Bird man of Columbia

Biologist: Jeff Duguay, 34, heads research and education projects at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area. Banding blue jays, warblers and such is one of his many activities.

June 11, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The dew is still thick on the ground when Jeff Duguay catches his first bird, a blue jay, in a giant net strung between two poles in one of Columbia's few remaining meadows.

He holds the jay gently in one hand, securing a band onto one of its toothpick-thin legs before releasing it. In the next several hours, he will catch, band and release three more birds: another blue jay, a blue-winged warbler and a magnolia warbler.

Banding birds is one of Duguay's many activities, part of his long-term research into the effects of suburban sprawl on the environment. His laboratory? The Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, a 1,018-acre tract of woodland and meadow surrounded by Columbia's suburbs.

Among his projects, Duguay is tracking the migration pattern of songbirds, studying the creation of meadows to aid woodcock mating, and assessing the impact of Tartarian honeysuckle on plants native to Maryland.

"There hasn't been a lot of research looking at urban wildlife management," Duguay said, adding, "As far as parks go, we're really unique. Typically parks departments don't do these unique studies."

Duguay, 34, was hired about a year ago to head research and education projects at the environmental area, the largest undeveloped section in Howard County's park system. He is a quintessential biologist, the type who turns over logs to look for salamanders, handles frog eggs to see if they have hatched and knows the song of every bird in the forest.

In the summer, when the grass gets long, he said, he picks off up to 20 ticks a day.

"I don't know if you ever get indifferent to ticks," he said, just after plunging into a thigh-high meadow to set up a bird net. "I just hope if I have Lyme disease I'll have symptoms so I can treat it."

Last month, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks acquired the final 293 acres of the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area from the Rouse Co. Bordered by the villages of Harper's Choice, Hickory Ridge and River Hill, the park is ideal for Duguay's research on the uneasy relationship between development and the environment.

On a recent morning, Duguay was banding birds for a study of their migration patterns. He got to the park early, unlocking the gate before the clock in his county-issued pickup truck read 6 a.m. He was trying to confirm a hunch that the nature preserve plays a vital role for migration of birds, the equivalent of a rest stop on a busy highway.

"I suspect it's a pretty important migration stopover for them because it's such a large undeveloped parcel of land, and there's so much development in this area," he said.

(For that experiment, blue jays are useless, Duguay said, because they live in one place year-round.)

Between monitoring the nets, Duguay checks a birdhouse, knocking gently before peeking in at some house-wren eggs.

"There were chickadees in there, but then the house wrens came in, kicked them out and took over," he said, with undisguised glee. "House wrens are really aggressive."

Duguay, who has a doctorate in wildlife management from West Virginia University in Morgantown, won the job as resource manager for the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area over more than 100 applicants. Although his office and boss are at the Department of Recreation and Parks headquarters in Columbia, his salary comes from the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation, a private organization set up when the land was acquired.

Perhaps Duguay's most important study, said Mark Raab, his boss in recreation and parks, involves the problem of deer overpopulation in Howard County and the cascading effects it has on the environment. Duguay hypothesizes that when the deer eat all the plants, area insects suffer, which in turn may have an effect on frogs and snakes and birds that live on insects.

However, Duguay seems most excited by another experiment, one addressing Maryland's declining woodcock population. Like many native species, they are victims of rapid development, he said, because they need grassy fields, called "singing grounds," to perform mating displays.

By clearing some meadows, Duguay said, he has succeeded in attracting males to the environmental area, but females are proving elusive. His goal for this year is to attract female woodcocks and get them to breed.

To address Maryland's declining amphibian population, Duguay worked recently with pupils from Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City to create a pond where frogs, toads and salamanders can breed.

"Amphibians have been declining over a long time so there's a lot of concern over them," Duguay said. He was pleased to see that it didn't take woodland frogs very long to find their new home.

"A week after they cleaned it out, there were frog eggs in it," Duguay said. That, he added, is good news for skunks, raccoons and other animals that feed off frogs.

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