Residents pitch in to manage habitat for Howard County wildlife

Volunteers give nature a boost

October 27, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

They pulled, scraped and snipped, chatting about the satisfaction of giving nature a boost as well as the task of checking themselves for ticks.

In a little more than two hours on Tuesday morning, these dozen volunteers working alongside Howard County parks staffers had offered TLC to about 300 young trees and shrubs, planted eight more saplings and removed invasive plants in a low-lying section of the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.

A similar event takes place once a month for much of the year in the 1,051-acre parkland under a longtime Conservation Stewardship Program coordinated with the county's master gardeners, volunteers who are part of the University of Maryland Extension Service. The gardeners must complete community service hours annually, though not necessarily on this project, to remain in good standing, and the county loves the free help.

"We have only two full-time staff here assigned to this park. We get a lot more done with all the volunteers," Jeff Claffy, assistant natural resources manager for the county's Recreation and Parks Department, said as the volunteers cleared weeds from around hundreds of young shrubs and trees.

Officials hope to lure the long-beaked native woodcock into taking up residence in the 50 acres in the park that are being groomed for a woodock habitat, including the five acres where volunteers worked Tuesday.

"We hope to establish a new breeding population," Claffy said.

The woodcock, whose habitat has been overtaken by development and mature towering trees, thrives in areas where moist ground is laden with earthworms, where the underbrush is scrubby and trees are short — essentially, where they can live, eat and perform their courtship rituals.

But it takes a lot of work to create that landscape.

Cheryl Farfaras, natural resources manager for the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, said that the volunteers' work promotes survival of native plants.

On Tuesday, the Conservation Stewardship Program worked on building the habitat. Evidence of their earlier labor — waist-high piles of the invasive multiflora rose shrub previously yanked out — were decaying nearby.

"When you get invasive growth, you often don't get native plants. They're overrun," Aylene Gard of Columbia, the master gardener who organizes the monthly work with Claffy and Farfaras.

Master gardener Jan Marie Williams of Columbia, a retired hospital worker, scrutinized a twiggy plant encircled in a tree shelter, a wire cage to protect it from deer. She flexed a thin limb — a sign that the plant was alive — and then bent down by the cage.

"I go in a circle here," she said, tugging out grasses from around the woody plant.

"Looks good. He might live, if he doesn't drown," she said, her boots sinking in the soggy ground.

Nearby, a retired couple, Ron and Rosemarie Meservey of Columbia, worked together to straighten out older, damaged cages and pull weeds. After they removed one bent tree shelter, she straightened the wire, he rolled it into shape again and together they pulled it over a sapling, weaving the wire over a stake in the ground.

"It's a good thing to think you are doing something to make this a better place," said Rosemarie Meservey, who plans to begin master gardener training next year.

As usual, about half the volunteers had no connection to the master gardeners program but wanted to pitch in because they live nearby, enjoy hiking, felt like being outside or find that outdoors physical labor offers a therapeutic balance to their more indoor lives.

"This is good exercise," said Kyle Kopf of Columbia, who works at a bookstore and has done trail maintenance in the past. On Tuesday, wielding an ax, he chopped away fallen tree limbs that threatened saplings.

"Sometimes Mother Nature needs help," Gard said.

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