Director of Equity and Community Engagement Curtis Bennett at Patuxent River Park
In this story series, National Aquarium experts take us to local places to teach us about the animals and plants found there.
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National Aquarium Director of Equity and Community Engagement Curtis Bennett grew up in Mitchellville, Maryland, near a lake that provided a soundtrack for his childhood. "If I close my eyes, I can still hear the frogs and toads calling, and the ducks and geese," he says.
Curtis' lifelong interest in and curiosity about the natural world—which was recognized and nurtured by his parents—led him to become a park naturalist/camp counselor with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission when he was a freshman in high school.
From there, he went on to earn a bachelor's degree in environmental science focusing on wildlife ecology from University of Maryland, College Park, and a master's degree in wildlife conservation from University of Delaware. In his role at the Aquarium, Curtis creates opportunities for people to connect with the outdoors in meaningful, relevant and relatable ways.
It was through his high school internship with the MNCPPC that Curtis first visited the Jug Bay Natural Area within Patuxent River Park in Prince George's County and met naturalist Greg Kearns, who Curtis describes as a mentor, colleague and friend. Around the same time that Curtis first visited Jug Bay 20 years ago, Greg was embarking on an ambitious project to restore the area's wild rice habitat, which had been decimated by resident Canada geese.
Curtis has returned to Jug Bay again and again over the years and says it's a place that has never lost the magic it first held for him.
"Coming back here feels like coming home," he says. "I feel like any time I'm out here on the river, I learn so much and have so many new experiences."
As they sit on the river in a pontoon boat, Curtis and Greg talk about osprey banding and other experiences on the water that can have a lasting impact on students as they form personal connections with nature.
In some ways, Jug Bay is a very different place today than it was when Curtis first visited. Wild rice is the backbone of the Jug Bay ecosystem, and—thanks to the incredible effort led by Greg—the area's wild rice habitat has gone from a low of 30 to 40 acres in 1998 and 1999 to more than 280 acres today.
"There are only a few wild rice marshes in Maryland," Greg explains. "The Nanticoke, Choptank, Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Rivers all have some rice, but none of them have as much as the Patuxent. Jug Bay has rich, organic soil well suited to the rice, and an elongated zone of about 15 miles where the rice grows."
Jug Bay is part of the Chesapeake Bay-Maryland National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is one of only 29 areas in the country designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more than 20 years, NOAA has provided critical support for the wild rice restoration project at Jug Bay.
"Next to a rain forest, this is probably one of the most productive habitats on the planet," Greg says. "The diversity of birds, wildlife and fish is incredible."
That diversity of animals and plants is what has drawn Curtis back to Jug Bay over the years, both to relax and explore on his own time and as an educator seeking to co-create opportunities for his students to connect to nature and learn about different species.
"It goes back to stories," Curtis says. "Wild rice, osprey—they all have stories. When you can see them up close and share the story, that's what people connect with."
Jug Bay is one of the best places in Maryland to see migratory birds, and it all goes back to the wild rice.
Wild rice is an annual, native aquatic grass. It absorbs excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the river—nutrients that can cause harmful algal blooms—and uses those nutrients to grow and produce oxygen, as well as seeds that provide an important food source for migrating birds. Because the rice contributes to clean, healthy water, it also supports a large variety of fishes in the river, which in turn draw birds of prey like osprey. Shoots of the wild rice plants first appear in April. By early August, the plants have reached their peak height of 6 to 12 feet and are topped with feathery yellow blooms. In late August and September, ripe seeds (that haven't become a meal for hungry birds) drop off and sink into the muddy river bottom, where they remain dormant until spring.
Pickerelweed is a native aquatic plant found in shallow areas of Jug Bay. Its spiky blue-purple flowers attract pollinators, and its leaves, roots, seeds and stems provide protection and food for fishes, birds and mammals. Pickerelweed also helps prevent erosion thanks to its dense root system that holds sediment in place.
Crimson-eyed rose mallow is a native hibiscus that blooms at same time as the wild rice. It has round flowers that are 6 inches in diameter and range from white to pink, with dark pinkish-red centers that attract pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Rose mallow plants can reach up to 7 feet tall and are also known as the swamp mallow, marsh hibiscus or marsh mallow.
Soras are small marsh birds that are part of the rail family. They are plentiful in Maryland during the fall migration season but are difficult to see because they tend to stay well-hidden. Soras arrive at Jug Bay in mid-August from their northern nesting ground and spend about two months in the area feeding on rice to fatten up for their long migration to marshes in Florida, the Caribbean, Latin America or northern South America. Greg has been studying soras for decades, gathering data about their migration habits, which was scarce because they're so secretive and migrate at night. He traps, bands and measures them, and outfits some birds with small transmitters so he can track their flight. Soras—which are about the same size as a robin—can fly from Maryland to Florida in one night, and he tracked one sora traveling from Jug Bay to the Bahamas in 19 and a half hours, flying an average of 52 miles per hour for about 1,000 miles. He was inspired to undertake the wild rice restoration project at Jug Bay when he saw the number of soras he could tag in a year drop from 1,300 in the mid-1990s to a mere 100 in 2000, when the wild rice was at its all-time low. Thanks to his efforts, as the wild rice has returned, it seems that so have the soras.
As the soras are beginning to arrive at Jug Bay in late summer, the ospreys are starting to head out. Local populations leave Maryland by September while non-resident populations can stick around as late as November. There are 66 osprey towers at Jug Bay and 60 of them were occupied this summer, meaning there were 120 individual adults plus their offspring. In early summer, Greg bands osprey chicks at Jug Bay so that they can be studied, an effort Curtis has helped with several times.
Red-winged blackbirds migrate into Jug Bay by the hundreds of thousands beginning in mid-July to feed on the wild rice before it's fully ripe, which is known as the green or milk stage. Red-winged blackbirds travel in mostly single-sex groups. Males are solid, shiny black with a bright stripe of red and yellow where their wings meet their body, while females are stripey brown with muted yellow coloring around their beaks.
Least bitterns are the smallest herons found in North America, just a bit larger than a red-winged blackbird. They nest and breed at Jug Bay and throughout the Chesapeake Bay during the warm summer months, building their nests in vegetation just a foot or two above the water line. They are carnivores, feeding on small fishes and invertebrates.
Great blue herons are the largest herons found in North America, standing up to 4 feet tall with a 6- to 7-foot wingspan. They can be found at Jug Bay and throughout the Chesapeake Bay region year-round. In addition to fish, they feed on amphibians, crustaceans and other small animals.
For Curtis, the wide variety of plants and animals he sees at Jug Bay every time he visits are part of its magic, but there's more to it.
"The vastness of places like this makes you feel so small, in a really good way," Curtis says. "It's the power of space—and knowing how much work and resources have gone into protecting it, and the number of people who have contributed to that. It makes you appreciate it that much more."
He says it also grounds him—it connects him to his past and reminds him why he does what he does in his career. He says, "It started with the lake in the community I lived in, which connected me to Patuxent River Park and then to the National Aquarium. Those formative moments are what inspire me to co-create meaningful opportunities around access, especially to nearby nature, to places that are close to where people live."
Stay tuned for more stories in our Aquarium Inside Out series!