Converting Farmland to Wetlands

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Ned Gerber, Director of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage and Pickering Creek Audubon Center Director, Mark Scallion began planning and implementing the construction of Pickering’s wetlands in 2002.

Happily for birds and plants and other wildlife, this first wetland of 24 acres along the Center’s entry drive was such a success that, over the next five years, 50 more acres were transformed into vibrant wetlands. Now, every spring and autumn, the resulting pools and adjacent seed-rich meadows have become a haven for migrating birds, sustaining them on their journeys.

“The place is a birder’s delight,” commented David Bent, a member of the Talbot County Bird Club who performs bird-counts almost every week at Pickering and who joined the morning’s expedition. The newest wetland is shallower than the others and, Bent, explains, will attract shorebirds such as sandpipers and yellowlegs that benefit from being able to wade along the shore and snatch their meal along the water’s edge.

As we stood atop the Center’s existing 10 foot tall viewing platform (a virtual skyscraper within the flat characteristic landscape of Maryland’s Eastern Shore), we saw avenues of clay—pushed into berms that will surround the new wetland. In other places stood piles of topsoil, scraped from the earth before the deeper digging began. The topsoil will cover the berms, which then will be planted with native grasses.

Mark and Ned see the completed project in their minds’ eyes: boardwalks around the wetland to cover muddy areas, spaces here and there between trees for visitors to peek through, a new viewing station with equipment for Pickering’s educators to use with visiting classes.

Indeed this will be a haven for students and wildlife. Students from Caroline County and Wicomico County will visit the new wetland this fall to learn about how wetlands affect wildlife and water quality, with their trip culminating with the installation of wildlife friendly shrubs in the newest wetland that will provide food and cover for birds, insect, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. In the spring both middle and high school students from Talbot County will conduct their hands on investigations of the wetlands.

Of course, early concerns about the feasibility of creating wetlands had justification. Not all lands can be converted. Most of the historic wetlands on Maryland’s Eastern Shore have been drained to make them viable agricultural fields. Soil maps provide a guide to the part of a farm containing so-called hydric soils, indicative of historic wetland sites. Pickering, like many Eastern Shore Maryland farms, has extensive hydric soils that were ditched and drained for farming long ago. Heavy machinery was brought in to help restore the field’s original hydrology.  To prepare for the present digging, Ned and his team from Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage studied the soil composition of the area of the new site and created a map from which to work.  

Ned is adamant about the importance of wetland preservation:  “Without it, there would be no wildlife left on the Eastern Shore, on its lands and in its waters.”  Teresa Kampmeyer of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service was quoted in Winging It:  “Wetlands help to improve water quality, reduce erosion, and aid in flood prevention while providing a wildlife habitat for wetland and upland bird species. They store water after it rains, allowing water to percolate slowly in the ground, evaporate, or be absorbed by the roots of wetland plants. This temporary storage reduces the peak water flows after a storm event.”

Pickering Creek is unique in offering the general public an opportunity to observe wetlands in action. Landowners too can take advantage of the same programs that helped build Pickering's wetlands, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which offer a sum (per acre) to replace marginal farmland with conservation practices that improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat.

The project is supported through the USDA CREP program and a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Birds that Frequent the Restored Wetlands


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