Sunday, October 9, 2011

Grand Old Trees in Indian River Park

Took a tape measure with me for my last hike in Indian River Park.    Near the center of the park, near the flood plain of the river, there are some massive old growth trees and I was curious how big they were.  I clambered through the underbrush to a few of the giants.   One had a circumference of 9' 11", the other 11' 3".   The branches of these two were so high I had difficulty seeing their leafs to make a tree identification.    After a lot of neck craning, some zoom photos, and a little research showed that these titans with their deeply furrowed barks are American Tulip Trees.   As we walked through the park, more grand old Tulips presented themselves.   Some of these trees are almost certainly a century old if not older.   Beekeeper acquaintances tell me the the tulip trees are a popular food source for honeybees and results in tasty dark red honey.

I also came across an American Beech Tree with a circumference of 10' 7".   That tree could be anywhere from 100 to more than 200 years old.    The beech's nuts are a valuable food source for the forest's raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels.     I didn't see too many beech trees in the park.   There was a young tree, perhaps a daughter to the old giant, a few yards away.   I found a few other mid to large sized trees as I walked the trails.    The park has a fairly wide variety of trees from hundreds of Paw Paw saplings in the understory to towering Loblolly Pines, and many other varieties in between; I'll have to start building a more detailed inventory.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Litter in our rivers, on our coasts, and in the oceans

Last Saturday I was very busy.    I spent all of the morning and part of the afternoon participating beach cleanup event at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.   Organized as part of both National Public Lands Day and the Ocean Conservancy's 2011 International Coastal Cleanup, I went out with a group of volunteers - including families from the company Booz Allen Hamilton, some scouts, regular volunteers and staff from Back Bay - to pick up trash along the beach.   We covered one mile of beach and collected a pickup truck full of trash.   The greatest quantity of items were plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic bags, food wrappers, and unidentifiable pieces of plastic and styrofoam.

One of the kids asked why folks would throw all this garbage on beach.   I explained that most of this garbage was not discarded on the beach but was washed onto the shore from the ocean.   Most of it started as litter in city and suburban streets, malls, and shopping centers.  Tossed by careless people, falling out of overfilled trash cans, flying out of the back of trucks, being blown out of landfills, the trash get washed into the storm sewers by the rain and flows right into our rivers.   First this trash clogs the river shorelines but slowly much of its is washed downstream into the Bay and then into the Atlantic Ocean.    Some of the garbage gets washed back on our beaches, but much more gets pulled by wind and currents out to sea.

Out in the middle of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, there are great oceanic garbage patches littered with floating plastic debris from our modern world.    Caught in the center of the great ocean gyres - the centers of rotation of the major ocean currents - the trash floats endlessly because these plastics don't degrade for thousands of years.   If anything, the plastic just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.   This debris ranges from recognizable items like bags, bottles and caps down to microscopic bits.  The plastic is too often mistaken by sea life for food.    Sea birds eat bottle caps and old lighters.   Turtle think plastic bags and balloons are jellyfish.    Plankton eating fish sweep up the microscopic bits of plastic.   Of course none of this plastic is edible and much of it gets stuck in the animals digestive track.    Dead sea creatures - turtles, sea birds, even whales - have been found with their stomachs filled with plastic trash, likely contributing to their deaths through starvation.   One well documented example of plastic impact on sea life looks at the albatross colony on Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific, which is about as far way from civilization as you can get -   The plastic may even be working its way into the human food chain as smaller fish eat the microscopic plastic bits, the bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and we catch and eat the bigger fish.

What can we do about all this?   Well, first of all make sure you don't litter and that all your trash is securely disposed of in trash containers so it doesn't escape.   If you do see litter, help to pick it up.   Of course, recycle the plastics when you can - although this is not as simple as it sounds since most plastic is not easily recyclable and most recyclers only take plastics labeled Type 1 and Type 2.   Ultimately, the best solution is to reduce the amount of plastics used for packaging.   Because they are versatile, light weight, and relatively cheap, plastic packaging has become pervasive in our society and reversing this trend will require that we make some serious choices.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy National Estuaries Day

What is an estuary and why would someone declare a national day for them?     And how do you remember to spell estuary?     Well, an estuary is the extremely important ecosystem where fresh water from rivers meets the salty water of the sea.   The Chesapeake Bay in its entirety is one of the largest estuaries in the world.   Our little Indian River is an estuary in its own right.    Fresh water from rivers, like the little - and today rain swollen - creek in our Indian River Park, flows into the vast tidal expanses of the bay.   The mixed water is brackish - slight salty - supporting a unique mix of animals and vegetation.

These shallow tidal waters can support lush marshes, which in turn provide nurseries for a wide variety of fish and shellfish.   While some shellfish, like oysters and clams, stay put, the fish and certain shellfish like blue crabs migrate into deeper water as they grow.   The plants of the marsh also provide critical food for migrating birds including ducks, geese, redwing blackbirds, and rails.   The estuarine marshes also act as important sponges, slowing down flood waters - both those coming downstream from heavy rains and those being pushed upland from high winds.    The marshes filter out sediment and absorb excess nutrients.

Our little Indian River estuary lies amid a long established suburb.    The waters are laden with too many fertilizers and too much bacteria, due to rain runoff from our streets and yards.   Too often we've built rigid bulkheads obstructing the marshes.   Yet, even in the Indian River acres of marshland still strive to provide their ecosystem services.   Ducks and redwings stopover on migration.   There are fish to be caught by patrolling osprey, egrets, eagles, and the intrepid fisherman.  You can even find the occasional oysters, although not anywhere in their historical numbers back when Indian River Road was called the Princess Anne Shell Road.   The waterside provides scenic beauty and enhances property values.

So, we celebrate National Estuaries Day to give thanks for the bounty provided by these precious waters and to remind us to take care of them so that will get better and be there for us tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Airborne Mosquito Spraying

Was your house buzzed by a low flying aircraft last night?    That was most likely part of the City of Chesapeake's emergency mosquito spraying program.   Weather permitting, the entire city is being sprayed Monday and Tuesday nights to combat the increase in mosquitoes following Hurricane Irene.
The airborne spraying is conducted at night between 8 pm and 2 am and covers almost the entire city.    According to the city website, the insecticide ' not pose a risk to humans or pets, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control. However, people who suffer from chemical sensitivities or feel spraying may aggravate preexisting health conditions should remain indoors during application to avoid exposure.'

This emergency spraying is not without controversy.   While the insecticide in the concentrations used is not likely to be directly harmful to humans, mammals, or birds, it does kill other insects beyond just mosquitos.    Other beneficial insects such as dragonflies, butterflies, and bees can all be killed by the misting.
The spraying is done at night to try to minimize the impact to these other insects but even the city website warns that beekeepers may 'wish to take the extra precaution of covering their hives for protection'.    Ultimately, the aerial spraying has limited effectiveness.   While mosquitos that come in contact with the insecticide will die quickly, the aerial spraying does little to control the next generation of larvae waiting to grow into adults and the mosquito population rebounds fairly quickly.   Residents can help control mosquito population by eliminating standing pools of water where mosquitoes breed.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Native Plant Resources

Someone asked me about a good reference source for native plants recently.  Here are a few links that we've gathered over time:

The most comprehensive site we found is from the US Fish and Wildlife Service: Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping Chesapeake Bay Watershed.    It has both a web based version and a good pdf version

Another resource is the Virginia Native Plant Society

Of course, I need to give a  plug for the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Chesapeake Master Gardeners, which is your local resource for all things about plants:

Monday, July 4, 2011

1887 Map

Photo of map of Indian River area in 1887.  Original at Chesapeake Central Library on Cedar Road; located in History Room.

Monday, March 21, 2011

'Creeking' up Indian River Park

(Revised Feb 25, 2012)
Friday morning I donned a pair of rubber boots and headed for Indian River Park.  Parking by the Youth Center on Rokeby and Providence, I walked over to the culvert where the Indian River flows under Providence Road.  On the north side of the road, the river turns tidal and slowly broadens into a wide estuary.  But on the south side it is a small stream draining the surrounding suburban neighborhoods, sheltered by Indian River Park.  My goal today was to hike up along the river to I-64, just short of its source which is on the farside of the that superhighway. 

My first steps on this ‘creeking’ expedition where not encouraging.   The water was only about 6” deep but as I stepped into the stream my foot sank into a bottom deep with sediment.  Extracting myself, I bushwhacked a few yards upstream and, fortunately, the streambed turned sandy and firmer.  Overall the stream was fairly well connected with its flood plain.  There was no deeply eroded channel, just a broad bowl through which the little river flowed.  This was a good sign as the river could expand easily during storms, slowing the water flow and reducing the sediment and fertilizer load dumped into the tidal estuary, and ultimately the bay.  The park at this point is only a city block wide, the woods flanking the river a typical second growth forest with a mix of trees perhaps 50 years old.  A stand of phragmites stood on the right bank as I started upstream.

Alternating between the stream bank and streambed as conditions allowed, I took an unscientific inventory of the flora and fauna as I went.  Birdsong filled the surrounding trees.  At one point I stopped to listen to a pair of Blue Jays call to each other from opposite river banks – “too-oot, too-oot.”  About 200 yards upstream I came across some subaquatic vegetation in the river,  long grasses pulled horizontal in the shallow current, probably sago or horned pondweed.

Red-bellied Turtle?
A few hundred yards further, as I neared Military Highway – the aging primary road that 60 years ago was the area's original ‘beltway’ – the channel narrowed and deepened.  (What I originally thought was Japanese Stilt Grass but now identify as) native bamboo Arundinaria filled both banks and English Ivy was visible on some of the trees.  As I continued upriver, alternating between banks to find the clearest path, three mallards hurried away ahead of me.  After a few minutes I emerged from the thicket onto Military Highway.  Just before the roadway was a deep pool clogged with debris, both natural and man-made trash.  But even here nature sought a foothold and three turtles basking on the debris pile.  Their carapaces were brown with mud but I think they were Red-bellied Turtles.

Subaquatic grass
Continuing on the south side of Military Highway, the stream again broadened and shallowed.  The park gets a bit wider and more diverse.  Within the river were significant stretches of subaquatic grasses.   Whenever an eddy in the stream provided an area of calm, I could find a school of 20 to 30 minnows – inch long fish.  I startled numerous frogs along my trek.  Raccoon tracks covered the stream banks.  The stream was still connected to its flood plain and the stream often broadened into multiple rivulets, swamping some areas.   About three hundred yards along was a stand of grand old trees with trunks 4 to 6 feet in diameter, including several oaks and what I believe is a huge beech.  Cardinals, Thrushes, and Grackles moved through the tree line.   

Raccoon tracks

As I approached the power line transmission corridor midway through the park, the Arundinaria bamboo became so thick I had to hike away from the river to find one of the park trails.  In this area there were also several pockets of English Ivy, another invasive, growing up trees.

Arundinaria bamboo - also known as canes
Beyond the power lines the stream’s character changed again.  The stream took on a more ‘engineered’ look, straighter and with higher banks, probably altered decades ago to speed the water drainage from the surrounding developments.  In the shallow stream there were still lots of invertebrates – water striders – but almost no fish.  The stream bottom varied between firm sand and quicksand silt.  I stepped into one of these quicksand traps and quickly got a boot full of water. The only major fauna I stumbled upon, actually almost stepped upon, was a large snapping turtle in the stream.  I’m not sure who was more startled but the turtle quickly moved into a deep pool beneath a log.   As it went I could clearly see its leathery tail and sharp claws; not a character to mess with.  In the final stretch up to I-64 the stream dwindled and the river bottom was filled with leaves.  The stream disappeared under a dark and rock blocked culvert below the I-64 highway.  

Overall the hike up the river revealed a mixed bag.  Surrounded by a long developed suburb where almost 50% of the land was covered pavement or rooftops, the park is not a pristine wilderness.  At places invasive English Ivy is making deep encroachment, but much of the park still is filled with native nature.  The river is home to fish, frogs, turtles.  Birds sing in the canopy and raccoons - and most likely foxes - hunt in these woods.  Native plants  - including wildflowers like blue violets and mayapples - pushed up where the invaders were not dominant.  And hundred year old giants tower above it all.  Definitely a landscape that is worth enjoying and worth saving.

Blue Violets

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cleaning up in Indian River Park

I hooked up with the I.P. Ipswich Posse for a day of trail maintenance and general cleanup in Indian River Park on Sunday.   The I.P. Ipswich Posse is a local extension of the Eastern Virginia Mountainbike Association.  This cool crew of avid mountain bikers, their families, and other park enthusiasts from the neighborhood has adopted the park and are actively working to take care of this local gem.

Twenty-two adults, along with several kids and a few dogs came out early Sunday for the cleanup event.   Splitting up into several teams, armed with rakes, clippers, shovels, and paintbrushes they fanned out across the park to collect trash and debris and fix up several  bridges .   One central focus was to clear brush and repaint the bridge over the park’s main stream.    The waterway narrows here to a channel  only a couple of feet wide, but it’s actually the main branch of the upland Indian River, the namesake for the park and the neighborhood.    As the stream meanders through the park, the surrounding natural area acts as to slow and filter the runoff from the surrounding neighborhood.   But today’s mission was to make sure this important crossing over the stream in the park stays in good repair.

While a party stayed to work on the bridge, others split off in teams of two or three, some with wheel barrows, to walk the park's miles of trails in search of trash.    A few areas seemed to be magnets for discarded water and beverage bottles but some of the more littered areas were right along the stream banks with debris washed in from the neighborhood.   The volunteers picked up a few dozen bags of trash and several large items including a car tire, a shopping cart, large plywood board, and an ungainly shipping pallet.   Although not on the main agenda, I also used my clippers to tackle some of the English ivy invading the park.   While still limited to a few hot spots, invasives like English ivy and bamboo are another risk to the park.  

After long hours of work, the group gathered for a picnic of burgers and hot dogs to thank the volunteers for their efforts and socialize.   The I.P Ipswich Posse is  dedicated to keeping the area in good condition both for bicycle enthusiast and for the entire community.   By sprucing up the park, it becomes more welcoming and becoming more popular for taking an afternoon walk or run.   The park is a beautiful natural space full of birds and other wildlife.   A few weeks ago I spotted a pileated woodpecker – our largest woodpecker – in the park.   One of the other participants told me she has seen foxes in the park.

Indian River Park has an extensive network of bike trails popular with area mountain bikers.  Liz S., one of the coordinators for the day’s event told me that this is the only park with this kind of trail network on the Southside, which makes it very special to the group.    After years of minimal attention from the City of Chesapeake, EVMA is now  actively working with the City to improve the trails and maintenance of the park.    The group can be found on Facebook and holds these cleanup events quarterly.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count

I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend, spending several hours on Friday and Saturday along the shores of the Indian River.  It was glorious weather with temperatures near 70.  It was low tide in the afternoon so I was able to walk along the impromptu beach.

Ring-billed Gull
Over the two days, I spotted 19 bird species ranging from the tiny Carolina Chickadee to a graceful Brown Pelican coasting along the river.   Unfortunately, I had my hands full with my binoculars and notepad, so I don't have a lot of great bird photos to share.   But, there were many different birds.   On the water were Canada Geese, Buffleheads, Mallards, a Canvasback, and even a Pied-billed Grebe - the first of that species I've ever recorded.   Ring-billed Gulls hunted along the tidal banks on the opposite shore.  Overhead soared Black Vulture, numerous Crows, and at least two Red-tailed Hawks.   Amongst the trees I picked out Mourning Doves, Blue Jays, Mockingbirds, Cardinals, White-throated Sparrows, and a Red-winged Blackbird.  There was also a Kingfisher along the shoreline.

While not sighted this weekend, a few days ago a Bald Eagle swooped a dozen yards over my head not a block away from the river.  Its great to see this once endangered bird more frequently.   Over the past several weeks I also sighted in the neighborhood Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue Herons, and our biggest woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker - the latter being at Indian River Park.   Those bring my monthly total to 24 species.

The inter-tidal stretch along the shore also had a fair number of Oysters, Mussels, and Clams - both empty shells and living specimens.  Finding these is encouraging since they are filter feeders and as such they help improve the water quality.   That the Oysters are surviving here makes this area a good candidate for additional Oyster Gardening.   While it will still be many years before the water quality improves enough to make these shellfish safe to eat, every step of improvement helps.

There was also a bit of trash along the shore, mostly litter washed into the river.  On my second foray I brought along a trash bag and was able to clean up about a hundred yards of shoreline.   All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of days.   The numerous examples of wildlife was very encouraging and wets the appetite for continued improvement in the watershed.

Update Sunday Feb 20: I didn't plan to do any more birding today but there was a figurative storm of birds around or near the bird feeder today.   In 45 minutes I tallied 19 species including Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Cardinals, Chickadees, Crow, Robins, Blue Jay, White-throated Sparrows, Mallards, Gulls, Cormorants, Canada Goose, Mockingbirds, Wood Thrush, Kingfisher, Brown-headed Cowbirds (boo!), Red-winged Blackbirds (a flock of 100 swarmed the feeder), and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (another first for me).   That brought my weekend species count to 25 and monthly species count to 29.

Friday, January 28, 2011

State of the Indian River

Indian River Road.  Indian River Library.  Indian River High School.   We pass these places most every day, but how often do we think about the actual Indian River?   Although we sometimes overlook it, we have our own corner of the Chesapeake Bay flowing right through the middle of our community.   And we are inescapably tied to this waterway.   The wetlands provide a buffer and sponge during storm driven high tides.   The river provides habitat for the birds we enjoy watching.   The river offers recreation for boaters while the upland forest in Indian River Park has miles of trails for off-road bikers.   The proximity to a tidal waterway enhances property values.   A healthy and accessible river can also bring in businesses and drive beautification efforts.

Yet our proximity also stresses the river.   Centuries of development have left their mark on our river and the whole Chesapeake Bay.   Every time it rains, pollutants are washed through the storm drains and into the Indian River.   The Indian River is part of the neighborhood and it needs our care.

The Community and Watershed

The Indian River is a small tributary of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, itself a tributary of the James River.   Starting as a series of small creeks draining the relatively flat coastal plan, the Indian River turns into a broad tidal estuary, a mix of fresh and salt water that should be a rich marine ecosystem.  Downstream from the Indian, the Elizabeth flows through Norfolk and Portsmouth and forms one of the busiest working harbors in the world.

Over the past 100 years a mature suburban neighborhood has grown up around the Indian River.   Bounded by City of Virginia Beach on the east, Norfolk and the Southern Railroad line on the west, and I-64 on the south, the City of Chesapeake neighborhood that bears the river’s name encompasses just over 5 square miles and is home to over 24,000 residents.    Three major roads cross the neighborhood from west to east: the Indian River Road which has the only bridge over the tidal river, Providence Road which can be found on maps dating back to the early 1800’s, and Military Highway.    Another 4 square miles of the more recently developed Greenbrier neighborhood south of I-64 also connects into the watershed and adds another 20,000 people to the mix.

State of the River

For the past 20+ years the Elizabeth River has been the focus of intense efforts to cleanup and reverse the ravages of centuries of industrial and urban development.    Thanks to the Clean Water Act and efforts by organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Elizabeth River Project, progress has been made  to “remove the goo” of chemicals that coat the river bottom along the shipyards and riverfront factories.

Less stressed by the heavy industry and contamination than the Norfolk and Portsmouth waterfronts, the upper reaches of the Elizabeth River including the Indian River are nonetheless considered “severely degraded”.     Surrounded by thousands of homes and businesses, miles of paved roads and parking lots, the water quality is poor.   As part of the restoration efforts on the Elizabeth, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality maintains several monitoring sites including one on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth, just beyond the mouth of the Indian River.   The data results show major areas of concern including:

High Bacteria Levels – the Elizabeth River has been closed to oyster and clam harvesting since the 1920’s due to bacterial contamination.   Although the region has been served by waste water treatment facilities since the 1940’s and is now served by one of the most modern plants in the nation – the Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP) in Norfolk – bacterial contamination is still at unsafe levels.   The culprit today is from “non-point sources”, mostly from fecal contamination from wildlife – such as geese - and household pets – often the family dog.

Excessive Nutrient Levels – nitrogen and phosphorous are two essential elements for the growth of plants.  We put down fertilizer to provide these elements to our crops, and in this watershed – and in the whole Chesapeake Bay watershed in general – the largest single crop by acreage is lawn grass.   When it rains excess fertilizer is washed off the lawn, into the storm drains, and into the Indian River.  The waters of our river and bay are heavily over-fertilized.    This abundance of nutrients causes algae to bloom in the water.  This in turn has two effects: water clarity is reduced blocking sunlight to sub-aquatic vegetation at the base of the food chain and, when the algae die and decompose, oxygen is robbed from the water.   And this brings us to the third issue…

Low Dissolved Oxygen – particularly in the summer, the algae blooms coupled with slow water exchange in our tidal estuary results in the depletion of oxygen levels in the water.   Although fish and crabs may live underwater, they still breathe oxygen that they extract from the water.   When the oxygen levels drop too low the fish, crabs, and clams either flee or die.   These low oxygen zones get the ominous name of “dead zones”.

However, the news is not all gloomy.   A simple canoe trip up the Indian River illustrates that the waterway is still quite alive.   In the fall we paddled to the head of tide past thick stands of native aquatic cordgrass teeming with hundreds of Red-Winged Blackbirds.  We passed dozens of Mallards while Great Blue Herons, Egrets, and Kingfishers patrolled the shores.  A late migrating Osprey soared overhead.    During the winter, the Indian River is home to Bufflehead ducks, Mallards, and Cormorants.

Despite being in the middle of our century old suburb, there are still long stretches of living shoreline along the Indian River lined with aquatic rush grasses backed by mature trees and shrubs.  The upland reaches of the left branch of the Indian River is protected by the linear Indian River Park providing some 70 acres of mature forested buffer crisscrossed by trails.

What can you do to help?

There are a few simple things each of us can do to help improve the environment in our community.   Homeowners can minimize the use of fertilizer on their lawns.   Pet owners can “scoop the poop” and make sure it is properly disposed of with your household trash.    Everyone needs to stay informed.  If you are interested in learning more drop me a note at or Like us on Facebook.