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.
Green roofs, porous pavement and other tools of the green infrastructure trade can be a cost-effective way to control stormwater runoff, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that estimates the benefits of Lancaster City’s long-term green infrastructure plan.
Image courtesy Lindsayy/Flickr
Located in south-central Pennsylvania, Lancaster City has a population approaching 60,000. Each year, combined sewer overflows send almost 750 million gallons of stormwater runoff and untreated waste into the Conestoga River, pushing excess nutrients into the tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. In an effort to combat this pollution problem, the city released a green infrastructure plan in 2011 that outlines the tree plantings, parking lot excavations and other projects that will be put in place over the next 25 years.
While the plan lists the water quality benefits the city expects to see—including the reduction of stormwater runoff by more than 1 billion gallons per year—it is, for some, an incomplete assessment. So, in a report released this week, the EPA furthered the city’s benefits analysis by addressing the additional environmental, social and economic benefits that green infrastructure can provide.
According to the report, the long-term implementation of green infrastructure in Lancaster City could save $120 million in avoided gray infrastructure capital costs and earn close to $5 million in annual benefits. Green infrastructure would reduce air pollution, energy use and stormwater runoff, and offer residents a boost in property values, recreational opportunities and other qualitative benefits. With a forecasted implementation cost of between $51.6 and $94.5 million, it is clear the benefits of green infrastructure exceed the costs.
While gray infrastructure uses tanks and pipes to trap and dispose of rainwater, green infrastructure uses soil and vegetation to manage rainwater where it falls. A combination of green and gray infrastructure has proven effective for Lancaster City, and similar plans could benefit communities across the watershed.
One reconstructed parking lot, for instance, incorporated almost 6,000 square feet of bioretention and infiltration practices on South Plum Street, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $1,100. A commercial green street in northeast Lancaster incorporated bioretention and infiltration practices as well as permeable pavement, with an estimated annual benefit of more than $2,300. And an urban park redeveloped with a host of green infrastructure practices carries an estimated annual benefit of more than $5,500.
“Valuing multiple benefits of green infrastructure ensures water management investments by the city will help… provide a safer, healthier and more prosperous community,” said Liz Deardorff, Clean Water Supply director at American Rivers, in a media release. “The results of this study affirm that green infrastructure has multiple benefits for both large and small cities needing to reduce pollution and ensure clean water.”
Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
Restoring tidal wetlands could lower the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and offset the impacts of climate change, according to research released this month by Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE).
In a report on research conducted in Washington’s Puget Sound, scientists show that the 1,353 hectares—or 3,300+ acres—of wetlands that are planned or under construction in the sound’s Snohomish Estuary will help remove at least 2.55 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next century. This is equal to the annual emissions of 500,000 average-sized cars.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can trap heat in our atmosphere and contribute to climate change. It is the top greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, but it can be removed from the atmosphere by plants, which need it to create food.
When wetlands take in carbon dioxide, excess carbon is stored in organic-rich soils. When wetlands are drained and developed, however, carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Restoring wetlands can reactivate this carbon sequestration process.
“This report is a call to action,” said Steve Emmett-Mattox, senior director at RAE and co-author of the study, in a media release. “We need to invest more substantially in coastal restoration nationwide and in science to increase our understanding of the climate benefits which accrue from coastal restoration and protection efforts.”
In addition to climate benefits, wetlands can improve water quality, support fisheries and reduce flood risks. But according to a 2013 report, the United States is losing wetlands at a rate of 80,000 acres per year, and the rising seas of climate change threaten to turn wetlands into shallow bays.
Related research from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has shown that high levels of carbon dioxide can help wetlands create new soil faster, which could help the habitats move to higher elevations ahead of rising seas.