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Articles by Wayne Bierbaum

Maybe that's because it's what this sparrow eats?

    Many animals are named by the sounds they make or the food that they eat. The grasshopper sparrow is named for both. These little birds live in grasslands from Canada to Florida, where they like to perch on any stick or fence and sing a song that sounds like a flying grasshopper. They also feed on grasshopper and other grasshopper-like insects.
    In the summer, they make nests by clumping grass near the ground. Thus their nests are at risk during hay cutting. Some farmers purposefully put off cutting while the birds are nesting. With fewer open grass fields, more grass cutting and many other reasons, the population has dropped 75 percent since 1968. The Florida sub-species is almost extinct.
    To help protect populations of grass-nesting birds and animals, most states have established large tracts of grasslands that are not cut until after nesting is finished. In Maryland, the largest tracts are at Fair Hill and Soldiers Delight, with a smaller grassland at Sands Road Park.

Don’t crowd this little bird off the beach

“The birds are taking over the beach.”     

            I heard that complaint as parts of a beach were being roped off because of nesting birds.

            The bird under protection is likely the tiny piping plover. 

            In the 1850s, piping plovers were very common along the East Coast and the shores of the Great Lakes. The population collapsed as they were hunted so their feathers could decorate women’s hats. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 stopped the hunting, and the population stabilized.

            With human development along the coast, the population was again threatened. By 1986, just 790 breeding pairs survived on the Atlantic Coast. That is when they gained protection under the Endangered Species Act. Even with protection, the most recent surveys still place the Atlantic population at fewer than 2,000 pairs. 

            Piping plovers nest in small depressions in beach sand. They lay their speckled, sand-colored eggs in depressions about the size of a footprint. The eggs are very hard to see.

            The eggs take 25 days to hatch, emerging at about the size and shape of a miniature marshmallow. The tiny chicks hide by freezing in place, as they cannot fly for another 30 days. Eggs and young are very vulnerable to predatory animals and to being stepped on or run over by motor vehicles and bikes.

            Adults also have difficulty feeding the chicks when people are too close. After the chicks have learned to fly, they are no longer as vulnerable. By September, the plovers start their migration south along the Florida coastline to the Bahamas.

            These little birds need space to survive as a species. Four thousand birds along the hundreds of miles of Atlantic coastline is not very many. Help them out by avoiding nesting areas, and keeping your pets out, too.  

One of Mother Nature’s wilder whims

       At North Point State Park looking for little blue herons, I was distracted by a female cardinal looking for insects in a nearby tree. Cardinals are generally seed-eaters but tend to look for insects when they have nestlings, so I thought she might lead me to her nest. Instead, when she was about 10 feet away, she grabbed a bright green beetle but immediately dropped it.

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A doting mother

      A family of foxes at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Sanctuary in Kent County, Delaware, had a series of tragedies four years ago. Two kits disappeared one by one, leaving a young male. The mother fox, called a vixen, became extremely protective. For several weeks the two were always together. She was frequently seen herding him to stay close to the den and grooming him.
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As babies, you wouldn’t know them
      Some say that the parents of juvenile little blue herons are lazy. Others think they are being smart to keep their young safe with other-species babysitters. You decide.
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Among terns, these regional rarities are the opposite of least 
      Over the past week, migrating Caspian terns have been flying around the Chesapeake Bay. These are the world’s largest tern. They have a 57-inch wingspan, making them larger than a ring-billed gull. The smallest tern, the least tern, has a mere 20-inch wingspan.
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Take a look at two of our neighbor snakes 

As the ground warms, hibernating animals start waking up. This past weekend, northern watersnakes and eastern garter snakes were rousing. I found several as I walked through a park in Baltimore County. Both are very common throughout Maryland and are non-venomous.
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Early flowers and early birds love this color

      The spring bird migration has started. Soon flocks of warblers will be looking for the emerging bugs. Because it is spring, their feathers will show breeding hues. The hue that seems the most startling and catches my attention is bright yellow.

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Like baseball rivals, these birds are regular springtime competitors

     Most Chesapeake eagles winter along the Bay and its tributaries. Osprey, on the other hand, spend the winter in South America. In the middle of March, osprey start returning to our area only to find that many of their roosting, fishing and nesting spots have been taken over by eagles. Osprey are able to reclaim territory because they are more agile in the air than eagles. They chase and hound eagles away from nesting areas. 
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This time of year, they’re on the move

     In deciduous forest areas throughout the eastern U.S., an early spring rain gets eastern box turtles on the move as males start looking for females.
     How do reptiles mate when they’re encased in hinged shells that can close completely and tightly? Mating works because in males the hinged bottom part of the shell, the plastron, is slightly concave. 
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