Wednesday, January 11, 2006

C&O Canal Midwinter Count

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal runs parallel to the Potomac River for 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to Cumberland in Maryland. The canal was originally conceived as a major transportation artery between the ports of Washington and Baltimore on the Atlantic coast and the northwest hinterland in the Appalachians and beyond. Unfortunately the construction of the canal was beset by delays, and it was obsolete before it was completed. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad connected the start and end points of the canal sooner than the canal did. Other canals such as the Delaware and Raritan in New Jersey and the Erie in New York managed to be successful transportation systems despite competition from the railroads, but the C&O never really took off.

Fourteen years after the canal ceased operations in 1924, it was purchased by the federal government as a recreation area. In the 1950s, with the restoration project still dormant, the government proposed filling the canal and turning it into a scenic highway. This project never came to fruition, thanks in part to the efforts of Justice William O. Douglas, who led a hike along the length of the canal to publicize its natural beauty. Instead the canal was transferred to the National Park Service. It is now used for various forms of recreation: hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing - and birding.

Since 1999, the D.C. Audubon Society has sponsored a midwinter count along the length of the C&O Canal. The goals of the count are twofold. First, it seeks to establish what birds are using the national park, which could be valuable in management decisions. Second, because the canal crosses several geographic regions, it provides a cross-section of the bird population in Maryland in the depths of winter. An added benefit is that the canal cuts through some areas of Maryland that presently do not have CBCs, so there is at least partial coverage of the winter population in those areas. Past results from the survey - both numbers and analysis - may be found here.

Many of the miles are already claimed, but gaps remain. Anyone who is interested in participating should see here for further information. Counters of all levels of experience are welcome; the more eyes the better. As with Christmas Bird Counts, less experienced participants will be teamed with experienced sector leaders.

The canal, drained for the winter