Thursday, November 20, 2014

South to North Point: What Could Never Return Just Might

I've often heard that the Mid-Atlantic might as well be considered one long crowded corridor of interstates, beltways, industrial lots, suburban sprawl, cities, and degraded scenery.  I suppose such perceptions might be correct if based on limited experiences visiting just the daisy-chain of East Coast cities.  But there is a remarkable re-wilding happening here and it surprises people who venture beyond the highways how quickly things get rowdy, unkempt, and even a little toothy.  But is it the same nature we originally bludgeoned out of the way to make room for human ventures? Is what returns the same as what was lost? And what was lost that can never return?

Old generator building at North Point State Park.

This week I  did some birdwatching with my old friend Mike at North Point State Park  just south of the old industrial center and ports of Baltimore. The land formerly held an amusement park, a waterfowl hunting club, a dump, and a busy waterfront ferry terminal. The general area known as North Point saw action during the War of 1812 and has served as an important agricultural area for 350 years. And now, like many of the places I visit and describe on this blog, it seems to be infilling with a new wildness- almost but not quite back-to-nature.

 Circa 1940. Photo Credit : Baltimore County Historical Society

Ruins of the Ferry Grove Pier, 2014.

The birding was light this morning, too cold and windy to offer us much but there were some mallards and gadwalls in the forested wetland,  pied-billed grebes, chickadees, white-throated sparrows, a hermit thrush, robins, and a very curious titmouse. The woods, typical of the coastal plain forest of American holly, sweet gum, white oak, and pine is in a  mid-succession phase with lots of edges draped in vines and crowded with other sun-seeking plant competitors.  The wind and the rough-shod look of the woods had me missing what might have been there before the days of steel mills, market hunting, amusement parks, and wartime manufacturing. What I saw was a simplified ecological system, a natural world that seemed somehow impoverished. This land has been through so much for so long, it seems to have lost its ecological identity. But in small ways it was trying to re-establish itself with help from conservation management.

Carolina Chickadee.

What is coming back, however, looks nothing like what was here at the time Europeans first set foot on these shores hundreds of years ago. It looks nothing like the landscape of our native peoples, who at the time of discovery, had already been decimated by European viruses that preceded settlers by a century. What is here now does not instill fear of predators or disease. These things have come and gone. What remains has been lost and recovered repeatedly, with each cycle of landscape change throwing off another handful of species, some gone for good, some slowly edging their way back. Like the cement shell of the trolley generator building that sits hollow and decaying in the woods, this is more like nature in ruin clawing its way back. I'm always a little sad to visit places like this. Though I enjoy watching people come out and enjoy their connections with the outdoors, this semi-wild environment is like an echo. It's as though we've forgotten what really wild may have been like, and we don't know how to identify the signals of recovery. Maybe, since humans were on the menu thousands of years ago, we don't want to remember!

Forested wetland along the trolley track berm.

It's true that people come to parks to enjoy nature, but what they see now is just what they expect to see: a safe, quiet, recreational area that offers the harried, modern soul a place to unwind. People hike, birdwatch (like us), fish, wade, ride bikes, walk dogs (on leashes), without realizing that the baseline of ecological function has shifted into a mere shadow of its former self, devoid of all fang and claw.  When a fox or coyote is observed, we speak and act from ancient fear-based emotion, wild tales and fables, gazing through woods for a predator lurking there, hand on gun with traps and poison at the ready.

Female Northern Cardinal in open edge.

What we see now is a barely functional landscape, a severe reduction of a complex ecosystem that once included higher level predators.  No bears, bobcats, cougars, wolves. No trophic cascades of predator-prey relationships and all the visible and invisible implications these relationships have for a landscape free of human interference. Of course that interference was well underway over 10,000 years ago and landscapes change dramatically through climatic and geological events as well.  But my point here is not to advocate for the intentional human facilitated reintroduction of big predators into a long-settled landscape, but that when they do wander in, and they do (as in the case of bears and big cats and wild dogs in Maryland), we not go ape-crazy about it.

Tufted Titmouse.

A landscape in recovery requires its predators to bring a system into dynamic balance. First studied by Aldo Leopold and his contemporaries in wildlife management, the science of trophic cascades has grown steadily within the context of conservation biology and ecological restoration. When only a few decades ago policy dictated that the purposeful removal of predators would make for a healthier prey-based environment (to benefit the human hunter), we are now realizing the weakness and bias this line of thinking entailed. 

Hermit thrush in thorny edge by the marsh.

I can't help but feel a little sad walking through such a beautiful place. It's a sadness I am coming to feel more and more the older I get, knowing my grandchildren will live in one of two worlds: one made richer for our understanding of the wild, or one impoverished by our ignorance of it. I watched a video (linked in Notes below) this weekend from one of my favorite trans-disciplinary science websites where Dr. Jennifer Jacquet describes how extinction can be viewed in several different ways to include economic and ecological extinction. She tells of  the decline of Florida  fisheries, the loss of the Stellar's seacow, and of Old George the Pinta Island tortoise - the last of his kind. She said something that caught my ear, "I stay up at night lamenting about the loss of species..."  I think I do too and walking in the absence of creatures and plants sometimes follows me like a shadow. I think about elk a lot and must plan a trip to central Pennsylvania to see them - get my elk fix.

Successional Coastal Plain forest at North Point State Park.

As Mike and I walked along we stopped at a road berm to look over at the soybean field where earlier in the morning I'd watched a large white-tailed deer buck. In full rut the buck chased two does through a vine-covered finger of woods that divided two fields.  He stopped breathless when he realized I had been there for some time. On full alert he stretch his swollen neck, sniffing the wind, looking in my direction. He shook his massive rack of antlers, pawing, snorting. Then he turned and looked through the woods to the opposite field to check for another threat to emerge. Another buck maybe? A long breathless wait, a pause silent and edgy. I imagined a panther on a limb, a wolf circling wide around the field. Today it could well be the crack of a poacher's rifle. How many kinds of predators has the deer learned to watch for over tens of thousands of years? Millions of years? What predators are imprinted on his genetic memory we can only guess may have hunted his kind in the time before settlement?

In full rut but still cautious.

So does this re-wilding resemble in any way the ecological communities that were here before human interference? No, sadly not at all. It is fascinating to see, however, how persistent nature is, how quickly it fills a vacuum with interconnected living networks of air, water, and land plants and animals.  Sturgeon are making a comeback thanks to ambitious long term reintroduction and management programs. But are they the same genetically? Has captive fisheries breeding changed them or altered their behavior? Bald eagles are everywhere, when only fifty years ago they were completely absent, thanks to environmental laws and protections. How must they re-learn their landscapes of industrial and military claim?  The coyote has a presence in our suburbs, edging into the city no doubt feasting on some of the tens of thousands of large rats that occupy Baltimore. She is coming back all on her own - but she is not like her ancestors either, transformed by her time in exile in the north country, having cross-bred with Canadian wolves. I doubt we will ever see elk migrating to their ancestral wintering grounds on Chesapeake shores, even though reintroduced herds are growing in north central Pennsylvania. They don't know the old routes. The old routes are fragmented by interstates and sprawl.

Bay Shore Amusement Park opened in 1906 and closed in 1947.

Mike informed me that deer are relatively new to the park, having come in over the past two decades. He saw not even one in the 90s when assigned here for many years. That jarred me. I am so used to seeing whitetails everywhere I go when in Pennsylvania and northern Maryland. The idea that they are new to North Point after almost a hundred and fifty years of intense development pressure - well, it warmed this naturalist's heart! Can a natural predator be far behind? Would we even allow it?

White-throated Sparrow.

As I was leaving the park to head home, I was happy to watch a family observing the two does that had returned to the soybean field.  I stopped and put down the window:  "Nice to see, eh?"  Mom turned and said "My boys have never seen real deer before! This is so exciting!" In what once was the huge parking lot for the Bay Shore Amusement Park now turned agricultural fields and woods, the big buck re-emerged and continued the chase.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. 

- Aldo Leopold


Trophic cascade theory is a powerful way to think about and envision a rewilding landscape. Trophic Cascades: Predator, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature is a great read for the naturalist and landscape ecologist alike. Peter Terborgh and James Estes, editors.

An amazingly beautiful video of the trophic cascade events that occurred when wolves returned to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming. Titled "How Wolves Change Rivers" this case study reveals the many ways ecological communities are released from the constraints of too many elk (called 'deer' by the Brit narrator) and how predation pressure of wolves releases cascades for other predators and scavengers, increasing biodiversity at multiple levels and scales. 

Dr. Jacquet gives an eloquent and informative talk on extinction here:

A Friends webpage for North Point State Park is a little more informative than the DNR page:

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