Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Notes and Thoughts: Battle Creek Nature Education Society

The opinions and commentary expressed in this blog post are my own.   Therefore, they do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the following organizations:

  • Battle Creek Nature Education Society
  • Calvert County Natural Resources Division
  • The Student Conservation Association
  • Americorps
  • National Park Service, Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network
Introduction
The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, and is something I am happy to have been a part of.  The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed is enormous and diverse.  A drop of water that lands on the ground high up in the mountains of New York, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia slides its way down through rushing rivers and hemlock gorges, past dense urban areas, and into a large bay filled with grabs, jellyfish, and shorebirds.  It also stands as one of America’s most successful environmental efforts.  The Bay, much like other large bodies of water across the United States, was nearly paralyzed by 20th century industrial blight and destruction.  In time, however, numerous different groups ranging from environmentalists, fisherman, recreational boaters, politicians, Native Americans, and ordinary citizens came together and began cleaning and restoring the Bay.  Prior to European Settlement, it was said by early writers that the Bay’s waters were crystal clear and that oyster reefs were so large they protruded out of the water and that boaters had to be careful not to crash into them (Lippson and Lippson, 2006).
As Bay restoration efforts and environmental awareness increased, the federal government became more involved.  One of those government actions was the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a system of local, state, and national parks, trails, historic sites, museums, and a plethora of other natural and cultural assets.  Coordinated by the renowned National Park Service, key places within the Chesapeake Bay watershed were given national significance (Photo G).
For the fall of 2011, I was a naturalist intern with the Battle Creek Nature Education Society in Calvert County, Maryland.   The parks that I worked in are joined in with the Gateways Network, and the quality of their nature education programs reflects the importance of their parks and facilities in telling the story of the Chesapeake Bay.  The nature parks are operated directly by the county though their natural resources division.
I had the opportunity to work in two of Calvert County, Maryland’s three main nature parks.
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary & Nature Center
During the early 1950s, the newly established Nature Conservancy began acquiring land.  One of their first land purchases for the state of Maryland was the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp (Photo A).  A cypress swamp is a forested wetland dominated by the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), an unusual tree on two accounts:  (1) it is in the same group of trees as pines and spruces (referred to as conifers, or cone-bearing plants) yet it looses its leaves in the fall much in the same way oaks and maples shed their foliage; (2) the horizontal roots produce “knees”, or upward projects of the roots that give the swamp area a primordial appearance (see Photos A and B).

Photo A: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp near Prince Frederick, MD. September 2011.

Photo B: The upward protrusions of the roots of the bald cypress, referred to as "knees."

The Nature Conservancy managed to protect 100 acres of this unique site, preventing future logging that nearly decimated the swamp during the first half of the 20th century.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Calvert County purchased about 20 acres of defunct tobacco farmland and constructed the region’s first nature center   As budget and programs increased in size and variety, the nature center expanded to include a classroom, interactive exhibits on the swamp, the Chesapeake Bay, and the cultural history of the Chesapeake bay tributary known as Battle Creek (named by early European settlers after the town of Battle, England) (Photo C).  The exhibits also feature live captive animals native to the region.

Photo C: The preserve's namesake, Battle Creek, named after the town of Battle, England.

The preserve also features a boardwalk through the swamp.  The boardwalk is made almost entirely out of recycled milk bottles (Photo D).  On the tract of land owned by Calvert County, a somewhat longer trail winds around the old Tobacco Farm, an industry once common and mainstream in Southern Maryland (see Photo E).

Photo D: Boardwalk made of recycled milk bottles through the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp.

Photo E: The old tobacco farm tenant house, now owned and partially restored by the Calvert County Natural Resources Division.

Photo F: Wildflowers now bloom in what was once an old Tobacco farm.

Cypress swamps and the bald cypress tree itself are normally found further south, such as along the Southeast Atlantic Coast or in the lower Mississippi valley.  Cypress trees are closely related to the renowned Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia sp), commonly planted in Asian-style gardens.

Photo G: The Battle Creek Cypress Swamp and Flag Ponds Nature Park are both a part of the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, as indicated by this sign.

Flag Ponds Nature Park

The other park I worked in was Flag Ponds Nature Park, located right along the Chesapeake Bay.  As sand and mud eroded from the nearby ‘Calvert Cliffs’ and other areas of the county, accumulation began forming the  somewhat sinuous beach of Flag Ponds Nature Park (see photo H).  The actual cliffs are outside of the park boundaries, but can easily be seen from the beach (Photo I).

Photo H: The beach at Flag Ponds Nature Park on a sunny early October morning. Fall 2011.

Photo I: A small section of a sand-mud cliff that helps feed sediment into Flag Ponds Beach.

The park was named for the numerous ponds and shallow wetlands that were cut off from the Bay via the accumulation of sand and debris.  The name ‘Flag Ponds’ was coined for the presence of the colorful Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) that blooms bright blue along the fringes of the pond in the spring (unfortunately, I was there in the fall).

The dune areas near the beach had interesting vegetation.  Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) and the evergreen shrub known as wax myrtle (Myrica sp.) dominate the maritime forests of the park, while near the dunes, a plant most would not expect to see along the east coast of the United States grows the eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) (see Photo J).

Photo J: Prickly pear cactus near the beach at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

The park also has a fishing pier that is frequently used for education programs (Photo K), as well as a visitor center and an education building with classrooms (Photo I).

Photo K: Fishing pier on the Chesapeake Bay on a breezy October afternoon. 2011. Flag Ponds Nature Park beach.

Photo L: Education Building at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

Environmental Education

The Battle Creek Nature Education Society (BCNES) in cooperation with the county, partnered with the Student Conservation Association and Americorps to enhance their nature programs and to create a learning opportunity for conservation educators of the future.  The BCNES’s programs are kid-oriented at an extreme.  Programs geared towards toddlers all the way to middle school students and scout groups are abundant and affordable.  One program I helped to lead and coordinate was an environmental education workshop with local middle school students in Calvert County.  Calvert County Public Schools require students to participate in a series of hands-on outdoor workshops and science projects that explore the marine live of the Chesapeake Bay.  This allows local youth to develop an appreciation for the Bay and to learn valuable in-field technical skills. Photo M shows myself teaching the water quality portion of a workshop on the benefits of oysters in the Bay’s ecosystem (such as filtering pollution, creating habitat for other animals, a food source, etc.).  These outdoor programs, which take place at the county’s main nature parks, is coordinated by the natural resources division and the local school district via their CHESPAX office.

Photo M: Calvert County 5th graders learn about the Chesapeake Bay through hands-on outdoor fieldwork on a sunny October day in the Fall of 2011 along the boardwalk at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

The BCNES includes countless other programs on a year round basis.

Conclusion

The quality and level of resource protection in Calvert County’s nature parks is commensurate to the diversity of programs geared towards youth and students.  The opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art nature preserve system and the chance to earn Americorps education award dollars made this program, by far, the best internship that I have ever undertaken.  The Chesapeake Bay now hold more meaning for me, joining an elite category of North American natural resources that rivals places from the mountains and prairies to the sea.

References

Lippson, A. J., & Lippson, R. L. (2006). Life in the Chesapeake Bay.  Johns Hopkins University Press.

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