Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area, Western Maryland

Remembering a Committed Conservationist

Al Geis was an accomplished and persuasive man. A scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he did pioneering research on birds in urban settings, including discovering their food preferences. (You can thank him for pointing out that so many of our birds love to eat black-oil sunflower seeds.) He turned his farm into a wildlife sanctuary – and persuaded a neighbor in Howard County, Maryland, to set aside more than 1,000 acres of prime real estate as the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area. Geis could also be loud and pushy, particularly where conservation issues were concerned, and he tirelessly lobbied the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to create more of the young-forest habitat needed by a large group of wildlife, including the American woodcock.

“Woodcock were his passion. He was obsessed,” says his son Dean Geis, quoted in an October 2011 article in the Baltimore Sun announcing the establishment of the Aelred Geis Memorial Woodcock Habitat Demonstration Area at Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area in Garrett County. Geis died in 2007 at age 78. Says his son, “What better way to honor Dad’s life than by putting money into his life’s work?”

Helping Woodcock and More

Sign at Aelred Geis Memorial Woodcock Habitat Demonstration Area

A handsome sign honors Aelred Geis at the western Maryland habitat demonstration area set up in his name./R. Latshaw

Today this new demonstration area is helping the woodcock, whose population has been falling in the eastern United States by around 2 percent each year as the birds’ favored young-forest habitat has gradually become older forest. Woodcock need young forest for feeding and breeding – whether such habitat is created naturally, through wildfires sweeping across the land, beavers damming streams and killing trees, or storms felling forests, or by science-based habitat management. And when folks make habitat for woodcock, they’re also helping an array of other wildlife, including ruffed grouse, gray catbirds, Eastern towhees, several species of warblers, and a host of other birds, along with many mammals and reptiles. (To learn more about woodcock, visit timberdoodle.org.)

On 1,863-acre Mount Nebo WMA, conservationists are gradually turning more than 400 acres into prime young forest and shrubland. Divided into eight management units, the Aelred Geis Memorial Area includes old farm fields, wetlands grown up with alders, and forest with a variety of tree types and ages.

American woodcock on the ground

Woodcock love the new habitat being created at Mount Nebo WMA, as do a host of other wild creatures from reptiles to mammals./T. Flanigan

The management units were designated based on soils, slopes, and vegetation. The core of the woodcock area is a low wetlands dominated by speckled alder and other native shrubs such as highbush blueberry, elderberry, and willow. When this kind of habitat gets too old and too open, it stops being useful to woodcock and to birds like alder flycatchers, which rely on its thickness to hide their nests and to find food while avoiding predators. Habitat managers have begun cutting back the old, leggy alder shrubs, a procedure that spurs the plants’ root systems to send up tons of new, dense stems, renewing the habitat and making it once again a welcome abode for wildlife.

Timber Harvesting Part of the Plan

The conservationists have also cut trees in wooded areas – some of the logging produced revenue, some of it didn’t – and this, too, is benefiting for wildlife, because now the regrowing forest is thicker and denser, promoting that all-important combination of ample food in protective cover.

“It may not be the prettiest sort of vegetated landscape,” says Bill Harvey, a gamebird biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, “but young regrowing forest is incredibly productive for wildlife.”

Logging operations at Mount Nebo WMA

Logging took place in winter to prevent erosion and keep from damaging plants./R. Latshaw

Another DNR biologist keeping tabs on the project is Rick Latshaw, whose office is at the Mount Nebo Work Center, just across the road from the Wildlife Management Area. “When birders want to look for alder flycatchers in Maryland, this is one of the places they come to,” he says. (The alder flycatcher is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Maryland, along with 30 other kinds of birds, mammals, and reptiles that need young forest and shrubland.) “Mount Nebo is a popular destination for naturalists, thanks to all the habitat diversity here, which leads directly to a diversity of wildlife.”

Reports Latshaw: “We’re definitely seeing more woodcock following the first round of habitat management, which got underway in 2009. This spring I found alder flycatchers nesting in an upland area that had recently been clearcut.” Harvesting trees in upland habitats also benefits golden-winged warblers, which nest in areas thick with goldenrod and blackberry, plants that come back strongly following logging. Another creature using the regrowing woods is the smooth green snake, a colorful small snake that blends in with the spring and summer vegetation that grows so abundantly when forest and shrubland are refreshed.

Diversity is the Watchword

At Mount Nebo, managers mow grassy and weedy openings to keep them in an old-field state (that way they don’t fill in with forest: remember, diversity is the watchword when it comes to helping all wildlife). Woodcock use such openings for springtime breeding and for ground-roosting at night in late summer and early fall. Other birds, including wild turkeys and ruffed grouse, feed on the insects that appear abundantly in such open areas. Other wildlife-enhancing techniques in use at Mount Nebo include planting apple trees (many kinds of wildlife eat the fruit) and knocking back exotic invasive shrubs in favor of native plants that provide better food and cover for wildlife.

Diverse habitat types at Mount Nebo WMA

A diversity of habitat at Mount Nebo yields a diversity of wildlife./R. Latshaw

Tom Mathews, a biologist with the Wildlife Management Institute, helped plan the young-forest habitat work at Mount Nebo. Earlier in his career, Mathews worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and he remembers Al Geis well: “He was very dedicated to wildlife and wildlife conservation,” Mathews says. “But I have to admit there were times when he’d stomp by my office in Cumberland to chastise the department, and I’d cringe.”

Today one senses that Aelred Geis, conservationist and bird lover, scientist and environmental activist, would be properly impressed and downright overjoyed with the new young forest and shrubland being created in his name at Mount Nebo, and being flocked to by his beloved birds – including and perhaps especially the American woodcock.

Funding and Partners

Aelred Geis Estate, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Ruffed Grouse Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area is on U.S. Route 219 between Oakland and Deep Creek Lake. The WMA is across the highway from Mount Nebo Work Center of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Access is by foot along Mount Nebo Road, which heads west and downhill into the Aelred Geis Memorial Woodcock Habitat Demonstration Area. For more information, or to arrange a tour, contact biologist Rick Latshaw, 1728 Kings Run Rd., Oakland MD 21550, 301-334-4255, rlatshaw@dnr.state.md.us.