Director of Community Partnership Strategy Jenny Hamilton at Fairwood Forest
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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A few blocks away from Jenny Hamilton's home in the northeast corner of Baltimore City, there's a peaceful little slice of forest. It spans 4 long, thin acres, bordering 32 home lots on a ridge off Belair Road. On a warm day, it's a few degrees cooler in the woods. There are sounds of city life—construction work, a siren—in the distant background, but the birds singing in the trees are louder.
The forest's trails are well groomed, bordered by logs and clear of ivy, kudzu and other invasive vines. Jenny's 8-year-old son, Milo, loves visiting the forest and navigating their way through it. "One of his favorite things is the trail map," she said. "He prints it out and figures out which of the little winding trails we're going to take."
This place—Fairwood Forest—was cared for by community members in Hamilton for years and years before neighbors began working with the nonprofit Baltimore Green Space in 2012. Together with support from Hamilton Community Association they worked to get the land protected in the trust in 2018.
Baltimore Green Space is Baltimore's environmental land trust, founded in 2007 by a group of gardeners who wanted to see their communities' open spaces remain available to residents. While their initial focus was on community gardens and pocket parks, which are generally less than an acre, in 2012 they expanded their work to include forest patches. Fairwood Forest was the first preserved forest patch in Baltimore and is part of a network of dozens of community-managed forests in Baltimore, including Springfield Woods, the Govans Urban Forest and Wilson Woods.
There are over a thousand forest patches in Baltimore, all located on land that can be bought and sold. These patches range in size from a quarter of an acre to more than 20 acres; together, they make up more than 20% of Baltimore's tree canopy. While these spaces are valuable for their ability to absorb and filter stormwater, release oxygen, combat the urban heat island effect and lower summer temperatures, and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, the vast majority are privately owned and at risk of development. Those not cared for by community members are often neglected; some are used as dumping grounds.
Stitched together, these diverse, disconnected forest patches—along with pocket parks and community gardens—provide a vital network of healthy green spaces across the city. These green spaces provide ecosystem services like cleaner water and air, physical and mental health benefits, access to wildlife, recreation opportunities, and economic benefits like higher property values.
Jenny walks through Fairwood Forest in the Hamilton neighborhood of Baltimore City. Community members have cared for this forest patch for many years and recently protected it from being razed for development.
Because sustainability is something she values so much, Jenny volunteers her time as a member of the Hamilton Community Association board and chairs the committee that leads greening projects in the neighborhood, including stewardship of Fairwood Forest. She said her neighbors bring their diverse skillsets to protecting, preserving and maintaining the forest. Some go door to door to drop off flyers and talk about events; others pull weeds, plant and maintain trails. Because Jenny enjoys facilitating projects and bringing people together, serving on the board is a good fit for her. Her husband, James, is an artist, so he lends his graphic design expertise to Fairwood Forest projects.
Jenny moved to Baltimore over 20 years ago and lived near Patterson Park for many years. She and her family moved to Hamilton in 2017, drawn by the diverse housing stock—rowhomes, apartment complexes and single-family homes—and by all the mature trees. They've since met like-minded neighbors who enjoy city life, with its cultural amenities and connectedness to other city dwellers, balanced with being surrounded by trees, gardens and green space.
Through her work with Fairwood Forest, Jenny has met neighbors in Hamilton who are naturalists and certified Master Gardeners like her friend Eugenia Argires. Eugenia moved into her home, which is steps away from the entrance to Fairwood Forest, in 2014.
"One day as I was taking my trashcan up to the road, two gentlemen were standing at the edge of my property talking about clearing the forest to put in modular homes," she recalled. Alarmed, she called Baltimore Green Space to see if there was anything they could do to help.
At the time, the land was privately owned by five investors, including some living outside the U.S.
"Those of us here on the ground, the best tool we had was to say to the landowners, 'let us tell you why this isn't the kind of property you want to develop' from an engineering/construction standpoint, and then ask if they would be willing to turn it over to us," Jenny explained.
Given the urgency, community members mobilized quickly. Neighbors rallied to raise the necessary funds to purchase the land so the forest could be preserved.
Eric Fishel, forest program manager at Baltimore Green Space and executive director of Birds of Urban Baltimore (BURB), said this is the model Baltimore Green Space follows. "Land preservation and community work are what we do, but we don't go into communities and say, 'This place is special; you need to protect it.' Communities come to us and say, 'This place is special to us; we want to preserve it.'"
Currently, Baltimore Green Space protects 19 spaces across the city and collaborates with neighbors who care for hundreds of others. (Masonville Cove—the nation's first Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership where the Aquarium has been a partner since 2007—became one of these 19 sites in 2022.) "Our goal is to provide support to community members, so they are empowered to care for their spaces in a sustainable way to achieve their goals," Eric said.
Jenny said the idea of a forest patch and the work to care for it differs a lot from community gardens or pocket parks in vacant lots. "People can get their heads around a lot or garden with a fence around it. But this is an open, public space. Anyone can come through, enjoy the trails, walk their dog, take their kids out. There are a lot of different ways that we as neighbors can organize to care for the forest. We're still figuring it out, but we're grateful for the support from Baltimore Green Space."
Eugenia sees her yard as an extension of the forest. Her trees add to the forest's canopy, and she's careful to plant only native perennials, along with vegetables, fruits and herbs in her gardens. She invites children from the neighborhood to walk down her driveway to pick and taste and chat. They call it "plant school."
"They eat raspberries right off the bush, and taste herbs like spearmint and dill," Eugenia said. By building kids' connection to nature and making the forest a fun, safe place for them to explore and play, she hopes to instill a sense of respect and responsibility for the forest, so they're motivated to help protect it.
According to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, too many children living in the city have little to no access to nature and the outdoors. Because spending time in nature can improve children's mental, physical and emotional health, and because of the rich variety of nearby natural spaces, Baltimore is one of 18 U.S. cities taking part in a national initiative to increase safe, equitable access to nature for children.
"In a city like Baltimore, the big, huge parks—Patterson Park and Druid Hill and others—are important," Jenny said, "but these patches matter, too."
Forest patches represent a significant percentage of the city's overall tree canopy, and the fact that they're spread out is a benefit for city residents of all ages—as well as for birds and other wildlife.
Jenny added, "We have to think of these patches as being connected and part of a bigger ecosystem, just like we have to think of Eugenia's backyard as part of this forest. It's all connected to the health of the city."
Eric studies birds across Baltimore City and Fairwood Forest is one of his research locations. He's recorded more than 50 species of birds (and counting!) in Fairwood Forest so far.
Fairwood Forest is an important resting stop for migrating birds, including hawks. Thousands of hawks are sighted in the forest each year during the fall migration season, including red-tailed, red-shouldered, broad-winged, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks.
Other year-round forest residents, like the Carolina chickadee, are noteworthy.
"Carolina chickadees are a sign that this is a healthy forest," he said. "They like old trees with holes in them. They like to nest high up. Most of the trees here are over 100 years old—and they're native and highly diverse."
Eric counts dozens of tree species in the forest, including American beech, tulip poplars, honey locusts and sugar maples. In addition to the range of species, Eric points out that the trees are diverse in age, which is another sign of the forest's health.
"There are tons of baby, mid-size and older trees here," he explained. "Forests require a lot of maintenance and upkeep if they're highly invaded by non-native species. A healthy forest requires much less work and can regulate itself. There are mayapples here in spring, and arrowwood viburnum and wintergreen, which you wouldn't have found in this forest a few years ago. When we remove invasives from the ground layer, the competitive edge shifts. The forest has a memory, and the native plants start coming back up and fighting back against the invasives."
For eight years, Baltimore Green Space has been working with researchers at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to gather data and assess the health of Baltimore's forest patches. "Scientists used to think that small patches of forest did not contribute much to the ecology or health of an ecosystem," Eric said, "but this assessment is definitively showing their value. Even the soil is relatively healthy, which people didn't think existed in urban environments."
There are a wide variety of animals and plants in Fairwood Forest in spring—and all year round. Some noteworthy observations Jenny, Eugenia and Eric made in the forest on a recent visit included Northern cardinals, mayapples and an Eastern cottontail rabbit.
This small native songbird is a familiar sight year-round in Baltimore—as well as throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed and Eastern U.S. Male and female Northern cardinals have the same short, sharp, red-orange beak, black face and tufted head, but males are bright red all over while females' feathers are mostly pale brown with hints of red. They form monogamous pairs and nest in dense bushes and brush, often near streams. Their diet consists of seeds (which their beaks are well adapted for cracking) as well as berries, small fruits and insects. Cardinals are the state bird of seven Eastern states, including Virginia and West Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Most cardinals live their entire lives within a mile of where they were born.
Fairwood Forest has a large and growing patch of native mayapples that bloom in spring, usually beginning in March and ending in May. Mayapples have sparse, round, yellow-centered blooms with petals that range from creamy white to pale pink, and are often hidden by the plant's large, green, umbrella-like leaves. They prefer healthy soils and produce a fruit that supports local wildlife from squirrels to box turtles. Mayapples are common throughout the mid-Atlantic and can be found as far north as eastern Canada and as far south as Florida.
Tulip poplar are hardwood trees that are native to Maryland, common throughout the eastern U.S., and among the largest trees found in North America. They can grow to nearly 200 feet tall and their straight trunks can measure more than 20 feet in circumference at the base. These trees have distinctive broad, lobed leaves and produce cup-shaped flowers from April to June. The flowers' wide petals are pale green to yellow rimmed with orange at the base; inside is a cream-colored cone surrounded by several thin, upright stalks. These flowers produce nectar used by bees, and tulip poplars are host plants for Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies and several species of moths.
Cottontail rabbits are common throughout Maryland. Their fur is mostly a light, mottled brown along their heads and bodies and white on their bellies. They have big, dark eyes, tall ears and a small tuft of white fur for a tail. Eastern cottontails are active at dawn and dusk throughout the year. During the day, they tend to stay hidden. Eastern cottontails are herbivores, feeding almost exclusively on plants.
Maryland has several species of native grapes, which are often mistaken for invasive species. One is called the frost grape, which has broad, heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges, and clusters of tiny fruit that turn from an olive-green color to a deep blue-black as they ripen. Tendrils on grape vines allow the plant to climb, wrapping around branches and other supports. Birds and mammals feed on wild grapes and some birds nest in grapevines. Wild native grapes are safe for humans to eat but have a much more sour taste than cultivated grapes.
"We tend to think that nature is found in big, open spaces out in the wilderness, very far from urban cities and where people live," Jenny said. "The larger biodiversity and ecology of a place is a patchwork. Fairwood Forest shows not only the environmental benefits one piece of that patchwork can have, but it also shows the human aspect as well. Fairwood Forest did not come to be because a government agency is preserving it. It came from the most grassroots efforts possible. Anybody can be empowered to do something similar to a space they're connected to and love."
Stay tuned for more stories in our Aquarium Inside Out series!
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