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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Waterfront Festival 2012!

Check out this video of the Waterfront festival! Filmed by Brian Palmer and Eric Broussard of Washington College. Students, staff, faculty, and community members turned out on Saturday for a beautiful day of fun on the Chester River. This year featured:
Free boat rides on the Callinectes
Sailing and kayaking on the Chester River
Model Boat Building
Pony Rides
Scales & Tails
the "Fishmobile"
and many more wonderful activities for the whole family!
Of course, the highlight of the day was the Cardboard Boat Regatta. We had many brave competitors this year, but sleek design and excellent construction brought Captain Brian Palmer of "Chessie Racing" the Cape Horn award for first around the course. Our own "Chesapeake Semester" boat Captained by Mike Hardesty, made it around the course for second place. "No Place like Home" followed closely behind for third place. The coveted People's Choice Award also went to "No Place like Home." There was no surprise that the Cutty Sark Award for best design went to "Chessie Racing," and it was also no surprise that "No Place like Home" won Best Theme & Costumes! For their innovative method of swimming their boat around the course and their exceptional team spirit, "Chariots of Fire" took home the Linda Greenlaw Award. The final award of the day went to "Dance to your own Tune" who, in a heart-wrenching display of teamwork, dragged their boat around the course after it sank on the starting line. All of our competitors were wonderful, and we look forward to seeing YOU on the water next year at the 2013 Waterfront Festival and Cardboard Boat Race!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Working Landscapes

This past Saturday, fellow CES staffer Dan Small and I attended a grassland and shrubland bird symposium sponsored by Virginia Working Landscapes and held at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.  VWL is a consortium of groups interested in, among other things, establishing demonstration sites to showcase best practices for various land uses on working farms and creating a network for landowners to exchange information and ideas.

Bobolink in fall plumage.

We knew it was going to be a good day when the first item on the agenda was a bird walk and tour of a nearby farm.  The group of 25 or so landowners and managers admired and discussed the grass buffers, their species composition and what problems or challenges they had faced in their own efforts to create and maintain grasslands.  As we ambled through Big Bluestem and Indian Grass we heard the constant calls of Bobolinks moving between the grass stand and the adjacent alfalfa field.   Other grassland birds detected included Grasshopper Sparrows and a Dickcissel.  It was almost as though Dan had planted the birds as a primer for his talk about the CRFRS grasslands (he highlighted all three species).

Male Dickcissel.  Photo by Bill Hubick

Back at the lecture hall, speakers covered such topics as bird-friendly haying practices on Vermont dairy farms, maximizing bird habitat on public lands and identifying suitable habitat for Golden-winged Warblers.  Dan Small, representing CRFRS and CES, described the establishment and management of the warm season grasslands on Chino Farms/ Chester River Field Research Station and the birds that have colonized the site.

CES Field Ecologist Dan Small discussing the Chino grasslands.

Mike Wilson, of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, spoke about determining the appropriate use of land based on the size of the area.  Many grassland birds require larger spaces for breeding habitat than other species.  This means that you could install a perfect looking five acre grassland, but those five acres are probably not enough to sustain any grassland birds.  If you only have five acres of property, he suggests managing it as a shrubland instead.  Many species of birds requiring second-growth scrub/shrub habitats are in decline.  Birds such as Golden-winged Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Dickcissels and Northern Bobwhites are facing great challenges due to habitat loss and could greatly benefit from managing lands for them.

Shrub/scrub habitat may look messy to humans, but looks safe and inviting to birds and other wildlife.

We met many enthusiastic landowners who wanted to provide the great bird habitat that was also compatible with other land uses such as haying, farming and hunting.  It was exciting to see so many like-minded folks and to hear about some of the compromises available to landowners.  Several expressed interest in seeing CRFRS firsthand and learning more about what we have accomplished on Chino.

Information on Virginia Working Landscapes can be found on  their website. Though geared toward Virginians, much of the information is relevant to Marylanders.  Many land restoration projects can be supported through grants from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service).   Thanks to Bill Hubick for the use of his Dickcissel photo.

Maren Gimpel is a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station.  Photos and stories about the goings on of CRFRS can be found at or at

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Northern Bobwhite

Many landowners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore lament the loss of Northern Bobwhite (quail) on their property. The fact that quail have been disappearing from their former habitats is nothing new, concerned citizens and wildlife biologists have been worried about this game bird’s future in Maryland for some time now. But all is not lost; with a little dedication and help from private landowners the negative population trend can be reversed. The Center for Environment & Society has teamed up with Tall Timbers Research Station to form The Northern Bobwhite Quail Restoration Initiative. One of the goals of the project is to form a regional network of private landowners who are interested in restoring the habitat necessary for Bobwhite to make a comeback.

Adult Male Northern Bobwhite. Photo by Bill Hubick.
Habitat loss is often cited as the leading cause of population declines for quail. In Maryland they have declined at a rate of 5.1% per year since 1966 and at an accelerated 7.3% per year since 1980 (Ellison 2010). Restoring quail will involve increasing habitat surrounding farm fields, including grasslands or overgrown fields, shrub-scrub, woodland edges and hedgerows between farm fields. Chino Farms in northern Queen Anne’s County is leading efforts in the area to provide the mix of ideal habitats that quail need. Creating and maintaining early successional habitat is a work in progress, but with persistent dedication, time and the guidance from Tall Timbers the farm is becoming a model and resource for other interested landowners.

A small part of the restored warm season grasslands on Chino Farm.
With the rapid advancements in modern farming technologies, the way we practice farming has changed a lot in just a short period of time. In the past quail could rely on fence rows, hedgerows and fallow fields, but with larger equipment came larger fields and these critical habitats were lost. Back then landowners and managers didn’t have to manage their properties specifically for quail, the farming practices simply were good for quail. Today’s quail live in a completely different environment.  Nowadays, land managers have to actively manage the land to support quail. Another goal of the Intiative is to bring together landowners to share experiences on what works and what doesn’t, everyone has ideas and input and sharing them with the group will benefit everyone involved.

This recently fledged Northern Bobwhite was caught in a mist net during daily banding operations in the restored grasslands on Chino. This individual along with 10 other birds from a family group were too small to band and were quickly released.
If you are interested in creating quail habitat or know someone who may be interested, please keep an eye out here or at the CES facebook page for more information about a quail forum this fall. The unmistakeable whistle call of the male Northern Bobwhite belongs in the rural landscape and with your help we can all work together to make sure they are around for generations to come.

Information can also be found here,

Thanks to Bill Hubick for allowing use of his photographs.

Dan Small is a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station. Please visit our Facebook page or find additional information here

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kent County booth at the annual MACo convention

Earlier this month, I traveled to Ocean City for the second time this summer, this time to represent Kent County's Office of Tourism and Economic Development at the annual Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) convention.  I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Mrs. Cunningham, of connect.the.dots. fame, who's design eye gave zest to our booth (see pic below).

After setting up our booth on Wednesday afternoon, we were feted at a cocktail reception at Fagers Island restaurant that was hosted by Funk & Bolton law offices, a wonderful social gathering that allowed for lots of networking.  I then spent all day Thursday manning our booth, meeting vendors, talking with employees and representatives from other counties, and generally spreading the word about all the good works that have been going on recently in Kent County.  There was a steady flow of visitors through the exhibit hall for most of the day.  It still amazes me the number of "giveaways" that the exhibitors provide and the convention-goers gobble up...bags and bags of them.  Thursday evening found us at the Sunset Grille in West OC dining on mahi mahi, tuna, crab imperial, and countless other goodies, all thanks to our hosts from Standard Solar.

On Friday, Mrs C and I kept up the message spreading at our booth for the better part of the day, handing out brochures along with free note pads and lemon meringue-flavored salt water taffy.  It seemed there were more families visiting the exhibit hall during this session, probably in concert with family vacation time at the beach.  The day was shorter than the previous, but still we had decent attendance in the hall.  Commissioners stopped by, and we also had a chance to converse briefly with U.S. Senator Ben Cardin who admitted that he was aware of all the cool projects going on in the county.

Our thanks to Bernadette Van Pelt and Michelle Wood of the County's Office of Tourism and Economic Development for putting together all of the display materials for us to transport down to the convention.  Also, special thanks to the Town Creek Foundation for supporting our work to help Maryland's municipalities increase use of renewable energy systems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and move toward a healthy and sustainable future for the Chesapeake Bay region.

Briggs Cunningham mans the Kent County booth at the 2012 Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City in August.
Briggs Cunningham is Climate Action Coordinator at the Center for Environment & Society, and can be contacted here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Week of Warblers!

This past week at the banding station was filled with exciting warblers! Here are some pictures of the best and the brightest. Also check out our weekly banding totals for a more detailed look at what we've been catching at Foreman's Branch Bird Observatory.
This past week we got a high number of American Redstarts of all ages and sexes gathered in one area of the study site. Perhaps they are traveling in a group?
We banded 5 Black and White Warblers this week.
We also got an HY (hatch year) Female Wilson's Warbler this week. You can see that the top of her head is much greener than a male's would be.
This HY Male Blackburnian Warbler was a real treat. We usually only get one a year, and some years we don't get any.
Ok, so this is not a warbler but we broke the record for number of Belted Kingfishers captured this year, and that's pretty neat too!
All signs point to...Migration! Hopefully we'll continue to get interesting and exciting birds in the coming weeks. Be sure to check out day-by-day updates on our facebook page and our weekly banding totals on our Website.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer Soundtrack

Maybe your summer soundtrack is “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen or maybe you’re hearing waves rolling in on a beach.  I’ve got an earful of cicadas!  Cicadas are the pulsating and buzzy sounding insects you hear from trees and bushes in mid to late summer.  Only the males call, they vibrate a special organ on their abdomen called a tymbal.  The Eastern Shore of Maryland actually has about half a dozen species of annual cicada which should not be confused with the periodical cicada which emerges every 17 years in huge numbers (like in 2004). 

Swamp Cicada from Baltimore County.  Photo by Jim Brighton 
Annual cicadas have a pretty cool life cycle:  females lay eggs in soft twigs and other plant material.  Tiny nymphs hatch out the same summer and drop to the ground where they burrow into the soil.  Over the next few years (the exact length of time depends on the species) the nymphs feed on roots and grow bigger and bigger.  Finally, one summer when they are about an inch or so long, they dig their way out of the ground, climb up to a safe perch and hatch out of their brown skin.  They sit a while to allow their wings to unfold and strengthen then they fly away leaving their crunchy shell behind.   The adults only live a few weeks before reproducing and dying.

The crunchy brown shell that remains on a tree trunk after a cicada has emerged.
In addition to being super cute in a bug sort of way, I also like cicadas since they pose no threat to humans, they do not bite or sting.  Under normal circumstances they do not damage crops or plant material.  Humans in many parts of the world actually eat cicadas as a good protein source.

Cicadas, by the way, are NOT locusts.  Locusts are grasshoppers, in the scientific order Orthoptera.  Cicadas are more closely related to aphids and are in the order Homoptera.   You may recall from high school biology the classification runs kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species so organisms in different orders are really really unrelated!

Cicada from CRFRS grasslands.

There are loads of other critters adding music to your summer days and nights.  Crickets and katydids are other insects that make noise and don't forget about the various frogs and toads.  Why not take a few minutes on a summer evening this week to stop and listen to all the creatures singing!

Maren Gimpel is a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station.  Photos and stories about the goings on of CRFRS can be found at or at

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Turtle Power!

Chino Farm is not just for the birds! A small group of Washington College students, led by Dr. Aaron Krochmal, have been studying the turtles on the property for the past few years. I had the opportunity to talk to Brendyn Meisinger ‘13, a student intern, about his research.

Painted Turtle at Chino Farm
This summer Brendyn put 5 radio transmitters on Eastern Red Painted Turtles so that he could monitor their movements. Brendyn was inspired by some of Dr. Krochmal’s previous research, which examined the potential methods turtles use to find new ponds once the ones they are using have dried up. Brendyn wanted to know how the turtles at Chino Farm find new Delmarva Bays to use during the summer.
What is a Delmarva Bay? You might ask. Well, Delmarva Bays are vernal pools that are something of a mystery to scientists. We do know that they provide essential habitat for a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians. The soil and plant life found in Delmarva Bays are unique. Chino Farm proudly boasts a large number of Delmarva Bays. So much so in fact, that Brendyn was able to pick his own to study and name it whatever he chose. Consequently, Brendyn is studying at “Morrison’s Retreat”, a Delmarva Bay he named after Robert Morrison who founded Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

What do the turtles do once the Delmarva Bays have dried up?
Eventually Brendyn would like to use some of this research for his Senior Capstone Experience, and there’s plenty to go around! This project has many possible directions and students, along with Dr. Krochmal, will hopefully be able to present their findings this coming April at North East Fisheries and Wildlife conference.

Dr. K looks for turtles at Chino Farm
Rachel Field is the Education Coordinator at CES.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Searching for Rangia

Our summer began with periodic excursions up and down the mighty Chester River looking for “soft” sediment that we hope to use for characterizing the chemistry of the bottom of Chester River. Why, you might ask? Well, many of the “chemicals of environmental concern”(COEC) are hydrophobic -which literally means afraid of water- but more appropriately reflects the sticky-particle bound nature of many of these contaminants. They don’t like to be dissolved in water, but like to bind to the surfaces of particles and, ultimately, the sediment. Our interest in COECs is directed towards a better understanding of how these chemicals are introduced into the aquatic environment, how they affect resident organisms, and where they may ultimately end up. Anyway, this communiqué is not about COECs but is more about the benthos – the critters that we found in or on the sediment during our summer of mucking about in boats. Overall, we found very little living in the sediments we collected - or more appropriately, very little macro (large, non-microscopic) organisms. For those macro benthic organisms we did find we noted where, when, and what we found; either an occasional oyster, some mussels, and most often – when there was anything – the mighty Rangia.
 This is blog is about the brackish clam,Rangia cuneata (Fig.1); what their role may be in the Chester River ecosystem and whether they might be a good indicator of contaminant exposure and bio-accumulation (accumulation of chemicals in the tissues of the organism) in the Chester.
Fig. 1. Rangia collected from the Chester River about 2 miles south of Chestertown
The Rangia clam, according to information provided by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)1, is a brackish (low salinity) clam that is often found in waters with salinities between 5-15 parts per thousand (fresh water is 0 ppt, ocean water at the mouth of the Chesapeake is ~32 ppt). They often live in highly turbid waters (water that contains a lot of suspended particles, muddy), often preferring soft substrates; usually a sand/mud mixture with vegetation detritus. They are subtidal suspensivores (they filter material out of the water column for food) and are also considered saprophytic, that is they also derive nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter (much like bacteria or fungi). The species found in the Chesapeake are Rangia cuneata and, to this date, the Chesapeake is the northern most reach of their distribution. Apparently, they weren’t always a part of the Chesapeake ecosystem. In fact (according to MDE), the first known sighting of R. cuneata was in 1960 in the Potomac River and are now found in the brackish tributaries and creeks of the upper Chesapeake Bay. Does the timing of their occurrence correspond to increases turbidity in the Chesapeake? Definitely an interesting question…. As a food source for humans, they are considered non-desirable, often because they have an earthy, muddy taste. Investigators from NOAA2 report a very active fishery for Rangia along the east coast of Mexico where they are used as a supplement to local shellfish and fish cuisine, often because they present a less desirable pallet when served alone. In Figure 2, we show where we have found Rangia this summer. The sites where we collected sediment are indicated by black triangles and where we found Rangia clams are shown by the red circles. One hope is that these organisms can help filter and clean the highly turbid waters of the Chester or the even the lower salinity realms of the Bay . Some investigators3 show that Rangia is a good indicator of a system under significant stress; that they represent a situation where other organisms struggle to survive and the ecosystem is in poor health. Rangia are also being investigated as a potential contaminant cleaner-upper for the impact of the BP oil release in the Gulf of Mexico4 Figure 2. Surface sediment grabs sites (black triangles) from the Chester River, summer 2012. The red dots overlay stations where we found Rangia clams.
Fig. 2.
Surface sediment grabs sites (black triangles) from the Chester River, summer 2012. The red dots overlay stations where we found Rangia clams
One of our interests at the Center for the Environment and Society is whether Rangia can serve as biological indicator for contaminant exposure in the Chester River ecosystem. Do contaminants like lead, copper, arsenic and other COEC accumulate in Chester River resident organisms? Is Rangia a potential pathway for the transfer COEC to “higher” organisms that reside in the Chester River ecosystem (e.g., white perch, osprey, humans,etc) where COEC may become further concentrated as they move up the food chain? We don’t know, but we will be measuring the content of some of the COEC in their soft tissues using the relatively new high tech inductively-coupled Mass Spectrometer at Washington College. Stay tuned!

Samuel Hartman, a summer Hodson Fellow, looks to find the optimal site for our next sediment grab
 Christian Krahforst is the Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow of Biogeochemistry for the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Barnyard Olympics!

What do cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, horses, goats and "loco llamas" all have in common? The Queen Anne's County Fair, going on this week, at the 4-H Park on Route 18 in Centreville, MD. At 5:00 PM today (8/11/12) you can catch jousting, the state sport of Maryland. You won't believe the speed these junior and senior riders have when they lance rings no bigger than what is holding up your shower curtain. Then at 7:00 PM there's the Farm-to-Market auction and the 4-H kids finally see a profit for all their work tending animals. The Queen Anne's Fair is even better than the Devon Horse Show in my opinion. So bring the whole family tonight and celebrate 70 years of 4-H on the Eastern Shore. Or come on Saturday for the rodeo at 5:00 PM. After that, you'll be counting down the days until next year's community fair. Admission is $3.
JoAnn Fairchild, senior program manager at CES, lives outside of Centreville in an 1880s farmhouse with her husband, two horses, two dogs and two cats - for now. After seeing the miniature donkey and horses at the QA County Fair, the family plans to add a few more animals this fall.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bobolink...What's that?

Male Bobolink. Photo by Bill Hubick.
Well, it’s a bird and a fascinating one at that. The Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus, is a songbird in the blackbird family (Icteridae).  As you can see from the pictures to the right and below, males and female are sexually dimorphic in the spring and summer months when the male has unmistakable black and white plumage with a straw colored nape. The female retains cryptic coloration year-round which is made up of straw colored body plumage with black streaking on the flanks.  Bobolinks are long distant migrants traveling thousands of miles annually from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering grounds in South America, roughly 6000 miles one way!!! Males not only have unique plumage, but have a very unique song, follow this link to hear what they sound like,, recorded by Andrew Spencer.  Some people think they sound like R2-D2 from Star Wars.

Female Bobolink. Photo by Bill Hubick.
Bobolinks require grasslands or something very similar, like alfalfa or hay fields, in which to nest. They can be found in Maryland during migration in both spring and fall and they breed in western and northern counties in the state. Maryland is at the very southern end of the breeding range for Bobolinks. They don’t breed on the eastern shore, but some attempt to nest in the northern reaches of Cecil County in hay fields.
Bobolinks have experienced range-wide population declines due to a variety of reasons, with habitat loss considered the single biggest factor. Most native grasslands and wet meadows have disappeared and they have been forced to nest in crop and hay fields as a result.  In terms of habitat quality, hay fields are not bad, but the problem is harvesting the hay while birds are still nesting. Farmers need to cut the hay at its nutritional peak which is often prior to young birds fledging or when they are still too young to fly. Biologists, especially in Vermont, are working with farmers to delay the cutting to allow nests to fledge.

Adult male Bobolink in breeding plumage.
Many Bobolinks use the CRFRS restored grassland on Chino Farm as stopover and refueling site during spring migration. But, the best time to see them in the grasslands is July through September. Adult males arrive first, still in their distinctive breeding plumage, followed by adult females and then in August and September by the young of the year. The restored grasslands provide critical habitat for the Bobolinks that stop here in the fall. Not only do the grasslands provide a bounty of food, in the form of insects and unlimited grass seed, but the tall thick fields act as a refuge. Bobolinks are somewhat unique among east coast birds in that they do not molt on their breeding grounds or the wintering grounds, but rather somewhere in between. This is where the restored grasslands are important.  

Adult male Bobolink undergoing flight feather molt.  

Molt is the process of feather replacement that all birds under take annually. Soon after the adult Bobolinks arrive in the grasslands they begin the pre-basic molt which is complete, meaning they will molt, or replace, all their feathers. Only after this molt is complete in about 3-4 weeks will these birds continue their south-bound migration. All Bobolinks will again undergo a complete molt prior to leaving their wintering grounds for their spring migration back north. Flocks of over 300 individuals have been seen in the fields. What we don’t know yet is whether the same individuals use the grasslands as a molting ground every year or whether we always see different individuals. There are only two bird species in North America that go through two complete molts each year, Bobolinks are one of them, do you know what the other species is?

Sweeping views of the CRFRS restored grasslands on Chino Farm.

The CRFRS restored grasslands are not only providing critical breeding habitat for declining species such as Grasshopper Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dickcissel and Northern Bobwhite and are a great winter habitat for a diversity of grassland dependent species but are also playing a fundamental role in the life cycle of Bobolinks.

Thanks to Bill Hubick for the use of his photographs. More of his photos can be seen at

Dan Small is a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station and spends just about everyday in the summer months in the restored grasslands. For more information go to or

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Other than water, what does the rain bring?

No alarm needed this morning.   Thunder was crackling and rain falling well before the 6 a.m. clang of the set clock.  Rainfall on the eastern shore evokes different feelings for different people.  Farmers, for example, are happy that their parched corn might survive to adulthood. My mind then moves to the ramification of the rain in the Chester River Watershed, where the drops hit and and, ultimately,  what it collects as it flows down hill off the fields and into the Bay. It’s a light rain so it’s unlikely that there will be runoff.  Where will the water end up and what will it bring with it?

Yesterday I was over at Foremans Branch on Chino Farms in Chestertown talking with Ted Kimble and Henry Davis about siting a most sophisticated water quality sampling station.  Ted’s going to work with Choptank Electric to drop the electric service in, that will power the station.  Henry will work his magic clearing the long grass and shrubs so the system can be installed and serviced without a threat of contracting poison ivy.  We’re talking with Dr. Jim Gruber to make sure that this project doesn’t interfere with his bird banding research.  We also had to know how high the water gets during slamming rainfall that happens during Nor’easters and hurricanes. So much to do before we take our first sample.

The fancy gizmo will pump water quietly from Foremans Branch to the sensors and then gravity will whisk it back to whence it came. The sensors will let us know what is coming off of the fields and through the grounds from the farm, woods, and grasslands into the water.  During dry times we’ll know that the contributions we’re measuring are leaking into the water through the ground.  When it rains we originally would have expected to see spikes in stuff coming into the water because of runoff.  Our friend Judy Denver up at USGS says that’s probably not the case. We’ll likely see water quality improve during these “freshets”. That’s because the additional water dilutes the nutrients and other “additives” from the farms and roads.  Even though the water quality improves, the volume of water flowing through the system is so high that, overall, the amount of extraneous materials entering the system is still elevated. Look at it this way.  If you have a gallon of water with a pound of sugar in it, it tastes like sugar water.  If you have five gallons of water with two pounds of sugar in it, there is more sugar, but it doesn’t taste as sweet.  So rain and runoff probably worsens water quality.  Doug, did you say “Probably?”.  Yes, I did. 

Once we install this Hach Water Quality measuring station we’ll investigate the truth of this assertion.  Water temperature, salinity, conductivity, pH (acidity), dissolved oxygen, turbidity (how dirty the water is), nutrient content, and water level data will be sent to our website every fifteen minutes.  Coupled with a weather station on the farm we’ll be able to see the relationship between rainfall and water quality.  Communicating with the farm we’ll be able to see how farming practices, including fertilizer application, relates to changes in the chemistry of the water flowing through Foremans Branch down to the Chester River.  We’re hoping to have this information on line for everyone to see.  This will change that "Probably" to an answer with more certainty. I’ll let you know when we throw the switch.  Get in touch if you have questions. Doug Levin is the  Associate Director, Center for Environment & Society @ Washington College and can be reached at

This is the site where we originally thought the water quality installation was going.

This photo taken at flood stage convinced us to place the system up the hill from the bridge.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Close Looks at Birds

I mentioned a few weeks ago a great project going on behind the scenes at CES: we've slowly been cataloging all the pictures ever taken at Chino Farm and trying to get as many of them online as possible.

Well, we've made it through the first stages, and now many of the amazing pictures taken of birds during banding at Foreman's Branch Bird Observatory (FBBO) are available online here.  The species are organized by family to the extent possible, though of course some categories have multiple families, and some birds are just hard to categorize.  But we've done our best!  It was exciting to go through all the pictures that have been taken, and realize first hand the history of the research done at FBBO.

While all of the pictures are impressive, I of course have some favorites, especially the owl and raptor pages.  The raptor page is a good example of what we hope to accomplish with these albums.  In addition to having a photo of each species, we'd like to show differences between males and females, adults and juveniles, and other variation you might see within the species.  At some point we'll also include pictures of the things banders look for when collecting information about these birds.  In addition, over time, more information about each species, including information about when certain individuals were caught, data that has been collected on those species, and possibly even sounds will be added to the pages.  But all of that, of course, takes time!  Not to mention that some of the pictures are, gasp!, on film!  All of those will have to await an intern who can scan them in.

Finally, you can also access the albums from our tables of banding data.  Now, if you are curious about a species that has been recently banded, you can click on the species name and view photos of that bird.

So as a special bonus for blog readers, here are some photos that didn't make it onto the site (yet!):

Check out these Kingfisher feet!

Most people have never seen this bird- the Common Nighthawk
Here's its relative, the Whip-poor-will
I just can't get enough of this bird, the Pileated Woodpecker
Here's some little screech owls
And a little fluffy one
Sharp-shinned hawk
And finally, a young Northern Bobwhite
There are so many great pictures yet to share- hope you check out the albums!  You can also see the latest in bird glamor shots by following CRFRS on facebook.

Tara Holste is the Web Content Manager for the Center for Environment & Society, as well as a recent convert to the world of birding.