Tracking Maryland's biodiversity, one creature at a time
By By Jay R. Thompson and For The Baltimore Sun
Sep 08, 2013 | 4:45 PM
Pasadena resident Bill Hubick and Jim Brighton of Easton stand on a wooden overlook at the edge of a shallow pond at Wooten's Landing Park in the Harwood area of southern Anne Arundel.
It's silent, except for animals. On a whim, Brighton asks Hubick to name every creature he can hear.
After a brief silence, Hubick begins: "Carolina wren, Carolina chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, green frog, Acadian flycatcher, white-eyed vireo …"
It's a moment of levity, but one that illustrates how immersed Hubick, 36, and Brighton, 42, are in their mission.
In June 2012 the two naturalists launched the Maryland Biodiversity Project, a hobby and labor of love that they say aims to catalog examples of every living thing in Maryland on one website: marylandbiodiversity.com.
In just over a year the project has accumulated more than 7,700 photos of 3,600-plus species, with a total of more than 92,000 records overall. New entries are added almost daily, and more than 150 volunteer photographers contribute. Just last week, Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen added a photo of a Megarhyssa greenei, a type of wasp.
As they walk through Wooten's Landing, Brighton writes down and photographs plant and fungus species, while Hubick notes the animals. When they go home, they'll upload photos and record locations and dates of what they've seen.
They don't claim to be all-knowing. Just curious.
"If you point at a mushroom, chances are I'm not going to know what it is," Brighton said.
But they photograph unfamiliar plants and creatures and identify them later through research or by asking professionals for help.
One of those professionals is Wesley Knapp, a botanist and ecologist for the Wildlife and Heritage Service, part of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources tasked with determining how rare the state's rarest species are.
Knapp says the work Hubick and Brighton are doing is important, and perhaps the first-ever attempt to catalog every species in an entire state.
"No one is doing what they're doing — everything is in one place," he said.
Matt Tillet, a naturalist at New Germany State Park in Garrett County, agrees. "The scale, scope and level of participation are enormous," he said.
Tillet said he uses the Maryland Biodiversity Project website to help him with identification challenges. When leading hikes and natural history programs, he tells guests about the site, calling it "a tremendous resource for further information on Maryland wildlife."
Tillet said the site is good because it "relies on a network of professional naturalists to verify observations through peer review. This accountability increases the legitimacy and reliability of the project as a citable resource."
Anne Arundel's Wooten's Landing Park is one of the team's prime scouting locations — basically a looped path running through a one-square-mile swamp, where planners had the foresight to construct a nine-car parking lot for people who love mosquitoes.
But those pests help maintain the park as a rich habitat. Simply put, they are food for other animals, which are food for still others, which die and enrich soil, aiding plant life and habitat for even more creatures. Hubick and Brighton regularly visit the park for its mix of microhabitats, from the Patuxent River to the wetlands, fields and wooded edges.
"There are a number of species that we've rarely encountered elsewhere," Hubick said.
"Jim and I visit literally every corner of the state as often as possible," Hubick said, noting that all of Maryland's 23 counties are included in their study. Some of their top destinations are Garrett County, Point Lookout in St. Mary's County, Assateague and the marshes of Somerset County.
"I doubt there are many dirt roads we haven't driven," Hubick said.
Both volunteer researchers grew up with an awareness of nature's fragility. Growing up in Chicago, Hubick collected nature guidebooks as a child and recalls donating his allowance to conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund.
Brighton grew up in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. He said his grandfather, shipwright James B. Richardson, instilled in him a respect for the natural world, describing how it had changed over the hundreds of years his family lived there.
As adults, both became bird enthusiasts. They had met a few times, and in 2005, while on a trip to observe great gray owls in Canada, sat down over beers and discussed their mutual interests.
Now, as friends and co-founders of the Maryland Biodiversity Project, the two spend as much time as they can in the field.
Getting out in the wild isn't always easy, even when the project is a true labor of love — the two get no funding from outside sources, no grants or donations. Both are married — Brighton's wife is Colleen and Hubick's is Rebecca, and both have full-time jobs — Brighton is a boat builder, Hubick a web developer for Parsons, a company with offices in Columbia The Hubicks have a 16-month-old daughter, Addy.
"We have accepted a couple small private donations from individuals, but we are completely unaffiliated with any other groups. We own 100 percent of the site and I wrote all of the code," Hubick said. "We would love to find a way to do this full-time."
They would also like to help more young people understand the importance of biodiversity.
"Make no mistake," Hubick said, "biodiversity makes you less vulnerable to disease and starvation."
He said threats to habitats are real, and include some methods of farming — such as crops planted up to the edge of roads, leaving no room for native plants. That diminishes the habitat for insects, and bugs still able to limp along are subjected to insecticides, he said.
"I think the insect biomass is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago," Hubick said.
Habitats and insects are important, he said because biodiversity is like the game Jenga. "If you take too many things out of the system, it collapses," he said.
Hubick and Brighton hope that, as they accumulate more data, their website will become a resource for schoolteachers, researchers or even the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Still, the two know their project will never be complete, which is why getting others excited about it is important. They hope the site itself becomes a habitat for future learners.
"None of this matters if there aren't other people to take this over when we're gone," Hubick said.