High Flows to Chesapeake Continued in July, Triggering Large Dead Zone

The Susquehanna exceeds its banks at Port Deposit during a high flow period in September 2018. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

The Bay continued to be on the receiving end of high river flows in July. The flows have been higher than normal for 13 out of the last 15 months, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The pollution carried into the Bay during that span has led to worse than normal water quality and last month triggered a large oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Bay.

In July, the USGS reported that the estimated cumulative flow into the Bay from its nine largest rivers — which account for more than 95% of the freshwater entering the Bay — averaged 54,000 cubic feet per second. That was the 15th highest flow on record for the month since the agency began tracking river flows into the Bay in 1936.

So far this year, the flows were above normal in five of the first seven months of the year. That followed an eight-month period from May through December last year when flows were above normal every month.

The USGS considers a flow to be above normal if it is among the top 25% for a given month.

The data is available on a new USGS web page.

High freshwater flows are typically bad news for Bay water quality because they carry large amounts of water-fouling nutrients and sediments, which are flushed off the landscape and into the Chesapeake.

In the Bay, nutrients fuel algae blooms that cloud the water. As the blooms die and decompose, they are consumed by bacteria in a process that depletes water of oxygen. Sediment also clouds the water and smothers bottom habitats.

Scientists have been worried that the protracted period of high flows will lead to a decline in underwater grass beds, which need sunlight to survive. Earlier this year they predicted that the huge influx of nutrients would lead to a greatly expanded dead zone.

Indeed, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported that the area of low oxygen, or hypoxic, water was significantly worse than average during its two July water quality monitoring surveys.

In early July, the DNR reported a dead zone of 1.92 cubic miles in the Maryland portion of the Bay, compared with an average of 1.36 cubic miles. In late July, scientists found 2.01 cubic miles of low-oxygen water, compared with the late July average of 1.34 cubic miles.

Along with pollution, high flows added a surge of freshwater to the Bay that kept salinity low near the surface, causing strong stratification between the surface and higher salinity bottom waters. That essentially traps oxygen-starved water on the bottom and prevents it from mixing with the oxygen-rich surface.

DNR scientists said conditions also were aggravated by temperatures that warmed Bay waters to nearly 90 degrees. Warmer water holds less oxygen than cool water.

The department’s monitoring reports are available here.

By Karl Blankenship

Leave it to Beavers by Bay Journal’s Tom Horton

Notes to myself on preparing to teach my Chesapeake Bay course at Salisbury University for the 10th year:

A pair of young beavers perch atop their lodge in a Nanticoke River wetland. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

Teach oysters? Always, but this time I’m also going bigger, with beavers. Both are “keystone” species, and Castor canadensis, aka the North American beaver, is potentially the more important, even if restoring bivalves gets more press.

Sewage treatment? Can’t ever ignore 17 million toilet flushers, but as with beavers over oysters, I’m moving inland, traveling upslope, emphasizing the lands of the Bay’s watershed vs. the Bay itself.

And that word, “watershed,” let’s reimagine it — it only entered the language around 1800, by which time we’d already eliminated most beavers and their dams and ponds throughout the Chesapeake region. And, that fundamentally altered and accelerated the way water moved off the landscape.

So what’s a better word — waterkeep? Waterseep? Waterooze? Waterhold? …Something to get us back conceptually to the way it was when the Bay was healthy, its lands more fiercely retentive of life (water equals life).

You want to tell students everything you know. But when you have just 16 three-hour classes a semester, and you’re trying to spend four or five of those sessions outside with watermen and farmers and scientists, or paddling through climate-changed landscapes, you have to choose.

Land use most of the ballgame

Recently, my choices have moved upslope, come ashore, for a couple of reasons.

Land use is most of the ballgame in our estuary, more so than almost any other on Earth. The watershed/waterkeep is about 16 times the area of the tidal waters into which it drains. And the Bay is so shallow that there’s astoundingly little volume of water given its long, broad surface — clearly too little to dilute the runoff from 48 million acres.

The other reason is that the advanced sewage treatment and air pollution control technologies that have carried the Bay restoration to its current, modest success don’t have enough juice left to get us to our 2025 cleanup goals.

This is especially so in light of a growing population — and in light of no population-control policies at any level of government, or even among most environmental groups.

Success by 2025 is going to depend more and more on how well we can halt pollution running from the land — specifically the land that our population radically alters wherever it goes.

Stormwater controls from developed landscapes are better designed than ever, but expensive. It’s uncertain they will be deployed, maintained, inspected and enforced anywhere near 100%. Sediment control, for example, decades after it became law in places like Maryland, remains inadequate.


Agriculture, a far larger pollution source, is moving in some good directions with a new phosphorus-based manure control mandate in Maryland and the increasing use of winter cover crops that suck up fertilizers from groundwater before it carries them to the Bay.

But this is not happening everywhere, particularly not in Pennsylvania; and even where it is happening, we still don’t have convincing evidence that we’ll get big enough pollution reductions from the intensive row cropping and concentrations of animals that typify modern farming.

Add to this the real possibility that national policy may soon call for greater use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline. It saves little or no energy and would likely result in clearing more acres around the Bay for more corn.

There are promising programs to counteract polluted runoff, such as planting thousands of miles of vegetated buffers along rivers and streams. But those efforts are far behind schedule, and they don’t specifically call for the vegetation to be forest, the best buffer.

When beavers ruled

And while such greening of the Bay’s lands is good, we know that far better would be green and wet; and that’s where we need to reconsider and actively restore the beaver.

No creature on Earth, save for modern humans, has more capacity to transform a landscape; and in designing a landscape that produces excellent water quality, the beaver has no equal.

Beavers ruled the hydrology of North America for a million years or more, until just the last few centuries, when fur trapping reduced populations from an estimated 100 million or more to less than half a million. In the Chesapeake, from millions to thousands is a fair estimate.

Through damming and ponding, beavers stanched the shedding of water from the watershed, cleansed it, filtered it, held back floods, let rain soak in to keep water tables high and streams running even in drought. They created luxurious habitats for a stunning variety of amphibians, fish, waterfowl and mammals.

In recent decades, beavers have come back to the point where a solid body of science in Canada and the United States confirms they were this continent’s most important keystone species — a species whose functioning underpins a whole ecosystem.

My class this year listened to a young man in the stream-restoration business say that in many cases, the work that his company does might be done as well or better by just releasing beavers.

But it is illegal to do that, he said.

That’s a mindset that needs to change. It will take education to overcome prevailing views of beavers as tree-chewing, property-flooding nuisances. They can be, but there are technologies to help us coexist — piping that keeps beaver ponds deep enough for the animals without flooding, for example.

You will hear more about beavers in my future columns — and in the news, I hope. A good place to start: Should the Chesapeake restoration effort include a beaver goal?

In the meantime, we must emulate the animal any way we can, creating wetlands throughout the landscape wherever there is opportunity, moving rapidly toward a “slower” watershed, one that sheds water only grudgingly.

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.

Ecosystem: WATER/WAYS: Smithsonian Exhibit Opens in Oxford

Water: Seventy-one percent of earth’s surface is covered with it. It influences what we eat, where we live, and how we work. It impacts climate, inspires art, music, and religion. It is an environmental necessity. It affects our life on the Eastern Shore. Which is why the current traveling Smithsonian Museum on Main Street (MoMS) exhibit, Water/Ways, at the St. Paul’s Church in Oxford is such a significant exhibition.

Sponsored by the Oxford Museum & Maryland Humanities, the program is designed to explore and raises awareness of water and how it influences economy, history, migration, culture, and spirituality. It also looks at the environmental impact and ways to protect dwindling supplies of this critical resource.

The concept behind MoMS is to send high-quality exhibits to small museums in towns with small populations. Places that usually wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate in a national exhibition program. The selected towns are provided with ready-to-install exhibitions containing a variety of high-quality, informative units with photographs, text panels, and touchscreen interactive kiosks featuring video and audio content. Much of the work done to coordinate, install, and present the exhibition is done by volunteers. After six weeks, the exhibit is taken down and sent to the next scheduled location. Organizations all across Maryland competed for the chance to host this traveling exhibition, and the Oxford Museum was one of only six communities awarded the unique opportunity.

“The way it’s laid out, it’s meant to be of interest to a lot of different levels of curiosity,” says Stuart Parnes, president of the Oxford Museum. “So, there are things here that if you just want to look at the big picture, you can just do that. If you want to read a lot of detail, you can do that. The whole idea of these shows is to get people to think about issues and traditions that have affected our lives forever and we just kind of overlooked them or don’t think they’re important to us.”

But the exhibit is meant to do more than just be an educational experience. With support from state humanities councils, towns have the opportunity to create their own educational programs. “The idea is that each community that takes one of these shows amplifies it with what makes sense in the local community with their local culture or their local history, and their local arts,” says Parnes.

Since the Oxford Museum was too small to contain the 650 square foot exhibit along with the local programming, the main presentation is at the St. Paul’s Church, who cleared their calendar for the 6-week show. Two ancillary Water/Ways exhibits are on display at the Museum: “Carrying On – Four Centuries on the Oxford Bellevue Ferry,” which details one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions and “A Rising Tide in the Heart of the Chesapeake Bay,” which tells the story of Smith and Holland Islands and their struggle with erosion and rising waters. We have a split venue.” says Parnes, “We decided to have them open on the same days and the same schedule so that people could walk back and forth between both locations.”

Expanding on the experience of the informative, inspiring, and eye-opening exhibitions are a series of free and open to the public programs that feature experts in their field. “We’re trying to use people who are local that maybe folks haven’t really connected to yet,” says Parnes. “So, we’re not bringing people in from Baltimore and not bringing people in from Washington. This is about our own little area.” Oxford Community Center, Oxford Town Hall, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and the Easton Library provided space for the educational series which began in mid-July. The remaining lineup includes:

August 7, 5:30pm: Water, Water Everywhere: Sea Level Rise on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy staff.
August 8, 6:00pm: Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier with the book’s author, Earl Swift.
August 14, 5:30pm: Vibrio bacteria: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know, But Probably Should with Ava Ellett (Cooperative Oxford Lab/NOAA).
August 21, 5:30pm: Flushed with Pride (a discussion on Oxford’s new state of the art water treatment facility) by Oxford Town Manager, Cheryl Lewis
Additional information and location of programs may be found by visiting: https://www.oxfordmuseummd.org/events/

Water/Ways is open Friday-Monday 10:00am-4:00pm
St. Paul’s Church 225 S Morris St. and the Oxford Museum 101 S Morris St.
The exhibit runs through August 24, 2019

Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.

Shorter, Warmer Winters Could Lead to Longer, more Productive Blue Crab Season

Scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science are predicting that warmer winters in the Chesapeake Bay will likely lead to longer and more productive seasons for Maryland’s favorite summer crustacean, the blue crab.

Researchers examined data on increasing temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay and predictions for continued warming. They found that winters will be up to 50% shorter by 2100, and overwinter survival of the blue crab will increase by at least 20% compared to current conditions.

“Blue crabs are a climate change winner in the bay. As the bay gets warmer they will do better because they are a more tropical species,” said study co-author and Professor Tom Miller of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “We always hear about those species that are going to struggle or move. Blue crab are going to do better.”

The blue crab is found along the Atlantic Coast from New England to Argentina. Maryland’s blue crabs spend their winters dormant in the muddy sediment at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, emerging only when water temperatures near 50° F. In recent years, this dormancy period has been becoming shorter, and trends indicate it will become shorter still—and could potentially become nonexistent.

“Water temperatures are warming and the crabs are cold blooded so their metabolic rate is directly related to warmer temperature. Warmer water means they grow faster,” said Hillary Lane Glandon, who conducted this research as a graduate student at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and is now a post-doctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.

Scientists predict that the shortening of winter combined with increases in average wintertime temperatures will cause a significant increase in juvenile blue crab winter survival so that the population behavior comes to resemble that currently observed in the Sounds of North Carolina and further south.

“In 100 years, we would expect winter for crabs in Solomons to look more like winter currently looks in southern North Carolina,” said Glandon. “No winter for the crabs.”

While this may sound great, don’t stock up on your mallets and Old Bay yet.

Crabbing is prohibited December through March in the lower Chesapeake Bay, which has helped in maintaining the population at sustainable levels. However, an increase in wintertime crab activity may encourage a lengthening of crabbing season similar to states such as North Carolina and Louisiana, where crabs are active year-round.

“People will be able to fish for them almost year-round. However, this challenges the traditional pattern in which waterman fish for striped bass in the spring and crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter—that traditional seasonal rotation of the harvest. It’s a cultural challenge,” said Miller.

Climate change not only signals warming temperatures but also increased variability in temperatures, further complicating wintertime management of the species. A particularly cold winter could devastate a year-round fishery.

“If crabs start moving and feeding year-round, they represent an added predation pressures on the bay’s ecosystem, and we don’t know how the ecosystem will respond,” said Miller.

Predicting change

The researchers used computer-modeled projections of future temperature from the World Climate Research Programme’s Coupled Model Intercomparison Project to explore how changes in water temperature may impact the overwintering behavior and winter survival of blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay in the next 100 years.

In order to create a model that was directly relevant to the Chesapeake Bay near Solomons, Maryland, they were able to access a long-term (1938-2016) dataset of daily water and air temperature measurements collected right in their backyard in the Patuxent River. From the pier at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, water temperatures have been taken by hand at noon from 1938–2012 and by automatic instrumentation from 2012 to 2016. Average daily temperatures have increased 3.2˚F since 1938.

“The data from right off our pier is a unique data set because it is so long. We couldn’t do this work without someone taking measurements every day off the pier. This highlights the value of long-term monitoring and efforts we make to do that,” said UMCES paleoclimatologist Hali Kilbourne, who looks deep into the past to predict future climate changes. “This study is a good example of the pay-off for all the effort that goes into climate data.”

Humans burning fossil fuels have caused an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 1800s. Due to the greenhouse effect, this increase has and will continue to cause an increase in atmospheric and ocean temperatures, which are projected to warm from current temperatures by 4.7-8.6°F by the year 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked.

“Our analysis of historical and future predicted temperatures indicates that water temperatures will continue to rise in the Chesapeake Bay through the year 2100. This increase in

water temperature will occur equally in all seasons of the year, and will therefore effect blue crab wintertime behavior and survival,” said Glandon.

The study, “Winter is (not) coming: warming temperatures will affect the overwinter behavior and survival of blue crab,” was published in PLOS One by Hillary Lane Glandon, K. Halimeda Kilbourne, Thomas J. Miller of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Large Summer ‘Dead Zone’ Forecast for Chesapeake Bay

Ecologists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan are forecasting a large Chesapeake Bay “dead zone” in 2019 due to well-above-average river flows associated with increased rainfall in the watershed since last fall.

“The forecast this year reflects the high levels of precipitation that have been observed across the Bay’s watershed,” said report co-author Jeremy Testa of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The high flows observed this spring, in combination with very high flows late last fall, are expected to result in large volumes of hypoxic and anoxic water.”

The bay’s hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (no oxygen) zones are caused by excess nutrient pollution, primarily from agriculture and wastewater. The excess nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water. The resulting low oxygen levels are insufficient to support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters, threatening the bay’s crabs, oysters and other fisheries.

This summer’s Chesapeake Bay hypoxic or “dead zone,” an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and other aquatic life, is expected to be about 2.1 cubic miles, while the volume of water with no oxygen is predicted to be between 0.49 and 0.63 cubic miles during early and late summer.

The predicted volumes are larger than the dead zone observed during the summer of 2018 and would be among the four largest in the past 20 years. Measurements of the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone go back to 1950, and the 30-year mean maximum dead zone volume is 1.74 cubic miles.

“The forecast is not surprising considering the near-record high flows in 2018 that have continued into 2019,” said Bruce Michael, director of the Resource Assessment Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “That said, bottom dissolved oxygen concentrations are improving over the long-term in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, indicating our efforts to reduce nutrient pollution throughout the entire watershed are improving water quality conditions, helping to support fish, shellfish and our aquatic resources.”

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources will conduct bimonthly Bay water quality monitoring cruises June through August to track Bay summer hypoxia. Results from each monitoring cruise will be available on the Department’s Eyes on the Bay website at http://eyesonthebay.dnr.maryland.gov/eyesonthebay/index.cfm

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Bay Report Card released earlier this spring gave the Bay a grade of “C” in 2018, in part due to the extreme precipitation. Spring rainfall plays an important role in determining the size of the Chesapeake Bay “dead zone.” This year, exceptionally high spring rainfall and streamflow is transporting nitrogen to tidal waters in amounts above the long-term average, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides the nitrogen-loading estimates used to generate the annual hypoxia forecast.

In spring 2019, the Susquehanna River delivered 102.6 million pounds of nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac River, as measured near Washington, D.C., supplied an additional 47.7 million pounds of nitrogen, according to USGS. This is well-above long-term averages of 80.6 million pounds from the Susquehanna and 31.8 million pounds from the Potomac. Loads from the Susquehanna have not been this high since 2011.

“Managing estuarine responses to changing conditions on the landscape continues to be one of the nation’s environmental challenges,” said Joel Blomquist, hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “The science partnership in the Chesapeake Bay is setting the standard for supporting environmental managers with observation-based science.”

“This year’s forecast is for the fourth largest dead zone in the past 20 years, illustrating that more work needs to be done,” said University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and report coauthor Don Scavia. “The Chesapeake Bay dead zone remains considerably larger than the reduction goals, and we’ll never reach those targets unless more is done to reduce nutrient pollution.”

The bay outlook is based on models developed at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, with funding provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and data generated by the United States Geological Survey and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Throughout the year, researchers measure oxygen and nutrient levels as part of the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program, run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. This year’s findings will be released in the fall.

Chesapeake Report Card: Bay Health Decreased Last Year due to Rainfall but General Trend Improving

The Chesapeake Bay score decreased in 2018, but maintained a C grade, according to the 2018 Chesapeake Bay Report Card issued today by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). This was due to extremely high precipitation over the year. Despite extreme rainfall last year, the overall trend indicates that Chesapeake Bay health is improving over time.

“While 2018 was a difficult year for Chesapeake health due to high rainfall, we are seeing trends that the Bay is still significantly improving over time. This is encouraging because the Bay is showing resilience to climate change,” said Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Almost all indicators of Bay health, such as water clarity, underwater grasses, and dissolved oxygen, as well as almost all regions, declined in 2018. In particular, chlorophyll a and total nitrogen scores had strong declines due to very high rainfall causing nutrient runoff that then fed algal blooms. However, the overall Bay-wide trend is improving. Since 2014, all regions have been improving or remaining steady.

“Our administration is pleased to see continued improvement in the health and resilience of our most precious natural asset, the Chesapeake Bay. Since taking office, we have been focused on improving the health of the Bay, investing a record $5 billion toward wide-ranging restoration programs. This report, along with the great news that Maryland’s crab population has grown 60%, is yet another promising sign of ongoing improvement of the Bay and that our continued investment is making a difference,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

Of the many factors that affect Chesapeake Bay health, the extreme precipitation seen in 2018 appears to have had the biggest impact. The Baltimore area received 72 inches of rain in 2018, which is 170% above the normal of 42 inches. As a result, the reporting region closest to Baltimore—the Patapsco and Back Rivers—saw a decline in health, decreasing to an F grade in 2018. The strongest regional declines were in the Elizabeth River and the Choptank River. The two regions that remained steady were the Lower Bay and the York River.

“The extreme precipitation in 2018 was a key issue, and current science shows that with climate change this area is going to be warmer and wetter,” said Peter Goodwin, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The Bay is in fact showing resilience in the face of climate change and extreme weather events, underlining that the restoration efforts must remain vigilant to continue these hard-won efforts.”

Fish populations received a B grade, showing a steep decline from the previous year’s score of A. Striped bass numbers sharply declined in 2018, while blue crab and bay anchovy scores declined somewhat (although blue crab are showing a revival in early 2019). These drops in scores are a cause for concern as smaller populations could lead to further declines in the future.

“This is not the time to put the brakes on efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Our progress has been hampered by extreme weather events, but we must keep fighting,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. “The health of the Chesapeake Bay depends on all of us in the region—federal, state, local, and private partners—working together toward a common goal: the preservation and restoration of the watershed, which in turn ensures better health for our citizens, economy, and local wildlife.”

“Improving the health of the Bay doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a month or a year. We must be constantly vigilant in our efforts to restore the Bay, and that starts with providing adequate funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program and other cleanup efforts,” said U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen. “I will continue working through my role on the Appropriations Committee to prevent attempts to cut funding and to provide the Bay with the resources it needs to thrive.”

Actions that individuals can take to contribute to a cleaner Bay include reducing fertilizer use from all sources, carpooling and using public transportation, and connecting with people across the entire Bay Watershed to work together.

This is the 13th year that the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration and Application Network has produced the report card. It is the longest-running and most comprehensive assessment of Chesapeake Bay and its waterways. This report card uses extensive data and analysis which enhances and supports the science, management, and restoration of the Bay. For more information about the 2018 Chesapeake Bay Report Card including region-specific data, visit chesapeakebay.ecoreportcard.org.

View The Chesapeake Bay Report Card here.

Bees, Quail Disappear While Ticks Spread by Al Sikes

The rabbit fit into the palm of my hand. It was stunned when I took it from the soft mouth of my Labrador Retriever; it invited rescue. I can recall other wild things that I have rescued, some reluctantly. Snakes lead the list. But this tiny bunny was right out of a children’s storybook.

My wife took the bunny and put it into a 12 inch tall cardboard box with water and lettuce and inserted the box into a sink on a kitchen island. The island was approximately 36 inches above the floor. We were reasonably optimistic that we were giving the bunny a chance to grow up to be a rabbit.

The following morning the bunny was gone. He had climbed up the slick surface of the box and had jumped to the floor. We and most importantly our two dogs looked everywhere. We felt certain they would scent the bunny. No luck.

Four days later the bunny reappeared, animated the dogs and after a short chase I caught it and took it outside where it quickly disappeared in the tall grasses just off our lawn.

Rabbits face predators from all sides and above. They are a prime source of calories for foxes, raptors and their tiny offspring are hunted by snakes among other predators. A rabbit has to have wild senses and the agility to elude the hungry. So too, Quail.

Quail have almost disappeared from much of their native grounds they shared with us. For many they are an abstraction. Their habitat has largely disappeared under the blade of heavy equipment and the toxins of herbicides. When is the last time you heard a quail sing or were startled by a covey rise? And we shouldn’t forget that quail are part of the food chain and lunch on ticks.

Several years ago I looked into a shortcut—releasing pen-raised quail on my farm. The story of the rabbit accentuates the folly. A rabbit purchased at a pet shop would not have escaped the box or rebounded from the fall. Pen-raised quail do not have nature’s defense mechanisms to avoid death.

A glimmer of hope has developed in recent years. Both State governments and private organizations have begun efforts to revive the wild quail. They are learning what works and doesn’t and getting better and better at their mission. But, fighting chemicals, heavy equipment and the desire, by some, to leave no dollars on the table is not easy work.

In a sense this is one more battle between irrepressible forces and immovable objects. Yet, in this case the immovable object is, well huge—industrial strength. It is underwritten by bottom lines that leave nature out of the equation. Try to find quail on an Excel spreadsheet.

Quail are fortunate in one respect. They have important allies—pollinators. Pollinators—bees and butterflies principally–depend on many of the same plants that provide protection and food for the quail. On a strictly utilitarian level we can do without quail, but not pollinators. Nature gives us life, including a mix of plants, grasses, trees, shrubs and of course wildlife; they comprise a virtuous circle. When we declare war on the natural systems, we are declaring war on ourselves. We convert a virtuous circle to a perverse one. Adults need to understand the birds and bees.

This is not a new story; humans become preoccupied with wants only to lose what we need. We need buffer filters for clean water. We need pollinators. And the loss of quail is the loss of an important inheritance, forgotten over time. The quail sings a captivating tune and then it is gone.

When my wife and I bought a small row crop farm, we were attracted to its topography and a farm setting on the upper Miles River. We did, however, plant corridors of warm season grasses and developed a five acre wetland.

Quail have not appeared but we have an abundance of very interesting species that crop fields eliminate. Turkey, rabbits, woodcocks and even a Eurasian wading bird called a Ruff have shown up. When the Ruff flew in to wade around our wetland, cars piled up along our right-of-way as Birders from hundreds of miles away came to catch sight of this rare bird.

Our grasses also started a number of interesting conversations. Many could not fathom fields left unmowed; our property was not patterned after a golf course. It became easy, however, to change the conversation as my wife and I are beekeepers and that attracts a lot of questions.

I wish our weekly visuals could be easily shared. A woodcock at sunset is thrilling. A turkey flush as my Labrador and I were walking a pathway got our attention and when we take an evening walk in the fall we often see ducks landing against an orange sky. But, no sighting of quail.

I did one day hear the quail song. It must have been a mockingbird, but then where did the mocking bird pick up the tune? A bit of hope, a distant time remembered.

The distant time was my first hunt with my Dad. We shot a quail or two, but the memory is in the pointing dogs work and the covey flush. So yes, I am a dreamer.

But let me go back briefly to my first hunt. Quail have not been hunted out and I have no intention of hunting them again. Quail have fallen to indifference.

While some are working to bring the Bobwhite Quail back, even more are working to protect pollinators; without habitat that supports quail, they too will decline and then disappear.  The thrills of nature are important, but the pollinators are crucial and that is where my native optimism is encouraged.

Wildlife habitat should be a part of every farm and large-scale commercial development. Studies show that farm edges and other marginal yield acres can be used for wildlife to economic advantage. And wildlife habitat should be in the equation as developers seek to convert large tracts of land. Federal and State programs exist to help private landowners reclaim any economic losses. In this respect, Missouri leads the way; it has 47 “private land conservationists” working with landowners on plans and funding alternatives.

Most farmers I know prize wildlife almost as much as their way of life. But many are caught in one of these endless cycles of economic scale and the debt that underwrites its growth. And there is certainly no end of industrial behemoths selling equipment, chemicals, and seeds and then buying the resulting harvest.

Yet, quail in many ways are the “canary in the coal mine”. A canary’s death told miners that the air was too polluted to go any further. As water cascades across parking lots, highways, and fertilized fields it gathers pollutants that wash directly into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries unless there is habitat that filters water. And buffer habitat is the home of pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and potentially quail. Distilled down it is simple: if quail return, our watershed will flourish and not at the expense of the farmer.

Reclaiming our inheritance— clean water, quail, rabbits, pollinators, is our burden.

Remember the rabbit whose wild genes saved him from my Labrador, a cardboard box and a three foot fall? Tall Timbers, an organization that you have likely not heard of is making a difference—it is translocating wild quail, 5,400 to date and is working with a variety of partners to share research and best habitat practices.

It works with both private and public partners that can devote enough acres of habitat to make translocation work. Projects in the Mid-Atlantic include working collaboratively with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. One study site is Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County and other Maryland sites are referred to as “habitat cooperatives” comprised of both private and public lands.

And on the northern fringes of quail territory Tall Timbers is working with New Jersey Audubon at the Pine Island Cranberry property where they are in their third year of translocating quail.

Several weeks ago I talked to Tall Timbers Czar of quail restoration, Theron Terhune, Ph.D., Director Game Bird Program. I joked with him that he has the power that most Czars of this or that lack. Terhune assesses a potential translocation site and its habitat and management practices must measure up or it will not receive wild quail.

I would love to hear the quail song from my front porch. I dream about being startled again by the thunderous covey flush. Maybe my neighborhood will someday support quail but only if I act. Leaving a land ethic to others should not be an option.

Interviews for this essay included: Dan Small, Field Ecologist and Natural Lands Project Coordinator, Washington College; Christopher Williams, Professor of Wildlife Ecology, University of Delaware; Dave Hoover, Small Game Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation; Bob Long, Wild Turkey and Upland Game Bird Project, Department of Natural Resources, Maryland; Dr. Theron Terhune, Game Bird Program Director, Tall Timbers; Ned Gerber, Wildlife Habitat Ecologist, Jerry Harris and Bill DAlonzo, dedicated private landowners.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Mid-Shore Public Transportation: Shared Mobility Coming to Chestertown

One of the best highlights of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s recent conference on traffic and public transportation last week, and there were many, was the discovery that Washington College is very close to offering a shared mobility program in Chestertown.

Working with the New Jersey-based Greenspot, which offers mobility solutions using an electric charging station infrastructure,  the College’s Enactus team to develop what it’s hoped to be the first of many stations throughout the Mid-Shore.

Last week the Spy sat down with Greenspot’s Brett Muney, its locations development manager, for a brief introduction to the for-profit company and its plans with Washington College. The net result of which would bring an exciting new option in the region’s efforts to expand its public transportation capacity.

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information on the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy please go here

ESLC’s Darius Johnson Would Like Your Attention on Bay Bridge Traffic Solutions

While the Mid-Shore has been fixated on issues related to a third Chesapeake Bay bridge possibly landing in their backyard, The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s Darius Johnson would politely suggest that the region turn its focus on the problems that exist now with bridge traffic and the real consequences for our communities along Route 50.

As the recently hired project director with ESLC, Johnson has been tasked with managing one of the organization’s oldest traditions; its annual planning conference, now in its 19th year. And the one day program, suitably named “ReRouting,” will place most of the attention on “here and now” traffic and transportation challenges.  How appropriate it that it will be held at the base of Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the The Chesapeake Bay Beach Club.

The Spy caught up with Darius at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center last week to chat about the conference.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s ReRouting Conference on April 18 please go here.





ESLC’s Jim Bass Reports on Eastern Shore’s Preparedness for Rising Seas Levels

Given the nature of things – literally – it won’t be surprising for the Eastern Shore to have several studies prepared in the decades ahead that record and evaluate the dangers facing its rural communities as sea levels continue to rise throughout the century.

With the Delmarva Peninsula being one of the country’s most vulnerable landscapes for flooding and erosion as the result of global warming, there is an ever growing concern on the part of local government staff, conservation organizations, agricultural associations, and state agencies on what is being done, and what could be done, to prepare the Shore for this extraordinarily dramatic shift in climate.

One of the first of these has just been prepared by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy with a new study to assist local governments to plan for the impacts of sea level rise. Titled “Mainstreaming Sea Level Rise Preparedness in Local Planning and Policy on Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” the study is centered on sea level rise projections for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in the years 2050 and 2100.

This report was written on behalf of the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership  – a regional workgroup of local government staff, partners from the State of Maryland, academic institutions, and nonprofits for that very reason.

The ESCAP assists communities in reducing climate vulnerabilities and risks; collects and shares information among communities and decision makers; and educates members, residents, and elected leaders on risks and adaptation strategies. It also serves to raise the visibility and voice of the Eastern Shore and rural regions in conversations about adaptation and resilience.

The Spy sat down last week with Jim Bass, ESLC’s Coastal Resilience Specialist, who helped manage the study, last week to find out what the significant takeaways were and what must be done in the future to protect and defend the Mid-Shore from this dangerous new future we face.

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information regarding this study, ESCAP, or ESLC’s coastal resilience program, please contact ESLC Coastal Resilience Specialist Jim Bass at jbass@eslc.org.The study is available to view and download at www.eslc.org/resilience.

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