Renew Your Passport to Nature
In this modern world, 20-year-old Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary is as close as we come to Eden
by Carrie Steele
There’s no playground. No dog beach. No golf carts or pavilions. There are no neatly trimmed gardens, nor yards for picnicking and Frisbee games. Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary is not the place for the birthday boy or girl.
But it is the place where creatures find refuge and people find sanctuary as they learn and find delight in nature’s way.
Pull off Wrighton Road onto Jug Bay territory, and you cross the threshold into nature’s classroom where eastern box turtles teach, trails and boardwalks take you from class to class and bird calls are school-bells.
Dust trails your car as you drive from Lothian onto the sanctuary. Sunlight filters through the trees onto the gravel road, and your pace in both car and mind slows to the rhythm of nature.
Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, you can flee traffic, hectic schedules and concrete ground and immerse yourself in wetlands, forests and fields at Jug Bay. Every day, resident wild animals and plants thrive in their haven.
This year, Jug Bay celebrates 20 years of preserving and practicing stewardship. It’s a young adult in the world of county parks, immersed in serious scientific discovery, but still playful and forward thinking.
The goal at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary is to take care of the natural land and wetlands, says Karyn Molines, education director. “There’s often a lot of parks that need to satisfy different uses. There are other parks that allow all-terrain vehicles and dogs, but our mission is stewardship.”
You’ve seen Jug Bay if you’ve driven Route 4 toward Washington. It’s the marshy area in the valley just south of the Patuxent River Bridge.
The 1,400-plus-acre preserve is one-third wetland and one-half forest, including a crazy-quilt of more specific habitats like tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands, upland forest and meadow.
Molines and Jug Bay’s director, Chris Swarth, run Jug Bay like an outdoor laboratory and classroom.
Just inside the main lodge, the front room is a hands-on museum where kids and adults can touch, hear, smell and see things from wetlands and woods. Here are deer antlers, turtle shells and feathers for little hands, as well as moveable mounted maps that show the sanctuary and microscopes for up-close glimpses of nature.
Or you can see for yourself how sediments make the water murky. Four long clear plastic tubes are filled with water and plastic underwater grasses. In one heavy gravel has been added; to another sand, another silt, and another clay. Turn the tubes upside down on their swiveling wheel for a sediment lesson.
Indoors and out, Molines and her colleagues oversee some 300 programs each year. With one of them or on your own, you can learn to tell a rufous-sided towhee from a red-breasted robin; canoe past an osprey nest or a beaver den; or trek through land that’s sometimes water.
Nature’s students are young and old, for exploring and discovering know no age boundaries. Kids just a few years old find bugs and look at leaves, while retired people go birding and monitor wetlands.
Many who come to visit stay as volunteers, helping three full-time and three part-time staffers plus seasonal interns with jobs from hunting salamanders to catching fish. Any given day might find volunteers and interns gathering data on reptiles and amphibians; school groups touring the marsh boardwalk with Molines who on another day might be greeting new visitors or creating future programs; an outside group holding a meeting in the main lodge.
“We have a large volunteer corps about 150 regular volunteers including three who have been here for 20 years and seven that have been here for over 15,” says Swarth.
Swarth’s favorite study, tracking the roaming habits of eastern box turtles, has lead him into a continuing 10-year study that has volunteers and researchers tagging, tracking and keeping tabs.
Structure ends there.
Each year, 1,100 people roll in just to hike, explore and enjoy this natural Eden on their own.
“Here,” says Molines, “nature takes priority over people.”
Damsels and Dragons
On a sultry August morning, a cool creek juts through a shady valley of the 600-acre Glendening Preserve, across Wrighton Road from the main part of the preserve. Sunlight filters through from above as a deer trail stretches through ferns, Jack-in-the-pulpits and fallen branches. Inch-and-a-half-long frogs dart away from footsteps every few feet with a soft whisper dampened by the gurgle and tinkle of streamwater.
Naturalist Elaine Friebele’s group of nine followed her like ducklings down a wooded slope to the stream, where fifth-grader Brian Hutson promptly caught a leopard frog lush forest-green with a yellow stripe down its side and large hearing discs on either side of its head.
“These are leapers,” says 11-year volunteer Mike Quinlan, dressed in khaki shorts and a khaki photographer’s vest covered in pockets. Quinlan commends Hutson’s quick hands. “They’re hard to catch.”
At the stream’s edge, Friebele, wearing old sneakers, steps right in. Stepping in after her, you feel the cold water brim the tops of your shoes and flush down to your toes; your shoes become heavier as water turns a light canvas shoe into a boot. In August’s heat, the waders didn’t mind.
Handing out small dipping nets attached to short poles, Friebele invites the group to poke around in roots hanging in the water, rocks in riffles and other good hiding spots for fish, amphibians and aquatic insects.
“I have one of those bug-skimmer things,” says Hutson, hoisting up his net to inspect his find. “It’s pretty small, though.”
With small sweeps through gurgling waters, Friebele’s net yields a small dragonfly larvae a sand-brown, half-inch-long body with three legs, two long antennae and a fat abdomen.
Wanda Briddell, from St. John’s Community Center in Washingotn, D.C., leans over to inspect.
“His jaw’s hinged,” Friebele says of the tiny creature, “so he can eat a Big Mac.
“In another month, he’ll split and his wings will unfold, and the adult will come out,” Friebele explains.
Friebele keeps the group moving upstream, never pausing in one spot for more than 20 seconds. Quinlan, however, stops to admire “some nice-looking fungi. It’s red in the sun.”
“There’s some interesting plants here,” he says, pointing to a leafy green cluster. “The skunk cabbage is the first thing that comes up in the spring. People used to eat the leaves by boiling them repeatedly.”
“Snake!” Hutson interrupts, pointing to leaf litter above a shallow undercut. Quinlan hurries over to inspect. “It’s just a little one,” reports Hutson, who says he goes hiking with his grandmother, looking for birds. The two cannot spot it again.
Aside from wildlife, there is more in the woods, which were a hunting preserve before 2001, when Jug Bay acquired the land.
“You never know what you’re going to find downstream,” says Quinlan, retrieving a round, brown-glass bottle that looks like an old medicine container that once used a cork. He holds it up for the group. “Glass bottles are hard and they float downstream. That’s why you never throw trash,” he warns. The trip turns up six bottles, plus a pile of other leftovers washed downstream: the black leather saddle of a shoe, a piece of rusted scrap metal and a few shotgun shells.
One of the kids from St. John’s jabs the underwater sand and rocks tentatively at first, then scoops up large netfuls of pebbles before sitting down in the water.
“It would be nice to see a salamander,” Friebele says, searching the ground. But she doesn’t find one this time.
On the other side of the sanctuary, a group of second graders from the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills, peers around the corner of the main Jug Bay lodge, pointing excitedly to a creature darting away.
“Actually, it’s lizard, not a salamander,” says Molines, their group leader.
“Do you have any alligators here?” asks one small boy. Taking the question seriously, Molines says no.
Molines leads the 20 children, who trail her like a column of ants along the wooded trail. Then she stops, picks up a small toad and lets each child observe it up close.
“This little toad is one of our amphibians. It started out as a tadpole in the wetlands,” she says, grasping it just hard enough to keep it from leaping from her hands while students pepper her with questions.
“Where’s its parents?” asks one boy.
They are up in the woods, Molines says, but toads don’t stay with their parents.
Brown, bumpy toads give way to sleek green tree frogs as the group progresses onto the boardwalk that boarders one of Jug Bay’s wetlands. Here, Molines shows how different types of plants live in wetlands and where the osprey build their nests.
Their trek into the wetlands blossoms into a natural wonderland for the youngsters.
For eager kids and adults Jug Bay is an exploration paradise.
It wasn’t always paradise. A century ago the Chesapeake Beach Railroad crossed these lands, traveling from Washington to the Bay.
“A developer who owned a great deal of the property was planning to develop it into an RV and recreation camping grounds,” says Virginia Clagett, a District 30 delegate who in 1974 was running for county council. “The citizens were very upset.”
Anne Arundel County changed the zoning and bought the couple hundred acres up for sale. So the land slated for heavy disturbance instead became revered for its beauty and ecology.
“You would not have recognized it now if that had prevailed,” Clagett says.
The county added to the sanctuary by acquiring 178 more acres through eminent domain, paying the owner with Project Open Space state money. By 1975, Clagett was working as a county councilwoman and helped create the Sanctuary, which she calls one of her greatest loves.
But no one was taking care of the land, Swarth says, and there was dumping and poaching for the next 10 years because there was no one on site.
In 1985, Jug Bay rolled out its welcome mat for visitors. Now, the old railroad causeway running through the marsh is a nature trail.
Jug Bay doubled its size in 2001, adding 600 new acres named The Glendening Preserve for the former governor who designated the $4.3 million land purchase as a preserve.
Since then, as neighboring land has come up for sale, it’s been added to Jug Bay, Swarth says. Except for the original 178 acres, owners have been willing to sell.
“If you don’t preserve, this could get developed,” he says, although, he adds, the “cost to the county and state is significant.”
The sanctuary is now a mosaic of state and county lands, furnished with support and care from some 600 members of the Friends of Jug Bay Wetlands.
This was an experiment and a challenge,” Swarth says. It was also a risk, he continues, because there were very few others like it.
Now, he says, it’s a success unmatched by any other park in the county. Stewardship and preservation are missions with strength to stand on their own.
“We’ve put this place on the map as a wetland research center,” says Swarth, whose center is part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve System as well as a recognized Nationally Important Bird Area by both the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society.
“This is a proven model,” he adds. “You can have a nature park with our policies that will work.”
On a late-September morning, science is a hidden picture game. Volunteer Mike Quinlan stares at the scattered leaves strewn on the forest floor, then crouches to pull the litter aside with both hands.
Right on target, he exposes the black-and-yellow-patterned, humped shell of an eastern box turtle nestled under forest leaves. Lifted from its hiding spot, the turtle eyes him with bright red-ringed eyes.
This is L4 R4 R9, number 279, and it makes a faint hissing sound while retracting into its shell. But Quinlan’s steady hand lifts it from its nook. Ever curious, number 279 pokes its head back out to see what was going on.
The turtle had been revealed by telemetry. It wears a transmitter, a thin six-inch wire that sends out its own distinctive radio signal. Quinlan sets his telemetry receiver to receive each turtle’s specific radio signal.
Locating L4 R4 R9, number 279 is part of Swarth’s project to notch, tag, photocopy, number and describe box turtles’ habits.
“My background is in birds,” Swarth says. But box turtles just one of nine turtle species on the preserve make for an ideal research project. They are easy and exciting for volunteers, and they reveal more than you might imagine about an ecosystem.
“Turtles are excellent: you can get your hands on them and mark them,” Swarth says.
Ten years ago, when the project began, he’d underestimated the population.
“We thought there’d be a hundred turtles. Now we know we have about 460 turtles in our study area,” he says.
Swarth and his team of volunteers have found out more than they’d dreamed about box turtles.
“We’re challenging the myth that box turtles live in an acre of forest. They’re much more wide-ranging,” says Swarth. One box turtle started out on the preserve and moved 2,700 meters into Prince Georges County.
Tracking Jug Bay’s slowest residents are dozens of volunteers plus 15 graduate students, including two who have gone onto do their own graduate studies on turtles.
What Swarth and his corps of volunteers want to know is the habitat and home ranges of box turtles.
“We locate turtles, pin down their location and their activity at that moment,” Quinlan says. Then he and Swarth make maps of where on Jug Bay turtles call home.
From these maps, they’ve reaped new information:
“We never knew how much box turtles use tidal wetlands for cooling off and feeding. No one had a clue that box turtles would use tidal wetlands,” says Swarth.
That’s why Quinlan straps on the radio monitor backpack several times each week to hunt for turtles. First he looks for the orange flagging on the trees, marking the last place the turtle was seen. Then he flips on the telemetry antennae and follows his ears through the woods, listening for the louder and more intense beeps as he nears the turtle, negotiating fallen tree branches, tangles of spider webs, brambles and underbrush.
“You do have to do a little bush-whacking,” Quinlan says.
Volunteers also find turtles by doing a census grid-walk, striding straight through a specific area in a defined time and record how many turtles they see. They also keep track of turtles they happen to spot, like the one I saw about 10 feet away from a box turtle Quinlan had tracked with radio telemetry. Each one is recorded and logged in one of the eight large binders in the indoor laboratory where Jug Bay organizes research of spotted salamanders, underwater grasses and more.
He’s impressed by turtles’ ability to negotiate different terrains for hundreds of meters. But his work is not just work.
“I like to be out in the woods,” he says. “I often make a day of it.”
Jug Bay rolls out the weekly welcome mat for guests who live close by in Lothian and afar in Washington, D.C., and beyond to hike, take classes or explore the center. Some 300 nature classes, jaunts and hands-on wetland adventures bring 5,000 kids and adults to the sanctuary each year.
And they’re trying to extend the invitation, reaching out to other habitat managers with what they’ve learned at Jug Bay.
Bringing in new people, getting the word out about nature programs and sharing research findings can challenge a small staff, Swarth says.
Plus, they tend to dream big.
“There will never be enough resources to do what you want to do,” Molines says. Even with three full-time staff and three part-time staff, “we don’t have the luxury of letting things go wild anymore.”
But dreaming big has led them down paths to recognition. Last year they shared eastern box turtle findings with other regional scientists and conservation groups at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, where herpetologists from all over the East Coast talked turtles for a day.
Jug Bay also plays host to ecology scientists searching for answers and in the case of the biologist from Johns Hopkins who discovered a new species of earthworm on the preserve a couple of years ago making surprising discoveries. Biologists visit from universities and agencies throughout the region, including a team of astrobiologists who tested their microbiological tools at Jug Bay before launching their equipment to Mars.
20 Years and Counting
For all its achievement, Jug Bay is best known for giving sanctuary to people who’ve got everything the world can offer except a place to reconnect with nature. Like the migratory birds that pass through each year, visitors return for an experience that’s always the same and always different. Seasons change, new creatures come into view, you get better at identifying wildlife and reading nature’s clues.
If an interesting creature catches your eye like the harrier in this week’s Earth Journal or an eastern box turtle you can jot it down on the log of wildlife by the lodge door, making your small mark in preservation history.
Visit Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary 9am-5pm WSaSu, or by rsvp to one of its weekday programs Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, 1361 Wrighton Rd. (via the intersection of Routes 4 & 258) Lothian. $3: 410-741-9330; www.jugbay.org.
About the Author
Carrie Steele, Bay’s Weekly’s staff writer, waded through streams and met eastern box turtles for this article. She can’t think of a better way to spend a sunny autumn day than kicking through yellow and orange leaves on a wooded trail at Jug Bay.