view counter

Features (Creature Feature)

Bats have a colony of mothers

Who knew that bats make excellent mothers? You and I do, thanks to Maryland Department of Natural Resources bat biologist Dana Limpert, who speaks highly of the brown bat.
    “They take excellent care of their young. If a baby falls out of the roost or is injured, the mother will recognize its calls and rescue it.”
    Myotis lucifugus is small, about three and a half inches with a wingspan of nine to 11 inches and weighing less than half an ounce. Their name comes from their long brown fur. Brown bats live throughout Chesapeake Country, especially near water for drinking.
    A female bat gives birth to one or two pups every spring, late May to early June, with twins common hereabouts. During pregnancy and after birth, mother and pups reside in a “maternity colony” that can range from five to several hundred of the winged mammals. Think about a Yaya sisterhood on an animal level.
    Babies not yet able to fly attach themselves to mom immediately after birth and feed on her milk for the first few weeks. When momma bat gets hungry, she leaves her pups in the colony cluster and goes out to hunt for bugs. Upon return she licks faces, recognizing her pups by scent and call.
    In a month or so, pups join their mother in catching and eating bugs.
    Recent developments in gene identification have shown that all members of a colony are related. Colonies live in tree trunks, caves and barns. Eventually — in the fall for females and a year later for males — the pups leave their mothers’ sides to start their own families. The mothers will rejoin their male counterparts in forming a bigger colony to mate, hibernate and begin the cycle anew.
    DNR wants to know if you see bats to help in population studies and preservation of the species, which is under fungal attack: https://tinyurl.com/DNR-bats.

Look up; they’re all around you

Drifting high across most landscapes this time of year, sometimes to altitudes of 16,000 feet or more, are airborne travelers that few people notice, though the fliers may number in the thousands.
    They are spiders seeking new ­territories.
    These ballooning or sailing spiders are generally the smaller of the many spider varieties and are borne aloft by winds on gossamer filaments, usually three, spun by the spider, forming a pyramid canopy that can carry them for miles, sometimes thousands of miles.
    Primarily a migratory activity, especially for young hatchlings, sailing or ballooning is a natural mode of transportation that disburses the spiders from their nesting or home site. When they are ready to travel, the spiders instinctually climb high in the trees or onto higher terrain and spin their webbing. Then, standing on tiptoes, they wait for the wind to bear them away.
    Because of their size they are difficult to see, but you can sometimes spot them on a sunny day by looking up for their long, silvery threads. On a recent fishing trip on the Chesapeake, we were rewarded by spotting a dozen or so of the travelers, a few of which found refuge on our skiff, disappearing into the nooks and crevices as soon as they landed.
    Aerial arachnids that come down on the Bay are not doomed, as they are so light that, with their naturally water-repellent feet, they can skate or scamper across the water’s surface, often to great distance, eventually reaching more hospitable territory. Or nature’s airborne rangers can spin new webs and wait to be carried aloft again.

Fish in the Classroom goes to college

Whoever heard of taking fish back to the water?
    Trout Unlimited did, and that’s why my Anne Arundel Community College environmental studies class of 25 students is carrying buckets of trout to the Little Paxtuxent River near Savage Mill.
    Trout Unlimited believes that the best way to conserve and create more coldwater fisheries is to partner with local hatcheries and release trout into local rivers. The fingerlings we release are Kamloops rainbow trout, grown from some 9,000 embryos supplied by the Albert Powell State Hatchery to be raised in classrooms across the state.
    In the national Fish in the Classroom program, trout are raised in low-income schools by kids who might not have another opportunity to understand water ecology and stream preservation. Teachers can ask to have their classes included in the free program.
    Rainbow trout are not Maryland natives, but they do provide good fishing and eating. Maryland’s native brook trout, a key indicator species, are greatly reduced because of urbanization and rising temperatures.

Atlantic ribbed and hooked mussels are Chesapeake’s Brita filter

Mussels are more than a seafood dish in buttery broth. Unlike those delectable mussels, our Chesapeake Bay mussels are small and tough. Our two native species, the Atlantic ribbed mussel and the hooked mussel, serve environment rather than appetite. Both are believed to be key indicator species of the health of the Bay.
    These filter feeders have a leg up on oysters. Due to their smaller size, they can catch the smaller plankton Picoplankton.
    In doing that job, mussels have been credited with filtering out twice as much plankton as do our oysters, Crassostrea virginica. That’s according to research conducted in 2015 by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists Denise Breitburg and Keryn Gedan and Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Lisa Kellogg (www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/mussels.php).
    “Hooked mussels were also twice as effective as oysters at filtering picoplankton,” says Breitburg. The tiny picoplankton are particularly abundant in the Bay in summer.
    Lifespans upward of 15 years mean our mussels have long careers. They do their work in the Bay’s most dynamic environments near the water’s edge, helping to reduce sediment. They are also part of the Bay food chain, feeding crabs, shorebirds and ducks.
    You might see these hard-working mussels on the roots of underwater grasses or on hard surfaces like oyster shells, pilings and boat bottoms.

Mr. Burrito finds his forever home

You’re working late one night, taking out the last can of trash when a large moving shadow across the street catches your eye. After pushing down the initial urge to run back inside, you recognize not a big rat or a small dog but a rabbit. Still, something isn’t adding up. This rabbit is much too large to be a garden-variety cottontail. A rabbit this big, and with a floppy ear, is bred to be a pet.
    You approach with caution, careful not to spook it. But it is carelessly headed toward a major thoroughfare while snacking on roadside debris.
    I don’t know about you, but I felt every nurturing instinct in my body waken as I burst into the restaurant kitchen yelling, “I need a carrot!”
    What follows is a quick-paced chase with slapstick humor, heart-pounding music and quick getaways. Despite carrots, my close approach sends rabbit under the nearest car, with me following.
    Rabbit would have been roadkill without a sidekick who joined me in a pincer move. Rabbit was caught by his scruff against a chain-link fence.
    Packed neatly in a fast-food box with a carrot, rabbit came home with me — and my Siberian husky — for the night.
    Next morning calls to local animal rescues and posts on Facebook Lost and Found Pets of Anne Arundel County turned up no missing rabbits. Poor allergic me was recued — as well as the rabbit, who made the husky very curious — by a friend with a farm and a vacant hutch.
    She said this was only temporary.
    Her roommate thought otherwise.
    Mr. Burrito, as he has been named, has found his forever friend, Sarah. The pair enjoys watching late-night television snuggling on the couch.
    Not every story ends up as well as Mr. Burrito’s.
    More than 60 rabbits were surrendered last year, according to Robin Catlett of Anne Arundel County Animal Control.
    To help prevent homeless bunnies, research the care and monetary commitments a bunny will need for an average life of 12 years.
    Never give a pet as a gift. Instead offer to pay for any fees and go with the beneficiary to make your gift an experience. Follow this rule with especial firmness at Easter time.
    Browse local shelters and rescue groups before buying from a store.
    Never abandon a pet. House pets are not bred to survive in the wild. If you can no longer care for a pet, call a local shelter or rescue group to surrender it.
    If you do see a rabbit in the wild and prefer not to give chase, you can call animal control, and an officer will assist you: 410-222-8900.

Spring’s sirens are sounding

The chirping call of spring peepers, Pseudacris crucifer, is my favorite sound of spring. Perhaps it was my upbringing in swampy Louisiana that draws me to frog songs. I often find myself rolling down the windows as I drive home along Muddy Creek Road in southern Anne Arundel County to catch a wave of springtime from the marshes and wetlands along the road.
    The chorus of these tiny frogs is one of our first harbingers of warmer temperatures and longer days. You’ll hear them long before spring’s official arrival.
    “It’s that time of the year, getting a little warmer,” says DNR’s Glenn Therres. “We heard them a couple of weeks ago. Then the cold front quieted them down. Now they’re itching to jump out and start singing.”
    Peepers spend the winter in hibernation, to the point of being frozen alive. Surprisingly, they can survive up to a week after being frozen. Their blood contains a biological antifreeze that prevents immediate death. Peepers emerge from hibernation once temperatures being their annual rise.
    The song we hear is the males’ inflating their vocal sacs to attract the ladies. Biologists think the females prefer the loudest singers. Their calls have been compared to a refrain of sleigh bells, and that’s music to my ears.
    While they are easy to hear, I can’t recall seeing a spring peeper. Trying to sneak up on one is near impossible as this species is primed to jump for its life.
    These high-pitched amphibians are tiny brownish-yellow, olive or gray frogs with a dark X on their back. They are also small; one can fit on a fingertip.
    “Listen and look for them in shallow-water ponds without fish; otherwise tadpoles become fish bait,” Therres advises. “They show up in wet depressions in woods and fields, sediment ponds, in almost any shallow body of water that persists for a couple of months.”
    After Romeo has wooed his Juliet, tadpoles emerge in two to three weeks, meaning more peepers to sing us into next spring.
    They are probably Maryland’s most common frog species, Therres says, “and definitely the most vocal.”

Due date gets earlier year by year

On the first day, he soars through the air in a rollercoaster dance, weaving the sky with his fish flight: the dance of courtship. On the second day, she is with him, perched comfortably in their solitary tower. The osprey have returned to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. This year’s return date was February 22.
    Isn’t that early? Don’t osprey usually arrive after St. Patrick’s Day?
    Not so, explains Greg Kearns, veteran naturalist at Patuxent River Park, across the river from Jug Bay. This year’s date is a reinforcing statistic in the steady, downward trend of the last 30 years. Just about every year, osprey have arrived earlier than the year before.
    Kearns may have the perfect explanation for this trend.
    “Birds are an ecological litmus paper,” said famous naturalist Roger Tory Peterson. Like those little color-changing strips for testing pH, bird behavior is a prime indicator of our changing environment.
    Osprey, in particular, are key adaptors. “They’ve been here for the last two to five million years, and they’ll likely still be here after we’re gone,” Kearns says. They know when it is the right time to soar on back to their summer stays. As our winters become warmer, the birds arrive earlier.
    And you don’t need to be concerned if winter weather returns for a few days. Osprey can withstand the cold, and their key food source, fish, have already begun spawning over this year’s warm winter months.
    To spot your first osprey of the year, head to the water. About 85 percent of the birds, recognizable by their brown and white plumage, nest in constructed towers close to docks and beaches.
    You’ll see them until late September, when they head back south.

Filmed in their natural habitat

Legendary in Chesapeake tributaries are spring spawning runs, especially of the season’s harbinger, yellow perch.
    See for yourself, with wonder, a video of spawning yellow perch in pristine water in the Upper Magothy River, documented this year by Magothy River Association volunteers and photographed by Chesapeake Bay Program’s Will Parson.
    The spawning run began on Monday, February 27. In hours, hundreds of fish swam up a narrow, clear stream called the Upper Magothy River in Pasadena, between Catherine Avenue and the Lake Waterford dam/fish ladder.
    The male yellow perch arrived first to locate spawning sites, and the females followed. Several dozen long egg sacks, called egg chains, were photographed in this part of the stream. Each egg chain contains 5,000 to 20,000 eggs.
    Yellow perch have been threatened by development runoff that degrades water quality in many of the tributary streams and creeks on the Magothy River. The Maryland State Habitat Protection Area law requires each county to protect yellow perch spawning habitat. It also requires the counties to improve water quality and limit development in HPA areas.
    “The tragedy is that this should have been declared a habitat-protected area years ago under the Critical Area Law,” says Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association. “Anne Arundel County chose not to, and now this spawning creek, perhaps the last in the county, is under attack by development.”
    Fishing is prohibited in the tributaries during the spawning months of February, March and April, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police have been enforcing this policy along the Upper Magothy River.
    To see the photographs and videos of the spawn, visit the Magothy River Association Facebook page or www.dropbox.com/s/7u9i43bwpjn6aoc/20170227-YellowPerch.mp4?dl=0.

Check out Calvert Marine Museum’s new otter and otter cam

They are otterly adorable. The two North American river otters, 14-year-old Chumley (aka Squeak) and year-old Chessie-Grace (aka Bubbles), love to romp and play throughout their habitat at the Calvert Marine Museum. Now you can see what’s going on behind the scenes in their indoor habitat when you can’t see these furry mammals in-person.
    A newly installed otter cam lets you experience remotely what’s up with these museum favorites seven days a week. Log in to get a peak: http://www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/375/River-Otter-Live-Cam.
    “Visiting in-person is always best, as the new lodging area includes a feeding panel that allows guests to get face-to-face with the otters while they dine,” says Dave Moyer, curator of Estuarine Biology. “When you need to get your otter fix, remember a great time to view the cam is during feeding times.”
    The indoor holding area where the otters reside has been updated with new nesting dens, play yards, an infinity pool and LED lighting.
    Plus a newly rescued otter from Louisiana has joined the exhibit.
    “He was extricated from an aquaculture pond,” Moyer explains. “On a fish farm, it is bad for business to have otters eating all your profits.”
    After acclimating and getting a clean bill of health from the museum veterinarian, What’s His Name may join Chumley and Chessie-Grace.
    “It will depend on the animals as to whether he stays separated,” Moyer says. “Personalities and social dynamics play huge roles.”
    Chumley, also rescued as a pup, came to the museum via Clearwater Aquarium in Florida. Chessie-Grace was hand-raised and bottle-fed after her mother failed to care for her pups.
    Guess the newcomer’s name and win a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour with the otters and animal care staff.
    Otter Name Game clues appear each Wednesday at noon on the Otter Cam website and the museum’s Facebook page.

When a duckling lost its way, Patsy Wills rescued it and became its ­protector, surrogate and friend

Spring is just around the corner. Soon you’ll see wild mallard mamas marching their downy hatchlings to our Chesapeake waterways.
    The spring one of those countless ducklings lost its way, Patsy Wills of Owings Beach first rescued it from a tight spot, then became its surrogate mother.
    After freeing the tiny creature, Wills, now 63, carried her to the beach and searched for the duckling’s family. But Mama and her brood had moved on. “I took a different approach,” Wills said. “I tried introducing the duckling into another family. No luck.”
    Which gave the nature-loving Wills a new role.
    Up went a predator-safe shelter in her back yard, and in went Duck. The duckling took to her new home and to Wills.
    Duck was hatched in the wild. The first thing she saw was a mallard. Thus, through a process known as filial imprinting, Duck imprinted upon its mallard mother and acquired and kept some of her behavioral characteristics. Duck behaved like a duck, but she accepted Wills as protector, surrogate and friend.
    Thus Duck grew up lucky. She feasted on poultry pellets and earthworms. The sight of Wills picking up a garden fork sent Duck into a frenzy of joy. Duck walked with Wills in the yard or on the beach, stubby wings flapping. Snoozed on the porch. Paddled around the filtered pond installed just for her.
    Wills bought a new plastic kayak, and she and Duck paddled around the edge of the Bay near the mouth of Rockhold Creek. As Wills propelled the kayak, she dangled one foot in the water, so Duck could surf the ripples atop her toes, then hop aboard.
    As Duck grew, her feathers came in. On one walk, Duck’s usual wing flapping lifted her off the ground. She flew through the air for 20 yards, then landed at the edge of the Bay.
    Duck seemed surprised, as well as pleased. She turned to look at Wills, as if to ask, Did you see that?
    From that day on, Duck spent less time in the yard. She came and went as she pleased. Then, in her second spring, she brought home a drake.
    Wills didn’t care for him. He took Duck’s food.
    A second drake seemed immature, simply following Duck around the yard.
    At last, Duck came home with a keeper. This guy was friendly. Mama approved. The pair mated and Duck laid a clutch of 13 eggs.
    After that season, Duck appeared less often. Wills knew she’d done her job well; she’d raised her Duck to self-sufficiency.
    But for many years, she says,
“whenever I stepped outside, I carried poultry pellets just in case.”
    As for Wills, life has gone on. She’s now married to a man she met at a local dance and has changed her surname to Watkins. But she still regales friends with tales about the duck she raised till love did them part.