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Features (Creature Feature)

Santa down the chimney, pests at the door

To give Santa a friendly welcome, have your chimney swept before he slides down on Christmas Eve.
    Other seasonal visitors to your home are likely to evoke less hospitable greetings. For as the chill comes on, creatures come in. Mice, for example. And the creatures that like to eat mice.
    There’s not much you can do to keep out a determined mouse. Mice can squeeze through the smallest of openings, gaps you never imagined and will likely never find. They’ll be happily active in the warmth of your home and will likely set up housekeeping before you notice them. Even if one doesn’t run over your foot, there will be signs: chewed linens in tightly packed drawers and, alas, tiny mouse turds.
    How to get rid of them?
    If your cats are anything like mine, don’t depend on them. After no luck with live traps, we’ve had to resort to spring traps. The Bay Gardener advises baiting the trap with sunflower seeds attached with a drop of glue from a glue gun.
    Winged invaders are trying to get in, too.
    Stinkbugs are much reduced by cold winters since the memorable invasion of 2011, when they came by the thousands. They derive their name from the foul odor they release when squeezed. Mostly harmless — though they do bite — they are a determined nuisance.
    Box elder bugs are also out and wanting in this time of year. With red bodies and black wings, they’re a prettier bug than the stink bug. They get their name from their favorite food, the juices of the female box elder tree, which may be covered with the bugs in early summer. Now, they want warmth. But if they come in, they’ll most likely have given up the ghost before Santa’s arrival.

DNR considers protections from bowfishers

Like osprey, cownose rays have abandoned Chesapeake Country for warmer climates. But they’ll be back late spring, finning through our waters to eat, mate and give birth. Baby rays are born, not hatched like their marine cousins, the skates.
    Does their proliferation endanger the recovery of our native oyster, both in the wild and in aquaculture operations?
    That’s been their rep in recent years, for favorite ray foods are oysters and clams.
    “Bay watermen and oyster farmers contend the creatures are threatening their livelihoods,” Rona Kobell reports for the Bay Journal. “An oft-cited 2007 study in the prestigious journal Science said the Atlantic ray population had ballooned because of declines in sharks, their chief predators. In the Bay, hordes of rays were blamed for depleting Bay oysters.”
    How to control them?
    Rays aren’t a high prestige catch in the Chesapeake. Snagged on a line, they give anglers a good fight. But then what are you going to do with a ray? Neither ray nor skate does much as a food fish in America, though both are considered fine fare in France.
    Bowfishers, on the other hand, have made rays a prime target, with tournaments highly popular.
    So popular that, Kobell writes, “biologists have grown concerned about the impacts of such unlimited carnage, noting that rays produce one pup a year and are slow to mature.
    “In the spring of 2015, animal rights groups began filming the tournaments to publicize the slaughter of rays, attracting local television coverage. The groups also began to pressure the governors of both states to stop the tournaments.
    “Advocates for protecting rays gained support earlier this year, when a new study contradicted the 2007 one and found they are not to blame for declines in oyster populations.”
    Now the kite-shaped creatures may be getting a little love.
    “Maryland Department of Natural Resources last month notified fishing groups that it was considering declaring the cownose ray a species “in need of conservation” and setting some first-ever harvest limits to protect them,” Kobell writes. “Last week, DNR called — quietly — for public comment on whether to place a limited ban on the controversial staging of bowfishing tournaments to slaughter the rays.
    What will happen next? That’s a story in progress.

This bird is worth a trip to Easton

Winter anglers in Chesapeake Country, mergansers — common, red-breasted or hooded — are diving ducks that keep birdwatchers guessing as to where they’ll pop up after their last dive. They hunt in packs underwater, herding fish into their serrated bills.
    The hooded merganser that’s just moved onto the grounds of The Academy Art Museum in Easton is a bird of another kind. Standing 16 feet high, this bird will be doing no diving. But he will disappear as his sapling frame disintegrates in time and weather.
    The creation of Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein, artists who call themselves the Myth Makers, is deliberately “ephemeral” and will return to nature in three to five years. It was finished November 5, constructed in about a week with the help of volunteers.
    Based in Boston, the Myth Makers have worked throughout America and around the world, creating monumental Avian Avatars in locations as diverse as on Broadway and Muskegon, Michigan. The merganser’s creation and the indoor exhibition of the artists’ works is sponsored in Easton by the Maryland State Arts Council, Talbot County Arts Council and the Star-Democrat, plus individuals and local businesses.
    Figuratively, the artists say their merganser represents a proud monument to independent thinking and bravery, in the spirit of Eastern Shore native Frederick Douglass, who said, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
    The mergansers will be there for a while; the Myth Makers’ other art only through February 26: ­academyartmuseum.org.

Four generations later, returning to a home they’ve never known

See a monarch this time of year, and you’re seeing an insect with superpowers. Passing through Chesapeake Country is the migrating fourth generation of the distinctive butterfly whose orange wings are patterned like leaded glass. The great-great grandchildren of last spring’s migrating monarchs, these featherweights are repeating the 3,000-mile journey to Mexico, flying on instinct.
    Leaving Chesapeake Country, these long-distance fliers funnel through Point Lookout, Maryland’s southernmost tip, before hopping over the 11-mile-wide mouth of the Potomac River, says Calvert County naturalist Andy Brown. Over the weekend of October 22 and 23, Brown netted and tagged 100 or so there.
    Thence, they continue inexorably southward.
    Their fuel for the long flight is autumnal nectar from such plants as goldenrod and wild aster. As they won’t be laying eggs for many months, they have no need of the milkweed that sustains larval monarchs.
    Before these endurance fliers become parents, they’ll have migrated to Mexico, overwintered in the Oyamel fir tree forests of the state of Michoacan, and flown north again. Their children will be born on the northward migration that will take three generations to complete. 2017’s fourth generation, like this year’s, will pupate perhaps as far north as Canada, perhaps as close as our own yards — if their parents found milkweed there.
    Remember these monarchs. Plant milkweed in your garden next spring to help the age-old fragile cycle ­continue.

Their night flights bring us treats, not tricks

Winging its way through the eerie gloom, the bat is a potent symbol of Halloween. Far from its menacing reputation in seasonal lore, bats’ contributions to the natural world are many and essential.
    In tropical and desert ecosystems, bats serve as pollinators for plants such as bananas, mangoes and the agave plant used to make tequila.
    Bat pollination is strictly a fly-by-night operation. Come sundown, these furry creatures take to the air in search of the trademark scent of rotting fruit emitted by bat-pollinated flowers. As bats sip the nectar on tap at these flowers, they get a face full of pollen, which they carry on to other flowers of the same species.
    Another important role played by bats is disperser of seeds.
    “As they fly through the rainforest, bats spread seeds to create new plants. Papaya and cacao are two plants for which seed dispersal by bats is particularly important,” says Devin Dotson of the U.S. Botanic Garden.
    Bats are also protectors of plants. As they devour insects in their nightly forays, they reduce pest damage and lessen the amount of pesticide needed to grow crops such as coffee and cotton.
    Maryland’s 10 native bat species are all insect eaters. One little brown bat can devour up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour.
    Protecting bat habitat is a good way to ensure that bats continue to thrive.
    “Bat houses are a great idea, and we encourage communities to get involved,” says Micaela Jemison of Bat Conservation International.
    To see live bats and learn more about them, parents and kids join Bat Bonanza at the U.S. Botanic Garden on Saturday October 29 (10am-5pm; free, no registration needed). For added fun, come in costume as a bat or a plant pollinated by a bat: www.usbg.gov.

It takes a lot of preying to make so big a bug

In summer’s abundance, praying mantises grow like corn.
    Emerging in spring warmth from their tan, papery egg masses, they are tiny, pale-green nymphs. By autumn, after several exoskeleton sheddings and many good meals, the tan, winged adults can be six or seven inches long.
    The habit of folding their long forearms gives the species the name praying mantis. They might better be called preying for they use those arms to grasp food, mostly other insects. Thus they’re good bugs for your garden. Their predation can include male mantises that, useless after mating, may be turned into food by the females making eggs for next year’s generation.
    Like corn, mantises mostly wait for their food to come to them, as they are ambush predators. With two protruding compound eyes and three small simple eyes, they see well. All the better as their flexible necks enable them to rotate their heads, almost 180 degrees in some species. Most of the members of the plentiful order are camouflage artists, with our praying mantises copying twigs. The unsuspecting bug that comes too close to this twig becomes dinner, held in those praying arms for devouring.
    Also like corn, mantises are ­annuals, productive for one season but doomed by cold weather.
    Corn has been harvested in most of our fields. But mantises are around a while longer.

Reluctant osprey still have several weeks to enjoy Chesapeake fishing

“The osprey’s back again this morning,” wrote Ron Wolfe in early October. “This one, sometimes accompanied by another, apparently failed to receive the fall migration memo,” Wolfe, a fisherman, added. “I suspect it’s part of this year’s hatch and doesn’t want to leave the only home it knows.”
    Not to worry, advises Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Dave Brinker. “Birds are like people,” Brinker told Bay Weekly. “Some leave early, some leave late.
    “It really hasn’t gotten cool enough for most birds to start moving just yet,” he explained, noting that in the last week of September, “I saw osprey in New York, all the way up to Maine,” where he is banding saw-whet owls.
    “When the water temperature begins to cool, the fish are less active. Once the food source is hard to find, the birds will move on.
    So, Brinker concluded, “This bird hasn’t missed the boat just yet.”
    Compare previous years’ osprey migration patterns in ornithologist Rob Bierregaard’s long-term studies at www.opsreytrax.com.

So far, it’s just a surmise

Could it be pilot whales?    
    What was Clara Gouin’s surmise as she made quick assessment of the marine pod swimming beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge just as she and Bay Gardener Dr. Francis Gouin crossed by truck above.
    “Driving over the Bay Bridge at 50 miles an hour, you don’t have a lot of time,” she said. “But looking straight down, I saw these large, dark shapes, at least 10 feet long, maybe more, with big blunt heads like whales, very dark, all under water. I saw their outlines, their shadows.”
    One was particularly well defined. “It was quite large and had huge pectoral flippers on each side, and it was paddling, using them in synchrony, at right angles.”
    Awed at a sight “I’ve never been privileged to see,” Gouin checked out the possibilities.
    Researching whales, she learned that pilots are a type of dolphin, thus cousins to the bottlenose dolphins that frequented the Chesapeake this year. Just this weekend — two days after Gouin’s sighting — two separate dolphin sightings were reported in the Rhode River, reports West-Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland.
    Pilot whales leap like the now familiar bottlenose dolphins. But Gouin saw no leaping or dorsal fin showing.
    “I thought it could be dolphins,” Gouin said, but the silhouette was wrong, “too big and too dark.
    “I thought it could be manatees,” she said, but they, too, are smaller and usually solitary when they visit the Chesapeake.
    Whales seemed to fit the bill.
    Nonetheless, Gouin doubted herself. “I didn’t recall any visits by pilot whales,” she said, “but I noted online that they occasional do go into shallow bays as far north as Cape Cod.”
    Gouin also knew that humpbacks may be seen into the mouth of the Chesapeake
    Turning to experts at Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network got Gouin no closer to a reliable identification. But her report has passed up the ladder to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which manages live sighting reports, as a possible sighting.
    Could there be pilot whales in the Chesapeake?
    “It could be,” said the Network’s Amanda Weschler, but no sightings had been reported.
    Tell us your experiences at ­editor@bayweekly.com.

Like tea-party guests, they’ve visited before, will they be back?

I.    Our first fox comes between red sun and night, his ruff tinged rust with leftover glow. He must know dusk is his color, his hour, as he comes for the mice, moles and voles who scurry through tunnels which lace our lawn in subterranean webs. I’d like to think he thinks he does us a favor policing our scruffy yard.
    He steps among the tiger lilies, alert for whoever slips past underfoot, even his bottlebrush tail still as a stick. He suddenly leaps, digs, bounds, pounces … nabs wind, lands with a look that admits he’s just been outfoxed …

II.    Bibs white against their rusty collars, our twin foxes appear at our sliding garden door each afternoon at four, as if invited for a formal tea party.
    We provide only stale kibbles our white angora Pusscat shuns. Through the glass, she studies the visitors.
    Neither Pusscat nor I twitch …
    The dish clean, the foxes turn but pause.    
    I slide the door. Pusscat bounds down the four crumbling brick stairs, chases the invaders across the garden to the woods, then, satisfied, returns.
    Next day they reappear at four.
    Their visits continue, and wily, they stay alive until the summer’s end.
    Shots resound, hunting season open. Although they surely dive into their dens up our dirt lane, they never reappear …

III.    Why no foxes now? Rabbits have returned since disappearing some years ago, so foxes should be sneaking back, gold eyes glimpsed in headlights, flash of tail …

Beauty of the sky a beast in the water

Dragonflies zoom and hover in the August air.
    These acrobatic fliers older than dinosaurs have populated the earth for more than 300 million years. They spend just a few months performing aerial feats of wonder after emerging from an underwater childhood lasting as long as four years.
    Female dragonflies lay their eggs in fresh water; the presence of dragonfly nymphs is an indicator of good water quality. The nymph looks nothing like the pretty fliers we love. It resembles an alien with large protruding jaws and segmented legs with claws.
    In air or water, dragonflies are merciless predators.
    As aquatic insects, they use their unique lower lip to engulf prey, even small fish. The lip’s elbow-like hinge allows it to bend so that the nymph can hold its prey while also holding fast to the stream bottom.
    The mature nymph swims to the surface, anchoring to a stem or root before metamorphosis. Unlike moths and butterflies, they need no cocoon in this stage.
    The transformed dragonfly is omnivorous, eating almost any other insect it can get its legs on, including other dragonflies and large butterflies as well as mosquitos.
    Maryland’s seven varieties are now buzzing around meadows and fields at an astonishing rate. ­Estimated to fly at speeds of 19 to 38 miles an hour, they are among the world’s fastest insects.
    From year to year, we may see any of the seven, from common blue dashers to green darners to dragon hunters. “Locally, some areas may show annual changes in the numbers of individuals within a specific species,” says Richard Orr, a state entomologist.
    The arrival of dragonflies coincides with blossoming corn, giving these insects a place in the mythology of native peoples. The Zuni tribe believes dragonflies bring blessings for fertile corn crops. The Hopi believe that dragonflies have the power to restore a poor corn crop and that their song warns of nearby danger. The Swiss believe that dragonflies came to earth to judge and retrieve bad souls. In Japan, dragonflies signify success in battle, and warriors adorned themselves with images of the insect to bring good fortune.
    While their time in the air may be brief, these winged warriors will make the most of the vanishing days of summer.