Hiking in style

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices” is the motto of many canaan 019.JPGan outdoor educator. On a recent vacation to the mountains of West Virginia, I found myself bemused (and sometimes amused) by the clothing choices of my fellow hikers and family members.

My brother, trained in Search and Rescue, prepared for rugged terrain with Teva waterproof sandals, cargo pants, and a lifetime supply of paracord. My father-in-law prepped with yoga and meditation, then bounded along the trails barefoot. Mom hit the trail in a splashy floral button-down, carefully applied make-up, and Keds. Following suit, our preschooler insisted on a flouncy dress accentuated by a purple velour pocketbook and sparkly pink shoes.

Bottom line? Don’t stress over the gear, just get outside. It’s the enthusiasm and camaraderie of your fellow hikers that really counts.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director

 

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Reach the beach!  A naturalist’s view of the 404 widening project

Traveling from my home in Denton through the Queen Anne area of Route 404, up to where it joins Route 50 near Wye Mills, my curiosity finally got the better of me. What were those rectangular holding ponds for? Why were so many trees taken down? What happens to the aquatic critters in the creeks that the road has to pass over? A call to the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) soon found me chatting with Bob Rager, the community liaison, who set to work connecting me with the folks on the project who deal with environmental concerns. I had the great privilege of meeting with a group of six transportation and environmental specialists in mid-July and visiting the worksite(s) of the Maryland 404 Widening project (yes, they even have a website! Check it out for the latest information about lane closures and traffic impact).

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Stepping inside the cooled offices of the white farmhouse near Thawley Road where the project has set up headquarters, I was met by Fred Valente, SHA’s construction manager; the aforementioned SHA liaison, Bob Rager; Eric Freidly from the Environmental Programs Division of the SHA; Duncan Kerr, an independent environmental inspector; Gerry Hammel, the regional environmental coordinator; and even the summer intern, Diego Lezama, who was adding practical experience during a summer away from his engineering studies at Clarkson University. After a bit of explanation about MY motivation (“what IS a master naturalist, anyway?”), we quickly delved into the nitty-gritty details about stormwater, runoff, and the importance of managing dust (which becomes silt in the water). It turns out that most of my interests – and much of the painstaking environmental protection that happens during highway construction – are related to water quality and quantity.

404 project wet swale constructionThe rectangular holding ponds that you see on the roadsides as you drive along the project’s length are called wet swales – they are terraced, cascading water collection devices, designed to fill up and spill over to the next one just slightly lower. This process continues, with each separate holding area doing its part to clean the rainwater and even to cool it (reducing its “thermal charge”) before it finally returns to deeper drains and, eventually, to the creeks along the highway’s path. Here’s what they look like before the construction teams hydroseed and plant native flowers and grasses.

Highway construction has become a much more environmentally safe and savvy operation in the past few decades. The use of large artificial ponds has been superseded by these wet swales, which in turn become bioswales. At the end of the cascading run of wet swales, the contractors use gabions (those chain-link cages of riprap rocks) as a final protection to the waterway; these are removed a year or so later, when the environmental inspector deems the water returning to the natural water sources to be of appropriate quality.

404 project least bitternIn less than a year, the process has created a sort of natural succession – grasses and flowers come up, and the critters return. We saw bunches of tadpoles and insects darting among the wet swales and were pleased to catch sight of a Least Bittern feeding at the edge of one of the swales (the cattails are volunteers as well, although the Rudbeckia is part of the plantings done by the construction teams).

Our next stop was Norwich Creek, one of the larger streams that the highway traverses and home to the dwarf wedgemussel  (Alasmidonta heterodon), which is classified as “rare and restricted.” Thus, any construction near Norwich Creek must follow stricter regulations, including limits on the time of year when construction can be conducted, no use of larger equipment, and no activity within 20 feet of the stream banks. The dwarf wedgemussel, rated as “endangered” on both federal and state lists, is a tiny species found primarily in only eight locations in the U.S., and four locations in Maryland, including Norwich Creek. The dwarf wedgemussel is fascinating, as it requires an intermediate host fish (notably the tessellated darter) for larval development and metamorphosis. Excess runoff from agricultural fields and silt from poorly managed stormwater are considered the main contributors to the loss of appropriate habitat and thus the endangerment of these mussels.

One of the strategies to protect a creek is to have new bridge designs that have little or no impact on the waterflow, either during construction or afterward. Compare the picture of the 1982 span over the Norwich creek, which shows that support pilings were placed directly IN the creek, to the current approach, which has a 120’ span through which the creek runs unimpeded and undisturbed. When we walked below the bridges to take a look, there were turtles in the water, and the whole area is protected with silt barriers.

404 project Norwich creek 1982 span

Norwich Creek Bridge, 1982 span

404 project Norwich creek 2017 span

Norwich Creek Bridge, 2017 span

Which reminds me to report on how impressed I was by the various checks and balances in place for this project and, by extension, for other construction projects throughout the state. Starting with federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements, often considered a decade or longer before construction starts (the 404 Widening project work started in 1989 with these requirements), there are ongoing guidelines to be followed and harsh penalties assessed if violations are found.

One of my hosts, Duncan Kerr, serves as the independent environmental monitor. He takes pictures at different sections of the project and makes regular reports, noting whether the contractors involved are following the approved plans and permit requirements (all of which were in giant notebooks in the conference room where we met as well as in the contractors’ offices in an adjacent building).

Gerry Hammel, the regional environmental coordinator, monitors the contractors’ work, producing quality assurance reports each week that are graded from A to F, based on a series of online checklists that Gerry can use in the field. Because the 404 Widening Project is under tight time constraints, Gerry visits daily rather than weekly. Everyone is happiest when the grades are A or B, but any lower grades result in swift action – a grade of C permits the contractor to address the issues as soon as possible; a grade of D stops all earthwork immediately, even on separate sections of the project; and a grade of F stops ALL work on the project until the issue is rectified. Fines are also levied – on the order of $8,260 per day! Obviously, the contractors want to avoid these problems, and they seem to quickly realize that the state of Maryland is serious about protecting the environment where they are working.

We also talked about mitigation – how to minimize the impact of a construction project after the work is done, the big equipment has moved on, and the traffic is flowing normally. There are a number of different levels of wetland and forest replacement, all governed by various federal and state regulations (as you might imagine, there are monthly meetings on a project like this, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as well as other stakeholders). To protect against erosion and extra sediment flying around and ending up in the creeks and waterways, all large dirt piles that will be exposed longer than three days must be covered or seeded – so you’ll see greenery sprouting from those huge piles of sandy soil by the edges of the project. Because the Tuckahoe Creek is tidal, the project by the creek is part of the Chesapeake Bay “critical area,” and every tree taken down for the construction must be replaced in a 1:1 ratio. Some of the wetlands along Route 404 were protected in situ and are considered “permanent mitigation.” And, to help replace the trees taken down in the Caroline County section of the project, the Maryland SHA purchased a 107-acre lot in Goldsboro on which three types of wetlands habitats will be recreated: forested, scrub shrub, and PEM (Palustrine emergent).

404 project blueflowers

Overall, this experience has left me with a new appreciation for the whole project – the environmental protections in place are actually being followed, and the engineers and project managers are friendly, deeply knowledgeable about their craft, and passionate about leaving a site better than they found it. I am very appreciative of their willingness to share their time and expertise with me.

by Beth Lawton, Maryland Master Naturalist

 

Resources

Maryland State Highway Administration website for the 404 Widening Project: http://www.md404project.com/

Encyclopedia of Life entry for the Dwarf Wedge Mussel: http://eol.org/pages/449672/details#size

Nice site for details about the dwarf wedge mussel: http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/species/fieldguide/view/Alasmidonta%20heterodon/

 

 

Wild life

In addition to four children, two dogs, and two cats, our quarter-acre backyard is home to one enormous groundhog (Mr. Waddles), a bevy of squirrels, a mother cardinal and her babies, an Eastern five-lined skink (Stinky the Skink), and ongoing nests of baby bunnies with tragically high mortality rates. There is also a catbird who pecks on our window several times a day (Gilbert), an insomniac mockingbird, and enough insects and worms to keep my preschooler engaged for hours. Occasionally, barred owls will visit from a nearby field for raucous midnight parties.

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Photo by Kellen McCluskey

If you would like your backyard to be a similar wildlife habitat, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s webpage on gardening for wildlife. Native plants like those sold at Adkins Arboretum form the basis of a wildlife-friendly garden. The National Wildlife Federation will even send you a “Certified Wildlife Habitat” sign if your garden qualifies. For my part, I’m foregoing the NWF sign in favor of an “It’s a Zoo out There” sign. Let me know if you find one.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director

All Hands on Deck!

In March, renowned horticulturist and landscape designer Claudia West led a design charrette to envision a beautiful and welcoming entrance garden that epitomizes the Arboretum’s mission. ddd

On May 26, that vision became reality when Arboretum staff, volunteers, Trustees, and more than 30 Chesapeake Bay Trust Chesapeake Conservation Corps members planted the garden with 4,500 plant plugs. The planting capped off months of planning and hard work. We are excited for the garden to evolve and are grateful for support from Arboretum Trustees and for a Chesapeake Bay Trust All Hands on Deck award that provided funding for plants and the helpful hands of Conservation Corps members.

Conservation Corps member Brandt Dirmeyer recently chronicled this effort for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway blog. Click here to learn about the planning and planting processes, and be sure to check out the garden’s progress on your next visit!

The Health of the Creek: Part One

Everyday Naturalist
Living with Nature on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Our property has the good fortune of backing onto Watts Creek, a brackish estuary that feeds into the Choptank River and, eventually, on out to the Chesapeake Bay. Midwinter this year, I received a letter from the Maryland Department of the Environment requesting permission to access the creek from our property for the purposes of stream health testing.
Watts Creek Stream Study area

In part one of this post, I will share with you the first part of the stream testing, focusing on aquatic insects (“juvenile aquatic invertebrates”). Part two will report on the follow-up testing, done in midsummer, that focuses on fish in the creek. The results of these surveys, along with water quality and stream habitat measurements, are used to measure the overall quality and health of the stream. Our site was last sampled in 2000, when the results indicated “excellent stream health” at this location. I’m very curious to see how the current conditions compare.

logoThe goal of the Maryland Biological Stream Survey (MBSS) is to gather information for ensuring the protection and restoration of Maryland’s stream resources. The MBSS was created in 1993 by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a way to characterize the health of Maryland’s 10,000+ miles of freshwater streams. Sites are selected using a rigorous statistical design that allows the department to estimate stream condition in medium and large watersheds, as well as statewide. Data is collected at each site on the physical, chemical, and biological (fish and insects) characteristics and then combined into an overall assessment. Since 1995, the MBSS has surveyed 3,405 sites across Maryland.

On an overcast but warm day in early March, I watched as a large white van pulled into my driveway, from which emerged two field biologists, Nick Kaltenbach and Chris Luckett, both from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Instead of back seats in the van, there were buckets, nets, hip waders, boots, notebooks, and various other paraphernalia – Nick and Chris quickly got their boots on and we headed down to the creek. Amazingly enough, the access to Watts Creek from my backyard features a very steep pathway down a grade that drops about 30’ in elevation. After understanding that the “Double Hills” that epitomize our road refer to slight bumps of about 5’ elevation, it was quite a surprise to own property with a true hillside!

Watts Creek I measuring

Biologist Chris Luckett, Watts Creek

The first part of the assessment required the biologists to decide where to test and then to mark off a segment of the stream that is 75 meters long. Because the creek has different branches, it’s important to understand the shape of the section they chose. Once they decided, they took to the water with a bright yellow measuring tape, being careful to ease their way around a bend in the stream. They also marked the beginning and end of the test section with colorful flags on trees by the water’s edge.

The biologists spent about an hour setting up and collecting specimens, using various catch buckets and nets.

Watts Creek I nets and biologist

Here’s a stonefly larva (Insecta plecoptera) that Nick showed me. In trying to learn more about stoneflies, I was amused to find that the bulk of information on the Watts Creek I stone flyInternet is concerned with fishing and how to tie a fly lure that mimics these aquatic insects. Stoneflies are said to be a good sign of a healthy stream, so I was pleased to see that Nick had located many of them in a few minutes of turning over rocks. In the spring, the nymphs swim or crawl to the shore of the stream and molt into adults (and fly away!) – another reason why the aquatic insect study is conducted in late winter.

And, of course, no job is completed until the paperwork is done. Chris was the scribe for the day, filling out the standard information on his impromptu hip-wader desk.

Watts Creek I paperwork

I am eager for the biologists to return this summer so I can learn more about the fish that are living in Watt Creek and feeding on the insects that winter over in the water. It will be good to hear the results of their study with regards to the stream health and whether there are steps we can take as homeowners to continue to be good stewards of this watershed.

Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist

RESOURCES