SCORES & OUTDOORS: Are the lights of the fireflies destined to be extinguished?

The firefly

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I remember as a youngster growing up in a family of Canadian heritage, how we used to make annual pilgrimages to the land of our ancestors in Canada. My dad was born in Canada, and came to the United States at the age of three years, with his adopted parents.

So, every summer, usually in June, he and our mother would pack us four boys into the family Buick and venture into different parts of Canada, from the Gaspé, to L’Abitibi (Norandeau and Rouen), where our biological grandfather had a farm, to Sherbrooke and Montreal.

Our most frequent visits were to Lac Megantic, in the province of Québec, where our dad’s half-brother and family lived. There were many nights when the family would gather.

One particular night, when I was probably nine or ten years old, we went to visit some family who had a place on the lake. Back in those days – mid- to late ‘50s – children were “seen and not heard.” So, while the adults gathered inside for long conversations, and playing cards, us children would be sent outside to find something to do.

On that evening, I remember the lake being as calm as a piece of glass, and the moon shining brightly. But, what didn’t dawn on me then, but has greater meaning now, was the nearby field aglow with thousands of fireflies. We moved into the field in an attempt to capture some of the fireflies in jars to illuminate the area. It was fun, adventurous, and “gave us something to do.”

I now look back at that evening and think to myself, “what ever happened to all the fireflies?” We used to see some at our camp in Vassalboro, but I don’t think I have seen one in many, many years.

Where have they gone?

Actually, the phenomenon is worldwide.

In recent years, all around the world, the lights of fireflies are going out. The dazzling beetles are disappearing from long-established habitats. Often it is not clear why, but it seems likely that light pollution and the destruction of habitats are contributing factors. Biologists are scrambling to understand what is happening to fireflies so we can save them before their lights fade permanently.

In America, fireflies with flashing lights are known as lightning bugs. In Europe they are known as glow worms. All these terms are misleading. They are not flies. They are not bugs. They are not worms. They are beetles.

There are approximately 2,000 species of fireflies.

However, fireflies are in trouble. In 2019, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation published a report on North American fireflies, warning that “populations appear to be in decline.” It was co-authored by Sara Lewis, professor of evolutionary and behavioral ecology at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts, and author of a book on fireflies, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

The extent of the decrease is unclear because most firefly populations have not been tracked. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), only created its Firefly Specialist Group in 2018. Fireflies are difficult to study: they are hard to find when not glowing.

“The best data we have is from the UK,” says Lewis. Citizen scientists have tracked the UK’s one firefly, the common glow-worm, Lampyris noctiluca, since the 1970s. For most species there are only anecdotes, but they all tell the same story, and biologists who study wild fireflies are convinced.

Recently, Lewis and her colleagues published the first systematic review of threats to fireflies in the journal BioScience. They surveyed 49 firefly experts from around the world, asking them to rank 11 potential threats in order of importance. According to the experts, the biggest threats to fireflies are habitat loss, pesticides and light pollution.

While some animals adapt to life in human environments such as cities, many fireflies need particular habitats, so are vulnerable if those habitats are destroyed.

The congregating fireflies of south-east Asia are an example. The males have flashing lights with which they attract females. They gather at night in a mangrove tree, and flash – whereupon the females fly in and choose mates. In some species the males synchronize their flashes, creating spectacular displays that tourists love.

The second biggest threat, according to the survey, is light pollution. This takes many forms, from bright and direct streetlights to the diffuse “skyglow” that means the sky is never truly dark. Most biodiversity studies have largely neglected light pollution, says Lewis. “But for fireflies it’s front and center.”

The light can make them lose track of the time or their position. The fireflies may struggle to recognize important objects, such as their snail prey. In species where one sex is attracted to the glow of the other, artificial lights may disrupt mating. Finally, really bright lights may dazzle or even blind the fireflies.

Many fireflies display late at night, when it would naturally be very dark. “If there’s a lot of background illumination from streetlights or even skyglow, then their signals are going to be less visible,” says Lewis. These nocturnal species are most vulnerable to light pollution.

Fireflies’ eyes are particularly sensitive to certain kinds of artificial light, says Alan Stewart, of the University of Sussex. His team studied the eyes of British common glow-worms, in which males are attracted to glowing females. The males’ eyes were tuned to the females’ green light, but when blue light was added, the males struggled to find the females. This means new LED streetlights, which are longer-lasting and thus environmentally beneficial, are likely to disrupt the fireflies more than old-fashioned sodium streetlights, due to their blueish light.

The third major threat is pesticides. This never occurs to most people, says Lewis, because they see fireflies only as displaying adults. “People don’t really think about the life cycle,” she says. Most of a firefly’s life is spent as a larva, on or under the ground, or underwater. There, they are exposed to pesticides. Firefly larvae are especially at risk because they are predators, normally hunting small snails, each of which may contain a dose of pesticide. “If people were aware of that, I think they would be a lot more hesitant to spray pesticides on their lawn,” says Lewis.

Beyond these external factors, there are also risks tied to fireflies’ lifestyles. In a 2019 paper published in Biodiversity and Conservation, Lewis and her colleagues highlighted “numerous risk factors.” For instance, adults often cannot fly far – and in some species may not fly at all – so they struggle to move if their habitat is threatened. Many species also have specialised diets, so can starve if their food supply is lost.

The good news is, now we are starting to understand what is happening to fireflies. Some practices, such as the harvesting of fireflies, simply need to stop. Japan has achieved this. In the early 1900s, firefly shops collected the insects, packed them into bags and sent them by bicycle courier to big cities where they were released for people to enjoy. “That put a huge dent in firefly populations,” says Lewis. In the 1920s a young man named Kiichiro Minami figured out how to rear fireflies in captivity, with no scientific training. Minami started releasing the fireflies back into rivers, restoring the population. This is still happening. “Schoolchildren raise fireflies in class and release them into rivers,” says Lewis. While Japan’s fireflies have not been restored to their former numbers, they are a conservation success story.

Beyond that, Lewis identifies three actions that should help every firefly species. First, she says, “if there’s a place with firefly biodiversity or abundance, try to preserve that habitat.” Not all of us can do that, but one thing anyone who lives near fireflies can do is reduce light pollution. “Turn off your lights during firefly season, or just turn off your lights in general. Have motion-detector lights that only come on when you need them.” And reduce the use of pesticides.

People can also help by reporting firefly sightings. Anyone in North America can do so by joining the organization Firefly Watch, which has been running since 2010.

With care, many of us may one day have fireflies sparkling in our backyards again. It is so sad that our children and grandchildren have never seen a firefly, and may never. By doing what you can to help save fireflies, it will give you something to do.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which pitcher holds MLB’s record for the most career no-hitters?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: House finches were not always part of our landscape

Male house finch

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While I sit here at my computer, trying to figure out what to write about this week, I am watching several house finches at my feeders – (light bulb comes on over my head).

Oh, why not do an article about house finches?

The house finch, Haemorhous mexicanus, is a bird in the finch family. It is native to western North America, but has been introduced to the eastern half of the continent and Hawaii.

This is a moderately-sized finch. Adult birds are 5 – 6 inches and span 8 – 9 inches, with an average weight of .75 ounces.

Adults have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are a brown or dull-brown color across the back with some shading into deep gray on the wing feathers. Breast and belly feathers may be streaked; the flanks usually are. In most cases, adult males’ heads, necks and shoulders are reddish. This color sometimes extends to the belly and down the back, between the wings. Male coloration varies in intensity with the seasons and comes from the berries and fruits in its diet. As a result, the colors range from pale straw-yellow through bright orange (both rare) to deep, intense red. Adult females have brown upper-parts and streaked underparts.

I always wonder why they hang around all winter. They sometimes visit the feeders during heavy rain, snow, ice, etc. Why don’t they go south?

But, these birds are mainly permanent residents throughout their range; some northern and eastern birds migrate south. Their breeding habitat is urban and suburban areas across North America, as well as various semi-open areas in the west from southern Canada to the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Originally only a resident of Mexico and the southwestern United States, they were introduced to eastern North America in the 1940s. The birds were sold illegally in New York City as “Hollywood Finches,” a marketing ploy. To avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, vendors and owners released the birds. They have since become naturalized; in largely unforested land across the eastern U.S., they have displaced the native purple finch and even the non-native house sparrow. In 1870, or before, they were introduced to Hawaii and are now abundant on all its major islands.

There are estimated to be anywhere from 267 million to 1.7 billion individuals across North America, and is of least concern to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Yellow birds at a sock feeder.

House finches forage on the ground or in vegetation normally. They primarily eat grains, seeds and berries, being voracious consumers of weed seeds such as nettle and dandelion; included are incidental small insects such as aphids. They are frequent visitors to bird feeders throughout the year, particularly if stocked with sunflower or nyjer seed, and will congregate at hanging nyjer sock feeders. The house finch is known to damage orchard fruit and consume commercially-grown grain but is generally not considered a significant pest, but rather an annoyance.

Nests are made in cavities, including openings in buildings, hanging plants, and other cup-shaped outdoor decorations. Sometimes nests abandoned by other birds are used. Nests may be re-used for subsequent broods or in following years. The nest is built by the female, sometimes in as little as two days. It is well made of twigs and debris, forming a cup shape.

During courtship, the male will touch bills with the female. He may then present the female with choice bits of food, and if she mimics the behavior of a hungry chick, he may actually feed her. The male also feeds the female during breeding and incubation of the eggs, and raising of the young. The male is the primary feeder of the fledglings. Females are typically attracted to the males with the deepest pigment of red to their head, more so than the occasional orange or yellowish-headed males that sometimes occur.

The female lays clutches of eggs from February through August, two or more broods per year with two to six eggs per brood, most commonly four or five. The eggs are a pale bluish green with few black spots and a smooth, somewhat glossy surface.

In response to mite infestation, which has a more harmful effect on male chicks than on females, the mother finch may lay eggs containing females first, in order to reduce the length of time male chicks are exposed to mites. This strategy increases the likelihood that representative numbers of both sexes will survive. Shortly after hatching, she removes the empty eggshells from the nest. The female always feeds the young, and the male usually joins in. The young are silent for the first seven or eight days, and subsequently start peeping during feedings. Dandelion seeds are among the preferred seeds fed to the young.

House finches are aggressive enough to drive other birds away from places such as feeders.

The house finch may be infected by a number of parasites which caused the population of house finches in eastern North America to crash during the 1990s. The mite Pellonyssus reedi is often found on house finch nestlings, particularly for nests later in the season.

The brown-headed cowbird, a brood parasite, will lay its eggs in house finch nests, although the diet house finches feed their young is inadequate for the young cowbirds, which rarely survive.

There are many house finches that come to our feeders, and watching them makes you aware of the built-in protections they have against adverse weather conditions. They also make sure they are the only ones on the feeders at the time. I’ve seen some male finches “stand guard” while others, including the females, feed.

Remarkable creatures of nature, to say the least.

Roland’s trivia question of the day:

What MLB pitcher threw the only no-hit game in World Series history?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Do robins migrate south for the winter, or stay nearby?

American robin

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Just the other day a friend told me she thought robins went south for the winter. That is the common thought.

The American robin, Turdus migratorius, is a migratory songbird. While robins occasionally overwinter in the northern United States and southern Canada, most migrate to Florida and the Gulf Coast to central Mexico. Most will depart south by the beginning of September and begin their northern migration in February and March, which gives the illusion that they don’t migrate during a regular winter, when snow covers the ground during those times.

Despite being depicted in the film Mary Poppins, in London, this species is actually a rare occasion to western Europe.

Robins breed in woodland and more open farmland and urban areas. It becomes less common as a breeder in the southernmost part of the deep south of the United States.

The sexes are similar but the female tends to be duller than the male, with a brown tint to the head, brown upperparts and less bright underparts. However, some birds cannot be safely sexed on plumage alone.

Robins are active mostly during the day. During the winter, they flock in large groups at night to roost in trees in swamps or dense vegetation. The flock breaks up during the day when the birds feed on fruits and berries in smaller groups. However, during the summer, the American robin defends a breeding territory and is less social.

The adult robin, however, must stay alert. It is preyed upon by hawks, cats, and larger snakes. Brown-headed cowbirds lay eggs in robin nests but robins usually reject the cowbird eggs. Juvenile robins and eggs are preyed upon by squirrels, snakes and some birds such as blue jays, common grackles, crows and ravens.

The robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin. It ranks behind only the red-winged blackbird as the most abundant bird species in North America, just ahead of the European starling.

American robins have an extensive range, estimated at 6.2 million square miles. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the bird as “least concern” when evaluating its position as a threatened species. At one point, the robins were hunted for their meat, but it is now protected throughout its range in the United States by the Migratory Bird Act.

The species was first described in 1766 by Carl Linnaeus in the 12th edition of his Systema Naturae. The term robin has been recorded since 1703.

Despite is wonderful song, the American robin is known to carry West Nile virus. While crows and jays are often the first noticed deaths in an area with West Nile virus, the American robin is suspected to be a key host, and holds a larger responsibility for the transmission of the virus to humans. This is because, while crows and blue jays die quickly from the virus, robins survive the virus longer, thus spreading it to more mosquitoes, which then transmit the virus to humans.

Robins eat primarily (approximately 60 percent) on wild and cultivated fruits and berries, and (approximately 40 percent) on invertebrates, such as earthworms, beetle grubs, caterpillars and grasshoppers. That ability to switch to berries allows them to winter much farther north than most other North American thrushes, of which it is a member of that family.

Legends about robins:

  • What does it mean to see a robin? Symbolic characteristics and traits of a robin: The robin in the spirit world is known as the divine bird. The Robin is a symbol of good luck and the fact that spring is impending. To see a robin flying can indicate a symbol of renewal, passion and new beginnings. Alternatively, it could represent patience and wisdom.
  • Robins entering a house have always been thought of as a sign of forthcoming death, while robins are long associated with religious buildings which, if nothing else, helps to cement its image as the most churchgoing of our birds.
  • Robins in Winter. “Robins can withstand very cold temperatures,” Howard explains. “In most places you can see robins in the wintertime. You’ll see them wandering around and yet it’s not considered migration because basically they’re moving in a nomadic way, following the food.”
  • Bird Continually Hitting Window. It’s a common myth that a bird pecking at your window on three successive days means a death will occur inside that house. This is a problem that is most common in spring as male birds are establishing and defending territories. The male sees his reflection in the window and thinks it is a rival trying to usurp his territory. He flies at the window to try and make the rival leave.

The answer to the question as to whether they go south for the winter or not, is that it does migrate, but some don’t travel as far as others, and some will stay behind, probably depending on the severity of the winter. Their return in February and March also contributes to the belief that they don’t migrate.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Where did MLB’s Atlanta Braves originate?

Answer can be found here.

The correct answer to last week’s question, when was the last time an Eastern Conference team in the NBA won the league championship should have read the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Mounted great black hawk to go on display at Maine State Museum

A mature great black hawk.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Maine’s famous great black hawk was back in the news last week when it was announced that the raptor, which succumbed to its wounds last year, was going on display at the Maine State Museum, in Augusta, following its preparation by taxidermist, Tom Berube, of Poland. The mount of the rarely seen South American raptor appropriately depicts it standing over a squirrel.

The great black hawk, the first of its kind known to visit Maine, was originally spotted in Biddeford in August 2018. It disappeared for a while, only to reappear in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park, in November, stalking a gray squirrel. The park is known for its abundant population of squirrels. During its brief stay in Deering Oaks, it didn’t lack for food.

great black hawk mount destined for the Maine State Museum

The first photos of the great black hawk mount destined for the Maine State Museum were posted on Facebook by hunter Christi Holmes, who saw the finished mount at Tom Berube’s taxidermy studio, in Poland. (photo by Christi Holmes)

It was rescued during a snowstorm on January 20, 2019, and transported to the Avian Haven bird rehabilitation facility, in Freedom, in an attempt to rehab the raptor. The bird was euthanized on January 31, 2019, because of extensive frostbite which prevented blood from reaching either leg or foot.

While at the rehab facility, the bird received national attention. “This bird is certainly our most famous patient,” Diane Winn, the executive director of Avian Haven, where the hawk was being treated, wrote in an email to Audubon.

According to Audubon, “from its usual haunt at Deering Oaks Park, in downtown Portland, the hawk occupied itself by hunting squirrels and rats and fared well despite the snowy conditions, according to its many attentive onlookers.

“Then, the mercury dropped.

“On an icy Sunday morning, with temperatures hovering around 8°F, a man strolling through the park discovered the hawk on the ground, unable to stand. He was soon joined by a skier who recognized the famed animal from signs hanging around the park, which also advertised Avian Haven’s phone number in case the hawk appeared in distress. She brought the bird home in a cardboard box, called up the rescue, and arranged for its transport through a volunteer-run shuttle. The drive usually takes an hour and a half; on January 20, it took almost four hours on the sleet-covered roads.

“The hawk was unresponsive when it left Portland. But along the route, in the car’s welcome heat and shelter, it began perking up. The bird opened its eyes at a handoff between drivers, and was active by the time it arrived at the hospital in early evening, according to a Facebook post by Avian Haven. Hospital staff bandaged the bird’s feet and by morning it was alert and standing.

“After a full exam and initial bloodwork, a staff veterinarian said the hawk would lose part of its outer toe to frostbite, but was doing well and eating meals of mice with gusto. Now, the big question looming over the recovering bird is what happens next.”

The bird had originally been sighted in South Padre Island, in Texas, in April 2018.

According to Louis Bevier, a research biologist at Colby College, in Waterville, it could be the same great black hawk spotted in Texas last year. The Maine great black hawk had similar markings as those of the Texas bird, which identified it as a juvenile. It is often mistaken for a common black hawk.

The great black hawk is native to Central and South America, and rarely leaves its surroundings. What brought this particular great black hawk to Maine is unknown. Although that particular species has been known to wander.

With regard to diet, it is a generalist, feeding primarily on rodents, bats, birds, fish, crabs, reptiles, and amphibians; there also are reports of these hawks eating fruit and eggs, often while pursuing its prey on foot. This species can be seen soaring above woodlands. Along the Amazon river, its normal range, it has been seen raiding hoatzin – nesting colonies looking for eggs and chicks. Hoatzins, also known as the reptile bird, skunk bird, stinkbird, or Canje pheasant, is a species of tropical bird found in swamps, riparian forests, and mangroves of the Amazon and the Orinoco basins in South America. It is notable for having chicks that have claws on two of their wing digits.

The great black hawk belongs to the same family as the bald eagle, and all others of the eagle species.

The great black hawk is large but slender, at about 22-25 inches in length. Despite its size, it weighs about 2-1/2 pounds. Adults have very broad wings, and is mainly black. The short tail is white with a broad black tip. The bill is black and the legs and cere are yellow. The sexes are similar, but young birds have dark brown above with spotting and steaks. Their underparts are buff with dark spots, and the tail has a number of black and dusky bars. The call of the great black hawk is a distinctive piping ooo-pwheeeeee.

It was determined what the age of the great black hawk was, but why it was attempting a relocation to much colder weather conditions is not known.

This particular great black hawk is not the first bird to visit our state from other, far away, places on the planet. Other species to have wandered here came from as far away as southern Europe, Asia, Africa, but are not indigenous to North America.

So, in one respect, the great black hawk that visited Maine lives on, as it can be seen on display at the Maine State Museum, in Augusta.

Like all taxidermy work, it lets the animal live on in a way, and many people will get to admire him up close at the Maine State Museum.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What was the last Eastern Conference team in the NBA to win the league title?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Woody calls for a wintry mix of everything until spring

Woodrow saying goodbye following my annual visit to his den.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Huhhhh!

It’s time again to bundle up and make my trek through the snow fields of center Vassalboro in search of my old friend, Woodrow Charles. As folklore goes, Woody is a weather prognosticating groundhog. With Groundhog Day coming on February 2, I always visit him a little early to give our readers a head start on the possibilities of the weather for the next couple of months.

As I headed out on that day, it was a pleasant start to the day, clear skies with the temperature in the low 30s. Really balmy for the last week in January.

As I walked through the fields, I couldn’t help but notice that, had it not been for the five inches or so we received the previous week, there would not be much snow to trudge through.

As I approached his lair, I spotted the usual smoke billowing from the chimney above the stump, and the glow of lights through the only window he has. There were many tracks outside with groundhog footprints headed in every direction.

I arrived at the door, knocked and waited for an answer. I noticed things were a little different from last year.

If you remember, Woody was off the grid. He had given up all his electronics, given away his 60-inch TV, had his electricity turned off, and basically went all natural with everything. Sustainability, they call it.

But today, I see an electric light on inside.

I knocked again.

Silence.

“What is going on,” I think to myself.

I knocked a third time. Apparently, he’s out. I didn’t notify him that I was coming today.

Suddenly, I heard something behind me.

It’s Woody, waddling through the snow, carrying a bag.

He stopped, looked at me, and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming today. You should have called first. I’ve been out foraging”

“Well,” I responded. “The reason I didn’t call is because, as of last year, you were off the grid, and swore you were in it for the long haul.”

He had a strange look on his face. “It didn’t work out. I was out of touch with everything. Couldn’t talk to my buddies, Frank, Butch and Slim. I didn’t know what was going on in the world with no TV. It just wasn’t working.”

He continued, “Luckily, Slim gave the TV back to me, but I had to promise to invite him to every one of my Super Bowl parties.”

That got me to thinking. “Hey, the Super Bowl is on Groundhog Day this year. Any predictions?”

I don’t know how he does it, but he’s usually correct.

“If you remember last year I predicted the Patriots by 10 points,” he started bragging. “And the final score was 13-3.”

“OK,” I responded, “you nailed it! Let’s see how you do this year.”

Woody rubbed his chin, and said, “This one is a little tough. I don’t know that much about San Francisco. Being a west coast team, they are not on television that much.

“From what I have read and heard, Kansas City’s offense is generally unstoppable, and the 49ers have one of the top defenses in the league. I usually like to go with defense. So, here goes, San Francisco by four points, as long as Jimmy Garoppolo can put up enough points against an improving Kansas City defense.”

Finally, I remembered. I was here to get a weather prediction, and somehow it always turns to Super Bowl picks.

“What about the weather?” I asked. “It’s been a pretty mild winter so far.”

Woody looked at the floor, then looked up, scratched his head, and spoke: “The worst of the winter is still ahead of us. I get mixed messages on snowfall, but I predict a little more snow than we have received so far, but with no major snow events. Temperatures, however, will plummet, with most of the precipitation being in the form of some snow, but a lot of wintry mix, with rain, sleet and freezing rain.”

I smiled wryly. “That doesn’t sound very encouraging.”

“Also,” Woody continued as though I hadn’t said anything, “the winter will be prolonged into late March, and into early and mid-April.”

That being said, Woody turned to me and said, “Cup of coffee?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I have a little time on my hands.”

So, for the next hour, we had coffee, and talked about many different subjects. I didn’t realize he was so well informed.

In all, everything he had a couple of years ago was back in its place, including his cell phone, WiFi, weather equipment, even Siri.

“Cost me a bit,” he said embarrassingly. “I needed to get everything out of hawk.”

So, what about Siri? “Gives me someone to talk to,” he said. “She knows a lot about a lot. It gets lonely here during winter.”

“So, you’re fairly well connected,” I asked.

“That’s what happens when you have communication with the outside world,” Woody said. “It’s amazing what you can learn with Google. And on television, there is the Home Shopping Network, CNN, FoxNews, Home & Garden Network, and my favorite, Animal Planet.”

Coffee finished, I got up, put on my coat, hat and gloves, and headed to the door. Once there, I turned, and wished my host a good day.

“Stay warm, and I’ll see you next year,” I said.

“Be safe, my friend,” Woody responded.

With that, I began my journey back home.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The San Francisco 49ers have appeared in six Super Bowls, winning five. Who defeated them in Super Bowl XLXII, in 2012?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Lyme cases reported to Maine CDC in 2019 reach record high

deer tick

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I received this press release from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently. It has some interesting information that I thought I would share with you.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received a record number of Lyme disease case reports from health providers in 2019, with 2,079 cases as of January 16, 2020. This is the highest number of cases ever reported in the state, and the number may continue to rise as providers make additional case reports.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria carried by infected deer ticks. The hallmark sign of the disease is a rash referred to as the “bull’s-eye” rash due to its pattern on the skin. This rash occurs in just over 50 percent of patients in Maine, usually within three to 30 days of a tick bite. Other symptoms include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint aches, with later signs of illness including arthritis and heart problems. Lyme disease cannot be transmitted from human to human.

“While we can’t yet speculate about the reason for this increase, these new numbers emphasize the importance of preventing tick bites,” said Nirav D. Shah, Director of the Maine CDC. “Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases are on the rise, so Mainers need to proactively protect themselves.”

In 2019, Maine also experienced increases in two other tickborne diseases, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Last year, 685 cases of anaplasmosis and 138 cases of babesiosis were reported. Cumulative reporting of Lyme disease cases takes more time because the process of confirming a Lyme disease diagnosis often takes longer than for anaplasmosis or babesiosis.

Although ticks are not normally active during the winter, they can be out anytime that the temperature is above 40 degrees, as it was two weekends ago. Maine CDC recommends that residents and visitors protect themselves by using the No Ticks for ME approach:

  • Use an EPA-approved repellent;
  • Wear protective clothing;
  • Perform daily tick checks;
  • Use caution in tick-infested areas.

Recently, Maine CDC launched a new Maine Tracking Network dashboard to continue to monitor 2019 cases for the next few months, alongside near real-time tracking of 2020 cases. Maine CDC plans to add final 2019 data to the Tracking Network in May.

For more information on Lyme disease, please visit: www.maine.gov/lyme. To view Lyme data on the Maine Tracking Network, visit: data.mainepublichealth.gov/tracking.

If diagnosed in the early stages, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics. Without treatment, complications involving the joints, heart, and nervous system can occur. But these symptoms are still treatable and curable. But if it goes untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, the heart and the nervous system, which explains some of Greene’s symptoms. Patients may suffer with severe headaches and neck aches, heart palpitations, facial palsy, and arthritis with severe joint pain.

A blood test for antibodies to the bacteria is the preferred test for the diagnosis of Lyme disease. However, if a person has central nervous system symptoms, such as meningitis, then IgM, IgG, and western blot testing may sometimes be performed on cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

Symptoms may last up to six months or longer. These symptoms can interfere with a person’s normal activities and may cause emotional distress as a result. However, most people’s symptoms improve after six months to a year. It’s not known why some people develop post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome and others don’t.

If treated, Lyme disease does not last for years. However, for some people, the after-effects of the disease can linger for months and sometimes even years.

Most people know Lyme causes joint pain, and it does. But when it goes undiagnosed for too long, the bacteria can replicate and cross the blood-brain barrier, invading the central nervous system. Without proper diagnosis, neurological Lyme disease can lead to paralysis, schizophrenia and even death.

“It’s certainly possible for people to get Lyme disease and to clear the infection on their own, without treatment,” says Dr. Richard Kuritzkes, a gastroenterologist, in Burbank, California. “But it’s better to be treated, because some of the complications—like arthritis and myocarditis and damage to the central nervous system—can be very serious.”

Lyme disease is the most common disease spread by ticks in the Northern Hemisphere. It is estimated to affect 300,000 people a year in the United States. Infections are most common in the spring and early summer.

Lyme disease was diagnosed as a separate condition for the first time in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut. It was originally mistaken for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The bacterium involved was first described in 1981 by Willy Burgdorfer. Chronic symptoms following treatment are well described and are known as “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” (PTLDS). PTLDS is different from chronic Lyme disease; a term no longer supported by the scientific community and used in different ways by different groups. Some healthcare providers claim that PTLDS is caused by persistent infection, but this is not believed to be true because no evidence of persistent infection can be found after standard treatment. A vaccine for Lyme disease was marketed in the United States between 1998 and 2002, but was withdrawn from the market due to poor sales. Research is ongoing to develop new vaccines.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The Kansas City Chiefs only Super Bowl win came in Super Bowl IV, in 1970, 50 years ago. Who did they beat?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Australia’s unique wildlife threatened by spreading wildfires; koalas take big hit

A koala foraging.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

The bush fires in Australia have been in the news lately, and the affects of those blazes on the wildlife there have been devastating.

The blazes, which have been burning across Australia for months, have razed homes and wiped out entire towns. Across Australia, nearly 18 million acres of land have been burned – much of it bushland, forests and national parks, home to the country’s unique wildlife.

Nearly half a billion animals have been impacted by the fires in New South Wales (NSW) alone, with millions potentially dead, according to ecologists at the University of Sydney. That figure includes birds, reptiles, and mammals. The total number of animals affected nationwide could be as high as a billion, according to Christopher Dickman, the University of Sydney ecologist who led the report.

Fires are nothing new in Australia, but they have been growing more intense and becoming more destructive in recent years, a problem that has been exacerbated by climate change. And animals have been the most affected.

Some animals, like koalas and kangaroos, are primarily killed directly by the fires – for instance, by being incinerated in flames or choking on smoke. Nearly a third of all koalas in NSW have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed, federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in December.

Nearly a third of all koalas in NSW have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed, federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in December.

Photos from the ground show koalas with singed fur, raw patches of burned flesh, and blistered paws. Even if they are rescued and treated, sometimes their injuries are simply too extensive to survive.

Let’s take a look at the koala.

The word koala comes from the Dharug “gula,” meaning no water. It was at one time thought, since the animals were not observed to come down from trees often, that they were able to survive without drinking. The leaves of the eucalyptus tree have a high water content, so the koala does not need to drink often. But the notion that they do not need to drink water at all was shown to be a myth. Because of the koala’s supposed resemblance to a bear, it was often misnamed the koala bear, particularly by early settlers. It still is to this day, with many identifying the animal as a “koala bear.”

The koala is a stocky animal with a large head and non-existent tail. It has a body length of 24–33 inches and weighs 9–33 lbs., making it among the largest arboreal marsupials. Koalas from Victoria are twice as heavy as those from Queensland. The species is sexually dimorphic (the occurrence of two types of individuals in the same species, distinct in coloring and size), with males 50 percent larger than females. Males are further distinguished from females by their more curved noses and the presence of chest glands, which are visible as hairless patches.

A koala resting.

The koala has one of the smallest brains in proportion to body weight of any mammal, only 0.68 oz. Because of its small brain, the koala has a limited ability to perform complex, unfamiliar behaviors. For example, when presented with plucked leaves on a flat surface, the animal cannot adapt to the change in its normal feeding routine and will not eat the leaves. The koala’s olfactory senses are normal, and it is known to sniff the oils of individual branchlets to assess their edibility. Its round ears provide it with good hearing. A koala’s vision is not well developed, and its relatively small eyes are unusual among marsupials in that the pupils have vertical slits.

The koala has several adaptations for its eucalypt diet, which is of low nutritional value, of high toxicity, and high in dietary fiber. Koalas may also store food in their cheek pouches before it is ready to be chewed.

Koalas are herbivorous, and while most of their diet consists of eucalypt leaves, they can be found in other kinds of trees. They tend to choose species that have a high protein content and low proportions of fiber.

Koalas may live from 13 to 18 years in the wild. While female koalas usually live this long, males may die sooner because of their more hazardous lives. Koalas usually survive falls from trees and immediately climb back up, but injuries and deaths from falls do occur, particularly in inexperienced young and fighting males. At around six years of age, the koala’s chewing teeth begin to wear down and their chewing efficiency decreases. Eventually, the cusps disappear completely and the animal will die of starvation.

Koalas have few predators, dingos and large pythons may prey on them; birds of prey (such as powerful owls and wedge-tailed eagles) are threats to young. Koalas are generally not subject to external parasites, other than ticks in coastal areas.

The animals are vulnerable to bushfires due to their slow movements and the flammability of eucalyptus trees. The koala instinctively seeks refuge in the higher branches, where it is vulnerable to intense heat and flames. Bushfires also fragment the animal’s habitat, which restricts their movement and leads to population decline and loss of genetic diversity. Dehydration and overheating can also prove fatal. Consequently, the koala is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Models of climate change in Australia predict warmer and drier climates, suggesting that the koala’s range will shrink in the east and south to more mesic habitats.

According to Australian health minister Sussan Ley, the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, and especially fires in NSW, resulted in the death of up to 8,400 koalas (30 percent of the local population) on New South Wales’s mid-north coast.

The first written reference of the koala was recorded by John Price, servant of John Hunter, the Governor of New South Wales. Price encountered the “cullawine” on January 26, 1798, during an expedition to the Blue Mountains, although his account was not published until nearly a century later in Historical Records of Australia. In 1802, French-born explorer Francis Louis Barrallier encountered the animal when his two Aboriginal guides were returning from a hunt,

Koalas were hunted for food by Aboriginals. According to the customs of some tribes, it was considered taboo to skin the animal, while other tribes thought the animal’s head had a special status, and saved them for burial.

The koala was heavily hunted by European settlers in the early 20th century, largely for its thick, soft fur. More than two million pelts are estimated to have left Australia by 1924. Pelts were in demand for use in rugs, coat linings, muffs, and as trimming on women’s garments. Extensive cullings occurred in Queensland in 1915, 1917, and again in 1919, when over one million koalas were killed with guns, poisons, and nooses. The public outcry over these cullings was probably the first wide-scale environmental issue that rallied Australians.

Australia has the highest rate of species loss of any area in the world, and researchers fear that rate could increase as the fire disaster continues.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Of the four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, only Tennessee has never won a Super Bowl. They appeared in Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000. To which team did they lose?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Just because raccoons are out during day, doesn’t mean they’re rabid; heed caution

Left photo, a rabid raccoon, and right, a raccoon foraging through human trash. (internet photos)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

On our way home to Waterville from Augusta last Sunday, my wife and I observed a raccoon walking along the roadside in Winslow. My first thought: “A raccoon out during the day is not normal, and could mean it is rabid.”

While it is true that a rabid raccoon will exhibit a variety of unusual behaviors, activity during daytime is most definitely not a guaranteed indicator of rabies. You see, although raccoons are primarily noctural, they do often get some stuff done during the day. It’s not that unusual for a raccoon to be active in the middle of the day. We just don’t see it often. They often go off in search of food or drink, especially a nursing female raccoon who has babies to take care of, and who have extra nutritional requirements.

Raccoons, along with foxes, skunks and bats are considered a primary carrier of the rabies virus in the United States. While any warm-blooded animal can carry rabies, these are the ones that are called “rabies vector species.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one human has ever died from the raccoon strain of rabies. That is because a rabid raccoon is usually dead within 1-3 days of becoming infected, and even if you’re bitten by a rabid raccoon, effective post-exposure treatment is available and recommended.

How can you tell if a raccoon has rabies? Rabid raccoons are very sick, mostly they are lethargic. Their walk may be erratic, or their legs paralyzed. They may be walking in circles or falling over, discharging from the eyes or mouth, or lurching in an unnatural fashion. In short, they just plain look sick. If you see a raccoon outside when it’s light out, and it looks agile, alert, is running or foraging in a smooth and coordinated manner, then you can be almost certain that it doesn’t have rabies. This doesn’t mean you should approach it and offer it a lick of your ice cream cone, but you most likely have nothing to worry about.

But the best advice is that should you see a raccoon, no matter what time of day, leave it alone. Never try to feed it or approach it. A raccoon out during the day may be foraging for food. For example, especially in urban locations, if you always put your trash out at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, raccoons will learn that. So, if you see one that is lingering in your yard, seems overly friendly, is acting unstable, etc., leave it alone, and contact your police or animal control officer.

  • A couple of myths about raccoons is that if a raccoon is seen during the daylight hours, it is rabid. Well, we’ve already discussed that, and the answer is “no.”
  • Raccoons hibernate during the winter: No, they go through a period of decreased activity in the winter.
  • All raccoons are carriers of rabies: No, the majority of them do not have rabies but those that do, will die within days of being infected.
  • Raccoons eat cats: No, they don’t – usually. Raccoons are quite capable of killing cats but normally don’t attack cats unless they are threatened or rabid.
  • Raccoons always wash their food: No, it is more akin to their “feeling” their food.
  • Raccoons make good pets: No, raccoons do not make good pets. Even though it is legal to keep wild animals in Maine including raccoons – with a permit – it’s not advisable to have a raccoon as a pet. Over time, as it grows older, it could become too wild to handle.

Raccoons in general can be a nuisance, but caution should always be used around them. I once had one living under my garage. I set a Hav-a-Hart trap baited with cat food, and captured it within an hour and a half. But the tricky part was moving it to another location in the country. Frightened, it because very aggressive while in the cage, and I had to use a stick, with gloves on, in order to load it in the back of my truck. Its claws are as sharp as razors and could have done some major damage to my hands when I tried to grab the handle. The release was successful, and the raccoon hurriedly waddled away. I don’t recommend this to just anyone.

A very safe rule of thumb, quite simply, is if you see a raccoon, leave it alone, or contact a professional if you suspect that it is rabid.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, Minnesota, San Francisco, Tennessee, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Seattle and Green Bay, which team was the most recent Super Bowl winner?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Opossum in my space: now it’s become personal

The Virginia opossum

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It has now become personal.

Over the past 25 years, or so, I have written two columns on the opossum. Mainly because one had been sighted in Winslow, and I have seen a few dead alongside of the highway as a result of collisions with automobiles.

My first encounter with an opossum was in 1967 while living on Long Island, in New York. There was a stockade fence between the property where I was living and the neighbor, and I found it laying, “playing ‘possum,” along the fence.

I never really gave them much thought.

Until last week, when my neighbor from across the street informed me that on two occasions, in the evening. she had seen two, what seemed to be juvenile, opossum coming in and out of the small depression on the front walkway under the steps. A quick investigation revealed nothing.

Since then, I have not seen footprints in the snow, nor have my surveillance cameras picked up any activity, although the cameras are not pointed toward the ground. It is, however, worth my scrutiny.

The opossum, Didelphis virginiana, is a marsupial endemic to the Americas. The largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, it comprises 103 or more species in 19 genera. Opossums originated in South America and entered North America in the Great American Interchange following the connection of the two continents. Their unspecialized biology, flexible diet, and reproductive habits make them successful colonizers and survivors in diverse locations and conditions.

In the United States and Canada, the only species found is the Virginia opossum, and it is generally referred to as a ‘possum.

The word “opossum” is borrowed from the Powhatan language and was first recorded between 1607 and 1611 by John Smith (as opassom) and William Strachey (as aposoum). Both men encountered the language at the British settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, which Smith helped to found and where Strachey later served as its first secretary. Strachey’s notes describe the opossum as a “beast in bigness of a pig and in taste alike,” while Smith recorded it “hath an head like a swine … tail like a rat … of the bigness of a cat.” The Powhatan word ultimately derives from a Proto-Algonquian word meaning “white dog or dog-like beast.”

Opossums are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. Some families will group together in ready-made burrows or even under houses. Though they will temporarily occupy abandoned burrows, they do not dig or put much effort into building their own. As nocturnal animals, they favor dark, secure areas. These areas may be below ground or above.

An opossum “playing ‘possum.”

When threatened or harmed, they will “play possum,” mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act. In the case of baby opossums, however, the brain does not always react this way at the appropriate moment, and therefore they often fail to “play dead” when threatened.

When an opossum is “playing possum,” the animal’s lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The stiff, curled body can be poked at, turned over, and even carried away without reaction. The animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of a few minutes to four hours, a process that begins with slight twitching of the ears.

Some species of opossums have prehensile tails, although dangling by the tail is more common among juveniles. An opossum may also use its tail as a brace and a fifth limb when climbing. The tail is occasionally used as a grip to carry bunches of leaves or bedding materials to the nest. A mother will sometimes carry her young upon her back, where they will cling tightly even when she is climbing or running.

Threatened opossums (especially males) will growl deeply, raising their pitch as the threat becomes more urgent. Males make a clicking “smack” noise out of the side of their mouths as they wander in search of a mate, and females will sometimes repeat the sound in return. When separated or distressed, baby opossums will make a sneezing noise to signal their mother. The mother in return makes the clicking sound and waits for the baby to find her. If threatened, the baby will open its mouth and quietly hiss until the threat is gone.

Opossums eat dead animals, insects, rodents and birds. They also feed on eggs, frogs, plants, fruits and grain. One source notes their need for high amounts of calcium. Thus possums eat the skeletal remains of rodents and roadkill animals. Opossums also eat dog food, cat food and human food waste. Opossums are also notable for their ability to clean themselves of ticks, which they then eat. Some estimates suggest they can eliminate up to 5,000 ticks in a season.

With this in mind, if I do have opossum living under my steps, it would be nice if I could capture them and relocate them at camp where they would be very useful in controlling the tick population. They’d also probably put on some weight.

The Virginia opossum lives in regions as far north as Canada and as far south as Central America. The Virginia opossum can often be found in wooded areas, though its habitat may vary widely. Opossums have been moving north in recent years.

The Virginia opossum was once widely hunted and consumed in the United States. Opossum farms have been operated in the United States in the past. Sweet potatoes were eaten together with the possum in America’s southern area. South Carolina cuisine includes opossum, and President Jimmy Carter hunted opossums in addition to other small game. Raccoon, opossum, partridges, prairie hen, and frogs were among the fare Mark Twain recorded as part of American cuisine.

Opossum oil (possum grease) is high in essential fatty acids and has been used as a chest rub and a carrier for arthritis remedies given as topical salves.

Opossum pelts have long been part of the fur trade.

So, I will be watching closely to see if I, indeed, have opossum living with me. With winter settling in, it’s not possible for me to move those stairs at this time.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

How many times has MLB pitcher Nolan Ryan’s jersey number been retired?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Would you really want a hippopotamus for Christmas?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Roland has taken an early vacation. This is reprinted from the December 24, 2015, issue.

When 10-year-old Gayla Peevey sang her 1953 Christmas song, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, did she really know what she was wishing for?

When the song was released nationally, it shot to the top of the charts and the Oklahoma City zoo acquired a baby hippo named Matilda. Legend has it the song was recorded as a fundraiser to bring the zoo a hippo. But, in a 2007 radio interview in Detroit, Peevey clarified that the song was not originally recorded as a fundraiser. Instead, a local promoter picked up on the popularity of the song and Peevey’s local roots, and launched a campaign to present her with an actual hippopotamus on Christmas.

The campaign succeeded, and she was presented with an actual hippopotamus, which she donated to the city zoo. It lived for nearly 50 years.

That brings us to the point. Had she decided to keep it, it wouldn’t have exactly been a house pet.

She would have had to put in a gigantic pool because the hippos spend most of their day wallowing in the water to keep their body temperature down and to keep their skin from drying out. With the exception of eating, most of hippopotamuses’ lives occur in the water.

Which brings us to another problem. Hippos leave the water at dusk and travel inland, sometimes up to five miles to graze on short grass, their main source of food. That probably wouldn’t have gone over too well with the neighbors and their lawns. Hippos can consume upwards of 150 pounds of grass each night.

The hippopotamus would probably have had problems living in an urban setting. They are among the largest living mammals, only elephants, rhinoceroses and some whales are heavier. They are also one of the most aggressive creatures in the world, and is often regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. So, you’d probably want to have it on a leash.

But, that probably wouldn’t do any good. An adult male can weigh between 3,300 and 4,000 pounds, with older males reaching 7,100 to 9,900 pounds, and would have no problems breaking a tether. Although a female hippo stops growing at around 25 years of age, the males appear to continue to grow throughout their lives.

And, if it got loose, don’t try to outrun it. Despite their bulk, hippopotamuses can run faster than a human on land. Estimates have put their running speed from 18 to 25 miles per hour. The upside? It can only maintain that speed for a few hundred yards. (Actually, that’s all it would need to run you down).

Peevey’s local public works department may have frowned on her having a hippo. Because of their size and their habit of taking the same paths to feed, hippos can have a significant impact on the land they walk across, both by keeping the land clear of vegetation and depressing the ground. But worse, over prolonged periods, hippos could divert the paths of streams and storm run off.

You’d also have to modify your will and make arrangements for its care. Their lifespan is typically 40 to 50 years, and could possibly outlive you. While some have been known to live longer. Bertie the Hippo, who resides at the Denver Zoo, is currently the oldest living hippo in captivity at age 58 years. Donna the Hippo, had been the oldest living hippo in captivity, but died on Aug. 3, 2012, at the Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana. The oldest recorded lifespan was Tanga, who lived in Munich, Germany, and died in 1995 at the age of 61. But there are conflicting reports on Donna. Some say she was 61 years old, while others claim she was 62, which would have made her the longest living hippo in captivity in history. Until recently, Blackie, who resided at the Cleveland Zoo, was the longest living, at age 59, but died on January 13, 2014.

So, if you really want a hippopotamus for Christmas, you’d better do your homework.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls, (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018), name the two NFL quarterbacks to have won four.

Answer can be found here.