Nestled along the Patuxent River in Anne Arundel County, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary provides habitat for variety of species - especially people.
The shallow embayment bordered by wetlands and forests is less than 20 miles as the crow flies from two capitals - Washington and Annapolis. I and my two sons had the run of the refuge on two recent days in December, despite spring-like weather.
After exploring the hands-on displays and interactive exhibits at the McCann Wetlands Study Center, we headed north past a toad garden to a trail that promised access to the marsh.
We could see the Patuxent in front of us as we threaded a wooded trail to the boardwalk. In the summer months, the boys run the boardwalk through a towering gantlet of arrow arum, spatterdock and tear thumb. Wild rice, once dominant but under assault from resident Canada geese, is slowly being coaxed back to prominence by sanctuary staff (with help from hunters). The emergent plants dominate this part of the Patuxent, providing spawning habitat for striped bass and plenty of food for 30 pairs of osprey.
Jug Bay is the northernmost of a series of shallow embayments - wide, shallow areas of the river that are sort of shaped like a jug - that dot the tidal, winding Patuxent before it discharges into the Chesapeake. Because the sanctuary is the near the head of tide, Jug Bay enjoys enormous biological productivity - about 290 species use the refuge, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Estuarine Research Reserve System.
In December, the marsh is dormant and is typically a tangled mat of decaying vegetation. But on our visit, new life was sprouting through the river's surface, thanks to temperatures that topped 60 degrees. Tiny fish created a flurry of activity near the river's banks. Fishermen were angling for perch. Overall, about 40 fish species are known to use this part of the river, including American shad.
The refuge's winter residents - bald eagles, gulls and ducks - were abundant on and around the river. While the diversity of species may decrease during the winter months, December and January host the largest number of waterbirds: more than 1,000 birds representing more than 40 species.
Overall, Jug Bay hosts more about 270 different birds, including the elusive sora rail. Thousands of the robin-sized birds pass through Jug Bay each fall on their way from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico and South America, devouring wild rice and tearthumb seeds. The birds are built for life in the marsh - long toes help to support their narrow bodies as they pass through the muddy canyons of emergent plants and their triangular yellow bills are the perfect tool to snare insects and seeds.
The bird's secretive lifestyle - visitors will be lucky to hear the sora rail's high-pitched call - made the bird a target for hunters in the early 1900s. The short-lived Chesapeake Beach Railroad connecting the District of Columbia with the resort town cut through the heart of Jug Bay (One of the trails is the old rail bed.), opening the area's wild rice marshes to hunting. Riding the "Honeysuckle Route"; to hunt sora rail was so popular at the time that it drew Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Harry Truman. Men would hire local farmers to push small skiffs, called "rail boats," into the marsh with a 14-foot pole to surprise the puffin-like birds.
The sora rails were enjoying Gulf waters when we visited the refuge, but the distinctive whistle of the bald eagle alerted us that the nation's symbol was nearby.
We headed into the dense forests that border Jug Bay to explore the trails that crisscross the 1,400-acre sanctuary. The trails are bordered by mature stands of tulip, red oak, white oak, sweet gum, hickory and Virginia pine, although the sanctuary's staff is taking steps to manually stall forest succession in some places to preserve some of the sanctuary's meadows. Bird-viewing blinds dot the trails along the river.
In the spring and summer, Jug Bay's tidal wetlands provide a wide variety of habitats - broad-leaved plants in the low marsh, tall plants like wild rice in the high marsh, mixed woody shrubs in the scrub-shrub marsh, as well as forested wetlands - that serve a variety of bird species, including most of the warblers that migrate along the Eastern seaboard.
At least 90 species of water birds use the marsh to feed, rest, nest or hide from predators. The American black duck, which is increasingly rare, breeds at Jug Bay and is often sighted.
On a recent trip to the sanctuary, northern harriers flew low over the marsh in search of dinner. Crowds of green-winged teals gathered on the open water. Bonaparte's gulls grace the river for two weeks in April (Most of the common gulls can be found at Jug Bay.) and double-crested cormorants are seen during their spring and fall migrations.
Heading away from the river and toward a small, clear creek, we found ample evidence of beaver and other furbearers. Beavers have dammed up many of the small creeks that drain from the refuge into the Patuxent. Muskrat and river otter are also found in the sanctuary.
A "turtle crossing" sign on the trail is the only evidence on this December day that Jug Bay is home to hundreds of box turtle - which hibernate underground during the winter.
(The boys had helped to "rescue" a box turtle on the main road leading to the refuge last fall. Road mortality - as well as habitat loss - is one of the biggest threats facing the colorful reptile.)
The red-bellied turtle, the larger cousin of the eastern painted turtle, is found in the deeper waters of Jug Bay. In June and July, females travel to sandy areas along the Patuxent to dig a nest and deposit 10 to 15 eggs. Studies by Jug Bay staff show that the females return to the same sandy spots year after year. After 75 days, the eggs open and the hatchlings - the size of a quarter - head to the marsh.
Jug Bay was created as a stand against sprawl. A proposal to turn farm and forestland into a trailer park in the 1970s was opposed by the local civic association, environmental groups and some political leaders, including Rep. Virginia Clagett. When the owner of the land refused to sell, state officials took an unusual step - they used the state's power of condemnation and forced a sale for fair market value - and handed the parcel to Anne Arundel County to manage.
Since then, the county has purchased five neighboring parcels to expand the sanctuary's footprint to about 1,400 acres. In 2002, funds from the state's "greenprint" program were used to acquire a 620-acre tract renamed the Glendening Nature Preserve, the most significant recent addition. Visitors can see restoration up close in the Glendening Preserve - grazed lands are quickly becoming lush meadows and stands of Virginia pine signal the first stage of forest succession.
Most of the farm and forest land bordering the refuge is subject to easements that restrict development, and the sanctuary's director, Chris Swarth, is grateful for their "good neighbors."
"Jug Bay is a great example of local government stepping up at the fork in the road and making a bold move to protect a critical area," said Swarth, who has worked at the refuge for 17 years and is an expert on box turtles.
People have enjoyed Jug Bay for at least 11,000 years. When Capt. John Smith sailed up the Patuxent River in 1608, he found the Piscataway Indians, who built longhouses - arch-shaped structures made of young saplings bent and covered with animal skins - on the bluffs overlooking the Patuxent. They used the gullies around Jug Bay as natural ramps to the river.
Much of the land that is now Jug Bay was cleared at different times for agriculture, and a small portion of the sanctuary is still used as a community garden. Pig Point, located just upstream of Jug Bay, was once a thriving seaport and the site of a river battle during the War of 1812. Steamboats appeared on the river soon after, and Pig Point served as the head of commercial navigation for nearly a century.
People still enjoy Jug Bay - as visitors and as volunteers. The sanctuary's "citizen scientists" are involved in everything from bird banding to box turtle counts, Swarth said. The sanctuary has several ongoing research projects, including bird counts, fish studies, and stream and wetland monitoring. Every fall, volunteers monitor the migration of the marbled salamander, which emerges from beneath leaves and logs on rainy nights in search of low-lying areas that will become vernal pools when filled with spring rains.
Groups of local students and scout troops regularly explore the sanctuary, and Jug Bay offers a summer camp program.
Walking the sanctuary's trail, it's easy to assume that Jug Bay is permanently protected. But development near the sanctuary still poses a threat. Most recently, a developer has proposed to clear a forest to build a shopping center at the headwaters of Galloway Creek, which runs through the sanctuary and discharges into the Patuxent. The river is already clogged with too much sediment, according to experts, and preliminary plans for the shopping center were rejected by county officials for failing to address stormwater runoff.
The fact that Jug Bay is an estuarine research reserve - and that the county has pledged to protect it as part of its deal with the state - complicates local decisions about development near the sanctuary. Other threats include invasive plant species, a growing deer population and too many resident Canada geese. (Goose hunting is now permitted in a park on the other side of the river.) Swarth bemoaned "the army of invasives" that is sweeping across the sanctuary. He has also seen signs of sea level rise, such as caving banks and deeper waters.
The osprey's return to Jug Bay from South America in March is considered a harbinger of spring. Not long after the first pair nests, Jug Bay offers a range of activities, including canoe tours, bird watching, full moon hikes, storytelling and lots of opportunities to participate in research.
"Getting involved in our research provides a much deeper understanding of our wildlife," Swarth said. "Measuring salamanders, weighing turtles and frogs, and visiting our sampling sites get our volunteers familiar with Jug Bay in ways that short-term visitors can't"
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, except for December through February when the sanctuary is closed on Sunday. The entrance fee is $3 for adults; $2 for seniors and ages 18 and younger.
Glendening Nature Preserve is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except for December through February when the sanctuary is closed on Sunday. There is no entrance fee to the preserve. Parking and trail maps are located at the Wrighton Road entrance of the Preserve. The preserve's parking lot is on the right just before the sanctuary entrance.
For information about the sanctuary or the preserve, call 410-741-9330 or visit www.jugbay.org
Directions: Jug Bay's website includes very detailed directions from Annapolis, Baltimore at the Baltimore Beltway, the District of Columbia and Calvert County, MD. Don't forget to watch out for turtles en route!