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.
A report on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population reveals a stock that is not overfished and within which overfishing is not occurring.
According to an annual evaluation from the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee (CBSAC), the start of the 2013 crabbing season saw 147 million adult female crabs in the Bay, which marks a 54 percent increase from last year’s abundance of adult females. The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks this female-specific reference point as an indicator of Bay health. While this number is below CBSAC’s target, it is above the committee’s overfished threshold.
Image courtesy smaneal/Flickr
The 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report, presented by CBSAC at the June meeting of the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, is based on the results of the winter dredge survey. This annual estimate of the blue crab population is considered the most comprehensive blue crab survey conducted in the Bay.
To maintain a sustainable blue crab fishery, CBSAC recommends taking a risk-averse management approach and making a 10 percent cut to the 2013 female blue crab harvest. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) have agreed to pursue the latter recommendation.
CBSAC also recommends better accounting of commercial and recreational harvests and continued efforts to monitor the inactive commercial crabbing licenses in the fishery, which could lead to significant increases in harvest if they were to come into sudden use.
Learn more about the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report.
When cold weather arrives, blue crabs up and down the Chesapeake Bay stop their scurrying. The summertime rush of food-hunting and mate-finding is over, and the crustaceans will spend the winter months buried in sand and sediment. It is at this moment that researchers in Maryland and Virginia must strike: to count the crabs while they are still.
Known as the winter dredge survey, this annual count of the Bay’s blue crab population is a critical part of blue crab management. Without an accurate estimate of blue crab abundance, fisheries managers cannot set harvest limits for the season ahead.
“The winter dredge survey is the most vital tool that we have in crab management,” said Chris Walstrum, a natural resources biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “This is the best chance we have to assess the [blue crab] population, because the crabs are stationary.”
Walstrum and his team are responsible for counting crabs in Maryland waters; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) conducts the winter dredge survey in the Virginia portion of the Bay. Between the two agencies, a total of 1,500 Bay sites are visited over the course of three and a half months before the numbers are crunched and fisheries managers can make recommendations on how blue crab harvests should or shouldn’t change.
On a warmer-than-normal January morning, Walstrum is aboard a boat in Broad Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The DNR vessel has been captained for more than a decade by Roger Morris, a fifth-generation waterman who used to dredge for crabs commercially and whose skills are invaluable to the success of the survey.
“Whether people like it or not, the winter dredge survey is the whole basis for our [blue crab harvest] limits,” Morris said. “That’s why I try to do the best I can do at it. It takes experience. You just can’t walk on a crab dredge boat and expect to catch crabs.”
At each survey site—six of them in this particular waterway—Morris will line up his boat and drop its so-called Virginia crab dredge into the water. The metal dredge is towed along the bottom for one minute before it is hoisted back on board, where the newly caught contents of its mesh liner are dumped out and sorted through. In each catch, there are brown leaves, oyster shells, little fish and, more often than not, a collection of blue crabs.
Each crab is weighed, measured and sexed before it is tossed back into the water. This provides an accurate picture of the blue crab population, as researchers track the number of young crabs that will form the backbone of the fishery next fall and the number of females that will produce the next generation of blue crab stock.
“The winter dredge survey provides us with a cornerstone piece of data from which to operate our [blue crab] management,” said Brenda Davis, chief of the DNR Blue Crab Program.
“It’s a long-running survey, and it’s been consistently accurate,” Davis said. “It gives us a good, static picture of the number of crabs in the Bay.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
“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.
“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.
These dreary winter days got you down? Fortunately, there's still plenty of color out there! We’ve compiled a list of nine native plants that are particularly beautiful during our coldest season. Go on a scavenger hunt for them, or plan on planting them this spring to brighten up your yard next winter – not to mention provide food and shelter for wildlife all year round.
(Image courtesy Tigermuse/Flickr)
Two varieties of this small tree flower in late winter. Extracts found in witch hazel's bark and leaves help shrink blood vessels back to their normal size. Witch hazel extract is used in medicines, aftershave lotions, and creams that treat insect bites and bruises.
(Image courtesy Mary Keim/Flickr)
Wildlife feed on inkberry’s purplish-black berries, which often persist through the winter. Raccoons, coyotes and opossums eat the berries when other foods are scarce. At least 15 species of birds, including bobwhite quails and wild turkeys, also rely on this plant.
(Image courtesy Wallyg/Flickr)
Winterberry is very easy to grow, and isn’t susceptible to many pests and diseases. Its bright red berries stand out in mid-winter snow and look beautiful in holiday arrangements. Not to mention they provide excellent nutrition for winter wildlife. But be careful – they’re poisonous to humans!
(Image courtesy Patrick Coin/Flickr)
This low-growing shrub has purplish berries that last through the winter. In early summer, staggerbush's unique, urn-shaped flowers will surely accent your landscape beautifully.
(Image courtesy JanetandPhil/Flickr)
Yellow-rumped warblers rely heavily on northern bayberry’s berries, which have a waxy, light blue-purple coating. When this deciduous plant’s leaves are crushed, they give off a spicy scent. Bayberry essential oil is extracted from these leaves and used to scent many products.
(Image courtesy treegrow/Flickr)
Sumac berries are quite sour, so they usually aren't the first choice of wintering wildlife. But they are high in vitamin A and have helped many a bluebird when insects are scarce. Shining sumac’s shrubby nature is perfect for critters looking to take cover.
(Image courtesy flora.cyclam/Flickr)
Staghorn sumac is easily identified by its pointed cluster of reddish fruits, which often last through the winter and into spring. Since it can grow in a variety of conditions, staghorn sumac is perfect for novice gardeners. Humans have used the fruit to make a lemonade-like drink high in vitamin A. Native Americans used the plant to make natural dyes, and often mixed it with tobacco.
(Image courtesy Kingsbrae Garden/Flickr)
Southern arrowwood is an eye-pleaser year-round, with furry, white flowers in summer, wine-red foliage in autumn and dark blue berries in winter. This shrub prefers well-drained soils.
(Image courtesy underthesun/Flickr)
Yellow birch trees even smell like winter; when their twigs scrape together, they give off a slight wintergreen scent. The tree is named for the color of its bark, which will brighten up any winter landscape.
Do you have a favorite native plant that looks great in winter? Tell us about it in the comments! And if you’d like more suggestions for native plants that provide winter interest, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
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?
The sky is gray, the wind blows cold, and all the earth seems devoid of life. It’s winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. But if you venture outside, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of many critters that are most common during the coldest months. Some of these animals only visit our region this time of year. (That’s right – they actually like our winters!)
Get your winter critter-fix by learning about these six beautiful Bay animals. Then leave us a comment letting us know about your favorite wintering Chesapeake Bay critter!
Chesapeake Bay locals experience their fair share of sea nettle stings during summer swims. But very few of us have been stung by a lion's mane jellyfish: the largest known jellyfish species in the world! Thank goodness that these jellyfish only visit the Bay from January to April. But if you're doing a Polar Bear Plunge, be careful!
Lion’s mane jellyfish prefer to hang out in the northern latitudes, and travel to the Bay in the winter because the water is cold. The further north you travel, the larger the lion’s mane jellyfish becomes! The largest recorded specimen washed up along a beach in Massachusetts in 1870, had a bell (body) with a diameter of 7.5 feet and tentacles 120 feet long.
(Image courtesy Vermin Inc/Flickr)
Sure it gets cold here in the winter, but it’s even colder in the Arctic! That’s why these beautiful white waterfowl take refuge in the Chesapeake Bay from late October to March. Tundra swans, also known as whistling swans, breed in the Arctic and subarctic tundra's pools, lakes and rivers. They fly in a V formation at altitudes as high as 27,000 feet before arriving at their wintering habitat, which is usually coastal marshland and grassland.
Looking for a place to view tundra swans? The coast is best (I've seen them near Salisbury as well as Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland), but if you're inland, you may be in luck, too! Last winter, I was lucky enough to see a flock at Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland.
(Image courtesy oakwood/Flickr)
The bald eagle is not only the national emblem of the United States, but also the face of an environmental movement born out of its near extinction. Pesticides (particularly DDT) and increased development left this beautiful raptor on the brink in the mid-20th century. But bald eagles have since made a remarkable comeback, enough so that the federal government removed them from the "threatened" species list in 2007.
Winter provides an excellent opportunity to view bald eagles. They are often found perched on the highest branch in loblolly pine forests, scouting for prey in nearby fields and wetlands. Although these birds prefer areas that are not human-heavy, one bald eagle family moved into Harlem in New York City last February. Closer to the Chesapeake, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland, and the Conowingo Dam near Port Deposit, Maryland, are excellent places to view bald eagles in big numbers.
(Image courtesy InspiredinDesMoines/Flickr)
If you see large, reddish-brown heads out on the Bay this winter, they may be canvasbacks! These diving ducks spend winter in the Chesapeake Bay before returning to the Prairie Pothole region to breed. Why do they fly across the Mississippi River Valley to splash around in the Chesapeake all winter? One reason may be food: the canvasback (Aythya valisineria) was named for its fondness of wild celery (Vallisneria americana).
However, diminished populations of wild celery and other bay grasses has meant decline in "can" populations, too. In the 1950s, the Chesapeake Bay was home to 250,000 wintering canvasbacks – about half of the entire North American population. Today, only about 50,000 winter in the Bay. But these numbers seem to be increasing.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Unlike most mammals, bobcats don't hibernate during the winter. In fact, female bobcats increase their home range during the coldest time of year, meaning there's a greater chance one will end up near you! These cats start breeding between January and March, when males begin travelling to visit females. These winter warriors also have padded paws, which act like snow boots to protect them from the cold weather. They are excellent hunters and are most active during dusk (before sunset) and dawn (before the sunrises), often travelling between 2 and 7 miles in one night!
Bobcats may be found in Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, and other natural areas in the northern and western portions of the watershed.
(Image courtesy dbarronoss/Flickr)
A brilliant flash of red can brighten up any dreary winter scene. The northern cardinal is a permanent resident of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and its plumage never dulls like some birds. The female cardinal is one of the only female birds that sings, although it is usually during spring, when she tells the male what to bring back to the nest for their young. In the winter, cardinals can be seen foraging for seeds in dense shrubs near the ground, usually in pairs.
(Image courtesy Bill Lynch/Flickr)
The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population is at its second-highest level since 1997, according to results from the 2011 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey. At 460 million crabs, the blue crab population is nearly double the record low of 249 million in 2007.
Additionally, the survey shows that there are 254 million adult crabs in the Bay, a figure that is above the 200 million population target for the third year in a row. This marks the first time since the early 1990s that there have been three consecutive years where the adult population was above the target.
These figures indicate that emergency crab management measures put into place in 2008 are helping the Bay’s blue crabs recover, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
“We continue to realize the benefits of the very tough decisions we made three years ago – decisions that are bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“The stock’s improved status from just a few short years ago is neither a random event nor a reflection of improved environmental conditions,” said Dr. Rom Lipcius, who directs the Virginia component of the dredge survey for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The unusually high crab abundance allowed watermen to harvest more than 89 million pounds of crabs, the largest amount since 1993. In addition, recreational crabbing license sales increased by 8 percent in 2010. However, the combined commercial and recreational blue crab harvest did not exceed the target of 46 percent. This shows that a healthy crab industry can coexist with stronger regulations, according to VMRC.
Despite these positive figures, overall crab abundance declined due to this past winter’s deep freeze that killed as many as 31 percent of Maryland’s adult crabs, compared to about 11 percent in 2010. Crab reproduction – which is heavily influenced by environmental conditions – was also lower in 2011.
“It was a harsh winter and crab mortality was higher than normal. In fact, it was the worst we’ve seen since 1996,” said VMRC Commissioner Steven G. Bowman. “Thankfully, we acted when we did in 2008 to begin rebuilding the crab population, or the crab census results we see today would be grim indeed.”
“The evidence indicates we’ve succeeded in rebuilding the stock to a degree that it can withstand a perfect storm of rapid temperature drop as crabs move into their overwintering grounds in the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay, followed by a prolonged bout of cold weather,” said VMRC Fisheries Chief Jack Travelstead.
Abundance estimates for young of the year, mature female and adult male crabs are developed separately. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2011 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.
The annual Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey is the primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population. Since 1990, Maryland DNR and VIMS have sampled for blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake from December to March. By sampling during winter – when blue crabs “hibernate” by burying themselves in the mud – scientists can develop the most accurate estimate of the Bay’s blu crab population.
For more information about the blue crab survey results, view this presentation from Maryland DNR.
You may think being a Chesapeake Bay scientist is a fun, easy job, but have you ever wondered what it's like to work on the water in the middle of winter? U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists Pete McGowan and Chris Guy give you a first-hand account of their experiences on the Bay in the frigid cold. It may be freezing, but as you'll read, they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
The weatherman is calling for another frigid day with high temperatures just above freezing. Most people have long since winterized their boats and would not dream of boating 20 miles down the South River and across the Chesapeake Bay, putting on waders and plodding through thigh-deep (often ice-topped) water, to see if muskrats are active. But then again most people are not U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists working at the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, better known (and easier to say) as Poplar Island. We remain very active outdoors even in the coldest of weather.
Before you pity us, let us tell you that winter is often our favorite time to be out working in the marshes and Chesapeake Bay. In fact, while working in the hot and humid days of July and August, we often talk about those cold winter days without mosquitoes and biting flies, when the vegetation has died back and the marsh has frozen, making it easier to walk and do our work.
Often in the warmer months we are dodging thunderstorms and are rushed in our work because eggs are hatching, the chicks are fledging and everything seems to be coming at once. In the winter things slow down a bit and we can take the opportunity to regroup and prepare for the upcoming nesting season. This is the time of year when we build, repair, and install osprey platforms and bird boxes, and use old Christmas trees to develop snags for egrets to roost and nest upon. The Christmas trees also provide cover and nesting cavities for black ducks.
Boating is a little more relaxed, as you rarely see another boat on the water, and we can move freely without getting in anyone’s way or having them in our way. In this sense, winter is a time to pause and think about what we have accomplished and what we want to accomplish. It is a time of hope and optimism in our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
This is not to say that winter is an easy time to be a wildlife biologist. During the winter we have the real and ever-present threat of cold, icy water. Although we do not often speak of it, it is always on our minds. Unlike cars, most boats (including ours) do not have heating; the only heat we have available is that generated by the crew in our 25’ Boston Whaler. Did we mention there is only room for one or two people in the cabin? This means that on most days the crew rides outside and often has to deal with a formidable wind chill. Even on the calmest of days when the boat is operating at speeds of 25-30 knots, an air temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit equates to a wind chill of 17 degrees. Then there are the days where icing on the gunnels and deck (and at times the crew) from boat spray adds an extra layer of slipperiness to our day. And of course, there is always the task of shoveling fresh snow from the boat’s deck. Last year’s record snowfall made for lots of shoveling.
During extreme cold periods when ice forms on the rivers and Bay, trying to get our boat out of the marina can be frustrating. On many occasions while departing the South River this winter, we have had to break skim ice for miles. We are always checking to make sure it is not so thick that we will get stuck, or worse, put a hole through the boat’s fiberglass hull. Our boat is supposed to be one that can be cut in half and won’t sink, but who really wants to put that theory to the test in the middle of winter?
We prepare for the cold mostly by layering on the clothes, with as many as four layers to separate our flesh from the cold elements. Then there is the bulky survival suit with built-in flotation, plus hats, scarves, gloves and heavy boots. All these layers reduce our flexibility, not to mention causing us a bit of discomfort (try carrying around an extra 50 pounds of clothes when you work). Believe us, you need a lot of extra time if you need to use the bathroom! We often joke that the hardest part of our day is getting dressed and undressed.
Winter weather conditions wreak havoc on field gear. Batteries in electronics such as cameras, GPS units and field computers drain faster in cold temperatures. And trying to write field notes can be a bear when your fingers are numb.
Not to be forgotten is that pinhole leak in waders or gauntlet gloves that you can never seem to find and repair, and always seems to get bigger when standing or working in cold water. This makes for extended uncomfortable conditions, particularly when temperatures are near or below freezing. Drying these and other wet field items always takes longer in winter, too.
On a crisp winter day when the air is still, sometimes we just stop and wait to see the world around us. We see the marsh hawks that have come to the Chesapeake Bay for the winter zigzagging around the marsh looking for field mice and voles; what a thrill when they find one! There are always a few bald eagles around, either perching on an osprey nest or majestically soaring through the air. The great blue herons are always present and never seem to mind the cold. Short-eared owls and the occasional snowy owl will show up in the winter, and it is alwaysa real treat to get a glimpse. Then there are the wintering waterfowl – puddle ducks, diving ducks, bay ducks and sea ducks – as they fly into the Bay and marshes in the thousands.
Winter is an active and lively time on the Chesapeake Bay. It is amazing to think that we have an opportunity to experience something that few others get to, especially considering we are doing it within 40 miles of the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area. We wouldn’t trade our jobs in any season.
All images courtesy Pete McGowan and Chris Guy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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 Sarah, who asked, “What do all the Bay critters do during the winter? Do they hibernate?”
Winter habits of Chesapeake Bay critters vary by species because each species tolerates the temperature changes of winter differently. Most critters don't actually "hibernate" but instead migrate to a different place.
Blue crabs have less of a tolerance for colder water temperatures in the winter, so they have to relocate. Blue crabs retreat to deeper waters and spend the winter months burrowed into muddy or sandy bottoms. This is not technically considered hibernation, but rather a dormant state.
Striped bass from the Chesapeake tend to head south to the warmer waters of the Virginia and North Carolina capes during the winter. Some do stay in the Bay throughout the winter.
Other Bay critters don't mind the cold. Oysters, for example, are actually in their best condition in the winter and early spring, or the “R” months of September through April.
While it may seem like all of the Bay's critters have left until spring, don’t forget about the many species that make yearly winter migrations to the Chesapeake. Each year, about one million swans, geese and ducks make the Chesapeake Bay their winter homes until it is time to head back north in the spring. And even more make rest stops in the Bay watershed before heading further south to even warmer climates.
So even when the weather is cold, take some time to bundle up and see if you can spot any of these migratory waterfowl species during their winter stay along the Bay!
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. Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question comes from Daniel, who came to our website seeking information about the effects of road salt on the Chesapeake Bay and its local waterways. He said, “With all the information that is out there about the pollution in our Bay…it seems like we have created another major source of pollution by throwing all the salt into the Bay.”
Much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed has experienced record-breaking snow storms this winter. With roads covered in snow and ice, road crews had to use the most effective deicer at their disposal: salt, and lots of it. Controversy struck when it was announced that plows in Baltimore would begin dumping snow from the roadways into the Inner Harbor. What would all of that salt do to the water? Isn’t there a better way to handle it?
While public safety was the most important factor during these major snowstorms, the decisions made by public officials also took environmental concerns into consideration.
Dumping snow into the Inner Harbor or the Chesapeake Bay, which are already brackish (a combination of salt and fresh water), is not necessarily bad because salt is already present in the water. However, dumping salt-treated snow into freshwater streams and creeks is dangerous because it can drastically change the amount of salt in the water, harming the freshwater species that call these waterways their home.
Of course, even without dumping snow directly into a body of water, salt will end up there as snow begins to melt and run off our streets, lawns and driveways. Since runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, scientists in the region will closely monitor the effects of snow melt and runoff.
The runoff caused by snow melt, however, is generally more gradual than that of a strong rain storm, giving road salt and other pollutants more time to absorb into the ground, where they can be filtered out by trees and vegetation. Heavy rainfalls, on the other hand, accelerate the speed at which polluted runoff flows into streams, rivers and the Bay.
To get back to the question from Daniel, yes, the salt used on roadways during snowstorms can become a pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay and local rivers, creeks and streams – but so can fertilizers, dirt, oil, trash and other substances carried by runoff into waterways. There are other deicing agents that could be used, but most are more expensive and some have not yet been tested for environmental effects.
Since this year was a rarity in terms of snowfall for most parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, hopefully the problem of too much road salt and snow melt won’t be something we’ll have to address very often in the future!
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Submit it on our website and it could be our next Question of the Week!