Naturalist's enduring work


From lecturing on the majestic bald eagle to serving up a scrumptious crab cake, Robert W. Stanhope has his finger firmly on the pulse of Baltimore County's creatures great and small.

As the county's chief naturalist, he has been teacher, cheerleader and preservationist for 24 years. He was also the point man for groups that created two major nature centers, Oregon Ridge and Marshy Point, and started an interactive organic farm in Cromwell Valley.

For that enduring work, Stanhope is the recipient of this year's Olivia Irvine Dodge Conservation Award, presented annually over the past two decades to a Marylander for distinguished work in nature. The award was presented by top officials of the Stevenson-based Irvine Nature Center, a private environmental education group.

Previous recipients include William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Joe and Ilia Fehrer, who work on conservation issues on the Eastern Shore.

At 65, Stanhope says there's more work to do.

Whether meeting with a group of children marveling at the mysteries of nature or with members of the Naval Academy Garden Club interested in their perennials, Stanhope approaches his mission with passion and deep knowledge.

"It's very nice to be recognized for something you love to do, but I don't know everything yet and there remains a lot of work ahead," Stanhope said at his office at the Marshy Point Nature Center in Chase.

This year, more than 10,000 fifth-graders will visit Marshy Point's 250 acres, between the Dundee and Saltpeter creeks that feed the Chesapeake Bay, a place Stanhope calls wildlife's grocery store. Another 10,000 students have studied nature this year at Oregon Ridge.

One day last week, Stanhope met three pupils from Owings Mills Elementary School who were on a field trip. On a soft carpet of fallen leaves, Stanhope used a feather to drive home a lesson about the great blue heron.

"Does that belong to a flamingo?" asked Heather Goodman, 10. No, Stanhope said, adding that the bird oils its feathers with a built-in oil gland, protecting them from the water.

Malik Bell, 9, looked at Leighann Kimble, 10. "Oh, I know," Malik said. "It's a heron; you can see a little blue in the feather."

In addition to the students, about 100,000 other visitors have used both nature centers this year to hike, bird-watch and picnic.

Ann Yellott, a Cockeysville resident and member of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center and Park Council, described Stanhope as a "real teacher. His dedication to teach children to save the environment is very impressive."

At Marshy Point, students learn on field trips and in summer camps that bald eagles have three nests - each as large as a Volkswagen - within a mile of the center. In canoe trips, they discover that eels are quite slippery and creek water can be crystal clear. The children also study wild celery, otters, sweet gum trees, catfish, ducks and crab cakes.

Crab cakes?

"I love them!" Stanhope exclaims. "And once they taste them, the kids go for them, too."

Some might find it odd that such a devoted naturalist is so fond of eating crabs. But it is because of his knowledge of the blue crab that he can, without guilt, occasionally enjoy one of his golden cakes.

"Can the crab population be occasionally threatened? ... Sure," Stanhope said. "But very few know that the second most popular food item on the blue crab's menu is another blue crab. And rockfish also eat a lot of young crabs. Still, the reproduction ability of a female crab is phenomenal; each female lays 1 million to 2 million eggs each breeding season.

And because of storms this year, the crab population should rise, Stanhope said.

One of Stanhope's strong points is answering a question with a story, said Benjamin Poscover, retired science department supervisor for the county public school system.

"He's so very bright and creative; that's how he builds knowledge bridges," Poscover said. "Anyone can ask him a question and he will deliver a quick story, often very witty, often while slapping his knee."

Stanhope said his love of nature and teaching can be traced to his parents. His mother was raised on a farm and taught English in the family's hometown of Weymouth, Mass., on Hingham Bay. His father was a lifelong sailor who, Stanhope said, thought the "only good water was salty; the rest was frog sweat. He sailed until he was 90, Captain Bligh until the end."

Stanhope was an Eagle Scout and while studying biology at Boston University, where he also taught canoeing, he met his future wife, Sally, now a head librarian in the county. The couple has two grown daughters.

After a stint teaching in Massachusetts, Stanhope came to Baltimore County in 1980 during the administration of former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson.

"We needed someone to operate Oregon Ridge, and Bob fit," said Hutchinson, now president of SunTrust Bank's Maryland operations. "Since then he's done great work creating the nature centers. He's made the invisible visible, let everyone know that these natural assets have tremendous value and implications."

As for the future, Stanhope would like to get funding for a canoe shed and pier at Marshy Point to better accommodate visitors. And then there is the bugeye project.

Built about 1875 and later, the bugeye was a type of graceful, two-masted ship that was used to dredge oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Later, bugeyes could be seen parked at the foot of Pratt Street loaded with watermelons.

"The Bugeye was the truck of the Chesapeake, more than 600 of them plied the bay from the 1880s to the 1920s," Stanhope said. "They were beauties that hauled pineapples back here from the Caribbean or took loads of tomato cans to the Baltimore canneries.

"It would be perfect to build or restore one and help put people on the water, into nature, and let them better understand their history," Stanhope said. "Now, all I have to do is find someone who'd like to fund it."

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