A New Arrival

Announcement, announcement! A brand-new beaver kit has been spotted in the Arboretum’s wetland. Apparently, Mr. Nibbles’ determined lodge-building efforts were not without good cause. The kit was spotted just before sunset, not far from the lodge.

Beaver kits are born already suited to their watery environment, with a full coat of waterproof fur and their teeth intact. Weighing a mere pound, newborns may even take a paddle on their first day of life, though only in the water inside the lodge.

A visitor captured photos of a beaver kit in the wetland!

At two weeks of age, kits are fully weaned. They spend their first month in or around the lodge and will eventually learn to build by observing their parents. Beaver kits stay with their family for at least two years, after which they’re ready to strike out and build lodges of their own. At three years, they’ll start their own families.

When next at the Arboretum, take a moment to pause on the bridge that runs parallel to the larger entrance bridge. You’ll find plenty of evidence of beaver activity and, if lucky, may even spot the new arrival. To see and hear amazing footage of baby beavers in their lodge, check out this BBC Studios clip.  

The View From a Canoe

By Eric Mills
July 15, 2019


Has your choice of favorite season changed at different times in your life ? For many years, fall was my ne plus ultra; at different points over the decades, spring was the off-and-on favorite. But when I was a kid, and each year lasted far longer than the years do now that they zing by, and each long year’s cycle was defined by that looming presence called Going To School, summer was always the easy and obvious favorite season. Summer equaled the fullest freedom, the most unfettered carefree day-to-day liberty of a kid’s entire year. Our bikes were our horses, and we explored everywhere, every day. Since time moves slower in childhood than in maturity, when summer rolled around and school closed up, September seemed a blessed eternity away, too remotely far off to worry about.

And now, every summer, that old magic washes over me again, and I feel that excitement, that tangible sense of adventure, that thrill of being free. It’s no longer logical; school doesn’t start again in September, work starts again on Monday. But that school-year-cycle time stamp left an indelible impression on my psyche, and I feel that rush of liberation now, just as I did back then. And no matter how many years pass, when I hear a lone mourning dove calling plaintively through the stillness of a lazy summer day, I’m 11 years old again, back on Dumbarton Road, reading comic books in the mimosa tree or gearing up for an expedition to the pond to catch frogs.

This summer has felt particularly tapped into that childhood call of the wild. Maryland Master Naturalist training is wrapping up, and the year’s course of study has instilled something in me beyond all the vital factual knowledge about nature science: By opening up my mind to whole new avenues of inquiry and exploration into the natural world, it has underscored that age-old truism that the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn, and that you can never learn it all. Nature study epitomizes that better than anything else, maybe. It is all so vast, so intricate, so complexly networked, it’s simultaneously mind-boggling and inspiring. It’s enough to keep you learning for the rest of your life—and that is exciting. Exciting like that feeling a kid gets in summer.

Alongside that, it happens to be what I’ve started to think of as the Summer of My Canoe. I bought a canoe in spring, and it is a true beauty: a Stowe Mansfield, built in Vermont in 1980, with that iconic mahogany ribbing buttressing a dark green hull. But instead of wood and canvas, it’s wood and fiberglass, thus preserving the classic look of a vintage canoe with a tougher, more durable hull. The wildlife artist from whom I bought it customized it with a pair of tooled-leather renderings atop the bow and stern prows, one depicting a leaping trout, the other a pintail taking to wing. It has become my passport to nature adventure: On the Tuckahoe (our main base of operations). On nearby Watts Creek at Martinak State Park. On King’s Creek, that best-kept secret in Talbot County that, if you paddle up far enough, starts to seem like the Land Before Time, as well as the secret headquarters of myriad redwing blackbirds, who kick forth with the O-ka-leeee o-ka-leeee harangue as interlopers venture into their hidden realm.

On Wye Lake, where the great blue herons abound more prolifically than anywhere else I’ve ever spied them, and where I had the good fortune to watch, in sharp close-up through the Bushnell 7 x 35s, a great blue stab the water, snatch up a fish, and gulp it down that S-shaped neck in a flash. And then it stood there, posed, perfectly still, like a feathered pterodactyl.

On Trussum Pond, part of the northernmost stand of bald cypress in North America, where the weird prehistoric-looking trees rise up out of the water, and the aquatic vegetation grows so thick it’s like paddling through green molasses, and if you didn’t know you were in Delaware you’d swear you were in a Deep South bayou.

Now, a host of other summer expeditions lie ahead: Marshyhope Creek, the Chicamacomico River, the Pocomoke. The more rivers you paddle, the more of them you realize there are to explore.

Just like the study of nature.

Eric Mills is a member of the Arboretum’s Maryland Master Naturalist 2018-2019 training class. Offered in cooperation with Pickering Creek Audubon Center, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, and ShoreRivers, training is offered annually. Applications are being accepted for the 2019-2020 class, which begins in October. Learn more here.

North With the Swans, West to the Heights

April 30, 2019

It was The Winter That Refused To Leave, February’s rough cold mood continuing into March, March’s taunting bluster continuing into April. But all around now, the bright pale leaves of spring are in full eruption. Dandelions proliferate, May apple blankets the forest floor, and gaudy redbuds are rioting along the woodlands’ edge. Bugs zip past while you bask, finally, in spring temperatures and warming rays. And as you look back at those endless-seeming bleak gray weeks now at last in the rear view, you recall that every little harbinger of spring, every first this and first that along the way, had been a lifeline of welcome promise to you of balmier days to come.

That first green greeting of skunk cabbage from its brown dormant surroundings along Blockston Branch. That Wednesday you saw your first robin. The day the grackles descended en masse. “Hey, why are those dark-eyed juncos still here? They’re hanging around longer this year.”

Noticing such firsts, and such differences from before, and keeping track of them from year to year, is constantly interesting because change is constantly happening. From such recorded observation springs a perpetually growing database of year-to-year patterns. You could call it a root empirical source of natural science, or you could just call it by its name, phenology: the study of, in Mr. Webster’s words, “periodic biological phenomena.”

I was psyched when this topic came up during one of our Maryland Master Naturalist training sessions at Adkins.And when Dr. Sylvan Kaufman, as an illustration of the idea of phenology, read us a passage from Edwin Way Teale’s 1951 classic North With the Spring, my interest went into overdrive.

I love that book—correction: I love Teale’s entire four-part American Seasons series. I had stumbled onto Journey Into Summer first, accidentally (but perfectly) at the beginning of one summer, and had plowed through all four volumes in order—Autumn Across America, Wandering Through Winter, and, wrapping up with the one Teale wrote first, North With the Spring. I read each one in the successive season it chronicled, and I was sorry when I was done. Edwin and Nellie Teale’s epic cross-country phenology journeys led me toward other follow-the-changing-seasons-type books: Teale’s own Circle of the Seasons and A Walk Through the Year, thenWilliam Beebe’s The Log of the Sun, and now, Bryan MacKay’s A Year Across Maryland.

I started this latest one last January, reading each week’s entry at the outset of that week, then reading the next entry the following week, and so on until now. MacKay’s book has been dead-on more than once: From the redwings’ reappearance to the pairing-off of rookery-returning herons to the mating of wood frogs, his weekly entries have timed it right and scored phenology bull’s-eyes, at least in my neck of the woods.

So one day in early March, my wife, Harriet, and I were driving over to take a hike at Tuckahoe State Park, and what we saw on the way wowed us so much that we slowed to a halt. We were on a long straight stretch of empty farm road, and the bare fields surrounding us had become a seething sea of white—tundra swans by the hundreds, their collective noise filling the air as we rolled down the window. More kept swooping in, others swooped off in undulating waves, a mass exodus under way. And the white sea was still washing over those fields when we drove home from the hiking trail.


Tundra swans pass through the Mid-Shore on their northward trek. Photo by Harriet Mills

They were trending northerly, along with the geese we’d been spying on the wing in those late-winter days. But the tundra swan, Cygnus columbianus, would be traveling to the end of the line, all the way to the treeless wildlands of northernmost Canada. It would be mid-May by the time they finally arrived at their distant arctic breeding grounds. As they filled the sky around us, we wished them safe travels and told them, see you next year.

But shortly thereafter I was flipping to the next entry in A Year Across Maryland—and “see you next year” turned into “see you next weekend.” Yes, we knew the swans’ ultimate destination, but thanks to Bryan MacKay, we now also knew their next destination (most likely, anyway): Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was a major staging area for the northbound flocks, 6,254 acres of abundant water and food, and the fowl hordes stop in droves there to fatten up for the long flights ahead. Every year at just this time, our tundras converged there by the thousands. But the main attraction is the snow goose, Chen caerulescens, which can descend on Middle Creek in numbers as high as 100,000 or more. “Without experiencing this phenomenon,” writes Bryan MacKay, “it’s difficult to appreciate how stunning the white blizzard of birds is when they take to wing.”

I’d been reading aloud from the book while sitting in front of the fireplace. Harriet and I looked across at each other at that last part, both of us thinking the same thing: Road trip! But there was a catch: The epic-scale mass conglomeration of swans, geese, and ducks at Middle Creek WMA only takes place for about three weeks. They’re there, then they’re gone, like Brigadoon. It was a finite phenological window, and this weekend would be our only shot at witnessing the once-a-year spectacle; by the weekend after, the bird counts would be dwindling and we had obligations, so now was our only chance. And so that Saturday morning, we headed off north. North with the swans.

Upon arrival at Middle Creek, we immediately observed that another species also had flocked there in great numbers: Homo sapiens. We were everywhere, packing the visitors’ center parking lot, our cars cluttering the shoulder of the road that routed along the edge of the reservoir. Harriet and I wangled ourselves a tight spot between the heavily trafficked road and a ditch, climbed the hill crusted with thick March snow, wedged a place for ourselves among the assembled throng, and witnessed the sudden and raucous takeoff of a whole field’s worth of snow geese; it was like the snow on the ground had exploded into white flying fragments. The Tuesday (March 12th) following our visit there, the Middle Creek 2019 snow goose count topped out at 150,000. A banner year.


The snow geese of Middle Creek—a yearly spectacle. Photo by Harriet Mills

But what about our main reasons for coming? The travelers we had followed here from the Eastern Shore? We caught up with the tundra swans the following morning, as we moseyed down the crowded Willow Creek Trail, coming up on a watery surface carpeted with tundras. At seemingly random moments they would take off caterwauling, all flying and banking and turning in unison like they had a collective brain. Were our farm-field sojourners from down on the Shore among their numbers? We’d like to think so. If they were, they got to hear us say to them a second time, see you next year. And thanks for leading us here. Like you, we’ll be back.

Then, just as March had pulled us north to marvel at “periodic biological phenomena,” April called us west for another phenology trek: one that would take us back in time. Our daughter Kerri gave us a shout from Frederick and invited us to come out and hike up Maryland Heights in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. You ascend the mountain to an overlook that displays the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers below—a famously great trail, and another opportunity to experiment with the seasonal cusp.

Again, it was Teale who tipped us off. Yes, he and Nellie followed the season north: “Spring advances up the United States at the average rate of fifteen miles a day . . . .” But when they got to the Great Smokies, Teale took a detour into the past, back to the winter of a few weeks earlier—by scaling a mountain. As he noted, to ascend a mountain “in the spring is equivalent to moving backward . . . in time . . . .” Climbing the mountain, “each hundred feet represented a full day’s delay in the advance of spring.”

With Maryland Heights, here was the potential for some phenology in reverse, and we took up Kerri on her invite. It was a steep climb, the scenery more majestic and sweeping the higher we rose. And along the way, to illustrate Teale’s point, was that brightly hued spring harbinger, the Virginia bluebell, Mertensia virginica. We spotted the first splashy batch of it just up from the trailhead, near the lowest end of the ascent. Much farther up, legs burning, approaching the overlook, we spotted more of it—and at this level, the Virginia bluebells clearly weren’t as fully blossoming as the ones below. They looked to be a good week or so behind. In terms of springtime’s inexorable advance, we had marched ourselves upward and backward toward late winter. After the attenuated chilly season we’d just come through, that felt like the wrong direction. So we savored the panoramic view of the rivers below, then we gladly headed down, forward again into the spring that was here at last.


Virginia bluebells in blossom at the base of Maryland Heights.
Photo by Kerri Mills

Higher up the mountain, the bluebells lag behind, still back in time.
Photo by Kerri Mills

By Eric Mills
Maryland Master Naturalist Trainee

Soup ‘n Walk report: April 20

Join us Saturday, May 18 for the Tuckahoe Creek & Beyond Soup ‘n Walk! Following this program, the Soup ‘n Walk program will be on hiatus until September.

We had a really nice day for Soup ’n Walk. It had rained through the night, but the weather cooperated and it was sunny and in the 60s by 11 a.m. There were 31 guests signed up. Most had been here before. One group mentioned that they had come all the way from Salisbury. At the Visitor’s Center we could see the plants for the coming plant sale next weekend. They were not available yet, but it was very inviting and many, if not all, will be back for the sale. Margan G. gave a wonderful introduction to Adkins Arboretum, including the many coming events. We then split into two groups and found many of the same things on our tours.

preparing to start the tour

My group started at the beaver domicile along Blockston Branch. We saw it from the swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), which was just beginning to show some leaves. My parents used to say that when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears, it was time to plant the potatoes. We then went to the bridge for a better look at the beavers’ pantry. They poke their gnawed branches into the bottom of the creek until needed for meals. Today the water was very high on the wetlands, as it had rained a good bit the night before. We could hear the workmen on the parking lot. Some of us knew that it was being improved for better water runoff from the surrounding fields to the wetlands and ultimately to Tuckahoe Creek, the Choptank River, and the Chesapeake Bay. It will have swales and a rain garden as well as pavers to help filter the runoff. It should show much improvement by the fall. We passed some smooth alders (Alnus serrulata) on the wetland showing their cones before leaving the bridge.

sassafras

Heading to the woods, we viewed the yellow sassafras (Sassafras albidum) blooms along the edge of the woods and a few white blooms on the dogwood (Cornus florida) by this entrance. We were headed to the sassafras entrance and passed more blooming yellow sassafras. They are lovely with their gold dust trim. Later, some of the trees (the females) will have blue-black drupes on red pedicels to attract the birds. Continuing on, we saw lots of spring beauty(Claytonia virginica). We walked leisurely, as no one seemed to want to hurry, and just took in all the woodsy beauty surrounding us. Further along, we came across a patch of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). I remembered from other years that close to this patch was a very large “Jill-in-the-pulpit” that may have mothered the lovely patch nearby. The Christmas ferns (Polystichum achrostichoides) were sporting many hairy fiddleheads that provided lovely contrast to the leaves.

Jack-in-the-pulpit
mayapple

Many noted that there seemed to be more skunk cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) near where a clump of trees had fallen about ten years ago, opening up the canopy to more sunlight. We could now spot some mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) already in bloom with this added light. The mayapples spread in patches; we only see the fruiting bodies of some of the plants, which are all connected underground. We soon came to another bridge, and the view was breathtaking. As we leaned over the railing, we had a panoramic view of the floodplain, which was covered with spring beauty, skunk cabbage leaves, and even a few lady fern (Atherium felix femina). The water from Blockston Branch was flowing pretty fast, but it had covered the floodplain with nutrients as it passed through, making this a wonderful nursery for our native plants. We continued onto the upland trail and saw some Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and bluets (Houstonia cerulea)amongst the moss-covered sides of the path. Also some pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) blooming and rattlesnake weed with buds, ready to bloom. A few leaves of the lady slippers (Cypripedium acaule)were poking through the leavesbetween the oak trees and the pine trees that help feed the mycorrhizae fungi on the roots of the lady slipper.

at the bridge
bluets

Another stop was at the paw paw trees (Asimina triloba). Someone had pointed out a zebra swallowtail butterfly zipping by. They need the paw paw leaves for their life cycle. The lurid purple blooms were awesome, and there were many on this clump of trees. We were amazed at the golden yellow blooms of the golden groundsel (Packera aurea) and the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) next to them. What a lovely sight along the banks of Blockston Branch. We could also spot some Turk’s cap lily sprouts (Lilium superbum). These will bloom in July/August.

Now we hurried back to our lunch, which featured the green, purple, and yellow colors from our walk. We had ginger carrot soup, black-eyed pea salad over green lettuce, ancient grain bread with apricot jam, and almond coconut cupcakes that were gluten free and covered with lemon frosting and colorful jelly beans. A large arrangement on the table had many plants from my yard. There were paw paw, service berry, hearts a’ bursting, chokeberry, spice bush, hican leaves, coastal azalea, fragrant sumac, and fothergilla blooms to talk about. The menus were shared and their nutritional values discussed. There were samples of amaranth and quinoa grain given to those who might want to make the ancient grain bread. There was a list of good choices in our diet and bad choices that we need to avoid. I also handed out color copies of the Omniheart diet, which has much research to prove its value and is based on lots of good things like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and many had come with friends and family. We had a golf cart for someone who could not walk, and Al M. gave her a tour as he drove the cart.

wonderful volunteers!

Thanks to all our loyal staff and volunteers: Pat B., Suzann A., Joyce W., Sheila D., Marilyn R., Margan G., Joyce A., Al M., and Gail R. You make this wonderful event possible. This is a great opportunity to showcase our fantastic Adkins Arboretum.

by Julianna Pax
Adkins Arboretum docent, Maryland Master Naturalist

Nature Edited

Virginia bluebells. Photo by Ann Rohlfing.

I snatched five minutes from my work day to visit the Lower Blockston Branch, a favorite springtime destination. The thought struck me as I walked that green settles lowest first. The haze of forest floor viewed from the first bridge pulled into sharper focus closer up: spring beauty, skunk cabbage, Virginia bluebells, and ragwort, followed by a generous blanket of moss along the streambed. Higher in the trees, the first leaves unfolded, but their green heyday hadn’t yet arrived.

For those of us impatient for spring, the bare trees seem in opposition to the date. Maybe this is nature’s way of pulling us in for a closer look; secrets revealed slowly hold our attention longer than those displayed all at once. Or, to quote English author Henry Green, “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” 

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director