Dick Cooper - April 2011

 

Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center
Hidden in Plain Sight
by
Dick Cooper

A pair of tundra swans, their long necks stretched straight, fly low over the tall grass, their wings whipping up a “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” sound as they head for open water just past a stand of pines.
A flock of noisy ducks comes in hard over Lake Knapp, landing with a splash in front of the viewing blind we had left minutes ago after commenting that we hadn’t seen anything move.
It is a brisk midwinter Sunday, and my wife, Pat, and I are exploring the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, a soggy collection of lowlands in the marsh just south of Grasonville in Queen Anne’s County.
From the small, sandy beach, we see and hear the traffic pouring over the Kent Narrows Bridge, but behind us, the sound of the wind whipping the marsh is almost as loud. Small birds flit through the brush as we walk along the path. Buzzards float on the updrafts, barely moving a feather.
The environmental center, known on the signage as CBEC, is a 510-acre peninsula of natural beauty jutting into Prospect Bay; a remnant of marsh, loblolly and grass in a sea of condos and helter skelter development.
During a later interview, the center’s executive director, Judy Wink, a career naturalist, teacher and birder, is expressive when she talks about this rough edge of the Chesapeake she now calls home.
“I came here in January 2003, and I should have quit right away,” she says with a smile. In February, a storm dropped three feet of snow, leaving her stranded in the duck hunting cabin where she lived in a remote corner of the center.
“I come from Pennsylvania, and when it snows, they get rid of it,” she says. “But no one knew I was here, so after four days, I had to hike out.” If that wasn’t a bad enough omen, seven months later, Isabel came up the Bay pushing a seven-foot storm surge on top of a high tide. Wink fled in the night with her boxes of research documents. When she returned, the one-story cabin was gone along with all of her personal property.
Then her eyes light up and she grins as she tells the story of a small stretch of shoreline in front of the cabin. It had once been bulkheaded. The year before, the shoreline was restored to its natural state and replanted with grasses. “There was scant vegetation, but that shoreline held up,” she says. “I thought it would have been smashed to bits, but restored shorelines work.”
Restoration, sustainability, conservation and education have been focuses of the center during Wink’s tenure. She points to the new Education and Arts Building. It is built of recycled materials, relies on wind and solar for power and captures or filters all rainwater runoff. Even the large outdoor deck is made of plastic lumber.
“We couldn’t install geo-thermal heat and air conditioning,” she says. “The water table is only six inches down.”
That fact is not hard to miss.
Discovery Lane, the narrow road leading into the center, starts in a mixed hardwood forest. Signs along the road explain that the woods are the habitat of diverse wildlife and help to filter pollutants headed for the Chesapeake Bay. The road turns into gravel-and-mud, and suddenly Pat and I are out of woods and on a two-track trail through an open marsh. Swans and geese congregate in Marshy Creek just to the north. The sun sparkles over Cabin Creek and Prospect Bay to the south. The water shimmers on Eastern Bay all the way to Tilghman point.
Later, during the interview, I ask Wink, “Does the road ever go underwater?”
“Only 40 times a year,” she says.
The road rises into a copse of trees, and a sign explains we are now on a hummock, an island in the marsh. We are on what was the high ground of the Horsehead Farm. For five generations, a sturdy family of watermen-farmers called this land just above sea level home. The name comes from the configuration of the land; it looks like a horse’s head, complete with long neck, ears and a cove that looks like a nostril.
Wink says the family farmed small patches on the higher ground. Tobacco was one of their cash crops, and a drying shed used to stand not far from the center’s main buildings. They crabbed, oystered and hunted to round out the year.
The farm was purchased in 1981 by the Wildfowl Trust of North America, a non-profit organization that was concerned about the decline of habitat for waterfowl on the Bay. The first iteration of the preserve was called the Horsehead Wetlands Center and was more like a zoo, Wink says.
A brochure touting the center 30 years ago describes it as having “more than 20 species of captive waterfowl.” The center had ponds that showed “Alaskan, Chesapeake, Meadow, Woodland and Prairie Pothole” habitats with “live waterfowl from across the world.”
All that remains of that concept are a chain-link fenced enclosure, entwined with decades of vines, and three large birdcages housing local hawks and owls. Wink says the center moved away from housing domesticated animals to creating an environment that attracted wild ones. Along with the birds and waterfowl, there is a significant deer and small mammal population.
“With all of the development around us, the animals had to go somewhere,” Wink says. “They were sort of scrunched into a smaller space.”
Lake Knapp, in the middle of the preserve, is a man-made 5.2-acre freshwater pond. “Birds need fresh water to drink and bathe in daily,” Wink says. The lake’s two large observation blinds give visitors good vantage points to watch the birds without being intrusive.
Wink says many of the visitors who come to the center are birders who are content to watch and catalog the more than 200 species that either live here or migrate through each year. There are walking trails on two-track service roads, boardwalks through swampy or marshy areas, or on well-marked woodland paths. They are all flat. The loop around Lake Knapp takes you to the marsh boardwalk that ends on the sandy beach. It features an elevated platform for bird’s-eye nature watching. Two water trails allow paddlers access to coves and creeks around the center.
Over the last decade, the center began focusing more on the environment, Bay restoration and education. In 2002, the name was changed to the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. Each year, about 12,000 school children from all over Maryland take class trips to CBEC to learn about the creatures and critters that live in the forests and marshes. The center has 1,850 members and about 1,500 walk-in visitors each year.
Wink is quick to point out that the center is an independent non-profit entity that gets all of its support from fundraising events, grants, private donations and membership and visitor fees.
“We are always scrambling to find money,” she says.
Researchers use the tidal wetlands to study the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation vital to the survival of waterfowl. Five artificial oyster reefs in Cabin Creek are stocked with millions of spat. One reef is the rubble from Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.
The center conducts public seminars on how to make homes “green” and preserve resources. One class that drew a lot of interest gave tips on how to capture rainwater for use in gardens.
“The more popular classes are the ones that help people save money,” she says.
The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center is located at 600 Discovery Lane, Grasonville, MD 21638. The website is www.bayrestoration.org, and the phone number is 410-827-6694. The center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, except major holidays. Entrance fee is $5.

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Md. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.