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Inside A Western Maryland 'Frost Pocket'

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Jonathan Wilson/WAMU

Cranesville Swamp is one of the more remote spots in the D.C. region. It's a nature preserve that straddles the border of Maryland and West Virginia. Cranesville Swamp is remarkable, scientists say, because it's always a little bit colder than its surroundings.

Kevin 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, professor of Wildlife and Biology at Garrett College, says it was probably a notoriously shy winter wren.

"They're like that little kid that ducks between their mom's legs. They don't even want to be seen — they see you looking at them and they disappear again," he says.

Dodge, a talented bird-caller, 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 I know of in Maryland: Cranesville Swamp. There's no other place quite like it," he says.

From frost pocket to natural oasis

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 the swampy ground that covers much of the preserve also kept logging companies out during the turn of the twentieth century. That's why Cranesville is still plentiful with conifers like hemlock, and red spruce.

"You're kind of looking at the legacy of your area — your heritage — when you're looking at this environment, knowing that this was something that was much more prevalent," Dodge says. "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.

"One reason you want to keep the snow pack on longer is you want it to slowly percolate into the ground, rather than melt off quickly and run off into the gutters, into the streams, and into the roads," Landau says.

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.

Pishing for rare birds

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 that what for whatever reason seems to work, kind of like different birds that scold a predator. And then if you throw in the call of an Eastern Screech Owl, you add those things together and it really seems to bring things in," he says.

Impersonating a predatory bird like an owl may seem like an odd way to attract songbirds, but Dodge has 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 — wait a minute — but if we know that you're here, you won't think that you can get us because we know that you're here and you know that we know," Dodge explains, breathlessly.

"Anyway, I'm thinking of getting it published — it's in review," he adds with a laugh.

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.

[Music: "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" by Beegie Adair from Jazz Piano Christmas ]


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