Under blue skies and calm conditions, staffers from the Naval Air Station Patuxent River Environmental Division set out by boat Sept. 7 for two Chesapeake Bay islands — Bloodsworth and Adam — a task they’ve undertaken twice a year for decades.
The islands are part of the Bloodsworth Island Range, which from the 1940s through 1996 served as a Navy shore bombardment and bombing range for firing and dropping live ordnance from ships and aircraft that included bombs, small and large caliber ammunition, rockets and missiles that contained explosives, propellants and other energetics.
“It used to belong to Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, but it was formally transferred to Pax River in 2001,” explained Kyle Rambo, environmental planning and conservation director. “Part of our job is stewardship of the resources the Navy is using and even when Bloodsworth was still owned by Little Creek, they contracted with us as the closest naval facility to the island, to conduct monitoring and management. I think my first time out there was 1982 or ’83.”
Surrounded by water, uninhabitable and scarred from years of artillery testing operations, Bloodsworth Island is located 18 miles from Pax River’s shoreline. Salt water encroachment is inundating the island — which sits only slightly above sea level — leaving the ground spongy, wet, and difficult to walk on without each footstep sinking into mud. Large trees have been killed off over the years and the windswept landscape is now covered mostly in marsh vegetation.
“People don’t realize Bloodsworth Island, at nearly 5,000 acres, is actually Pax River’s second largest property,” Rambo noted. “It’s dominated now by a single plant known as black needle rush, but there are still a few skinny Eastern red cedar trees left on the northern end of the island on an elevated ridgeline known as Fin Creek,” which is the island’s highest point, at approximately 5-feet above sea level.
What’s being monitored?
Disembarking at Fin Creek and walking the entire ridge, Rambo and team record whatever species of birds, insects, mammals or reptiles they see.
“There are no amphibians out there,” he said. “We look for evidence of any rare, threatened or endangered species. One sandpiper in particular we’ve been looking for is the rufa subspecies of red knot, which is federally endangered, but we didn’t see any. When there’s a specific target like that, we’ll coordinate the time of year we visit to when the resource we’re looking for might be there.”
They also recorded any evidence of bird nesting as part of the ongoing Breeding Bird Atlas 3 survey for the state of Maryland, and they counted great blue heron nests, which were once abundant on the island.
“Decades ago, we built artificial structures for the herons to nest on after the sturdy trees died off, but they’re dwindling now too,” Rambo added. “It’s a harsh environment out there and hurricanes have knocked them down or they’ve fallen over. Also, bald eagles came in one year and built a nest right in the middle of the rookery, which numbered hundreds of heron pairs in its heyday. Since eagles eat young herons, there went the neighborhood.”
Rambo verified there is still a ring of a few heron nests on the periphery of the colony the Navy built, but he believes it’s close to abandonment.
“It produced thousands of young herons through the years, so it served its purpose; it was successful,” he said. “They’ve now moved on to the mainland or other islands.”
An eagle pair continues calling Bloodsworth their home, and animal remains collected by staffers from below the nest show they have quite a taste for diamondback terrapins.
Another bird that has taken a liking to the island is the American black duck, a species of concern due to its plummeting population.
“It’s not endangered yet, but it is a species of concern and Bloodsworth Island seems to be a fantastic habitat,” Rambo explained. “These ducks love coastal salt marshes but they need pockets of fresh water and the holes left by past bombardment are perfect for that; we saw heavy use. It kind of shows the things we do aren’t always incompatible, and can actually be beneficial to the environment.”
As part of its stewardship, the Navy is required to identify and evaluate any archaeological sites on its properties, and during an extensive archaeological survey of Bloodsworth Island in 1980, three sites were identified.
One was a cemetery on the northern ridge where three 19th century headstones still stand, all members of the Bloodsworth family who lived there until around 1918 when the last residents began relocating to the Dorchester County mainland. Now obscured by thick marsh grass and dense shrub growth, the graves are not easy to locate.
“They’re within 50-feet of each other, but it takes about 15 minutes to find each one,” Rambo said. “The headstones are still upright and we cleared some of the vegetation around them. We also looked for evidence of disturbance, which could indicate illegal collecting or looting of an archaeological site, or physical damage due to erosion, like a site washing-out that might require a recovery survey. But we didn’t observe any of that.”
Adam Island check-up
Before heading back to Pax River, the team also stopped by neighboring Adam Island, once the location of a Navy spotting tower used to score impacts. The perimeter security fencing, which once surrounded the now-toppled tower, was crowned with two rows of barbed and razor wire and was removed in 2015.
“It had proven hazardous to the brown pelicans that now inhabit the island,” Rambo said. “Some were getting entangled in the wire and dying, so it had to be removed. Once we learned of the problem, we worked with the [Maryland Department of Natural Resources] to make quick work of it and both the birds and the environment are better for it.”
Because of erosion, the tower wreck now sits in water and provides an attractive nesting site for brown pelicans, cormorants and gulls, and another pair of bald eagles also nests there.
“It’s become an important colonial bird nesting site, but not for herons,” Rambo said. “It’s mostly pelicans and a few other aquatic fish-eating birds.”
Off limits to the public
While out there, the environmental team also checked to make sure the multiple signs warning the public to avoid the area are still standing. Years of bombing and bombardment – and the resulting presence of live ordnance – is the reason the islands and portions of surrounding waters are off limits. No trespassing on land or in adjacent waters within 75 yards of Bloodsworth Island Range is permitted without the express consent of the Navy. Even Pax River personnel are required to attend special training in order to visit the islands.
“The shorelines are eroding at a rapid rate and in those eroded areas we’re always on the lookout for unexploded ordnance that could date as far back as the 1940s and for many years after,” Rambo said. “No one should be setting foot on that island.”
In addition to the signage, a safety bulletin regarding the hazards has been distributed to various waterman’s associations, civic groups, charter boat captains and museums to forewarn the public.
More information, including a short history of Bloodsworth Island Range, is available on the Commander, Naval Installations Command website at www.cnic.navy.mil/regions/ndw/installations/nas_patuxent_river/om/administrative-services/nas-public-affairs-office/bloodsworth-island-range.html/.
Though impact operations no longer occur, it is still an active range with current operations that involve the test and evaluation of aircraft, including their flying qualities and performance, propulsion, aircrew and mission systems; electronic warfare; search and rescue; flight crew proficiency; and evaluation of radar systems, unmanned aerial systems sensors, night vision systems, directed energy systems and other electronic systems.
“You just don’t know what’s happening to your resources unless you’re out there looking at them,” Rambo said.