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Taking covert action to benefit wildlife

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MADISON -- A covert action network is spreading across Maryland.

One of its key operatives, Richard D. Abend, quietly executes the network's designs at his 106-acre Dorchester County tree farm here, under cover of horned owls and wood ducks, bald eagles and great blue herons and, above all, mosquitoes.

Sinister? Not unless the sight of wildlife in Maryland forests spoils your day.

For Mr. Abend defines "covert" thus: "a thicket that provides habitat for wildlife."

And he and 29 fellow "coverts cooperators" across Maryland are trying to spread the word that the state's 2.7 million acres of wood lands can benefit landowners and wildlife alike.

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"Oh-oh," Rick Abend said, catching sight of a bird of prey dipping low over a farm field. "Looks like a marsh hawk. Probably trying to get mice."

The hawk touched down briefly and then took off, apparently with a carryout lunch. Chalk up one meal for the predator and another wildlife sighting for Mr. Abend, 41, a Defense Department employee from northern Anne Arundel County and weekend farmer who started acquiring land here in 1972.

Much of the wildlife Mr. Abend sees is here precisely because he has created conditions in which it can thrive.

Mr. Abend walked a few yards across the field, and four Canada geese rose flapping from a pond and headed northeast across Route 16, gently honking.

When Mr. Abend bought this land, the pond -- actually a diked waterfowl impoundment that can be drained in the summer -- didn't exist. Now it's there, complete with two acres of sorghum planted to attract Canada geese and tundra swans.

"If there's any drawback to what I do, it's the mosquito population, I guess," Mr. Abend said. "There have been years when you couldn't go outside in the middle of the day. But it probably keeps a lot of people away, and I don't mind that."

A few more yards along, Mr. Abend spotted a mouse-sized, grayish piece of fluff and poked at it with the cane he uses since undergoing hip surgery last year.

"Owl pellet," he said. "You can tell what they've been eating by looking through it. See the mice bones?"

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Mr. Abend's extensive list of wildlife sightings on his farm begins with whitetail and sika deer and ends with "skinks, frogs, toads, dragonflies and, of course, mosquitoes!"

There are Delmarva fox squirrels and muskrats, quail and red foxes, pintails and northern shovelers, red-tailed hawks and ruby-throated hummingbirds, snapping turtles and pileated woodpeckers.

All of this in virgin forest untouched by humans? Hardly.

Mr. Abend's message -- and that of the coverts project, run by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service with a grant from the Ruffed Grouse Society -- is that carefully managed woodlands can produce both income and wildlife habitat.

"There's a misconception that the best thing you can do for forest land is do nothing, and in most cases that is definitely not true," said Jonathan S. Kays, the extension service official who organized the coverts program.

Too many forests are wantonly cut down with no thought given to the loss of habitat, he said. But too many forests are also left alone to grow old, crowding out the younger growth that upland game species such as pheasants, quail and rabbits need to survive.

"I'm not here to say we should cut all the forests down," Mr. Kays said. "But with judicious harvesting as well as planting of trees, there are opportunities to create a diversity of habitats."

With 85 percent of Maryland's timberland in the hands of nearly 96,000 private landowners -- and the average holding only about 24 acres -- spreading the word about how to manage woodlands for wildlife is not easy.

Hence, "coverts cooperators" like Rick Abend, who can preach the gospel of forest management to landowners that professional foresters may not reach. Trained by the extension service at a workshop last fall, the cooperators include farmers and teachers, doctors and lawyers, computer programmers and stockbrokers, watermen and mechanics.

"There's more credibility coming from a friend, neighbor or peer than someone from the government who comes in, opens a briefcase and says, 'I'm here to help you,' " Mr. Kays said.

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Rick Abend bought his first 49-acre parcel in 1972 for hunting. That is what used to bring him to the Eastern Shore as a child.

Still an avid hunter, Mr. Abend these days shoots as often with a camera as with a rifle. And now his land is as much wildlife motel as hunting lodge.

Wood ducks will find 24 numbered cedar boxes for their nesting pleasure. The boxes are mounted on poles wrapped in plastic pipe to keep out raccoons and black snakes. Twenty-eight smaller bluebird boxes dot the landscape, 12 squirrel nesting boxes are perched high in the trees, and mallards, geese, wrens and purple martins all have Abend-built homes.

Mr. Abend has had about half the farm's 45 wooded acres commercially timbered. Scattered hardwoods were spared to house squirrels and birds, and dead trees were left standing for woodpeckers.

He says he has plowed about 90 percent of his timber income back into the property, including reforestation of 20 acres in loblolly pine.

Mr. Abend built a 4,000-foot-long fire road through the woods and plants it in clover -- food for deer and rabbits. He created four diked impoundment areas and a pond to attract Canada geese and stocks them with largemouth bass and bluegills. He's considering raising crawfish.

"This was totally woods, just for hunting. I could watch Canada geese pass over, but the area was too enclosed for them to come in. Now I have such a greater variety of wildlife, and that's what my goal is," he said.

Mr. Abend has also learned how to hunt for federal and state dollars, flushing them out from their hiding places in scattered programs. The aid helps him maintain a lot of land on a middle-class income.

"Rick takes advantage of every incentive, every cost-sharing program," said Scott Daniels, Dorchester County project forester. Federal funds have defrayed up to 65 percent of his tree-planting and forest-thinning expenses, reforestation has yielded him federal and state tax credits, state nurseries sell him tree seedlings at cost, and Maryland taxes his woodlands property at a low agricultural rate.

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Sitting at his kitchen table, Mr. Abend displayed a photo album of wildlife found on the farm -- here a screech owl, there a snowy egret.

Which is his favorite wildlife species? He thought for a moment and chose the wood duck. "It's probably the prettiest duck I've ever seen, and they take so well to help from people," he said.

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