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Tricolored herons: Here today, but where tomorrow?

Dropping out of the opalescent sky with its neck neatly tucked back, the heron floated into view. Swinging its long legs forward at the last second, the graceful bird landed at the edge of an open pool of water. The blue-gray body stood out against the tawny marsh grasses.

Seeing herons at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia is a common occurrence, but this bird was a bit different than most. 

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Look around for signs of the season springing up around the watershed

The first day of spring is March 21, but March can be a fickle month with weather bringing everything from icy winds or snow to downright balmy days.

Depending on the weather patterns, it’s often hard to know if spring has arrived, especially if a late winter storm system descends upon the mid-Atlantic. Regardless of whether March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb (or vice versa), you can always be assured that winter is on its way out when you see (or hear) some of my favorite harbingers.

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Reef sweet reef

Oysters, which grow on reefs, play an important role in filtering the Chesapeake Bay’s water. But oyster reefs also provide habitat for a large variety of marine life. Here are seven of the more unusual creatures that are found on oyster reefs. Can you match them up with their descriptions and photos?

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A cabin waits for you along the Appalachian Trail

For years, my friend Alison has been telling me, “You’ve gotta rent a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabin! You’ll love it!”

So here we were, my husband and I, on a late winter afternoon so dank and foggy we could have driven into the side of a mountain without knowing it. We were following the west branch of the Naked River, a tributary of the Shenandoah, traveling up a dirt road in what seemed like the Middle of Nowhere, VA, until we rounded a slight bend, and there in the woods was the unmistakable outline of a small, old log cabin.

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Night Moves

Let’s call it a night. For many, this means the day’s activities are done and it’s time for rest. Yet for many of Earth’s inhabitants, activity is just beginning. This quiz will test you on how much you know about nocturnal creatures.

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Saltmarsh sparrow needs tide to turn in its favor if it is to survive

Chesapeake marshes in the winter have a special charm. An extraordinary range of warm brown, ocher and russet tones lend the grasses a hypnotic quality. At this time of the year, I tend to focus my attention on the Chesapeake’s bountiful waterfowl. But the marsh grasses are always there, adding a backdrop of ineffable beauty to any visit.

We were in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, MD. Our attention turned from the snow geese to the simpler pleasure of scanning the marsh for songbirds.

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Gifts for the holidays, resolutions for the New Year!

With the holiday season upon us, our attention turns to giving gifts to friends and family or ways to contribute to charities. Thoughts also turn toward New Year’s resolutions as we look for ways to improve ourselves or our world. So this is a perfect time to reflect on how to reduce your impact on Earth by helping to conserve the air, water, land and wildlife that surround and sustain us. If you need a little help deciding what you can do, here’s a gift list to choose from.

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Downy woodpecker chips out its own niche in the avian world

Action at the bird feeders was continuous. Red-winged blackbirds had arrived, scattered across the backyard, eating spilled seeds and fighting for position on the suet feeder. Cardinals and chickadees were hungrily feeding on black oil sunflower seeds. A dozen mourning doves had staked out a prime location under the thistle feeder.

A single downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) was shuttling back and forth between a redbud tree and one of the feeders filled with a mixture of nuts.

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Bee grateful this Thanksgiving for native pollinators

Many people do not realize that native bees have been pollinating the continent’s flowering plants long before honey bees were brought from Europe.

As bees move from flower to flower collecting nectar, they also move pollen from flower to flower. Pollination occurs when pollen grains from a flower’s male parts (anthers) are moved to the female part (stigma). Once on the stigma, the pollen grain grows a tube that runs down into the ovary, where fertilization occurs.

Bees, both honey bees and native bees, are crucial to the production of most fruits, nuts and berries on which people and wildlife depend.

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Feature: Archives

The world beneath your feet

Which is greater — the number of organisms in a handful of healthy soil or the number of people on Earth? If you said organisms, you are correct! Know some more dirt on soil? Take this quiz to see how well you are grounded on the world...

Standing out!

“Look” at the animal, plant or mineral in each of these lists. Three share a common trait that the fourth does not. Can you figure out which one stands out from the rest, as well as what the other three have in common? Answers are...

Odd-standing in their crowd

For some, October is the month to dwell on the odd and unusual. In each list here, three of the items have at least one thing in common. You are asked to pick the odd man out. Answers and explanations are below. 1. Winnie Estelle, Dee of St....

Bald Cypress

Here are 10 scrambled words related to the bald cypress, along with a clue to their identities. Stuck? All of the information you need is in the September Bay Naturalist column. Answers below. 1. WSPAM __________________ This is the type of...

Sharp as a needle? This bald cypress quiz is for you

The September Bay Naturalist column is about the bald cypress. How much do you know about this tree? Take this quiz to find out. Answers are below. 1. The tallest known bald cypress, at 145 feet, is found near which Virginia city? A. Newport...

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Bay Buddies

Bears & Snakes!

Some people won’t hike in an area where they fear they might run into a bear or snake. The chance of encountering one of these creatures is very small, and if you take precautions, the chance of being injured is even smaller. Here are safety tips. See if you can figure out which are...

Sea cucumbers

There are more than 1,200 sea cucumbers in the world’s oceans and their bays. The Chesapeake Bay is home to two of these creatures, the common sea cucumber and the pale sea cucumber. Take this quiz to learn more about these amazing creatures. Answers are below. 1. Sea cucumbers are...

Lightning!

Lightning strikes thousands of people every year. Those struck directly by lightning usually die. Take this quiz and use what you learn from it to help avoid becoming one of lightning’s unfortunate victims. Answers are below. 1. Should you touch someone who has been struck by...

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Bay Naturalist

Be a good gardener – replace invasive plants with natives

It’s finally spring and your attention may be turning to sprucing up or creating green spaces around your home, school or business. But be careful when choosing flowers, shrubs and trees to plant. You could unknowingly introduce an invasive plant into the surrounding environment....

Delmarva fox squirrel scampers off endangered species list

The Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) is found only on the Delmarva Peninsula, the land between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean that includes Delaware, eastern Maryland and eastern Virginia. This large tree squirrel inhabits the mature forests of this...

Honking signals the traffic of Chesapeake’s migrating waterfowl

Every fall, a great migration begins as thousands of swans, geese and ducks leave northern breeding grounds and begin flying south. The Chesapeake watershed lures these birds from Alaska, Canada, the Northcentral United States and New England as they seek out the open water of the Bay,...

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Chesapeake Challenge

The world beneath your feet

Which is greater — the number of organisms in a handful of healthy soil or the number of people on Earth? If you said organisms, you are correct! Know some more dirt on soil? Take this quiz to see how well you are grounded on the world beneath your feet. Answers are below. Match the...

Is it a lake? That de-ponds…

Is it a large pond or a small lake? Believe it or not, there is no “official” definition of a pond. While many use size as criteria — large = lake, small=pond — remember that the Atlantic Ocean is sometimes referred to as “The Pond” by people who live on...

Washington, DC, is a capital place to see wildlife in the winter

Washington, DC, is teeming with wildlife in the winter, and we aren’t talking donkeys and elephants. In fact, winter is a great time for wildlife watching: little or no vegetation to block the view, fewer tourists to get in the way and no mosquitoes! Here are five birds that can be...

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On the Wing

Admiration for oddball American coot is an a acquired taste

A crisp morning breeze turned the waters of Tubby Cove into a corrugated surface of sparkling silver. We had arrived early and found hundreds of geese, ducks and swans loafing in the morning sun. Tundra swans looked regal with their brilliant white bodies and elegant long necks. Just in...

Common goldeneye has heart of gold when young are concerned

The calendar said that Thanksgiving was just a week away, but the weather told a different story. The temperature was near 70 degrees and the bright sun made it feel warmer still. New York’s Glimmerglass State Park is aptly named. The placid waters of Lake Otsego reflected a few...

Quest for food, refuge drives broad-winged hawk migration

The day was autumn-perfect with a few high clouds, a brilliant azure sky, and a zephyr coming off the nearby Chesapeake Bay. We had just departed the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on a lovely late September afternoon. Soybean and cornfields were newly harvested. Pumpkins and apple...

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Past is Prologue

Young surveyors learn to measure up on 1907–08 Patuxent cruise

St. Leonard's Creek on the Patuxent, the Chesapeake's sixth largest river, was formed by the slow inundation of a forested valley as sea levels rose and land subsided during and after the melt of great continental glaciers. The process, which commenced 12,000–14,000 years ago...

From plow furrows to peach trees, early Patuxent River survey had it all

Please excuse this writer as he blurs history slightly in describing early survey work on the Chesapeake Bay. It is his intention to breathe life into events that likely happened 165 years ago this summer. R.D. Cutts stepped lightly ashore from the longboat carrying his transit and...

Bricks reveal foundations of early Bay buildings from ground up

After decades of studying the early colonization of the Chesapeake region, I still stand in awe of those men who stepped off their ships with axes, shovels and a few saws to face an immense forest from which they had to fashion structures that allowed some of them to survive the hard...

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