MS. REBECCA SHEIR
For this next story we'll head out to Cranesville Swamp, that's a nature preserve straddling the Maryland/West Virginia border. Scientists say the swamp is always a bit colder than its surroundings. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson trekked there to find out why.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
That sound, believe it or not, is not coming from a bird. You're listening to the dulcet tones of Kevin Dodge, wildlife and biology professor at Garrett College. Dodge is standing in the middle of a snow-covered forest, his neck craned skyward as he scans the hemlock branches above for avian activity. A small bird skitters close to the ground and back out of sight about 20 yards away. Dodge says it was probably a notoriously shy winter wren.
MR. KEVIN DODGE
They're like that little kid that ducks between their mom's legs. They don't even want to be seen and they see you looking at them and they disappear again.
Dodge isn't having much luck attracting any other birds at the moment, but he's having fun, in what just might be his favorite place on any map.
This is perhaps the most magical place that I know of in Maryland, is Cranesville Swamp. There's no other place quite like it.
Cranesville Swamp Nature Preserve is located in a geological phenomenon known as a frost pocket. Nearby hills trap moisture and cold air in Cranesville, keeping temperatures cooler -- sometimes tens of degrees cooler -- and the ground wetter. And that swampy ground that covers much of the preserve also kept logging companies out during the turn of the 20th century. That's why Cranesville is still plentiful with conifers like hemlock and red spruce.
You're kind of looking at your past legacy, the legacy of your area -- your heritage -- when you're looking at this environment, knowing that this was something that this was much more prevalent. It's estimated in the Central Appalachians that as much as 90 percent of the original red spruce forest is now gone.
Deborah Landau is a biologist with the Nature Conservancy, the non-profit that owns Cranesville Swamp. She says conifer forests are important because most conifers keep their needles in the winter and thereby keep the ground shaded and snow from melting too fast.
MS. DEBORAH LANDAU
One reason you want to keep the snow pack on longer is you want it to slowly percolate down into the ground, rather than melt off quickly and run off into the gutters, into the streams, into the roads.
The cooler and wetter environment in Cranesville means the preserve is home to some plants you'd more commonly find in Canada, plants such as the star violet, as well larch or tamarack, a conifer that does drop its needles in winter. Depending on the time of year, it's also possible to see birds that would be hard to find elsewhere in Maryland, such as the Alder Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, and Magnolia Warbler. Dodge has a talent for bringing birds to him, and he starts with a technique called pishing -- as in fishing but with a "P".
Pishing is just this kind of scolding thing or for whatever reason seems to work, it's just kind of like different birds that scold a predator. And then if you throw in the call of a smaller owl, an Eastern Screech Owl, which is…
You add those two together and it just really seems to bring things in.
Impersonating a predatory bird like an owl may seem like an odd way to attract songbirds, but Dodge has -- well, let's call it a theory of why it works.
I think that the birds are saying to the owls, "We don't want you to think that we don't know that you're here, because if you think that we don't know that you're here, you're gonna think that you can get us, because we don't know that you're here. But if you know that we're here, then you won't think any more that you can get us, because we know that you're here so we'll know when you're trying --" wait a minute, "because you don't think that we know, but because we do know that you're here, then you won't think that you can get us because we know that you're here." And I'm thinking about getting it published. I don't know. It's in review.
So while Dodge may be a little unorthodox, after a few more minutes of pishing, sure enough, two chickadees start responding.
And it's not long before a Blue Jay flies closer and gets in on the conversation.
These aren't exactly rare birds, but watching those chickadees flutter closer, hopping down the hemlock branches directly overhead until they're no more than 10 feet above us is, just as Dodge says, magical. And there are few better places in the region to appreciate nature's everyday magic than the snow-covered forests of Cranesville Swamp. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
In a minute…
DR. STEVE ROLSTON
That is 100 million atoms, probably at a temperature of 50 millionths of a degree above absolute zero.
…get ready to grab those sweaters, our "Out in the Cold" show continues on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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