Firing range gets new life for the birds


An area near Laurel where the Army used to practice blowing things to bits is going to the birds.

It is going to killdeer that lay eggs in gravel, to hawks circling for food, to geese nesting on huge X-shaped islands in a pond built on an old munitions testing ground. A control tower for the firing range now is a bird-observation deck.

The 35-acre habitat, part of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, officially will open to the public tomorrow. It has three types of wetlands aimed at attracting a variety of fowl and a wildlife viewing area aimed at attracting the public.

The site, a slice of the 8,100 acres cut from Fort Meade in 1991 as part of military base reductions, tripled the size of the wildlife center.

Finished in August and polished over the winter, the new wildlife sanctuary has drawn wild turkeys -- which hadn't been seen there in years -- migrating birds, snakes, spring peepers, ducks, mice, dragonflies and hungry eagles.

The habitat is the result of a marriage of needs between Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which built the wetlands for $2.5 million, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has more dreams than dollars for its recently acquired property.

Susan McMahon, wildlife refuge manager, said she thought such partnerships are "a wave of the future for government, which is streamlining."

The refuge and wildlife research center, best known for work that led to banning the pesticide DDT, could not afford such a project, she said.

And BGE could not complete a high-voltage loop through western Anne Arundel and eastern Howard counties without meeting federal requirements that required it to compensate for about 14 acres of wetlands and trees it destroyed to build 19 miles of power lines, said Frank M. Akiyama, a BGE project manager.

Between December 1993 and last summer, utility contractors set out 12,000 trees and shrubs and 15,000 marsh grass plants -- after the area was cleared of live mortars, rockets and grenades that dated back to World War I -- said George M. Junkin, an environmental consultant who designed most of the project.

Man-made wetlands elsewhere have had mixed success.

However, BGE and Patuxent officials are encouraged by the birds that have shown up, the grasses starting to poke through the water for the first time and the greening of twiggy little trees.

The 3.3-acre, clay-lined pond has two nesting islands designed by Patuxent researchers.

A rim of marsh surrounds the pond.

East of the pond is 13.3 acres of low-lying forested wetlands, naturally saturated part of the year by the high water table.

South of that is a 6.5-acre forest.

From October to April, a dam stops rainwater from flowing into the Patuxent River and floods the area.

"When we flood it in the fall, it creates a smorgasbord for the migratory fowl," Ms. McMahon said. "The seeds float to the top."

Wildlife-watchers may flock to the site off Bald Eagle Drive for fun, but the Patuxent staff will use it for studies of such things as soils, small animals, balance of nature and speed of plant growth.

Researchers have set aside unplanted 5-yard-square plots so that they can see what sprouts naturally, Mr. Junkin said.

"This is basically going to be a big research project," he said.

Refuge managers would like to turn an Army trailer into a small outdoor education building where students can learn while they help the wildlife research center monitor the wetlands.

Under its federal permit, BGE must monitor and maintain the site for five years to ensure success.

When management is turned over to the wildlife center, the wetlands should be well on their way to maturity, Ms. McMahon said.

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