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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)

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 10

What Do I Spy on the South River?

Posted by Jennifer in Glebe Creek , Gingerville Creek , Flat Creek , Fauna , Duvall Creek , Beards Creek


After a year of coping with the effects of three major rain storms, we were thrilled to end 2011 with the otter-ly fantastic news of a return of one of the River’s top predators. Even more exciting than sharing the news, was the response we got from our members! Coming with four reports, Gingerville Creek takes the lead in sightings followed closely by Beards Creek with three. Other sightings were reported in Duvall, near the mouth of the River past Cherrytree Cove, Glebe Bay, Harness Creek, Granville Creek, Flat Creek, and Boyd’s Cove. Below are excerpts from the many stories we received:

-Perhaps the most memorable experience came from a member that was fortunate enough to see an entire family of otters! “I have kayaked on the South River for 6 years and have seen river otters each and every one of those years...in fact, 4 years ago my friend and I were in the headwaters of Beard's Creek and not only did a large male otter swim across the front of our kayaks with a smaller (I assume the female) behind him and they were both hissing at us and not long afterwards, three small younguns swam between our kayaks, it seemed that they were either swimming extraordinarily close behind each other or swimming sort of piggyback and kept looking up at us and chirping...they were close enough that I could have reached down and picked one up. It was one of those special moments that I will never forget.”

– Sandy, Beards Creek -A longtime South River resident and avid fisherman finally got an up-close look at an otter just recently! “I have seen them numerous times over the last few years, but always from a distance. Every morning I run my dog to the river and back. Three days ago, I was down on the neighborhood pier, and out of the skim ice popped this guys head. It is the first time I have seen them up close, and they are a really unique and cool thing to see on our river.” – Nick, Davidsonville

-“I thought it was a seal the way it was swimming and playing until I got a closer look. I couldn't believe my eyes. Hope to see them again!” – Carol, Granville Creek - “It has been spotted a couple of times in the past few weeks as well as last year. We think it may "hide" at my waters edge. It seems to disappear into the underground tunnels.” – Theresa, Harness Creek

-It’s great to know they have been in some areas for so long! “We've had them in Boyd's Cove for years - didn't know it was a big deal!” – Marj, Boyds Cove

-Looks like the otters even appreciate the beauty of Quiet Waters Park! “I have seen otters in Loden Pond, near the South River Overlook at Quiet Waters Park, and in the pond between the Ice Rink and Lighthizer Gazebo” – Michael, Harness Creek

-He may not have seen an otter, but beaver sightings are just as great! While kayaking in Gingerville Creek, one member “discovered a beaver dam in the marsh at the head of the creek. It created a small, tranquil pond filled with ducks.” – Dwight, Gingerville Creek

The South River Federation would like to thank each and every person that took the time to report their sightings. If you see an otter or beaver, please do let us know! We did receive a concern over protecting koi ponds so that issue as well as more information about otters will be addressed in Part 3 of the series. But for now, we hope you enjoyed the stories from our watershed!

Photo Credits: Nick Serio, John Koontz, John Summers, and Erik Michelsen

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 07

South Riverkeeper Diana takes flight over South River Watershed

Posted by diana in Riverkeeper , Pollution , Living Shoreline , Limehouse Cove , Harness Creek , Glebe Creek , Gingerville Creek , Flora , Flat Creek , Fauna , Duvall Creek , Development , Crab Creek , Clean Up , Church Creek , Broad Creek , Brewer Creek , Bell Branch , Beards Creek , Bacon Ridge Branch , Almshouse Creek , Aberdeen Creek

This morning (Oct 7, 2011) I took my first flight in a small aircraft in 32 years. I rode with my collegue and board member Lynn Buehl over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Bay Bridge Aiport and the whole drive I was fraught with excitment and trepedation. I always have been nervous about heights and have always been a nervous flyer. Lynn and I meet our pilot that flew down from New Jersey to take us on our adventure over the South River Watershed. Pilot Mr. Mike McNamara is one of many volunteer pilots for a non-profit group called LightHawk. This is a great organization set-up to provide flights to other non-profits or academics for research and advocay. I submitted a proposal to search for SAV, clean-water plumes, and 5 legacy landfills. As I first got in the plane, my thought was "oh my goodness, I am not going to make it". But, as we tore down the runway toward the Chesapeake Bay and delicately lifted off into the air and over the Bay Bridge- I became totally filled with excitement and started taking pictures. Being in a small plane over the Chesapeake Bay and the South River is indescribably amazing. I was horrified at the amounts of debris still in the Bay. Then, as we approach the South River- both Lynn and I became very distressed at how our beatiful South River looked. Sediment plumes and oil plumes everywhere- brown water all over. Then as week approached South River Farm Park, where Pam Wood of the Capitol and I kayaked looking for our Submerged Aquatic Vegetation- the planes wings tipped and there is was. Our SAV survived Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee!! What a blessing that our grasses survived such storms!! I am showing 300 pictures, and although I am not a professional photographer, I hope you enjoy them.----Diana, South Riverkeeper
Jun 24

The Adventures of Jennifer and Sarah: Boat Trip to Poplar Island

Posted by Sarah in History , Flora , Fauna

Wednesday was anything but a typical day at the office. Jennifer and I were offered the unique opportunity to travel to Poplar Island with the US Fish & Wildlife (USFW) to participate in a Common and Least Tern monitoring study. Neither one of us had gone to Poplar Island, so we jumped at the chance, packed up our bags, and met the USFW at their boat bright and early on Wednesday morning.

Once home to almost 100 people, Poplar Island had a post office, general store, and a combination church/schoolhouse located on the island. It is a place that has gone through many changes over the centuries. First settled in 1632, Poplar Island was estimated to be around 1100 acres. Due to tree clearing for farming, by 1999 the island had dwindled down to 2 acres and it was quickly disappearing into the Chesapeake Bay. The State of Maryland established the Poplar Island Restoration Project in efforts to restore the island to its original land mass. The project has been very successful, with them reaching the original size of 1100 acres. The goal is to add another 500 acres to complete the project.

After landing at the dock, we checked in and all of us climbed into a van and off we went to the first Least Tern monitoring site. We had been told by both the USFW and the USGS that we would need to be extra careful where we walked because the nests are on the ground and the chicks and eggs are hard to see. As you will see in the slideshow, they were not kidding! The nests are small depressions in the ground, the eggs are the same color as the sand, and chicks are so tiny that they blend in with their surroundings. Jennifer and I were extra careful for the rest of the day where we stepped.

The day was not all butterflies and unicorns, we did experience the “circle of life” when it came to the birds. We saw nests that had been filled in with sediment from rainstorms, eggs that had been cracked open, and even three dead adult terns. The cause of death for these terns was pretty dramatic—one was decapitated, we only found the mandible of one, and the last one only the wings were left. After seeing these birds, the USFW set up cameras in the areas, but they are sure these deaths mean there are owls on the island. Altogether, we monitored four Common and Least Tern nesting sites. It was an amazing day looking at monitoring all of the nests, eggs, chicks, and getting to learn more about the history of Poplar Island. And we saw more than just terns during the day. We saw a Bald eagle, and immature Bald eagle, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, many shorebirds, Terrapin nests, and even some very small toads.

“It was a special opportunity that I got to be a part of because I am a CCC intern and because of the great relationship the South River Federation has with the USFW” said Jennifer. And she was right, Jennifer and I had an amazing day learning about the restoration project, taking pictures of shorebirds, and of course watching where we walked.

May 02

As The World Turns--Osprey Style

Posted by Sarah in History , Gingerville Creek , Federation Event , Fauna

May 1, 2011

It's official, the marina has disposed of the osprey nest.  Frank and Margaret are now sitting on what used to be their home.

Apr 26

As The World Turns--Osprey Style

Posted by Sarah in History , Gingerville Creek , Federation Event , Fauna

April 26, 2011

I'm 99% sure that over the weekend Margaret laid eggs.  Since I can't see into their nest, I can't be 100% sure, but she hasn't left her nest all day.  It seems to me, she is keeping those eggs warm.  We shall see what happens in 5 to six weeks.

Apr 25

Are We Prepared to Live with a Healthy Bay?

Posted by erik in Pollution , Fauna

Every year it happens.  Initially, I was shocked.  Now, like clockwork, every spring I fully expect to get the call from some concerned citizen that local wildlife has gotten out of control and needs to be exterminated.  Our Riverkeeper has been asked, or in some cases told, to kill a vast swath of fauna, from osprey and cow-nosed rays to muskrats and beavers, for reasons ranging from their perceived threat to small children to minor property damage.  Needless to say, she’s never acted on those requests.  And, it’s for a good reason.  To the extent that those creatures remain here at all, or in some cases, are making a comeback, it should be cause for celebration, not an opportunity to purge the river of its last vestiges of wild-ness. In many cases, their roles as keystone organisms in the ecosystem are critical to the river’s recovery.

Recently, in a local publication, the question was posed as to whether a nearby environmental restoration project, the Edgewater Elementary schoolyard wetland, was an “eyesore or resource.”  Besides the fact that, depending upon one’s aesthetic preferences, the two descriptions aren’t mutually exclusive, there can be little doubt that the project has, by its intended goals, been a success.  The University of Maryland has been studying a number of similar restoration sites throughout the county for the past several years and has found that they significantly reduce both nutrients (in particular, nitrogen) and sediment to the downstream resource.    This means that by trapping and processing pollution in these constructed wetland systems, and allowing those nutrients to be taken up by the plants and other organisms that inhabit them (e.g., fish, frogs, turtles, and yes, even snakes), our rivers and the Bay are kept healthier.  In the case of the Edgewater Elementary project, which is in a high-profile, well-traveled location along Mayo Road, it does tend to collect the trash that drivers carelessly toss out their window, or that washes off the nearly 90 acres of surrounding neighborhood.  But that trash would be in Warehouse Creek, the South River, the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean if it wasn’t trapped there, where it can easily be cleaned up.  Just because trash is out of sight doesn’t mean it should be out of mind. 

As a result of the way we have used the land around the Bay for the past several hundred years, the South River has been devoid of underwater grasses for the better part of the last decade.  Nevertheless, it’s still always interesting to hear the stories of people in their 50s and 60s recounting tales from their childhood of having been paid a quarter or two to help tear up the grasses that were once so abundant they fouled the propellers of local watercraft.  More ominous stories abound as well, detailing the widespread application of herbicides to eradicate the grasses we now so desperately wish could thrive in our rivers.  It gives one pause to think that we could easily slip back into those “bad old days” when the grasses do eventually bounce back.

“Save the Bay” has become nearly an unofficial state motto in Maryland, as well it should.  A great many of us choose to reside in the “land of pleasant living” precisely because of the majesty of the Chesapeake Bay and the wonder that surrounds it.  It’s important for us to recognize that if we’re going to restore the Chesapeake Bay and the South River that it is not going to be a sterile, manicured menagerie that will be constantly under our absolute control.  It’s going to be wild, surprising, unpredictable, and sometimes messy, as so often the most wonderful things in life are.   

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