Baltimore Gets a Special Visitor from the North Pole!

On Friday, December 22nd, something truly special occurred in Baltimore, MD: A Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) flew all the way down from the Arctic to land at Masonville Cove overlooking the Patapsco River, as shown in the photo below (lack of resolution due to distance from the owl).

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“What’s the big deal (and what does this have to do with The New Century School)?” you may be asking. To find out what made this event so extraordinary, Immersed spoke to Jim Rapp, Co-organizer of Baltimore Birding Weekends (scroll below for details) and lifelong aficionado of the natural sciences.

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Jim Rapp, Co-organizer, Baltimore Birding Weekends

Snowy Owl FAQs

First, check out this video about Snowy Owls on Assateague Island that Mr. Rapp filmed just a couple of weeks before our visitor graced us with its presence.

So, what’s all the fuss again? Mr. Rapp explains:

For birders, a Snowy Owl is considered a birding rarity. Although a few usually show up in the mid-Atlantic during the winter months each year, it is such an unusual occurrence that birders will travel for miles to see one, or to add the species to their life list.

Every 4 or 5 years, a natural phenomenon known as an irruption occurs. During an irruption, Snowy Owls fly south into the United States during the winter months following a very successful nesting season in the Arctic. The successful nesting season is attributed to large populations of lemmings, the Snowy Owl’s favorite prey species.

Once in a birder’s lifetime, a “mega-irruption” occurs, when massive numbers of owls migrate south. The last mega-irruption occurred in 2013–2014, when owls made it as far south as Florida and Bermuda.

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Photo Credit: Dave Messick, Hooked on OC/Unscene Productions.

Also read Snowy owls come back to Assateague island.

Masonville Cove: Your Chance to See the Owl!

As to how and why Masonville Cove is temporarily hosting a Snowy Owl, no one really knows, but this is a great chance to see a beautiful creature that you may never again see in your lifetime. According to its website, “Masonville Cove is 70 acres of water and 54 acres of cleaned-up wetlands, nature trails, and a protected bird sanctuary, all soon-to-be protected by a conservation easement and part of the Shores of Baltimore Land Trust.” In partnership with Living Classrooms, this environmental education center (located at 1000 Frankfurst Ave., Baltimore, MD 21226) connects students with the rich habitats and inhabitants of this piece of Baltimore’s biodiverse waterfront.

Mr. Rapp continues:

Irruptions are still a bit of a mystery to scientists. Years ago, the southern movement of Snowy Owls was believed to have been caused by a lack of prey in the north. Scientists thought the owls were leaving in search of food, and were starving when they arrived in the United States. Thanks in part to capturing live owls to study and band them, researchers have instead found that owls wintering in the United States are typically fat and happy. Snowy Owls that winter near the water, such as near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or Assateague Island, will feed on wintering ducks. The spark that causes the owls to migrate is still a bit of a mystery, but it appears that irruptions are connected to a bounty of food rather than scarcity.

There’s a good chance that the Snowy Owl spotted at Masonville Cove in Curtis Bay on Friday, Dec. 22nd will remain there through the winter months. The open habitat is just right for Snowy Owls, and there are lots of Buffleheads and other ducks on the water. If you choose to go see a Snowy Owl, please remember to obey property rules, and never get so close to a resting owl that you cause it to get nervous or fly away. A calm owl will sit in the same spot for hours during the day, conserving it’s energy for night-time hunting. If you get too close, Snowy Owls will fidget and bob their heads back and forth, and will fly away if really anxious. Surviving the winter is hard enough without being harassed while you’re sleeping, so give our visiting owls a break and keep your distance.

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Says Mr. Rapp, “I love how Snowy Owls connect non-birders to nature. This bird has charisma that extends far beyond the birding world, perhaps due to Hedwig from the Harry Potter books and movies, or simply because these Arctic ambassadors are just so stunningly beautiful. Whenever a Snowy Owl is reported, you’ll find a nice diversity of people willing to bundle up to take a hike just to see one.”

Besides getting this lovely visit from our current friend, Charm City has another special connection with Snowy Owls. A young male owl named “Baltimore” made history in 2015 by revealing more about the routes a Snowy Owl might trace in a year than ever before recorded. In fact, aptly-named Baltimore is the “best known Snowy yet”! This video from NPR tells Baltimore’s story—and follows his amazing journey.

As the video also describes, “to study their behavior in more detail, scientists have partnered to form Project Snowstorm,” explained Mr. Rapp. “Some Snowy Owls that migrate into the United States. are captured and outfitted with small transmitter backpacks. Using cell phone technology, scientists can track their movements in the United States and southern Canada while the owls are in cell phone territory. When they move into the Arctic out of cell service range, the tracking ability ceases to work, but the owls can “blink” back on if they fly south in future years.” For more information, visit www.ProjectSnowstorm.org.

Finally, says Mr. Rapp, “If you want to go winter birding in Charm City with a knowledgable guide–and maybe see a Snowy Owl!–check out the Winter Baltimore Birding Weekend, hosted by Patterson Park Audubon Center. The event will be held February 10–11, 2018, and will include birding field trips at Masonville Cove, Fort McHenry, and boat trips on the Inner Harbor.” For more information, visit www.BaltimoreBirding.com. A second birding weekend is planned for May 2018.


Rare Bird Sightings as Reported on Baltimore eBird

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1) CONFIRMED

Go Native for Earth Day 2016!

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The Official TNCS Weeping Willow!

Earth Day is always an important occasion at The New Century School, and this year is no different. In honor of Earth Day 2016, the theme of which is Trees for the Earth, all TNCS classes gathered on the playground to witness the planting of a native Weeping Willow. Poetry and singing rounded out the tree dedication ceremony. Trees are basically the lungs of our planet, filtering out harmful gases and leaving the good stuff for us to breathe. Click here for more on Why trees?

But now let’s zoom in and focus some good Earth Day vibes a little closer to home. Trees aren’t the only environmentally beneficial plantings we can make. Indigenous plants—plants that occur naturally in the region in which they evolved—also make huge contributions to keeping the local environment healthy and thriving. The Patterson Park Audubon Center urges Baltimore City and surrounding residents to “Take Climate Action” and to preserve biodiversity by using native plants in your garden, be it potted or full-scale.

One of the primary reasons this is particularly important for our area is because Baltimore (a.k.a. Birdtown), as part of the Atlantic Flyway, is a vital stopover point for many species of migrating birds. Yet, over time, the number of green spots in the city where these birds can refuel during their long journeys has dwindled. PPAC is working to change that: “Audubon has observed over 200 species of birds in Patterson Park, with over 40 of those species using the park to breed and raise their young. Our habitat gardens in the park are filled with a diversity of native plants from Maryland which serve as hosts for insects—birds’ favorite food—as well as provide essential seeds, berries, nectar, shelter, water, and places to raise their young.”

PPAC can also help you create your own wildlife sanctuary (or, garden, patch, or windowbox) through workshops, resources, and more. But first, let’s explore why native plants are so vital.

Benefits of Native Plants

According to the Audubon.org website, native plants are great for:

  • Wildlife: In addition to providing vital habitat for birds, many other species of wildlife benefits as well. The colorful array of butterflies and moths, including the iconic monarch, the swallowtails, tortoiseshells, and beautiful blues, are all dependent on very specific native plant species. Native plants provide nectar for pollinators including hummingbirds, native bees, butterflies, moths, and bats. They provide protective shelter for many mammals. The native nuts, seeds, and fruits produced by these plants offer essential foods for all forms of wildlife.
  • Low maintenance: Once established, native plants generally require little maintenance.
  • Beauty: Many native plants offer beautiful showy flowers, produce abundant colorful fruits and seeds, and brilliant seasonal changes in colors from the pale, thin greens of early spring, to the vibrant yellows and reds of autumn.
  • Healthy places for people: Lawns and the ubiquitous bark-mulched landscapes are notorious for requiring profuse amounts of artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides. The traditional suburban lawn, on average, has 10x more chemical pesticides per acre than farmland. By choosing native plants for your landscaping, you are not only helping wildlife, but you are creating a healthier place for yourself, your family, and your community.
  • Helping the climate: Landscaping with native plants can combat climate change. In addition to the reduced noise and carbon pollution from lawn mower exhaust, many native plants, especially long-living trees like oaks and maples, are effective at storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
  • Conserving water: Because native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, they require far less water, saving time, money, and perhaps the most valuable natural resource, water.

Gardening with Native Plants

Unfortunately, most of the plants available in the larger, nationally known nurseries are not native to the region where they are being sold. These alien species can degrade the local habitat, the ecological basis for insects, birds, and, by extension, humans. By using native plants in our urban gardens (such as they are), however, we preserve the natural symbiosis of our area.

Using any number of native plants is going to help the environment, but if you really want to go the extra mile (as the crow flies) toward making your green space a sanctuary for wildlife, follow the scheme from PPAC shown below.

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And now, you ask, where do I avail myself of these native plants? Partnering with PPAC, Blue Water Baltimore’s Herring Run Nursery has all the native wonder you could ask for—over 250 varieties of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers that support butterflies, pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. Can’t make it out to Herring Run? No problem–PPAC  will once again be hosting a Native Plant Sale in Patterson Park during the Butchers Hill Flea Market on Saturday, May 14th.

So, in honor of Earth Day, let your garden grow for the environment this year!