Bay Journal


Forests’ hidden wetlands work for wildlife, water quality

Diversity is the spice of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than where land and water meet. The blending of terrestrial and aquatic environments creates a wetland, an ecosystem that often supports more life than either the land or water alone.

When they hear the term “wetlands,” many people in our region only envision the marshes found mainly along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay and tidal portions of rivers. They are aware that these areas are extremely valuable as spawning and nursery grounds for fish, blue crabs and other Bay aquatic life.

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Striped bass live most of the year in the ocean, but migrate to freshwater to spawn. The word used to describe these fish is anadromous. Other anadromous species found in the Chesapeake region include the alewife, American shad and Atlantic sturgeon. Can you match these fish with their descriptions?

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Migratory fish often face one dam barrier after another

Warmer, longer days, spring flowers and the chorus of frogs and songbirds lure me outside to get moving. And for fish it is no different. Early spring is when many fish species are on the move, migrating to other areas to spawn.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed, a kind of watery interstate, is a vital corridor for migrating fish.

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Atlas helps birders move beyond naming a bird to knowing it

March is a funny month. Sometimes spring seems here to stay. Then, a cold blast barrels through, and mud puddles turn icy and warm coats are needed.

It was late March 2019, and the weather couldn’t make up its mind. It started dreary and damp, but the clouds were clearing and the temperature was rising. We took advantage of the brightening skies to take a walk around a local park.

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The canary in this ‘coal mine’ is the saltmarsh sparrow

Along the Atlantic Coast, a quiet sparrow blends in with the grasses of the salt marsh. Often hard to spot as it gathers food to bring back to its nest, the saltmarsh sparrow is recognized by its orange eyebrow and moustache and black-streaked breast and sides.

The species is the only bird exclusive to East Coast salt marshes, nesting along the coast from Virginia to Maine. They make their nests in the higher parts of the marsh, and successful nesting is timed with the lunar cycle and tides.

While these birds are adapted to typical monthly high tides and occasional large storm events, they are now threatened by increased flooding from rising seas and more frequent storms. The coastal marsh habitat that these birds need is being lost. High marsh is changed into low marsh no longer able to support saltmarsh sparrows.

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For ring-billed gulls, color of feathers is often ‘so last year’

Identifying gulls has flummoxed many a birder, including me. Gulls take several years to reach their adult feathers. Getting there involves a complicated progression through such mysterious plumages as juvenile, first alternate, second basic, and third alternate before ending in their definite phases. For years, rather than hazarding a guess on a specific species, I have entered the generic “gull species” on my checklist.

We were confronted with this problem a few Januarys ago while birding at Shorter’s Wharf on the edge of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge outside Cambridge, MD. A group of gulls was loafing along the shore during a clear, cold morning.

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Sea slugs

Good things come in small packages. This adage certainly applies to what may be one of the Chesapeake’s most overlooked marine creatures: sea slugs.

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Healthy streams: The best prescription for the ailing Chesapeake Bay

You may not live on the Chesapeake Bay or any other waterfront, but chances are there is a stream, creek or river close to where you live.

So what does that mean? Plenty. We all live in a watershed. A watershed is all of the land drained by a specific waterway. A watershed also includes all of the streams, creeks and rivers that flow into this waterway, like the Chesapeake Bay.

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A bird of the Americas, kestrel needs global help to face climate change

Bright sunshine made the cold almost pleasant. Brilliant blue skies threw the barren trees into high relief. The gentlest of breezes played with the tawny grasses. The refuge was quiet except for a gentle rustling of the meadow and distant bird calls.

We had just pulled into the refuge’s parking lot when we saw a bird perched on a power line. The bird’s color and size immediately told us we were looking at an American kestrel.

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Feature: Archives


Bat Week is celebrated the last week in October. The last night in October is Halloween. What do these two things have in common? Bats play an important role in pollinating cacao plants, from which we get chocolate. Can you imagine a...

Let’s go to bat for the Little Brown Bat!

White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in North America since it was first documented here in 2006–07. The disease has been particularly devastating for the little brown bat. How much do you know about the little brown bat and...

For wren and writer, home is where the birdhouse hangs

Well before sunrise in early May it started: a loud chattering, burbling, cascading torrent of notes. From just outside our bedroom window, the birdsong filled the early morning air. It would continue virtually all day and go on well into the...

Name Game

Here are the names of some plants and animals that are fun to say out loud. Match them with their description. Answers are below. Dickcissel Fuzzy Foot Hairy Beardtongue Hobomok Katydid Megalops Mummichog Polliwog Pawpaw Skink Whistlepig 1....

Words for the wise

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” — Henry Ford You’re never too old to learn new words. And if...


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Bay Buddies

Bears & Snakes!

Some people won’t hike in an area where they fear they might run into a bear or snake. The chance of encountering one of these creatures is very small, and if you take precautions, the chance of being injured is even smaller. Here are safety tips. See if you can figure out which are...

Sea cucumbers

There are more than 1,200 sea cucumbers in the world’s oceans and their bays. The Chesapeake Bay is home to two of these creatures, the common sea cucumber and the pale sea cucumber. Take this quiz to learn more about these amazing creatures. Answers are below. 1. Sea cucumbers are...


Lightning strikes thousands of people every year. Those struck directly by lightning usually die. Take this quiz and use what you learn from it to help avoid becoming one of lightning’s unfortunate victims. Answers are below. 1. Should you touch someone who has been struck by...

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Bay Naturalist

Be a good gardener – replace invasive plants with natives

It’s finally spring and your attention may be turning to sprucing up or creating green spaces around your home, school or business. But be careful when choosing flowers, shrubs and trees to plant. You could unknowingly introduce an invasive plant into the surrounding environment....

Delmarva fox squirrel scampers off endangered species list

The Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) is found only on the Delmarva Peninsula, the land between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean that includes Delaware, eastern Maryland and eastern Virginia. This large tree squirrel inhabits the mature forests of this...

Honking signals the traffic of Chesapeake’s migrating waterfowl

Every fall, a great migration begins as thousands of swans, geese and ducks leave northern breeding grounds and begin flying south. The Chesapeake watershed lures these birds from Alaska, Canada, the Northcentral United States and New England as they seek out the open water of the Bay,...

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Chesapeake Challenge

As Earth Day turns 50, it’s time to recycle that initial enthusiasm

 “We know that our high-technology society is handling our environment in a way that will be lethal for us. What we don’t know — and had better make haste to test — is whether a high-technology society can achieve a safe, durable and improving relationship with...

The world beneath your feet

Which is greater — the number of organisms in a handful of healthy soil or the number of people on Earth? If you said organisms, you are correct! Know some more dirt on soil? Take this quiz to see how well you are grounded on the world beneath your feet. Answers are below. Match the...

Is it a lake? That de-ponds…

Is it a large pond or a small lake? Believe it or not, there is no “official” definition of a pond. While many use size as criteria — large = lake, small=pond — remember that the Atlantic Ocean is sometimes referred to as “The Pond” by people who live on...

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On the Wing

Admiration for oddball American coot is an a acquired taste

A crisp morning breeze turned the waters of Tubby Cove into a corrugated surface of sparkling silver. We had arrived early and found hundreds of geese, ducks and swans loafing in the morning sun. Tundra swans looked regal with their brilliant white bodies and elegant long necks. Just in...

Common goldeneye has heart of gold when young are concerned

The calendar said that Thanksgiving was just a week away, but the weather told a different story. The temperature was near 70 degrees and the bright sun made it feel warmer still. New York’s Glimmerglass State Park is aptly named. The placid waters of Lake Otsego reflected a few...

Quest for food, refuge drives broad-winged hawk migration

The day was autumn-perfect with a few high clouds, a brilliant azure sky, and a zephyr coming off the nearby Chesapeake Bay. We had just departed the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on a lovely late September afternoon. Soybean and cornfields were newly harvested. Pumpkins and apple...

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Past is Prologue

Young surveyors learn to measure up on 1907–08 Patuxent cruise

St. Leonard's Creek on the Patuxent, the Chesapeake's sixth largest river, was formed by the slow inundation of a forested valley as sea levels rose and land subsided during and after the melt of great continental glaciers. The process, which commenced 12,000–14,000 years ago...

From plow furrows to peach trees, early Patuxent River survey had it all

Please excuse this writer as he blurs history slightly in describing early survey work on the Chesapeake Bay. It is his intention to breathe life into events that likely happened 165 years ago this summer. R.D. Cutts stepped lightly ashore from the longboat carrying his transit and...

Bricks reveal foundations of early Bay buildings from ground up

After decades of studying the early colonization of the Chesapeake region, I still stand in awe of those men who stepped off their ships with axes, shovels and a few saws to face an immense forest from which they had to fashion structures that allowed some of them to survive the hard...

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