Green Scene: Siberia on the Chesapeake

by Cheryl Lyn Dybas

A preternatural quiet has fallen over the land. On this cold snap of a February day, even exhaled air is quickly stilled, flash-frozen into ice crystals. Wind-whipped snow rests in six-foot-high banks that stretch for miles along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

Suddenly, a hushed world springs to life. Hundreds of lesser snow geese, their wings white-on-white against the deep snows, take flight from a nearby field, startled, perhaps, by our presence.

Lesser snow geese breed in Siberia and other Arctic locales. The geese leave the Far North before the first blizzard, settling for the winter along the normally snow-free mid- and south-Atlantic Coast. “But they, and we, were in for a big surprise this season,” says Suzanne Baird, manager of Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, referring to the massive snowfalls that shattered all records in the mid-Atlantic region in 2010. “Over the past two weeks alone, we’ve been buried under more than 50 inches,” says Baird, climbing atop a snow pile. “Many of the geese and ducks have flown, but some are still here, riding out the storm.”

To one-third of the Atlantic Coast’s migratory waterfowl, the marshes and fields of Chesapeake Bay are essential winter habitat. “The ducks are as much a part of the bay in winter as the water and the sky,” says Matt Whitbeck, wildlife biologist at Blackwater.

The 26,000-acre refuge serves as wintering grounds for vast numbers of waterfowl—in most years. But Blackwater’s snow-changed waterfowl population may be a harbinger of things to come. Despite the cold weather in the East, the winter of 2010 was the fifth-warmest on record worldwide. A manifestation of global warming, regionally severe winter weather may be linked to a planet whose temperature is going up, not down. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and, as large land masses like North America cool over winter months, increased snowfall results. “If these changes become the norm,” says Chris Haney, Defenders of Wildlife’s chief scientist, “they will alter all kinds of migratory pathways.”

The 2010 waterfowl survey counted 787,100 waterfowl on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast, down from 836,900 the previous year. “Extensive ice coverage on the Chesapeake led to less open water and lower numbers of several duck species,” says Larry Hindman, waterfowl project leader at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The fields that line the Chesapeake usually aren’t winter-white but the gold of wheat, a favorite food of snow geese and other waterfowl. Marshes often remain ice-free, attracting ducks like northern shovelers. “With snow and cold, though, geese become concentrated in the few fields where they can reach corn and soybean stubble to eat,” says Baird.

We skid along Blackwater’s icy loop road in Baird’s SUV, approaching pool number one. There a pair of northern shovelers shivers at the edge, sliding every so often into the flinty water. In several loops around the refuge, we count only a smattering of ducks. “Everything has taken cover,” he says.

At the end of the deserted road, a wide-angle view of the marshes awaits. It’s a look at nothing but snowbank after snowbank, punctuated by withered sprigs of marsh grass. Blackwater has become a place suspended in time, awaiting a sea-change in the Chesapeake’s weather, and ultimately, its fortunes.

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