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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.  

This common bird has an attitude

       Early each morning spring, summer or fall, in marshes all over the United States, male red-winged blackbirds sing their hearts out, telling all what piece of the ground they claim.
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Black-backed gull is largest of its kind … and perhaps the meanest, too

     The great black-backed gull, the largest of its kind in the world, lives and nests along Chesapeake Bay. With a five-and-a-half-foot wingspan, these birds are much larger than the more common ring-billed gull or herring gull. These strong flyers are also very aggressive toward other birds.
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Now I know how this bird got its name

As the tide was falling in Boca Ciega Bay in Florida, I watched a bird called the American oystercatcher walk over the top of an oyster bar.  Covered by only an inch or two of water, the oysters were open and actively feeding. So were the oystercatchers, deftly stabbing their knife-like bills into an oyster, cutting its closing muscle and extracting the meat. When the tide was lower and the oysters closed, the birds loudly flew away.

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These aerial acrobats have the appetites of wolves

The hot summer months bring out hordes of mosquitoes and other flying, biting insects. One of the nemesis of the winged bugs is the dragonfly. Dragonflies are the wolves of the air. They are able to eat their own body weight in mosquitoes in an hour. Thus, a dragonfly can consume several hundred biting insects a day. 

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The red fox lives by cunning, guile and cover of night
 

Vulpes volpes, the subject of fairy tales and folklore, are in real life blamed for raiding chicken coops, killing pets and keeping people up at night with their cries. Red foxes have about three octaves of vocalization, and many of their sounds are unpleasant, even scary.  
    They are hunted with dogs and horses, poisoned and trapped for their skins. Yet still they remain very common.
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A living fossil spawns again
       Horseshoe crabs are more closely related to scorpions than to our blue crab. They are living fossils virtually unchanged over 250 million years. They were on earth before the dinosaurs.
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Their prayerful attitude is deceptive, for all three species are cannibals
      Three species of praying mantis live in Maryland: the Chinese, the European and the Carolina. As you can tell by the names, two are introduced species and one is native. All have a similar life cycle but differ a little in their preferred habitats.
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