Confronting specters like relentlessly encroaching sea level rise and invading flora and fauna on one’s daily to do list might bog some people down. But for Marcia Pradines, traversing such routinely marshy terrain is a dream job come true.
Pradines has been manager/project leader of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex headquarters at Blackwater NWR for the past five years. This entails overseeing four wildlife refuge areas: Blackwater (Dorchester County), Eastern Neck (Rock Hall), Glenn L. Martin (Smith and Watts Islands), and Susquehanna (Battery Island, Harford County),
handling day to day details, but always keeping an eye on the bigger picture. On Pradines’ eagle-eyed watch, that runs the gamut from reworking parking lots to accommodate an overflow of eager snakehead anglers, to mentoring the First Shot program’s first-time deer and turkey hunters (many female), as well as essentially mapping the future by finding the right land parcel to help hold the rising sea at bay a while longer.
“I always knew I wanted to do this when I grew up but I honestly never thought I could earn a living at it,” she added with a smile. “So, I’m pleased, and pleasantly surprised.”
Through 2020, Pradines helped guide a staff she holds in highest esteem through the ongoing maze of COVID challenges. For starters, in March, three days before the annual Eagle Festival was set to begin, the event had to be cancelled. This year’s festival flew again, virtually, via staff created eagle related videos, which received 8,000 views. Before COVID, all Dorchester County 4th and 6th graders visited Blackwater as part of their curriculum (other educational institutions regularly arrived for field trips, as well). As COVID restricted the in person experience, staff stepped up to produce virtual learning materials offered to the schools.
While acknowledging how difficult a time it has been, Pradines found a positive aspect of sorts in realizing that people “sought to get outside more, spend time with the people they love,” she noted. “Last Spring, according to the visitor tally set up on the Wildlife Drive, we had over a 400 percent increase from last year.” (The Drive and Trails remained open throughout COVID.)
Spring 2021’s been bringing more good news. After opening for limited hours last October, then closing again, both Blackwater and Eastern Neck Visitors Centers have reopened, again with limited hours.
“We’ve followed CDC guidelines throughout, wanting everyone to have a safe experience, the visitors, our staff, and our over 200 volunteers, a large contingent of which work at the Visitors’ Center,” Pradines stated.
Spring 2021 also started with the exciting news officially confirming the location of the cabin belonging to Ben Ross, Harriet Tubman’s father, through the identification of unearthed artifacts by a team of Maryland Department of Transportation archeologists, led by Julie Schablitsky. The group is due to return for another two week-long excavation dig in June, Pradines noted.
Available historical records had long indicated that the cabin would likely be located within the 2,691-acre forested wetland parcel known as Peter’s Neck, which was acquired in October 2020 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with the Conservation Fund and added to Blackwater. As delicate negotiations proceeded over years, those involved knew time was running out. “It was very close to becoming marsh and the history being lost forever,” Pradines added.
At the site itself, there’s nothing permanent to see directly, but eventually the artifacts found there—pottery shards, the 1808 coin, door handles, other items—will be on display via the Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park’s Visitor Center, with background provided explaining their importance.
At Blackwater, an eventual visitor’s trail is in the works, hopefully within a timeframe of between 3 and 5 years, Pradines stated.
“People are eager to open up the area right away, and we’d love to, but the infrastructure isn’t ready. “Right now, you need a four-wheel drive to get down that road, and we don’t want people to get stuck, so we closed off the area. As soon as that road can get fixed, and we can work with our partners to develop some signage and some parking, it will be possible to walk a nice trail, view the landscape that Harriet Tubman worked in as a young woman, alongside her father (who worked in forestry),” she noted. But the area will also be a draw for birders, photographers, and hikers, all the activities people enjoy at the Refuge. “Through that process, people will begin to see the deeply rooted connections between wildlife, people, and history.”
Among the 25 percent or so of women currently working as managers in the refuge system, Pradines not only relishes the opportunity to do the work she does she finds it rewarding to embody for others what’s possible, especially girls. She’s delighted to see the growing numbers of female youngsters in Hunter Ed, which she helps teach, “not because I know so much, but I know it helps to see someone up there who looks like you,” she related.
Introduced to the hunting experience as a young adult, Pradines understands the need to be mentored while learning, and so participates in the First Shot program which offers a fall deer hunt and spring turkey hunt.
“Usually, we get 60 to 80 applications for only 20 spots, over half of them always from women,” she noted.
“We get people from this whole area of Maryland and Virginia, with many mentees coming from DC and Baltimore, with very diverse backgrounds. Some are parents, wanting to take their kids to learn,” she commented. (Her most recent mentee was born in China and came to the U.S. as 9- year- old).
“To hear all the varied reasons why people want to get involved is enlightening; many want local, sustainable meat sources,” Pradines added.
Although relatively new to hunting, she’d been otherwise immersed in the outdoors early on in life. As a young child, Pradines accompanied her dad, a middle school science teacher, fishing and other outdoor activities he loved. She vividly remembers the delight discovering tadpoles and watching for robins for her mom on those outings. Her dad died when she was just 5, but Pradines’ credits her mom for filling the void, taking her and her younger sister to visit refuges (Chincoteague was a favorite!). “She wanted us to experience the outdoor adventures we would have had with him, and did everything she could to make it happen,” she mentioned. Though not fond of handling worms, “my mom picked them up with leaves so we could fish. I always wondered why she did that, but now I understand,” Pradines recalled with a warm smile.
One not so fond memory was getting teased at the elementary school she attended in Canonsville, Pa (about an hour south of Pittsburgh) for her love of critters, becoming nicknamed the “bird girl” because she looked after injured feathered friends. But whenever a ribbon or garter snake got into school and everyone freaked out, the janitors and teachers would call on her to help take it outside. “Yeah, I was well known as a nerd that way,” Pradines, again, laughs.
Those early life experiences certainly helped pave the way for a professional future within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife System. Starting out at the FWS Division of Migratory Bird Management in DC, Pradines became Division Chief for Visitor Services and Communications for the national refuge system.
“I got to work with refuge leaders from across the county developing The Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. We looked at refuges right in the heart of very urban areas, and realized the people living nearby didn’t even know about them. Interested people would come visit, but not those close by, for example, at the John Heinz Refuge at Tinicum, near Philadelphia International Airport. But by working with those neighbors, we improved on that community relationship.
Though we’re not urban in that sense, that’s at the heart of what we do here, creating strong relationships with the people surrounding you, helping them understand what we do and explain why we do things, and asking for their input,” Pradines added.
“One of the things we’ve been doing since I got here have been regular meetings with refuge neighbors, finding out what are their issues, what are they worried about, and just having a dialogue with them,” she noted.
Through those meetings, Pradines and her staff were able to tap into valuable knowledge and expertise in the areas of agriculture and forestry.
“We grow corn, milo, and clover for waterfowl, but our fields are getting wetter each year—it’s not a great place to farm,” she laughed. But we have a lot of very knowledgeable farmers, and we listened to them, on how to manage our program better. Same thing with forest management. We’re trying to improve the health of the forest in a way beneficial to wildlife, which means getting companies to come in and thin our oaks and get rid of some of the sweet gums and red maples to improve the overall health of the forest. So, we worked with neighbors in that industry to develop a good bid for getting it done. They came out and looked at some of our tracts, making it possible to get started doing some needed thinning down on Blackwater Road last year, as well as some of the areas of the Nanticoke.
“Through talking we realized that we all kind of wanted the same things. We might have a little different end goals, but there’s a lot of shared purpose there, and that’s what we focused on. It clears up misconceptions and gets things moving along,” Pradines stated.
She also wanted to highlight important projects taking place at Eastern Neck NWR, including the use of dredging from Kent Narrows to create marsh and dune habitat, benefitting both wildlife and the economy. There are also living shoreline projects that help protect valuable marsh and beds of submerged aquatic vegetation which are critical for waterfowl, as well as fishes and crabs.
In addition to the large flocks of overwintering and migrating tundra swans each winter and a sizable bald eagle population, visitors are drawn in growing numbers to the Bayside Butterfly Garden. Volunteer created and maintained, it attracts migrating monarchs and other rare and uncommon butterfly species.
Martin NWR, on Smith Island, though permanently closed to the public is crucial for both waterfowl and colonial nesting waterbirds like American Oystercatchers and Brown Pelicans. A recent survey (part of the national Colonial Waterbird Survey) found 42 colonial waterbird colonies on and around the site. The refuge hosts among the largest and most diverse colonies of waterbirds statewide, some harboring up to nine species of wading birds. Additional surveys detected a new colony of nesting brown pelicans, raising the estimate to 570 brown pelican nests.
For more information, click here.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.