In the vernal pools of Chino Farms on a cool spring night, little appears to be moving but Washington College students sloshing cautiously through tea-colored, knee-deep water. Through the delicate fringe of early spring leaves, moonlight glimmers. Spectral and beautiful, it is a secret garden, made even more otherworldly when the sound of a tractor-trailer jake-braking on nearby Route 301 rumbles through the trees.
“Found another one!” calls biology major Amanda Peters ’16. “The marbled ones are everywhere!” Marbled salamander larvae are what she’s finding, still living entirely underwater and not yet metamorphosed into their terrestrial form. Vernal pools—freshwater ponds that exist only in spring and then dry out—are a nursery for salamanders, frogs, beetles, turtles and, well, who knows what else? That’s what the students are here for, to find out what else.
Peters and three other students, along with Jim White, associate director for land and biodiversity management at the Delaware Nature Society, and Nate Nazdrowicz, a lecturer in the College’s biology department, were wading though the dark looking for critters and plants in the opening hours of BioBlitz. The 24-hour extravaganza of scientists, students and naturalists focused on the College’s Chester River Field Research Station at Chino Farms and all of its varied habitats—pools, streams, grasslands, forests, marshes, pine savannah, drainage ditches and fallow fields—and all the species living there, from birds and bugs to flowers and fish.
The event was co-sponsored by the College and the Maryland Biodiversity Project, an effort begun in June 2012 to thoroughly catalogue all living things in the state. So far, the MBP has documented over 10,000 species, with more than 2,700 photographed by some 120 contributing shutterbugs.
Among the 56 people who participated in the Chino Farms BioBlitz were entomologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian; half a dozen WC staff and faculty as well as University of Maryland faculty; a dozen WC students; herpetologists from neighboring counties and states, and Bill Hubick and Jim Brighton, co-founders of the Maryland Biodiversity Project.
Dan Small, a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station, says it will take some time to compile all the data from the Blitz, but early highlights include: six new species of lichen and fungi added to the MBP; the first Queen Anne’s County records of a Henry’s Elfin butterfly and a dragonfly called a common sanddragon; more than 800 species counted at Chino Farms, a number that will grow by hundreds as more data is entered; successfully running anadramous fish (gizzard shad) in Foreman’s Branch; more than 50 new county records added and 10 new species photographed to the MBP.
Small says this was the first BioBlitz held at Chino Farms. Scientists and faculty hope to repeat the event next year later in the season to document a completely different group of species, especially later-blooming flowers and flying insects.