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Last week, Robins returned to the South River watershed.  They are on fields, in highway medians, and in lawns. Perhaps you've seen one, making a fast dash north from its wintering grounds?


Nope.  Wrong Robin.

 American Robin, Courtesy of Dreambirding.blogspot.com

This Robin.  The American Robin.   Referred to as a "harbinger of Spring" in the Mid-Atlantic states, the American Robin has a highly variable migration pattern that is largely based on upon balancing caloric needs and food availability.  The Robin is a tough, adaptable bird, which is one reason we can see so many in an area like the South River watershed.  By songbird standards, the Robin is a "big bird" (actually, North America's largest thrush), and it's comfortable in agricultural, suburban, and forest habitats, and can eat almost anything you'd call "bird food."  So why do they migrate south at all?

Like many ducks and shorebirds in the Atlantic flyway, "our" Robins only migrate south when they feel they have no other choice.   What forces that choice? Songbirds like the American Robin uses between 40-80% of their (winter) calorie intake simply to maintain body temperature.   Once a few hard frosts have hit their habitat, their favorite food (soft-bodied insects, worms, and arthropods) become inactive and harder to find.  Robins then shift their diet to berries and seeds, which have higher carbohydrates but less protein than live food, and also require significantly more calories to eat and digest than live, soft food items like earthworms, grubs, and millipedes.   As the available seed supply starts to thin, the number of Robins in the South River watershed start to thin out - even though a few may stay through the winter.

It's the Robin's migration back north that captivates people.   An old farmers' tale is that Robins migrate north when the night and day temperatures average 36 degrees - and observations generally bear this out.  However, a little closer inspection tells us that it's not the slightly warmer air itself, but what that particular temperature does to the Robin's favorite food item - earthworms.

In the fall months, earthworms migrate downward through the soil to avoid freezing temperatures.  They seem conscious of where the frost line lies, and can often hibernate in large groups right below that important depth.  However, as the spring returns and the soil temperature bounces from 34 to 36 degrees near the surface, the earthworm's internal organs begin functioning again - including their respiration (breathing) apparatus in their skin.  Unfortunately for the earthworms, around this time, snow and ice begin to melt and spring rains begin, all of which fill soil pores with water instead of air.  The newly active earthworms have no choice but to climb to the surface to breathe, where new flocks of Robins are patiently waiting for them (like in the image below).

 Image Courtesy of Slugyard.com

So much for "bird brains" - the American Robin has it all figured out.

Talk about a whirlwind, my head has finally stopped spinning from all of the activities that went on in October with the Federation.

We started off the month of October in West Virginia at the 2011 Chesapeake Watershed Forum, where Carol and Jennifer presented their Chesapeake Conservation Corps project posters. The weekend was filled with seminars on various topics from social marketing to stormwater management. It was a great opportunity to network with other watershed organizations, and hear about what they are doing. It was really nice to be surrounded by people who think the environment should be a priority.

Then it was back to the office to gear up for our Fall Federation Celebration Week. We kicked off the celebration on Saturday with the First Friday Festival at South River Colony. It was their final festival of the season and the Federation was there to talk about the South River. It has been a great way to engage people about what we do as an organization and fish print with the kids. We look forward to more of these events next summer!

Then on Sunday, it was off to Harness Creek for the Flood Bucket Frenzy. With almost 700 Flood Buckets, we needed all the help we could get to be able to accomplish this task. And we did! With over 65 volunteers, coming from Americorps, SRF, Ben Franklin High School, and Laura Seltzer of The Last Boat Out and Do Good Adventures, we were able to open up all the buckets, empty all the oysters from last year onto the Harness Creek sanctuary, and then refill the buckets with new oyster spat for this years’ growing season. It was an arm workout for sure. This event was a great opportunity for people to not only see young oysters, but also see how Flood Buckets enrich the local diversity by creating habitat for many other critters.

We charged ahead in the week with the Federation general membership meeting on Tuesday night at the London Towne Community Hall. Each meeting we bring in speakers that present on a variety of subjects that pertain to either the South River or the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For this meeting, we had both CCC volunteers talk about their personal projects. Carol is working on how optical brighteners can be used to identify septic leakage and Jennifer gave a presentation on how people and communities can become involved with the MGO program. We also invited Dr. Walter Boynton, from CBL, to talk about the Chesapeake Bay, its history, and its future. I might be a biased daughter for saying this, but he has a great way of presenting information to a diverse audience, not everyone is a scientist and it’s important that everyone understands what’s going on with the Bay. He talked about how the Bay looked during John Smiths time, what changed over time, and how we can improve things. I really enjoyed his image of putting the Bay on a diet. I might not be able to comprehend all of the scientific lingo, but I can wrap my head around the concept that we feed our rivers and Bay too much and that we have to put the fork down. We also welcomed two new board members—Tom Reinert and Marilynn Katatsky! Each of them bring a lot to the table and I look forward to working with both of them.

The week finished strong with the 2nd Annual Fall Kayak Sojourn! To say it was an adventure was an understatement because it was not a calm day on the river. According to NOAA, winds were gusting 15-20 knots. However this did not deter the participants, all of who braved the windy weather and ventured out onto Duvall Creek to explore and observe what is going on in and around the South River. Carol, CCC volunteer for the Federation, said it best “it was awesome!” When they returned to shore, they were greeted with delicious hot clam chowder, hot chocolate, and cookies! A big thank you goes out to SeaWatch International for the chowder, Keeper Springs Natural Spring Water for the water, Starbucks for the coffee, and DoubleTree Hotel for the cookies. It’s events like these that make me realize how special of a resource we have in our backyard and that we need to make protecting it a priority. I hope many of you this fall get the chance to go outside and celebrate the awesomeness which is the South River.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for all of these events. We truly appreciate all of your help and support!

When Glenn and Jane Amsbaugh moved from York, PA back to Jane’s hometown along the South River, there was one thing they knew they wanted to continue: gardening.  Mr. Amsbaugh knew he would have some work ahead of him since the South River does not have the rich fertile soils like York, PA which is in the heart of Amish County.   With a low-lying property along the South River, he had to battle higher salinity levels and poorer soil.

Having composted for over 15 years, the Amsbaughs knew this eco-friendly practice would help to improve the soil quality in the garden.  Every year,  they get nearly five wheel barrels full of compost  to enrich the soil in their garden.  According to Mrs. Amsbaugh, making composting easy is the key to making this a continued practice.  She keeps an attractive, small, stainless steel odor reducing composting pail next to her sink.  When that becomes full, she simply takes it to a larger bucket outside.  When the weather is nice, they take the compost down to the compost pile near the edge of their property. 

Why compost?  Well, why not? Like the Amsbaughs said, there is no sense in wasting left-over food – especially when it benefits the garden so much. If you create a simple routine and make composting easy, you will be more likely to stick with it in the long run. 

Mr. Amsbaugh has gone beyond only composting to improve his garden.  Originally, Mr. Amsbaugh used old dock boards to create a series of raised bed gardens.  When he noticed that his crops seemed to be doing better, he decided to raise the beds even higher to give the vegetables a greater depth of richer soil and to further separate them from the higher salinity soil.  On the beautiful warm January day when I went to interview him, he and a friend were already out laying the boards preparing for spring!   In addition to composting and creating raised beds, Mr. Amsbaugh waters his garden via irrigation piping connected to a large 1,200 gallon cistern that collects rain water from his roof.

Gardening is a wonderful way to connect with nature and get delicious vegetables right from your own back yard.  The Amsbaughs get almost 20 different vegetables  from their garden from April through November and definitely encourage others to considering both gardening and composting.  Mr. Amsbaugh does have advice for others wanting to do the same.  His first words of advice?  Simply, “do it!”  Carefully select the most appropriate site on your property for a garden.  Make sure you have convenient access to water or an easy way to water the garden.  Begin your soil preparation early and start composting today!

Curious to know what the Amsbaughs grow in their garden? They have been able to grow: asparagus, spinach, pumpkin, corn, tomatoes, onion, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, radish, swiss chard, beans, red beets, lettuce, eggplant, herbs, and cantaloupe.

A special thank you to Glenn and Jane Amsbaugh for inviting us to their home and sharing their yard with us! Go green at your home? Tell us about it and you could be the next South River Federation’s “Go Green Project of the Month!”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Neither heat nor humidity could stop the South River Federation and Pricewaterhouse Coopers on Friday as we took on Flood Bucket Day!

With temperatures exceeding well into the 100s, volunteers from Pricewaterhouse Coopers arrived at John Floods home to shake Flood Buckets. Now you ask, what is a Flood Bucket? A Flood Bucket is a 5 gallon container that has been carefully crafted to serve as an oyster cage. Like oyster cages, these buckets hang off piers letting the oysters grow over the course of the year. Come this fall, these oysters will be planted on the Harness Creek Oyster reef. The man behind these buckets is John Flood, founder of the South River Federation.

As we all gathered at the start of the day, we listened to John give us an introduction to what we would be doing that morning. The plan was we would start at John’s dock and work our way around to the community dock as well as individual dock owners and shake the silt and sediment build-up off the Flood Buckets. With the help of Loyd Lewis, the group split up to take on the Flood Buckets. With so many volunteers, the morning went by pretty quickly, which ended up being a good thing because it was the hottest day of the summer so far.


When it came to the actual buckets, there were lots of creatures in them. We saw ells, blue crabs, mud crabs, fish, larvae of insects and shrimp, and of course oysters. It was great to see such river/bay life in the buckets. Since the water quality of the South River is in desperate need of improvement, I wasn’t sure what kind of life we would find inside of these buckets. These buckets are not just good for the oysters, but they create much biodiversity within the creeks.

The day came to an end with ice cream from Brewster’s Real Ice Cream and pizza from Ledo’s Pizza. It was a great way to end such a hot day! The volunteers from Pricewaterhouse Coopers did an amazing job and we look forward to having them come again in the fall to help with the planting of the oysters and the distribution of the new baby oysters into the buckets.