Monday, January 30, 2012

Workaholics Strike Again

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Workaholics Strike Again

Bucky Beaver of the fifties Ipana toothpaste commercial fame used to be my only reference for the largest rodent in the animal kingdom. The cute, little, big-toothed beaver with the gigantic toothbrush who sang “brusha, brusha, brusha” was charming and innocent, unlike the crew that visits my backyard.

When we built our house on the banks of a canal, our vision was to leave the backyard forested and natural. I wanted a few more trees taken out, but my husband stood firm that every viable tree would remain in place. Little did we know that we were not totally in control of the situation.

It was not long before we noticed significant chewing on several of the gum trees in the yard. Hoping that it was a temporary problem, we kept watch. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before there was a tree completely down. The next day it was chewed into neat three-foot lengths and in a couple more days, the pieces started to disappear.

All of this activity happened in the dark of night. It was not long before Hubby declared war on the enemy. By then, the count was beaver 5, people zero. Heavy-duty fencing and tree wound dressing were soon applied to the assaulted trees and the yard began to look like a strange fortress.

Hubby would go and sit on the pier in the dark waiting for signs of each night attack. He reported that the varmints were bold and made noises with their large, flat tails slapping the water. They didn’t seem at all afraid of humans.

With the goal of know your enemy, we did our research. North Carolina State University had excellent information on-line. There are several ways to fight these workaholics of the animal world. They can be trapped, killed, or relocated.

Beavers can be a real problem for farmers and landowners. Their dam making can cause flooding, or even create wetlands, which act as habitat for other animals. Mating for life, they can weigh up to 80 pounds and be two to three feet long. These nocturnal, semi-aquatic rodents engineer amazing constructions for lodging and storing the small trees that they will eat in the winter.

Nature’s lumberjack can move approximately ten times its weight per day or 500 pounds. Powerful chainsaw like teeth, which grow continuously, enable the creature to feast on an estimated 200 trees per year.

Once beavers numbered an estimated 60 million in America, but unregulated trapping reduced the population to 6 to 12 million. Eventually they were almost non-existent east of the Mississippi River, and in the 1930’s a successful effort was made to reintroduce them.

Now, with ever increasing human land development, their presence is more evident. Man’s interference continues to adjust the balance in nature. The phrase “busy as a beaver” is certainly an accurate description of these unique architects of the natural world.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winter is for the Birds

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Winter is for the Birds

We’ve been very lucky so far, because the winter weather has been mild. Of course, that can and probably will change at any time. Just like the children’s fairytale about the grasshopper and the ant who stores food for the winter, we should plan for the future.

For those of us who are nature lovers, that means preparing to feed the birds in our yards. Bird watching is one of the best ways to chase away the doldrums that come in January, February and March. For a few dollars’ worth of birdseed and a simple feeder, you can be entertained and educated at the same time.

Making your yard hospitable to the little creatures includes not only providing food, but also shelter from a wide variety of shrubs and trees of different sizes and shapes. Conifers like pine, fir, cedar and cypress which are plentiful in our area and provide both winter shelter and summer nesting sites.

Water for drinking and preening their feathers, an activity which provides good insulation, is needed year-round. You can buy heaters for birdbaths in order to ensure a constant supply.

If you want to get really involved and become a citizen scientist, you might want to take part in the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) on February 17-20, 2012. This worldwide event is led by the CornellLab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada and sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Visit and learn all about the four day event. There is a special part of the site devoted to kids to encourage them to participate. Basically, observers watch birds for a 15 minute or more period and report the species that they see to

As the information begins to accumulate, a real time picture of where the birds are located is developed. The observations, gathered by thousands of bird enthusiasts, enable the scientists to recognize patterns and to answer in depth questions.

What is the diversity found in any given area? Are specific species declining and in need of conservation? Why do some species appear in large numbers during some years and seem to disappear in others? How do snow and cold temperatures seem to affect bird populations?

The site reports that during the 2011 count 92,000 were submitted from across the United States and Canada. Bird watchers identified 596 species and 11.4 million total birds were observed.

Among the things discovered were increased reports of Evening Grosbeaks, a species that has been declining. A small movement of winter finches farther south in their search for food was detected. Who knows what might be observed this winter?

In our area cardinals, mocking birds, chickadees, brown thrushes, robins, vultures, wrens, starlings, towhees, and American goldfinches should be the most evident.

If you decide to participate in the GBBC, you’ll be rewarded by connecting with birds and nature in a meaningful way.

Watch the video below to learn more about the Great Backyard Bird Count and how you can take part!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Turn Your Eyes to the Heavens

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Turn Your Eyes to the Heavens

Winter provides a special perspective for those who like to observe things in nature. The landscape changes so dramatically by January that objects which blended in are now more prominent and clearly visible.

Snow and ice outline the silhouettes of trees against the winter sky displaying a magnificent view. Birds and other animals can be witnessed in their quest for food and shelter against the cold.

Early man must have learned from the patterns he observed and knew that the sky gave clues to what might happen in the near future.

Across the world, cultures created celebrations to mark major changes in the environment. Of particular interest was the coming of the winter solstice in December. The word solstice comes from Latin words meaning “sun and “stands still.”

Early people faced terrible hardship when the weather was cold and the days were short, so it gave them cause to celebrate the day on which the day light period actually started getting longer.

They were not certain that they would live through the harsh time. They would have slaughtered their cattle and stored the meat. The beer and wine that they had made in the summer would have fermented and been ready to drink. It was time for a feast and mid-winter celebration.

Stonehenge in Great Britain was constructed over a period of time between 3000 and 1600 BC. Theories about its purpose are that it may have been an astronomical observatory, a burial ground, or a religious site. Sunset on the day of the solstice lines up with a particular spot at the relic.

Scientists recently discovered the origin of the stone used to build Stonehenge was more than 100 miles from the ancient monument. Whatever the origin, it stands as proof that man has always paid attention to the sky.

The winter night sky features some of the most fascinating and easily recognized constellations. They include Orion the Hunter, Canis Major the Great Dog, Canis Minor the Little Dog, Tarus the Bull, Auriga the Charioteer, Gemini the Twins, and the Pleiades star cluster.

Greeks looked at the night sky and created stories about gods and mortals who played out their dramas for all to see sparkling in the heavens. They actually believed that the gods placed the stars in the sky to illustrate their legends.

Other winter night sky object that are more visible are the Andromeda Galaxy, the Great Square of Pegasus, Aldebaran, the Seven Sisters. During winter there is less moisture in the atmosphere which makes the stars appear more distinct.

If you decide to do some stargazing, sit in a dimly lit room for a while before you go outside so that your eyes can adjust quickly to the darkness. If you have binoculars or a telescope, you will see more details. Wrap up and take and snack with you.

Turn your eyes from the bight decorations of Christmas to the wonders of the heavens.
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