The sandy precipices of Calvert Cliffs and the Chesapeake Bay meet to form some of Maryland's most striking geography, but many of the beachcombers at Calvert County's Flag Ponds Nature Park barely lift their eyes from the sand to look at the scenery.
That's because they're looking for fossils -- imprinted remains of plants and animals found in rock -- that nestle among the pebbles on the beaches at Flag Ponds and nearby Calvert Cliffs State Park.
Those geologic formations are common in Calvert and St. Mary's counties, but Flag Ponds and Calvert Cliffs State Park "are the only public accessible beaches for fossil hunting," according to David Brezinski, a geologist for the Maryland Geological Survey.
These beaches are famous among East Coast fossil hunters, and frequent finds include sharks' teeth, sting ray bars and sand dollar pieces.
So the handful of families sifting sand at the water's edge keep their attention focused downward. That is, until park naturalist // Leslie Henderson comes strolling along the beach. Uniformed, ponytailed and smiling, she's an easy mark for those who want help identifying their discoveries.
She barely walks several feet before children stop her with hopeful questions: "Is this a shark's tooth?" "Is this a fossil?"
Ms. Henderson bends over and fingers through pebbles, sand and broken shells. One boy learns he now possesses a silky shark's tooth. Richly black in color, it measures no more than 1/4 inch in length.
"This," she says, reaching into her pocket, "is what one kind of shark's tooth looks like." She produces her own lucky find of the day: a shiny gray, perfectly formed tooth about 1 1/4 inches long. It may have belonged to a snaggletooth shark. Millions of years have mineralized the tooth with durable calcium phosphate.
Though Calvert County beaches are rich with numerous fossil varieties, Flag Ponds' manager Connie Sutton explains that sharks' teeth are big attractions.
"Most people have a fascination for sharks," she says. "I think [the movie] 'Jaws' sparked an interest in sharks that has never stopped."
Ms. Sutton explains that the fossils were formed about 10 million to 25 million years ago, when water covered what is now Flag Ponds. This was the Miocene Period. Sea creatures swarmed the waters, which was a smorgasbord for feeding sharks. In fact, sharks feasted so lavishly that teeth wore quickly, fell out and dropped to the ocean floor. Gliding sting rays snatched clams, cracking them open with bony bars inside their mouths. Many of these remains fossilized in the ocean bottom.
Later, when the waters receded, cliffs were formed. Today, waves continually wash out fossils and other material from the bottom of the cliffs to the shoreline. And people search for clues of this ancient period, one handful of sand at a time.
But without a little advance education, a scoop of sand can look like. . . well, a scoop of sand.
"You have to know what to look for," says Ms. Sutton. In the visitor's center at Flag Ponds, a display case contains an assortment of the area's typical fossils. It includes the state fossil, Ecphora Quadrico (more commonly known as the four-ribbed snail), ray bars and a half dozen or so kinds of sharks' teeth.
Ms. Sutton suggests visitors stop at the center before heading for the beach. "You can't expect to look down and find fossils at your feet," she cautions. Ray bars and sand dollars are likely to be found in pieces, rather than as perfect specimens. Chances are not everyone will find a shark's tooth. Patience is a fossil hunter's most important trait. A sifter, magnifying glass and a pair of shoes that can get wet are also helpful.
(About 8 miles south of the park, the Calvert Marine Museum offers an extensive overview of Calvert County's geography and heritage. In the discovery room, children can hone their sifting skills in a large sandbox "beach" filled with hidden fossils.)
According to Ms. Sutton, the increasing number of fossil hunters pose no ecological dangers, providing they confine their collections to shells and fossils from the beach. No digging from area cliffs is allowed.
"I guess there's a finite number of [shark's] teeth," says Dwight Williams, division chief for the Department of Natural Resources in Calvert County, "but people have been picking up sharks' teeth for eons."
Of course, there is more to do at Flag Ponds than hunt for fossils. Ms. Sutton doesn't want visitors to overlook the park's other natural attractions -- easy hiking trails, a wetlands boardwalk and a fishing pier on the Chesapeake Bay.
Flag Ponds is now in off-season and open only on weekends, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: $3 per vehicle (after October and until April, no fee will be collected). It is a half-mile walk to the beach. There is limited handicapped parking at the beach area. For more information call the park at (301) 586-1477. (The beach area at Calvert Cliffs State Park is closed for the season.)