Volume XI, Issue 34 ~ August 21-27, 2003

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Dock of the Bay

Mars a Marvel in Our Skies
This week, red planet comes its closest in 50,000-plus years

Mars walks the heavens Lord Paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparalleled luster.
— Walt Whitman: Aug. 26, 1877

Mars walks the heavens this week, and his luster is indeed unparalleled as he pays his closest visit to Earth in tens of thousands of years.

Close in planetary terms is 34,646,418 miles center to center on August 27.

We take this on faith, relying on the consensus of the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which are in the business of measuring long distances. It’s done by parallax, looking at heavenly bodies from different vantage points in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Nowadays, the Hubble Space Telescope is up high where the looking is good.

The two planets will be rubbing orbits from the 23th to 28th, when the point of Mars’ elongated, elliptical orbit brings it to our neighborhood. On August 28, we Earthlings get the best view of our neighbor, for then Mars, the Earth and the Sun stand in a row. Astronomers call that line-up opposition. Those dates are prime, but Mars is with us even now.

“It’s like a big beautiful peach. It’s brighter than the brightest star, and night by night you can almost see it grow,” said amateur astronomer Bob Roberts.

Mars, our second-closest neighbor, is the planet most like Earth. In the last century, a Martian meteor that landed on Earth carried bacterial fossils, some scientists believe, which they have taken as evidence of life on Mars long ago. But years earlier, dreamers imagined the red planet inhabited like our own. Or maybe not so like: That was the fun and the scare. Remember Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles?

What kind of life Mars may or may not harbor we don’t know. Still, missions such as Viking, which landed on Mars in the 1970s, and Sojourner and Pathfinder more recently, have told us quite a bit about the planet that circles the sun every 686.94 days, making for a Martian year a lot longer than ours.

Mars is smaller than Earth — a little more than half our size — and a lot colder. It has seasons, but the hottest Mars day tops out at 50 degrees F, while the coolest night is a chilly –220. In atmosphere it’s our opposite, with carbon dioxide in place of oxygen.

Water — or liquid carbon dioxonde — indeed seems to have flowed there, though it’s now frozen. Mars’ most distinctive feature is Olympus Mons. The largest volcano in the solar system is two and a half times the size of Earth’s Mount Everest.

For you and me, a close look at looming Mars may be a breathtaking reminder that we are not alone in the universe. It’s also something to brighten a summer night.

For astronomers, it’s amateurs with ground-based telescopes who’ll benefit most, seeing what they can otherwise only imagine with the red planet practically in their back yard.

Roberts, who watches the stars with the scale of enthusiasm the Crocodile Hunter feels for reptiles, has reached his apex.

“I saw it the other night. I can’t be positive, but I’m satisfied that I saw the polar ice caps. You can see them change from day to day almost, as the planet’s tilt brings its south pole toward the sun,” Roberts said. “As the Martian summer goes on, you can watch the ice cap break up. Now it’s in three pieces; it was one when I started looking last month.”

One of the best places to view the red planet is Anne Arundel Community College. On Saturday, August 23, the college astronomy club throws a star party in the college observatory at the Pascal Center. The college will turn its miniscopes on Mars, and many star gazers will bring their own scopes.

“Star parties are a blast,” said Roberts. “Everybody wants to give you a look, because amateurs love to get people at their telescopes. You’ll be able to see through, say, 25 different telescopes.”

The party starts indoors with a dessert buffet, silent auction and guest speakers from NASA and Towson University (7 and 8pm) discussing astronomy and the mapping of Mars’ surface. At nightfall, the party moves outside to look at Mars until dawn.

“Its going to be a dark night, and dark nights are very good for seeing,” Roberts advises.

If you can’t make the party, go out some night soon and look up at the sky. Rising soon after nightfall in the southeast, Mars moves to the south, climbing higher and higher. He’s so bright, Roberts says, he outshines city lights as well as all the other heavenly bodies, so you’ll see him no matter where you are.

See 8 Days a Week to join the star party.

— Kimberly Goode

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Think Like a Raccoon
Vaccine to hit the ground near you

The nightly struggle has begun. The thumping outside the kitchen window starts in earnest as an uninvited dining guest pulls the lid off a plastic trash can. I’ve caught him in the act before; hearing the commotion one night, I ran out the back door in time to see a big lump of reddish-black fur dart past me and into the woods. I call him Red, for obvious reasons, and I can tell you I’ve never seen a larger raccoon.

Households throughout Chesapeake Country have a “Red,” “Rocky” or other raccoon they’ve named and adopted. The critters roam through gardens, grab fish from backyard ponds and decorate the lawn with bread wrappers, chicken bones, paper plates — anything they pull from a trash can.

We think of them as benevolent creatures; they don’t bring on that primordial chill to the backs of our necks like bats or fat garden spiders or snakes.

They do, however, pose a rabies threat, and that’s why they’re the target of an aerial bombardment campaign launched by the Anne Arundel County Health Department this week. This year the Oral Rabies Vaccine Project goes county wide, entending its earlier success in contained peninsulas.

Using a Maryland State Police helicopter, an airplane and a handful of automobile teams on the ground, the health department will scatter about 78,000 doses of rabies vaccination across the county over the next two weeks. The Raboral V-RG vaccine, which was first used in Europe, is embedded in chunks of fishmeal polymer bait. Once a raccoon bites into the morsel, a bag inside the bait bursts open, delivering the vaccine to the raccoon. Trivia tidbit: Each serving of the vaccine costs $1.27.

Volunteers prepare in raccoon boot camp, where they are briefed on safety issues and watch a video instructing them to Think Like a Raccoon.

Greg Russell, 56, of Crofton, has volunteered for the project for four years. “When I first heard about the project it sounded interesting,” he says. “I went to the training session, and it sounded even more interesting. They were saying, ‘We’re going to try to knock down the rabies right here.’”

It’s not love for raccoons that brings Russell out each year. “I have no affinity to raccoons at all,” he says. “I have a dog, a mixed borzoi named Charlie. Who knows? My dog may get out and get bitten by a raccoon. If I can lower the incidence of rabies, I’ll be satisfied.”

Trudging through swamps and wetlands amid day-long rainfall is part of the game, though the aircraft ease the hikes to out-of-the-way bait sites, Russell says.

The vaccine distribution, which began in 1998 on the Annapolis Peninsula, expanded to Gibson Island in 2000 and the Broadneck Peninsula in 2001.

In 2002, Anne Arundel County reported 27 cases of animal rabies, down from 73 in 1998 and 97 cases the year before. The success of these earlier projects led the health department to blanket the county this year.

“It’s definitely helping,” says Joseph Horman, a health department veterinarian. “For five years, we’ve placed bait on the Annapolis peninsula, where there were 19 rabid animals — mostly raccoons — reported each year. We’ve only had one rabid raccoon in that part of the county since.”

The vaccination drops will be concentrated in areas where raccoons are more prevalent: swampy areas, streams, ponds and in residential areas backing up to woods. The Bay marks the eastern boundary of the drop zone.

Chesapeake Country citizens need not worry if they see low-flying aircraft dropping small objects in the next two weeks, Horman says. Nor if they see teams of volunteers jumping out of cars to throw vaccine bait into the woods.

“We want to make sure people understand that when you see people throwing biscuit things into the bushes and shrubs, this is government activity,” Horman says.

The vehicles are marked with magnetic, fluorescent-orange door signs, and workers will be wearing orange safety vests.

Anne Arundel’s project is part of a larger East Coast effort to push rabies into the sea, as it were. The Appalachian Ridge Project, run by the U.S. Agriculture Department, involves the entire East Coast and Canada.

By eliminating it at its leading edge, scientists believe rabies’ westward motion can be halted. What’s envisioned is a “barrier from Lake Erie, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico,” Horman says. The other boundaries — Baltimore, Prince George’s, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties — are not part of the project.

Once the county vaccination program ends Sept. 1, volunteers will trap raccoons and test them to see if they’ve taken the bait. They’ll be unharmed during testing — unlike the traditional test for rabies itself — and released once safe test results are in.

As for you and your neighbors, don’t worry about the vaccine-laden bait. Horman says they’re safe for children to pick up and are non-toxic if eaten by a pet or child. They recommend a thorough hand-washing if handled, however.

If your child does handle or eat a vaccine bait, call the health department: 410/222-7256.

— John L. Guerra

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Dog Days of Summer
As temperatures increase, danger for your pet shouldn’t

Imagine yourself locked in a small cage suffering from terrible heat and humidity, and you cannot escape. Summer turns our cars, trucks and SUVs into just such cages.

How long would you last in a car on a hot summer day with the windows rolled up? Not long. According to the Anne Arundel County SPCA, within 10 minutes the temperature in a closed car can reach 120 degrees. That’s hot for you and me, and hotter for dogs, whose internal temperature of 101.5 degrees is much higher than our own. At 107 degrees, dogs can suffer brain damage or death from heatstroke, according to the Calvert County Humane Society.

“We see three to four cases during the summer of dogs that have been left in cars. On average, one out of those dies from the effects,” said David Hickes, a veterinarian, from the Greater Annapolis Veterinary Hospital.

Many of Chesapeake Country’s Fluffys and Rovers — our beloved dogs — are put in such danger by none other than their owners. It’s all too easy to say to yourself, ‘I’ll only be inside for a minute. Nothing will happen.’ But just how long can a dog stay in a hot vehicle and not suffer?

When we get overheated, our sweat evaporates and cools our bodies from the outside. When dogs overheat, they pant, breathing in air to cool their bodies down from the inside. In a hot car, they only breathe hot air, which cannot cool them down. So what’s best on a hot summer day?

“We recommend in warm months to leave your pets at home. The risk of leaving them in a hot car is too great,” said Sue Beatty of Anne Arundel County SPCA.

The past five years, the SPCA has campaigned the community about leaving dogs in cars. The message is getting through, but not to everyone.

“I saw it happen to a dog in the car at a Wal-Mart. I called the police and animal control,” said Sally Lounsbury, president of the Calvert County Humane Society.
What to do if you see dogs locked in a car on a hot summer day?

The SPCA recommends that concerned citizens follow three steps to aid animals trapped in a hot car:

  • Get the make, model, color and license plate number of the car;
  • If at a store, go to the store manger and have the car’s owner paged;
  • Call animal control or the police.

Heaving panting, glazed eyes, vomiting, dizziness or listlessness are signs of an animal in duress. If you’re able to provide immediate assistance to a dog that has suffered, apply tepid — not cold — water over its body. The water will cool the animal’s body down — from the outside. If you take the animal to a vet for diagnosis and treatment, be prepared to pay the bill, because you’ll be the one liable.

During these hot, dog days of summer, don’t leave your pet in the car. If you see a dog left unattended and suffering, help.

Anne Arundel Animal Control: 410/222-8900. • Calvert County Animal Control: 301/855-1194.

— James Clemenko

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Earth Journal ~ Hawk Moths on Garden Phlox
Story and Illustration by Gary Pendleton

Around this time of year, the yard gets a little out of control. Natives plants like Joe Pye weed and hibiscus have the tendency to get tall. Now, with all the rain, they’ve gone wild. The growth is lush and high, and when the wind and storms knock them down, any semblance of order is gone.

But it is a lively and colorful scene. Hummingbirds feed on the intensely red cardinal flower and goldfinches eat the seeds of the coneflowers while many types of butterfly sip nectar from flowers.

There is no rule that any flower planted in our yard must be a native species. The only hard-and-fast gardening rule that I am bound to is no invasives. Invasives are plants that, as I understand, harm the environment because they spread aggressively and crowd out native species. Examples of invasive species are purple loostrife, English ivy and, from the animal kingdom, mute swans.

Garden phlox is a native plant with blue or purple flowers that bloom from mid- to late-summer. The name comes from it many characteristics sought in garden plants. It blooms prodigiously for an extended period. The flowers have attractive shape and color. It is easy to manage and does not take over the garden. With good soil and plenty of sun, it reaches nearly two feet tall.

Garden phlox complements other native flowers such as black-eyed susan and purple coneflower. But butterflies love it. Swallowtail butterfly species such as tiger, black and zebra frequently visit. Garden phlox also attracts the fascinating sphinx moths, sometimes called hawk moths or hummingbird moths.

Hawk moths fly like hummingbirds, and like hummingbirds they hover and feed on flowers, probing for nectar with their long proboscis. At least half a dozen species of sphinx moth can be found in Maryland. They are not exclusively nocturnal, like other moths, so you may find them in a sunny garden.

Most species are tan. Closely viewed, some reveal colorful spots and interesting patterns, but because they lack the hummingbirds’ brilliant colors, they are easy to overlook. They are likely to be found in any flower garden with healthy populations of bees and butterflies.

Experienced gardeners know the larval forms of certain sphinx moth species as hornworms. Tobacco hornworms and tomato hornworms are large and fearsome-looking caterpillars that feed on the leaves of the plants they are named for. They grow to five inches and are boldly patterned with bright green, white and black coloration. The horns, which grow out of their tail ends, look dangerous and give pause to the plant tender who might casually pick them off. Despite their ferocious appearance, they are not dangerous, and Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening says it is okay to pick them off.

This year, because of all the rain and with lots of compost, my tomato plants have grown as lush and tall as the wild natives. So the plants have leaves to spare. If there are any hawk moths out there, I hope they will join the crowd.

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Way Downstream …

On the Eastern Shore, Virginians are deciding whether they like the idea of joining an Atlantic Coast series of windfarms that would stretch to Massachusetts. Near the Bay’s southern tip, New York-based Wynergy spelled out plans at a public meeting this week for a 25-square-mile stretch of turbines that would reach 400 feet skyward…

In Maryland streams, trout are a victim of our recent freaky weather. Indeed, brook trout populations have reached record low as a result of last year’s drought followed by this year’s ceaseless rain, Associated Press reported. Many streams became too hot for the cool-loving trout to spawn well, and last year, and this spring many fingerling trout perished in floods…

In Mexico City last week, someone left behind a furry surprise: 500 tarantulas, many of them three inches or so in length. A would-be importer disappeared, leaving customs officials scratching their heads and trying to figure out what to do next. More than 100 died; 20 were given to the main zoo; the rest were turned over to a state wildlife center…

Our Creature Feature comes from the Congo, where blackened monkey and other bush meat entrees on restaurant menus are not appetizing to wildlife groups. Monkeys ($25), four-foot-long crocodiles ($35) and tortoises are among the market offerings in a country where people get more than half their animal protein from bush meet, Reuters reports.

The bush meat trade is increasing as the Republic of Congo’s five-year civil war winds down. The United Nations Environmental Program says the bush meat trade threatens chimpanzees and other protected animals. But a monkey dealer had this to say about his fare: “It is very tasty with a tomato and garlic sauce, over a bed of rice.”

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Last updated August 21, 2003 @12:32am