Chesapeake Outdoors

Vol. 8, No. 11
March 16-22, 2000
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Wealth of Natural Wonders

Easing into Cat Point Creek, I looked as intently as Bill Portlock did into the large oaks and other hardwoods that canopied the shoreline. But I still couldn’t keep pace with his eagle eyes, and for every eagle our boat spotted it seemed that his boat recorded two. Portlock, the Virginia restoration coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has been watching eagles and other wildlife on the Rappahannock River for almost 20 years. Bill possesses a wealth of knowledge and a quiet enthusiasm about natural history, the Rappahannock and the animals that live there. On a crisp March day, he shared that spirit with a half-dozen foundation staff, including John Page Williams, who opened his own vast vault of experience about the Rappahannock and its people.

When steamboats plied the waters, rivers such as the Rappahannock were tailor-made to receive and ship goods. Its deep channels along natural bends, where water depth and firm bottom were conducive to accessible docking, made towns like Tappahannock important commerce centers. Today, like many rivers in the watershed, the Rappahannock is a study in both beauty and conflict. In roughly seven hours, we saw enough beauty and natural splendor to almost forget about the diligence and sacrifice that it takes to preserve such an area as this stretch of the Rappahannock.

During a five-mile stretch we spotted 33 eagles, many of which were nesting pairs. Bill said that the eagle survey this year indicates that more than 250 nesting pairs make their home on the Rappahannock. We also recorded eight ospreys (my first of the year), which busied themselves with housework and fishing. Farther up the creek, we spooked several snipe from thick stands of wild rice. Redwing blackbirds and scores of Canada geese made our list.

The Rappahannock also brims with life under the water’s surface. On the skiff ride out from the Tappahannock ramp, we saw watermen netting alewives. In the creek, huge gar, relics from the Mesozoic era, rolled and gulped air. Rockfish and catfish thrive in the river in good numbers, and to a lesser extent, so do white and hickory shad. Once, a long time ago, some of these migratory species traveled as far upriver as the Blue Ridge Piedmont.

But sediment and nutrient pollution from upriver, well past Fredericksburg, clouds the water, deterring the growth of underwater grasses. Development threatens to encroach on the diverse wetland plants and trees, displacing the eagles and other creatures that endear people to rivers like the Rappahannock. Yet over the last several years, Virginia, landowners, state and private organizations have taken steps to preserve and restore the vast tracts of land along this section of the river.

Large estates and farms like Tayloe, Wilna, and Mothers Head have been protected from development and are now under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which partners with state and conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited and CBF to restore riparian buffers and wetlands. The properties are now part of the Rappahannock River Valley Wildlife Refuge. Creation of these wet areas supports vernal pools, important habitat for lower-tier prey and predators like salamanders and frogs. Wildfowl are the most obvious beneficiaries of these projects, but small creatures need places to live and feed, too.

Recently, Maryland and Virginia both raised the ante in conserving open space and farmland. Saying “it is an investment in the future of the Chesapeake Bay,” Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, pledged an additional $10 million to encourage farmers to enroll their land in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The program reimburses farmers who take environmentally sensitive farmland out of production and provides funding to plant buffers and wetlands next to streams and creeks. Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. James Gilmore signed legislation providing up to $60 million to restore 25,000 acres of wetlands and riparian buffers in Virginia’s portion of the Bay watershed.

Folks like Portlock, who soar with eagles even though they never leave the ground, cheer this action to protect our natural inheritance. If you listen closely, you might hear the eagles cheer as well.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly