Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Ducks along the Indian River

Bufflehead duck - (c) Rogard Ross
With the recent snow and ice melting along the Indian River, I went out for walk in these days leading up to Christmas.  I soon spotted iconic Bufflehead diving ducks all along the river.  These beautiful little ducks seem perfectly designed for a snowy winter day, their black and white markings providing excellent camouflage along snowy banks. Here and there you see them in groups of two or three, or just one alone.  Every few minutes they'll disappear as they dive deep hunting the river bottom for crustaceans and mollusks.

In the days when Captain John Smith explored the waters around Hampton Roads, he found a rich natural world.  The river bottoms were lush with underwater grasses and teeming with creatures that feed these diving ducks.  Four centuries of development have taken their toll - first intensive agriculture and then, in the past century, rapid urban and suburban development.  Sediment runoff and over-fertilization have turned the once deep, crystal clear waters into shallow and muddy channels.  The underwater grasses and oysters have suffered greatly from choking sediment and algae, disease, and over-harvesting.

Yet, life in the rivers hangs on.  Every fall, hundreds of thousands of birds migrate along the Atlantic Flyway from their nesting grounds in the northern US and Canada to points south.  Most will stop in and around the Chesapeake Bay to feed and refuel and tens of thousands of birds will stay to spend the winter. Mallards have proven very adaptable and done well in a suburban world.  On a recent canoe trip on the Indian River, their count quickly topped 100.  The Bufflehead diving duck, while not as common as mallards, are still a frequent sight on the rivers around Hampton Roads.

What can you do to help preserve and improve the environment around us?  One of the greatest problems for our waters today is over-fertilization: too much nitrogen and phosphorous is entering the water causing algae growth that clouds the water and blocks sunlight. The simplest thing most all us can do is reducing the amount of fertilizer used on lawns.  After that, extra steps we can take include: reducing the size of our lawns, replacing grass with native ground cover plants and installing rain gardens to capture rain run-off slowing erosion.  You can also support efforts like those of the Elizabeth River Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  Most of all, get out there and enjoy the rivers.  One pair of nice sites I've discovered close to the Elizabeth is at Great Bridge Lock Park and across the river Bells Mill Park.  Happy Holidays.