You Otter Check This Out

Working from home (as are most of us), Assistant Director Jenny Houghton has been working on Nature Notes to share in our weekly email newsletters (email us to sign up!).

I’ve been told that river otters live at the Arboretum, but I never saw evidence myself until recently. Taking advantage of sunny weather, my family left the confines of “stay at home” orders for a restorative Arboretum hike. After strolling past the wigwams, we turned onto the North Tuckahoe Valley Trail, stopping just before Nancy’s Meadow Cut to launch mossy fairy boats in the creek. That’s when I saw it.

Scattered, grayish mounds of crushed shell, fish scales, and bones may not seem particularly exciting. But animal enthusiasts like me become…well, enthusiastic about scat. The scat I found lying on the creek bank on Sunday had clearly had been left by Lontra canadensis, also known as the North American River Otter.

Photos by Jenny Houghton

River otters are members of the Mustelidae family. Like other members of this family, they communicate and mark their territory via strong-smelling droppings. As I knelt on the ground for a closer look, it became obvious that Arboretum otters enjoy a typical diet of fish, crayfish, snails, and mussels. Later, at home, I checked to make sure I wasn’t confusing the droppings with those of another stream resident, the raccoon. But unlike the blunt edges of raccoon scat, this scat was tapered and clumpy rather than cohesive.

My children have short attention spans when it comes to scat, so we crossed the bridge leading into Tuckahoe State Park. To our left, we spied wide holes between the tree roots. Surely, these were entrances to otter dens. Otters do not dig their own dens, making use of natural openings or the burrows of other animals instead. In the spring, an entrance may lead to a nest of baby otters lined with moss, fur, and grass.

Known as pups, baby otters swim at just two months of age. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for a watery lifestyle, with tapered tails, webbed feet, eyes on top of their heads, and ears and noses that close when underwater. Unlike another well-known aquatic animal, the beaver, otters move easily both on land and in water. In fact, otters can travel distances of up to 26 miles a day!

North American river otter.
Photo by Chris Paul. Wikimedia Commons
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Which leads me to the question of why we don’t see roaming bands of otters at the Arboretum. As it turns out, river otters are nocturnal throughout the year except during winter, when they are most active at dusk (diurnal). Anyone lucky enough to see a river otter may also hear it: river otters make a variety of sounds, including purrs, growls, hisses, chirps, whistles, and chuckles.

The presence of river otters at the Arboretum is a good sign. Otters have a low tolerance for environmental pollution and are unlikely to be found in degraded habitats. The area where I found the otter scat is not far from where my summer campers wade in warmer months. When camps resume, I’ll think of the otters as I watch my campers splash and play within sight of their creekside home.

The Buzz on Honeybees

Working from home (as are most of us), Assistant Director Jenny Houghton has been working on Nature Notes to share in our weekly email newsletters (email us to sign up!).

After reading the last Nature Notes, volunteer David Taylor felt moved to give me a ring. “I liked your Nature Notes,” he said, “but there’s just one thing: honeybees don’t hibernate.” A beekeeper himself, David has a point: while many insect pollinators do hibernate, honeybees remain active throughout the winter months. In fact, winter is why honeybees make honey; they depend on their stores of honey, bee bread, and royal jelly to survive.

Photo by John Severns. Wikimedia Commons

For honeybees, staying active in winter is not the same thing as staying active in summer. When temperatures dip below 57 degrees and nectar-producing flowers are a distant dream, honeybees take to their hive. Drones—who have accomplished their primary job of mating with the queen—are pushed out of the hive, where they will starve. Not exactly the “bee’s knees,” but necessary for the survival of the remaining colony.

Inside the hive, worker bees press their heads inward to form a cluster around the queen, her brood, and a cache of honey and bee bread. Those luckiest enough to be in the inner circle feed on the honey, which gives them energy to shiver. Shivering increases the body temperature of each bee. The combined shivering of thousands of bees increases the overall temperature of the hive, most notably at the center of the circle, where temperatures reach a balmy 93 degrees! The position of worker bees in the circle shifts constantly, providing equal opportunities to enjoy the warmth (and honey!) of the inner circle and to serve as a shield on the outer edge.

Since honeybees depend on the fruits of their labor to survive winter, what happens when beekeepers like David gather honey? Fortunately, honeybees produce more honey than they actually need, and good beekeepers know how much honey to leave in the hive. Armed with this knowledge, I can continue to enjoy honey in my home. Click here to check out one of my favorite honey-sweetened recipes.

Words to know:

Bee bread—a combination of nectar and pollen that can be stored in cells.

Royal jelly—a refined combination of honey and bee bread eaten by nurse bees.

Nature Notes—The Dirt on Dandelions

Working from home (as are most of us), Assistant Director Jenny Houghton has been working on Nature Notes to share in our weekly email newsletters (email us to sign up!).

Given current “stay at home” orders, time weighs heavily on many of us. A prime example of this was the recent sight of my neighbors fastidiously removing dandelions from their front yard. Parents and teenage children alike were armed with sharp digging implements and reggae music, heads bent to better concentrate on the offending weeds. Bill took a break to walk over to my yard—maintaining proper social distancing guidelines—and comment, “I’m not sure we should be doing this. Are dandelions important to bees?”

Photo by Markus Trienke. Wikimedia Commons.

Unofficially, I’ve observed many bees sipping from dandelion flowers, but now my “professional” interest as a naturalist was piqued. Just what are the wildlife benefits of the plant that many homeowners view as their mortal enemy? A little digging (no pun intended) turned up a lot of information, including a quote from gardening blogger Kate Bradbury that describes dandelions as “a pollinator’s best friend.”

Turns out, dandelions bloom most prolifically from March to May, just when pollinators are emerging from hibernation. Their sunny flowers are actually comprised of up to 100 florets, each filled with nectar and pollen. A stunning 93 species of insects depend on dandelion nectar, including bumblebees, solitary bees, and honeybees. Dandelion nectar also feeds butterflies like sulphurs, cabbage whites, commas, and admirals.

Suspended from their fluffy parachutes, dandelion seeds are an important food source for wildlife, too. Many songbirds eat them—indigo bunting, sparrows, and goldfinches, just to name a few. Wild turkey, quail, rabbits, and deer graze on the seeds and foliage. Dandelion seed fluff has even been observed woven into the tiny nests of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

It’s important to note that dandelions are native to Europe, not North America. Settlers of many origins (including both the Puritans and the Vikings!) intentionally brought them to our continent for their edible and medicinal qualities. An excellent source of iron, Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, the dandelion has long been used in salads, wine, coffee alternatives, home remedies, and even desserts. As someone who is interested in foraging and not particularly interested in weeding, I have always welcomed dandelions in my yard. Perhaps you will now, too. But if you are a determined lover of pristine yards, I will not judge you for digging them up. Because if one thing’s certain about dandelions, it’s this: they’ll be back.

Soup ‘n Walk Report—2/15/2020

Today was sunny but quite cool, in the high 20s to start and about 38 when we finished our walk. Our theme was “Winter Greens, Distinctive Bark and Buds.” Many of the guests knew that Adkins is 400 acres surrounded by Tuckahoe State Park’s 4,000 acres. We have a plant sale coming up the last weekend in April. This was the first of seven Soup ’n Walks for 2020. There were 33 paid guests, and only a few had not been to Adkins Arboretum before. We split into two groups. Gail R., Denise D., and Al M. took half the group, and I started with the rest to the wetland.

On the wetland’s bridge, we could see the red maple (Acer rubrum) blooming. Barks of the red maple, smooth alder (Alnus serulata) with catkins, and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) with its knees were interesting. The wetland gave us a view of the beavers’ handiwork and several tree trunks that have been protected with chicken wire. The wetlands replaced a state park pond after the Arboretum received a grant from the State Highway Administration in the ’90s. This was in keeping with returning Adkins to a more natural setting and allowing the water to be filtered on its way to the Tuckahoe River, Choptank River, and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. Our new parking lot renovation does more of this filtering.

red maple buds

We passed redbud (sweater tree?) (Cercis canadensis) with red shaggy bark, black walnut (Juglans nigra) with grooved dark bark, and mature shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)on our way to the woods. Many flower buds were visible on the dogwood tree (Cornus americana) with its pebbled bark. The next bridge over Blockston Branch gave us a view of many skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) and its purple blooms. Green leaves of skunk cabbage and golden groundsel (Packera obovate) were evident in the lovely floodplain that will be host to many ferns and more ephemerals later in the year. Beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) leaf buds looked like shiny copper bullets in contrast with the soft leaf buds of the paw paw (Asimina triloba) patch. Shaggy white oak bark (Quercus alba) shone in the sun next to the dark grooved bark of the black oak (Quercus nigra), which is a member of the red oak family. Later, we saw the smooth bark of sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) beech tree and the gnarled ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), also called muscle wood or blue beech. Our very tall tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) has a braided, grooved bark, and we looked way, way up to see some flower buds shining in the sun.

skunk cabbage

More greenery was visible in the soft green moss lining the path. Since these will shelter future ephemerals, I asked that they not be stepped on. Guests noticed the striped wintergreen (Chimaphera maculate), ebony spleenwort (Esplenium platyneuron), Christmas fern (Polystichum achrostichoides), cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), and princess pine (Lycopdium sp). Green stems on the hearts a’ burstin’ (Euonymous Americana), and greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) keep making food all winter. Greenery on the holly trees (Ilex americana), loblolly (Pinus taeda),and Virginia pines (Pinus virginiana), and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) were spotted.

It was time to eat, so we hurried back to hot chili soup, sauerkraut salad, rye bread with green spinach spread, and Black Forest cake with red cherries and Greek yogurt. This menu represented the blooms, greens, and bark we saw outside. Our nutrition talk was about the various families of vegetables and fruit and the phytochemicals that we know are present in addition to their fiber, vitamins, and minerals. When I asked which counties the guests were from, we learned that they were from Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot, Kent, Queen Anne’s, and Cecil, and from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Prince George’s, and Howard counties across the bridge. Thanks to all the staff and volunteers who helped make this possible: Pat  B., Joyce A., Betty M., Gail R., Denise D., Laetitia S., Al M., and Sheila D. Special thanks to Gail for doing the tablecloths.

By Julianna Pax
Arboretum docent, Maryland Master Naturalist

‘Until You Know the Magic of the Dawn’

One of my best friends when I was a kid had a fascinating—nay, insane—way of acclimating to the cold weather. As soon as that nip was in the air, he’d go around shirtless outside. We’re talking temperatures in the 30s to 40s and shirtless. Such bravado was in no way sanctioned by his mom, but once we were clear of his house, off came the upper layers. (Lest you think this boyhood pal was some sort of knuckle-dragging tough-guy wannabe, he was extraordinarily brainy and went on to a successful career in science.)

I never emulated his actions, but I understood them and still do. We all employ some variation of his shirtless-in-the-cold tactics, and what feels uncomfortably chilly in October-November becomes a warm memory in January-February. If you like to enjoy the out-of-doors through all seasons, if you seek to know the ways of nature throughout its yearly cycle, step-by-step you steel yourself to the biting temps—you do what you can to get used to them.

Hiking in the summer, I hit the trail as early as possible to avoid the heat, the bugs, and the crowds. Hiking in the fall, I start to go a bit later, calibrating to cooler weather and fewer bugs, then even later in the day when winter comes. But I recently reversed this trend, heading out not long after the sunrise on a bracing December morning, for I was on a quest, a hunt, for a specific bird: the robin.

The fluctuating patterns of animal populations intrigue me. When we moved to our home, we were leaving behind a property plagued with slugs—slugs everywhere, constantly. There were no slugs at all at the new digs, but there were ants galore, anthills all across the lawn, ants perpetually invading the kitchen. Nowadays, the slugs are in abundance here, and the ant-tide has receded. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed lately that the black vultures seem to be more populous than the turkey vultures hereabouts; such didn’t used to be the case. And then, this season, I became aware of another such shift—a robin shift.

Every year, with clockwork phenological predictability, the robins show up on our property in early spring, nesting, proliferating, a ubiquitous presence throughout the spring and early summer. Then, in late summer, suddenly, they’ve all disappeared. They may be year-rounders regionally, but they’ve only ever visited us during their breeding time. Then they’re gone until the following spring. That is, until this year.

I was near the tall treeline rimming the edge of our grounds when I spied a noisy flock of birds flitting their way through. Closer investigation led to the surprised realization that they were robins—what are they doing here, on the cusp of winter? I chalked it up to a fluke, but the following week, right out back, there they were again, in large numbers, bouncing and chattering from tree to tree, making themselves at home. It was like seeing an ice cream truck in December.

The only place I’d ever seen robins this late in the year had been at Adkins Arboretum, in the swamp along the Tuckahoe Creekside Walk. I’d caught sight of them crowding the branches there one cold day a year or so ago and mused, so that’s where you guys went. See you at our place next spring. And this year, since they’ve broken their pattern and shown up at our home now, I got curious: Are they also at Adkins still as well? So, in a vainglorious and entirely unscientific manner, I’ve started to loop around that Creekside Walk every time I’m at Adkins, hoping once again to spot the robins I’d seen there during an earlier chilly season. I’d been striking out, so I decided to mix it up a bit. Instead of hiking in midday or early afternoon, when the bird sounds are reduced virtually to nil, why not revert back to summer protocols and hike early in the morning, when, even in this brisk season, you’re more likely to get some avian action?

Incrementally, I had been getting used to the colder temps, but I hadn’t ventured out into them yet in their full-on early-morning sting. So I comforted myself with an old Scandinavian saying: “There is no cold weather—only cold clothing.” Then I layered up accordingly, grabbed the Bushnells, and set forth.

Entering the woods from the Adkins parking lot, it was instantly clear this idea had promise, for the bare trees were a-twitter with a multi-layered cheeping chirping Babel of bird conversations. When I got to the swamp, I stood there for a long time, then stood there some more, the chill imparting a profound stillness to the world; the birds, the distant rumble of highway traffic the only sounds. Alas, no robins, though. For all I know, they showed up five minutes after I left. But I no longer cared. My original mission had ended up serving a larger and unintended purpose: It had reintroduced me to the austere beauty of the woods in winter at the beginning of the day. And in any season, that’s a worthy time to be there. As the naturalist William Hillcourt once wrote, “For many . . . nature activities, it pays to be an early riser. The air is bracing. . . . There is a feeling of expectancy all around you. . . . You haven’t experienced nature at her best until you know the magic of the dawn.”

Eric Mills is a member of the Arboretum’s Maryland Master Naturalist 2018-2019 training class.