Company gets high marks for habitat Wildlife group gives its approval WEST COUNTY * Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon

September 16, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Every two weeks or so during warm weather, H. R. "Bob" Parks Jr. leaves his office off Carroll Mill Road near West Friendship, walks around the edge of the natural gas pumping station he runs, and counts birds.

This is no lunch-hour nature walk, however.

It involves opening birdhouses with a screwdriver, writing down which ones are occupied, which ones have eggs, and, later in the season, how many fledglings survive long enough to leave the nest.

Each observation is recorded, just as if he were measuring the progress of the station's current project to replace 600 feet of pipeline below a highway project.

If he's lucky, he might see a fox using its well-worn trail from its hole to one of three man-made brush piles that provide a homes for mice, voles, chipmunks and snakes.

"Occasionally we see hawks in here," he says pointing across a meadow that has not been mowed in a year.

"There's two perches we put up here for them," made of upright four-by-fours in the middle of another field that has grown for three years.

To control that growth, and preserve the meadow habitat, the company will mow again this fall, after the fledgling birds leave their nests, he said.

"We're certainly no more than amateurs at this," admits Mr. Parks.

But the neophyte naturalists at the station, which compresses ,, natural gas on its way from wells in Texas, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico to communities from Georgia to New York, have passed their first wildlife management test.

Environmental experts recently reviewed the 52-acre station's records, and told Mr. Parks he was going to be re-certified for two more years by the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council.

The council, a nonprofit group of corporations, conservation groups and individuals dedicated to preserving and improving wildlife habitat, gives corporations such as the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp. advice about how to do that on their property.

After tramping through rising clouds of grasshoppers along the edge of a meadow, Mr. Parks comes to a stream the company has stabilized with rocks, to prevent erosion and to create small pools for aquatic animals and their predators.

"You'll see a crane here every once and a while, or an egret or something," Mr. Parks said, pointing to the soggy area on the edge of the woods.

Beyond the trees are the banks of the Middle Patuxent River, where the company plans to install wood duck boxes.

Along the edge of the woods are willow and dogwood saplings that will some day provide cover for birds and other wildlife.

Mr. Parks looks disapprovingly at a one-foot tall block of salt, placed on a wood plank for the deer that frequent the property.

"That salt lick, they use it some, but I'm going to move it down there, to where they like to cross the river," he says, pointing to a spot downstream.

At the crossing, there are dozens of hoofprints going up the bank, across the river from a deer trail.

This fall, Mr. Parks said, the company will begin working on a trail to allow people to enjoy the woods as well.

One of the neighbors who might someday enjoy that trail, by no coincidence, is Joyce M. Kelly, known locally for her past leadership of the Howard County Citizens Association and other civic involvement.

During the day, she is executive director of the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council, based in Silver Spring.

A resident of the Woodmark subdivision, Ms. Kelly had always been interested in the Transcontinental property, but it wasn't .. until about three years ago that she saw a "golden opportunity" to help make it more inviting to wildlife.

That was when Mike Zagata, a member of the council's board of directors, took a job with Transcontinental's parent company, Transco Energy, as its vice president for environmental affairs.

"It was a marriage of happy circumstance, if you will. I suggested to Mike that there was this golden opportunity at this station that I knew about," she said.

Three years later, the station is a nesting ground for several species whose normal nesting sites -- holes in dead trees -- are quickly being destroyed to make room for new development.

From 1992 to 1993, the number of birds hatched and fledged the station's 22 wood birdhouses -- including eastern bluebirds, house wrens and Carolina chickadees -- has grown from 34 to 60.

The costs of providing for wildlife on the property are balanced by the savings, which come mainly from only having to mow its meadows once every three years instead of four times a season, Mr. Parks said.

But the real benefits, he said, are not found on a ledger sheet.

"Any time you can improve a site, or improve community relations, you can't put a price on it," he said. "We're here and we're part of the community; we'd like to be an asset instead of a liability."

Transcontinental is one of three Howard County sites participating in the council's program. The two others are W. R. Grace in Columbia and The Heartlands retirement community in Ellicott City. The 5-year-old council has close to 90 members nationwide.

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