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Features (Creature Feature)

Its bite can kill a horse

Beware the brown recluse.    
    The spiky-legged brown recluse grows as long as three-eighths of an inch. A violin shape marks its back. Its bite is devastating. I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.
    A big, warm-blood, show horse on my Southern Anne Arundel County farm was bitten on the leg by a brown recluse. After more than two months of treatment, she had to be put down.
    In animals and humans alike, the characteristic signs of this spider bite are blistering and swelling at the bite site and surrounding area, followed by skin necrosis and peeling, leaving a deep, exposed area that may need skin grafts to heal. Treatment can go on for weeks, as Philip Angell of Annapolis found out.
    About a decade ago, Angell was tidying up a woodpile in his yard in early May. He wore long pants but only clogs on his feet, allowing a brown recluse to bite him on the ankle. He didn’t know he had been bitten until he noticed a red, hard spot as he was showering. He applied hot compresses until it was time to go out that evening. By the next day, the spot was redder and harder, and by the third day, infection was setting in, prompting an emergency room visit.
    At the hospital, the doctors recognized the spot as a brown recluse bite. The wound was lanced, then drained and scraped, then Angell was put on intravenous antibiotics in the hospital for several days. Before going home, he was fitted with a contraption that he kept on for 10 days, enabling twice-daily drips of antibiotics, each session lasting an hour. The treatments were successful, and today Angell has only a small scar to show for his experience.
    The bite of the brown recluse is distinctive, but it’s best if the spider is seen and captured for identification. Wounds may be wrongly attributed to a snake or black-widow spider, and treatments may vary.
    I found my horse killer in a pile of towels and saddle pads waiting to be laundered, near the horse’s stall. After killing the spider, I slid it into a plastic bag to await identification.
    Sarah Gorczyca of Home Paramount Pest Control confirmed the identification. Encounters seem to be trending, she reports, with calls concerning brown recluses coming in from Edgewater south through Calvert County.
    Maryland is not these spiders’ natural habitat. They concentrate in the central and southern United States but may hitch rides on vehicles.
    Wherever they settle, brown recluses build irregular, loosely constructed nests in dark undisturbed areas. Their nest serves only as a retreat and a place for the female to lay her egg sacs. As their name implies, they are reclusive and do not like to come out of their webs except at night to hunt for food. Thus they may reside in close proximity to people and animals and never cause problems. While not aggressive, they will bite if accidentally touched or pressed against.
    Look for these spiders in shoes and boots, in piles of clothing or laundry lying on the floor, in basements and garages, and under leaves and mulch.
    Human bites remain infrequent. This year, neither Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick nor Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis has treated humans bitten by brown recluses. In prior years, both have treated a few, including Angell’s.
    Small animal veterinary clinics have reported a few cases, some very serious. In one home where a dog was bitten, exterminators discovered hundreds of brown recluses nesting in the garage. The dog survived after months of treatment.
    For animals, prevention is difficult. They are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Call the exterminator if a brown recluse is seen.

Tundra swans return to Chesapeake Country

“The first tundra swans of the season have arrived in Columbia Cove, Shady Side.” Randy Kiser‎ posted the news on Bay Weekly’s Facebook page on Thursday, Dec. 13, documenting their arrival with this photo.
    Two mornings later I saw the snow-white birds at Fairhaven marsh pond, three on Saturday, then eight on Sunday.
    Swanfall is Bay chronicler Tom Horton’s word for this moment in time, coined for his 1991 book with photographer Harp: Journey of the Tundra Swans. “The birds seem almost to drop from the sky,” he writes.
    They do drop upon us, suddenly here. Some time in March, they will leave us. Last year their going was late, after the osprey had made their March 17 arrival. Their going is never quite such a surprise, for they talk about it, gathering flocks barking like dogs for days before the big pick up. They leave from here, familiar after four months feeding and basking in our temperate clime.
    After eight months’ absence, their arrival out of nowhere is always a surprise. Like the snow they come from the frozen north, big white flakes falling from the sky.
    Swansdown, I call it, after the soft white powdery cake flour of the same name.
    Indeed, there’s a lot of air, feathers and down about a swan before you get down to flesh and bone, all eight to 24 pounds of it. Still, they are big birds, four to five feet long with 66-inch wingspans. Unlike ducks, which could, from a distance, be any old mallard or a rare visitor, tundra swans are unmistakable. Size, neck length, and color — even to their all-black bills and feet — give them away. So do their vocalizations, loud calls of hoonk or woo-hoo.
    Not as gainly as snow is the feet-first landing that has them walking splashily on the water for some distance, wings akimbo, before settling into grace. Take off requires effort too, as they run across the water before lifting on powerful whistling wings. From which comes the nickname whistling swan.
    These annual arctic visitors and their gray-scale cygnets need a clean Bay, full of grasses and clams, to make their 4,000-mile trip worthwhile. That’s our job.

Hibernation is convenient when you live in a shell

Wiggling antennae poke out from under coiled shell of the second-most prolific species on earth, the gastropodal snail. On land and in oceans and freshwater, 43,000 snail species live. North America has 500 land species, which brings them, usually stealthily, to all our gardens.
    But you won’t see them this time of year, for many snails hibernate from October until April. Hibernation is convenient for snails as they carry their beds on their backs. In dry areas, snails can hibernate for years.
    Covering their bodies with a thin layer of mucus to prevent drying out, snails live off the stored fat in their bodies. They dig a small hole in the ground and bury themselves or find a warm patch to slumber the winter away. Then, they close off the entrance of their shells with dried mucus — called an epiphragm — that hardens into tough skin. This snail-made mucus door prevents predators from harming them during hibernation and keeps them warm and cozy all winter.
    The epiphragm is usually transparent and sometimes glues the snail to a surface, like a shady wall, rock or tree branch. In hibernation, a snail’s heart slows from about 36 beats per minute to only three or four, and oxygen use is reduced to one-fiftieth of normal.
    Snails often group together over winter. If you find one, expect many more in that protected hiding place. They burrow under loose flaps of bark, behind stacked paving slabs, around planters and pots and in gaps and holes in walls.
    “I retire within myself and there I stop. The world is nothing to me,” said the snail in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Snail and the Rosebush. And with this, the snail withdrew into his house and blocked up the entrance.

Swine seek your Jack-o-lanterns

Maizie, Pumpkin and Scarlet love pumpkins. They devour them like pigs because, well, they are pigs. Now they want your leftover ­Halloween Jack-o-lanterns.
    Over 1.4 billion pounds of pumpkins are sold in the United States every year, 80 percent in October, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many are displayed at Halloween and at Thanksgiving, then tossed in the garbage. That’s a lot of rotting pumpkins. Pumpkins don’t decompose well in landfills, giving off methane gas as they break down, which plays a role in climate change, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
    So the trio of swine at Historic St. Mary’s City is doing its civic duty gobbling these big orange fruits.
    Historic St. Mary’s City is collecting pumpkins for the plantation pigs through mid-December. Deliver new or used squash to the bin outside the Visitor Center, 18751 Hogaboom Lane.
    Shriveled and carved retired Jack-o-lanterns are just fine by these swine. The carved grins and grimaces amuse the staff and satisfy the pig’s appetite, too. Either way, they’re full of vitamins.
    If you have large numbers to share, contact Aaron at 240-895-4978; aaronm@digshistory.org.

What to do when skunks move into the neighborhood

We’re a little worried about our new neighbors. They’re a well-dressed couple, but their reputation precedes them — malodorously.
    Skunks are more often smelled than seen. Now that we’re seeing them, can smelling them be far behind?
    Not necessarily, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It costs a skunk a lot of energy to spray a load of musk at you or your dog. That’s energy they’d rather preserve, especially this time of year when they’re fattening up for lean months ahead.
    Food is the most likely reason skunks are checking out the neighborhood. They’re omnivorous, glad to feast on mice, voles, your trash or the veggies growing in your garden.
    Except for their legendary spray, skunks are defenseless. With a full pouch of musk a week in the making, a cornered skunk wants only to escape. Encountered, it will try to run away. Next, it will try to warn you off by stomping its front paws. If that doesn’t work, it will turn around, lift its tail and spray.
    Though not 100 percent effective, Neutroleum Alpha works way better than smearing yourself with peanut butter or tomato juice:
1 quart fresh three percent hydrogen peroxide
1⁄4 cup baking soda
1 tsp dish soap as a degreasing agent
    Mix in large open container. While the solution bubbles, use it to thoroughly wash skin or fur. Then wash with soap and water.
    Better is to discourage skunks from moving into the neighborhood by securing your trash. Try placing ammonia-soaked rags in places that attract them.
    A final resort is hiring a trapper. You’ll pay for the service, and caught skunks will be euthanized under Maryland’s rabies vector law. Though they are seldom rabid, they rank as one of four main species that can carry the disease.


Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Nuisance Hotline: 877-463-6497.

Keep him in the lab and out of my kitchen!

Call him Drosophila melanogaster in the lab, where a century ago the fast-breeding creature helped scientists understand chromosomes and set out mapping genes.
    At home he’s the common fruit fly, aka the vinegar fly.
    Each autumn the tiny winged pests arrive in your kitchen. There they swarm, hovering intrusively over edibles you’d rather they had no part of. From the bowl of fruit to the compost container even to the fridge, they are with us. The tiny pests enter through open doors, windows, even screen mesh. Inside, they multiply.
    They’re here to stay until the frost, unless you take measures against them.
    Though they’re glad to drown in your glass of wine, the better trap is a paper funnel directing them into — but not out of — a bottle or jar baited with an ounce of wine or vinegar. If that doesn’t work, visit your hardware store for disposable fruit fly traps baited with nontoxic lures the flies like even better than your apples.

Find Lothian-grown pumpkins from around the world at Riva Farmers Market

Your search for the perfect pumpkin may end at the Anne Arundel County Farmers Market, where Ray and Sonja Wood of Lothian, with grandson Brandon Myers, offer a bumper crop of heritage pumpkins from around the world.
    Some are huge: not pumpkin-catapulting huge, but pumpkin-carving-contest-worthy. As Jack-o’-lanterns or on uncarved display, they’re great.
    Decoration was the couple’s original pumpkin plan.
    Ray, who grew up on a dairy farm, took up pumpkin-growing about 15 years ago to ease into retirement after a career as an electronics engineer. “It keeps us active, but it doesn’t pay much,” he says from the tailgate of one of the two pickup trucks he uses to haul the pumpkins to market usually starting in late September.
    But customers wanted pumpkins they could eat, too. Specific pumpkins. One wanted a Long Island Cheese pumpkin. Others followed with requests for pumpkins they’d grown up with. That launched the Woods into growing heritage pumpkins from all over the world, including France, Thailand, Italy and Australia.
    The Woods also grow gourds, which are purely decorative.
    Every year, they harvest about three acres of winter squash and pumpkins, including the green and orange Fairy Tale, Blue Hubbard, long and appropriately named Pink Banana, and one of Sonja Wood’s favorites, Galeaux d’Eysines, a warty French pumpkin that’s good in pies, soups and pumpkin bread.
    All pumpkins are, technically, squashes, but there are differences. Winter squashes tend to have a stronger taste and hold their shape better, Sonja says. Pumpkins, which tend to be milder, don’t retain their shape as well. Some, like Pink Banana, offer both ­qualities.
    The tough skins of winter squash and pumpkins help to preserve them through winter. Their mild flavor means they can be used in a variety of ways: soups, stews, breads and pies, or cubed and baked with a little butter, maple syrup and balsamic for a side dish.
    Food historian and heritage grower William Woys Weaver says that the darker orange flesh around the seeds is the tastiest part of the pumpkin.
    “There’s nothing here I don’t eat,” Ray Wood says. “My wife finds some easier to prepare than others.”
    Washed, dried and kept in an unlighted, cool (50-degree) area, pumpkins and winter squash will last for months. Cooked pumpkin, roasted or steamed, can be peeled, cooled and frozen for later use.
    Seeds are also edible. Roast washed, seasoned seeds for a snack. Or save the seeds and try to grow your own. Cucurbits cross readily, so you might be surprised by what develops; allow plenty of space for these vining plants.
    Find your perfect pumpkin at the market through October 25.

Scientists succeed in gene sequencing the nasty pests

The first one broke in on August 29. Throughout September, every warm, sunny day brought more. Wiggling though cracks a fraction of their size, smearing windows, crawling up walls, hibernating in curtains, under cushions, behind pictures and among magazines. As humans and dogs basked outdoors on the last Saturday in September, a persistent hailstorm of invasive brown marmorated stink bugs pinged house, windows and doors.
    Nothing stops them but the suction of a vacuum cleaner or Bugzooka. So armed, we’ll catch hundreds. But many more will live among us until they swarm again to leave in spring.
    “Few treatments deter Halyomorpha halys, the damage it causes or its ability to spread,” say investigators at the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
    “Growers consider the invasive stink bug to be the single most important pest in the mid-Atlantic region, and they have tried desperate measures, including the increasing use of broad-spectrum pesticides to control the problem.”
    They’re so pesky that Dr. Francis Gouin, the Bay Gardener, cut down his peach orchard rather than war with stink bugs over the fruit.
    Those bugs are pretty smart, but humans ought to be smarter.
    So University of Maryland geneticists and entomologists have devised a new strategy to quickly sequence the bugs’ genes. Their findings, they say, “could lead to new ways to control this abundant and costly pest.”
    The Maryland scientists developed a way to skip the time-consuming first step of breeding genetically identical individual animals in the laboratory. Instead, they managed to sequence and analyze all of the genetic variants that arose in their population of stink bugs, and to do so at all points in the insects’ life cycles, from the egg stage through late adulthood.
    “This is the first step in our ongoing work to develop a pest control strategy that employs molecular genetic techniques to manage the stink bug invasion without affecting other, potentially beneficial insects,”
says Prof. Leslie Pick, chair of the University of Maryland Entomology Department, who guided the research.

Southern migration underway

Say good-bye to an osprey — if you can find one. My neighborhood nests are all empty and their eerie whistle waded into memory.
    Beginning in mid-August, the fish hawks left their summer homes all along the Eastern seaboard for winter grounds in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
    Where osprey go we know from the work of osprey followers like Rob Bierregaard, who has tagged with transmitters birds all along the coast.
    Migration of his tagged birds began on August 14, one day short of the earliest migration date.
    Snowy, the first to head south, “was a bird on a mission,” Bierregaard writes. “She arrived back at her wintering area in northern Cuba just eight days after she left her staging area in Long Island.”
    Not all migrating osprey make a beeline. Many circle and dally for weeks at good fishing grounds.
    Doing things “the normal way” was Crabby, a young female osprey tagged by Bierregaard.
    “From Kent Island in Chesapeake Bay, she started south on August 25 at 10:55am,” he wrote. “She spent her first night at Kerr Lake on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Next stop was the Congaree Swamp just north of Lake Marion in South Carolina. She blew through Georgia and spent the night of the 28th in northern Florida and made it to the Everglades in southern Florida on the 29th.
    “That was the last we’ve heard from her, but this is pretty typical of our cell-tower birds. From here on, they can make it to South America without being near a cell tower (the only way we hear from them). We’ve had birds that we last heard from on the eastern coast of the U.S. in the fall only to have them show up again the next spring. But we’ve also had a remarkable number of cell-tower birds find towers in Haiti and down deep in South America.”
    Learn about migrating osprey and follow the migration at www.ospreytrax.com.

Disquise and foul odor protect this butterfly

    Caterpillar Survival Rule No. 1: Be disagreeable.
    Eurytides Marcellus, the Zebra Swallowtail, a striking butterfly in classic black and white, is Calvert County’s official butterfly. Whether chosen for its instantly recognizable good looks, for its clever defensive tactics or both, the Zebra’s admirers must decide; details of the mascotorial appointment are lost to history.
    Moving across the landscape in aerial scout fashion, the Zebra seldom settles for long. It lights near edges of puddles or ponds and favors zinnias, summer phlox and butterfly weed.
    The larva feed on foliage of the pawpaw, the American banana, a shrub or small tree once plentiful in the understory of hardwood forests. Smooth and light-green, the larva’s bulbous head and oversized eyespots imitate a snake. If disguise isn’t sufficient, when disturbed it flashes a bright orange, forked apparent tongue that emits a foul odor. This cunning caterpillar has Rule No. 1 covered.
    There is no chasing a scout on the wing, so I was pleased to snap this photo of the Zebra in refueling mode.
    Does anyone besides me see Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar? Or a dark-coifed fairy in zebra-striped wings?