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Features (Creature Feature)

Watch for babies and respect elders 

The common snapping turtle’s life history shows extreme longevity and perseverance.

They begin their life by cutting through an eggshell, digging through a half foot of dirt, then crawling up to a half mile to water. Many eggs are eaten by raccoons, and the tiny young are food for many animals, even other turtles. Living on a diet of insects, tadpoles and minnows, the young spend most of their time hiding in dense pond weeds.

The first two years of life are the hardest. Very few, maybe one percent, survive. 

Snapping turtles grow slowly, taking 15 years to reach maturity. Their lifespan is unknown, but some tagged individuals have been over 100 years old and weigh close to 90 pounds. Locally, some have been up to 75 pounds. A large common snapping Turtle may well be older than you.

They are ambush predators, eating almost anything that comes along — and that list is quite long. They have been witnessed killing a raccoon, but generally they eat fish that swim too close to gaping mouths.

Through winter, snappers hibernate under water and frequently under mud.  

In the warm seasons, they mate. The female can store live sperm for several years, waiting until the conditions are right for egg laying. Starting in the late spring, female common snapping turtles laden with up to 75 eggs haul themselves out of the safety of water to find an area suitable for laying eggs. The nesting area can be up to a half-mile from water and uphill.

On their journey, you might see them crossing roads, laying eggs in gardens, hissing at pets and blocking trails. As for human contact, for the most part they are shy, but when cornered they can be very aggressive. Their strong jaws can cause serious damage to hands and feet.

To rescue a large snapping turtle crossing a road, either use a shovel to lift it or toss a towel onto the head and back and pick it up by the sides of the shell. Picking it up by the tail can tear the artery going into the tail and cause the animal to perish. Some people are able to pick them up by the shell at the area where the back legs go in, but there is a risk of getting bitten or scratched. Move the turtle in the direction that the turtle was already going.

Mid to late summer is the time the turtles hatch from their underground nests. They are a little more than an inch long and look like a clump of dirt or a partially smashed acorn. The hatchlings are usually only noticed when they move or are discovered by a pet. If you find a baby turtle, move it to a nearby body of fresh or brackish water. Snappers cannot survive the salinity of the ocean.  

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.

A Bay Weekly conversation with writer, birder and ­educator Katie Fallon

       Ewww, vultures! How can you stand them?
      Katie Fallon, who finds lots to love about those bare-headed carrion-eaters that so many find fearsome and disgusting, has heard it all before. Fallon is a vulture advocate and in the business of changing minds. So she hopes her March 21 audience at Quiet Waters Park will leave with a new appreciation for the birds and the role these fabulous flyers play in our ecosystem.
       Writer, birder, educator and parent, Fallon gives the first John W. ‘Bud’ Taylor Wildlife Lecture, hosted by the Anne Arundel Bird Club to honor the beloved naturalist and artist, who died last year.
       Fallon’s love of vultures goes deep. She cofounded the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, which annually treats more than 300 injured birds, including turkey vultures and black vultures. Now she’s written the definitive book — Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird — on vulture life, love and parenthood, with the latest science on these common but misunderstood creatures. 
       Here’s a preview of what to expect at her lecture.
 
Bay Weekly Your first book, Cerulean Blues, was about a tiny, beautiful, elusive and threatened bird, the cerulean warbler. Your new book is about a large, ubiquitous bird that few could find handsome. Your new book’s title calls them “unloved.” Why? 
Katie Fallon I, of course, love them, and a lot of people do. But if someone calls you a vulture, it’s not a compliment. Vultures in cartoons are always the bad guys, and if someone is greedy or underhanded, they’re often called a vulture. People find their eating habits disgusting, but that doesn’t make sense to me; it’s not as if humans eat live prey. I wanted to write something that showed their “disgusting” habits in a un-disgusting way. 
         Vultures do a really important job of cleaning up all of our dead stuff, and they’re super efficient. They can very quickly remove dangerous pathogens from our ecosystem. Between the acid in their stomachs — which has a pH approaching battery acid — and the powerful bacteria in their guts, their digestive systems destroy anthrax, botulism toxins and cholera. They completely neutralize anything dangerous in an animal carcass.
 
Bay Weekly Two species of vultures are common in the U.S. Why did your book focus on turkey vultures? 
Katie Fallon I like black vultures, but when I started writing about vultures around 15 years ago, I didn’t see many black vultures in West Virginia. Turkey vultures were all over the place and came into rehab much more often, so I was more familiar with them. Black vultures have been moving north and are now more common. A non-releasable black vulture named Maverick lives at the rehab center, and he’s very outgoing. My kids, 3 and 5, are able to feed him by hand. He never bites. He has a neat personality that’s totally different from the turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are, in general, more timid. 
 
Bay Weekly Why do black and turkey vultures hang out together? 
Katie Fallon They’re both social, and they both like to be where there’s a reliable source of carrion: near roads. They both seek good winds so they don’t have to spend valuable energy flapping. Black vultures will often follow turkey vultures to food because they don’t have the excellent sense of smell that turkey vultures use to find carrion. 
 
Bay Weekly Why have black vulture numbers increased? 
Katie Fallon I think climate change is definitely a reason. Both turkey and black vultures probably originated in the tropics. As the world gets warmer, it keeps road-killed animals from freezing. We have more cars and roads than we used to, so more animals are killed. Black vultures tend to roost in urban areas, where the pavement creates heat islands. Ranchers used to blame vultures for spreading diseases among cattle, and the birds were killed in huge numbers. Now we know that the opposite is true. And now vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 
 
Bay Weekly What are other misconceptions about vultures?
Katie Fallon Turkey vultures are often accused of killing pets and livestock. While black vultures occasionally kill weak and dying animals by pecking, turkey vultures do not. Both vultures have big, flat chicken feet incapable of grasping. People will say, I saw a turkey vulture carrying off my neighbor’s cat. That’s biologically impossible. But they get blamed for that kind of stuff a lot. 
 
Bay Weekly When people want to repel vultures — could you talk about that?
Katie Fallon Some people want to get rid of their vultures. I can’t understand why (laughs). Vultures like to roost on communication and water towers, and the droppings are pretty acidic and can damage equipment. To get them to move somewhere else, sometimes hanging balloons will work. A town in Virginia hung an inflatable killer whale on their water tower, which apparently deterred their vultures. Vultures don’t like sprinklers. Flare guns and fireworks sometimes work to make them relocate. But often if you scare away one group, another may come in to that same good spot. In the fall and winter, vultures roost together, but it’s not a permanent settlement. In the spring and summer they’re busy raising young. 
 
Bay Weekly You write that our turkey and black vultures are doing well, but vultures in other parts of the world are in trouble. 
Katie Fallon Yes. Asia and Africa have many vulture species adapted to eating the large animals there. In Africa, herdsmen will poison the carcasses of cattle, with the intention to kill predators that might threaten the living livestock. Vultures will die as unintended targets. Also, people who poach elephants or rhinos will often poison the carcass after they leave it, so that when vultures land and eat they die instead of congregating in the sky and alerting authorities to the poached animal. There are cases of 70 vultures dying on one poisoned carcass. 
 
Bay Weekly How can we help ­vultures?
Katie Fallon Don’t buy ivory. Notice vultures, learn about them and appreciate them. Don’t hate them! Vultures are a good introduction to birdwatching. They’re big, easy to identify and they group up in impressive numbers. Go to a vulture festival and spend money there. There are several vulture festivals across the country.
 
 
Wednesday, March 21, 7-9pm, Quiet Waters Park Blue Heron Center, Annapolis, refreshments served: 410-222-1777: $5 suggested donation w/books available for purchase and signing.

Calvert Marine Museum scientist helps solve the mystery of the ­plesiosaur’s teeth

       Saur, from the Greek, tells you it’s some kind of lizard, likely a dinosaur, as that’s this suffix’s common use. There’s little else familiar about this Plesiosaur — except its connection to Calvert Marine Museum.
     First, the introduction: Plesiosaurs are stout-bodied, long-necked lizards, from the age of dinosaurs that propelled themselves through their oceanic environment using four flippers.
     Then the connection: It’s not the ancient ocean that is now our Chesapeake. Rather it’s the Museum’s man on such ancient environments, paleontologist Dr. Stephen Godfrey. With an international team of paleontologists from Chile, Argentina and the United States, Godfrey found a plesiosaur from long ago Antarctica that was rather like a whale.
     Instead of a marine predator, like other plesiosaurs, this saur was a strainer feeder like baleen whales, creatures that did live in the Miocene Chesapeake.
     Teeth were the clue that tipped off the team led by F. Robin O’Keefe a globally recognized scientist specializing in Mesozoic marine reptiles. The tiny teeth in the fossil’s lower jaw pointed the wrong way. Nor did they meet tip to tip as in all other plesiosaurs, instead lying together in a battery that acted in straining food particles from the water. This feeding style is unknown in other marine reptiles.
     It may, the scientists concluded, be an evolution “linked to changes in ocean circulation brought on by the southward movement of Antarctica during the Late Cretaceous period.”
     Visitors to Calvert Marine Museum can see what this pivotal plesiosaur likely looked like.

Holly Lanzaron’s picture tells a whole story of a new family

Amid the ordinary, Holly Lanzaron chanced upon the extraordinary. In a shopping center parking lot in Deale, on the crushed stone, a mother killdeer sat hatching four speckled eggs.
    “We didn’t know that she was nesting right away,” said the Southern Middle-Schooler on Deale Elks Club’s sponsored photo safari with Muddy Creek Artists Guild mentor Bea Poulin and Hannah Dove. “At first we thought that the bird was wounded and could not fly.”
    Strange as the sight seemed, it’s not strange for killdeer. The mid-sized plover whose name imitates its cry loves open areas. You see these long-legged birds scampering across lawns, golf courses and, yes, parking lots. For nesting, they like the ground, dirt or rocks and belly out a little depression to which twigs might later be added, as you see in Holly’s photo.
    To protect her open-air nest, Mother Killdeer uses several strategies. Thus, as she noticed the approaching trio, Holly recalls, “she let out a really loud scream that hurt our ears.”
    Another strategy is the broken-wing feign, also displayed in Holly’s photo.
    “We did end up spooking her,” Holly says, “but she did not want to leave her eggs.”
    To photograph the brooding bird, Holly “shot from a distance and zoomed in really close.
    “It was one of my best photographs,” says the young shutterbug, “and I am proud of it. The bird has eggs under her, and this shows she is starting a family.”
    Look at Holly’s picture, and you’ll know exactly how killdeer look: red-rimmed eye, mottled brown head and wings, white breast, two distinctive black neck rings and unfeathered three-toed feet. You’ll also see her habitat and brooding behavior. It’s quite a story this picture tells.

Hannah Dove, Bea Poulin and Holly ­Lanzaron. While on the Deale Elks’ photo safari, Lanzaron photographed this mother killdeer in a parking lot.

It’s not all peanuts and mints for the Naval Academy’s Bill the Goat

The Naval Academy’s mascot is a fighting goat. That goat’s name is Bill, after a pet kept by the first president of the Naval Academy Athletic Association. The emblematic mascot is fashioned after the actual animal as embodied over the years by more than 37 goats. The first goat was only a skin, the remainder of a loved ship goat, and worn by naval officers as they danced for the crowd during halftime.
    Since 1893, Bill has been a living goat who embodies the fighting spirit and tenacity of the Navy. To find that mascot, the Naval Academy took out a newspaper ad reading “WANTED: The meanest and fiercest goat possible …”
    Today Bill is not one goat but three, all white Angoras that weigh about 200 pounds at maturity.
    The Bills’ whereabouts are kept secret because of repeated kidnappings, typically by the rivals at West Point.
    Even the identity of Bill the Goat’s caretakers — who “are chosen because of their great love for these animals,” says U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Walter E. ‘Ted’ Carter — is kept a secret as part of a great tradition.
    Yet I managed to get a glimpse into that mysterious world in an impromptu exclusive interview with a caretaker who’s name we’ve ommitted for the safety of all concerned.


Bay Weekly Which goat is the most trouble?

Bill Caretaker    The blue-eyed goat, No. 33, is the naughtiest.


Bay Weekly What is Bill’s typical lifespan?

Bill Caretaker    Twelve years.


Bay Weekly How did current goats, Nos. 33, 34, 36 and 37, come to the U.S. Naval Academy?

Bill Caretaker    Bills 33 and 34 were donated by a farm in Pennsylvania and are now retired. Bills 36 and 37 are gifts from the Texas family of an army helicopter pilot, who wished he’d gone to Navy. They are now the active Bills.


Bay Weekly Tell us an interesting fact about the goats’ home life.

Bill Caretaker    The Bills are kind of like dogs. Because we get them so young, they like to follow you around and love attention. The Bills also enjoy snacking on peanuts and mints.


Learn more about Bill at the new exhibit in the Naval Academy Visitor Center, established in honor of all the past Bills but in particular the late Bill 35 whose blanket is framed and on display.

Keep an eye out for this nasty pest

It all started with the best intentions. Kudzu, a plant native to Japan, was imported to the southern United States in the 1800s to enrich soil depleted by tobacco. It then came to Calvert County to prevent erosion, stabilizing the Calvert Cliffs. Wherever it came, the woody vine with distinct three-lobed leaves brought problems.
    It’s for good reason that kudzu is known as the vine that ate the South, for it can grow up to a foot a day in temperate climes with mild winters, a category that Maryland falls into.
    Now, we get to worry about the kudzu bug. Megacopta cribraria, an oblong olive-greenish bug with brown freckles, has made its way from Japan to our shores. How it came is a mystery; what it’s doing is not.
    The bug is partial to the kudzu plant but its appetite extends to other relatives like wisteria (an invasive that ought to be eaten) and legumes like soybeans.
    “The soybean is most closely related to the kudzu, as can be seen in the leaves of both plants, which is why the bug potentially poses a big threat,” says Bill Lamp, University of Maryland entomology professor.
    The kudzu bug is a relative of the stinkbug, releasing a similarly unpleasant odor when disturbed. Worse, they also leave a stain and can cause skin irritation. The kudzu bug likes to seek shelter in the siding of homes over winter. In the South, they’ve been reported to have swarmed whole communities.
    If you see a kudzu bug, report it to the Maryland Department of Agriculture Plant Protection and Weed Management hotline: 410-841-5920; extension.umd. edu/learn/ask-gardening.

Those talons are sharp!

As an aide at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Nature Center in Calvert County for almost nine years, one of my duties was to feed the barred owl. The owl was blind, or nearly so, due to a collision with a car. Each morning I would take a couple of mice out of the freezer and put them on a plastic plate to thaw. Before closing I would take the now-thawed mice out back, enter the walk-in cage and touch the plate to the owl’s chin. The owl gobbled down the mice, whole, of course. I accomplished this simple task hundreds of times.
    If there were visitors, I invited them to join me for owl feeding. Among them was a group of excited Cub Scouts who packed, nose to wire, around the cage.
    That day the owl changed our routine. As I lifted the plate, he flapped right onto my head, gripping hard with those wonderfully adapted talons.
    I am nearly bald and I take blood-thinners. You can imagine the scene, including the bulging eyes and wide-open mouths of 15 gasping Cub Scouts.
    The bird promptly returned to his perch. I’m not sure if I gave him some help or not.
    The repair at the emergency room was simple. Some antiseptic, a few band aides and a couple of shots.
    That is my only claim to fame: An owl landed on my head.

Citizen scientists join the search for other life forms

With summer comes longing for adventure. Motivated to engage with nature and be a part of something bigger, I signed up to study the parasite Loxo and mud crabs at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
    Small by any standard, the white-fingered mud crab, aka Atlantic mud crab, is “small as a flea” or large as an inch, according to Smithsonian scientist Alison Cawood. This small crustacean plays a large part in our Bay’s ecosystem. A key indicator species, it preys on oysters, barnacles and worms, at the same time serving as a snack for birds, fish and other critters.
    It is also the unwilling host of a “bodysnatching parasite,” an invasive species called Loxothylacus panopaei. A pointy headed member of the barnacle family, Cawood explains, Loxo burrows into the mud crab during its molt, when it’s most vulnerable, and hijacks its body. It does this dastardly deed by injecting fewer than 200 cells into the crab’s nervous system. Once in, these cells take over. The crab becomes “a barnacle in a crab suit.” Loxo even uses the crab to carry its offspring, parasitic larvae, in its external sack.
    With a five-minute instructional how-to and tiny forceps, our group of 12 pull mud crabs out of small milk crates filled with mud and oyster shells, all gathered from sample sites on the Rhodes River. The result of our intricate game of I Spy is a jar full of lively crabs to be further studied for zombification by scientists and lab-certified volunteers.
    Our final task is to check another team’s milk crate remains for missed mud crabs. These crabs would be not only examined for the virus but also cataloged by number and size for another ongoing study.
    We volunteers were the subject of that second study, our accuracy factored with age, time spent, educational level and previous field study experience. This is important for Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which depends on some 6,000 hours annually of volunteer research in its ongoing studies.
    If you take the time to get scientific this summer, you will learn odd things and find it rewarding. For upcoming opportunities for citizen scientists, check Bay Weekly’s 8 Days a Week.

This year, the winged swimmers are protected

One sunny afternoon with no breeze and the air hot and sticky, fishing was becoming a drag. We were ready to pack it in when the line zinged. With a leap of excitement, I grabbed the reel and began the labor of dragging the catch in. This would be no easy feat as the line doubled over.
    We were both tired when I lifted up my prize: a tiny baby cownose ray.
    This majestic giant of the Chesapeake is near and dear to my heart. As a girl, I have fond memories of watching their tips break a still surface of the morning water, like dancers. These schooling brown rays make our backyard their home when they arrive in early spring to mate and eat, through fall. Bottom feeders, rays do eat clams and oysters but not to the extent once believed.
    Because they were thought to be hungry hazards to some of our favorite resources on the Chesapeake, including crabs, rays were targeted for hunting and harvesting. Bow-fishing for rays became a niche sport.
    Now these creatures are protected by a moratorium through July 2019, passed unanimously by Maryland senators. The moratorium is timed to allow scientific observation and study of the species to see what effects these rays actually have on the aquatic ecosystem.
    When you’re out on the water this summer, catch a look at their effortless glides. If you happen to hook one, enjoy the fight, then carefully release it. Rays are strong and slippery with whip-like tails.