Wildlife Refuge Really Many Habitats In One

Patuxent Center Set To Take Over Fort Meade Land

September 15, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

Fierce four-inch talons grip a perch at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

As visitors pass the iron-girded cage, Moose the bald eagle turns away disinterestedly.

Twenty-five years ago, a young boy captured her near Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. Today, she is all that remains of the Patuxent center's efforts to save the bald eagle.

The center's research solved the mystery of DDT, a pesticide that decimated eagle populations two decades ago, and has led to the resurgence of a species once threatened with extinction. After releasing more than 100 eagles into the wild, the research center had 16 eagles in 1986.

Now, Moose is the only remaining eagle at the center, an honorary researchretiree who leads a leisurely life snacking on fish and sitting in her own cage. Bucky the Andean condor, once part of the center's research into the endangered California condor, keeps Moose company in thepen next door.

Ironically, when the wildlife center takes over 7,600 acres at Fort Meade next month, it will inherit the fruit of Moose's labor. Three years ago, a pair of eagles voluntarily nested there-- the farthest inland an eagle nest has been recorded in Maryland. The pair has hatched five eaglets over the last two years.

Though pleased, Patuxent officials treat the eagles' success as just anotherday at the office.

"There's not much more for us to learn about breeding eagles," said John Stasko, chief of facility management. "We go in and out of research on endangered species from throughout the country."

Established in 1936 as an "outdoor laboratory," the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center has quietly -- some would say secretly -- harbored nurtured endangered species in western Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties for decades. Today, its scientists focus theirinvestigations on canvasback and black ducks, once plentiful on the Chesapeake Bay, the Puerto Rican parrot, the Eastern timber wolf and the Hawaiian forest bird.

But the research is not limited to species on the verge of extinction. Patuxent scientists also track waterfowl and other migratory birds whose survival depends on the health of the global environment, and monitor the effects of pollutants -- frompesticides to acid rain -- on the lowest levels of the food chain.

"Like the canary in the coal mine, what's affecting the field mice might be affecting us as well," said Nell Baldachinno, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates Patuxent. "Nothing is really isolated."

A refuge to a vast variety of wildlife, the 4,700-acre research center is a smorgasbord of habitats. Meadows, parched by the summer's drought, teem with field mice, a primary food source for the hawks and owls that dwell in the adjacent forest. A string of lily-padded lakes provide homes to beaver, fish andmigratory waterfowl.

The diversity is by design, Stasko says. Left to nature, the once-agricultural land would tend to evolve toward astable forest or wetland. So Patuxent's 250-member staff carefully manipulate vegetation -- alternating mowing schedules and draining ponds -- in an attempt to duplicate habitats up and down the East Coast.

"The reason we manage (the land) is so we can be this outdoor lab," Stasko says. "We might have butterfly research in this corner and a snapping turtle study in another."

Indoor laboratories, including the contamination lab that diagnosed the thinning effects of DDT oneagle eggshells during the 1960s, also dot the facility.

At a recently constructed chain-link waterfowl pen, scientists study how the loss of submerged aquatic grasses and acid rains affect the black duck and the canvasback duck, once considered the "king of ducks" on theChesapeake.

Patuxent scientists will expand their research program when the Army transfers 7,600 acres at Fort Meade to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Oct. 1. But their first order of business will be cataloging the native wildlife, Stasko said.

The vast majority of the property, once used for tank maneuvers, war games and machine gun practice, is forested, said William Harmeyer, the Army's environmental biologist. But it also includes meadows, magnolia bogs and a massive, 300-plus-year-old sycamore tree, the largest and third oldest in the state, he said.

Red fox, bobcat and deer routinely are seen wandering the meadows and forest. Appalachian mound builders, a rare ant, have constructed 8-foot-high anthills along the forest's edge. The tiger beetle and the tick-seed sunflower, both on the state's endangered species list, can be found there.

Again, the diversity is no accident. For 17 years, Harmeyer has cultivated a variety of habitats while attempting to reclaim everything from firing ranges to old sand and gravel pits.

"This is an absolute utopia for a woodsmanbecause it has such variety," Harmeyer said. "We don't even know everything we have here."

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