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Features (Creature Feature)

Scout lures wood ducks to Franklin Point State Park

Wood ducks are swamp-loving birds, so Shady Side, with its historical nickname The Great Swamp, ought to be the kind of place they’d like. All the more so Franklin Point State Park, 477 acres of wood and waterfront on the Shady Side Peninsula, where humans are welcome but not common.
    Wood ducks are welcome, too. To add curb appeal to the park, Boy Scout Reggie Scerbo, 18, of West River, has built and installed seven nesting boxes that satisfy the requirements of the picky and distinctive species.
    The medium-size dabblers have heads shaped like helmets and thick, upright tails. The males stand out like brilliantly colored harlequins. Less visible are the clawed toes that enable them to climb trees to nest in cavities. Lacking trees, they settle for nesting boxes built to just the right specifications.
    “The entrance hole had to face the water, regardless of compass direction,” Scerbo explained. “The height from the ground had to be about six feet, with an oval hole with a diameter of three by four inches. It is also important to put bedding inside the boxes, since wood ducks rely on the rotten wood that would be in a dead or dying tree. A predator guard is also important to keep out snakes, raccoons and other predators.”  
    Reproductive survival is low as the newly hatched ducklings are driven by instinct to flop out of the nest and follow their mother to the water. Nearly 90 percent of wood ducklings die within the first two weeks, mostly due to predation, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The vulnerable species was hunted nearly to extinction a century ago.
    Now humans are helping the species recover.
    Scerbo’s box is one of about 1,800 on Maryland public lands, from which some 8,000 chicks were anticipated in 2016.
    The Maryland Wood Duck Initiative recruits volunteers like Scerbo, offering training, site review and box location help as well as providing materials — cypress for the boxes and street sign poles for the supports.
    “Reggie figured out how to make it happen,” said West/Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland. “He worked with experts from the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative to get technical support, cleared the location with the Maryland Park Service and got the help of the Scouts of Troop 249 of Edgewater in assembling and putting in the right place.”
    The ducks helped Scerbo earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
    “We expect a wonderful impact on resurgence of this species in our habitat,” Holland said.

They’ll keep us company till the osprey return

Right on time, tundra swans
have dropped from the skies over Chesapeake Country like giant snowflakes. They are big birds, weighing 20 pounds or so in maturity with a six-foot wingspan.
    About December 1, perhaps I heard their raucous cries cutting through the dark of night. Four or five days later on Fairhaven pond, I saw a pair of white birds so big that they couldn’t have been gulls. December 10 the evidence was incontrovertible: a pair flapping over the pond, a couple pair more paddling through the water, skirting the skin of ice.
    That’s modern swan time; used to be they’d arrive reliably for Veterans Day, just as the osprey arrive reliably for St. Patrick’s Day.
    Tundra swans are creatures of cold weather, but the freeze in their Canadian nesting grounds sends them south in search of food. They come as families, parents and a cygnet or two, only four months old and making this two-month flight of thousands of miles from above the Arctic Circle. The big birds fly at about 50mph; they follow the freeze south through Canada, feeling along the way.
    The Chesapeake is a historic wintering spot, and they’ll stay with us from now until earliest spring. So you’ve lots of opportunity to meet them.
    See their loose Vs passing overhead, hear their bark and spy the huge birds close up as small flocks float on Bay marsh ponds and coves, long necks stretched to the muddy bottoms to harvest grasses, clams and other small mollusks. Long-distance flying is hard, hungry work, so it may take a while before those elegant, long necks rise to show you the species-signature black beak.

Why are pelicans still hanging around the Bay so late in the year?

Brown pelicans have become summer residents hereabouts, nesting on Smith and Holland islands in the southern Bay when the water is warm and fish are plentiful. This late fall, however, the big-billed birds have been sighted as far north as Ft. Smallwood Park and Ft. Armistead Park near Baltimore.
    “Seeing them that far north in the Bay in November is notable,” says David Brinker of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “I don’t remember observations like this in years past.”
    As for explanation, Brinker explains that last month was warm “so the waters of the Bay don’t seem to be cooling as fast as they generally do. This means that fish are more active than usual, so the pelicans can still find food easily. So they’re sticking around longer than normal.”
    In a typical year, pelicans start migrating south in late October or early November. Leaving Maryland, most pelicans end up in Florida or the Caribbean islands for the winter. Some go as far south as the northern part of South America.
    In the Chesapeake, pelicans nearly disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s because the pesticide DDT weakened their eggs. They didn’t return until 1987.
    Now, Brinker says, “We have somewhere between one to two thousand breeding pairs of pelicans every summer. I think part of the reason we’ve had this great expansion of birds is that they’ve discovered the great resource of the Bay ecosystem, especially the menhaden.”
    Odder still, a small flock of white pelicans winters at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.
    “Thirty to 50 birds have been spending their winters there for the past five or so years,” Brinker said.
    White pelicans spend their summers in the Midwest and west, nesting in freshwater wetlands, then typically wintering along the southern coasts of the U.S. and Mexico.

Once upon a time …

Step into the ancient Chesapeake, and you could have become a crocodile’s dinner. So it’s a good thing all those crocodiles were creature of the Miocene epoch (23 to five million years ago), gone long before Homo sapiens discovered the modern Chesapeake.
    Their remains, however, are still here, along the Calvert Cliffs, as well as in coastal states down to Florida.
    There avid fossil collector George Klein, of Chapel Hill, NC, got to know these ancient crocodiles, called ­Thecachampsa, whose length may have approached 30 feet. He’s gotten to know them in such detail — down to each of the 19 bones that compose their skulls, excluding the lower jaw — that he’s published a book on the beasts and their comparison to living American alligators.
    His book, published in digital and hard copies by Calvert Marine Museum, is of necessity skeletal, as bony fossils are all our two species of large crocodiles — Thecachampsa sericodon and Thecachampsa antiquus — left behind. Skeletal Anatomy of Alligator and Comparison with Thecachampsa is the kind of book you’d read as a fossil collector seeking to identify your finds.
    “I expect that this work will inspire on several fronts and further our understanding of extinct alligators and crocodiles by bringing new finds to light,” says Dr. Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the museum — and sponsor of its Fossil Club.
    That’s where you’d go to get to know crocodiles, great white sharks and many other ancient denizens of the oceanic pre-Chesapeake. You’d also meet human enthusiasts near and far as the club works with fossil collectors all over the world to advance the field of paleontology and grow the museum’s collection.
    Or you could wait a while and maybe see the real thing.
    “Although crocodilians have not inhabited northeastern North America in several million years, as global climates warm,” writes Godfrey, “perhaps they will someday re-inhabit coastal Maryland.”
    Take a look at all that remains of Thecachampsa at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/276/CMM-Publications.

Santa down the chimney, pests at the door

To give Santa a friendly welcome, have your chimney swept before he slides down on Christmas Eve.
    Other seasonal visitors to your home are likely to evoke less hospitable greetings. For as the chill comes on, creatures come in. Mice, for example. And the creatures that like to eat mice.
    There’s not much you can do to keep out a determined mouse. Mice can squeeze through the smallest of openings, gaps you never imagined and will likely never find. They’ll be happily active in the warmth of your home and will likely set up housekeeping before you notice them. Even if one doesn’t run over your foot, there will be signs: chewed linens in tightly packed drawers and, alas, tiny mouse turds.
    How to get rid of them?
    If your cats are anything like mine, don’t depend on them. After no luck with live traps, we’ve had to resort to spring traps. The Bay Gardener advises baiting the trap with sunflower seeds attached with a drop of glue from a glue gun.
    Winged invaders are trying to get in, too.
    Stinkbugs are much reduced by cold winters since the memorable invasion of 2011, when they came by the thousands. They derive their name from the foul odor they release when squeezed. Mostly harmless — though they do bite — they are a determined nuisance.
    Box elder bugs are also out and wanting in this time of year. With red bodies and black wings, they’re a prettier bug than the stink bug. They get their name from their favorite food, the juices of the female box elder tree, which may be covered with the bugs in early summer. Now, they want warmth. But if they come in, they’ll most likely have given up the ghost before Santa’s arrival.

DNR considers protections from bowfishers

Like osprey, cownose rays have abandoned Chesapeake Country for warmer climates. But they’ll be back late spring, finning through our waters to eat, mate and give birth. Baby rays are born, not hatched like their marine cousins, the skates.
    Does their proliferation endanger the recovery of our native oyster, both in the wild and in aquaculture operations?
    That’s been their rep in recent years, for favorite ray foods are oysters and clams.
    “Bay watermen and oyster farmers contend the creatures are threatening their livelihoods,” Rona Kobell reports for the Bay Journal. “An oft-cited 2007 study in the prestigious journal Science said the Atlantic ray population had ballooned because of declines in sharks, their chief predators. In the Bay, hordes of rays were blamed for depleting Bay oysters.”
    How to control them?
    Rays aren’t a high prestige catch in the Chesapeake. Snagged on a line, they give anglers a good fight. But then what are you going to do with a ray? Neither ray nor skate does much as a food fish in America, though both are considered fine fare in France.
    Bowfishers, on the other hand, have made rays a prime target, with tournaments highly popular.
    So popular that, Kobell writes, “biologists have grown concerned about the impacts of such unlimited carnage, noting that rays produce one pup a year and are slow to mature.
    “In the spring of 2015, animal rights groups began filming the tournaments to publicize the slaughter of rays, attracting local television coverage. The groups also began to pressure the governors of both states to stop the tournaments.
    “Advocates for protecting rays gained support earlier this year, when a new study contradicted the 2007 one and found they are not to blame for declines in oyster populations.”
    Now the kite-shaped creatures may be getting a little love.
    “Maryland Department of Natural Resources last month notified fishing groups that it was considering declaring the cownose ray a species “in need of conservation” and setting some first-ever harvest limits to protect them,” Kobell writes. “Last week, DNR called — quietly — for public comment on whether to place a limited ban on the controversial staging of bowfishing tournaments to slaughter the rays.
    What will happen next? That’s a story in progress.

This bird is worth a trip to Easton

Winter anglers in Chesapeake Country, mergansers — common, red-breasted or hooded — are diving ducks that keep birdwatchers guessing as to where they’ll pop up after their last dive. They hunt in packs underwater, herding fish into their serrated bills.
    The hooded merganser that’s just moved onto the grounds of The Academy Art Museum in Easton is a bird of another kind. Standing 16 feet high, this bird will be doing no diving. But he will disappear as his sapling frame disintegrates in time and weather.
    The creation of Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein, artists who call themselves the Myth Makers, is deliberately “ephemeral” and will return to nature in three to five years. It was finished November 5, constructed in about a week with the help of volunteers.
    Based in Boston, the Myth Makers have worked throughout America and around the world, creating monumental Avian Avatars in locations as diverse as on Broadway and Muskegon, Michigan. The merganser’s creation and the indoor exhibition of the artists’ works is sponsored in Easton by the Maryland State Arts Council, Talbot County Arts Council and the Star-Democrat, plus individuals and local businesses.
    Figuratively, the artists say their merganser represents a proud monument to independent thinking and bravery, in the spirit of Eastern Shore native Frederick Douglass, who said, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
    The mergansers will be there for a while; the Myth Makers’ other art only through February 26: ­academyartmuseum.org.

Four generations later, returning to a home they’ve never known

See a monarch this time of year, and you’re seeing an insect with superpowers. Passing through Chesapeake Country is the migrating fourth generation of the distinctive butterfly whose orange wings are patterned like leaded glass. The great-great grandchildren of last spring’s migrating monarchs, these featherweights are repeating the 3,000-mile journey to Mexico, flying on instinct.
    Leaving Chesapeake Country, these long-distance fliers funnel through Point Lookout, Maryland’s southernmost tip, before hopping over the 11-mile-wide mouth of the Potomac River, says Calvert County naturalist Andy Brown. Over the weekend of October 22 and 23, Brown netted and tagged 100 or so there.
    Thence, they continue inexorably southward.
    Their fuel for the long flight is autumnal nectar from such plants as goldenrod and wild aster. As they won’t be laying eggs for many months, they have no need of the milkweed that sustains larval monarchs.
    Before these endurance fliers become parents, they’ll have migrated to Mexico, overwintered in the Oyamel fir tree forests of the state of Michoacan, and flown north again. Their children will be born on the northward migration that will take three generations to complete. 2017’s fourth generation, like this year’s, will pupate perhaps as far north as Canada, perhaps as close as our own yards — if their parents found milkweed there.
    Remember these monarchs. Plant milkweed in your garden next spring to help the age-old fragile cycle ­continue.

Their night flights bring us treats, not tricks

Winging its way through the eerie gloom, the bat is a potent symbol of Halloween. Far from its menacing reputation in seasonal lore, bats’ contributions to the natural world are many and essential.
    In tropical and desert ecosystems, bats serve as pollinators for plants such as bananas, mangoes and the agave plant used to make tequila.
    Bat pollination is strictly a fly-by-night operation. Come sundown, these furry creatures take to the air in search of the trademark scent of rotting fruit emitted by bat-pollinated flowers. As bats sip the nectar on tap at these flowers, they get a face full of pollen, which they carry on to other flowers of the same species.
    Another important role played by bats is disperser of seeds.
    “As they fly through the rainforest, bats spread seeds to create new plants. Papaya and cacao are two plants for which seed dispersal by bats is particularly important,” says Devin Dotson of the U.S. Botanic Garden.
    Bats are also protectors of plants. As they devour insects in their nightly forays, they reduce pest damage and lessen the amount of pesticide needed to grow crops such as coffee and cotton.
    Maryland’s 10 native bat species are all insect eaters. One little brown bat can devour up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour.
    Protecting bat habitat is a good way to ensure that bats continue to thrive.
    “Bat houses are a great idea, and we encourage communities to get involved,” says Micaela Jemison of Bat Conservation International.
    To see live bats and learn more about them, parents and kids join Bat Bonanza at the U.S. Botanic Garden on Saturday October 29 (10am-5pm; free, no registration needed). For added fun, come in costume as a bat or a plant pollinated by a bat: www.usbg.gov.

It takes a lot of preying to make so big a bug

In summer’s abundance, praying mantises grow like corn.
    Emerging in spring warmth from their tan, papery egg masses, they are tiny, pale-green nymphs. By autumn, after several exoskeleton sheddings and many good meals, the tan, winged adults can be six or seven inches long.
    The habit of folding their long forearms gives the species the name praying mantis. They might better be called preying for they use those arms to grasp food, mostly other insects. Thus they’re good bugs for your garden. Their predation can include male mantises that, useless after mating, may be turned into food by the females making eggs for next year’s generation.
    Like corn, mantises mostly wait for their food to come to them, as they are ambush predators. With two protruding compound eyes and three small simple eyes, they see well. All the better as their flexible necks enable them to rotate their heads, almost 180 degrees in some species. Most of the members of the plentiful order are camouflage artists, with our praying mantises copying twigs. The unsuspecting bug that comes too close to this twig becomes dinner, held in those praying arms for devouring.
    Also like corn, mantises are ­annuals, productive for one season but doomed by cold weather.
    Corn has been harvested in most of our fields. But mantises are around a while longer.