my new homeland in the south, my body ached for spring flocks of warblers I was so accustomed to moving through the woodlands. Along the creekshore, migration is more subtle in some ways, more robust in others, and my senses have adapted and integrated with the new surroundings. As spring gets closer, the tundra swans will sound off more and more, day and night, night and day, they’ll get all fired up into a frenzy and then…silence. They are on their way to their arctic summer home. However, soon after the wing beats of the swans magic liftoff fade in the distance there will be the cries of osprey overhead. White-throated sparrows will bridge the divide, sometimes hanging on until the real warmth of season arrives. Junco’s will go, and most black ducks will leave the creek, except for an occasional hen bird that gets romanced by the grunt-whistle of a male mallard and decides to raise its young here down south. Perhaps we have all been a bit romanced by the calls of the Bay and just can’t leave its shores now either.
We're getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count here in the Chesapeake Bay region! The Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place Feb. 18-21, creates a real-time snapshot of where all the birds are across North America. Bay Program monitoring coordinator and expert backyard birder Peter Tango helps us get into the bird-counting spirit with his two-part blog series on birding at his home in Deale, Maryland.
January 29th. 40 degrees. There are house finches singing and mourning doves flying by. A roadrunner is perched on a fence just a dozen yards away, preening in the morning sun. For the first time ever, I watch one make a really cool deep-toned call. On the ground below the roadrunner, green-tailed towhees feed. In another area, gila woodpeckers sound off. There is a bit of a surreal sight when a pair of cactus wrens go dumpster diving. There are plenty of saguaros around, but alas, the dumpster seems to be more attractive to them this morning.
I've taken a break from the snow and cold of our Chesapeake Bay area and landed in southern Arizona for a few days. There is a little sunshine, and the late spring-like temperatures are chilly by night and sometimes cozy, sometimes t-shirt weather by day. It’s a brief but invigorating reprieve from the incessant frosty weather and bulky clothes I’ve needed at home this winter.
Home is, after all, along the Bay, south of Annapolis, in a little house my wife and I call "The Loveshack" out on Carr's Creek. From a birding perspective, creekside living is wonderful because it is a transition zone. The woods and wetlands melt into shallow, protected coves. You can sit on the dock and hear rufous-sided towhees or Carolina wrens while looking out at a flock of ducks that may include a bufflehead visiting with the mallards. Flocks of geese move off the Bay into the creek shortly after sunrise, then lift off and head for their daily feed in the surrounding farm fields. They return at dusk, flying over our home and navigating down the gut of the creek back to the Bay for the night. It's a great rhythm of Bay life to be in tune with.
It's winter. It's cold. There's snow. The groundhog gave us his prognostication that we might see spring come early. Even with his message, winter will linger with us a bit longer and so will some of our favorite birds.
We love to watch our feeders and track the bird community through the year here in Deale. Feeders of thistle seed, another with a coarse seed mix of peanuts and sunflowers, and third safflower-only feeder cater to the likes of goldfinches, house finches, energetic chickadee pairs, noisy tufted titmouse duos, cardinal families, white-throated sparrows, and more. An occasional downy woodpecker stops to grab a seed, while generally only the male red-bellied woodpecker will come in and grab a nut.
My wife constantly feels that those who originally gave names to birds must have been drunk while doing it. Red-bellied woodpeckers, for example, have barely a wash of red on their bellies but wonderfully brilliant red plumage on their heads. "Why isn't it called a red-headed woodpecker?" she asks.
I seize on the opportunity to spin a story answering this question -- sort of – and start in…
"Well honey, a long, long time ago there was this guy, Linnaeus. He liked organizing things. So he decides to organize the plant and animal kingdom under one system."
"Kind of like Noah and the Ark, eh?"; she says.
I continue, "Yeah, kind of like that, without being limited to two of everything. OK, and for this organization effort, Linnaeus gives things names, Latin names."
So far my wife is on board. She knows botany, she knows Linnaeus. The hook is set, so I continue.
"Well, a couple of hundred years after Linnaeus, there are a couple of guys roaming the American countryside, also very interested in naming things. They were JJ and Rahg. That was how Roger Tory Petersen and John James Audubon referred to each other."
"Bingo!"; I said, "Yes. So you see, binoculars weren't particularly good back in the day, and these guys needed to see things up close. They collected birds to figure out what they were and decide on names.
"Not so good for the birds, eh?"; she says.
"Not so much." I replied. "Then, one day they come upon some birds clinging to the sides of the trees. JJ says to Rahg, "Rahg, you see those birds pecking away at the trees? Let's collect some of them today. We'll name them Dendrogapus or Picoides or something like that." Rahg replied, "I am so dang tired of these Latin names, let's give them some English names. They peck wood so let's call them wood peckers. Whaddya think?"
JJ asks, "Can we just combine that into one word, woodpecker?; Rahg replies,"Yes, woodpeckers. One word. Write that down."
And that's how they got to be named woodpeckers.
My wife is on the edge of her seat, intrigued. I move along in the story.
"OK, now it gets really interesting. You see, that night they got back to the campfire, sipped a little local shine together, and pulled out their collection of birds to continue naming them. JJ pulls out a bird and says, "Rahg, this one has a red head, let's call it a red-headed woodpecker." Rahg says, "JJ, that head is crimson-colored, it's not really red! You sure you want to call it a red-headed woodpecker?" JJ replies, "No one is going to want to say ‘crimson-colored,’ let’s keep it simple. It’s the red headed woodpecker’. Rahg gives in and writes ‘red-headed woodpecker’ in his book, adding a little drawing beside it as best he can in the firelight.
“JJ pulls out another bird. ‘Uh, Rahg, this one has a red head too and doesn’t look anything like the last one.’ Rahg perks up and says, ‘It’s a red nape, not a red head, JJ. No one knows what a nape is, though.’ Rahj takes another swig of ‘shine, grabs his magnifying glass and jumps up. ‘JJ, Come here! C’mere, c’mere, c’mere! LOOK! See those two specks of red on each of them belly feathers? We are going to call this the red-BELLIED woodpecker!’ JJ rolls his eyes, ‘Can’t we call it a cream-bellied ladderback woodpecker or gray-bellied zebra striped-backed woodpecker? I mean, look at this bird, no one will ever see them red flecks except with a magnifying glass.” Rahg sticks to his guns, ‘Nope, you named the last one, I got this one.’ And so red-bellied woodpecker went into the book, with a little drawing and some notes on those tiny belly flecks of red.’
My wife is silent, pondering the birds we see. I jump in and continue my tale.
“By now the bottle of ‘shine is gettin’ kinda low, and the boys are tired. But there’s one more bird in the bag. JJ pulls it out. “WOW, look at the size of that woodpecker! Oh NO, it has a red head too!” Rahg says. ‘Actually it’s a red cap, Rahg, kind of a red-capped woodpecker. I’m really tired of red-this and red-that. We got this one deep in the woods, right? What if we just keep it simple and call this one WOODY: woody woodpecker.’ Rahg has had enough for the night. ‘That will never stick as a name, JJ, but I’ll jot it down and we’ll think about it more tomorrow.“
“And that, my dear, is how the birding name game went back in the day. Honest.”
I end my story and hold my poker face.
She looks at me, gets that glare in her eyes and says, “Dude, you are SOOOOO full of ‘shinola yourself!” She throws a couch pillow at me, and we both cackle with laughter.
“OK, ok, ok – I guess I have some research to do about where those common names were derived. I’ll get back to you.”
There are many excellent bird guides out there now: National Geographic, Sibley, Petersen, Stokes and more, not to mention all the web resources available. And if anyone gets concerned about common names, by all means dive into the Latin names. That opens up a whole new world about birds. You won’t run into two birds with the same very confusing Latin names; they’re all confusing.
Check back next Tuesday, Feb. 15 for the second part of Peter's entry!
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question came from John in New Jersey. John has been experiencing problems with mute swans while kayaking in his local waterways. He has seen them before, but never had any issues with them until last year. He and other kayakers were attacked several times last year and the attacks have resumed this year. He asked: “Short of quitting my favorite weekend sport, what can I do to deter the swan from attacking me?"
For this question, we contacted Jonathan McKnight, the associate director for habitat conservation with the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
McKnight said that, unfortunately, mute swan attacks are not uncommon. Mute swans are an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and other parts of the East Coast (such as New Jersey), causing problems for humans, other wildlife and the habitats where they live. Mute swans are very territorial of their nesting areas and near their young. With wingspans that can reach 6 feet long, mute swans are capable of causing serious injury to humans.
In Maryland, any mute swan attacks or sightings can be reported to DNR, and DNR officials will go out to the site and remove the swans. If mute swans are prohibiting use of the waterways near you, McKnight suggests contacting your state’s wildlife agency.
The best advice McKnight could offer John was to wear a life preserver when out in his kayak and to make his posture taller than the swan.
“If you are smaller than the swan, it will attack mercilessly,” McKnight said.
John had also mentioned an idea of using a bird repellent to ward off the swans, which McKnight said might be successful.
Visit our page on mute swans for more information about these invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events!
Welcome to this week's installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! We usually take a question submitted by a visitor on our website and answer it here for everyone to read. This week, we decided to turn the table and ask our readers a question.
Tomorrow is the first day of spring and there are definite signs of the changing seasons around the Chesapeake Bay. Traditionally, many people in the Bay region believe ospreys are the truest sign of spring, as they return to the region around St. Patrick's Day each year. After wintering in the Caribbean and South America, ospreys respond to changes in daylight and make their way back home to the Chesapeake for nesting. A fellow Bay Program staff member said she saw her first osprey of the season last night.
With St. Patrick's Day behind us, National Wildlife Week coming to a close and spring looming just over the horizon, here's our question to you:
Have you seen an osprey yet this spring? If so, where? Have you seen any other signs of spring in the region?
Share your sightings and stories in the comments so we can track the return of the ospreys and the coming of spring. Everyone seems to be struck with a little bit of spring fever, so while you're spending time outside to embrace the early warm weather, you can probably find a few more signs of spring near you. Come back here to join in the conversation and share your experiences!
UPDATED 03/24: Check out http://www.ospreycam.com for a live view of ospreys! If you haven't seen one in person yet, you can through the power of the Internet! Thanks to Pamela Wood, the Annapolis Capital's Bay reporter, for this head's up via our Twitter account.
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and your question might be chosen at the next Question of the Week! Feel free to suggest other questions that will encourage reader discussion as well!
Summer may be over, but there are still a number of opportunities to get outside and enjoy the splendor of the outdoors. In autumn and winter, millions of migratory birds visit the Chesapeake Bay region as they follow the Atlantic Flyway during their seasonal flights.
The Chesapeake, which sits along the Atlantic Flyway, has always been a favored winter residence and stopover for many waterfowl – ducks, geese and swans – on their way to and from their northern breeding grounds. The wetlands, fields, shallows and open waters of the Bay offer a fertile environment for waterfowl to feed and rest.
There are countless great places in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – which stretches from upstate New York to southern Virginia – to catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds on a fall or winter day. From national wildlife refuges (NWR) to state parks and wildlife management areas, the options are plentiful no matter where you live.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the top places to spend a day enjoying the beautiful waterfowl that call the Chesapeake region their winter home.
Located about an hour northwest of Salisbury, Blackwater NWR is one of the premier spots in the Bay region to see wintering waterfowl. Each autumn, thousands of Canada geese flock to the 27,000-acre refuge during their annual migration. Tundra swans, snow geese and a variety of ducks are also abundant at Blackwater.
The refuge is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. There is an entry fee of $3 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian or bicyclist (those under 16 are free).
Elk Neck State Park is situated on the Susquehanna Flats, a unique portion of the Bay that is less than 5 feet deep. In the past, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl used to migrate to this area in massive quantities. While there are fewer birds there these days, the park is still a great spot to watch dabblers like teal and mallards as they feed in the shallow waters of the Flats.
The park is open year-round and cabins are available for rental. On weekdays, the park charges an entry fee of $3 per vehicle; on weekends and holidays, that changes to $3 per person. Out of state residents will have to add $1 to these fees.
With 2,800 acres of land maintained specifically to attract waterfowl, this 30-mile-long island is a sure bet for bird-watching. Wander along inlets and beaches to see thousands of ducks, geese and swans, possibly even close enough to appreciate the intricate differences of each species.
The island is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year with no entry fees.
The 2,285-acre refuge is home to approximately 243 species of birds. Waterfowl include pintails, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, oldsquaw, canvasbacks and buffleheads. Also found in the area is the tundra swan, which can be seen in groups of as many as one thousand.
The refuge is open from 7:30 a.m. until one half hour after sunset with no entry fees.
At the end of the last Ice Age, as the last glacier retreated, two masses of ice were left behind and eventually melted, creating the Chenango and Lily lakes in New York. During the migration seasons, birdwatchers can find ducks as well as herons and kingfishers by the lakes. Along the trails, woodpeckers, nut hatches, warblers and thrushes abound.
The park is open year-round for day use, and campsites are available May through October.
Susquehannock State Park offers several river overlooks, which give visitors a unique panoramic view of the lower Susquehanna River. With such a major stop on the Atlantic Flyway nearby, the park is a haven for migratory birds on their journeys. Visitors will inevitably see large numbers of Canada geese, mallards, lesser scaup and several other species. The park also has the world’s first bald eagle sanctuary, where two nesting bald eagles have lived for many years. Several other eagles have nested on the island in recent years as well. The eagle sanctuary can be viewed through binoculars or the on-site optical viewer.
Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area is mostly an oak-hickory forest covering 3,500 acres. While this portion of the Bay watershed is a bit too far west to draw many migratory waterfowl from the Atlantic Flyway, the 205-acre lake does attract limited numbers of ducks and geese. Mallards, Canada geese, wood ducks and several species of diving ducks can been seen on the lake.
The Nanticoke Wildlife Area contains 4,415 acres of forests, fields and wetlands bordering the Nanticoke River. Along the river, visitors will be treated to the brilliant fall plumage of the drake wood duck and also be able to see American widgeon, gadwall and American black ducks. A multitude of herons, grebes, songbirds and egrets also inhabit Nanticoke Wildlife Area.
For more information, please contact the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife at (302) 539-3160.
Rappahannock River Valley NWR is the newest of four refuges that comprise the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Established in 1996, the refuge protects 20,000 acres of wetlands and uplands along the river and its major tributaries. The vast stretches of wetlands and river frontage provide habitat for a multitude of species of waterfowl, including black ducks, widgeons, greater scaup, hooded mergansers, canvasbacks and ring-necked ducks.
This 146-acre preserve on a peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay has three major natural habits: a tidal salt marsh, a maritime forest and a sandy beach. There is a boardwalk and observation deck over the salt marsh that offers great views of the habitat and wildlife, as well as a roadside between the forest and the marsh where you have a great opportunity to view waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Shorebirds take their places in the tidal lagoons, while land birds roam the forested areas. Neo-tropical songbirds and other migratory birds are frequently seen here as they travel along the Atlantic Flyway.
The preserve is open daily from dawn ‘til dusk.
This salt marsh habitat separates the eastern side of Winter Harbor from the Chesapeake Bay. The habitat is constantly changing due to wind and water that move the sand on the narrow beach, but this doesn’t change how many species of birds and waterfowl are found. Bethel Beach boasts more than 185 species of birds, including 25 species of shorebirds.
Just a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Kiptopeke State Park is a 500-acre refuge for viewing fall migrations. The park includes a songbird banding station so that visitors of the park can view up-close songbirds like warblers and ovenbirds. There’s also a hawk-trapping station with species including sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawk, peregrine falcons and merlin. The nearby Eastern Shore of Virginia Wildlife Refuge has a migration display that’s also worth checking out.
The park is open year-round with a $3 entry fee Monday through Friday and $4 on weekends and holidays.
This 500-acre preserve, with its wooded trails and shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay, is very appealing to migrating and wintering birds. Beginning in October, wintering waterfowl such as eiders, scoters and open-water ducks come along. The preserve is open to walkers and bikers.
For a different experience, you can observe waterfowl from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s four man-made islands. The man-made habitats are located in open waters, providing an inviting resting point for many migrating birds. Frequent avian visitors include northern gannet, pelican, brant, king eider, harlequin duck, red-breasted merganser, peregrine falcon, American oystercatcher, little gull and black-tailed gull.
For another list of great waterfowl-related places to visit around the Bay, check out the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network's compilation of waterfowling driving tours.