Woodpeckers & winter birds

Looking for a flash of red this season? The downy woodpecker provides color in backyard

bird feeders throughout winter, feeding on suet when its usual diet of insects, seeds, and berries is restricted by cold weather. In addition to the slow drumming sound made by pecking trees, this species of woodpecker is characterized by a short “pik” call. Downy woodpeckers roost in tree cavities to shelter from winter’s chill.

Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of North America’s woodpeckers, with a length of between 5 and 7 inches and a weight of around one ounce. Downies are mostly black, with a white back, throat, and belly. They have white spots on their wings and white bars above and below their eyes. Juveniles sport red caps, and adult males have a red patch on the back of their heads.

Backyard birders can lure downy woodpeckers to their yards with suet feeders. Different birds prefer different food: goldfinches and song sparrows are partial to nyjer seed, while nuthatches, jays, chickadees, and purple finches prefer black oil sunflower. Millet attracts Eastern towhees and dark-eyed juncos, and cardinals enjoy dining on safflower. Robins, bluebirds, and cedar waxwings are fond of fruit: add a handful of raisins to the feeder to attract these birds.

To enjoy winter birds in the wild, visit the Arboretum in the weeks ahead. Some birds have migrated, but many are still active in the Arboretum’s thickets, meadows, and woodlands. If you’re lucky, you might even hear the “pik” of the downy or see a spot of red through the trees.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director

Of mice and geocaches

Running my hands along the underpinnings of the bridge, I rummaged through last fall’s damp leaves for the geocache hidden there. I was certain I was in the exact spot where the small plastic box was located when…pop! A small mouse leapt from the dry foliage, its beady black eyes reflecting my own surprise. The box, as it turned out, lay three inches to the right of the mouse’s nest. I swapped the cache and its soggy contents for a fresher box and beat a hasty retreat, apologizing to the mouse along the way.

Maintaining Adkins Arboretum’s three geocaches is one of the many fun and exciting parts of my Arboretum job description. Geocaching is an outdoor treasure hunt using GPS devices.  Caches contain an assortment of trinkets, a stamp, and a logbook. After entering their names and the date in the geocache logbook, geocachers stamp their own logbooks, take a trinket, and leave a trinket of their own for the next geocacher to find.

Adkins Arboretum’s geocache coordinates are listed at www.geocaching.com. A number of geocaches are also hidden in the surrounding Tuckahoe State Park. Have tech-crazy kids at home? Are you tech crazy? Geocaching is a great way to combine a love of electronics with the great outdoors. Take it from me: you’ll never know what you might find.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director

Partners in the community

For the past three years, Adkins Arboretum has provided on-site job training experiences to Me & Jacobstudents with special needs in cooperation with the Transition Center Program of Caroline County Public Schools. The Arboretum also partners with the local Benedictine School to provide opportunities for Benedictine students. This has proven to be a rewarding experience for staff and volunteers alike…and is another example of amazing partnerships happening right here in Caroline County.
by Robyn Affron
Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator

A (very) brief history of leeches

My first encounter with leeches took place when I was a teenager visiting an

apothecary’s shop in historic Fredericksburg, Virginia. One minute I was listening to the guide expound on past practices of bloodletting, and the next….wham! I was flat on the ground in a dead faint, taking the red velvet exhibition rope with me and narrowly missing an antique glass bowl swimming with—you guessed it—leeches.

Move ahead two decades, and I find myself at Adkins Arboretum, calmly plucking a squirming leech from a summer camp counselor’s ankle after wading in the Tuckahoe Creek. With maturity comes the ability to handle crises of all sorts, including the random leech or two.

Just how do leeches fit into the environment? A little bit of research revealed that the species of leech used historically for medicinal purposes is the North American leech, which thrives in freshwater lakes, marshes, and slow-moving streams. These leeches are parasites, feeding most often on the blood of fish, frogs, turtles, and mammals. They, in turn, are prey for fish, turtles, crayfish, and water birds. Leeches don’t need to eat often and can live an amazing one or even two years between meals. Technically a type of worm, the North American leech is often seen on the legs of snapping turtles (or, occasionally, camp counselors.)

My research revealed much more information about leeches, including how best to remove them,  leech anatomy, and germs transferred by leech bites. I would share that, too, were I not short on smelling salts.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director

On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

naturalist blog logoBeth Lawton, a member of the 2015-2016 Maryland Master Naturalist training program, has chronicled her experience in a series of essays. Registration is underway for the 2016-2017 program, which runs October through July. Click here for more information or to submit an application, or contact Robyn Affron, Master Naturalist Facilitator.

Chapter Ten—Oy, Oysters!

I arrived at the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, Tilghman Island, for the last formal classroom session of the Maryland Master Naturalist program to find instructor Carol McCullough, a bucket of oysters, and a plethora of intriguing tools ranging from an electric power drill, paper towels, and dissecting knives, all the way to a chain mail glove. Appropriately, this culminating class took place in the brand-new classroom at Phillips Wharf and focused on the renowned oyster, symbol of the Chesapeake Bay 20160615_Oyster Dissection w toolsand our coastal plain curriculum. A native Marylander, Carol is a professional estuarine ecologist with 30 years of experience in Chesapeake Bay science.

Carol quickly familiarized us with the basics of oyster anatomy, clarifying many aspects of the creature that one would not learn as part of the local raw bar experience. We learned about gender (most oysters start as males and then switch to females as they get older and larger); bilateral symmetry and how it differs in oysters; the oyster circulatory system; a brief history of the harvesting of oysters in the bay; the types of tools used for dissecting oysters; oyster predators (besides humans); and how the oyster decides whether something is worth eating and, if it’s not, how the food item become pseudo-feces.

cqrol oyster

Carol McCullough and an oyster

Next, we turned our attention to diseases that affect oysters, most notably dermo disease, which is caused by Perkinsus marinus (something akin to a dinoflagellate), and MSX (shorthand for Multinucleate Sphere Unknown), caused by Haplosporidium nelson, a single-celled protozoa. This area is Carol’s specialty, and we learned about pathology, diagnosis, transmission, and the effects of the disease on the oyster population. Throughout the discussion of oyster diseases, Carol wove in aspects of efforts to return the oyster population to more robust levels and the impact of other events, such as World Wars and severe droughts, on oyster harvests. Other topics covered included mega-restoration projects, “kitchen wisdom,” oysters’ role in filtering the Chesapeake Bay, oysters in restaurants, and Maryland regulations about aquaculture.

kelly cox

Phillips Wharf Director Kelly Cox and the floating upweller on Knapps Narrows

We took a short break and walked across a parking area (with a rain garden!) to meet with Kelly Cox, the director of Phillips Wharf Environmental Center.  Kelly gave us the grand tour, showing the outdoor holding tanks, the floating upweller (which helps with artificial feeding), the nursery tank upweller (which can also be a downweller for raising oyster larvae), and some new equipment still being installed. Kelly also described the high school training program that Phillips Wharf sponsors, along with Chesapeake College, with the goal of providing students with background and experience needed to become aquaculture farmers.

Returning to the classroom, we dissected some of the oysters that Carol had provided, and she also prepared some microscope slides with iodine stain of oyster rectum tissue (“butt studies”) that had been incubating for one week. We looked at the prepared slides through the microscope and were able to see the “little black balls” that were diagnostic for dermo disease.

During the lunch break, our MMN coordinator for Phillips Wharf, Kayla Fairfield, described the use of an oyster farming cage. After a few classmates gave short presentations on their final projects—the paw paw tree and making paw paw jelly, educational materials for the Fishmobile, and creating a monarch waystation at Adkins Arboretum—we were treated to visits from two oystermen, Captain Wade Murphy and Captain Rob Bowen.

capt wade

Captain Wade (examiner.com, 4/6/10)

Captain Wade offered a captivating, albeit somewhat sad, tale of the changes in oyster fishing that have happened since he started working the Bay with his father in 1957. Captain Wade uses a skipjack and has had only two boats over his career (1964-1984, and 1984 to the present). He had some very practical and cooperative advice about how fishermen and environmental organizations could work together to restore the oyster populations.

Captain Rob, “not a skipjack captain” (he said, with some emphasis), also talked about strategies to help the oyster populations while still making a living from harvesting. He gave insight into the realities of working the Bay between October 1 and March 31 (the


Captain Rob

season for harvesting wild oysters), noting that in a good year, there would be 100 days of fishing. Captain Rob also works as a tugboat captain to fill in when the harvests are down or when the season is closed.

We closed our last classroom session of this first year of training with details about the take-home examination (due next month) and paperwork with which we can evaluate the program’s instructors.

In some ways, the program has gone by very quickly, but it has also required a great deal of focus, lots of reading and preparation work, and stretching of my understanding of my place in the natural world and in the world of naturalists. I find myself giving the “elevator speech” when I tell people I am becoming a master naturalist—it has nearly a mystical ring in my ears—but I’m not so sure others have that same sense. Many people respond, “oh, that’s nice, but what can you DO with it?” Trying hard not to flippantly say, “Save the planet!” I draw the parallel between Master Gardeners (cultivated world) and Master Naturalists (natural world) and also talk about lifelong learning, the joys of being outdoors, and this insatiable curiosity that seems to accompany my every waking moment. I am delighted to have had this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing my training into the second year, which entails volunteer time and advanced training classes. I’m especially glad to have had the chance to write this blog, as it has given me a great reason to take pictures and copious notes, and actively reflect on the whole process of becoming a master naturalist.

Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist-in-training