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Features (Creature Feature)

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.

The black, white (blond, tan) and gray of it

Dennis Doyle’s piece regarding black squirrels was very interesting.” … So said reader after reader.

•   •   •

Been seeing them in Londontown by the Pub, yesterday and last week. Not sure if it’s the same one or different ones. Cute.

–Ernie Kleppin

I was somewhat surprised at the statement that black squirrels are so rare these days (1 in 10,000), as we see them with some frequency here in the Apple Greene neighborhood in Dunkirk. Our most recent backyard sighting took place in late November of 2016. Before departing for parts unknown (hopefully not a tragic encounter with one of the several hawks patrolling the woods behind our house), Mr. Black Squirrel frequently dined at our “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.

–Gary Schmidt

We often see black squirrels on Germantown Road in Edgewater.  There seems to be a herd(?), family, group, gathering of them living in the woods at the corner of Carrs Wharf Road and Germantown Road. Thank you for sharing your observations of them.

–Linda Hines

For the last five years or so I have watched black squirrels near the intersection of Carrs Wharf Road and Cadle Creek Road in Mayo
    Keep up the great paper.

–Gordon Reynolds
 

I liked Dennis Doyle’s column on black squirrels and was intrigued with his explanation of their existence. Somewhere I heard that the black color was a genetic mutation triggered by being in an area of ample food ­supply; the canopy/camouflage angle was a new one.
    All our squirrels are a treat. We have two blacks in the yard; only one will come to the door. Several friends do a double take on seeing the black squirrels. One visitor was sincerely freaked out; kept saying it was “evil.”  Go figure.
    At any rate, we live downtown on Market Street and think Cerný is a marvelous addition to the neighborhood.

–Ed & B.J. Skinner

Ed and B.J. Skinner have named their black squirrel Černý (black in Czech). They report that he has become progressively bolder over the last few months and now will readily take the peanuts directly that we used to leave outside. “Yes, I’m pretty sure a committed naturalist would be appalled at hand-feeding, but it’s really hard to resist that smile,” says B.J.


When I was a teenager in the late 1970s, my family lived in Landover Hills. We had a hickory nut tree in our yard that a black squirrel used to drop nuts and shells down on the two Dachshunds we had at the time. We would watch him and the other squirrels all the time from our porch. We really missed him and the other squirrels when we moved to Marlton.

–John Jones

My husband and I live in a wooded area in Dunkirk, and we almost always have a black squirrel or two around. In fact, we’ve had black squirrels here for many years. Sometimes, especially in summer, they’ll take off for parts unknown, but they make sure to return for free food (birdseed) in the winter.
    Thank you for putting out a great newspaper every week.

–Faye Graff

My wife feeds two black squirrels in our back yard in Apple Greene in Dunkirk for the last six months. They show up everyday.

–Martin Burless

I enjoyed your article on black squirrels. This was often a topic of discussion at the dinner table. My dad, who grew up in Wisconsin, would say it was a sign of good luck if  you saw a black squirrel. We considered ourselves very lucky to live in Kensington.
     In my high school years, we had many black squirrels running in the Rock Creek Hills neighborhood. I was in the area recently and saw two black squirrels on Beach Drive along the bike path. I made a mental note of this because I have only seen a few black squirrels while living in Pasadena the last 10 years.
    I currently reside in Riva and have not observed any black squirrels.
    I have had many fox and deer sightings in the back yard. I purchased a seed bell to hang outside for the  furry friends. Maybe I will be fortunate to have a black squirrel sighting and bring good luck to my new dwelling.
    May the new year bring you good health and a special vision of a black squirrel gathering.

–Catherine Schaaf

I live in the neighborhood behind Heroes Pub in West Annapolis, and there are probably a half-dozen black squirrels  around our house. I’ve noticed them the four years that I’ve lived here.
    I enjoy reading your newspaper each week.

–Dave

I live on the Eastport peninsula and have seen one black squirrel three times or three black squirrels once each. Each time, the squirrel was alone, once in my little backyard, where I feed birds and, thereby, squirrels; once in a large lot where boats park in sailing weather closer to the Maritime Museum; once in a large yard around the corner from my house. Each one looked healthy and had a very shiny black coat.

–Elliot Abhau

I enjoyed your article on black squirrels in the January 12 issue of the magazine. I thought it might interest you to know that the town of Cheverly has a large and apparently thriving population of black squirrels. In fact, it is rare to see a gray squirrel in the township. Cheverly is close to D.C. and College Park; perhaps this population is descendant from those introduced at the zoo from Canada. It would be interesting to do some genetic tests to determine if in fact these populations spread from that initial introduction or if they are naturally occurring populations that have somehow survived in spite of the general dominance of our common gray squirrel.
    Thank you for your magazine. I remain a loyal reader.

–Egan O’Brien

You want to see black squirrels come up to my house in Fairhaven. I feed them. I’ve got about 10.

–Barbi Shields

Seen Any White Squirrels?

What do you make of this critter I ­spotted in Minneapolis in December?

–Sal Lauria

White and black squirrels have one thing in common, they are both color phases of the American gray squirrel.
    They are rare genetic color variations, though just how rare is open to interpretation. The black variety is reported at 1:10,000. The white even more unusual, though that may be because of predation since they are so much more visible to hawks, owls and foxes.
    There are two types of white squirrels. Leucistic types occur because of a mutated gene (like the black squirrel) and can include blond and tan-colored squirrels. These have dark eyes. Albino squirrels are white with pink eyes because they lack any kind of color pigmentation.
    A number of cities in the U.S. boast populations of white squirrels: Olney, IL; Brevard, NC; Marionville, MO; and Kenton, TN among others. Most populations number up to 100 or so, but Brevard claims to have more than 1,000 within its three square miles of city limits.
    All of these concentrated populations of the color mutations are protected and encouraged by the citizens and have become tourist attractions in many cases.
    I have only seen a few blacks and one white in Maryland, though there may well be more in specific locations.

–Dennis Doyle

Black squirrels once were common in America before European migration

Peering out the front window with my first cup of coffee this morning, I was rewarded with the sight of at least a half dozen squirrels cavorting on my snow-covered lawn, running up and down the trees, chasing each other and creating a maelstrom of snow powder and furry activity.
    One of the frisking rascals, I noticed with surprise, was melanistic, a black phase of our common gray squirrel. Though fairly rare (one in 10,000) these days, the jet-black variety is a handsome mutation and jogged some interesting facts loose in my memory.
    Winter storm warnings of about two inches of snow had been choking the airwaves. Despite having been born and raised around the snow-bound Great Lakes and immunized to such hysterics, I did begin to feel concern for the neighborhood critters. Which is why I had piled an ample supply of corn and seeds under the sheltering hull of my trailered skiff for the squirrels and birds.
    This, of course, made my yard quite a gathering place for local wildlife, including the black squirrel (which, I later found, regularly lives about a block away). Black squirrels, I also discovered, were much more common in America and perhaps even dominant in many large areas before Europeans began migrating to North America.
    Heavily forested with mature hardwoods, the dense canopy of the pre-settlement forests was not readily penetrated by sunlight. Dim light provided an advantage to the darker coloration of the melanistic squirrel variety. They were not as visible as the grays were to the many owls and hawks that were their principle predators.
    Agricultural, however, soon changed that. Clearing the forests to provide for shelter, fuel, farming and livestock likely left the darker-colored squirrels more visible in the now semi-forested areas. Since black offspring are common only when both parent squirrels are black (the black gene being recessive), the black variant began to give way to the gray as the dominant squirrel variety.
    Today the gray is far more common throughout their ranges. But exceptions remain. When I arrived in this area to work for the Department of Agriculture, I lived in Washington, D.C., where I was surprised to note a large number of black squirrels in the parks surrounding DuPont Circle and the Executive Office Building grounds. I distinctly recall one female, quite friendly, that lived near my apartment and sported a tiny rhinestone collar.
    It turned out that the National Zoo had imported 18 black squirrels from Canada (where they remained relatively common) during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909). They were released on zoo grounds, quickly became acclimated, then spread throughout the city, which had previously lacked any appreciable squirrel population.
    Today, Maryland (at College Park and Joppatowne), Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, among other states, are noted as having populations or concentrations of black squirrels. Their exact source is undetermined or at least undocumented. More I don’t know, just as I don’t know how this one came to my yard.


Seen any black squirrels? Tell us where and when: editor@bayweekly.com.