Saving Shrinking Marshes

It was 6 o’clock in the morning on an overcast July day when I found myself encased in rubber boots up to my waist, slowly sinking into an experiment that might prove to be the future of the Chesapeake Bay. Clumps of broad-leaved marsh grasses burst from the reddish water pooled around my boots as the tide came in at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. Within a few hours, brackish water would inundate sections of nearby Maple Dam Road, forcing refuge visitors and residents alike to take advantage of their four-wheel drive.

Twenty years ago, this marsh wasn’t nearly so wet. Back then, it looked like your textbook saltmarsh: a dry upland area, which at Blackwater is loblolly pine forest, that transitions on a downward slope towards the sea—first into high marsh that rarely floods, and then into low marsh regularly washed over by tides. The high marsh was dominated by salt hay, a wiry grass that forms a thick blanket and stays dry above the water line. Wind and waves whip the grass into characteristic cowlicks and, occasionally, if you pried one of those cowlicks apart with a stick, you might have found the perfectly concealed nest of a Black Rail.

Text Hannah Waters. Read more on Audubon.org.