Thursday, December 18, 2014

MD: Passing Time - Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

"We come and we go," say the Amish, regarding the cycle of life and death where humans and human activity is simply part of the Big Story. Encouraged to take a planned trip to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge by a friend with whom I had had tried cancel on, I reluctantly left home early Saturday morning waiting to hear word of a beloved one's passing. "She will go in her own time and it makes no sense to sit around waiting," said Ed, "Let's go and think about passing time as a theme for our trip."

First bird of the day upon entering the refuge - Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Ed is an old friend from my DNR days. He retired years ago and hunts Sika deer on his property on the Eastern Shore of Maryland this time of year. We've been birding buddies since my children were small and we try to meet up every winter to watch birds on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He planned to hunt in the afternoon, which would leave all morning to bird together. Reluctantly  I followed him down, and felt better about my decision as the miles rolled by. From the back I could see his truck was packed to stay a week on his hunting property. This is his last hunt before moving to Florida. I'll miss him. The drive took three hours and I had a lot of time to think about our theme.

Bald Eagle, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Dorchester County, MD

It's always interesting to go bird watching with a philosopher. Ed became one doing his job with the state working in parks inventory and the armory. I remember the day he handed me my first sidearm, a S&W 35 cal. revolver (!) and Brown belt. Sometimes we laugh so hard about my rookie days that I cry. I left that job too soon, and to this day miss it, but could not bear an abusive supervisor or the system that protected him. Such is life. Time passes, things and people change, but the good 'ole boy system seems to have the most difficult time evolving.

A young turkey vulture balances on a twig barely big enough to support him.

We birded hard until eleven, tallying twenty five species before ten. The wind came up, so many birds hunkered down. We talked a lot about things passing, dying and being born, saving what we can, letting go of things we can't hold on to. As an ecologist who studies vulnerable socio-ecological systems  I found our discussion of crashed populations of bald eagles in the 50s and 60s, and the restorations of these birds as targeted species of national environmental policy responses in the 70s, to be enlightening and encouraging.  There were so many bald eagles (we walked the wildlife drive portion of the refuge rather than drive) so it would be hard for a young person today to believe that they were nearly extinct when I was in high school!

Crows keeping watch over a juvenile Bald Eagle, all perched in salt-water-killed trees.

We observed many first year and immature eagles, so many in fact, that they outnumbered adults 3:1. We counted four adults and twelve young. "How close we came to losing these birds," I kept saying. "How wonderful that we have them today because of foresight and courage of people who couldn't imagine a world without them," he repeated after me.

Pintail drake and hen hunkering down in the marsh, out of the cold wind.

Looking quietly at the salt-water-killed forests that ring the marshes of the refuge, the result of rising sea levels and sinking landmasses, Ed shifted the sadness of the current scene to his learning of the "Hope Spots" in marine conservation. The nearest Hope Spot to the Eastern Shore of Maryland is the Sargasso Sea just recently protected by a multi-national pact. That multiple nations even came together to work towards the long-term protection of this Atlantic ocean ecosystem is a huge step towards global conservation thinking. (1)  Ed is hoping to get more involved in marine conservation when he moves to Florida.

Salt-water-killed forests ring Blackwater's vast marshes.

If nations can work together at that scale, I asked, why can't they reign in large corporate abuses of marine and terrestrial landscapes that exploit natural resources and degrade planetary biogeochemical systems? With this question, we watched our new residents - white pelicans preening on their favorite mudbank, a mud bar that used to be marshland. No discussion. Just watching. Another birdwatcher walked up to take a look and he worried for the pelicans, blown hundreds of miles east on a strong winter storm a year ago. "How will they survive here?" Ed responded that they'd already weathered one of the coldest winters we'd seen in decades so maybe they be here a few years more? I wonder if they will remain longer. Are their numbers sufficient to attempt breeding here?

Storm-blown white pelicans continue to make a home at Blackwater.

Time soon came when Ed had to leave. The short days of December are marked in lengthening shadows before noon: time to get ready to climb the tree stand. I waited for my sister who lives nearby  to join me for a few more hours of exploring. The wind had really kicked up, so when she arrived we decided to head into the woods to look for Delmarva Fox Squirrels, recently de-listed from endangered status in Maryland. The woods were downright warm compared to my morning walk with Ed. We came across lots of forest litter duff digs and looked up to see several very large squirrel nests.

Fox squirrel signs -  digging in the duff to retrieve or bury acorns, nuts, pine seeds, even mushrooms.

It wasn't long before a giant squirrel came bounding across our path. This is only the second time I've seen a Delmarva fox squirrel and just like the first time, I was unprepared for its size! This is one huge squirrel! I estimated this one to be every ounce of three solid pounds.There are fox squirrels in the south, and when I worked in South Carolina I would see them with their dark masks, yellow bellies, and brown-black coats quite frequently. But the Delmarva fox squirrel, however, wears no mask, nor has a yellow belly, though it may have a black chinstrap or snout band, a cap of black. It simply looks like enormous but slightly darker grey squirrel that moves a lot slower and is rather intimidating as it glares back at you!

Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

Darker, heavier, and not as dainty as the Eastern grey squirrel, he sports a thick steel gray coat and a huge fluffy tail. In my estimations, two little grey squirrels could have easily have hidden in that enormous tail! One man, Guy Wiley, Sr., is responsible for the comeback of this endemic mammal and I am again inspired by the work of one person to prevent the disappearance of a wild animal.  Guy has a rare gift for long-term vision and eventually attracted people who believed in his idea to relocate almost 300 squirrels to Blackwater NWR. He was a worker at the refuge for thirty years, now retired and living in Cambridge near my sister. He saw the landscape without the fox squirrel, like me seeing the Susquehanna of my youth without her eagles, and decided that he didn't like it - not one bit. He risked a lot by approaching neighbors and landowners who at first scoffed at his idea of saving the big squirrels, but soon enough folks were letting him relocate squirrels from their properties to the refuge where they would be safe from traffic, logging, and hunting pressure. He's now in his eighties and I would sure like to talk to him about how he convinced a whole region that this was the right thing to do.

Mixed loblolly pine and deciduous forest is prime Delmarva habitat.

Blackwater now serves as a population source with its large protected land base where the squirrel can continue to recover. Maryland's DNR recently de-listed the animal saying that it is 28% recovered across its original Delmarva range. The Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage  program, however, disagrees with the decision to de-list. ""If you thought you had a 28 percent chance of passing an exam or of holding onto your job, you [wouldn't] say, 'Hey, this is Easy Street!'" Director Ned Gerber told The Baltimore Sun. "It's too soon." Many folks say that de-listing now has removed critical protections for its continued recovery. (2)

Downy woodpecker on a young maple.

Despite disagreements concerning policy decisions to de-list the fox squirrel, the project is a long term recovery effort and Blackwater NWR and the State are committed to it. Guy's foresight and determination to trap and relocate squirrels to the refuge ensured that the forests here are preserved as well. As we've learned the hard way, what is a forest without it's residents? The fox squirrel defines the forest it lives in and creates a tapestry of conditions with its presence.  As the source population spreads and re-inhabits other large patches of forest throughout Delmarva, many plant and animal populations follow it.

Song Sparrow digs in light duff at the edge of the fox squirrel woods.

By gathering and caching tree nuts and seeds, the fox squirrel in effect 'plants' the forest as he goes. He invariably forgets about some of his cache - as all squirrels do. He digs the ground, rearranges the duff, cultivates the surface for an emergence of plants that were otherwise smothered by decades of accumulated pine and litter litter. The refuge has reintroduced fire as well, using low heat controlled burns to clear out dangerous accumulations of fuel wood and debris that could lead to dangerous hot fires that could destroy forests and squirrels in short order. In ecological terms, the fires and the fox squirrel's activities release other living things to grow, which in turn release the potential of higher biodiversity such as dozens of bird species and herbivores that feed on the new growth planted and encouraged by the large squirrel.

Field sparrow (note eye ring).

Restoration of key species in its historic habitat takes a boatload of time and patience. When Teddy Roosevelt set out to create the National Wildlife Refuge system, he exercised at the legislative level something he believed in at the personal level: long-term commitment to conservation. The National Wildlife Refuge System, symbolized by the flying blue goose logo on literature, roadsigns, and websites, carries TR's vision forward with long-term management missions to ensures huge swaths of wetlands, forests, grasslands, and marshes are preserved for wildlife. Guy saw the need for improvement to a vulnerable population and recognized that once he started thirty years ago, it would take more than one human lifespan to accomplish the goal of a stable and expanding population of fox squirrels.He had the backing and support of refuge managers and the people who live throughout the Lower Shore. He still does.

Withered mushroom after a hard freeze.

Passing time in the woods, it struck me how the human idea of time is challenged by nature's idea of time. The trees we walked beneath were almost a century old. Following two intense rounds of logging in the early 1900s before the refuge was set aside by congressional act mid-century, three generations of humans have come and gone. The forest my grandfather would have seen here in the 1920s was simply not here, and where it could be found, it was not the same as the forest my sister and I walked through  this Saturday afternoon. Yet in a span of tree-years, this growth represented just one generation of forest life that shielded us from the wind. How will encroaching salt water, intensifying coastal storms and their floods, and a sinking landmass affect the forest and the fox squirrel in generations of trees to come?

Great Blue Heron of the Forest.

The loblolly pine, the signature conifer of the lowlands and coastal plains of the Mid-Atlantic, has weathered repeated pulses of pressure from human activity in logging and  clearing land for farming. A large ecosystem such as this can demonstrate resilience as small pieces and sections are acted upon by different forces such as fire, logging, and disease. But when pressures are system-wide and prolonged, the ecosystem - if allowed to recover,  takes much longer to recover and may or may not return to an dynamic-equilibrium state. Instead, it enters multiple unstable states and until time allows and keystone species are re-established, the ecosystem may exist only in a vulnerable state. Today the biggest large-scale threat to coastal plain loblolly ecosystems now includes human development to accommodate an ever-growing human population.

Tall loblolly pine bole.

Thick scales of fire resistant loblolly bark.

Scientists and conservationists wonder how the loblolly forests of  Blackwater as well as all the low-lying forests of the Lower Shore will adapt to rising sea levels and land mass subsidence. Inundation of frontal forests along the marsh edges is already dramatic, occurring as sea levels rise 3-4 mm a year and a post-glacial relaxation of the land surface drops elevations an 5-6mm in the same period. Will conservation reserve lands both here and beyond the frontal forest zone allow for the forest to migrate inland? Can the Delmarva fox squirrel, a planter of trees, be around to facilitate that migration?  

Female red-bellied woodpecker with a nut to cache.

I returned home and checked on our family friend via her son on FB - she'd had a good day. I wished them all well and felt better for having made the decision to visit Blackwater NWR after all. I know the next time I'm there she won't be with us, but she relayed that her time and passing will bring new adventures and new ways of Being that she is looking forward to. This gives me hope and makes me smile - as does a giant squirrel in the woods and a Hope Spot out in the ocean.


(1)  Hope Spots were defined by ocean conservationists as large protected areas of marine landscape. Google Earth/Ocean maintains an excellent catalog of these areas with many cool interactive features. ONe of my heroes, Sylvia Earle, narrates the introduction "Explore the Ocean" - and you'll need to download Google Earth to take advantage of this immensely fun database.

(2) Articles on the Delmarva Fox Squirrel - with cameo appearances by Guy Wiley, Sr. I'll be heading down to Cambridge to interview him for an article, but this is at least a short background about his work and the status change:

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