Ah, spring! Singing birds, peeping frogs, mud. What exactly is “mud”? Not too runny, but not too solid, either. As with pornography, we know it when we see it. Children are drawn to it and know instinctively how to differentiate among mud for pies, mud for structures, and mud for stomping. Although mud may or may not have been necessary for the origin of life (there are opinions on both sides), it has been intrinsically connected to and has supported life ever since. In deep ocean structures, there is a feedback loop between the mud and the microorganisms that dwell there: when the organisms die, their skeletons drift to the bottom to enhance the mud, which then provides scaffolding and recycled nutrients for future generations of microorganisms. Because the Chesapeake Bay is so shallow (~20’ deep on average), this kind of nutrient cycling from top to bottom to top is fast and efficient. The downside to mixing by tide and wind is that pollutants also easily disperse to all layers of water and mud.
Mud supports life of all sizes, from the innumerable bacteria inhabiting the hot springs and mud pots of Yellowstone to hippopotamuses who need mud to keep cool. Middle-size creatures like wasps, swallows, and beaver use mud for home construction and maintenance. Frogs overwinter in mud left behind at the vernal pools where they hatched. Our beloved blue crabs will hunker down in mud for protection when they are peeling. We can infer the universal importance of mud just by noting the number of animals with “mud” as part of their common name: mud turtle, mud skipper, mud crab, mud puppy, mud hen, mud bug.
Because intertidal mudflats are, to use a technical term, squishy, they are a key habitat for shorebirds. Birds can nest and forage without threat of becoming prey to larger, heavier animals. And what might they find as they poke through the mud? Flatworms, round worms, snails, tiny shrimp, tiny crabs, bivalves, brittlestars, anemones, beetles, and whelks. These feed on phytoplankton, zooplankton, and each other. Obligate carnivores, whelks are among the top predators of mudflats, drilling through shells with their dagger-shaped toothlets to reach the soft tissue inside.
In conclusion, the next time you find yourself slogging through mud, consider skipping instead. As Buddhists say, “No mud, no lotus.”
(Apologies to mud botanists for overlooking plant life that is also intrinsic to mud ecology.)
This summer, while I was walking with my dogs along Washington Street in Easton, I noticed a sign alerting us to a Stream Restoration project. Always alert for anything environmentally related or critter related, especially in my newly adopted town, we quickly walked down the muddy dirt and gravel road to see what was going on.
Lots! And, then again, not all that much that I could ascertain from walking by.
So, I called the town number on the sign and first reached the Town of Easton Department of Engineering, then was quickly transferred to Kody Cario, the project manager for the Papermill Branch Stream Restoration. Well, it’s actually an unnamed tributary in the lower Choptank watershed, but the engineers quickly adopted the more colorful name based on its history. Perhaps the local history folks can give us some insight regarding the paper mill that may have been nearby.
Funding and Calendar
This project, funded by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, is the first of two phases to restore streams in Easton. The project is designed to help Easton meet state requirements that encourage towns to take care of their own stormwater and water pollution issues. Funding is earmarked to help with nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment removal.
The grant was awarded in April of 2019, and then began various administrative paperwork and processes, including restrictions that protect spawning fish populations (mid-March to mid-June). Work started in earnest in June of this year.
Since I first spoke with Kody in August, there was a wonderful articlein the local Star Democrat newspaper about the project that gives a lot of background.
Steps to Stream Restoration
Clearing invasive and inappropriate plants (water-safe herbicide and mechanical)
Reshaping the stream channel—including structures—based on natural stream channel, using as little rock as possible
Changing the elevation of the stream (in places)—where there are rocks, making the water pool and go through an area quietly; helps to control erosion
Stabilization (temporary seed, natural coconut fiber blanket) during the process
Planting and reforesting
Monitoring stream health
The reforesting phase of the project, including some bioengineering, includes the replanting of 700 stems/acre of native trees and shrubs. Replanting will help prevent erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat.
The VERY specific planning plan for the project describes the species to be used, the planting procedures (will illustrations as to appropriate planting depth, for example), and specifications for standards, storage and delivery, and the types of products required.
The bioengineering installation usually includes live stakes and warm season grasses placed on the stream banks. Live stakes are 2- to 3-foot branches of Black Willow (Salix nigra), Silky Willow (Salix sericea), and Silky Dogwood (Cornus ammomum), usually cut and plunked rather unceremoniously into the creekside. In this project, deep plugs of these plants (rooted shrubs, also called tublings) were used, as the timing for live stakes can be difficult to work into the project management. Tublings combine the cost effectiveness and transportability of a bare root with the robust root system of a container-grown propagule.
Warm season grasses that may be used include Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoides). In addition, the utility plantings feature arrowwood viburnum, hazel alder, and silky willow; riparian plans include red maple, American sycamore, tulip poplar, pin oak, arrowwood viburnum, hazel alder, silky willow, black willow, and silky dogwood; and the wetland plans feature river birch, swamp white oak, sweetbay magnolia, winterberry holly, silky willow, spicebush, and smooth alder.
Stay tuned for another post on the second phase of this project, which began in October 2020, taking place in approximately 1,200 linear feet of the Tanyard Branch. There will be two sections to this project, above and below the Bay Street ponds in Easton, and featuring a similar process of removal of invasive plants, rectification of erosion, and replanting. Long-term future ideas and plans from the Town of Easton Department of Engineering include a spur on the rail trail that will go from the existing rail trail at Maryland Avenue, west to Port Street (a short section is already there), and eventually will tie in to the pedestrian bridge off West Glenwood Avenue.
by Beth Lawton Maryland Master Naturalist/Arboretum volunteer
With four Eastern wild turkeys constantly roaming the fields around my house this year, naturally some questions came to mind. Do turkey “families” stay together? In an anthropomorphic sense, what’s their family life like? How do you tell a female from a male? What do they do when they’re not feasting on insects and seeds in the fields?
According to Matthew Miller (2017), director of science communications for the Nature Conservancy, “basically, turkeys of a feather flock together.” Miller says hen turkeys congregate in flocks consisting of females and their offspring. Male turkeys form their own flocks, although young males (jakes) stay with their mother through the fall. With that many eyes looking about, there’s safety in numbers, especially considering the wild turkey’s exceptional eyesight. Since their eyes are on the side of their heads, by turning their heads slightly, they have a 360-degree field of vision (Miller, 2018). If you see some turkeys, they probably also see you.
While turkeys can see well during the day, just like us they can’t see all that well at night. To find a safe place away from ground predators during the dark hours, they fly into the lower limbs of trees at sundown and will move upward until they find a suitable spot to rest for the night. If you scare them during the day, sometimes they’ll take flight, but usually they’ll just scamper away on the ground.
Turkeys not only gobble (mostly males in the spring), they also squabble a lot. While they may look like easy-going birds, when they’re flocked together they’re also in the process of establishing dominance. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys have overlapping home ranges, not territories (NWTF, n.d.) The distinction is that a territory is a defended area while a home range is the area that an individual uses for its normal activities, such as food gathering, resting, mating, and caring for young (Potts & Lewis, 2014). Flock life is full of quarrels, dominance displays, and some fighting as well, all part of the process of establishing a pecking order, which eventually helps determine breeding privileges in the spring.
Turkeys can be habitual, especially in the fall, and the foursome I’ve observed seem to follow a regular feeding path. They pickup bugs and seeds from the ground with quick, keen head bobs, all the while remaining vigilant to the threat of predators. Most of the time they’re eating and foraging. Sometimes they take a break from eating to take advantage of some bare dirt under a red cedar tree where they dust themselves to maintain their plumage. The dusting tends to be a flock activity (NWTF, n.d.). Turkeys are omnivores. They seem to really enjoy the many crickets in our fields. They also eat grasshoppers, spiders, snails, salamanders, and slugs. All that protein helps them grow rapidly after their birth in late May and early June. The three offspring in the group I see are already nearly full size.
According to The Cornell Lab (n.d.), in the fall, winter, and early spring, turkeys will also scratch the forest floor to find acorns from oak trees. They also feast upon other seeds and berries, such as American beech nuts, hickory nuts, and wild black cherries. Like most birds, they ingest grit to help digest food.
To the untrained eye, a turkey’s gender can be difficult to determine. Adults are definitely more distinctive with the males rather easily recognized by their larger size, reddish head, red throat and wattles, and more colorful feathers with iridescent red, green, copper, bronze, and gold sheens. Differentiating jakes and hens takes more intent observation. A couple of defining characteristics for jakes are a small spur on each leg (less than ½ inch) and a short beard (about two to three inches). The beard is a mass of fibrous bristles hanging from the breast plumage. The beard of adult males can reach as long as 10 inches. Unlike hens and gobblers, the central tail feathers of jakes often extend two to three inches above the rest of their fan.
It’s no secret that Benjamin Franklin favored the wild turkey over the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Franklin wrote: “For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on” (McMillan, n.d.).
There’s no question that the bald eagle is a majestic bird, but I’m with Mr. Franklin on that opinion. The swing point for me: Gobbler heads are colored with variations of red, white, and blue.
Chris Knauss is a Maryland Master Naturalist who teaches communication at Wilmington University. He resides near Goldsboro, Maryland.
Potts, J. R., & Lewis, M. A. (2014). How do animal territories form and change? Lessons from 20 years of mechanistic modelling. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 281(1784), 20140231. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0231
Even before we lived on the Eastern Shore, Rick and I came over to the Adkins plant sales. On one such visit, Rick bought me a thick book: Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn. I was flattered, and maybe a bit confused, that he thought I was scholarly enough to enjoy such a book. That book and I have been staring each other down across the space behind my desk ever since. Finally, this spring, I started browsing through it. Over the years, I had memorized a few botanic names of plants without much thought to the meaning of the names. It was just a way to show off. Maybe now it was time to actually learn something, and I have this informative book. I did entertain myself, learning a few sensible words and confusing myself with a few others. Then Jenny said we could try writing something for volunteer credit during this down year. So, here is my attempt to share some of the reasons behind the names of a few of our favorite native plants.
Let’s start with an easy one. Physocarpus opulifolius: ninebark. Easy because all the parts are descriptive of something we can observe. And, it’s fun to say. Physo means bladder-like. Carpus is fruit, opuli means maple-like, and folius is leaved. I’m no taxonomist, but it seems like there are many plants with bladder-like fruits. Why this particular genus got the nod, I don’t know. In any case, learning this name made me more attentive to the features of my ninebarks. The common name ninebark is more obvious, especially in winter when the interesting bark stands out. Ninebark is a wonderful shrub that seems to thrive on neglect.
Impatiens capensis: jewelweed. Impatiens means impatient and refers to the way the ripe seedpods burst if they are touched. I learned from a recent episode of Mary Roach’s “A Way to Garden” podcast that jewelweeds living close together germinate synchronously in spring. They thus outcompete other plants, and because there are more seedlings than nutrients, only the most fit survive. If you are intrigued by the notion of plants signaling each other, I recommend this TED talk by Suzanne Simard. Capensis means “of the cape,” in this case the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Nicolaas Meerburgh, an 18th-century Dutch mathematician and botanist, got naming rights, and he thought jewelweed was from there. As you know, a plant’s genus can change at the drop of a nucleic acid’s hat. But the species name stays forever. The lesson here is, if you are ever so fortunate as to discover a new species, put great care into selecting the name. Which leads me to one more tangent before I move on. A recently discovered super-cute pacific octopus was named Opisthoteuthis adorabilis. Awwww!
Muhlenbergia capillaris: hairawn muhlygrass. The Muhlenbergia genus honors 18th-century American clergyman and botanist Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg. While stalking grasses, he also discovered the bog turtle, which, I just learned from a Woodland Wildlife Wednesday webinar, is not doing well in Maryland. This is an example of genus renaming. Lamarck named it (the grass, not the turtle) Stipa capillaris. That got corrected in the early 19th century without the aid of gene sequencers. Capillaris means hairlike. Indeed, there are mornings when my hair looks exactly like that.
Liriodendron tulipifera: American tulip tree. Locally famous as the logo for Adkins Arboretum. Lirio is from Greek leirium, for lily. Dendron is Greek for tree. Tulip is obvious, although with a tall, mature tree, you may have to wait until the flowers fall off to see them. The suffix -fer means bearing. Hence, Liriodendron tulipifera means tulip-bearing lily tree. Pretty straightforward, although the lily-ness escapes me. I thought lilies have bulbs and parallel veins. Maybe the lily name is symbolic; maybe Linnaeus just envisioned a lily there. You can learn much more about Liriodendron tulipifera from Sylvan Kaufman’s excellent video.
Quercus alba: white oak. Quercus is derived from the ancient proto-Indo-European word perkwu, which meant oak. The age of its name is, in itself, awesome, imparting even more dignity to the tree. If you have ever shopped for white paint, you know there are a few hundred (I may be exaggerating) shades. There are almost as many options for botanical white. Stearn describes 37 choices, plus variations, from niveus (snow-white) as the purest white, to cretaceous (chalk-white) for dull white, to dealbatus (whitened) to mean slightly covered with white upon a darker ground. Albus, our white oak white, is dead white. But why white when it looks gray? And there are at least as many words for various shades of gray, my favorite being elbidus, meaning “saddest gray.” Evidently, white refers to the seasoned wood, which tends toward white and is paler than other oak woods. Oaks are Doug Tallamy’s favorite trees. In his books, he explains that oaks are one of our keystone species, delivering more ecosystem services than any other tree genus. If you want to plant a tree, consider an oak.
We’ve had a recent slew of birthdays in our family, and my five-year-old is now six. Her fascination with the animal world continues despite her advancing age, as do her endless questions. The most recent, “Can box turtles swim?” required some research and resulted in fascinating facts.
Unlike those of their aquatic counterparts, the bodies of box turtles lack adaptations for life in the water. Circular rather than streamlined and without webbed toes, the box turtle’s strong suit is not stellar swimming. Nevertheless, box turtles can and do swim, either to escape predators or to cool off on a hot summer’s day. You may occasionally see them sitting in a puddle or dabbling along the edges of a small pond. You will not find them in deep water, where their lack of swimming finesse would leave them…in deep water.
My daughter and I see the same box turtle each day on our nature walks. This is not surprising, as box turtles have a limited home range of no more than 750 feet in diameter. Thanks to my Master Naturalist training, the question “Is our box turtle a boy or a girl?” was answered without the need for research by a quick check to his plastron, or lower shell. Male box turtles have a concave plastron for easier mating. (Luckily, this fact did not elicit further questions.) Males usually also have bright red eyes, while the eyes of females are a duller brown.
Eastern Box Turtles are among the most common reptiles to be spotted in Maryland and are not considered endangered in any state but Maine. Some states, however, do list the species as being of special concern. Not known for their speed, box turtles suffer greatly from traffic accidents. Habitat loss is also putting some at risk.
Should you find a box turtle on your next nature walk, please leave it in place unless it’s in the middle of the road or similarly endangered. In that case, move the turtle to the nearest safe spot and wash your hands: some turtles carry salmonella. Above all, do not make a pet of your newly rescued friend! Box turtles generally live 25-35 years but in some cases have been known to live over 100 years. That’s quite a commitment, and an awful lot of birthdays, for even the most devoted animal lover