Late Summer in the Watershed

Supermoon- Shenandoah National Park- Hawksbill Mountain

Supermoon- Shenandoah National Park- Hawksbill Mountain

Summertime on the Chesapeake Bay equates to steamed crabs, rock fishing, and swimming along a host of other water based recreation.  The ubiquitous sights and sounds from these activities are a welcome addition for locals and hordes of travelers making their way to the region.  Along with the permeating aroma of Old Bay seasoning, which will indeed send your olfactory sense into a state of nirvana, summer is also the season of economic boom. 

The water of the Bay is so important to the culture and economy of the region. Yet have you ever considered where it comes from?

The diverse habitats of the watershed allow water to travel through marsh, piedmont, and the mountains of Appalachia.   Yes, when your feet are waddling though the sands of the Bay much of that water originated in the Appalachian Mountains, whose vast wilderness of cove forest is a far cry from the marsh that surrounds the Chesapeake.  The rolling green hills are a relic to a primeval past when these mountains were larger than the Rockies, originally carved by ancient glaciers that have since eroded into the forested wonderland we know today. 

Upper Chesapeake Bay

Upper Chesapeake Bay

The mountains are an important component to the watershed.  The rivers and streams that originate in them make up the majority of fresh water that eventually finds itself flowing into the bay.  It is wild to contemplate that the water that drops from the venerable waterfalls will make its way to the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, and other rivers originating in the mountains and eventually meander to brackish marsh.  Additionallyfor your favorite intrepid watershed photographer, exploring the higher mountains in this region, especially in Virginia and West Virginia, provides a welcome break from the heat (usually a much cooler by 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit).

The forests of these mountains also provide shelter for a large number of watershed wildlife, both aquatic and terrestrial.  Riparian forest bordering along rivers and streams provide shade and cooler waters that are important for spawning fish.  These woodlands absorb nitrogen and pollutants which in turn improve air quality.    

And there is the mountain fauna.  White tail Deer, bobcats, eastern coyotes, and elk are all found in portions of the mountains within the watershed.  Seeing a newborn deer fawn being licked by its mother in a mountain meadow is wonderful to behold.  As is the abundant bird life.  Yet the animal everyone wants to see when venturing into the Appalachian Mountains is the Black Bear.

There is something about being in the presence of a bear, especially on foot, as it is electrifying and always memorable.  This was an exceptional summer for me with observing black bear mothers and cubs.   Unfortunately, there were some bear attacks this summer from both black and grizzly bears, leading many to unjustly believe it were dangerous to venture into the woods.  However tawdry media hype had completely blown these events out of proportion.  

I hike in bear country frequently.  I find it satisfying that we have black bears in the watershed.  However I am not naive, because tragedies obviously occur, thus I always carry bear pepper spray with me.  Many amateur hikers whom venture into bear country do not understand the inherent dangers of wilderness areas or have a keen sense of animal behavior.  They definitely do not have the slightest inclination on what to do in the rare case of bear attack.  National Parks and wilderness areas are not a theme park.  There are plenty of trails in these areas for novice hikers however you must educate yourself to have at least a basic understanding of what to do if a bear wanders onto the trail. 

Black Bear in the Appalachian Mountains at dusk

Black Bear in the Appalachian Mountains at dusk

Simple precautions one takes when swimming in the Chesapeake Bay should be the same when wandering through bear country.

Currently, in late summer, the bears are gorging on cherry trees and the occasional ant hill.  Soon it will be acorns.  Sorry - I will not rush the remaining weeks of summer. 

Besides, I have my camera in its underwater housing. 

Happy Summer.

A Coda to the Summer of 2014

The Baltimore Orioles have just clinched the American League East. 

A Wild Horse- Assateague Island

A Wild Horse- Assateague Island

Damn, it felt good to write that.  One more time…….

The Baltimore Orioles have just clinched the AL East.   

Not since 1997 have my beloved Orioles won their division.  Baseball in October is going to be something of a joyful bedlam throughout the streets of Baltimore, a national pastime catharsis for the Camden Yards brethren.  Especially now that the air has gone crisp, the humidity has retreated, and appropriate hints of orange are beginning to outline the deciduous hardwoods of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays. 

The autumnal equinox is upon us.  Fall is coming. 

I must have time for pause and contemplation.  Where did the past three months go?

As summer ends its earthly rotation for another year and this essay, being my first since May, serving as both preface and epilogue to a season that began with a pivotal life event and featured adventures in wilderness on the American West and among the wilds of the Chesapeake.  I married my wonderful wife in June amongst the lodgepole pines and sublime peaks of Grand Teton National Park.  My wife and I adore the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and what better way to celebrate our union with our families than in the presence of the great bear and the wolf.  From there we spent a few weeks within the Crown of the Continent region, the Canadian Rockies, and the deserts of the American Southwest (another favorite of ours).  I plan to write on these topics within the next few months but for now I must share:  these places are amazing.

Prior to my wedding and upon my return I have been spending the majority of my time on the Coastal Bays Watershed and in the Blue Ridge mountains of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  The effects of coyote predation on whitetail fawns, the impact of off road vehicles on preservation areas, and the difference in behavior between wild horses acclimated to human presence versus those that are not are all topics I have been working on documenting.    

More often than not I could be found wandering and wading on the Coastal Bays.  The horses of Assateague have held a special place in my heart since childhood and observing their behavior is always a gift.  It has been a summer filled with rival stallions fighting, a new foal born, and all the other behaviors that come with wild, sea-faring, horses.

A Wild Horse herd galloping along the sand dunes of Assateague Island.

A Wild Horse herd galloping along the sand dunes of Assateague Island.

Additionally I documented and studied one of the most ancient biological rituals that annually occur in this region:  the spawning of the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus Polyphemus).  Thousands upon thousands of horseshoe crabs come together along the mostly wave resistant shores of Coastal Bays.  Males usually appear first, sometimes already attached to a larger female, and will attempt to fertilize as many eggs as possible upon release from their gender counterparts.  The coalescing of the crabs upon the shore offers us an almost identical view of their behavior dating back to the Triassic period, as they have remained unchanged through many epochs.  The eggs then create a smorgasbord of delight for a host of migrating shorebirds and gulls.  The excess eggs transform the beach from sandy yellow to a sickly green.  Sexy, huh? 

A Horseshoe Crab arrives on a beach along Assateague Island National Seashore

A Horseshoe Crab arrives on a beach along Assateague Island National Seashore

“Ewww, there’s guts coming out of that thing,” a young girl with an astute eye exclaims to her mother. 

“Those are just eggs, sweetie,” she replies as she attaches a tag to the shell of a crab as part of an ongoing monitoring project.  Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are considered a near threatened species, and numbers have declined due to development and over-harvesting (they serve as bait for eel fisherman and certain species of fish).  The study of the species has led to advancements in vision science, and enzymes and proteins from their blood have resulted in numerous medical studies.  Monitoring the species along the Atlantic is imperative to not just the species, but for its contributions to medicine as well.  This ancient resident of the watersheds may not be pretty, but they are extremely invaluable. 

It’s been such a wonderful, fast paced few months.  I still have much to write about.  For now though, thank you summer of 2014.  Onward to Fall on the Chesapeake. 

Let’s hope I can begin my next blog about the Orioles and the World Series.

Go O’s!!!!