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May 01

Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle: Our Native Garden Helper with the Big Mouth

Posted by Kirk in West River , North River , Glebe Creek , Flat Creek , Fauna , Crab Creek

Photo: Ted Macrae, Beetles in the Bush

Several times in the last month, I’ve seen a scary looking little fella in the woods around the watershed.   A big, shiny green beetle, he seemed very at home on the ground, and so initially I thought he was some sort of carrion beetle I hadn’t seen before.  I’d seen this type of beetle around water in the same places I’ve seen carrion beetles, and so it seemed like a reasonable guess after the first time I saw him (he was in my sight for about 10 seconds). Getting an idea of its identity was a challenge each time - the big bug just wouldn't stop moving. 

But after a little digging (the metaphorical kind), I figured out that what I had seen was actually a tiger beetle, a distant cousin of the carrion beetle (and not looking at all like our most common carrion beetle species).  Tiger beetles are a big family of aggressive, predatory beetles who tend to live near water.  In Maryland, we have several species of native tiger beetles, ranging from the dubiously rare Puritan Tiger Beetle to a variety of very common and nearly identical brownish-green species of Tiger Beetles with white or cream spots.

Also relatively common, though, is the 6-Spotted Tiger Beetle, who makes a home in several of the South River watershed's smaller creeks and wetlands.  The 6-spotted Tiger Beetle is a beautiful metallic green and spends equal time walking and flying.   These beetles live in seemingly odd places - floodplains where bare sand is piled up, muddy creek banks, and other areas with loose soil and sparse vegetation (but surrounded by dense vegetation), usually near water.

Photo: University of Kentucky

According to the Penn State University Extension Service, predatory beetles like the 6-Spotted Tiger feed on a wide variety of pesty bugs, from crickets to fleas and grasshoppers to gnats.  Large tiger beetles even feed on spiders.  If that diet doesn't sound like a good enough reason to keep tiger beetles around, their ideal habitat makes it easy - tiger beetles prefer areas with variable plant life, a little loose soil and little to no human disturbance.  For this reason, they are commonly found on the edge of residential yards and farm fields.

The next time you see a green flash zipping around your ankles - don't worry - the tiger beetle is on patrol! 

Mar 22

Chain Pickerel - the South River's Prehistoric Predator

Posted by Kirk in History , Fauna , Broad Creek

Chain Pickerel

Recently on the headwaters of Broad Creek, I came face to face with a living fossil of sorts - the chain pickerel.  It was early March and he had probably just completed spawning, and was extremely hungry as a result.  His toothy ancestors - pikes - first arrived on the Maryland coast around 30 million years ago, right around the time that the Chesapeake Bay was formed into its current shape.   By comparison, American bass, perch, and sunfish species are said to have differentiated from each other just during the last 15 or 16 million years.  The chain pickerel may in fact be the South River's original apex predator.  So what do chain pickerel do, and why does it matter?

Chain pickerel are closer relatives to the pikes (northern pike, muskellunge) than they are other "pickerels."  Their flat, wide head is a very ancient design for catching large prey in shallow water, and in fact, there are very few species of the Pike/chain pickerel genus still in existance throughout the world.  Luckily, the chain pickerel is well designed to hunt and survive in our waters.  They are fairly tolerant of pollution and are stealthy hunters....but aggressive killers who will leave the shadows just long enough to inhale injured fish, swimming frogs, and water-treading mice. 

 Chain Pickerel Head

The chain pickerel prefers shallow, vegetated beds of tidal rivers and small stormwater ponds that have shallow, flooded zones full of fallen trees or living vegetation.  Chain pickerel are happiest in water bodies with a minimal amount of flow, which means they are frequent visitors to flooded wetlands, beaver dam impoundments, and man-made lakes and ponds.   As South River populations of other large predators (striped bass, largemouth bass) continue to be suppressed due to persistent water pollution issues, the chain pickerel may continue to grow in range and population.   Look for them in vegetated heads of creeks, small natural and man-made impoundments like beaver swamps and stormwater ponds, and even larger impoundments like Annapolis Waterworks Park.

 Pickerel Habitat

The chain pickerel isn't going anywhere, and it has a will to survive - nothing but ospreys or bald eagles will pursue the adult fish.  but that doesn't mean they aren't worth targeting on a fishing outing - the voracious predators are very difficult to hook and at 18-20", they are sure a handful.  Recommended lures are inline spinners, rubber grubs, spoons, and honestly, anything you'd use to catch their close relative the Northern Pike, or alternately, a lot of the lures you might use to catch one of the South River's few largemouth bass.   Good luck tangling with this dinosaur!

(Note: the fish in the images above was released immediately after photographing)

Mar 09

Spring Cleaning Your Rain Garden, Wetland, or Native Landscape

Posted by Kirk in Untagged 


It's spring! And if you haven't stepped outside to see how your rain garden, vegetated buffer, or bioretention project are faring, you really should.  Now's a good time to get a jump start on spring cleaning.

Purple Deadnettle - Photo Courtesy of Clemson University1. Weeds.  March is a great time to get ahead of spring weeds and invasive species that actually emerge in late winter - including the purple deadnettle shown to the left.  The most important weeds to remove right now are invasive species known as "spring ephemerals."   These are species like Garlic Mustard, which emerges, blooms, sets seed, and dies within a period of a few weeks.   Other species - even desirable ones - might be sprouting from seed and if you don't want them to spread, early spring is the best time to cut or till them - before their root system gets any bigger.   As with most projects, "begin with the end in mind," which in this case means that your conservation landscape area should have no more vegetation in it than you'd like it to have during the peak of the growing season.  Just because you don't see later-emerging plants right now, remember, they'll be along soon to fill in the empty space.

2. Sediment removal.  If your property includes swales, wetlands, ponds, or rain gardens, spring is a good time to get rid of sediment and debris that may have accumulated over the past year.  Remember that most sediment will be composed of less than 10% pore space, and as a result, that "muck" is taking up serious space that should be occupied by water.  Stormwater guidelines generally advocate that sediment is removed any time it occupies more than 25% of the capacity of a wetland, pond, or rain garden.   Stormwater treatment research has shown that areas more than 50% full of sediment are usually "failing," either structurally or in their ability to treat pollution.

3.  Trash removal.  This is a no-brainer.  Spring is a great time to put on some gloves and remove trash, especially plastics and cigarette butts, from landscaping.  This season usually brings us several heavy rains, which in the South River tend to deliver a lot of trash downstream.

4. Inspect for erosion.  If any part of your conservation landscape was constructed for slope stabilization (living wall or other similar approaches), conveyance of water (rock-lined waterways), or water treatment (rain gardens, etc), please take a few minutes on a sunny day to inspect them all and make sure that tiny gullies called "rills" are not forming.  Look for exposed roots and other evidence of fast-moving water.  Small "dunes" or "deltas" of sediment immediately downhill are often a good sign that erosion is occurring uphill.

Early Spring Rain Garden - Courtesy of Slugyard.com


Inspect plants for damage.  During the growing season, this is an important activity that involves looking at buds, leaves, and stems for all sorts of insects, fungi, and disease that may be affecting your plants.  However, this time of year, it's much simpler.  You want to look for easily noticable signs of pest damage from vertebrates (voles, rabbits, and deer) as well as overwintering insects like the cedar bagworm and cane borers on blackberry, raspberry, and rose stems.   Physically remove as many as possible.  Be on the lookout for any survivors when the temperatures get warner!

Spring is the ideal time to tackle these very minor chores and give your native landscape or conservation area the best possible chance to be productive and successful during the growing season.  Good luck!


Feb 02

Robins Return to the South River

Posted by Kirk in Fauna

Last week, Robins returned to the South River watershed.  They are on fields, in highway medians, and in lawns. Perhaps you've seen one, making a fast dash north from its wintering grounds?


Nope.  Wrong Robin.

 American Robin, Courtesy of Dreambirding.blogspot.com

This Robin.  The American Robin.   Referred to as a "harbinger of Spring" in the Mid-Atlantic states, the American Robin has a highly variable migration pattern that is largely based on upon balancing caloric needs and food availability.  The Robin is a tough, adaptable bird, which is one reason we can see so many in an area like the South River watershed.  By songbird standards, the Robin is a "big bird" (actually, North America's largest thrush), and it's comfortable in agricultural, suburban, and forest habitats, and can eat almost anything you'd call "bird food."  So why do they migrate south at all?

Like many ducks and shorebirds in the Atlantic flyway, "our" Robins only migrate south when they feel they have no other choice.   What forces that choice? Songbirds like the American Robin uses between 40-80% of their (winter) calorie intake simply to maintain body temperature.   Once a few hard frosts have hit their habitat, their favorite food (soft-bodied insects, worms, and arthropods) become inactive and harder to find.  Robins then shift their diet to berries and seeds, which have higher carbohydrates but less protein than live food, and also require significantly more calories to eat and digest than live, soft food items like earthworms, grubs, and millipedes.   As the available seed supply starts to thin, the number of Robins in the South River watershed start to thin out - even though a few may stay through the winter.

It's the Robin's migration back north that captivates people.   An old farmers' tale is that Robins migrate north when the night and day temperatures average 36 degrees - and observations generally bear this out.  However, a little closer inspection tells us that it's not the slightly warmer air itself, but what that particular temperature does to the Robin's favorite food item - earthworms.

In the fall months, earthworms migrate downward through the soil to avoid freezing temperatures.  They seem conscious of where the frost line lies, and can often hibernate in large groups right below that important depth.  However, as the spring returns and the soil temperature bounces from 34 to 36 degrees near the surface, the earthworm's internal organs begin functioning again - including their respiration (breathing) apparatus in their skin.  Unfortunately for the earthworms, around this time, snow and ice begin to melt and spring rains begin, all of which fill soil pores with water instead of air.  The newly active earthworms have no choice but to climb to the surface to breathe, where new flocks of Robins are patiently waiting for them (like in the image below).

 Image Courtesy of Slugyard.com

So much for "bird brains" - the American Robin has it all figured out.

Jan 18

Impaired Judgment, Impaired Leadership

Posted by Kirk in Untagged 

A lot of political hay is being made these days about funding the cleanup of our local rivers and creeks, especially designated impaired waters like the South River.  Impaired water bodies are recognized by the US EPA for failing to meet very basic guidelines for human safety and/or biological production .  However, stopping the flow of pollution into impaired waters requires political will, regulatory vision, and of course, money.    The Anne Arundel County Council recently heard a bill that would fund the restoration of the County's waterways by levying a $25-35 stormwater fee on most landowners in the County.   The bill was withdrawn in the hopes that instead, the Maryland state legislature will decide to pick up the tab instead.  The reasoning? "It's just not a good time for a new fee in this county."

Of course, during our historically unprecedented 15 years of economic growth in Anne Arundel County from 1993-2008, it "wasn't a good time" either - a stormwater restoration bill was narrowly defeated by the Council and opposed by two County Executives during that era.   You see, despite record tax receipts and development rates, it wasn't "a good time" for a new fee or tax.  So when will it ever be "a good time" for such a fee to support critical restoration efforts?  Not until the day when our elected officials and regulatory appointees decide that cleaning up our water is important enough to get done. 

Anne Arundel's elected leaders, and Maryland's as well, are well known as being some of the most visionary and progressive in the nation when it comes to assessing and understanding environmental issues. But since stormwater and restoration funding seem to cause such consternation, perhaps our leaders should look at how other highly progressive, highly effective municipalities have successfully tackled the de-listing of their local waters:

Huntsville, Alabama (Flint River). Listed for unknown impairment in 1998, revised to organic pollution and dissolved oxygen deficiency in 2002, the Flint River was highly impacted by agriculture and urban runoff.   In just two years, the City of Huntsville and local Soil Conservation District allocated $300,000 to match a $250,000 EPA grant, and implement 2,000 acres of stormwater and agricultural best management practices in just two years.  Flint River was delisted from the Impaired Waters list in 2006.

Grant County, West Virginia (North Fork Potomac).  After the North Fork Potomac was listed in 1996 for fecal coliforms, the North Fork Watershed Association worked with EPA to establish a non-point TMDL in 1998.  The WV Governor's Office provided $45,000 , which was separate from a $250,000 line item appropriation from the state budget, $500,000 from the state's NRCS conservation allocation from USDA, and $1 million from EPA.  Over the course of just 8 years, this impressive show of funding translated into the installation of best management practices on 85% of properties in the watershed - incredible by any standard.  In 2008, the North Fork Potomac was delisted. 

Virginia Beach, Virginia (Lynnhaven River/Bay).  Failing septic systems, sewer overflows, stormwater management facilities, and boat pump-out practices contributed to the listing of the Lynnhaven River & Lynnhaven Bay as impaired for fecal coliforms in 1998.  The area was subsequently listed as impaired for purposes of shellfish harvest in 2002.  The City of Virginia Beach worked aggressively with EPA to establish non-point and point-source TMDL goals, which were approved in 2006.  Between 2006 and 2010, in this small watershed alone, the City of Virginia Beach spent nearly $5 million of municipal tax and fee monies on restoration projects, over $25 million of municipal fee monies on sewer connections and upgrades,  and focused City employee staff time on procuring millions of dollars in additional federal and state grants.   The shellfish harvest ban, in place for decades, began to roll back in 2007, and the watershed was partially delisted in 2010.  

Let's get local again.  Anne Arundel County is full of some of the nation's brightest, most innovative minds in municipal and state government.   But these same minds, who proudly acknowledge how important clean water is to them and their constituents,  have failed to make important commitments to clean water that fiscally conservative,  anti-regulation, and tax-averse areas like Alabama, West Virginia, and southern Virginia have made and kept. They, like our County's leaders, believed that clean water was important.  Unlike some of our County's leaders, those men and women took action. 

 I'd like to think that Anne Arundel County, and Maryland as a whole, can do better than northern Alabama and eastern West Virginia, but as we continue to debate whether we'll try to clean up the Bay's rivers by 2020, 2025....or maybe whenever our grandkids think "it's a good time," we can only hope to catch up to visionary leaders who advocate and act for clean water in other areas of the country, faced with water quality impairments. 

But saying that $25 is too much to pay to clean up 300+ years of watershed pollution? That's impaired judgment.

Jan 06

Witch-hazel: The Forgotten Winter Flower

Posted by Kirk in Flora

Winter weather has arrived in the South River, and most life has settled down throughout the watershed. Snakes, turtles, and frogs are hibernating. Our summer songbirds have, for the most part, left the area. Blue crabs and most fish species have also left the River in order to spend it in the slightly warmer waters of the lower Chesapeake Bay. People have settled down too - the River is free of paddlers, crabbers, and anglers, and indeed most boats have been winterized for a month or more, and now sit high and dry on trailers or boat lifts.

But if you look closely enough around the watershed, there are still signs of life. Otters and beavers continue their work. A light waterfowl migration has brought some additional ducks and geese to the River. And as of the new year - one native, yellow, flower still bloomed - the common or Virginia Witch-hazel. 

If you're out in the woods in December or even in a mild January, you're unlikely to see a lot of color unless you see a blooming Witch-hazel - literally one of the latest blooming plants in the forest. I've read some theories that this late bloom is an adaptation to the "availability" of bees and other pollinators on warm days in late fall and early winter - very little competition from other blooming plants. So where does this magical plant live around the South River, and how can someone recognize it?

Witch-hazel is pretty recognizable during the growing season because of its shrubby growth, broad, toothed leaves, and zig-zagging twigs holding cone-like seed pods year-round. It rarely grows more than 15 feet tall and the leaves turn bright yellow in the fall, prior to the appearance of its distinct yellow flowers. The shrub prefers to live along the edges of shady woodlands and bright yards or fields, in moist, acidic soils that are high in organic matter.

If this sounds like a spot that you know, maybe you already have a Witch-hazel! If not, they make are readily available at local plant nurseries. Witch-hazel's tolerance of deer browse, its amazing fall foliage and winter flowers, and its resistance to both pollution and pests make it a compelling native plant specimen for almost any landscape in the South River watershed.

Nov 15

The Coot in the Coal Mine

Posted by Kirk in Pollution , Fauna


For everyone who hasn’t been on the river for a few weeks, the first wintering waterbirds have arrived!   Surprisingly, they aren’t Canada Geese or Canvasbacks!

Photo by Michael Budd, USFWS

Say hello to the American Coot, a flock of which recently arrived on the South River, fresh from their breeding grounds in the prairies of south-central Canada.  They look, act, and feed a look like ducks, but technically they aren't ducks at all - they are rails - a group of native marsh birds.  They primarily migrate through North America's Central Flyway, although a few always make their way to coastal rivers like the South River. 

So why is this inlander here at all, and why should we care?  Wintering coots prefer open water, like that found on the South River, where they can spend their days hunting for small fish, snails, and algae to eat.  The Coot is known as a scrappy "survivor" of a bird that can withstand a wide variety of pollutants and other assorted natural and human sources of environmental stress. 

According to Michael Budd of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, whose expertise is marsh birds like the Coot, the presence of American Coots is important for two reasons.  According to Budd,  "because they are so durable as a species, coots are an important indicator species for river systems, and in many regions, scientists track their population numbers every year.  If the coot population were to decline for multiple years, it's an indication that conditions in the river and its wetlands are deteriorating - perhaps rapidly."

Photo by Michael Budd, USFWS

 Budd also stresses that, "if coots can no longer use a river system, we have a problem. It means that other marsh birds also have little or no chance of succeeding in the watershed, and conditions for migratory waterfowl species are probably deteriorating as well."

So if you see one of these funny gray birds this winter, know that you see a true survivor - and a bird who is depending on us to keep the South River cleaner than it is today.


Oct 31

Ghosts of the South River

Posted by Kirk in Untagged 

This time of year, we allow our imaginations to roam wild with thoughts of ghosts, goblins, witches, and even zombies - all creatures of fantasy.  But what would do if you knew that the river at your doorstep flows thick with the remains of local residents who have come and gone in generations past?  Well, it's true.  I swear it is.

Unfortunately and in a morbid way, fortunately, these remains are  all in the chemical form.  Ethereal beasts like Trichloroethylene. Swamp Things like Polychlorinated biphenyls and Hexavelent chromium.  Cupric carbonate.  Algal available soluble phosphorus.  The Ghostbusters have nothing on these guys, who all flow through the South River, and not just on Halloween.    If the names of these ghosts are scaring you already, then you probably don't want to know what they can do to you, the river, and all of the wildlife who call the river "home." 

These chemical forms of the Undead share a dubious commonality - they are all here because once upon a time, nobody knew or cared how these compounds might impact the South River.   And so when South River residents in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were finished with these Frankensteinian formulations, they simply left them here.   Slowly but surely, like a monster movie's "toxic ooze," they've made their way from their burial sites, and are now entering the River.   These types of burials are not allowed any more, and in some cases were not allowed in the first place, but the damage has been done.

Some of you may remember the opening scene to 1983's Twilight Zone movie.  Remember the quote?  "Hey - do you wanna see something really scary?"  I'm here to ask you the same question about the South River's past lives.  My answer? What's really scary is that we have not yet seen the worst of the pollution that's waiting in the beautiful, forested headwaters of the South River and its tributaries.  In some cases, we don't even know what's coming next - some chemicals are buried in the proverbial "unmarked graves" - never issued any permits to open, dump, or close.  It just happened - and it's probably moving downhill right now. 

All this serves as a great reminder of the importance of actively observing and monitoring the river and its health - maintaining a real front line defense against the next chemical zombie to find its way down the hill and into your local forest, creek, or wetland.  The South River Federation and the South Riverkeeper maintain some of the most rigorous voluntary water pollution monitoring in Maryland, and as problem sites are identified in the watershed, we work aggressively within the community and with the appropriate government agencies to see that the proper investigation, assessment, and remediation are conducted.  We do it because it matters. And we do it because the South River deserves a future free of this legacy of ghosts.