Winter Blues

Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist

The winter season can cause many people to have the “Winter Blues” due to low light levels, lack of sunshine, the burr of the winter cold and being stuck inside for weeks.  Many people become “Snowbirds” and migrate to warmer areas during the winter months, returning in the spring. And, yes, many wish the winter season away, but others like myself enjoy the changing seasons and what each season has to offer.  We humans are mammals after all, and like some mammals, some of us hibernate during the cold months.  Others like many birds migrate South.  Still other mammals, birds and humans stick around and have learned how to cope with the harshness of the winter landscape.  I am one of those humans who has learned how by embracing what it offers me.

Winter is a great time to catch up on your reading.  I don’t know about you, but I have piles of books to read and the spring/summer/fall months I am too busy doing other things like gardening, camping, mowing grass, and spending time with my grandsons.  The days are long and filled with other things that take up my time.  Winter is a great time to read some nature books and learn about those creatures we share our planet with. Plan a trip to one of our wonderful State or National Parks.  If you can, visit one of them during the winter months. They are less crowded and if you go to a place such as Yellowstone you will be in for a winter treat of amazing beauty.  You may also get a chance to see creatures like the Gray Wolves that might be harder to view during the summer months. I recently saw a television show where people were lined up with their cameras in hand just hoping to get a glimpse of a wolf pack crossing a snowy ridge. What a sight that would be!

Winter can offer many joys at home too.  What about filling a bird feeder or several bird feeders to attract birds like Cardinals, Bluejays, several species of Finches, White Throated Sparrows, Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse and many others.  Buy a bird book for identification and keep a journal of what visits your feeder. If you hang a suet feeder you may also get visits from birds such as the Red Bellied Woodpecker, Nuthatches and the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers…which can be challenging to tell apart, so keep that bird identification book nearby.  Also consider keeping a pair of binoculars handy, or I prefer a monocular which I find easier because I only have to focus one eye piece instead of two.  Bird Watching opens up a whole new world to explore and you can do it from the comfort of a chair by a window with a bird feeder nearby so you can “watch the birds”. Believe me, there is nothing more beautiful against a back drop of snow than a beautiful bright red cardinal. They can cheer any Scrooge.  I have dozens of them visiting my feeder now.  As I sit and write this blog article, I can’t help but look out at my bird feeder to see what is visiting and laugh at the antics of the squirrels as they are scolding the birds for hogging the feeder.

Winter is also a great time to go to a park like Assateague National Seashore right here in Maryland.  I prefer the cooler months to visit  because during the warm months the biting insects can be bothersome. Regardless of what time of year, there is always an abundance of bird life!  It’s great to walk around the marsh and other trails and yes the Assateague Horses are always there. Just remember, they are “wild” and can bite or kick, and it is their home, not ours.

Now don’t forget about other wildlife who are looking for a helping hand during the cold months and can also offer great entertainment. I am referring to squirrels….yes, those furry little critters that live in the woods but are also common in towns, cities, suburbs and near apartment complexes.  These small acrobatic creatures have learned how to live near humans.  They will raid your bird feeders no matter how much you try to discourage them and, honestly, I find them lots of fun to watch! You can buy different feeders for squirrels and provide corn, peanuts and seeds to help draw them away from your bird feeder or buy a “wildlife” block that attracts the squirrels as well as other wildlife and birds. They come in 20-pound blocks that last longer then what you put in a bird feeder. Plus they help provide complete nutrition that wildlife needs to survive the winter months. If you have deer that come into your yard you can also buy “deer” blocks, but I have found they will also go to the wildlife blocks just as well. It might help keep them away from your shrubs. So you get to enjoy wildlife without leaving the warmth of your home and it didn’t cost you a ticket to go to Florida.

I enjoy walking in the winter.  You don’t get all sweaty like you do in the summer.  I’m not hurrying to get finished so I can find a cool place.  There are hidden wonders to be found that you don’t see when they are hidden behind the camouflage of greenery during those warmer months. It’s a great time to learn how to “saunter” as John Muir advised people to do. He said, “I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing.  People ought to saunter in the mountains -not ‘hike!’”  I have learned to saunter, to slow down, and look closer at nature.  Even during the starkness of winter there are things to see.  I enjoy taking photos of nature and since I’ve grown older I don’t enjoy rushing anywhere, so sauntering suits me!  There are glorious finds when you take a closer look.

Just recently I discovered we have beaver living nearby. I’m sure they have been there awhile but it was only during the winter I was able to discover where. In the summer I wouldn’t walk in the overgrown meadow near the stream, but I did one winter day. I was rewarded by finding the beaver dam and it’s lodge plus still standing trees that had been chewed and would be used for food and maintenance of his home.  Only in winter would I have ventured through those high grasses now laying flat. 

Another morning I was looking at dew drops that hung like jewels on everything they touched. They mirrored the trees and blue sky through their tiny prisms. I found a hornets nest hanging from a tree, now torn, but revealing the inside of their home and the marvelous workmanship of these creatures we try so hard to avoid. 

I know not everyone likes to drive when it’s icy, but I think we can all agree that the beautiful crystal shimmer of ice hanging from the trees, grasses and buildings is breath-taking.  One morning when it was safe to venture out I started looking at the ice that had fallen from the trees, each shard looking like glass. Some pieces you could look straight through and others were like frosty panes of glass with cell like patterns.  The walk to the stream, seeing the ice that hung on the grasses along the bank which looked like dancing ladies to my eyes, and the rushing water soothed my soul. 

My wish for you during these winter months is that you will take the time to look and appreciate its uniqueness.  Each season, like the seasons of our lives has beauties to see and enjoy. None should be wished away.  As a child I use to wish the school season would be over, or Christmas would hurry and come, or I could be grown up. My mother would say “stop wishing your life away.”  Those words ring so true. Every time we wish for another season we are wishing months of our lives to pass by too quickly. Let’s all take the time to enjoy nature’s glory in every season. We can walk in our backyards or watch from our windows as the seasons change. 

Pick a special place like Fountain Rock Park to walk and see how it changes each season you visit.  Take a camera along and get down and look at things you pass by all the time. It is a marvelous, inspiring and glorious awakening that nature will reveal to you…if you take the time to look.  Take the time to enjoy what each season has to share. If you do you will find even in winter there is much to see and it may just help chase those “Winter Blues” away.


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Categories: Uncategorized

Northern Map Turtle

Graptemys geographica

Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern

The Northern Map Turtle is an aquatic, fresh water turtle that inhabits large rivers, streams and lakes.  They spend much of their time underwater although they do require abundant basking sites, but they are shy and will dive for safety at any disturbance. Map turtles usually forage for food in the morning and late afternoon and prefer to bask at midday. 

Northern Map turtles get their name from their appearance.  The carapace (top shell) has a shallow but definite midline keel.  It is olive colored and has designs that resemble a map, some say the lines look like waterways or topographic lines on a map.  The lines are yellow to orange in color with darker colors in between them in greens and browns.  Any pattern may be obscured by dark pigmentation in females or algae growth on the carapace. The skin is olive to brown black with thicker yellow to greenish yellow stripes on the skin of their face and limbs.  The skin design can be more noticeable due to the fact the shell can fade with age. The plastron (bottom shell) is pale yellow in adults but juveniles have a black pigment along the scute (plate) line. The Northern Map Turtles also have a large jaw surface which give the appearance of light colored lips. 

Map turtles assemble in groups to hibernate and spend their winters in deep, riverine pools where the water is cold and has a high level of oxygen.   There they will lie motionless on the bottom fully exposed.  They are able to breathe underwater because they take up oxygen through permeable skin that is well supplied with blood.

Male Map Turtles have narrower heads, oval-shaped carapace and longer, thicker tails than the females do.  The females are larger than the males with a carapace measuring up to 10.5” compared to the males with a 6.2” carapace. 

Breeding takes place in both spring and fall.  Nests are usually built on open, sandy  beaches or sand bars rather than wooded areas.  The egg laying process can take many hours, beginning at nightfall and lasting until early morning.  The female will lay 10-13 eggs per clutch and usually lays two clutches a year.  Map turtles have temperature dependent sex determination.  Warmer temperatures produce females and cooler temperatures males.  Males reach sexual maturity at around 4-6 yrs of age but females can take more than 10 yrs to mature.  The predators of their nest sites are raccoons, skunks, foxes, and river otters.  Gulls, crows, grackles and red-winged blackbirds will eat hatchlings. Adult turtles can also be prey to skunks, raccoons, coyotes and opossum. 

Map Turtles feed on a variety of food sources.  Algae, vascular plants, dead fish, snails, clams, crayfish and a wide variety of insects. 

Where many turtles such as the Eastern Box Turtle can live 75 yrs or more, the Map Turtle usually lives from 20-25 years of age.  There are 13 species of Map Turtles.  The Map Turtle we have living at FountainRock is a Mississippi Map Turtle named “Kohni” who came to live with us in 2014 on a rainy spring day.  When counting Kohni’s scutes at the time of her arrival it was estimated she was around 15 years of age.  Come visit beautiful Kohni and see why she is called a Map Turtle. 

The Northern Map Turtle has been listed as endangered in Maryland because of its restricted range.  Threats such as water pollution, waterfront development, vehicle traffic, boat propellers, habitat destruction, siltation, dams, and collection for the pet trade are all causes of the endangered status the Northern Map Turtle faces.  It is up to humans in the private and public sectors to join together to protect and restore habitat if we want to see these beautiful turtles continue to be part of our diverse ecosystems.

Categories: Uncategorized

Eastern Musk Turtle

Sternotherus odoratus

Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern

The next turtle ambassador at Fountain Rock is “Axe” the Eastern Musk Turtle who was donated to the park in 2009 and has grown quite a lot since that time although he still appears small.  Axe goes on field trips with Nature in Classroom to visit a local elementary school each year.  Because he is small he is easy for presenters to handle and show the different carapaces (top shell) between other turtles such as, Toby the Box Turtle and Franklin the Wood Turtle. Each turtle has its own beauty, character, shell shape and patterns.  What child doesn’t love looking at turtles? 

The Eastern Musk Turtle also known as “Stinkpot” because of the pungent, unpleasant odor it can release as a form of protection from predators.  This odor also plays a role in courtship so they can identify possible mates.  The fluid, or secretions are yellowish in color and are emitted from four glands along the edges of its shell.  The carapace (top shell) is a arched dome which is elongated and smooth.  It is often found with algae growing on the carapace which makes it hard to see the irregular pattern of black streaks or spots.  It varies in color from gray brown to black.  The Eastern Musk Turtle has a much smaller plastron (bottom shell) than the Eastern Mud Turtle who is similar in appearance and shape.  Until you compare the two it can be hard to tell them apart.  The plastron also has a nonfunctional hinge and brown to yellowish scutes (the individual scales).

This turtle is small in size with its carapace measuring only 2”-4 1/2” in size. The males are slightly larger than the females with a longer and thicker tail with a nail on the tip of it.  The Musk Turtle has a long neck so if handling you should hold it to the rear of the carapace. The head has two yellow to white stripes on each side of its head which start at the snout and extend to the back.  One stripe is above and the other stripe is below its eyes.  The head also has  paired barbels (a fleshy filament) growing on its chin and throat. 

Although the Eastern Musk Turtle prefers aquatic habitats with slow moving water with soft bottoms, they are poor swimmers.  They spend much of their time walking along the bottom in search of food.  They are however good climbers and can be found on occasions basking on logs, but for the most part they remain on the bottom of their freshwater homes of ponds, lakes and wetlands.  They are more active at night during the warm months of the year. 

These turtles will hibernate underwater or near the water for the winter months. They will come out from hibernation by April and will mate during the active period which last until November.  Males are thought to become sexually mature at about 4 yrs of age, but the females can take up to 10 yrs to mature. When ready to lay her eggs the female will  make a shallow nest under rotting vegetation or fallen logs and nest closely to other turtles.  She will lay 2-4 eggs.  The hatchlings are our smallest North American turtles being about the size of a penny.

The Eastern Musk Turtle eats a variety of foods which include:  small snails, clams, aquatic insects like the nymphs of dragonflies and damselflies and terrestrial insects that fall in the water, worms, crayfish and small tadpoles, aquatic vegetation and carrion. 

Habitat destruction and pollution are the major threats to the Eastern Musk Turtles as it is with all turtles. 

Categories: Uncategorized

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