Spy Moment: Adkins Arboretum Plays in the Meadow

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The weather gods were watching out for Adkins Arboretum last Saturday night for its annual Magic in the Meadow gala; an event far more dependent on good weather than most, given it celebrates the 400-acre native garden and preserve.

The gift of a perfect, cool evening was awarded that evening as guests enjoyed the hoop dance performance by Baltimore artist Melissa Newman and the jazz of the Peter Revell Band, while Adkins friends and supporters lined up for hiking trails, tours, plant shopping, and auction bidding all accompanied by a Piazza-sponsored dinner and wine selection.

The Spy was there with a camera to capture this reconnaissance video.

This video is approximately one minute in length. For more information about Adkins Arboretum please go here.

 

Upper Eastern Shore Location to Provide Environmental and Recreation Benefits

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The Board of Public Works today unanimously approved the Maryland Department of Natural Resources acquisition of 1,172 acres in Queen Anne’s County for the development of a new Wildlife Management Area that will provide conservation, habitat and recreation benefits, including birding, hiking, hunting and trapping.

The department worked in cooperation with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) on the acquisition. The new area will be managed by the Wildlife and Heritage Service.

The acquisition near Church Hill will permanently protect agricultural fields, mature forested uplands, and stream corridors that currently provide excellent water quality protection. The property functions as a headwater catch basin that drains into Brown’s Branch, a tributary of Southeast Creek on the Chester River.

“This acquisition is an exciting win for both conservation advocates as well as outdoor enthusiasts,” Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said. “This large and incredibly beautiful property on the Upper Eastern Shore will protect ecologically-sensitive habitat while providing the public an excellent location for outdoor recreation, especially hunting or trapping.”

The Program Open Space acquisition will protect the uncommonly high diversity of fauna and flora found in the upland areas of the property, which provide essential habitat for migratory songbirds, pollinators and small mammals.

“This farm has been one of our highest priorities for conservation for more than two decades,“ ESLC President Rob Etgen said. “It includes a huge area of prime farmland, and the streams are the largest remaining chunk of unprotected habitat for several endangered wildlife species. I am incredibly excited about this farm and grateful to the Hogan Administration for their support and stewardship.”

For more information, please contact ESLC’s Director of Communications, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165.

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit land conservation organization committed to preserving and sustaining the vibrant communities of the Eastern Shore and the lands and waters that connect them. More at www.eslc.org.

Eastern Neck Refuge Spared from Closure, but Funding Crunch Continues

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The Tubby Point boardwalk at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. (Richard Pos, US Fish & Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hiring a new manager at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, sparing a natural area popular with hunters, anglers and birdwatchers from at least partial closure.

The refuge, located in Maryland on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, was left without a full-time manager in September 2017 when that official took a job elsewhere in the Fish and Wildlife Service. Lacking funds to hire a replacement, agency officials began warning Eastern Neck supporters this summer that public access to the refuge was in jeopardy.

Although the agency hasn’t received any additional money, it announced in August that Eastern Neck will remain open to the public. That decision came about three weeks after the Bay Journal reported on the potential closure and the growing outcry from user groups and elected officials.

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island at the confluence of the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, about 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, hunt deer and turkeys, and hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh.

“We’re very excited [about the decision],” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “I think they did not realize how much the refuge meant to the constituency and the country in general.”

Baile added that her group’s work isn’t over. Federal funding has been shrinking for the refuge system during this decade. If Eastern Neck supporters don’t stand guard, they could be facing another closure threat within a few years, she said.

To pay for the new staff member, the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the region’s refuges, will have to reallocate funds it had reserved for other causes, said Terri Edwards, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman. So far, no timeframe has been set for making the new hire.

In July, Marcia Pradines, the Chesapeake Marshlands’ project leader, told the Bay Journal there was a possibility of a full shutdown at Eastern Neck and a gate turning back visitors at the entrance. “It’s not something we want to happen,” she said at the time. “In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The staffing decisions wouldn’t have affected access to the county road that traverses the island, Pradines said. It would have remained open to Bogles Wharf, home to a county-maintained boat ramp and small pier.

By early August, Fish and Wildlife officials softened the potential blow. The entrance gate would remain open, allowing hunting, fishing, birdwatching and “other wildlife dependent uses,” regardless of staffing decisions, they said in a message posted to the refuge’s website.
The fate of the visitor center, along with the five walking trails, two boardwalks and maintenance activities, remained in limbo.

As the agency pondered its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County shared the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to complete other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island. At times, the island is devoid of paid or volunteer staff, save for a lone volunteer clerk manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group.

The Friends group, Baile said, wrote letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff to keep their beloved refuge open. They lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, the Patuxent Bird Club and the Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The movement attracted the help of Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, among others. In December, he wrote a letter to Fish and Wildlife’s parent agency, the Interior Department, calling for the position to be filled in light of Eastern Neck’s importance to Kent’s economy.

Van Hollen applauded the move to keep the refuge open. But like Baile, he counseled vigilance. “Filling this position will help the Refuge better serve visitors, the local community, and area wildlife,” he said. “I will continue working to ensure our state has the federal resources necessary to support our economy and our environment.”

Eastern Neck’s supporters also looked to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party. Harris said in a statement that earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, but that he was actively seeking other solutions.

Eastern Neck is not alone in its budget challenge. Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Over the last 15 years, national refuges across the country have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts.

In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008–09.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved by the Republican-controlled House along party lines in July sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. The Senate passed its own version, sending the legislation to a conference committee to hash out the differences.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” Sorenson-Groves said.

By Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Salisbury, MD, where he also teaches communications courses at Salisbury University.

Darn Good News: Eastern Neck Refuge To Fill Position and Stay Open

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will continue to staff a position at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, an island north of Rock Hall, Maryland. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge will remain open to hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other wildlife-dependent activities

The Wildlife Refuge Specialist position, which oversaw day-to-day operations at the refuge, became vacant in 2017. The Service reviews every vacant position within the National Wildlife Refuge System in order to manage within declining budgets. The refuge system’s leaders have had to make difficult choices, resulting in elimination of almost 400 positions nationwide in the last eight years. The position at Eastern Neck refuge was being considered for elimination to address budget challenges.

The position will work closely with the dedicated volunteers and Friends of Eastern Neck who support the refuge, which includes operating the refuge visitor center. Currently, staff stationed two hours away at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge drive to the Eastern Neck to work with volunteers and Friends.

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1962, for the primary purposes of migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, and other native species. Approximately 2,286 acres, Eastern Neck NWR is important migratory and overwintering habitat for thousands of waterfowl, including over 500 tundra swans. Over 70,000 visitors come to the refuge annually to observe wildlife and walk the five trails and two boardwalks. The refuge hosts deer hunting and a mentored youth turkey hunt, and is a popular fishing spot. Two county parks, including a popular boat launch, are at the end of the refuge. The refuge has 68 volunteers and an active Friends group.

Supporters Rally to save Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge from Closing

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Photo by Dave Harp

A national wildlife refuge that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to the Chesapeake Bay may be forced to close to the public soon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering shuttering the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge because it lacks the funding to hire a new refuge manager, said Marcia Pradines, project leader at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the Chesapeake region’s national refuges.

“If the position isn’t filled, that’s a possibility,” Pradines said, “It’s not something we want to happen. In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island lying on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake. About 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, to hunt deer and turkeys, and to hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“People just like to drive down there sometimes,” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “You just feel the peacefulness. It’s just easy to get away when you go down there.”

The manager position has been empty since last September, when Cindy Beemiller left for a refuge on Long Island, NY. The financially strapped Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have the funding to fill the position, Pradines said. Beemiller was one of two paid employees assigned to the property; the other, a maintenance worker, is the only one who remains.

If Congress doesn’t appropriate significantly more money for the refuge system for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Eastern Neck may have to close to the public, she said, adding that it’s unclear when Fish & Wildlife will make that call.

The extent of the shutdown would depend on funding availability, Pradines said. The county road that traverses the island would remain open as far as Bogles Wharf Road, at the end of which are a county-maintained boat ramp and two small piers. But the road leading further south on the island would be closed, barring access to the visitor center and to the five walking trails and two boardwalks. It’s also possible that trail maintenance and other activities would cease, Pradines added.

As the agency ponders its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County have been sharing the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to cover other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island.

At times, the island is devoid of personnel support, save for a lone volunteer manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group. Although refuge staff installed a panic button, many of the older, female volunteers feel unsafe.

Shutting down the refuge, he said, would cause it to fall into disrepair and potentially attract relic-hunters who operate “like ninjas in the night.” The island is a trove of Native American artifacts. Cicconi worries that thieves might strip anything of value from the visitor center building, a renovated 1930s-era hunting lodge.

The island was one of the first English settlements in Maryland. In 1650, Maj. Joseph Wickes received a grant for 800 acres of land and constructed a mansion that has since disappeared. Eastern Neck became Kent County’s seat; Wickes, its chief justice.

The Friends group’s latest task, Baile said, is writing letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff, urging them to keep their beloved refuge open. They have lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, Patuxent Bird Club and Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The Friends group also has partnered with their counterparts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to create a website to fan public support: friendsofblackwater.org/help-eastern-neck.html. “We’ve done everything we think we can do,” she said.

But it may not be enough. Eastern Neck is the latest refuge in a growing list that has faced cutbacks and potential closure because of a lack of federal investment, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” Sorenson-Groves said. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Across the country, many refuges over the past 15 years have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open, she said. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts. In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008-2009.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved in July by the House of Representatives sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. That slight increase, if passed in the Senate, would have little effect on the refuge system’s staffing and maintenance woes, Sorenson-Groves said.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” she said.

Eastern Neck’s supporters look to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, as their best hope for action. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party.

But Harris said his hands are largely tied. “The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable resource in Maryland’s first district,” he said in a statement. “While an amendment earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, I am actively investigating this issue and exploring solutions that will allow the refuge to continue providing services to Marylanders.”

For her part, Baile said she hopes to find a sympathetic ear when the refuge system’s Northeast district head, Scott Kahan, visits Eastern Neck during his annual field trip toward the end of August.

“People love this refuge. We have good visitation. It services not only our local community but also people from all over the country,” Baile said. “You’re willing to close down a whole refuge over $25,000 or $30,000? It’s a question of him prioritizing other things over us.”

By Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox is based in Salisbury, MD.

FERC Approves PA-to-WV Pipeline

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Over objections from environmentalists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given its green light to building a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline through western Maryland and under the Potomac River.

With one of its five commissioners voting no and another dissenting in part, the five-member commission approved the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project. The 3.5-mile pipeline, proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission, would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, passing through Maryland just west of Hancock.

Environmental groups and some western Maryland residents have waged a lengthy campaign against the “Potomac Pipeline,” as they call it, staging repeated protest demonstrations and garnering several local-government resolutions against the project. Opponents argue that the project’s construction risks harm to the river and drinking water supplies, both near the underground crossing and downriver. They also contend that it will accelerate climate change by encouraging more natural gas production and consumption.

Photo: The Potomac River just upstream of Hancock, MD, where TransCanada’s Eastern Panhandle Expansion pipeline would pass under the river into West Virginia. (Royalty-free photo by Aude, via Creative Commons)

In its 53-page order, the commission majority brushed aside those concerns, saying the company’s plan for tunneling beneath the Potomac addressed the risks and potential impacts of a leak or blowout.

Environmentalists had asked the commission to require Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of TransCanada, to follow a lengthy list of conditions for tunneling beneath the river that the Maryland Department of the Environment had proposed in approving a state permit for the project. But the federal panel declined to do so, saying it would encourage but not require the company to adhere to the state conditions.

The panel’s majority also dismissed contentions that the pipeline would stimulate more gas production using hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a controversial technique blamed for instances of drinking water well contamination and other problems. They likewise said they lacked information to determine whether the pipeline could significantly exacerbate climate change by allowing for more gas to be produced and consumed, as environmentalists contended.

But two of the five panel members took issue with the majority on those last two points. Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur concurred with the majority in approving the pipeline, but she disagreed with its decision to ignore the project’s climate-change impacts. Commissioner Richard Glick opposed the project, arguing that the commission had abrogated its legal responsibility by refusing to consider those impacts.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our security, economy, environment and, ultimately, the health of individual citizens,” Glick wrote. He said the majority “goes out of its way to avoid seriously addressing the project’s impact from climate change” by disregarding the potential emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that might result from increased gas production and consumption.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network issued a statement decrying the FERC decision. Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls said the group is “considering all of our legal options in response to this unfortunate decision.” He vowed to continue rallying opposition to the pipeline and called on Gov. Larry Hogan to deny Columbia Gas the easements it still needs to build the project through western Maryland.

By Tim Wheeler, Bay Journal News Service

Life on the Disappearing Edge by Tom Horton

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“Hey there, thanks for making my property worth even less!” You get calls and emails like that when you make a movie that raises public awareness of climate change, rising sea levels and worsening erosion.

The collateral damage of such efforts is they don’t exactly boost housing values for those already living along the low-lying edges of the Chesapeake.

“High Tide in Dorchester,” the Bay Journal film I just finished with photographer Dave Harp and producer Sandy Cannon Brown, shows how Maryland’s fourth largest county by land area could shrink to 14th (of 23) by 2100 if we don’t get serious about mitigating climate change.

Attachments : “I stopped being emotionally attached here after [Hurricane] Isabel, we lost so much,” said Kathy Blake, who lives in Hoopersville, MD. Even now, her treasured pictures are leaned up against the walls “so I can throw ‘em in a box quick if I have to get out.” (Photo by Dave Harp)

Kathy Blake of Hoopersville in lower Dorchester County, the latest “fan” who called, didn’t need our film to raise her awareness. She and her husband, John, have lost six cars to high tides in their yard in the last 15 years, not to mention several bicycles. “If it’s at ground level here, sooner or later it floats away,” she told me during an interview in her yard near the Honga River.

Kathy and John grew up in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, which received ocean-going vessels coming up what is now the Anacostia River until around 1835. By 1898, a writer noted that only a canoe could still navigate to the “port” of Bladensburg, filled in by sediment from tree clearing and poor farming practices.

When I visited their current 1890s two-story home on Hoopersville Road, it was easy to see how they fell in love with the place in 1996. Across a breathtaking sweep of saltmarsh and Bay, I could see Solomons Island and Calvert Cliffs, highlighted by the morning sun on the Western Shore.

“It was so peaceful, so safe and quiet, a playground for our kids,” Kathy said. Only later would the Blakes learn that they had moved to a place where the tide carries greater implications than the mere ebb and flow of water in and out of the Bay every six and a quarter hours.

Her first memorable high-water experience seemed more of a nuisance than anything — a couple of inches of water across the road as she took the kids to the school bus. “This is nothing,” the bus driver told her, and all morning it kept coming, up the front steps, to the front door sill, into the living room. “Oh well, we bought the house,” she said.

Kathy has long been in the habit of moving their vehicles across the street to slightly higher ground when she knows high water is coming, but sometimes there’s no warning. Last February on a bitter cold morning, she came downstairs to find the house surrounded by glistening water. “There was six inches in the Toyota Highlander . . . a total loss.”

She hauled her five-year-old granddaughter to the bus in a canoe that day. The water didn’t make it into the house, “but it was so close I knew if a truck came by, the wave from it would swamp the living room.”

The “big tide” — the biggest in recorded history for many parts of the Chesapeake — came in 2003 with the remnants of Hurricane Isabel. The Blakes had five feet of water in their home and evacuated in a hurry. “I left without even a pair of clean underwear,” Kathy said.

Uninsured, they put more than $70,000 of their own money into restoring their home, this atop the nearly $30,000 they’d already put into the place.

“I stopped being emotionally attached here after Isabel, we lost so much,” Kathy said. Even now, treasured pictures are leaned up, not attached to the walls, “so I can throw ’em in a box quick if I have to get out.”

And Kathy does want out. She called me because our High Tide film mentioned the need for governments to consider buying out homes vulnerable to rising seas and erosion. Governments in other locations have been buying out properties for decades along floodplains of streams and rivers — it’s cheaper in the long run than setting people back up for future disasters after flooding.

They could move anywhere; Kathy’s a semi-retired grant writer and John’s a plumber working on the Western Shore, coming back on weekends. But they can’t afford to sell. A hunt club might pay a little for their six-and-a-half acres, much of it saltmarsh, “but nobody else in their right mind would buy here.”

Anna Sierra, director of emergency services for Dorchester County, said officials are looking into possible federal-state grants for a “demonstration buyout” that would include the Blakes’ home and another in the Neck District west of Cambridge. The latter home might be moved to a vacant lot in Cambridge and its land used for public water access. “But this is all very preliminary,” Sierra stressed.

The two properties are just the tip of the iceberg, not only for Dorchester County, but for all of the nation’s coastlines; seas are expected to rise up to six feet in the next century, simultaneously threatening and devaluing properties.

Another concern for Hoopersville: The long bridge and causeway connecting the tiny community to the mainland is showing serious damage from storms and needs around $16 million in repairs — several times what it cost to build it in 1980. Neither state nor county road budgets have money for that.

Kathy’s plan B? “Hit the Powerball [lottery],” she said. “Or . . . it’s horrible to think this, but we’re insured now for flooding. The rates just went from $1,600 to $2,000 annually. If another Isabel hit, I could just take the money and leave.”
She wouldn’t go far from tidewater, though. “I love the Bay,” she said. “I just don’t love sharing my house and cars with it.”

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Back home on their Range: Quail find Refuge on Restored Grassland by Tim Wheeler

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Dan Small, field ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society, coordinates the Natural Lands Project, which works with private landowners to re-create Eastern Shore grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)

It’s a little past dawn on a foggy spring morning, but already the field on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore is wide awake. From the cover of tall grass and a few shrubs, a multilingual chorus of birds greets the new day with a cacophony of chirps, warbles and whistles, like a symphony tuning up before the concert.

Then, amid the familiar trills of red-winged blackbirds and other feathered regulars, comes a call rarely heard any more in these parts — bob-white! Down a lane across the field, the black-and-white striped head of a Northern bobwhite quail pokes out of some short grass.

Once commonly heard, if not seen, in brushy meadows and hedgerows, quail have become scarce in Maryland and elsewhere as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. This 228-acre prairie along the Chester River — part of sprawling Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County — has become a refuge for quail since it was converted from cropland nearly 20 years ago.

“You really can’t go many places on the Shore and hear this many [quail],” said Daniel Small, an ecologist with Washington College, the private liberal arts college in Chestertown that uses the tract as a research station and outdoor classroom.

Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agrees, calling the number of quail there “unbelievable.”

“It used to be that just about everywhere was quail habitat,” Harvey said. But in the interests of cultivating crops more efficiently, modern farming has removed the fencerows that once segmented the land into small fields, along with shrubbery and weeds along the edge of croplands — all of which provided shelter for grassland birds.

“As time has gone on,” Harvey added, “the acreage has shrunk to the point where a lot of [the habitat’s that’s left] is not connected in a way that quail can use it.”

But at the college’s Chester River Field Station, switchgrass and waist-high bunches of broomsedge bluestem wave in the gentle breeze, an uncommon sight in a rural landscape dominated by vast uninterrupted fields of corn and soybeans, the staples of Shore agriculture.

A quail takes flight from the grasslands at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station on Chino Farms. (Dave Harp)

Quail use the cover of the tall grass and occasional shrubs to forage on the ground for seeds, leaves and insects. During mating season in spring, they call to one another with their trademark whistle and a series of other sounds. In the winter, the birds huddle together for shelter in groups called coveys.

Small, who lives in a house on the tract, said it’s not clear just how many quail inhabit the grassland, which occupies just a sliver of the 5,000-acre Chino Farms — owned by Dr. Harry Sears, a retired physician who’s on the college’s governing board. But “calling counts” conducted on a portion of the tract have tallied about 35 male birds in that immediate area.

Though the grassland looks wild and even a tad unkempt to the untrained eye, it’s actually managed to stay that way. In a rotation intended to sustain the grasses but vary their height across the tract, blocks of land are periodically mowed, sprayed with herbicide and set ablaze with controlled burns. Otherwise, shrubs and eventually trees would take over. While that would be a natural succession, the aim in this case is to retain a haven for wildlife that thrive only in prairie-type landscapes.

Though quail — a once-popular game bird — may be the most charismatic denizen of the Chester River tract, they’re not the only avian species that have a stake in the success of the grassland restoration. In essence, according to Small, they’re an “umbrella” species for lots of other birds that need similar habitat, such as the grasshopper sparrow and field sparrow.

Like quail, a number of other grassland birds are in decline across Maryland, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. At one time, as many as 80 nesting grasshopper sparrow pairs were spotted on the Chester River tract, Small said, but their numbers have slowly dropped over the years. On that spring morning, he said, he hadn’t heard a single call.

For the past few years, the college, through its Center for Environment & Society, has been working to persuade other Shore landowners to follow suit and re-establish some of the grassland habitat that’s been lost over the decades, in hopes of reversing those declines.
In 2015, the school teamed up with Shore Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, to launch the Natural Lands Project, a bid to make some of the region’s farmland more wildlife friendly while also enhancing water quality by establishing grassy runoff buffers and wetlands along streams and rivers.

With the help of a $700,000 grant from the state DNR, the project team has enlisted 27 landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. By the end of the year, it hopes to have converted 375 acres into grasslands, as well as another 36 acres into wetlands. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has kicked in $499,000 to create another 275 acres of upland habitat and 27 acres of wetlands, extending farther south into Talbot County.

“It’s not going to be for everyone, and we’re not trying to twist landowners’ or farmers’ arms to do this,” Small explained. “They have to want to create that change on the property.” But if someone has marginal cropland they’re willing to convert, he said, they can be compensated for taking the land out of production by signing up for one of the federal farmland conservation programs, with the project’s grant funding to help make up any difference.

Small said the team is most interested in working with landowners willing to convert at least 40–50 acres at a time, otherwise the habitat isn’t large enough to be really helpful. “You can’t expect to make a change in quail populations by doing five or 10 acres at a time,” he said. The project further attempts to create habitat on adjoining or at least nearby tracts, to create a corridor where quail can spread. The birds do not migrate or fly long distances.

Small said hunters are among the most receptive audience for the project’s habitat restoration pitch. They’d like to see Maryland’s small quail population grow and become more sustainable for hunting. New Jersey has banned quail hunting except on private game reserves, but it’s still legal to shoot wild quail in Maryland — if you can find them.

Harvey, the DNR game bird leader, said that while quail hunting has been restricted on public lands, wildlife managers have been reluctant to do likewise on private property because they believe it would undercut efforts to preserve and restore habitat.

“Just like Chino Farms and Dr. Sears,” Harvey pointed out, “a lot of the people interested and willing to take land out of production and spend the money it takes to manage for quail [are] at least somewhat interested in hunting for quail.”

Rob Leigh said that he and his wife Linda are still waiting to hear that distinctive “bob-white!” call on the 35 acres of farmland in Betterton that they turned into grassland and wildflowers 2.5 years ago.

Leigh, a retired dentist, recalls hearing the birds all the time when he was growing up on the Shore, and it’s what prompted him to place a portion of their 114-acre farm in the Natural Lands Project. He believes it’s only a matter of time until the birds take up residence there, as quail have been sighted just a few miles away.

Leigh said he was a little nervous at first about converting the cropland, which they’d been renting to a neighboring farmer to grow corn and soybeans. But the farmer found other land not far away, and Leigh said the lost rental income is covered by federal and grant funds.

Even without any quail yet, he added, they’re enjoying the sights and sounds of other wildlife on the converted cropland. “We see an immense array of different birds, of a variety I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The swallows and bluebirds, they just swoop up and down, they’re so fun to watch.” The patch of wildflowers planted in the center of the grassland has proven to be an insect magnet — drawing butterflies and so many bees that Leigh said they generate an audible buzz that carries across the field.

“I feel like we planted a prairie almost, it’s very lovely,” he said, calling the field “a kaleidoscope of color” in spring, first awash in yellow blooms and then hues of purple. “My wife loves it. She thinks it’s the best thing going.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Man-Made Oyster Reef Near Key Bridge is Thriving

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A man-made oyster reef finished a year ago next to Fort Carroll in the middle of the Patapsco River is in excellent condition. Recent monitoring results found most of the three million young oysters surviving and growing rapidly. The results are another encouraging milestone in an effort to return oysters to Baltimore waters, and throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

“Oysters are resilient creatures. If we give them the habitat they need they will settle down and form a community, begin filtering our water, and provide a home for other marine life,” said Dr. Allison Colden, Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “Baltimore is demonstrating it can be a flourishing home for underwater life.”

CBF is a member of the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a multi-year, collaborative effort to add 10 billion new oysters by 2025 in Virginia and Maryland waters. The Alliance is designed to spark governmental action, public attention, and funding to accelerate ongoing oyster recovery efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Michael Eversmier

To that end, the oyster reef was planted last spring next to Fort Carroll, the Civil War fort built on an island near the Key Bridge. Chunks of granite were used as a bed for the reef. Tons of old oyster shell were piled on top of the stone. On each shell was attached an average of 12 juvenile oyster “spat” barely visible to the eye. The spat were set on the oyster shells at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, and placed on the reef by the organization’s restoration vessel, the Patricia Campbell.

A year later, about 75 percent of those baby oysters have survived their first winter, and have grown to an average of more than an inch and a half in size, some to nearly three inches. Another encouraging sign, divers found the oysters thriving despite silt in the river. In fact, the reef was filled with large clumps of oysters growing vertically above the silt.

The construction, seeding, and monitoring of the 1.1 acre reef was supported by the Maryland Department of Transportation Port Administration, Maryland Environmental Service, and the Abell Foundation.

Baltimore was once a hub of the commercial oyster industry in Maryland. Oysters also were known to grow in the Patapsco, at least near the mouth. But the oyster population is now a fraction of its historic size, a victim of overfishing, disease, and pollution.

Knowing that history, what divers observed at the Fort Carroll reef and recorded with underwater photography was all the more exciting. Live oysters were feeding and growing. And the reef already was attracting other marine life, such as anemone, barnacles, mussels, mud crabs, and grass shrimp. In all, at least 13 different species were observed living on the new reef. This relative abundance of life demonstrates what scientists have known for years: oysters are a “keystone species” in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem; their reefs act as primary building blocks of the food chain.

The new reef, a little more than an acre, is near to a companion reef started in 1995. That older reef has been gradually built over the years, with about 150,000 oysters being added each of the past few years through the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership and the Living Classrooms Foundation. Business representatives, students, and other volunteers grow oysters in cages at various sites around the Inner Harbor, and then deploy the juvenile oysters at the companion reef. The Partnership aims to have at least 5 million oysters added total to both reefs by 2020. CBF and the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative are founding members of the group.