Harry Armistead (2009-07-27 13:22:54)

Shifting sands: environmental and cultural change in Maryland's coastal bays edited by William C. Dennison, Jane E. Thomas, Carol J. Cain, Tim J. B. Carruthers, Matthew R. Hall, Roman V. Jesien, Catherine E. Wazniak, and David E. Wilson. IAN Press, 2009. 396 pages. Flexbound. $20.00.

Here is a fascinating, authoritative, richly-illustrated monograph that not only covers Maryland's coastal bays (Assawoman, St. Martin River, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent, Newport, and Chincoteague bays) but also adjacent Little Assawoman Bay in Delaware and the part of Chincoteague Bay that is in Virginia, as well as Chincoteague Island, and Chincoteague N.W.R. Mainland areas that drain into these bays are also discussed.

To give an idea of how heavily illustrated Shifting sands is there are c. 116 maps, 255 photographs (almost all in color), 206 tables, charts, etc., and 16 miscellaneous text figures, side bars, and the like. My favorite photograph is of 7 appealing Harbor Seals hauled out on a sod tump at Ocean City (p. 300). Many of the aerial photographs are stunning and show, variously, wilderness or incredibly dense development and everything in between.

Of most interest to birders should be the chapter Diversity of Life in the Coastal Bays), pp. 293-344, but other chapters concern each of the major bays, history, future, the bays in context, land-sea interface, water quality and nutrients, and habitats.

The book is a publication of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Copies may be ordered via: ian.umces.edu, then go to the search box in the upper right, key in shifting sands, then open up IAN Press checkout.

Each chapter is heavily referenced. The chapter headings do not really due justice to all that is discussed here. There is much on vegetation, geology, the fishing/watermen industry, the dynamic nature of barrier islands, and historic photographs. Coastal bays in other parts of the world are examined. Mark Hoffman, Glen Therres, and Dave Brinker, familiar to Maryland birders, co-author some of the chapters. Roman Jesien helped this year with the banding of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans.

Data from Claudia Wild's posthumous book is not included: Shorebirds at Chincoteague: patterns of migration on the Virginia coast by Claudia Phelps Wilds, edited by Edward (Ned) S. Brinkley (Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, 2007, 80 pages, paperbound). I've heard that a limited number of copies may be for sale at Chincoteague N.W.R. visitor center.

Also relevant, and only some 60 miles to the west, is Dorchester County birder Diane Cole's Sea level rise: technical guidance for Dorchester County [Maryland], March 2008, 55 pages; Maryland Eastern Shore Resource Conservation & Development Council for Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources, Coastal Zone Management Division).

However, Shifting sands covers so much ground (and water) that it is unreasonable to expect more than a learned overview of major phenomena. The literature is vast and diffuse, so it is unfair, perhaps, to expect every major monograph and document to be cited.

Other bones to pick — really minor ones — Celestún is spelled incorrectly on p. 206 (as Celesún). The Black-bellied Plovers shown foraging on p. 371 consist of just 1 BBPL plus 3 shorebirds that appear to be Dunlin. The Index is a little less than 3 pages, good on general items but not very useful for specifics. However, the table of contents, 9 full pages, is extremely thorough and largely compensates for this.

The stream photographed on p. 45 may be one that has been channelized but is not indicated as such. However, the table on p. 44 identifies "channel alterations" as the leading cause of "Stream problems identified" for all 4 of the major bay complexes the book deals with.

On p. 170 the meanings of several native American place names are given and the reader learns, perhaps to his/her relief, that Assawoman means "across stream."

In addition to the 8 principal editors/authors there are 72 others who are contributors. Their affiliations are shown on pp. 371-372. Their conclusions and recommendations occupy pages 3-13.

I'd think anyone interested in the DE, MD & VA coasts would treasure this fine new book. Shifting sands has terrific aerial photographs of the bays and islands. Authoritative as the text is, it is not at all dense, but, instead reads easily for a lay person such as myself, offering cogent summaries on myriad phenomena. Highly recommended. — Harry Armistead, Philadelphia.

Peter Andes (2009-07-21 11:39:33)

While many are aware of the environmental challenges the coastal bays watershed currently faces, the remarkable history of the area is not as often examined. "Shifting Sands -- Environmental and Coastal Change in Maryland's Coastal Bays" not only covers in depth the obstacles that stand in the way of the health of the bays, but also provides intriguing insight into the area's past and also its future direction. This look over time provides a unique socio-cultural perspective and rare local history which complements the scientific analysis to create a comprehensive view of the state of the watershed.

"Shifting Sands" begins its chronological examination in the depths of prehistory, at the close of the last ice age when the Delmarva Peninsula finished its formation after being carved by glaciers. The coastal bays followed around 4,500 years ago, when the rising sea inundated the area. The barrier islands were formed when a subsequent fall in sea level occurred. Just as these islands and bays owe their geological origin to the sea, they owe their continued existence to it as well. Tides, sediment texture and shoreline sediment transportation are responsible for much of both the islands' change and constancy, though this natural process is often interrupted by modern human involvement.

The early natural history of the bays is just one instance where the book combines historical and scientific information to provide a look at the relationship between the past and the promise of a healthy future.

The book moves on to cover the initial human interaction with the landscape which is now the Coastal Bays watershed. The area was first utilized as an intermittent hunting ground by native Americans around 10,000 years ago, with permanent settlement beginning around AD 900, when maize agriculture gained prevalence. Native American tribes built small villages along the bays' tributaries where they caught fish and gathered shellfish along the shore. Their presence is still seen in names like Assateague Island and Assawoman Bay, and many artifacts have been found or remain to be found by archaeological excavation.

Europeans first came in contact with the area through the explorations of seafarers like Giovanni da Verrazzano and Henry Norwood, while later infamous pirates would find it a haven and asset to their exploits. The text describes how early colonists found themselves in a wilderness teeming with a great abundance of animals, from black bear and bison to wolves and cougars. This early human settlement left little impact on the surrounding land, a trend which would be gradually reversed throughout the next centuries.

Also covered in "Shifting Sands" are aspects of Assateague and Ocean City that reveal the developing character and culture of the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including information on the many new inlets that formed frequently and on the once thriving oyster industry. With increasing development due to rapid population growth the health of the area saw much decline which would not be addressed until the early environmental initiative in the wake of the Clean Water Act.

Because of efforts local and national, the coastal bays were able to recover from harmful algal blooms and support a rebound in seagrass growth, making great headway with the ban on DDT and the bays' membership in the National Estuary Program. The book chronicles this struggle to improve the bays, which began more than 30 years ago. It is an ongoing and crucial endeavor.

Through its utilization of detailed -- yet clear -- scientific analysis and historical insight, the text provides a comprehensive perspective through which to view the past and future of our relationship with the coastal bays watershed. Going beyond just objective and highly edifying science, the book also explores the character of the area and its noteworthy past.

"Shifting Sands" is the quintessential guide to these once-forgotten bays and a fascinating look at their natural and cultural identity.

Peter Andes (The Salisbury Daily Times)