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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.  

New life begins in tiny wet puddles

    In very early spring, melting snow and ice leave pools of water in the woods. By early summer, the pools dry up not to be seen until the next spring. The seasonal collections of water, called vernal or ephemeral pools, are the breeding ground for insects, crustaceans and amphibians of the woods.

Courtship is in the air for bald eagles

      Winter is the time that American bald eagles in Maryland start courting and making nests to raise a new family. The courtship period can be very dramatic. I have witnessed the drama only twice.

They try to avoid us, but their riverbank-busting helps save marshes

      Many times, I have walked along a riverbank and have been startled by both a large animal splashing at my feet and a collapsing shore edge. Muskrats are marsh-dwelling rodents that resemble large, thin gerbils and weigh up to four pounds. When they swim, their long tails swing back and forth in the water like a snake’s....

Birds of prey falling victim to poisoned rodents

     I have lived in the same neighborhood and driven to work south from Annapolis on Route 2 just shy of 30 years. As a lifelong watcher of birds of prey, I have observed over the years where certain birds maintain territories and nesting sites. In 1995, my neighborhood was home to two pairs of red-shouldered hawks, one pair of red-tailed hawks and a pair of Coopers hawks....

Dark-eyed juncos make their sudden appearance

     In Florida, “There’s a snowbird,” usually identifies an older person who spends only winters in the south.
     Around here, snow birds are actually little birds, called juncos, that seem to suddenly show up when it snows. 

Not all white animals qualify 

      A white deer is often sighted near Tracys Landing. A white-winged house sparrow lives around Ego Alley in Annapolis.

Get out and take a walk 

      Researchers at the University of Innsbruck in Austria compared the emotional wellbeing of walking outside in a natural setting to the same amount of exertion on an indoor treadmill.  Each group took emotional assessment tests before and after the exercise. Both research groups felt better. But, as you probably guessed, people that walked outdoors felt calmer compared to the indoor group and more relaxed for hours after....

Your unseen neighbor

       The DeKay’s brown snake is a very common but rarely seen tiny snake. Active in vacant lots and parks in the middle of cities, the reptile has been able to adapt to urban life. They live under logs, leaf litter and rocks, eating slugs and earthworms. The brown snake will get to be about a foot long, but its head is only about the size of a wooden match....