Archive for the ‘Aquatic’ Category

Ugly, Scary and Completely Harmless

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
EASTERN hellbenders, the largest salamanders in North America, spend most of their daylight hours under large flat rocks on rocky stream bottoms.

Here’s a question for the anglers in the family: Have you ever hooked a long, slimy, four-legged creature while fishing on a clear, cool, cobble-bottomed stream or river?

If so, it was probably an eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America.

Hellbenders spend most of their daylight hours under large flat rocks on rocky stream bottoms. At night they emerge to dine on crayfish (about 90 percent of their diet) and other small aquatic creatures. This is when anglers are most likely to hook a hellbender. They are completely harmless, so remove the hook immediately and release the hellbender.

Identification is easy. Hellbenders measure 17 inches (males) to 21 inches (females), and the body seems wrapped in flabby folds of skin. The eyes are small, beady, and positioned on top of the head. Though larval hellbenders have conspicuous external gills, adults retain only a pair of gill slits on the sides of the head. Hellbenders transform from the larval form to adult at 18 to 24 months of age, but they don’t breed until they are five or six years old.

Mudpuppies or waterdogs are the only species that might be confused with hellbenders, but they are typically less than 12 inches long, and adults retain conspicuous external gills.

In September, a male scoops a shallow nest depression under a large flat rock on the stream bed and when a female enters, she lays up to 400 eggs in long, bead-like strands. The male fertilizes the eggs as the female releases them, then he chases the female away and tends to the nest. The eggs hatch in 60 to 87 days.

Hellbender populations face many challenges. They are seldom seen, they reproduce slowly, and they face habitat deterioration due to chemical pollution, acid mine drainage and siltation from mining, logging and road construction. Field research is essential to determine the population status and distribution of the species.

Joe Greathouse, curator of animals at Oglebay’s Good Zoo in Wheeling, WV, has been studying and conducting a census of hellbenders in West Virginia since 2005. He has learned that they don’t wander far from home and seem unable to cross stretches of silty stream bottoms. Perhaps with no rocks to hide under, they are simply easy prey for predators. Greathouse values input from anglers.

“Since word of this study got out, I’ve received many calls from fishermen,” he said. “If anyone sees or catches a hellbender anywhere in West Virginia, Ohio or Pennsylvania, I’d like to hear about it.” –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Tailored Garden Lures Wildlife

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Mary Taylor Young

WHAT IF YOU could put a few seeds in the ground, tend them carefully and come up with a garden full of birds and animals?

By gearing your landscaping with careful plantings, you can draw wildlife to your home. Shrubs like plum, currant, chokecherry and serviceberry offer succulent fruit for birds and some mammals; shrub thickets offer nest sites and year-round shelter.

If you live in the foothills or mountains, you can attract hummingbirds with a variety of flowering plants like evening primrose, honeysuckle and penstemon. Junipers provide berries for Colorado’s wintering birds from fall through spring. Fruit trees–cherry, apple, crabapple, plum–offer sweet fruits for wildlife, and a vegetable garden, if you’re willing to share it, is a natural magnet for rabbits, deer, frogs and other animals.

Pines provide good cover and nesting sites. The shoots and seeds feed squirrels, chipmunks, grosbeaks and other birds. Colorado blue spruce, the state tree, hosts many insect species that attract chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

Attracting animals to your home offers the chance to observe the rhythms of their life cycle–breeding, nesting and rearing their young. Large trees like oaks and cottonwoods make good homes for many songbirds and tree-dwelling mammals like squirrels. Clusters of shrubs and small trees offer better concealment and nest sites than widely spaced plantings.

Backyard ponds and water features not only provide drinking water for wildlife but if lined with vegetation can attract frogs and toads, salamanders and reptiles. Remember that a sterile cement pond provides neither food nor shelter for aquatic species.

Or how about a garden filled with colorful, gently fanning wings? With the right flowers, your garden can blossom with butterflies. Most bright flowering plants attract butterflies, but coneflowers, rabbitbrush and butterfly bush are especially appealing to them.

Of course you may attract some animals that aren’t so welcome. Resourceful Raccoons attracted to your home may also disturb your trash. Skunks might not be your ideal neighbor, especially if you have dogs. And encouraging wildlife visitors carries responsibility.

If you want butterflies in the garden, don’t use chemical pesticides. Consider protective fencing or other means of discouraging domestic predators–dogs and cats. Don’t place food sources where birds and small mammals have too great a chance of being “nabbed” by pets.

There are many books and pamphlets on landscaping for wildlife. Consult the nature and landscaping sections of your bookstore or library for more information.–Rocky Mountain News

Students Raise and Release Brook Trout

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Laura Oleniacz
WINCHESTER, VA —Sixty to 80 percent of the trout released into the stream will die, Jerry Casey said as he stood ankle-deep in Redbud Run with his pant legs rolled up.

Leaning over a bucket half submerged in the stream, he waited for the 4-inch-long Brook Trout to get acclimated to the water temperature and swim to freedom.

Millbrook High School students and teachers in the natural resources, welding, and horticulture classes clumped near the stream to watch the trout release. The students had raised dozens of trout from eggs to fry to fingerlings—the stage in trout development when the fish are finger-length. They had monitored the water quality, temperature, and pH in the fish tank at the school, and made sure the trout were well fed.

Casey said the trout will now have to struggle to survive.The fish will have to adjust to their new, natural environment after living a sheltered life in a tank. They will also have to compete with the Rainbow Trout population already living in Redbud Run.

The trout release was part of Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom environmental education program, which started in New York in 1997. There are about 75 Virginia schools participating in the program, said Casey, a retired science teacher and Trout Unlimited member who served as the coordinator of the local Trout in the Classroom program.

Casey, who lives in Winchester, wrote to the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund and received $4,200 to supply Frederick County’s three high schools—Millbrook, Sherando, and James Wood—as well as Frederick County Middle School, with tanks, chillers, filters, and hundreds of trout eggs from a Richmond hatchery.

The fish at three of the schools died in a series of mishaps. Sherando had a power outage over the Christmas holiday. The loss of power shut down the tank filter and chiller, which maintains a trout-friendly water temperature of 50 degrees.Frederick County Middle School also had a power outage. When the electricity came back on, the chiller did not. James Wood’s water tank had high levels of ammonia, which killed all the trout.

“It was a learning curve for us, for everybody,” Casey said.

Millbrook’s project was the most successful, he said, but there were some close calls. Several fish jumped out of the school’s tank during a thunderstorm, and a power outage temporarily raised the water temperature to 70 degrees. Despite the occasional scares, the Millbrook students said they enjoyed the experience.

“I mean, I had fish as pets and it wasn’t that big a deal, but once we got the eggs and watched them hatch, it was really quite interesting,” said junior Chelsea Marshall. “They were good little trout.”

Senior Wes Heavener said the hardest part of the job was carrying the heavy buckets of water to add fresh water to the tank.

“It was actually pretty cool to watch them come out of eggs,” he said.

Natural resources teacher Adam Cook’s class studied fish and aquaculture while caring for the trout. They also sojourned to Redbud Run, which is next to the high school east of Winchester, to collect rocks and algae for the tank and do some stream cleaning. During the cleanup, Wes found a construction barrel in the stream.

“He was kind of proud of himself for picking up the most trash,” said Cook, who had instituted a reward system for the cleanup based on trash size and quantity.

The goals of the Trout in the Classroom program are to teach students to appreciate water resources and to foster a conservation ethic, but not necessarily to repopulate streams with trout.

“I think the point of it is primarily education, with a result,” Cook said. Repopulation is a secondary aim.

“It’s about the students themselves,” said Casey, who is hoping to expand the program to other area schools and maybe include a fly-fishing demonstration. “Any school that would like to participate, we would like to accommodate them.”

Cook, who is preparing to leave Millbrook to teach at another school, said he wants to take the program with him. Millbrook teacher Mark Hawkins, the former natural resources instructor, said he has plans to continue the program at the Frederick County school.

“We had pretty good luck with it,” he said.–Winchester Star

Splashing In A Stream Can Be Educational

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
THERE’S no better way to cool off on a steamy summer day than to lie in the riffles of a clear, cool stream. And curious naturalists are sure to discover an amazing array of aquatic life.

Fish, crayfish, and a variety of aquatic insects such as Water Striders and Whirligig Beetles are common and familiar, but a surprising variety of other invertebrates occur in freshwater. Add a few kids, and you’ve got a great learning opportunity.

Stream bottoms teem with life. The simplest technique for collecting samples of these organisms requires two or three people. The only equipment necessary is a minnow seine or even an old window screen, a plastic bucket, and perhaps a hand lens.

The kicker stands about 10 ft. upstream from the collectors, who hold the seine. The kicker then drags his feet along the stream bottom to disturb the gravel bed. He also flips larger flat rocks that rest on the bottom. Meanwhile, the collectors anchor the bottom of the seine/screen on the stream bed so nothing flows beneath the mesh. The current carries the debris into the mesh and after a few minutes, the catch can be transferred to the bucket for examination.

The most familiar organisms will be a surprising variety of clams and mussels. Freshwater bivalves range in size from tiny (less than one-quarter inch) to 10 inches, though I’ve seldom seen any even approaching that upper limit.

Freshwater bivalves, like their more familiar marine cousins, are filter feeders. Their presence indicates clean water, but pollutants can concentrate in their body tissues so I wouldn’t recommend eating freshwater bivalves.

Gravel stream bottoms are also home to myriad species of snails and larval aquatic insects. Be sure to examine the bottom of large rocks. The flat-bodied creatures that cling tenaciously to the undersides of submerged rocks are Stonefly and Mayfly larvae.

On the tip of the abdomen of Stonefly larva, you’ll see two tail-like filaments. Larval Mayflies have three such tails. Both are indicators of clean water and ecologically essential links in aquatic food chains.

My favorite aquatic insects are Caddisfly larva. Watch a shallow area of clear water carefully or the contents of the bucket after it settles, and you’ll notice moving cylinders of tiny pebbles or small bundles of woody material. Pick up one of these cases, and you’ll discover it’s home to an insect. On one end, you’ll find the head and thorax, complete with legs. The soft tissues of the abdomen are protected by the case that surrounds it.

Unlike turtles, whose shells are part of the skeletal system, Caddisfly larva build their own house and carry it on their back. The weight of the case helps anchor the larva in moving water, and it offers excellent camouflage when the larva rests.

The materials used to make the case vary greatly. Some use sand, some pebbles, and some plant materials. Some of the pebble-users actually build a spiral case that can easily pass for a snail.

Ben Stout, an aquatic ecologist at Wheeling Jesuit University, has made a career of studying Caddisflies.

“I consider them keystone species,” he said, “because they eat the leaf litter that accumulates in streams. Caddisfly activity fuels downstream ecosystems.”

That fly fishermen appreciate the ecological value of Caddisflies is evident by the many caddis patterns they use as lures, but Stout and his former wife, Kathy, discovered an even more lucrative value of these fascinating insects.

When provided with bits of precious and semi-precious stones in Stout’s indoor lab, larval Caddisflies incorporate the gems into their protective cases. When the adults mature, they leave the cases behind, and the Stouts have beautiful insect-made cases of gold, lapis, garnet, turquoise and any other gem stones they provide. Kathy then turns them into earrings, necklaces and pins, which can sell for tens to thousands of dollars. Only a biologist could turn insects into cheap labor force. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

EDITOR’S NOTE: To see samples of Kathy Stout’s jewelry, visit

One Fish, Two Fish, Boy Fish, Girl Fish?

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Ari Cetron
WHILE investigating the cause of some fish kills in the upper Potomac River, Vicki Blazer and a team of government scientists found a different problem.

The male fish—both largemouth and smallmouth bass—were exhibiting female characteristics, such as carrying egg cells.

Now Blazer’s group, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey, is studying both issues. While the focus of their study is fish, the scientists can’t ignore the possible effects downstream in the Potomac River near Washington, DC, where more than three million residents of the region get their drinking water.

“There is a concern in the human population,” said Blazer, a fish pathologist. “Fish actually have the same endocrine systems as humans have.”

The highest concentrations of fish with signs of gender problems were in the Shenandoah River, Monocacy Creek and the South Branch of the Potomac, Blazer said. They have also found some near Washington, D.C.’s Blue Plains treatment facility.

The culprit is likely something called an endocrine disruptor, Blazer said. “Endocrine disruptor” is an umbrella term which can refer to any of thousands of different chemical compounds.

“I think what people are finding are there are a lot of compounds that are endocrine disruptors,” said R. Christian Jones, a biologist at George Mason University.

The disruptors are similar to actual hormones in the body, such as estrogen, a female hormone. Estrogen is still present in males, but at lower levels. “Both males and females have the same hormones, just in different proportions,” Jones said.

When estrogen levels increase, the body starts to respond as if it were female, and produce female sex organs, Jones said.
The disruptors are not actually estrogen, but so similar that they fool the body. “It’s mimicking real endocrine compounds — real hormones,” Jones said.

So far only males have exhibited the symptoms of being “intersex,” Blazer said. Blazer and Jones both speculated that there could be a broad range of causes, from something like birth control pills — which could cause sewage to contain extra estrogen levels — to water contaminated by hormone-treated livestock.

Jones agreed with Blazer that there is a concern in humans, but he doubts it would be something as dramatic as is seen in fish. “In humans, maybe less body hair or a swelling of the breasts. It could be showing up in lower sperm counts, something as subtle as that,” Jones said.

Jones is optimistic that there will not be serious problems for humans because of the way local water utilities filter the region’s drinking water.

“I think there is cause for concern, but I think that a high percentage of these chemicals would be removed,” Jones said.

While most of whatever is causing the problem for fish might be removed before it reaches the tap in Fairfax homes, no one knows what a safe percentage would be. Since scientists have not yet been able to determine the exact cause, it is impossible to know if water treatment plants are targeting and removing the correct chemicals. Both Fairfax Water and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission are using advanced filtering techniques. Fairfax Water uses an activated carbon filter, combined with ozone, said Jeanne Bailey, a Fairfax Water spokeswoman.

“The reason we’re confident is our treatment in this has been successful to remove things in these broad categories,” Bailey said.

Fairfax water uses about 140 million gallons of water per day and serves about 1.5 million people, Bailey said. In addition to the normal federally mandated testing regime, they test for other chemicals. They also make contributions to water industry efforts to study this and other water-related issues.

“We want to know as much as everybody else,” Bailey said. “This is not an issue we’re asleep behind the wheel on.”

Jones said that the activated carbon filtering is one of the best methods, because it works to absorb organic compounds, including endocrine compounds. The ozone would be more likely to kill bacteria, Jones said. It may serve to destabilize the endocrine compounds, but he is unsure about its potential impact.

WSSC uses about 120 million gallons per day and serves about 1.6 million people, said Mohammad Habibian, environmental group leader. They use a method called coagulation which induces smaller particles to bond with larger ones. The larger particles are then more easily filtered out. They are also among the first in the nation to begin using ultraviolet radiation to treat the water, Habibian said.

Both utilities argue that the fish problem should not carry over into humans. Fish, they both said, are immersed in unfiltered water at all times, so are more likely to come into contact with whatever chemical is causing the problem. Additionally, whatever the fish eat could be contributing to their exposure.

“Fish may be exposed to a much higher concentration, not just through the water, but through the food chain,” Habibian said.

Jones said that people could have similar problems. Eating animals with elevated endocrine compounds might have a larger impact on people than drinking the filtered water.

“There are other sources of exposure,” he said. “There are just so many possibilities.”

While his company is continuing its work to filter the water, Habibian said that the more effective method would be to stop the problem at the source, by discovering it, and reducing the amount that runs off into the river.

“Everybody is doing water,” he said. “They are missing the big picture.” –Washington Post

Northern Shoveler’s Adaptation For Feeding Cool

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Michael Burke
A LARGE mixed flock of ducks and geese are busily feeding in a shallow pool. My eyes are drawn to a half dozen birds in the foreground. The iridescent green heads suggest Mallards, but the huge, broad bills irrefutably say, “Shovelers.” Those bills look slightly ridiculous—a classic duck bill, but expanded to comic-book proportions.

After an extraordinarily warm and sunny late fall day, the morning dawned cool and gray with a strong promise of rain. The annual Waterfowl Festival was concluding that day in Easton, MD, but we opted to pass up the exquisite artists’ renderings for a chance to see some of the Chesapeake Bay’s renowned water birds in the flesh.

I was heading off for serious orthopedic surgery, and this weekend was the last chance to get in some birding before I’m housebound during recovery.

The Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) has the biggest duck bill for its size of any North American species. The large, spatulate bill slopes nearly straight down from the top of the duck’s head, giving the impression that the bird has no forehead. Shovelers are slightly smaller than Mallards, but that over-size bill somehow makes them seem larger.

That silly beak serves a useful purpose, of course. Shovelers are dabblers, just like Mallards, Pintails and Teals. Mallards frequently tip up—that undignified feeding posture with head underwater and rear end skyward—as they feed on vegetation or bottom-dwelling organisms. Shovelers, on the other hand, are content to skim the surface of the water or shallow mud. That’s where the oversize bill, with its comb-like feature along the sides, earns its living.

The Shoveler’s tongue is similarly adapted. It has matching fringing along each side. Working in concert, the bill and tongue are quite effective in straining tiny organisms out of the water. The Shoveler uses the extremely large surface area of its big bill to filter huge quantities of pond water while efficiently capturing the nutritious organisms and seeds it finds there.

Shovelers are among the first winter ducks to arrive on the Chesapeake. It is early November and they are already well-established at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge along with hundreds of Mallards and Northern Pintails, not to mention thousands of Canada and Snow Geese.

The Shovelers come from North America’s most important duck nesting grounds, the “prairie pothole” area, a vast region centered in the northern Great Plains. These ducks breed in an area that includes all of the Canadian provinces west of Ontario and in the United States down to Nebraska and across to California. Usually, the only time they are seen east of the Mississippi is during migration or the winter. From November to spring, they inhabit an uninterrupted, narrow band down the California coast then straight across from Baja to Florida, and finally up the seaboard to the mid-Atlantic region.

Their nests are typically built in areas beyond the wetland edges. Males defend their territory and females, but only until incubation begins. Then the males retire to nearby ponds to molt. If nests are lost, the birds may re-breed, but not necessarily with the same mate.

Although some field guides suggest that the males don’t come into their full winter plumage until December, the Blackwater birds are already fully decked out. Shovelers, like many ducks, exhibit strong sexual dichromaticism—the term for when males and females show distinctly different color patterns. The males have that green head, a prominent yellow eye, and broad black bill.

With their stomachs hidden underwater, the birds we saw at Blackwater pond appear to have white breasts, chestnut sides and then another white splash before the tail. When they take off, though, we can see that their entire bodies are white except for those rufous sides. On top, they show a mixture of black and white while resting. In flight, pale blue shoulder patches are visible on each wing.

Females, as usual, are less dramatically colored. The black beak shows some yellow on the lower half. Their heads and bodies are a streaked brown. They share the pale blue shoulder patches with the males, although in females it tends more to gray than blue. Like the males, the underside of the wings is mostly white.

As I watch these birds busily eating their breakfast, though, I think that bill must be somewhat unwieldy when they’re not feeding. I even find myself wondering if that disproportionate size is a handicap during long migratory flights.

As I shift my weight off my aching hip, I wonder if there’s a flip side to my physical limitations, too. Maybe they will lead to a greater appreciation of nature’s elegance. Perhaps they helped to persuade my able-bodied housemates to rise before dawn to seek the solace of the refuge.

For now, though, it is time to put aside these thoughts and simply watch a Shoveler put his ponderous bill to good use. He has no need for such human concerns. And for a time, neither do I.–Bay Journal

No Refuge for Dwindling Amphibian Populations

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

EVEN in lowland, protected areas frogs, amphibians and related species are suffering from calamitous population declines, possibly as a result of climate change

Frogs and their fellow amphibians are disappearing worldwide and no one knows exactly why. In some areas, encroaching human activity has caused habitat changes or loss. In mountainous regions, a vicious fungal infection—chytridiomycosis—has wiped out entire populations.

But scientists had assumed that amphibian populations in protected, lowland areas were fine, continuing much as they have for millions of years. According to a new paper, though, they were wrong. “I assumed that the lowlands in terms of these sorts of issues were okay,” says Joseph Mendelson, an amphibian biologist at Zoo Atlanta. “This clearly indicates, by my estimation, a long-term decline in a fully protected area. It’s a disturbing pattern we are seeing over and over.”

Biologist Steven Whitfield of Florida International University in Miami and his colleagues collected long-term data from the La Selva Biological Station in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. Surveys of amphibian and reptile populations stretch back to 1970 and, by compiling this data, Whitfield and his colleagues detected a calamitous decline that no one had noticed: a 75 percent drop in the total amount of amphibians over that 35-year period. “The slow changes that we detected—about 4 percent less frogs and lizards each year—would be difficult to notice,” Whitfield says.

That kind of steep decline has an outsized impact on an ecosystem, says Mendelson, who was not involved with the research. “There’s a whole lot of things that aren’t being eaten, mostly insects,” he says. “And there are a whole lot of other creatures that don’t have prey.” And, although this is one of the few places with long-term records to prove it, it is unlikely to be the only place where such declines are occurring. “Think about all of Amazonia and the Congo basin,” he adds. “They are just as low.”

The decline is all the more ominous for not having a precise cause, the researchers reveal in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. No sign of fungal infection was found and no habitat loss has taken place. Whitfield and his colleagues can only surmise that perhaps climate change has reduced leaf litter, the cover the declining amphibians and reptiles rely on to survive. “It appears that climate here is getting warmer and more consistently wet,” Whitfield says. “This may impact leaf litter by increasing rates of decomposition or decreasing rates of litter fall.”

Whitfield is currently researching the cause and impact of the disappearance, which also raises questions about other ecosystems and species that may have been considered relatively safe until now. “Traditional conservation practices, putting a fence around a biological reserve and controlling things like logging, that’s not sufficient. It’s effectively disarmed us,” Mendelson says. “There is not going to be a simple fix to this. Ultimately, what you need to do is reverse climate change.”
–Scientific American

Matching Nature With Urban Population Growth

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Pat Brennan
UPPER NEWPORT BAY, CA– The payoff at the end of a winding walk along the marsh’s edge: a football-shaped nest, woven of grass, cupped in the branches of a cholla cactus.

The nest could stand as a symbol of success–so far, at least–for the Nature Reserve of Orange County, a 37,000-acre network of public and private land meant to be a permanent home for 39 native animal species.

The reserve marks its 10-year anniversary next month, one celebrated by Orange County scientists, conservationists and wildland managers, but likely to pass largely unnoticed by the public.

Even among those who use Orange County wilderness parks and open lands–many of them part of the reserve–the reserve’s existence is known only by a few.

The reserve grew out of the gnatcatcher wars of the early 1990s, when the federal listing of a small, gray songbird as a threatened species touched off a public policy crisis.

Much of the county was privately owned and ideally suited for lucrative development. And much of the same land was home to increasingly rare native species–with the California Gnatcatcher as their standard-bearer. It looked like landowners and activists would go head to head in a long and costly fight.

The reserve was a compromise: landowners, environmental activists, scientists and county planners sat down together to hammer out which parcels would be preserved and which developed.

In exchange for voluntarily setting aside some parcels for conservation, landowners would be granted streamlined approvals for developing other parcels, with less endangered-species red tape – a provision, known as “no surprises,” that is still being litigated by activists who oppose the idea.

The reserve–actually two clusters of land, one near Laguna Beach and one near the Cleveland National Forest–was approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 1996. It includes state and county park land that had already been set aside for protection, as well as 21,000 acres of land donated by the Irvine Co.

But the big advance, reserve planners said, was in how the land would be protected: all under a single umbrella of management intended to foster native habitat throughout the reserve, protecting 39 animal species and their habitats.

Initially called the “Natural Communities Conservation Plan,” and one of many similar plans developed around the state and nation, the reserve later received its less cumbersome name: the Nature Reserve of Orange County.

A second reserve of about 133,000 acres was approved by county supervisors last month for southern Orange County, but still awaits state and federal approval.

The nests at Upper Newport Bay are those of 10 relocated Cactus Wrens, which haven’t been seen in the area for years. The wrens, whose population has crashed in the coastal portion of the Nature Reserve since the Laguna Beach fire of 1993, were brought from an area further inland that was slated for development.

After five months, most of the wrens seem to be doing fine and even thriving in their new home, though two of the young have vanished, said Nature Reserve ecologist Milan Mitrovich. They might have become meals for hawks.

The wren relocation is a sign of the maturing science that has grown out of the reserve, where researchers are constantly sampling, measuring and observing to gauge whether wildlife is being protected. –Orange County Register

March Madness Means Name That Waterfowl

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway

LONGER, warmer days signal plants to grow, torpid animals to awaken and migratory birds to move northward.

Though most song birds won’t arrive until April or May, March is a great month to master waterfowl identification. Binoculars are essential; a spotting scope is helpful.

Swans and geese are noticeable on lakes and big rivers:
Tundra Swans: They are enormous white birds whose bulk defies gravity. They weigh up to 14 pounds with a wing span of five to six feet. Much rarer trumpeter swans, North America’s largest waterfowl, weigh in at 23 pounds with a wingspan of more than 61/2 feet.

Canada Geese: Easily recognized by the white chin strap on its black head and neck.

Snow Geese: In flight, the black outer flight feathers contrast with their snow white bodies.

Identifying ducks is more difficult because of all the different species. To practice identifying waterfowl visit lakes, farm ponds, beaver ponds and rivers, especially near dams. These are the habitats ducks frequent as they head north to nest.

When spotting a duck, the first thing to notice is how it behaves on the water. If it feeds on the surface by tipping its hind ends into the air and stretching its neck beneath the water, it’s a dabbling or puddle duck, a group that includes woodies, mallards, blacks, gadwalls, pintails, wigeons, shovelers and teal. In taking flight, dabblers jump directly upward off the water.

If, on the other hand, a duck dives to feed, it’s a diver, a group that includes canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necks, scaup, goldeneyes, buffleheads and ruddy ducks. When divers take flight, they must patter along the surface to get airborne. That’s because their legs sit to the rear of the body to facilitate diving.

Here’s a brief guide to the key characteristics of male ducks you might encounter on local waterways. Females are duller and require a bit more experience to identify:

The Dabblers
Wood Duck: Sports a conspicuous slick-backed crest, multi-colored, red eye ring, red bill, white throat and cheek markings.

Mallard: Green head, white collar, yellow bill, chestnut breast and curly tail.

Black Duck: Suggests a very dark hen mallard. Note the violet patch (speculum) on the wing.

Gadwall: Drab, black butt, white belly, white and chestnut patch on the wings in flight

Pintail: Chocolate brown head, white breast with narrow finger extending up the neck, long pointed tail.

Wigeon: White forehead and crown, green mask and white shoulder patch in flight.

Shoveler: Green head, large spatula-shaped bill, white breast, brown sides and powder blue shoulder patch in flight.

Teal: Two species, both small. Blue-winged teal shows a powder blue shoulder patch in flight and wears an obvious white crescent on its face. Green-winged teal is the smallest dabbler. Look for a chestnut head with a green ear patch.

The Divers
Rusty head, profile of the head is angular, black breast.

Redhead: Rusty head like the canvasback, but the profile of the head is a bit concave rather than angular. Breast black, back gray.

Ring-necks: It has a white ring near the bill tip, and the head may appear pointed. Dark head, breast, and back, and the sides are gray.

Scaup: Two species, greater and lesser scaup, and distinguishing them is an advanced skill. Both have a dark head and breast, gray backs and pale sides

Common Goldeneye: Dark head with round white cheek patch, breast and sides are white

Bufflehead: A small bird with a dark head with large white bonnet and white breast and sides.

Mergansers: Three species, all have “toothed” bill for catching fish. The Common Merganser is large with a green head with red bill. The Red-breasted Merganser has a green head with a shaggy crest, white collar, and streaked breast. The Hooded Merganser has a black bill on a black-crested head. When the crest is fanned, a large white patch appears.

Ruddy duck: A chunky, compact duck. The tail is often cocked upward, the head is dark with large white cheeks, blue bill and chestnut body.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Giant Squid Invade Monterey Bay

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Paul Rogers
IT SOUNDS like something out of a monster movie.

A mysterious sea creature, up to 7 ft. long, weighing up to 100 pounds. It hunts in packs of hundreds, flying through the water at 25 mph, changing color. With a parrot-like beak and arms covered with thousands of sharp barbs, it attacks and tries to eat nearly anything it sees, including fish, scuba divers, even its own kind.

But it’s not a creature of Hollywood. It’s real. And it’s reached the Monterey Bay. The Humboldt Squid, also known as the Giant Squid or Jumbo Squid, traditionally has lived in warm waters off South America and Mexico, where fishermen call it “diablo rojo,” or “red devil.”

For reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, large numbers of the scrappy cephalopods have been steadily expanding their range north, first off San Diego and Los Angeles, where hundreds have washed up on beaches in recent years. Now they appear to have taken up residence in Monterey Bay, according to a study released last week by researchers from Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) compiled with more than 16 years of underwater video.

“These are aggressive, pugnacious bullies, said Bruce Robison, senior scientist at MBARI, based in Moss Landing. “They are a sight to behold.”

The invasion has sparked the interest of recreational fishermen, who fight to land them like Marlins. It has piqued the curiosity of some chefs, who say they can be cooked like Calamari. And it has drawn wary attention from fisheries biologists, who are concerned that the voracious invertebrates could deplete commercial fisheries like Hake, known as Pacific Whiting, a common ingredient in frozen fish sticks, or Rockfish, which are sold in restaurants as “Red Snapper.”

“When it moves into an area, it can potentially have drastic impacts,” said Louis Zeidberg, a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. “We’ve yet to see how that is going to play out, but it could change things.”

Tom Mattusch, of El Granada, runs recreational fishing trips on his 53-ft. charter boat, the Huli Cat, based in Half Moon Bay.

“This is like the creature from the black lagoon. They are very strange looking,” he said with a chuckle. “Nobody here has ever caught anything like this. They fight so much, they are a real bear to pull in,” he added. “I’ve seen big heavy construction workers after catching two or three look like they’ve been worked over by a prize fighter.”

Zeidberg and Robison concluded that the Humboldt squid have become a permanent presence in Monterey Bay since about 2002. They published their findings this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prominent scientific journal. The duo reviewed video footage that Robison and other researchers shot around Monterey Bay from more than 3,000 dives with unmanned submersibles back to 1991.

They didn’t see any Humboldt squid until 1997. Then, during an El Niño year–when Pacific waters warm and currents change–they noticed some, but the animals disappeared. There were only one or two a year spotted until 2002, another mild El Niño year. But after that, the squid, which live to be only one or two years old, were seen on almost every dive.

Because the squid dive as deep as 3,000 ft. and have been filmed hunting Krill, Lanternfishes, Hake and other animals in a wide temperature range from 37 degrees in Monterey Bay to 90 degrees in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Robison and Zeidberg say they don’t think global warming or other temperature changes are driving the expansion.

Instead, they suspect that the squid’s range has expanded because fishing has reduced the populations of predators such as large tuna, Marlins and Swordfish that eat them in their natural range off South America. Similarly, some smaller species of tuna, which compete with squid for food, also have been reduced.

“It’s an indication that looking at the entire Pacific Ocean, things are out of whack,” said Zeidberg. “You’ve got this sort of weird species spreading out into areas that it has never really taken up residence before,” he said. “It’s an indication the overall health of the ocean is not as good as it should be. We need to figure out exactly what is causing this range expansion, and find some kind of political or economic solution.”

Humboldt squid have occasionally been spotted off San Francisco, Bodega Bay, even as far north as British Columbia. They are fished commercially in Mexico and off South America. Recreational fishermen in Monterey Bay have been catching them in the past two years.

Mattusch, the charter boat operator, said anglers drop up to 1,000 ft. of line in water 20 miles off Half Moon Bay, and catch the animals on a 20-inch-long metal barbed jig that has glow-in-the-dark plastic lures. When they are pulled into the boat, they can spray water and ink up to 20 ft. in the air. Sometimes hundreds of other squid surround the boat, attacking the hooked squid.

The squid are not to be confused with a species of Giant Squid known as Architeuthis that can grow up to 60 ft. Those are the stuff of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and other fantastic stories. Last year, for the first time, a 30-ft. Giant Squid was filmed off Japan, although none has ever been filmed in Monterey Bay, said Robison.

Humboldt squid have attacked divers filming documentaries in Mexico, dislocating the shoulder and tearing the wetsuit of one. So do California divers and swimmers need to worry?

“I don’t really think they are going to want to get into the water where people are,” Zeidberg said, noting their deep-water habits. “It doesn’t seem like there’s enough food for them, and that’s not their normal habitat.” But, he said, they sure can get imaginations racing.

“It’s not a coincidence,” he joked, “that a lot of the space aliens in movies do seem to look like squid.”–San Jose Mercury News

Foreign Invaders Threaten Gardens, Woods

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Jim Minick
ALIEN INVASIVES don’t fly into your backyard from Neptune, nor do they have three eyes or beam hostages up into their UFOs. But sometimes they do strike fear into the hearts of those who recognize them. Or they should.

Alien invasives, those in our backyards, woods, and waterways, are non-native plants, animals and insects that get a root-, claw-, or foothold on our land. They may appear innocuous, but in reality they prove harmful to human health, the environment, and our economy. By some estimates, invasives cost the United States over $100 billion a year.

Yet every spring, the annual crop of gardening catalogs arrives full of photographs inviting us to buy these plants. You can purchase Russian olive shrubs, mimosa trees or even bittersweet, a vine that scales trees and smothers them. One catalog boasts that it “produces sunny yellow seed pods that give way to bright red, decorative berries.” The songbirds and floral industry “love” this “attractive plant, and so will you!” All yours, two for $7.99.

Every time I see bittersweet I remember a friend who labored years to eradicate it from his farm. He cut trees, burned vines, and sweated to restore his land. Ironically, my friend’s work was funded by government grants. The paradox here is that prevention — stopping these species from entering our country — is cheaper and easier than eradication. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences verifies this.

Researchers analyzed Australia’s policies regarding invasive plants. They found a screening program that prevents entry of unwanted invasives and paid for itself in 10 years while protecting that country’s environment and saving its economy millions of dollars. As David Lodge, a co-author, commented, “Screening is the next step in improving U.S. policy.”

The savings often come from avoiding the expensive measures to eliminate pests. In 2003, for example, federal and state agencies spent more than $14 million to slow the spread of the gypsy moths in a 10-state area that included much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Yet, the United States has no invasive-plant screening program. Hence, I can buy that bittersweet if I want, regardless of the consequences.

Why all the worry? Because they can spread quickly and have few predators, these invaders can wreck an ecosystem. Take garlic mustard, a biennial herb now found throughout the mid-Atlantic. Garlic mustard has two unique qualities: it tolerates shade and it kills soil fungi.

This translates into an ability to spread into mature forests and create profound changes. Scientists discovered that the fungi that garlic mustard kills are essential to dominant hardwoods like maple and ash. Seedlings from these trees did not grow where garlic mustard established itself. So what will these forests look like in 50 years when no seedlings exist to replace canopy trees as they die?

Or take the nutria, a muskrat-like mammal imported from South America around 1900 for its fur, which never became popular. The nutria escaped, produced as prolifically as rabbits, and are now found along the Gulf Coast, the Atlantic seaboard, and in the Pacific Northwest. They have decimated thousands of acres of mid-Atlantic marshland. In a single Maryland county, experts estimate nutria destroyed more than 7,000 acres of salt marsh in the last 40 years.

Or consider the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny aphid-like insect from Japan that has already killed thousands of hemlock trees in the mid-Atlantic. These miniscule creatures suck the life out of 80-foot trees. Once struck, the hemlock usually dies within five years.

We already lost the chestnut tree to a foreign blight; what will happen to our cool mountain streams once the evergreen hemlock also disappears?
Though invasives have forever altered many ecosystems, we humans can save what’s left. For starters, Congress must create an effective screening program,like Australia’s, that outlaws the sale of invasive plants and animals.

Until Congress does this, people can educate themselves and others, eradicate these invaders from their property, and stop buying these plants. Likewise, citizens can urge their state legislators to enact restrictions. For example, Massachusetts has outlawed barberry and burning bush.

One last solution: eat a few of these foreigners. Joe Franke, author of “The Invasive Species Cookbook,” claims that “it’s time to put all of those grumbling stomachs … to work in a way that benefits biodiversity conservation.” Franke provides recipes for hundreds of ways to do your ecological duty while filling your bellies for free.

As Franke claims, “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

Maybe it’s time. –-The Capital

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Minick teaches English at Radford University, writes a column for the Roanoke Times New River Current and is author of “Finding a Clear Path,” a book of essays.  

De-Hooked Brown Pelican One Of The Lucky Birds

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Kelly Cuculiansky
NEW SMYRNA BEACH, FL– As a Marine Discovery Center boat floated past an island with birds perched on branches, one lonely brown pelican struggled on the ground.

Passengers, who were enrolled in the Florida Master Naturalist Program on coastal ecosystems, had learned in past weeks how important it is to properly dispose of fishing line.

And on Wednesday afternoon, they saw why. With the boat anchored near the island, three passengers quickly tromped through the shallow Indian River Lagoon to shore. Though most birds flutter away at the sight of humans balancing in the foul mud, the pelican tangled in monofilament didn’t have a choice.

At a quick and quiet pace, Debra Marsicano, education coordinator for the Marine Science Center, draped a towel over the pelican’s eyes so Chad Truxall could treat the injured bird. As she held the pelican’s beak, Truxall, education director for the Marine Discovery Center, found a fishing hook in the bird’s wing.

With the help of Lou King, the center’s education assistant, the trio held the pelican still and removed the fishing line and the hook with pliers.Pained by the injury, the pelican escaped into the water and held its wounded wing up as it floated away. Onlookers in the boat cheered.

Marsicano said the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet sees similar cases almost every day.

“Fishermen think they should just cut the line, but that’s almost a death sentence,” she said.

Once the tangled bird reaches an island, the animal will become further tangled in vegetation and can starve to death. At least two dead birds on the island met such a fate, Marsicano said.

“Death is imminent once they roost for the night,” she said. “They get tangled and they can’t pull away.”

Brown pelicans often are caught in fishing line because they are opportunistic, lingering too close to anglers for a meal. Feeding them only will encourage the birds to stay in the area.

The ideal situation is to reel the bird in if it has become caught on a line and remove the hook and monofilament, which can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Anglers should hold the bird’s beak and have a towel handy to cover its eyes and hold its wings to safely remove the hook.

For those who are not comfortable or are unsuccessful removing a hook or monofilament, there are drop-off cages at the Marine Science Center’s seabird rehabilitation sanctuary.

Decomposers Are Natures Garbage Men

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
HAVE YOU ever noticed how quickly road kills disappear? Sometimes vultures or crows are responsible, but often it just seems to vanish. It’s the work of decomposers–bacteria, fungi and myriad invertebrates whose ecological niche is to recycle organic matter. Without these organisms, the planet would quickly become a giant compost pile.

Though decomposers perform an invaluable ecological service, their role in nature is often minimized or even dismissed. Biologists prefer to concentrate their attention on higher organisms, especially those that don’t stink.

But it may be that the odors associated with decomposers may be more than by-products of their actions. It may be that decomposers compete with larger scavengers by producing repugnant chemicals that actually discourage larger consumers.

This notion was first suggested by ecologist Dan Janzen in a paper published in 1977 entitled, “Why Fruits Rot, Seeds Mold, and Meat Spoils.” He suggested that microbes make dead stuff distasteful or even harmful to other animals, thus minimizing competition with higher organisms.

This is a fascinating twist on our typical attitude toward decomposers. It vaults them from simple, easy-to-ignore nutrient recyclers to sophisticated ecological competitors.

A paper in the current issue of Ecology reports on a series of field and lab studies that test this notion in a marine ecosystem. Biologists from Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) led by biology professor Mark Hay demonstrate that microbes do indeed affect the appeal of dead flesh to scavengers.

To test whether aged meat attracts fewer consumers than fresher meat, researchers baited crab traps with Menhaden (a bait fish) that had been rotting in a pool of warm water. They also baited other traps with freshly thawed Menhaden, which contained relatively few microbes. Then they set the traps in salt marshes and caught hundreds of Stone Crabs, as well as other crab species, fishes and snails.

Many more animals were attracted to the freshly thawed bait than the rotten fish.

Counting the scavengers found in the traps confirmed the attractiveness of the various baits, but it didn’t necessarily test feeding, Hay noted. “It could be that the rotten food is just as good, but a lot of the good smells have leached out in the water, so maybe it’s just food that’s harder for predators to find.”

Researchers addressed their questions about feeding by conducting laboratory experiments. To eliminate food avoidance because of texture, they fed Stone Crabs, Lesser Blue Crabs and Striped Hermit Crabs noodle-like test foods made from pureed forms of either the freshly thawed Menhaden or the rotten bait. They found that, no matter the rotten bait’s texture, Stone Crabs avoided eating the rotted, microbe-laden food, but readily consumed the freshly thawed Menhaden containing few microbes.

“Even when the stone crabs were handed the rotten fish, they didn’t want to eat it,” Hay said.

Next, researchers tested whether microbes directly affected the palatability of microbe-laden, rotting food. They placed Menhaden in two pools for two days–one group in seawater where microbes were allowed to grow naturally and the other in seawater with an antibiotic added to suppress microbe growth. In the lab, Stone Crabs readily ate both freshly thawed Menhaden and fish that had soaked in water with antibiotics, but refused to eat the rotten fish not protected from microbial attack.

To determine if reducing bacterial growth affected an animal’s ability to find the bait, researchers also repeated the trapping experiment in the marsh, but used newly thawed fish, fish soaked in antibiotic treated water and fish aged without antibiotics. They found that both freshly thawed bait and aged, antibiotic-treated bait attracted animals more frequently than traps containing aged, microbe-laden Menhaden.

Microbes are everywhere, and Hay argues that they are not passive scavengers. He hopes this research will make ecologists think more critically about the broad role of microbes in ecosystems. Microbes are often omitted or relegated to a minor role in food web diagrams, but they should be depicted as direct competitors with larger animals.

The next step is for someone to do experiments with road kills to determine if terrestrial decomposers operate similarly. My hunch is that they do. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Brookies Hang Out In Some Of The Coolest Spots

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway

TROUT FISHING can be simple or complicated. When I was a kid, I caught trout using worms and dough balls on a bare hook. As an adult, I’ve seen fly anglers with thousands of dollars of equipment hook plenty of trout, and I’ve watched both types of anglers go home empty-handed.

As is often the case with outdoor activities, it’s not the equipment that determines success. It’s knowledge. Successful anglers, young or old, know their fish.

Trout require clean, cold, or at least cool, water. Stocked trout like it about 57 degrees, slightly warmer than the optimal temperature for those raised in the wild. As a rule of thumb, rainbows prefer the warmer pools and Pennsylvania’s state fish, the brook trout, like it cooler.

Brookies are more tolerant of acidity than their immigrant cousins, but far more sensitive to water temperature. While browns and rainbows can survive in water that reaches 80 degrees, brook trout will die of thermal shock when the water temperature reaches 75.

Trout waters must also be rich in oxygen, and oxygen content is tied to temperature. As the water’s temperature increases, its ability to dissolve oxygen decreases. That means water loses oxygen as it warms; conversely cold water holds more oxygen.

Water temperature can be dramatically altered by human activities. Logging activity for timber sales, housing development and other commercial ventures destroy shade along trout streams and cause water temperature to rise, thus destroying those waters as trout habitat.

Water pollution from organic sources, such as septic and sewer systems, likewise causes oxygen depletion because of bacteria decomposing the excess organic matter. And in coal country, flowing waters produce sulfuric acid as they flow over rocks high in sulfur compounds, and acidification makes streams uninhabitable by trout.

Just as every successful trout angler recognizes the importance of water quality, they must also have at least a basic understanding of why trout eat what they do.

Trout are visual predators that opportunistically eat a wide variety of foods. Trout prey consists of three basic types: small aquatic invertebrates, terrestrial invertebrates that fall into streams and larger prey such as crayfish, fish and frogs.

Small aquatic invertebrates present themselves to trout as they drift in a stream’s current. This “invertebrate drift” peaks just before dawn and just after dark, perhaps an adaptation to avoid hungry fish. Because trout are visual predators, they feed most actively when food is most readily available, at dawn and dusk. Skilled, experienced anglers can tempt trout throughout the day, but fishing conditions are usually best when fish are naturally feeding.

At certain times of the year, certain insects are available at the surface in great numbers. During mayfly hatches, when adult mayflies emerge at the water’s surface, they provide a virtually unlimited food source. Unfortunately, from the trout’s perspective, such hatches generally last only a few days.

Throughout the summer flying ants, bees, wasps, flies and grasshoppers find their way onto the water’s surface and into the mouths of trout. As trout approach 10 inches long, they get big enough to eat crayfish, frogs and an occasional careless mouse or bird.

Fly fisherman, of course, are intimately familiar with the seasonal diet of trout. In fact, fly fishing is defined by the lures that mimic potential trout prey. Dry flies float on the surface and simulate mayflies, stoneflies, caddis flies, wasps, bees and anything else that might float on the water’s surface. Wet flies and nymphs simulate adult and larval aquatic invertebrates and sink below the water’s surface, and streamers suggest minnows.

Like a magician performing a sleight of hand illusion, a fly angler aspires to trick the trout into striking the artificial lure. And based on the growing popularity of fly fishing–14.7 million participants in 2005–such effects are worth their weight in gold. According to the American Fly-Fishing Trade Association, retail sales for fly fishing totaled $727.3 million in 2004.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Brook Trout Are Real Naturals

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
WHEN throngs of anglers gather along streams and swiftly flowing rivers in the spring, it means only one thing. It’s trout season.

Three species of trout fuel the quest on inland waters, though only one, the Brook Trout, is native to the eastern U.S.

The Brook Trout story begins in the fall. Shorter days and colder water temperatures trigger hormonal changes in the Brook Trout that inhabit cold, clear waterways. Males’ bellies and lower fins turn crimson. The blue-haloed red spots that dot the brookies’ sides sparkle. Bright white bands line the edges of the fins. And their lower jaws grow and turn upward.

The outward appearance of the females changes little. Internally, however, females transform into egg-making machines. Brook Trout spawn in the fall. Along the shores of Beaver ponds, small rivers and even the tiniest spring-fed mountain streams, females choose the spawning site. The gravel and stones that will hold the eggs must be rather large–1 to 10 inches in diameter. The water must be between 40 and 55 degrees. And most importantly, there must be an upwelling of ground water directly beneath the nest or at least a current to carry away silt and sediments.

When a female finds a site that meets her requirements, she builds the nest, or “redd,” as ichthyologists call it. She nestles herself tightly against the stream bed and violently swims in place, writhing her body back and forth creating a saucer in the gravel.

The female’s nest-building activity attracts males to the redd. When the female is ready to spawn, she drags her anal fin through the nest. In an act that lasts barely three or four seconds, the female opens her mouth widely and arches her back. Likewise, the male gapes, and a shiver-like action wracks his body. Simultaneously, the female releases her eggs, and the male discharges a dose of milt (sperm). The milky cloud settles into the redd. The spawn is complete.

The male leaves immediately. The female completes the redd by using her fins to shovel a load of clean gravel atop the fertilized eggs. The eggs are now hidden, safe and ready for a winter of dormancy. A few days later the female builds a new redd and repeats the ritual.

The eggs hatch in early March. The fry work their way up through the gravel. After resorbing the yolk sac, small fry eat plankton. Fingerlings switch to larger prey such as aquatic insects and other invertebrates. Under ideal conditions, Brook Trout can reach 3 to 4 pounds in three years.

The Brown Trout was first introduced to the United States in the late 1800s from locations in Europe. It has adapted well, perhaps because it tolerates a wider range of silt load and temperature, and often displaces Brook Trout. Like brookies, browns spawn in the fall when water temperature dip into the upper 40s.

Rainbow Trout, native to western North America and now stocked in most states where cool waters occur, spawn in the spring as water temperatures reach 50 degrees. Natural reproducing populations are uncommon. Anglers rely on state-run hatcheries to stock them.

Occasionally anglers will land Golden Rainbow or Palomino Trout. Not to be confused with the true Golden Trout found in California, Golden Rainbows were developed as a color mutation of the Rainbow Trout in a West Virginia hatchery in the early 1960s.

This year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will release 463,890 Brook Trout, 877,550 Brown Trout and 1,394,060 Rainbow Trout, including 7,485 trophy Golden Trout, into 745 streams. Another 684,100 trout will be stocked in lakes. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Beginning On The Right Webbed Foot

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Michael Burke
THE TEMPERATURE was a few degrees above freezing and the evening darkness was just starting to give way to the New Year as we entered the wildlife refuge.

Sliding past scores of ducks and Canada Geese as they began to grow restless on the first pond, we drove through a short stretch of loblolly pines and headed out onto the dikes.

To our right, thousands of Snow Geese blanketed the waters. The sun wouldn’t officially rise for another half hour, but this was already turning into be one of those brilliant winter mornings.

We quietly slipped out of the car, binoculars in hand.

Sporadic wing flapping and honking made the whole pond seem alive. And then—with a thunderous boom—the flock took to its wings, rising off the water like a skein of brilliant white yarn unraveling itself against the rosy dawn. The noise was near-deafening, as raucous geese honked madly and their wings beat against the morning sky. They rose with an awkward grace. Five thousand Snow Geese had just announced the arrival of 2006.

The Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) is about two-thirds the size of its more familiar cousin, the Canada Goose. The pure, white feathers on its head, body and wings are set off by wingtips of inky black. When the bird is resting on the water, this tucked-back wingtip looks like a short black tail on an otherwise all-white bird.

In spite of its name, not all Snow Geese are white. A dark morph, with bluish-gray upper parts and a brownish-gray underneath, has only a white upper neck and head, and is commonly referred to as a “blue goose.” Juveniles also lack the distinctive color of the most common form.

All Snow Geese have pink feet and a rather short, heavy pink bill with a black “grin” patch. The geese use those bills effectively in digging out and biting off tubers and the roots of marsh plants that constitute an important part of their diet.

As we had just witnessed, first light sends most Snow Geese off the ponds they use as nocturnal refuge. They fly across the countryside, where they will spend the day feeding on the remains of agricultural crops. As dusk approaches, they once again congregate in huge mats like the ones we saw at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on the Delmarva’s Eastern Shore.

Centuries ago, Snow Geese were common in the Chesapeake region. But the usual culprits, exploitative commercial hunting coupled with loss of habitat, decimated their numbers.

By the 1960s, Snow Geese were rare in these tidal areas. But limits on commercial hunting and the spread of the nation’s magnificent wildlife refuge system have led to a population explosion. Some experts now estimate that more than 500,000 Snow Geese annually winter on the coastal marshes of the Atlantic seaboard. Even more drop down from their Arctic breeding grounds every fall into the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Valley, New Mexico, Mexico and the Gulf regions. The numbers have grown so large that biologists now worry that snow geese are putting too much pressure on tundra breeding areas.

Like many other species in their subfamily, Anserinae, Snow Geese frequently mate for life.

Often, the young stay with their parents through the first winter, exhibiting family bonds that are unusual in the avian world. Although the sexes are similar in appearance, only the female incubates the eggs on the small islands where they nest in the northernmost parts of North America. Both parents brood and protect the young.

When snow and ice threaten to cut off the birds’ food supply, Snow Geese head south, and will migrate during day or night. According to ornithologist David Allen Sibley, there are records of Snow Geese flying as high as 20,000 ft. during mass migrations.

As with many bird species, the full range of biology and behavior of Snow Geese is of interest to me. But on that magnificent morning, I wasn’t looking at those birds with a clinical eye. We had told family and friends that we were going birding. But a desire to see promise and hope and new beginnings was the real reason for our trip.

As the thousands of Snow Geese lifted in unison, for a moment our hearts soared with them. The New Year dawned with this simple recognition: Moments of unspeakable beauty are still possible.
–Bay Journal

Barnacles: We’re Stuck With Them

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Kathy Reshetiloff
BARNACLES. These cone-shaped, shelled animals that attach to piers, boats and driftwood fool people into believing they are mollusks.

Mollusks, which include clams and snails, are soft-bodied animals enclosed in a hard calcareous shell. At first glance, a barnacle looks like a mollusk, as it is entirely enclosed in a hard shell and does not appear to have any legs.

But the barnacle is actually a crustacean, more closely related to crabs and shrimp. Crustaceans are characterized by a hard exoskeleton and jointed legs. Hidden by its external shell, a barnacle has been described as a “shrimp-like animal…in a limestone house.”

A barnacle’s shell is actually six overlapping plates with an opening at the top covered by two hard flaps. When submerged in water, the two flaps, acting as doors, open up, and the barnacle unfolds a fan of feathery legs. Upon closer inspection, one sees the jointed legs that make up this fan. The barnacle will wave these legs through the water to sweep tiny food particles into its “shell.”

Barnacles are hermaphroditic, each individual possessing both male and female organs. To reproduce, though, a barnacle’s eggs must be fertilized by another individual. This is accomplished by a sperm tube that protrudes from one barnacle into a neighboring one.

Fertilized eggs are nurtured in the barnacle until they hatch into tiny larvae and are released into the water during May and June, when the water is thick with literally thousands of larvae. Barnacle larvae are a favorite food for many young fish and are consumed in such large numbers that few of the larvae settle and develop into adults.

Barnacle larvae pass through two stages. The first stage, the nauplii, is a triangular form that exists for a few days before molting into the cypris, which looks like tiny transparent seeds. The cypris larvae swim about for a few days searching for a suitable place to attach. Cypris larvae often attach to areas occupied by other barnacles of the same species.

It is thought that a chemical released by older barnacles attracts the cypris larvae. The cypris attaches itself at its head using cement secreted by its antennal glands. After its attachment, the barnacle begins to produce the calcareous plates that will encase it.

The barnacle’s shell, composed of calcium carbonate, grows along with the animal. The shell is enlarged by adding calcium carbonate along the edges of each plate, increasing the size of the inside cavity. Then, like other crustaceans, the barnacle sheds its old exoskeleton.

Barnacles adhere to piers, boats, plants, rocks and shells in the intertidal zone. This is an area that is submerged by tides and then exposed to air as the tides recede. When the barnacle is exposed to the air during low tide, the two flaps shut tightly. This keeps the animal inside moist until the tide rises again.

Barnacles, though well protected, are susceptible to dryness, extreme cold and harsh winds. Many animals feed on barnacles including sponges and bryozoans, which grow over and smother them, and worms-especially the little oyster flatworm.

Of course, anyone who owns a boat, curses these tiny creatures and the tedious and difficult task of removing them. But barnacles are a necessary part of the Chesapeake Bay food chain, removing particles from water and providing food to other animals.

Barnacles…yeah we’re stuck with them! –Bay Journal

Wildlife Are Here To Stay

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

MOST PEOPLE take the indigenous wildlife in stride. It’s fun to see the occasional deer, raccoon, opossum, or maybe even a coyote.

We need to remember that wildlife was here first. The western expansion has limited the area for wildlife to live and raise their young. As life in the woods and storm sewers becomes more crowded, wildlife will spread out into homeowners’ properties, such as attics, sheds, decks and woodpiles to nest and raise their families.

Wildlife is here to stay, so we need to learn to adapt. Trapping and relocating is not the answer to eradicate a species from an area, and trapping is really not the business of animal control. So it is necessary to look for other alternatives.

Homeowners need to look at what drew the animal in the first place. Until that particular problem is solved, you will always draw opportunistic critters just looking for a place to live and raise their young. No yard is completely wildlifeproof, but measures can be taken to minimize a chance of an animal staking a claim on your property.

For some, adopting a dog will solve most of the critter problems. In other cases, you will need to take a good look around your property. See what might be drawing the critters to your home, which might include a low deck, a shed, or even wood or brush piles. Food for other wildlife like birdseed, or even food left out for your own dog. The grease from barbecues has also become a big draw in recent years. Find the potential problems and you can limit your wildlife visitors.

What Do You Do With ‘Slobs’?

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway

ONE OF THE BEST things about birding is the people.

They’re friendly, kind, funny, and eager to share information. If my assessment of birders sounds almost too good to be true, it is. Every few years a story reminds us that every group of people has bad apples, and that includes birders. Yes, I’m sad to report, there are slob birders…

The term “slob” in an outdoors story usually refers to hunters who trespass, litter or don’t close gates. Slob anglers are those who litter streams and lake shores with tangles of fishing line. Of course, every group has its slobs — obnoxious parents at school events, drunks at football games, and wildlife photographers who think it’s their God-given right to cut in front of watchers for a great shot, to name a few.

A few weeks ago an immature Purple Gallinule was reported in eastern Pennsylvania, and the location was posted on the internet. Though common in Florida, a Purple Gallinule in Pennsylvania is akin to an NFL player showing up at a high school football game. Everyone wants a peek.

In the Internet posting, birders were reminded not to trespass or harass the bird. Over the course of the next week the gallinule stayed in the area and many birders got to see it. And most behaved admirably. But a few were seen traipsing around the pond trying to flush the bird for a better view. That is exactly what not to do, and several outraged birders vented their feeling on PABIRDS.

Among the suggestions that emerged from the discussion was that ethical birders should engage offenders and explain the harm of improper behavior. Some people may simply not know any better. Of course, unsolicited advice often falls on deaf ears. But it’s worth a try.

Another suggestion was that, in this electronic age, anyone with a cell phone/camera should take pictures of the guilty parties and post them on statewide birding Web sites. Peer pressure and fear of exposure might be more effective than lectures from strangers.

Fortunately, slob birders are rare. But just as slob hunters give all hunters a bad name, slob birders can soil the reputations of all birders.

Since birders aren’t subject to official regulations, we must police ourselves. Here are some guidelines for birders to follow when in the field. (It’s good advice for hunters, anglers, and photographers, too.)

Respect private property. Ask permission before entering a farmer’s woodlot or someone’s backyard. Offer identification, and give the landowner a card with your name, address, phone number, and vehicle license number.

It may seem unnecessary to remind people to ask permission to enter a stranger’s backyard, but when a “good” bird shows up, some birders shed their common sense. It may not seem a big deal to take a quick peek, but after word of a rare bird spreads, literally hundreds of people sometimes show up.

After getting permission, don’t assume you’re free to tell the world. Ask for permission to tell others of the special location. Explain that dozens or even hundreds more birders might arrive within hours when word gets out. If the landowner doesn’t want to be bothered, respect his wishes.

On farms, leave gates as you find them, don’t trample crops, and don’t disturb livestock.

Get your vehicle completely off the road; park safely and legally.

Be aware that a group of people with binoculars strolling through a residential neighborhood arouses suspicion. Neighbors may call police, and you may be questioned. Be prepared to explain your passion for birding.

Don’t harass target birds. When birds show up in unexpected places, they are under stress to find food and cover. The last thing they need is a bunch of birders chasing them. Be patient. With time, most birds reveal themselves.

Tread lightly. Stay on trails. Even in parks and other public places, resist the urge to wander off trails. Ground cover is fragile and easily destroyed.

And if ever in doubt, keep it simple — do no harm. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

How to Create a Wildlife Habitat Plan

Friday, June 25th, 2010

A plan provides you with a clear picture of the completed project and a road map on how to get there.

The greater the number and variety of habitat components that you provide… the more wildlife you will have to observe and enjoy. Those of you with acreages or farms usually have numerous opportunities to observe wildlife in their habitat. But, for those of you who live in or near urban areas, this may be limited to several days or weekends during the year when you are on vacation.

This doesn’t have to be the case. If you are limited on being able to go where there are wildlife, why not establish or enhance the wildlife habitat where you live and bring the wildlife to you.

You will save yourself energy, money, and the frustration of having to do parts of your habitat over again if you follow a plan. It can be flexible enough for you to alter your plan as you go along, if your needs or conditions change.

And, it can be done no matter what your budget. Keep in mind that shrubs are more desirable than trees since shrubs provide habitat quicker and at less cost. Trees generally take longer to grow to maturity and cost more.

While doing your plan, you have an opportunity to really get creative and have some fun! In fact, this is a great family activity. What better legacy for your children or friends than an appreciation of nature. Creating or enhancing your wildlife habitat can lead to father-son, mother-daughter, and entire family projects.

Oftentimes, these activities produce fond memories that we carry with us for the rest of our lives – or at least until our children do the same things for their children.

Now, move ahead to Step 1:

Step 1:

What are your primary interests?

  • Bird watching
  • Teaching or sharing nature experience
  • Nature photography
  • Hunting
  • Other nature interests

Do you want to observe wildlife from a specific window or door of your home? If yes, which?

If you want to observe or make photographs, where is the best place to install a feeder station or birdbath so you can take advantage of the light and make better photographs?

What are your objectives for your wildlife habitat? For example, you might want to attract five new wildlife species to your property. Or, you may want to install within the next month, two new feeders or birdhouses and a birdbath along with planting some new trees or shrubs in the fall that eventually will produce food for wildlife.

Those of you with acreages or farms may want to set aside an acre or two and plant them to such crops as soybeans, millet, grain sorghum, or sunflowers and then leave the crop in the field over the winter rather than harvesting it. This will give wildlife food to eat during a time when it is hard to find.

Step 2:

What kinds of wildlife are already on your property?

List the different species you currently observe and those you would like to attract on separate sheets of paper. Now check which habitat elements—food, water, cover, and space—you currently have and check the elements you want to add to your habitat.

FOOD – nuts, berries, insects, fruits, grain and seeds, nectar, browse and forage plants. Providing a variety of foods is probably the most important part of your wildlife habitat.

If you can’t plant trees or shrubs on your property, establish a year-round feeding and watering station.

COVER – provides protection from weather and predators. It is right behind food in importance. Cover can be trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, rock piles, brush piles, field crops such as corn, grain sorghum, and soybeans, cut banks, hollow trees, birdhouses, burrows, bridges, abandoned buildings, fence rows and hedgerows. It is important for cover to be close to food and water.

WATER – essential for all wildlife – includes ponds, streams, plants, dew on grass, leaves, fruits, and birdbaths. You need to preserve and manage water in your habitat where it exists and, if absent, build new sources such as ponds, fountains, and baths.

SPACE – territory to roam in and to raise families in. This can range from needing 100 acres for pairs of wild turkeys to at least 300 ft. between bluebird houses. Space may be the most difficult to provide.

Step 3:

Now take a tape measure (100-ft. if possible) and a pad of paper outside so you can make a rough map of your property.

This will save you time and mistakes that can be costly later. It’s a lot easier to move elements around on paper instead of having to dig up and move plants or trees if they aren’t what you want. Start with the outside dimensions of your property. Measure and mark your map with the boundaries. Your property title or deed should list the dimensions. Now locate all structures such as your house. You can do this by first drawing the basic exterior structure outline of each building. Make sure you indicate which elements jog out from, or indent into, the main walls.

Walk around the exterior of your structures, measure each side of the outside walls and record the measurements on your rough map. Next, measure the distances from the corners of each structure to your property lines. Indicate where windows and doors are located on your house. Finally, measure, locate, and label existing trees, shrubs, flower beds, and any water features.

If you have an acreage or farm, you may want to first do a plan for just your house, yard, and buildings. Then, do a plan for your entire property on a different scale. Indicate the size of your fields, field positions in relationship to your house and buildings, what crops you are growing—also rivers, streams, fencerows, thickets, ponds, woodlots, etc.

Step 4:

Now sit down with your rough map and draw your habitat map to-scale.

Indicate directions and the prevailing wind patterns. Be sure and plot all food, water, and cover elements. You might also want to indicate where you have observed specific species.

Step 5:

Check the wildlife habitat components for each basic habitat element that you have or want to add.

If your property contains the following living plants and structural components, chances are you will have wildlife galore. But, don’t despair if you can only provide one or more – every effort helps.

Living Plants:

  • Conifers
  • Grasses and Legumes/ Nectar Plants
  • Summer Fruit & Cover Plants
  • Fall Fruit, Grain & Cover Plants
  • Winter Fruits and Cover Plants
  • Nuts and Acorns (mast)


  • Den Trees (snags)
  • Nest Boxes
  • Rock Piles & Brush Piles
  • Cut Banks, Cliffs & Caves
  • Dust & Grit
  • Salt

After you have indicated your choices, take a look at each item as to what is practical from the following points of view: access, time, money, location, assistance needed, and what is legal.

Step 6:

Select the projects or components you want to implement.

If you are planting trees or shrubs, allow enough space for the size you expect them to be in 20 years. Sometimes it is good to set your map aside after you complete it, and, after a couple of weeks, come back and see if it still fits your needs.

Step 7:

Sketch out an action plan/schedule and budget for the projects you have selected and implement them.

If you are going to do the work yourself, be practical and realistic about the time you can devote to the work.