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Features (Creature Feature)

Not too cold, please, these penguins beg

Winter is creeping up, leading us through frost to cold to ice and snow. That’s weather that will chill the newest penguin residents of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore as much as it will you and me.
    As African penguins, the newly hatched pair prefers moderate temperatures like those predicted for this week, between about 41 and 68 degrees. So the zoo’s main conservation center building, where they nest comfortably with their parents Mega and Rossi, has controlled temperatures.
    “With African penguins, both the male and the female take turns sitting on the eggs,” said Jen Kottyan, avian collection and conservation manager. “Once the eggs hatch, parents take turns caring for their offspring; they each protect, feed, and keep the chick or chicks warm for two to three days, then switch off.”
    The downy grey juveniles will soon learn how to swim. Then they will slowly meet the rest of the penguin colony.
    The month-old siblings are the first chicks to hatch this breeding season. Penguin chicks spend 38 to 42 days in the egg before hatching. In zoos, keepers monitor development of the eggs by candling them about a week after they are laid to see if they are fertile and developing. The eggs are then reunited with the parents.  The chicks’ parents supply their early diet of regurgitated fish.
    At about three weeks, keepers begin hand rearing chicks to acclimate them to humans as their source of food. 
    The Maryland Zoo has been ­invested in penguins since 1967. Since 2009, African penguins have been endangered in the wild.
    At the zoo, you’ll see the largest African penguin colony in North America, with over 60 birds in the new “highly dynamic” Penguin Coast exhibit.
    Expect a noisy place, as African penguins have loud, braying calls that earn them the nickname jackass penguin.
    You won’t be able to visit these chicks until they’re several months old, but you can follow their growth and development online: ­www.marylandzoo.org; ­www.facebook.com/marylandzoo.

Without them, Christmas would be a lot less colorful

In equatorial zones, poinsettias grow like weeds. But a touch of our winter is killing. How these tropical natives have become the flower of Christmas is a story of careful science in the greenhouse and ingenuity in marketing.
    “Most mother plants are grown offshore, in Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Kenya,” says Ray Greenstreet, whose Greenstreet Gardens is a major grower for our homes and for wholesalers.
    In June and July, Greenstreet and other growers bring in cuttings and root them in greenhouses. By late July and early August, plants are transplanted into display pots.
    The length of day light controls the plant’s growth and coloring. Flower buds form only when daylight is less than 12 hours.
    “In the long days of summer, we want to keep them vegetative as they grow to a certain size,” Greenstreet explains. “Then about September 23, days get shorter than nights, which naturally initiates blooming.”
    Traditionally, light and shade were controlled in greenhouses so plants bloomed sequentially. In the last quarter century, plants have been bred for seasonal blooming.
    “Early-season poinsettias bloom around November 15,” Greenstreet says, “and others bloom as late as mid-December. We grow a number of different bloom-response times, so we have nice fresh plants through the season.”
    For shipping around the country, Greenstreet roots about 185 varieties, in colors ranging from whites to mauves and lots of reds.
    “Right before 9/11,” Greenstreet says, “mauve or pink were selling well.” After the terrorist attacks, he continued, “people went back to tradition, and all they wanted for a couple seasons was red or white.”
    Now, variety is back. At Greenstreet you can choose from some 80 varieties, differing in leaf form as well as color.
    Buy your poinsettia when the temperature is above 36 degrees, packaged in a sleeve. Keep it warm in the car and bringing it in. At home, keep it away from drafts at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees, in average light and evenly moist. Don’t let it sit in water. Carry it to a sink for watering, and let it drain before you put it back on display.
    Finally, don’t worry if your baby or cat has a bite. Poinsettias don’t taste good but are not toxic, both Greenstreet and Bay Gardener Frank Gouin confirm.

On the hunt in November

The antlered buck posed statue-like in full-focused attention in a valley surrounded, at a fair distance, by the houses of Fairhaven Cliffs. Perhaps he’d seen me seeing him from my perch well above him, but not assuring him safety were I a bow hunter. That hunting season lasts most of November, the month — this odd sighting reminded me — when Maryland’s 227,000 deer are at their most visible.
    November is rutting season, when bucks go in search of mates, and here one was, where deer, especially bucks, are not everyday sightings. The does and their families, our usual visitors, prefer Kudzu Valley, across the village, where groundhogs are the only neighbors. This was not the only buck I’d seen this month, when deer in Chesapeake Country are about as common as squirrels, and just about as oft seen dead along the roadsides.
    Not only are deer out and about in November, they are single-minded, both males and females hormonally driven to mate — as well as driven to distraction. Thus deer-vehicle crashes peak in November as well, bringing death to over 10,000 deer — and often injury to people as well as to their vehicles.
    The end of mating season coincides with the opening of the modern deer firearms season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That’s when most of the deer harvested in a year are taken. Last year 95,863 deer were harvested.
    From November 28 through December 12, hunters will be out in search of deer. So maybe for that time you should leave the woods to them.

A sweet potato the size of a turkey

This sweet potato could be the vegetarian answer to the Thanksgiving turkey.
    It looks the part, though Birgit Sharp — who grew the lookalike at American Chestnut Land Trust’s Double Oak Farm in Prince Frederick — calls it The Swan.
    At 25 pounds, nine and one-quarter ounces, it’s big enough to do the job.
    Certainly, it’s proof of the providential bounty of the earth and the ingenuity of its human farmers. It’s the product of hugelkulture beds, an innovative technique of farming in mounds of decaying wood debris and organic matter.
    Sharing the bounty is also commonly practiced at Double Oak Farm, as staff and volunteers grow organic vegetables, fruits and herbs for donation to Calvert County food pantries. Stewardship of this good earth is a fundamental value of American Chestnut Land Trust, founded in 1986 to preserve natural woodlands surrounding Parker’s Creek.
    Word is still out on whether the potato will meet the knife at a Thanksgiving table.

Know where your oyster comes from — and howOysters in Season

Oysters are Maryland’s catch of the season. Oystermen and women are tonging, diving and dredging for Crassostrea virginica in a season that runs October 1 through March 31.
    Last year saw 393,588 bushels harvested with a dockside value of $17.3 million. “The second highest total in at least 15 years due to healthy oyster reproduction in 2010 and 2012,” according to DNR Secretary Mark Belton.
    Nowadays, however, the oysters we eat are increasingly coming from farms rather than wild harvest. Oyster aquaculturists lease sections of water and bottom, plant their own seed and, a couple of years later, harvest their own crop.
    Those oysters keep oyster eaters happy while wild oysters are nurturing a healthy Bay, filtering gallons of water and — given a chance — raising reefs where countless other creatures dwell.
    Ask where your oysters come from, and you’ll be doing good for the Bay.

Mermaid and Bride of Frankenstein top Homstead’s Critter Crawl

Critters pranced, bolted, held back and had to be dragged, but — despite the name — none crawled at the Critter Crawl at Homestead Garden’s Fall Festival. Twenty-nine costumed dogs were strutting their stuff, as were their owners, often wearing pared costumes. A terrier wore prison stripes for bad behavior, a shepherd sprouted reindeer horns, a pit bull turned into a frog.
    In the end, judges from Homestead Gardens and Bay Weekly gave top honors to cuteness. Bella the Chihuahua, costumed as a mermaid by human companion Holli Lawler, won first place and a basket of dog goodies. Runner-up was whippet Havana, dressed as Bride of Frankenstein by human companion and Southern High School grad Ingrid Horton, a costume designer and seamstress by trade.

Runner up Havana with companion Ingrid Horton.

Young-of-the year index way up

Fish are jumping on Chesapeake Bay. The thousands too small to take home are good news for the future of rockfishing. In this year’s survey, juvenile striped bass approximately doubled the long-term average, 11.9. This year’s index found an average of 24.2 juvenile fish per sample. That’s the eighth highest on record, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which has conducted and analyzed samples since 1954.
    From that good news, you can extrapolate a couple of cheering messages. First, the big rockfish that returned from the ocean to the Bay this spring spawned successfully. Second, according to DNR Secretary Mark Belton, “striped bass are a very resilient species when given favorable environmental conditions for reproduction and survival.”
    Third, rockfishing should be good a few years hence.
    This year’s sampling collected more than 70,000 fish of 50 different species, including 3,194 young-of-year striped bass in 132 sweeps of a 100-foot beach seine at 22 sites along the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers and the Upper Bay. Biologists visit each site monthly from July through September to collect samples.
    American shad, white perch and herring reproduction was also strong.

What’s in your suitcase?

Twenty seahorses do not belong in your suitcase. Which led to trouble last month for a Vietnamese traveler arriving at Dulles International Airport.
    All 20 live seahorses, found in a routine baggage check by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, were seized. Had the seahorse collector possessed only four, she could have kept them: The baggage limit is four seahorses.
    Because of over-harvesting for aquarium trade and medical research, seahorses are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. From 1990 to 1995, the world’s estimated seahorse population declined by half. Asian waters are the most popular for seahorse harvesting.
    Of some 50 species that inhabit shallow, warm waters around the world, the Chesapeake is year-round home to one, the lined seahorse, with populations extending as far north as Calvert County. Lined seahorses, like many other seahorse species, mate for life. So if you see one, perhaps clinging to your crabpot, put it back. Not in your aquarium — or your suitcase.

Butterflies release commemorates life

“The butterfly is a symbol of how lives change and are transformed,” said Calvert Hospice’s Linzy Laughhunn as he set free one of 72 monarchs during a celebration of life ceremony at Chesapeake Highland Memorial Gardens in Port Republic.
    Chesapeake Highland Memorial Gardens are surrounded by open land where the released monarchs will find milkweed on which to lay their eggs and for nectar as they prepare for their epic migration to Mexico.
    The commemorative monarchs are shipped overnight in a dormant state from Fragrant Acres Butterfly Farm in Chickamauga, GA, (butterflyreleases.com) and brought to normal temperature about an hour before release.

Milkweed nurtures monarch caterpillars

Plant milkweed, we’re told, and monarch butterflies will come. It’s true. My milkweed is crawling with caterpillars.
    Only one or two of the orange-winged monarchs alighted on this little grove of milkweed when I was watching. I saw no egg-laying or tiny eggs on the undersides of the spearhead-shaped leaves. Only when I noticed the sorry state of the patch did I see caterpillars. Clippers in hand, I had cut a branch when a horned head poked out at me.
    A half-dozen yellow-white-and-black-striped caterpillars were devouring the milkweed, reducing it to stems.
    A week later, the population had risen to a dozen and a half two-plus-inch-long hungry caterpillars.
    Clearly, a lot was going on when I wasn’t looking.
    Any day now, big change is coming. After a couple weeks of voracious eating, the monarch caterpillar hooks itself to a leaf and shimmies into its homemade silk chrysalis. Inside, the caterpillar metamorphoses, emerging in about 10 days as a gorgeously winged monarch.
    Those butterflies will drink the nectar of other plants in my butterfly garden — Joe Pye weed, ironweed, boneset, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and more — before heading south and west in the later stages of a journey whose map they inherit.
    The annual pre-winter migration from Canada to Mexico takes four generations, each lasting roughly six weeks.
    This generation of monarchs must be rising all over Chesapeake Country, as my butterfly garden was part of a widespread campaign to bolster the species. Two dozen neighbors planted their own gardens, and our Fairhaven effort joined many more throughout the region and the nation, all part of the Monarch Watch Waystation Program.
    Keep your eyes open! On the wing, new life should soon be invigorating this threatened, far-traveling species.