The buzz about spring Wet: A mild, rainy winter will give birth to more mosquitoes and reptiles than usual this year.

March 21, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Buzz. Ouch! Slap.

Oh, the sounds of summer. And thanks to the mild, wet winter, entomologists say we can expect more buzzing and slapping than usual this year.

Mosquitoes -- and creatures that slither, chirp and swim -- have benefited from the unseasonably mild weather and probably will be abundant this spring and summer, state wildlife experts say.

"More animals will come out in healthier conditions," said Scott Smith, an ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Division. The recent cold snap had practically no impact on the state's wildlife, he said.

The harassment from mosquitoes probably will begin by the first of May, said Michael A. Cantwell, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, who expects to start spraying against mosquitoes this year weeks earlier than usual.

He is finding mosquito larvae in the black, stagnant pools of Baltimore County's Holly Neck Peninsula. Recently, he dipped a long-handled ladle into water standing in a wooded lot and scooped out a wriggling, wormlike larva less than a quarter of an inch long. The innocuous-looking dark speck would be an adult mosquito by the first of May, he said.

Fifty-five of Maryland's 56 varieties of mosquitoes require blood to lay their eggs. All of them require water, and with more than 16 inches of rain this year -- nearly twice the usual amount -- they have no shortage of pools where the larvae can hatch.

"The population is going to be larger this year," Cantwell said.

By the end of the month, crews will begin spraying the pools where mosquito larvae congregate, hoping to destroy them before they turn into adults.

On the Eastern Shore, the problems might be less severe because the mild winter increased the survival of fish that prey on the mosquitoes, said Cy Lesser, chief of the Agriculture Department's mosquito control program.

"We should go into the summer with a healthy population of fish to keep down the mosquito population," he said.

Most of the state's amphibians and reptiles should also fare well, Smith said.

Winter freezes, which usually kill some of these cold-blooded creatures, were absent this year. Because of El Nino, the average temperature in February was 41.7 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and the daily high didn't dip below freezing all winter.

"If you're a frog or a salamander, it's been a good thing," Smith said.

Spring peepers are calling in the trees of Garrett County, weeks earlier than usual. Snakes, finding plenty of smaller animals to devour, probably will do well. "People will see a lot more toads and frogs in their gardens," Smith said.

But with reptiles and amphibians starting the breeding season, the next few months will be critical to their survival, and a drought could severely reduce their numbers, Smith said.

Birds and small game also have benefited from the mild winter, said Joseph Shugars, the DNR's upland game project manager. "Any winter is tough, but this was not as rough as some," he said.

Bird watchers might notice some birds lingering in Maryland longer while others, such as the Louisiana water thrush, might arrive from the tropics earlier than usual, said James McCann, a zoologist with the DNR.

The birds' breeding habits also might change, with warblers nesting earlier than usual and robins managing to hatch three clutches of eggs instead of the usual two, McCann said.

A few small animals might be unhappy with the soggy conditions. The continual rains can drown rabbit kits and flood mole tunnels. Turtles might have to look harder to find dry, sandy areas for their eggs.

Mice, however, will probably withstand the rain and should be more abundant because of the mild weather, McCann said.

Some animals will not be affected by the mild winter, specialists said. Deer, for example, are accustomed to mild winters in Maryland and probably haven't changed their habits this year, said Douglas Hotton, the deer project leader with the DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division.

"They probably didn't need to eat as much to maintain their body temperature, but otherwise there probably wasn't much impact," said.

The deer ticks that carry Lyme disease also are probably oblivious to the mild weather, said David Weld, director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation in Somers, N.Y.

Weld expects the tick population to be high this year, but he said their prevalence is directly related to the deer population, which has increased nationally from about 500,000 at the turn of the century to more than 30 million today.

The ticks can survive almost anything, he said.

"We have frozen them in ice cubes and then defrosted them, and they get up and walk around," he said.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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