Cool Outdoor Stuff with Andrew McCown: Jumpin’ Silversides, Batman!

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One of the great marine mysteries, now solved by our intrepid Cool Outdoor Stuff author Cap’n Andrew McCown, is the question of why Atlantic silversides perform circus acts in the Chesapeake Bay.

Tiny as they may be, often elusive, often swarming—the trick is always the right place and time—Atlantic silversides have a thing for floating twigs, and it’s a bit more than a curious nibble.

Videoing these miniature circus leaps is daunting, but if you look close enough after the camera finds its focus, you will witness the moment. don’t blink, you might miss the show!

The Cap’n has a theory. And the Spy is buying into it. Next up, we’re going to try very small rings of fire.

Please excuse the cameraman’s elation.

Bay Journal: Dragonflies Winged Wonders

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Dragonflies, like most insects that appear aplenty in the summer, flourish where there’s plenty of water, sun and perches for resting their wings.

But, unlike the season’s other crop of insects that bite or buzz in your eyes, dragonflies actually diminish summer’s worst pests — think mosquitoes, gnats, wasps and even stinkbugs — by snacking on them.Dragonfly enthusiasts prize the four-winged creatures for their beauty and rarity as much as their eating habits, and they say the Chesapeake Bay watershed is as good a place as any to become an enthusiast.

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

“If you’re a dragonfly geek, this is one of the best places in the country to be,” said Kevin Munroe, manager of Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia and creator of DragonfliesNVA.com.

“Some of the parks in this area may have some of the highest numbers of dragonfly species in the whole country.”

Munroe’s website reports that 83 species have been recorded in Northern Virginia. He’s counted 25 different species in one day. They range from the region’s tiny little blue dragonlet, which measures 0.75 inches, to the comet darner and dragonhunter that measure about 3.5
inches long.

Dragonflies and their cousins damselflies are found throughout the mid-Atlantic, and local and state parks with water are prime places to look for them. The Bay’s overall landscape, with marshes and shallow streams, provides ideal habitat for the predatory fliers that lay their  eggs in the water.

The Bay also boasts a high concentration of “dragonfly nuts” who lead surveys, mostly at parks, throughout the region.

Jim Waggener is one of them. He leads surveys with the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia every Friday morning from April to October, when dragonfly and butterfly populations are at their peak. Through surveys each year that cover the same regions, Waggener and  other volunteers have developed a picture of which dragonflies frequent the area. They focus on relatively undeveloped portions of the watershed, he said, as a good indicator of what the local wildlife might be like if the rest of the region was in a similar condition.

Since dragonflies are “solar-powered,” meaning that, like butterflies, they don’t fly far unless their wings are warmed by the sun, the best bet for spotting them is a bright day. That means most surveys don’t start at the crack of dawn, because these insects don’t take to the air until the sun does.

Waggener said those who go looking are likely to see large numbers of dragonflies throughout the summer, and “some really frantic activity” in August and September.

A field guide will do the trick for identifying most of the dragonflies, and Munroe’s website has helpful guides for distinguishing them from damselflies, which have thinner bodies for starters.

When you see a dragonfly, Munroe points out, you’re seeing “the last little blink of its life” which was otherwise spent mostly underwater as a grub. Dragonfly larvae can overwinter in the water for several years, breathing with gills like a fish and eating other larvae. The adults only live and fly for a few summer months.

If you’ve ever seen a dragonfly hovering just over the water’s surface, she was probably laying eggs with the tiny tap of her abdomen. This comes after what can be a herculean exercise in mating.

“They do something called the wheel position,” Munroe explained.

This entails the female flying both backward and upside-down while she’s connected to the male for mating, coordinating their wing beats to fly in tandem.

“When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, she did everything backward in heels, and dragonflies are the same way,” Munroe said.

Other impressive dragonfly feats? Their wings beat about 50 times per second, and some species can fly up to 40 mph. Their “bug eyes” dwarf those of other insects and allow them to see almost 360 degrees around their heads.

And, if that weren’t enough, they’ve been known to fly across the ocean, having been spotted by sailors on boats near the midpoint.

Munroe said he uses all these facts to recruit new dragonfly enthusiasts both to the sport of spotting and to the practice of conservation.

“I want dragonflies to be the ambassadors that get them excited about wetlands like the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

To see Maryland dragonflies, go here.

By Whitney Pipkin

Bay Journal News Service

Osprey Tracking Project Shows Birds On the Move

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The annual migration of osprey from their wintering grounds in South America is now underway. While some have already arrived in the Chesapeake Bay region, others have not yet begun their trek.

You can track the movements of four Chesapeake Bay osprey at cbf.org/ospreymap. One of the birds, named Quinn, is now in Florida on his journey to Tangier Sound. Nick, who also nests in Tangier Sound; Woody, who will take up residence in Whitehall Bay, in Anne Arundel County; and Crabby, who will be nesting near Kent Island, are still in South America.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Osprey Tracking Project was designed to enhance understanding of this iconic species, and the four birds were chosen because they are frequently seen by students participating in CBF’s Education Programs. Tracking devices enable students to see the birds in the wild and study their daily travels from the classroom.

“Using this technology, not only can we track migration, we can also monitor the daily activities of these birds both here and in South America,” said Tom Ackerman, CBF’s Vice President for Education. “Osprey are fascinating birds, and through this program we can engage students and citizens and help them understand the epic migration and life cycle of these part-time residents of the Chesapeake Bay region.”

The return of osprey to the Chesapeake Bay, generally in March, is a traditional sign of spring. The Chesapeake Bay has the most concentrated population of osprey in the world, but they can also be found in places as far away as Siberia, the Red Sea, and Canada. While here in the Chesapeake, osprey, also called fish hawks, dine primarily on menhaden.

The tracking devices were donated by Microwave Telemetry, Inc., and were installed by professional ornithologists.

“We are pleased to participate in this effort with CBF, and hope that it will help raise awareness and public support for conservation of our national treasure,” said Dr. Lance Jordan, Operations Manager at Microwave Telemetry, Inc.

Should We Feed the Birds?

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Recent snow and frigid temperatures are difficult for humans, but even harder on birds.

Birds have always been able to survive the cold and snow, said Jared Parks, land protection specialist for Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and local birder, although a fair amount of natural mortality from the cold is expected.

Parks has been birding all his life and before his tenure at ESLC was field crew leader on many bird study projects across the United States.

In harsh weather, birds have difficulty finding open ground on which to feed, he said.

Jared Parks with juvenile great horned owl. Parks, a land protection specialist with Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and local birder, says feeding birds in the winter is fine but says feeding should be consistent. Parks is offering a birding class and walk. Visit eslc.org to register.

Jared Parks with juvenile great horned owl. Parks, a land protection specialist with Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and local birder, says feeding birds in the winter is fine but says feeding should be consistent. Parks is offering a birding class and walk. Visit eslc.org to register.

“Feeding birds is not necessary, but it is not a bad thing – and they will be very happy if you provide them a consistent food source – consistency being key,” Parks said.

If you feed birds, keep feeding them. Feeders do not need constant refilling, but those who feed birds should provide food every day, preferably on a consistent schedule.

Fresh water is important now too. Birds need to drink and bathe, and cold temperatures limit the availability of open fresh water. Water is tough for people to provide in extreme cold because it is hard to keep from freezing.

“Frozen water can crack your bird bath,” Parks said.

Small heaters and pumps both have limitations as pumps can freeze in extreme conditions, and water must not be too hot. Many wild bird feeding stores will have heaters and pumps that are appropriate for bird baths and should offer temperature limitations.

To provide open ground for birds, shovel driveways and walks a bit wider than the pavement to uncover a few feet on either side. If most of the snow is removed, the sun will warm the darker ground, opening up spots where birds can get bits of food and gravel (which birds need to help crush their food).

It creates the same effect that attracts birds to the edges of roads during times of snow cover. Plows often hit road edges, opening up some bare ground.

The birds can’t find open ground anywhere else, so they flock to these areas for food, gravel, and even some salt. Providing spaces like this in your yard can be an important way for birds to find more food. “Shovel the areas, spread some food and the birds will be very happy with you,” Parks said.

Consistently and thoroughly clean feeders with water, soap, bleach and a bottle brush. The bleach or similar disinfectant is important, but must be thoroughly rinsed so no traces are left behind. Wild bird feeding stores will also carry some bird-safe products to wash and disinfect feeders – probably the safest route to take for cleaning.

Parks will offer an introductory birding class Feb. 28 and a birding walk March 7 (raindate March 14) for those who took the class. Both will be held from 9 a.m. to noon, at the Wye Research and Education Center property, 124 Wye Narrows Drive, Queenstown. The class will cover bird watching basics, equipment, bird books, birding hotspots, backyard vs. field, birding groups online and in person, bird groups and how to tell them apart, describing birds for identification, habitat (and providing on your own property), and taking notes and journaling. Cost to supporters $25; New friends $35. Register online or email cstarr@eslc.org.

Skywatch for Feb. 2015: Jupiter At Its Best

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Three planets that go around the Sun in orbits larger than ours, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, are easily visible to us even without any optical aid. These three planets are called Superior Planets, because they have these bigger orbits. At various times, due to the combined motions of these planets and the motion of Earth itself, each of the three planets come into positions where they appear at their brightest to us on Earth. This month, on February 6th, it is Jupiter’s turn.

We call this position OPPOSITION, because the planet is seen “opposite” the Sun in the sky. In other words, if we would be able to look down on our solar system from above, we could draw a line from the Sun to the Earth and continue it on the Jupiter, on February 6th, and Jupiter would appear to rise above the eastern horizon as the Sun would be seen setting in the west. Jupiter, which takes 12 years to orbit the Sun, reaches opposition in every calendar year, some 39 days later than the previous year, and appears to spend one year in each zodiac constellation.

This year Jupiter’s opposition will appear among the very faint stars of Cancer the Crab, while last year when Jupiter reached opposition in very early January, it was “in” Gemini. Jupiter will be well up above the eastern horizon by 8 pm, and will dominate the night sky all night throughout winter and even into the spring at magnitude –2.6. Three days before opposition, Jupiter will be seen about 5 degrees above February’s Full Moon (the night of February 3/4).

With only a modest backyard telescope, you can easily see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Here they are through a 10″ (25 cm) Meade LX200 telescope. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter’s four largest moons can be seen through a modest backyard telescope. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter’s only rival in brightness, other than the Moon, this month will be Venus, which at magnitude –3.9 is six times brighter. Venus is visible as soon as twilight starts low in the southwestern sky where it remains visible until it sets around 8 pm. A neat conjunction of sky objects occurs on the night of February 20th. Looking toward Venus in the southwest, one hour after sunset, look for Mars just 0.7 degrees above and right of Mars, with the very thin crescent Moon just to the right of the planet pair!

Though we pass the exact mid-point of winter on February 2nd, there is still lots of cold weather to come before spring and summer arrive. The main winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major and Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus are all in full glory due south as we reach full darkness each February night. However skywatchers can get a glimpse of summer by looking south-southeast from 4 am to dawn and finding Scorpius the scorpion rising there. Saturn, the famous ringed planet, appears to cross the northern(upper) portion of Scorpius, only about 9 degrees above and slightly left of Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius. A nice color contrast can be seen between the red-orange glow of Antares, and the creamy white of Saturn. Saturn is the brighter, at +0.5; while Antares is +1.0.

Moon phases this month: Full (Feb. 3); Last Qrtr. (Feb. 11); New (Feb. 18); and 1st Qrtr. (Feb. 25).

Tick, Tick, Tick: Sultana Summer Programs Filling Quickly

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Sultana Education Foundation Summer Programs Filling Quickly January 28, 2015 – Chestertown, Maryland: The rush is on to register for the Sultana Education Foundation’s Summer Enrichment Programs. Targeted at students ages 7-17, the Foundation’s Summer Programs include three and five-day voyages on the 1768 schooner SULTANA, five-day kayak adventures on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and four and five-day canoe and kayak dayprograms for younger students. New for 2015, the Foundation is offering a five-day program on the SULTANA for High School students that will see the schooner and her crew voyage south to St. Mary’s College off the Potomac River. The Foundation’s Summer 2015 programs are already 50% full, with several individual trips nearing capacity.

“These are incredible experiences, which is why we have students coming back year after year,” said Sultana’s Paddling Director John Mann. “Whether students sail on SULTANA or join one of our paddling expeditions they are getting a truly once-in-alifetime experience that gives them a chance to see incredible parts of the Chesapeake.”

The Sultana Education Foundation has a long-standing commitment of providing generous financial aid for its Summer Programs. Thanks to support from The Indian Point Foundation and The Allen Malcolm Fund, the Foundation’s Partner School Program offers students from select schools in Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties tuition discounts of up to 40% for five-day residential programs on the schooner SULTANA and five-day kayak trips.

Details about the Sultana Education Foundation’s Summer Programs, including trip dates, tuition, and Partner School Program information can be found on the Foundation’s website, www.sultanaeducation.org.

Bay Ecosystem: Holly’s Beauty Extends Beyond its Role of Holiday Decoration

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With just a few oak leaves barely hanging onto trees, the forest near my house looks barren. Most trees have shed their leaves. Winter’s grays and browns have replaced the golden hues of autumn.

But amidst this monochromatic background, a tree stands out with glorious color. Ignored most of the year, the American holly (Ilex opaca) now takes center stage with bright green leaves and ripe red berries.

Like all evergreens, the American holly does not lose its leaves at the end of the growing season. The leaves of the holly are thick and leathery, which prevents the loss of water that causes other trees to shed their leaves. The leaves have large, remotely spined teeth, and are arranged alternately. They are 2–4 inches long, satin green and smooth above, and yellowish-green below.

The American holly is only one of several hundred holly species found throughout the world. It is even the state tree of Delaware.

The American holly is scattered from Massachusetts south along the coast to Florida. In the South, it ranges west to eastern Texas and southeastern Missouri.

The only temperate or tropical regions naturally lacking any holly species are western North America and Australia.

People have long been fascinated with these evergreens. Druids viewed the holly as a tree never abandoned by the sun they worshiped. Romans presented holly boughs with gifts to esteemed friends. And, of course, many cultures “deck the halls” with holly, using them as seasonal decorations.

People aren’t the only ones who benefit from these evergreens. Hollies provide excellent shelter for many types of birds.

Birds are also the principal consumers of the fruit. Northern flickers, gray catbirds, cedar waxwings, mourning doves, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhites, cardinals, blue jays, northern mockingbirds, white-throated sparrows, eastern towhees and wild turkeys all eat the distinctive red berries.

Birds are important in dispersing holly seeds. Large winter-migrating flocks of small birds such as the cedar waxwings and American goldfinches are perhaps the most important in dispersing seeds.

Many other animals also feed on American holly, including white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, chipmunks, meadow voles, red foxes, raccoons, cottontail rabbits, white-footed mice and box turtles.

Hollies are dioecious, which means that a single tree will have either male or female flower parts. Both male and female flowers are small and creamy white. They appear in late spring or early summer and are pollinated by bees, wasps, ants, and moths. Only the female trees bear fruit.

Usually looking more like a large shrub or small tree, the American holly is a slow grower. They can, however, reach up to 60 feet in height. The fruit, known as drupes, ripen from September through December and stay on the tree throughout the winter.

The American holly grows best on well-drained, sandy soils, but will tolerate those that are somewhat poorly drained.

It also tolerates shade as an understory tree and thrives in full sun.

This native holly makes a wonderful landscaping tree when planted singly and given sufficient space to grow. It is important to plant both male– and female-flowering hollies if berry production is desired. Many homeowners choose to group them as hedges to screen their yards from activity and noise or to serve as a background planting.

Hollies are not only beautiful to look at but are great for the soul. We even chase away dreary winter doldrums by decorating our homes with sprigs of holly.

Meanwhile, hollies attract wildlife, especially in the winter as birds flit among the branches for cover and food.

Although birds and other wildlife benefit from holly, keep cats and dogs from eating its leaves and berries, which can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms.

The wood of American holly is one of the whitest woods known, with white sapwood and ivory-white heartwood.

The wood is used for specialty items such as fancy inlays, wood engravings, scroll work, measuring scales and rules for scientific instruments.

By Kathy Reshetiloff
for Bay Journal News Service

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

State Now Allows Hunting on Farmers’ Fields to Control Deer

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When Max Dubansky first moved to his farm about 15 years ago, he often saw about 100 deer in his fields.

“We were losing up to $1,000 in lettuce in one night,” Dubansky, 40, said. “Something had to give.”

Dubansky owns and operates Backbone Food Farm in Oakland. His farm is right up against woods, which makes it more vulnerable to hungry deer.

“Deer are responsible for $7 million to $8 million in crop damage each year,” Maryland Department of Natural Resources Deer Project Leader Brian Eyler said.

But the Maryland Department of Natural Resources offers a program to help farmers protect their crops against hungry ruminants.

Deer Management Permits are available at no cost to farmers who suffer economic loss from deer eating or damaging crops.

Those farmers with crop loss or damage can contact their county Department of Natural Resources representative who sends a technologist or a biologist to evaluate the property.

Based on the acreage, crops, damage, and the status of surrounding farms, the department issues a certain number of permits to the farmer. Each permit allows for a certain number of deer to be killed based on the department’s assessment.

If a farmer continues to suffer crop damage after the permitted kills are reached, they can apply to renew the permit.

“Permits are for antlerless deer only,” said Western Maryland Regional Wildlife Manager Jim Mullan.

Does are the primary targets for deer management because removing one doe essentially eliminates three deer for the next year, Mullan said.

“When you harvest a doe, you’re stopping that doe from any future reproduction,” Mullan said. “A healthy adult doe will produce about two fawns.”

However, Mullan said, farmers are allowed exceptions for antlered deer if orchards suffer from “rubbing;” when bucks rub antlers on trees to strip the velvety coating off new antler growth or during mating season, which is called the rut.

Mullan said the department tends to limit those exceptions so hunters in the regular season can shoot antlered deer, as many hunters strive to bag bucks with large antler racks.

Farmers who obtain permits can choose who hunts on their land — or can do the hunting themselves.

Eyler said a lot of these special permits are issued during the regular hunting season because it’s easier to get a deer that time of year.

The state issued 1,636 permits in 2012, and 1,655 in 2013. Though that’s just a 1 percent increase, hunters harvested 10 percent more deer via permits in 2013 — 8,505 vs. 7,650 in 2012.

Licensed hunters bagged 87,541 deer in the 2012-2013 season, and killed 95,865 in the 2013-2014 season — about a 9.5 percent increase.

Eyler said hunters who kill deer on a permit go through the same process as a regular-license kill — submitting a hunter ID number and registering the kill with the department — but must also submit the deer management permit number under which they killed the deer.

Once that process is taken care of, hunters can treat their harvest as if it were a regular-season kill.

Dubansky said an effective deer fence helped keep them out, but some still found their way to his crops.

“Once we got the fence up, there were problem deer (that found their way around the fence),” he said.

Deer that still got into his fields were taken care of with his permits.

While not a hunter, Dubansky says he thinks the program is great and has used about five permits a year to keep pesky deer out as well as allowing people to hunt on his property during the regular season.

“It’s an important tool for farmers,” Eyler said. “It gives them a tool for outside of the regular season.”

It also helps control the overall deer population in the state.

About 10 years ago, the population peaked at about 300,000, but last year’s fall estimate was about 227,000, Eyler said.

By Max Bennett

Skywatch for Dec. 2014: Planets, Meteors, and the Christmas Program

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December brings the full glory of the bright winter star group: Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini —- as we, on Earth, in our orbit around the Sun, face the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. We see all these constellations under dark skies that descend much earlier in the evening, because winter arrives in the northern hemisphere with the Solstice —– December 21st at 6:03 pm EST. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere. December also brings the annual Christmas Program to the Kent County High School Planetarium.

This year will be the 28th year of annual planetarium programs at KCHS. And despite the fact that I have now retired from the classroom, Chris Singleton, director of WKHS, our FM radio station at the school, and I have decided to put together, with student participation, another original program this year for the community. I have always been fascinated by the wealth and variety of Christmas music and decided it was time we explored the history of it. Christmas has always been displayed prominently in our past shows, but we have never explored the background of the songs. Indeed, we found that Christmas music has really surprising origins.

This year then, THE BEST-LOVED SONGS OF CHRISTMAS will be presented free of charge at the Kent County High School Planetarium at 7:00 pm, on Monday December 15th through Friday December 19th. Try to join us for one these special nights, under the stars of the planetarium!

December will welcome the return of Jupiter to the evening eastern skies, which rises around 10 pm in early December and around 8 pm by Christmas time. It will be prominent all night then, the brightest thing present except of the Moon. Its magnitude will be –2.3, and it will appear among the stars of Leo the Lion. On December 9th it will be just 7 degrees from Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, while on December 11th, we should look for the waning gibbous Moon to be just below Jupiter around 11 pm.

Venus returns to the western evening sky this month too, but despite its –3.9 magnitude, it will remain too low for easy viewing. Mercury will also appear in the western sky at magnitude –0.8, below and just to the right of Venus on December 31st. It is worth trying to see the pair of planets 1/2 hour after sunset, looking southwest at a place where one can find a clear view right down to the horizon.

The cold winter nights of December also feature 2 notable meteor showers. The more famous and more prolific of the two is the Geminids which peak during the early morning hours of December 14th. The less appreciated Ursids peak on December 22nd. The Geminids are one of the the meteor showers which produces bright meteors before midnight, and this month Gemini rises before a last quarter Moon comes up. Up to 120 meteors per hour have been seen coming from the Geminids. So look high in the east on the night of December 13/14 from 11 pm to 5 am. The Ursids generally produce 15 to 20 meteors per hour and appear to come form the area of Ursa Major(Big Dipper), now seen low in the northeast sky.

December’s Moon Phases: Full (December 6th); Last Quarter (14th); New Moon (21st); and First Quarter (28th).

Illumination of the earth at the Winter Solstice for the northern hemisphere. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere.

Illumination of the earth at the Winter Solstice for the northern hemisphere. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere.