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Features (Creature Feature)

After 9 years, Coast Guard mascot Rosie gets First Class promotion

At a Coast Guard station, where the crew is often separated from friends and family, the extra boost provided by a dog goes a long way. About half of all Coast Guard stations has a mascot dog.
    “It’s about morale” says fireman Justin Singleton, who’s been at Coast Guard Station Annapolis for a year. “She keeps us in good spirits.”
    Rosie, a black Lab, had served as station mascot for nine years without a promotion. All Coast Guard promotions — even First Class Dog — must be earned. So with dedication and a generous supply of training kibble, Rosie’s crewmates helped her master the skills and commands to rise to First Class.
    With three gold stripes to signify her new rank, Rosie continues her primary duty at the station.
    “She’s usually the first to greet visitors,” say Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Andrew Vardakis.

Read more about Rosie at: http://tinyurl.com/n57v2xz

This year’s Great Backyard Bird Count needs your help

The drakes are displaying, showing off their splendid colors, their best dance moves. Cardinal and Carolina wren pairs cavort; the chickadees are singing. Love is in the air.
    You can learn about the birds, if not the bees, this Valentine weekend in the 18th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, February 13 to 16. Citizen scientists all over the world help the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada by counting birds in back yards, fields, woods and waterways. This four-day count produces an annual snapshot of bird population trends. How many snowy owls, pine siskins and redpolls —birds irrupting from far northern climates this year — are in Maryland right now? Let’s find out.
    Anyone can help. You join the count by tallying the total numbers of each bird species you see while watching for 15 minutes or longer on one or more days of the count. To record tallies, go to www.BirdCount.org. There you’ll learn how to set up a free account and enter your checklists. Submit a separate checklist for each new location, each day or the same location at a different time of day.
    Need help?
    Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary volunteer coordinator Lindsay Hollister can help. “We train on Saturday, February 14 at 2pm,” she says. “Everyone is welcome, the more the merrier.”
    On the Count website, you’ll find an online bird guide, birding apps for your phone, tips for tricky bird IDs, (is that a white-throated sparrow or a song sparrow?) and local events you can join with other birders.
    There’s also a photo contest for your pictures of both birds and watchers.
    Look for the prehistoric-looking pileated woodpecker hammering in the trees, for swarms of robins drinking in puddles, black vultures and turkey vultures (yes, we have two kinds) soaring overhead and bluebirds popping up in fields and even at the beach. In 2014, Great Backyard Bird counters saw close to 4,296 different species. That’s 43 percent of all the bird species in the world.
    Last year, more than 144,000 checklists were submitted worldwide, including almost 4,100 from Maryland, which ranked 11th among U.S. states.
    With your help, we can make the top 10 this year.
    “We especially want to encourage people to share their love of birds and bird watching with someone new this year,” says Dick Cannings of Bird Studies Canada. “Take your sweetheart, a child, a neighbor or a coworker with you while you count birds. Share your passion, and you may fledge a brand new bird watcher.”

Maryland Zoo seeking humans

See the Zoo like you’ve never seen it before — on the scene and behind the scenes.
    The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is seeking 200 new volunteers to help make successes of such events as ­BunnyBonanZOO, zooBOOO! and Brew at the Zoo.
    January 25 is your once-a-year opportunity to learn the aardvark to zebra of volunteering at the third oldest zoo in the United States, representing nearly 200 species in natural settings replicating their native habitats.
    The Zoo’s 1,000-plus volunteers work with humans, animals and plants. Working with animals is at the top of the training ladder. Long-timers may request to handle animals like chimpanzees and the Animal Ambassadors, including the Baltimore ravens Rise and Conquer.
    New volunteers typically bring special skills — like face painting or gardening — or start with visitor relations. Entry-level jobs range from leading crafts and games at special events to answering visitors’ questions to keeping animals and humans on their best behavior at the Goat Corral or Camel Rides.
    “Nine times out of 10, the number one question is where’s the bathroom,” says Jane Ballentine, Director of Public Relations.
    Volunteers as young as 14 are welcome in the Junior Zoo Crew. There’s no top age limit for volunteers. Perks include free admission to the zoo and field trips.
    “We try to set up at least two field trips a year to other zoos and aquariums to keep the camaraderie going,” says Ballentine.


The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore’s Volunteer Open House: Sunday, January 25, 11am-2pm: Mansion House Porch: 443-552-5266; volunteers@marylandzoo.org.
 

Robert Kyle gives a new meaning to frozen drinks

How do creatures of the wild quench their thirst when outdoor water freezes to ice?
    Robert Kyle replenishes bowls with water in its liquid state for “cats, birds and whoever else is thirsty” at his Huntingtown home.
    “I have several water bowls around our place,” Kyle writes. “When the water freezes overnight I add fresh water.”
    As a side effect of his Franciscan charity, Kyle has invented a new art form: Cat Bowl Ice Art.
    “Recycling the frozen water, I remove the bowl-shaped ice and balance them upon each other,” Kyle explains. “After assembly the sun comes up, causing the opaque ice to glow. My daughter in Los Angeles tells me the sculptures resemble Zen balancing stones.
    “To my knowledge, I’m the only person in the Bay area that makes these,” Kyle adds, “as most people have better things to do at 6:30am on a cold morning.”

Coast Guard’s sea turtle rescue brings them Internet fame

It’s all in a day’s work.    
    The day was August 12, when a boater reported an entangled sea turtle 30 miles off New Jersey’s southern coast.
    Using the boater’s GPS coordinates, the Cape May Coast Guardsmen and staff of Marine Mammal Rescue Center set out on a rescue mission. Finding a turtle in the Atlantic could have been as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. But the coordinates led straight to an ensnared leatherback.
    The team got close enough to grab the offending gear — a floating marker on a long pole ending in a rope. Then, the Coast Guard team “used their bare hands to control the struggling 800-pound creature.” Amid the grappling, the line was disentangled and the turtle swam free.
    Videotaping actions is also in a day’s work in the modern Coast Guard. Over the last two weeks, YouTube viewers chose the Coast Guard’s Video of the Year from 10 action-packed sea rescues and adventures. The leatherback rescue earned second place. So in sweet symbiosis, the sea turtle saved by the Coast Guard makes the rescuers stars.
    See the Coast Guard’s Top 10 of 2014 at www.youtube.com/user/USCGImagery.

Calvert Marine Museum’s new baby cephalopod

True names rise from a creature’s character. That’s the Native American way. Cats, too, have true names, but theirs are inscrutable to humans, according to poet T.S. Eliot in the poems that became Cats of musical fame.
    Octopi are as curious as cats, certainly as inscrutable and maybe as intelligent. These creatures of the deep can change both the color and the texture of their bodies to disappear into their environment. They use their eight tentacles to explore, and in captivity, where food may be presented in jars to test their skill, they’ll take lids off and pull out what’s inside.
    Calvert Marine Museum’s new River to Bay exhibit welcomes a pint-sized octopus from Virginia’s offshore waters. The pound-and-a half cephalopod is “very inquisitive,” according to keeper Linda Hanna.
    “It’s fascinating to work with an animal who can tell you’re there and wants to interact with you,” Hanna says. “Every time she’s fed, she has to get her food out of something. We’ve used jars, toys, even Mr. Potato Head. When you try to take something out of the tank, she’s like a two-year-old who wants it back and will grab onto it so you can’t take it out.”
    Such a creature can’t just be called the octopus.
    To find her true name, the museum invites you to enter its Name Our Octopus Contest.
    You’ll have to see her to discover what that name might be. Visit through January 30, pick a name and drop your suggestion in the ballot box in the museum store.
    The octopus herself will choose the winner on Tuesday, February 10. All names are also entered in a drawing to win a basket full of octopus-related goodies.

Its bite can kill a horse

Beware the brown recluse.    
    The spiky-legged brown recluse grows as long as three-eighths of an inch. A violin shape marks its back. Its bite is devastating. I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.
    A big, warm-blood, show horse on my Southern Anne Arundel County farm was bitten on the leg by a brown recluse. After more than two months of treatment, she had to be put down.
    In animals and humans alike, the characteristic signs of this spider bite are blistering and swelling at the bite site and surrounding area, followed by skin necrosis and peeling, leaving a deep, exposed area that may need skin grafts to heal. Treatment can go on for weeks, as Philip Angell of Annapolis found out.
    About a decade ago, Angell was tidying up a woodpile in his yard in early May. He wore long pants but only clogs on his feet, allowing a brown recluse to bite him on the ankle. He didn’t know he had been bitten until he noticed a red, hard spot as he was showering. He applied hot compresses until it was time to go out that evening. By the next day, the spot was redder and harder, and by the third day, infection was setting in, prompting an emergency room visit.
    At the hospital, the doctors recognized the spot as a brown recluse bite. The wound was lanced, then drained and scraped, then Angell was put on intravenous antibiotics in the hospital for several days. Before going home, he was fitted with a contraption that he kept on for 10 days, enabling twice-daily drips of antibiotics, each session lasting an hour. The treatments were successful, and today Angell has only a small scar to show for his experience.
    The bite of the brown recluse is distinctive, but it’s best if the spider is seen and captured for identification. Wounds may be wrongly attributed to a snake or black-widow spider, and treatments may vary.
    I found my horse killer in a pile of towels and saddle pads waiting to be laundered, near the horse’s stall. After killing the spider, I slid it into a plastic bag to await identification.
    Sarah Gorczyca of Home Paramount Pest Control confirmed the identification. Encounters seem to be trending, she reports, with calls concerning brown recluses coming in from Edgewater south through Calvert County.
    Maryland is not these spiders’ natural habitat. They concentrate in the central and southern United States but may hitch rides on vehicles.
    Wherever they settle, brown recluses build irregular, loosely constructed nests in dark undisturbed areas. Their nest serves only as a retreat and a place for the female to lay her egg sacs. As their name implies, they are reclusive and do not like to come out of their webs except at night to hunt for food. Thus they may reside in close proximity to people and animals and never cause problems. While not aggressive, they will bite if accidentally touched or pressed against.
    Look for these spiders in shoes and boots, in piles of clothing or laundry lying on the floor, in basements and garages, and under leaves and mulch.
    Human bites remain infrequent. This year, neither Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick nor Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis has treated humans bitten by brown recluses. In prior years, both have treated a few, including Angell’s.
    Small animal veterinary clinics have reported a few cases, some very serious. In one home where a dog was bitten, exterminators discovered hundreds of brown recluses nesting in the garage. The dog survived after months of treatment.
    For animals, prevention is difficult. They are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Call the exterminator if a brown recluse is seen.

Tundra swans return to Chesapeake Country

“The first tundra swans of the season have arrived in Columbia Cove, Shady Side.” Randy Kiser‎ posted the news on Bay Weekly’s Facebook page on Thursday, Dec. 13, documenting their arrival with this photo.
    Two mornings later I saw the snow-white birds at Fairhaven marsh pond, three on Saturday, then eight on Sunday.
    Swanfall is Bay chronicler Tom Horton’s word for this moment in time, coined for his 1991 book with photographer Harp: Journey of the Tundra Swans. “The birds seem almost to drop from the sky,” he writes.
    They do drop upon us, suddenly here. Some time in March, they will leave us. Last year their going was late, after the osprey had made their March 17 arrival. Their going is never quite such a surprise, for they talk about it, gathering flocks barking like dogs for days before the big pick up. They leave from here, familiar after four months feeding and basking in our temperate clime.
    After eight months’ absence, their arrival out of nowhere is always a surprise. Like the snow they come from the frozen north, big white flakes falling from the sky.
    Swansdown, I call it, after the soft white powdery cake flour of the same name.
    Indeed, there’s a lot of air, feathers and down about a swan before you get down to flesh and bone, all eight to 24 pounds of it. Still, they are big birds, four to five feet long with 66-inch wingspans. Unlike ducks, which could, from a distance, be any old mallard or a rare visitor, tundra swans are unmistakable. Size, neck length, and color — even to their all-black bills and feet — give them away. So do their vocalizations, loud calls of hoonk or woo-hoo.
    Not as gainly as snow is the feet-first landing that has them walking splashily on the water for some distance, wings akimbo, before settling into grace. Take off requires effort too, as they run across the water before lifting on powerful whistling wings. From which comes the nickname whistling swan.
    These annual arctic visitors and their gray-scale cygnets need a clean Bay, full of grasses and clams, to make their 4,000-mile trip worthwhile. That’s our job.

Hibernation is convenient when you live in a shell

Wiggling antennae poke out from under coiled shell of the second-most prolific species on earth, the gastropodal snail. On land and in oceans and freshwater, 43,000 snail species live. North America has 500 land species, which brings them, usually stealthily, to all our gardens.
    But you won’t see them this time of year, for many snails hibernate from October until April. Hibernation is convenient for snails as they carry their beds on their backs. In dry areas, snails can hibernate for years.
    Covering their bodies with a thin layer of mucus to prevent drying out, snails live off the stored fat in their bodies. They dig a small hole in the ground and bury themselves or find a warm patch to slumber the winter away. Then, they close off the entrance of their shells with dried mucus — called an epiphragm — that hardens into tough skin. This snail-made mucus door prevents predators from harming them during hibernation and keeps them warm and cozy all winter.
    The epiphragm is usually transparent and sometimes glues the snail to a surface, like a shady wall, rock or tree branch. In hibernation, a snail’s heart slows from about 36 beats per minute to only three or four, and oxygen use is reduced to one-fiftieth of normal.
    Snails often group together over winter. If you find one, expect many more in that protected hiding place. They burrow under loose flaps of bark, behind stacked paving slabs, around planters and pots and in gaps and holes in walls.
    “I retire within myself and there I stop. The world is nothing to me,” said the snail in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Snail and the Rosebush. And with this, the snail withdrew into his house and blocked up the entrance.

Swine seek your Jack-o-lanterns

Maizie, Pumpkin and Scarlet love pumpkins. They devour them like pigs because, well, they are pigs. Now they want your leftover ­Halloween Jack-o-lanterns.
    Over 1.4 billion pounds of pumpkins are sold in the United States every year, 80 percent in October, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many are displayed at Halloween and at Thanksgiving, then tossed in the garbage. That’s a lot of rotting pumpkins. Pumpkins don’t decompose well in landfills, giving off methane gas as they break down, which plays a role in climate change, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
    So the trio of swine at Historic St. Mary’s City is doing its civic duty gobbling these big orange fruits.
    Historic St. Mary’s City is collecting pumpkins for the plantation pigs through mid-December. Deliver new or used squash to the bin outside the Visitor Center, 18751 Hogaboom Lane.
    Shriveled and carved retired Jack-o-lanterns are just fine by these swine. The carved grins and grimaces amuse the staff and satisfy the pig’s appetite, too. Either way, they’re full of vitamins.
    If you have large numbers to share, contact Aaron at 240-895-4978; aaronm@digshistory.org.