Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kent County booth at the annual MACo convention

Earlier this month, I traveled to Ocean City for the second time this summer, this time to represent Kent County's Office of Tourism and Economic Development at the annual Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) convention.  I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Mrs. Cunningham, of connect.the.dots. fame, who's design eye gave zest to our booth (see pic below).

After setting up our booth on Wednesday afternoon, we were feted at a cocktail reception at Fagers Island restaurant that was hosted by Funk & Bolton law offices, a wonderful social gathering that allowed for lots of networking.  I then spent all day Thursday manning our booth, meeting vendors, talking with employees and representatives from other counties, and generally spreading the word about all the good works that have been going on recently in Kent County.  There was a steady flow of visitors through the exhibit hall for most of the day.  It still amazes me the number of "giveaways" that the exhibitors provide and the convention-goers gobble up...bags and bags of them.  Thursday evening found us at the Sunset Grille in West OC dining on mahi mahi, tuna, crab imperial, and countless other goodies, all thanks to our hosts from Standard Solar.

On Friday, Mrs C and I kept up the message spreading at our booth for the better part of the day, handing out brochures along with free note pads and lemon meringue-flavored salt water taffy.  It seemed there were more families visiting the exhibit hall during this session, probably in concert with family vacation time at the beach.  The day was shorter than the previous, but still we had decent attendance in the hall.  Commissioners stopped by, and we also had a chance to converse briefly with U.S. Senator Ben Cardin who admitted that he was aware of all the cool projects going on in the county.

Our thanks to Bernadette Van Pelt and Michelle Wood of the County's Office of Tourism and Economic Development for putting together all of the display materials for us to transport down to the convention.  Also, special thanks to the Town Creek Foundation for supporting our work to help Maryland's municipalities increase use of renewable energy systems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and move toward a healthy and sustainable future for the Chesapeake Bay region.

Briggs Cunningham mans the Kent County booth at the 2012 Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City in August.
Briggs Cunningham is Climate Action Coordinator at the Center for Environment & Society, and can be contacted here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Week of Warblers!

This past week at the banding station was filled with exciting warblers! Here are some pictures of the best and the brightest. Also check out our weekly banding totals for a more detailed look at what we've been catching at Foreman's Branch Bird Observatory.
This past week we got a high number of American Redstarts of all ages and sexes gathered in one area of the study site. Perhaps they are traveling in a group?
We banded 5 Black and White Warblers this week.
We also got an HY (hatch year) Female Wilson's Warbler this week. You can see that the top of her head is much greener than a male's would be.
This HY Male Blackburnian Warbler was a real treat. We usually only get one a year, and some years we don't get any.
Ok, so this is not a warbler but we broke the record for number of Belted Kingfishers captured this year, and that's pretty neat too!
All signs point to...Migration! Hopefully we'll continue to get interesting and exciting birds in the coming weeks. Be sure to check out day-by-day updates on our facebook page and our weekly banding totals on our Website.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer Soundtrack

Maybe your summer soundtrack is “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen or maybe you’re hearing waves rolling in on a beach.  I’ve got an earful of cicadas!  Cicadas are the pulsating and buzzy sounding insects you hear from trees and bushes in mid to late summer.  Only the males call, they vibrate a special organ on their abdomen called a tymbal.  The Eastern Shore of Maryland actually has about half a dozen species of annual cicada which should not be confused with the periodical cicada which emerges every 17 years in huge numbers (like in 2004). 

Swamp Cicada from Baltimore County.  Photo by Jim Brighton   http://picasaweb.google.com/109627728893182537813 
Annual cicadas have a pretty cool life cycle:  females lay eggs in soft twigs and other plant material.  Tiny nymphs hatch out the same summer and drop to the ground where they burrow into the soil.  Over the next few years (the exact length of time depends on the species) the nymphs feed on roots and grow bigger and bigger.  Finally, one summer when they are about an inch or so long, they dig their way out of the ground, climb up to a safe perch and hatch out of their brown skin.  They sit a while to allow their wings to unfold and strengthen then they fly away leaving their crunchy shell behind.   The adults only live a few weeks before reproducing and dying.

The crunchy brown shell that remains on a tree trunk after a cicada has emerged.
In addition to being super cute in a bug sort of way, I also like cicadas since they pose no threat to humans, they do not bite or sting.  Under normal circumstances they do not damage crops or plant material.  Humans in many parts of the world actually eat cicadas as a good protein source.

Cicadas, by the way, are NOT locusts.  Locusts are grasshoppers, in the scientific order Orthoptera.  Cicadas are more closely related to aphids and are in the order Homoptera.   You may recall from high school biology the classification runs kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species so organisms in different orders are really really unrelated!

Cicada from CRFRS grasslands.

There are loads of other critters adding music to your summer days and nights.  Crickets and katydids are other insects that make noise and don't forget about the various frogs and toads.  Why not take a few minutes on a summer evening this week to stop and listen to all the creatures singing!

Maren Gimpel is a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station.  Photos and stories about the goings on of CRFRS can be found at www.facebook.com/crfrc or at www.washcoll.edu/ces/chesterriverfieldresearchcenter

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Turtle Power!

Chino Farm is not just for the birds! A small group of Washington College students, led by Dr. Aaron Krochmal, have been studying the turtles on the property for the past few years. I had the opportunity to talk to Brendyn Meisinger ‘13, a student intern, about his research.

Painted Turtle at Chino Farm
This summer Brendyn put 5 radio transmitters on Eastern Red Painted Turtles so that he could monitor their movements. Brendyn was inspired by some of Dr. Krochmal’s previous research, which examined the potential methods turtles use to find new ponds once the ones they are using have dried up. Brendyn wanted to know how the turtles at Chino Farm find new Delmarva Bays to use during the summer.
What is a Delmarva Bay? You might ask. Well, Delmarva Bays are vernal pools that are something of a mystery to scientists. We do know that they provide essential habitat for a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians. The soil and plant life found in Delmarva Bays are unique. Chino Farm proudly boasts a large number of Delmarva Bays. So much so in fact, that Brendyn was able to pick his own to study and name it whatever he chose. Consequently, Brendyn is studying at “Morrison’s Retreat”, a Delmarva Bay he named after Robert Morrison who founded Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

What do the turtles do once the Delmarva Bays have dried up?
Eventually Brendyn would like to use some of this research for his Senior Capstone Experience, and there’s plenty to go around! This project has many possible directions and students, along with Dr. Krochmal, will hopefully be able to present their findings this coming April at North East Fisheries and Wildlife conference.

Dr. K looks for turtles at Chino Farm
Rachel Field is the Education Coordinator at CES.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Searching for Rangia

Our summer began with periodic excursions up and down the mighty Chester River looking for “soft” sediment that we hope to use for characterizing the chemistry of the bottom of Chester River. Why, you might ask? Well, many of the “chemicals of environmental concern”(COEC) are hydrophobic -which literally means afraid of water- but more appropriately reflects the sticky-particle bound nature of many of these contaminants. They don’t like to be dissolved in water, but like to bind to the surfaces of particles and, ultimately, the sediment. Our interest in COECs is directed towards a better understanding of how these chemicals are introduced into the aquatic environment, how they affect resident organisms, and where they may ultimately end up. Anyway, this communiqué is not about COECs but is more about the benthos – the critters that we found in or on the sediment during our summer of mucking about in boats. Overall, we found very little living in the sediments we collected - or more appropriately, very little macro (large, non-microscopic) organisms. For those macro benthic organisms we did find we noted where, when, and what we found; either an occasional oyster, some mussels, and most often – when there was anything – the mighty Rangia.
 This is blog is about the brackish clam,Rangia cuneata (Fig.1); what their role may be in the Chester River ecosystem and whether they might be a good indicator of contaminant exposure and bio-accumulation (accumulation of chemicals in the tissues of the organism) in the Chester.
Fig. 1. Rangia collected from the Chester River about 2 miles south of Chestertown
The Rangia clam, according to information provided by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)1, is a brackish (low salinity) clam that is often found in waters with salinities between 5-15 parts per thousand (fresh water is 0 ppt, ocean water at the mouth of the Chesapeake is ~32 ppt). They often live in highly turbid waters (water that contains a lot of suspended particles, muddy), often preferring soft substrates; usually a sand/mud mixture with vegetation detritus. They are subtidal suspensivores (they filter material out of the water column for food) and are also considered saprophytic, that is they also derive nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter (much like bacteria or fungi). The species found in the Chesapeake are Rangia cuneata and, to this date, the Chesapeake is the northern most reach of their distribution. Apparently, they weren’t always a part of the Chesapeake ecosystem. In fact (according to MDE), the first known sighting of R. cuneata was in 1960 in the Potomac River and are now found in the brackish tributaries and creeks of the upper Chesapeake Bay. Does the timing of their occurrence correspond to increases turbidity in the Chesapeake? Definitely an interesting question…. As a food source for humans, they are considered non-desirable, often because they have an earthy, muddy taste. Investigators from NOAA2 report a very active fishery for Rangia along the east coast of Mexico where they are used as a supplement to local shellfish and fish cuisine, often because they present a less desirable pallet when served alone. In Figure 2, we show where we have found Rangia this summer. The sites where we collected sediment are indicated by black triangles and where we found Rangia clams are shown by the red circles. One hope is that these organisms can help filter and clean the highly turbid waters of the Chester or the even the lower salinity realms of the Bay . Some investigators3 show that Rangia is a good indicator of a system under significant stress; that they represent a situation where other organisms struggle to survive and the ecosystem is in poor health. Rangia are also being investigated as a potential contaminant cleaner-upper for the impact of the BP oil release in the Gulf of Mexico4 Figure 2. Surface sediment grabs sites (black triangles) from the Chester River, summer 2012. The red dots overlay stations where we found Rangia clams.
Fig. 2.
Surface sediment grabs sites (black triangles) from the Chester River, summer 2012. The red dots overlay stations where we found Rangia clams
One of our interests at the Center for the Environment and Society is whether Rangia can serve as biological indicator for contaminant exposure in the Chester River ecosystem. Do contaminants like lead, copper, arsenic and other COEC accumulate in Chester River resident organisms? Is Rangia a potential pathway for the transfer COEC to “higher” organisms that reside in the Chester River ecosystem (e.g., white perch, osprey, humans,etc) where COEC may become further concentrated as they move up the food chain? We don’t know, but we will be measuring the content of some of the COEC in their soft tissues using the relatively new high tech inductively-coupled Mass Spectrometer at Washington College. Stay tuned!

Samuel Hartman, a summer Hodson Fellow, looks to find the optimal site for our next sediment grab
 Christian Krahforst is the Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow of Biogeochemistry for the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College.

1.  http://www.mde.state.md.us/programs/Marylander/CitizensInfoCenterHome/Documents/www.mde.state.md.us/assets/document/Rangia.pdf
2.  http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr663/mfr6632.pdf
4.  http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2011/03/lowly_rangia_clam_as_oil-sucki.html

Friday, August 10, 2012

Barnyard Olympics!

What do cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, horses, goats and "loco llamas" all have in common? The Queen Anne's County Fair, going on this week, at the 4-H Park on Route 18 in Centreville, MD. At 5:00 PM today (8/11/12) you can catch jousting, the state sport of Maryland. You won't believe the speed these junior and senior riders have when they lance rings no bigger than what is holding up your shower curtain. Then at 7:00 PM there's the Farm-to-Market auction and the 4-H kids finally see a profit for all their work tending animals. The Queen Anne's Fair is even better than the Devon Horse Show in my opinion. So bring the whole family tonight and celebrate 70 years of 4-H on the Eastern Shore. Or come on Saturday for the rodeo at 5:00 PM. After that, you'll be counting down the days until next year's community fair. Admission is $3.
JoAnn Fairchild, senior program manager at CES, lives outside of Centreville in an 1880s farmhouse with her husband, two horses, two dogs and two cats - for now. After seeing the miniature donkey and horses at the QA County Fair, the family plans to add a few more animals this fall.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bobolink...What's that?

Male Bobolink. Photo by Bill Hubick.
Well, it’s a bird and a fascinating one at that. The Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus, is a songbird in the blackbird family (Icteridae).  As you can see from the pictures to the right and below, males and female are sexually dimorphic in the spring and summer months when the male has unmistakable black and white plumage with a straw colored nape. The female retains cryptic coloration year-round which is made up of straw colored body plumage with black streaking on the flanks.  Bobolinks are long distant migrants traveling thousands of miles annually from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering grounds in South America, roughly 6000 miles one way!!! Males not only have unique plumage, but have a very unique song, follow this link to hear what they sound like, http://www.xeno-canto.org/sounds/uploaded/CDTGHVBGZP/BOBO2007-6-3-2.mp3, recorded by Andrew Spencer.  Some people think they sound like R2-D2 from Star Wars.

Female Bobolink. Photo by Bill Hubick.
Bobolinks require grasslands or something very similar, like alfalfa or hay fields, in which to nest. They can be found in Maryland during migration in both spring and fall and they breed in western and northern counties in the state. Maryland is at the very southern end of the breeding range for Bobolinks. They don’t breed on the eastern shore, but some attempt to nest in the northern reaches of Cecil County in hay fields.
Bobolinks have experienced range-wide population declines due to a variety of reasons, with habitat loss considered the single biggest factor. Most native grasslands and wet meadows have disappeared and they have been forced to nest in crop and hay fields as a result.  In terms of habitat quality, hay fields are not bad, but the problem is harvesting the hay while birds are still nesting. Farmers need to cut the hay at its nutritional peak which is often prior to young birds fledging or when they are still too young to fly. Biologists, especially in Vermont, are working with farmers to delay the cutting to allow nests to fledge.

Adult male Bobolink in breeding plumage.
Many Bobolinks use the CRFRS restored grassland on Chino Farm as stopover and refueling site during spring migration. But, the best time to see them in the grasslands is July through September. Adult males arrive first, still in their distinctive breeding plumage, followed by adult females and then in August and September by the young of the year. The restored grasslands provide critical habitat for the Bobolinks that stop here in the fall. Not only do the grasslands provide a bounty of food, in the form of insects and unlimited grass seed, but the tall thick fields act as a refuge. Bobolinks are somewhat unique among east coast birds in that they do not molt on their breeding grounds or the wintering grounds, but rather somewhere in between. This is where the restored grasslands are important.  

Adult male Bobolink undergoing flight feather molt.  

Molt is the process of feather replacement that all birds under take annually. Soon after the adult Bobolinks arrive in the grasslands they begin the pre-basic molt which is complete, meaning they will molt, or replace, all their feathers. Only after this molt is complete in about 3-4 weeks will these birds continue their south-bound migration. All Bobolinks will again undergo a complete molt prior to leaving their wintering grounds for their spring migration back north. Flocks of over 300 individuals have been seen in the fields. What we don’t know yet is whether the same individuals use the grasslands as a molting ground every year or whether we always see different individuals. There are only two bird species in North America that go through two complete molts each year, Bobolinks are one of them, do you know what the other species is?

Sweeping views of the CRFRS restored grasslands on Chino Farm.

The CRFRS restored grasslands are not only providing critical breeding habitat for declining species such as Grasshopper Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dickcissel and Northern Bobwhite and are a great winter habitat for a diversity of grassland dependent species but are also playing a fundamental role in the life cycle of Bobolinks.

Thanks to Bill Hubick for the use of his photographs. More of his photos can be seen at www.billhubick.com

Dan Small is a field ecologist at the Chester River Field Research Station and spends just about everyday in the summer months in the restored grasslands. For more information go to www.facebook.com/crfrc or www.washcoll.edu/ces/chesterriverfieldresearchcenter

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Other than water, what does the rain bring?

No alarm needed this morning.   Thunder was crackling and rain falling well before the 6 a.m. clang of the set clock.  Rainfall on the eastern shore evokes different feelings for different people.  Farmers, for example, are happy that their parched corn might survive to adulthood. My mind then moves to the ramification of the rain in the Chester River Watershed, where the drops hit and and, ultimately,  what it collects as it flows down hill off the fields and into the Bay. It’s a light rain so it’s unlikely that there will be runoff.  Where will the water end up and what will it bring with it?

Yesterday I was over at Foremans Branch on Chino Farms in Chestertown talking with Ted Kimble and Henry Davis about siting a most sophisticated water quality sampling station.  Ted’s going to work with Choptank Electric to drop the electric service in, that will power the station.  Henry will work his magic clearing the long grass and shrubs so the system can be installed and serviced without a threat of contracting poison ivy.  We’re talking with Dr. Jim Gruber to make sure that this project doesn’t interfere with his bird banding research.  We also had to know how high the water gets during slamming rainfall that happens during Nor’easters and hurricanes. So much to do before we take our first sample.

The fancy gizmo will pump water quietly from Foremans Branch to the sensors and then gravity will whisk it back to whence it came. The sensors will let us know what is coming off of the fields and through the grounds from the farm, woods, and grasslands into the water.  During dry times we’ll know that the contributions we’re measuring are leaking into the water through the ground.  When it rains we originally would have expected to see spikes in stuff coming into the water because of runoff.  Our friend Judy Denver up at USGS says that’s probably not the case. We’ll likely see water quality improve during these “freshets”. That’s because the additional water dilutes the nutrients and other “additives” from the farms and roads.  Even though the water quality improves, the volume of water flowing through the system is so high that, overall, the amount of extraneous materials entering the system is still elevated. Look at it this way.  If you have a gallon of water with a pound of sugar in it, it tastes like sugar water.  If you have five gallons of water with two pounds of sugar in it, there is more sugar, but it doesn’t taste as sweet.  So rain and runoff probably worsens water quality.  Doug, did you say “Probably?”.  Yes, I did. 

Once we install this Hach Water Quality measuring station we’ll investigate the truth of this assertion.  Water temperature, salinity, conductivity, pH (acidity), dissolved oxygen, turbidity (how dirty the water is), nutrient content, and water level data will be sent to our website every fifteen minutes.  Coupled with a weather station on the farm we’ll be able to see the relationship between rainfall and water quality.  Communicating with the farm we’ll be able to see how farming practices, including fertilizer application, relates to changes in the chemistry of the water flowing through Foremans Branch down to the Chester River.  We’re hoping to have this information on line for everyone to see.  This will change that "Probably" to an answer with more certainty. I’ll let you know when we throw the switch.  Get in touch if you have questions. Doug Levin is the  Associate Director, Center for Environment & Society @ Washington College and can be reached at dlevin2@washcoll.edu.

This is the site where we originally thought the water quality installation was going.

This photo taken at flood stage convinced us to place the system up the hill from the bridge.