When it comes to restoring waterfowl habitat, wildlife biologists say it is a case that, like the "Field of Dreams," if ou build it (correctly), they will come.”
Matthew Perry, a wildlife biologist with Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, notes that although waterfowl populations may be maintained through the wise manipulation of hunting regulations, increases in waterfowl cannot occur without improvements in habitat.
Chesapeake Bay watershed landowners and governments can’t control the weather on northern breeding grounds. But, they can provide extensive wetlands and forests along the water’s edge. Perry notes that the wetlands will provide the necessary habitat and the forests will help protect the wetlands from degradation caused by excessive nutrients and sediments.
Habitat means more than just preserving wetlands or forests. It also means protecting important areas from disturbance.
For example, freshwater portions of Patuxent River marshes support a variety of ducks in winter, but experts say human disturbance keeps duck numbers far below this high-quality habitat’s potential. Michael Haramis, also a wildlife biologists at the Patuxent center, says that disturbances from humans can disrupt waterfowl. Frightened birds fly — this interrupts feeding, expends energy unnecessarily and may expose adults and young to predators.
Migrating waterfowl need much time to feed and rest. Breeding ducks need isolation, because they cannot safely leave eggs or young unattended. This means waterfowl need large natural areas, with minimum disturbance from boating and other human activities — especially around nesting areas during the summer and on open water during the winter.
Answering that challenge are a wide variety of interests. Much waterfowl habitat is protected in parks and wildlife refuges, and national nonprofit organizations like Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy are helping to preserve large chunks of sensitive wetlands and forests.
Still, more can be done, especially by private landowners. Farm programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program, offer private landowners financial incentives for removing agricultural lands from production and placing them in easements. A recent study of CRP lands in the Midwest showed that waterfowl nest densities were similar to the densities found in grasslands that were specifically managed for waterfowl.
Regional and local land trusts, like the Maryland Environmental Trust, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, have helped private landowners preserve thousands of acres of critical waterfowl and wildlife habitat with conservation easements. With a conservation easement, landowners give up certain development rights, yet retain ownership of their property. These legally enforceable agreements can be tailored to landowner needs and offer an assortment of tax advantages, depending on the type of easement.
Habitat preservation and restoration strategies greatly vary among and within Bay states. Pennsylvania uses a low-tech solution for habitat restoration that benefits waterfowl, fish, amphibians and songbirds with a single strand of electrified, high-tensile wire along streambanks. These fencing projects are on private lands, where waterfowl and other wildlife can live and reproduce, often with little human disturbance.
“Streams that were severely impaired by agriculture, and especially by pasture animals, respond rapidly to streambank fencing,” says John Dunn, Pennsylvania Game Commission waterfowl biologist. “In Lancaster County, limestone streams are highly productive, with lots of aquatic insects. Vegetation and aquatic insects often return within one year after fences are installed.”
Ducks eat aquatic insects and need wetland vegetation for food and cover. Songbirds and ducks need at least a 30-foot buffer on both sides of the stream to successfully hide from predators, and wildlife biologists recommend buffers of more than 50 feet for the greatest success.
Streambank fencing is a low-cost strategy that benefits waterfowl, fish and other wildlife; protects herd health; and helps to restore water quality by preventing sediments and nutrients from entering waterways. By combining cost-share programs, landowners can often receive 100 percent of the cost of fencing and restoration plantings.
Ducks Unlimited has teamed with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and more than 15 other partners to restore and enhance streamside habitat and wetlands through streambank fencing. One Pennsylvania dairy farmer, with technical and financial assistance from the DU/CBF partnership, fenced four miles of streambank and planted native trees in the buffer. This project alone restored 21 acres of wetlands and 18 acres of upland riparian areas. Another project on Pequea-Mill Creek has helped more than 100 farmers fence nearly 60 stream miles since 1991.
Despite the fact that many of the projects are just a year or two old, David Wise, coordinator for Pennsylvania’s DU/CBF initiative, has observed wood duck broods on two of the project sites and nesting mallards, many with young, on numerous sites this summer.
In another restoration partnership, two nonprofits in Maryland recently pooled their resources and partnered with many organizations to permanently preserve and restore 280 acres on the headwaters of the Wye River. Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy purchased Bennett Point Farm with funding from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Chesapeake Bay Trust, U.S. Department of Agriculture and several private foundations and associations. Funding from the EPA is helping to restore the property.
One hundred and fifty of the farm’s 170 tillable acres will be restored to wet meadows by this fall, including 25 acres of wooded riparian buffers and 25 acres of meadows with trees, shrubs and vernal ponds. Approximately 100 acres will be restored to wet meadows and moist soils.
Restored wetlands on Bennet Point Farm are in their first or second growing season. Still, Andi Pupke, a CWH wildlife biologist who monitors their restoration sites, noted a productive spring shorebird migration, and the early fall waterfowl migration is already showing promise. Mallards, American black ducks, northern pintails, gadwalls, American widgeons, northern shovelers, blue-winged and green-winged teals, Canada geese, young tundra swans and pied-billed grebes have all been sighted in the restored wetlands.
Bennett Point Farm is geographically linked to several other farms, which support substantial wetland and forested acreage in private lands protected by perpetual easements. Farms within this corridor are geographically linked with Horsehead Wetlands Center, a nonprofit education and conservation center with 500 preserved acres, of which about 350 acres are wetlands adjoining the Chesapeake’s Eastern Bay.
“Corridors like this,” says Ned Gerber, director of CWH, “consisting of large-scale emergent wetlands as well as wet woodlands, meadows and vernal pools provide essential habitat for wintering and migrating waterfowl and other birds as well as other wildlife. In addition to the overwintering waterfowl, breeding wood ducks and American black ducks, many other creatures, such as fish, shorebirds, songbirds, bats, hawks, amphibians, dragonflies and butterflies, also benefit from the restoration and preservation of wetlands, especially larger wetlands.”
Multispecies benefits are also helping waterfowl and other creatures at New Point Comfort, in Mathews County, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. This preservation effort represents a partnership among a nonprofits, the state government and a local community committed to preserving its natural heritage.
In 1994, the Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased and preserved this isolated point of land located between the Chesapeake Bay and Mobjack Bay, which is important habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, colonial nesting waterbirds and a rare beetle.
The local community recently procured funding and helped to construct a handicapped-accessible boardwalk and observation deck from the closest road to the water’s edge. Interpretive signs educate visitors about the tidal salt marsh, maritime forest and beach that is habitat for 200 species of birds and the rare northeastern beach tiger beetle. Long-term monitoring of the area by volunteer birdwatchers indicates that New Point Comfort is especially important for wintering seabirds, like scoters and loons.
New Point Comfort is part of a larger, cooperative effort between The Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which is striving to preserve a string of wildlife refugees on Virginia’s Western Shore. The 111-acre refuge was funded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through Virginia’s Coastal Resources Management Program, with private landowners contributing several acres of adjoining property. Strict rules prohibit pets, fishing, hunting, camping or collecting plants, and access is restricted to the boardwalk.
Although large tracts of undisturbed habitat are needed, providing some public access is important. As Mary Pulley, a birdwatcher who compiles Mathews County data for the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count notes, limited access “gives visitors a chance to view wildlife without disturbing them. It’s a chance for people to become more aware of the animals and their habitats.”
The international “North American Waterfowl Management Plan” encourages partnerships among regions, countries, governments, environmental organizations and private landowners. It’s clear that many partnerships are forming throughout the watershed — Pequea-Mill Creek, Bennett Point Farm and New Point Comfort are just three of dozens of conservation efforts under way.