Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Island That Time Forgot

The breeze played on the water and the salt spray washed the faces of the small crew as we headed out into the Miles River. Captain Rich Scofield guided Volunteer out into the water as we began to discuss what we might find on the blob of green that awaited our arrival in the middle of the River. Mike Hardesty, Assistant Director of the Chesapeake Semester and Ben Ford, Special Projects Coordinator, began talking in earnest about what their students might learn from a trip over to Long Point Island. Ecology, history, land-use, and Tom Horton’s book “Bay Country” were all mentioned as they discussed the potential lesson plans that could be developed around this ancient island.
Entrance to Long Point Island.
We puttsed up to a small dock on the far shore and Rob Forloney from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum hopped ashore to tie up. As he did, a man started slowly walking toward the dock. “Hi. You must be the group from Washington College” he said as he approached the boat. He introduced himself as Jimmy Rouse, the owner of Long Point Island. As we all hopped back in the boat and started out for the Island, Jimmy began to tell stories of growing up on that Island. “We spent summers out here. There were three huge black walnut trees that we sold for lumber…we used the money from those trees to build the bulkheads…My father and his brothers build the cabins themselves.” Jimmy told us that he remembers when the island was connected to the mainland. In fact his family supervised driving bulldozers across the narrow land bridge onto the island for agricultural purposes.
Finally we bumped up against the dock and hopped onto shore. In front of us was a beautiful wooden cabin nestled under a canopy of mature oaks and pines. I could just imagine Thoreau walking out of the front door and sauntering off through the trees. “We can have this fixed up,” Jimmy’s wife said as we walked through the front door of the cabin. Mike immediately started pacing around happy as a kid in a candy shop, or as an environmentalist in a cabin in the woods. I could hear snippets of excited mutterings concerning team building and campfires. As my eyes drifted from the windows to the trees I couldn’t help but wondering about the incredible stories a place like this would hold. Cutoff from the mainland for over a hundred years, farmed until the 1920’s and then logged in the 1970’s, some of these trees had seen it all. The entire history of western civilization locked away in the rings of the white oak that swayed silently in the summer breeze. They had seen farmers tear up the soil to put in irrigation ditches. They had seen loggers tear down huge black walnut trees leaving gaping wounds in the canopy. They had seen children racing through the woods, combing the beaches for arrowheads, and studying the birds as they hopped through the undergrowth. Now they were watching a new group move through. A group that would fill the air with campfire smoke, good whole-body laughs, and exclamations of wonder and discovery.
The CES crew explores the forest on Long Point Island.
“Would you like to walk the length of the island?” Jimmy asked. Between the cabin and the far beach we discussed the history of the land at length. We were immersed in a discussion about the evolution of agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay region when we were interrupted by a Velociraptor. Well, at least it sounded like a Velociraptor, but after a little bit of searching we discovered that there was a heron rookery on the island.  For the next few minutes we watched as adult herons went to and from the nest bringing food for their young. In the distance we could hear the plaintive chirping of Osprey and Eagles. Beneath our feet the spent bodies of horseshoe crabs reminded us of the passing of the seasons, and brought us back to the task at hand. It might’ve been then, maybe it was while we were looking for raspberry bushes in one of the tangles of underbrush, or it might’ve been when we were all sitting on the porch of one of the cabins talking about the challenges and changes of the Chesapeake. Regardless of when it happened, we didn’t notice it until we were all loaded back on the boat and we began thinking about getting home that Rob said, “I think my watch stopped!”
None of us could figure out why that might’ve happened at the time, but I think now that I know the answer. I don’t think anything went wrong; I think that the Chesapeake, for just a brief moment, managed to break through all of our planning and give us an invitation. The Chesapeake called us with herons, the circling Osprey, the bodies of horseshoe crabs, and the slow march of box turtles.  For those of us who were there and for the students who will arrive there in a few short weeks with the Chesapeake Semester, Long Point Island will always be a place to stand still. A place to let the Chesapeake lap the soles of your feet and the quiet oaks shelter you, beckoning your return to peace, quiet, and good earth. 
Ben's box turtle.
This article was written by Rachel Field, Program and Intern Coordinator for the Center for Environment & Society.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pilgrim on Radcliffe Creek

Arial view of Radcliffe Creek
Despite the time that I have spent in Chestertown as a student of Washington College, it was not until about two months ago that I first heard of Radcliffe Creek. Even as an Environmental Studies major, this creek was something that I had not been introduced to in my two years in school. As I began to research the history of the creek and its watershed, I met with some members from the town who are currently planning the construction of three retention pools at the source of Radcliffe Creek. Radcliffe Creek begins to form very near to the LaMotte building and the Acme shopping center on Route 213. The mouth of the creek is roughly a quarter mile from the Boat House on South Cross Street and feeds directly into the Chester River. Radcliffe Creek was identified as an area of impaired water in the Middle Chester River Restoration Action Strategy (MD DNR 2002) and the purpose of these retention pools is to help improve the water and habitat quality of Radcliffe so that it may no longer be considered impaired. During my research it was discovered that there used to be an old dumpsite in an area just south of Cromwell Clark Road. Additionally, there was a coal/gas manufacturing plant located on 813 West High Street—an area that backs up directly to Radcliffe Creek—that operated from 1910 to 1946. After these discoveries, the idea of performing sediment sampling and trace metal testing in addition to nutrient and water quality testing became much more prevalent. The creek itself is primarily fed by ground water and storm water runoff and has very low salinity (the average salinity of the creek is a mere 0.2 ppt). The plant life within the creek consists mostly of phragmites but there are healthy strands of cattails amongst the phragmites in addition to some forest vegetation along some of the banks of the creek.
Osprey with dinner

The times that I have kayaked along the creek I have seen numerous Ospreys, Red-winged Black Birds, Great Blue Herons, two muskrats, a few turtles (I was not able to get close enough to determine the type of turtle), and some very small fish. The creek itself has high potential to become a fantastic area for wildlife, as it is already home to many different types of organisms. Since there had been no prior delineation of it, one of the first things that I began doing when I found out about Radcliffe Creek was delineate its watershed in order to get an idea of the land that contributes to its runoff. I also went out on the creek and measured various depths of Radcliffe so that a 3D bathymetric model of the creek can be produced at some point. Since there has been virtually no research conducted on Radcliffe Creek, there is a lot to catch up on and even more to pursue. My primary focus for the past two months has been to test the overall water quality of Radcliffe. I perform biweekly surveys of the creek and measure temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen (both in mg/L and % saturation), Chlorophyll a and pH using a water quality sonde. I also take water samples from four different sites along the creek and use them to test for ammonia, nitrate, orthophosphate, total nitrogen and total phosphorus. The average amount of total nitrogen within the creek has been 2.5 mg/L and the average total phosphorus is 0.26 mg/L which produces a nitrogen (N) to phosphorus (P) ratio of about 10 to 1 rather than the16 to 1 that is typically needed for phytoplankton. (This means that for every atom of P used a phytoplankton cell needs 16 atoms of N – on average). It appears that N may be limiting phytoplankton growth, at least for the short period of time that I have been investigating the Radcliffe Creek water quality.
Students paddling on Radcliff Creek
My hope is that this research and data collection will be able to continue over the years so that a better understanding of the ecosystem quality of Radcliffe Creek emerges. Radcliffe has huge potential to become an even more wonderful and habitable creek than it is currently and my hope is that by raising awareness and learning more about the charming creek, Radcliffe will become one of the gems of Chestertown. I would like to thank all of the people who have helped me with this research—my fellow students Sarah Winters, Olivia Hughes and Rachel Stoddard and professors Christian Krahforst, Leslie Sherman and Karl Kehm. I would not have been able to do this without their fantastic efforts.

Drew Hobbs is an Environmental Studies major with minors in Computer Science and Chemistry. He will be starting his Junior year at Washington College in the fall.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Good Ol' River Mud

"Tributaries Matter: Investigating the Biogeochemical Cycling of Reactive Constituents
in Sub-estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay"
I'll be honest. I wasn't sure exactly what I was in for with a lecture titled, "Tributaries Matter: Investigating Biogeochemical Cycling of Reactive Constituents in Sub-estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay." I was pretty confident I knew what a tributary was...and an estuary, but all that stuff in the middle? Not a clue. Yesterday we were fortunate to host Commander Joseph Smith from the US Naval Academy who was going to answer all my questions. We settled in to Litrenta, sat back, and learned some astonishing things about watersheds and sediment movement.

CDR Smith began his discussion with the Hudson River. All the way back to his time as a graduate student he has been studying the movement of sediment in estuaries. What he has learned has astonished his advisers and the wider scientific community. Instead of being like a pipe that dumps water into the oceans, estuaries experience constant movement of sediment toward the ocean and back toward the land. One example in particular encapsulated the importance of this multi-directional movement. In 2006 the Navy attempted to relocate the legendary World War II aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, but after a half hour of effort from a small fleet of tugboats, it became apparent that the ship was stuck in the mud! CDR Smith explained that this was a result of sediment being deposited in the harbor from upriver and from the ocean. The amount of sediment that settled around the ship worked out to be about 20 inches a year. This event, which confirmed CDR Smith's theory of high sedimentation rates, astonished the scientific community.

USS Intrepid with tugboats
Taking what he has learned about the tendency for estuaries to pick up materials, CDR Smith has focused his studies on nearby Blue Plains Advanced Waste water Treatment Plant to determine what sort of impact the waste water is having on the Chesapeake Bay. Specifically CDR Smith has been looking at a specific element Iodine 131. He was quick to point out that the levels at which he studied I131 were well below the levels that would cause any harm to surrounding populations. CDR Smith has been tracing I131 because it has comparable qualities (radioactive half-life) to other more harmful substances. This means that CDR Smith can more accurately model what would happen if one of the more harmful materials (heavy metals, pesticides, certain nutrients etc.) were to be released into the Bay's Watershed.

Among the many insights that Smith has gained through his work is the fact that environmental factors have a huge impact on the movement of these potentially harmful materials. Wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and pH are just a few of the factors that can influence the spread of these materials. In order to form a more complete model CDR Smith and CES Associate Director Doug Levin are working together to monitor every aspect of the Chester and the Severn. Among the many pieces of technology being used in this ambitious project are buoys that constantly collect data, and autonomous kayaks that will be able to independently patrol the rivers. This project, when completed, will make these two rivers the best known rivers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and potentially the entire United States.
Chesapeake Bay
Article written by Rachel Field, Program and Intern Coordinator for Washington College's Center for Environment & Society. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Importance of Cycles

Font Hill Nature Park, Jamaica
Tuesday evening a group of Washington College community members, students, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to hear Dr. Peter Marra lecture on "Studying Birds in the Context of the Annual Cycle: Carry Over Effects and Seasonal Interactions." In his talk Dr. Marra explained the importance of looking at the entirety of a system instead of one of its parts. This might sound silly, but it's exactly what scientists have been doing for decades! Marra described the trend in the past few decades to focus research efforts on the breeding season and only sometimes study the wintering season or the spring and fall migration periods. Marra is arguing for a new approach to ornithological research, one that places importance of considering the entire cycle, which is an approach termed "migratory connectivity." Migratory connectivity basically means considering the wintering grounds and migration paths as well as the summer breeding grounds. There are many ways to quantify migratory connectivity, but here are a few:

 • bird banding
 • morphological variation (differences in wing, leg, bill length etc between populations)
 • molecular markers
 • stable isotopes (levels of certain elements in tissues indicate the latitude at which a bird molted its feathers)
 • light level geolocators (small chips that record the amount of light they are exposed to and allow for more precise calculation of lat. and long.)
 • satellite and cellular transmitters (frequent broadcast of location to towers and satellites)

 The implications for conservation as a result of this new paradigm are far-reaching. Marra's research into migratory connectivity has shown that it is not enough to preserve one area that a species relies on for some aspect of their life cycle. For instance, preserving the summer breeding habitat of a Grasshopper Sparrow will ensure that the birds that arrive to breed can do so, but it will not protect them when they leave for the next 8 months for their wintering territory. Many of the birds that are declining in the US are migrating songbirds that travel to South and Central America to over winter. We are doing a good job of protecting their summer habitat, but as long as the winter habitat remains unprotected the populations will continue to decline. This initial research and study has prompted Marra to undertake a "Migratory Connectivity Project." This project has the extremely ambitious goal of mapping the breeding, wintering, and migration territories for each North American species of bird so that we can more effectively protect their habitat.

American Redstart
Much of the research that has prompted Marra's understanding of the annual cycle and migratory connectivity was conducted with American Redstarts. These small warblers travel from the US to the Caribbean to overwinter and have been studied on their wintering habitat for over 20 years. From his study with the "Jamaican-American" Redstarts, Marra noticed that the quality of habitat on the wintering grounds was affecting the timing of migration and ultimately the success of individual birds on the breeding grounds. In fact, Marra notes that the number of young produced on the breeding grounds has more to do with the quality of the non-breeding habitat than the quality of the habitat on the breeding grounds! He was able to document this by contrasting the individual success of birds who had experienced a dry winter habitat vs those who had experienced a wet wintering habitat. The American Redstarts that had access to the more fertile wet habitat were able to produce more offspring than those who were relegated to the dry habitat.

Mangrove Swamp (wet habitat)

Forest (dry habitat)

Marra's work with American Redstarts has paved the way for what can truly be considered a paradigm shift in how we think about avian conservation. By recognizing the importance of the entire annual cycle Marra is providing challenging new ways to engage in habitat conservation and bringing new challenges to surface. More data is needed to develop something like a Migratory Connectivity Project, but each bird banded, radio tagged, or sampled for isotope analysis is a step toward a better understanding of our world and the many creatures that inhabit it.

American Redstart

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy Visits Downrigging Weekend

Photo courtesy of "Behold the Earth"
This past weekend some of us were priveledged to hear David Conover and Tim Eriksen present at the Prince Theater. Conover spoke of the intersection between society and nature that he explores in his forthcoming documentary "Behold the Earth." In this film Conover uses breathtaking scenery, haunting folk melodies, and poignant interviews to explore America's divorce from nature. While sitting in my house this morning watching the trees groan in the winds of Hurricane Sandy, I couldn't help but hear the soulful notes of Eriksen's song "Every Sound Below" and consider the power of this storm.
Rain lashing, candles sputtering, birds calling, the street cleaner slowly driving by. These were the sounds reaching through my "cocoon." Conover described Americans as a people who travel between a series of cocoons, forgetting to spend time outside of our meticulously managed environments. Today, Sandy is forcing the people on the east coast out of their cocoons.
Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy

Since agriculture became the modus operandi for humankind we have slowly moved to create more distance between ourselves and our surroundings. This process was much enhanced by the dawn of the technological era. Humans now have so much power over their environment that some suggest we have entered an "anthropocene," or geological period defined by human action disrupting the surface of the Earth. Socially this technology has moved children away from the outdoors and in front of screens. Conover noted that in the last decade children have spent an average of over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.
Photo courtesy of "Behold the Earth"

Conover does not seek to provide a particular answer to this problem, rather he is making an attempt to understand why our divorce from nature started and exactly what that divorce looks like. The fierce embrace of Hurricane Sandy brings this question right into our homes, through leaky windows, flooded basements, and loss of power: electrical and otherwise.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Science and Art: Understanding our Relationship with the Environment

     This past week the Center for Environment and Society proudly sponsored two lectures. The first was given by John Beardsley of Dumbarton Oaks and titled, “Art in the Environment: Sketches from the Field.” On the following night, the very day of it’s inception 40 years ago, Tom Horton discussed the Clean Water Act with a lecture titled, “40 Years of the Clean Water Act Through the Lens of the Chesapeake Bay.” The succession of these two lectures beautifully reflects the mission of the Center for Environment and Society. First, Beardlsey discussed the tension expressed by 19th century nature artists who represented the conflict between viewing the landscape with an artists’ eye as opposed to a developers. Beardsley went on to describe the 20th century movement he describes as the second era of nature art. Now we see a movement toward manipulating the environment to make powerful statements about beauty, purpose, and our relationship with the natural world.
Lightning Field, New Mexico by Walter DeMaria
     Beardsley ended his talk with a discussion of the benefits of a union between artistic and ecological pursuits. It is common practice to use art as a meditative or therapeutic exercise. Beardsley suggested that this practice could be applied to the broader relationship between all human beings and the natural world. In many ways Horton echoed this message the following evening with his call for a broader approach to conservation.
     Horton summarized many of the successes and the setbacks that have been a part of the history of the Clean Water Act. With population levels rising in the Chesapeake Bay region the amount of nutrient runoff and waste is increasing at enormous levels despite our best efforts. Horton mentioned the change from a wild oyster harvest to a system in which oysters are farmed as an example of one way that life in the Chesapeake Bay has changed. By encouraging interdisciplinary approaches, thorough scientific analysis, and community-based efforts, Horton believes that we will be able to keep improving the state of the Bay.
     Both Beardsley and Horton reminded their audiences that only by working together from many different perspectives do we have a chance of making real progress and saving the land that sustains us.
Foreman's Branch of the Chester River

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pursuing Beauty

This past week the Kohl Gallery opened an exquisite exhibit entitled "In Pursuit of Beauty: John J. Audubon and the Golden Age of Bird Illustration." This exhibit features works from Audubon, but also includes prints from William Beebe, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Daniel Giraud Elliot, John Gould, and Alexander Wilson. The exhibit is scheduled to run until Friday, November 30th and is open Wednesday through Sunday 1-6 pm.

Philosophers have searched for an answer to the question "What is Beauty?" over countless years and from many different perspectives. The veins of a feather, the curve of a wing in flight, or the brush strokes that build a picture? This exhibit explores the question of beauty through the lens of the natural world. Audubon and his colleagues searched to capture the mystery, dignity, and innocence of the creatures that filled their world and often times their bellies. There is a focus in this exhibit on game birds and the practice of sport shooting in the United States. The added dimension of relationship between the subject and the painter creates a more intimate environment. It is almost as if Audubon is glorifying his relationship with the birds he hunts by immortalizing them on the canvas.

The addition of a video by Brian Palmer deepens the reality of the exhibit. The video opens with the stillness of the pre-dawn and follows a day at Foreman's Branch Banding Station. The audience is taken through the bird banding process and given face to face exposure to some of the birds that have inspired these great painters. “To see birds being released, taking wing—it’s the most wonderful thing,” Alex Castro, Curator of the Kohl Gallery, comments. “And at the center of it all, these beautiful still images of birds from the past.”Layering the still photographs with the video of the live birds blurs the line between the paintings and the creatures to create an oasis of wilderness right in the heart of Campus.
The careful and thoughtful planning of Alex Castro and Assistant Curator, Sean Meade, brought this breathtaking vision to fruition. On Tuesday, October 9th dozens of people gathered to celebrate their work at the Exhibit Opening. President Reiss and Dean DiQuinzio, advisor for the Kohl Gallery were present to offer their congratulations and comment on the astounding beauty of this exhibit.

To visit the Kohl Gallery click here.
To visit the Foreman's Branch Bird Observatory click here.