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Features (Creature Feature)

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

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 ­

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.

Summer sends these insects singing

Heat wave temperatures may not have us humans singing for the joy of life, but that’s not the case for several insect species that voice their appreciation of the heat this time of year.
    Late summer’s exceptionally warm days drive the cicadas (also called harvest flies) to start their singing early. The buzzing is the quintessential sound of summer and how this cicada earned its name. The hot and humid days of late July and August draw the males into the treetops to vibrate a drum-like abdominal membrane called a tymbal to call potential mates to their location.
    These black and green dog-day cicadas differ from the giant 13- and 17-year broods that emerge out of the ground by the billions every few years. The Brood V 17-year cicadas emerged this spring in Western Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Our portion of Chesapeake Country missed them.
    Periodical cicadas survive by sheer numbers, while the annual dog-day cicadas rely on camouflage and speed to avoid predation. They are a favorite snack for birds, snakes and the cicada-killer wasp.
    After mating, the female dog-day uses her ovipositor to cut open a twig and lay eggs inside. Six weeks later, the nymphs hatch and burrow into the ground where they will live for three years, sucking juice from tree roots.
    It’s summer’s musical finale, so enjoy it.

Just passing through

A big mother of a terrapin the size of our cast-iron frying pan lumbers from the swamp beyond the small garage, up the stones and through the poison ivy and, without stretching her long neck for a glance backward over her carapace, heads non-stop across our lawn toward the far woods to lay her eggs.
    She is my first sighting of this summer, already August, and in recent years all turtles have been scarce.
    She will dig a hole in the lawn or by the swamp at the edge of the locust trees, maybe two or three holes to confuse us, then pump out eggs like ping pong balls.
    No foxes seen this year, and, oddly, no raccoon or possum has yet to show. So this year none might dig the eggs, and within a couple of months, while waving off the bald eagles, I can escort the hatchlings to the cove.
    For a minute I turn away; when I look again, no sign of her.

Turn on a light to observe National Moth Week

In the midst of National Moth Week, turn on your porch light any summer night and see who you see.
    Summer because moths get their wings in warm weather. Over winter, they are caterpillars. In spring they pupate, emerging winged from their cocoons to create new generations of moths.
    Night because drawn to light in perhaps some moonstruck phenomenon, most moths are nocturnal.
    Like butterflies, moths are members of the Lepidoptera family, with between 150,000 and 500,000 species, according to National Moth Week founders David Moskowitz and Liti Haramaty. In the United States, there are upward of 11,000 moth species, 15 times more than butterflies.
    As caterpillars, moths are familiar nuisances: in our fields, cutworms and cornworms; in forests, gypsy moths, webworms and tent caterpillars; in our closets, clothing moths; and in pantries, the Indian meal moth, Plodia interpunctella. Yet the hairy-bodied creatures are great pollinators, especially for night-blooming and white flowers.
    Moths come in big and small, from the size of small flies to as wide as large songbirds. They are dull, striking and extraordinarily beautiful.
    Beautiful like the pink, green and purple Pandora sphinx that flew into my still-lighted bedroom late on the night of June 29, 2014, lingering for photographs and drawings.
    Striking like the yellow Clymene haploa moth perched aside my front door on the evening of June 28, 2016. Was its yellow lemon, or butter or butterscotch? I couldn’t tell, and as the light faded, I tried all three, in colored pencil, watercolor pencil and watercolors. The color of its distinctive centered marking, something like an elongated fleur de lis, was clearly black.
    “The Clymene haploa moth looks like a Star Trek communicator badge as it boldly goes everywhere both day and night,” reports, where I identified this visitor.
    Perhaps National Moth Week will bring a beautiful translucent green luna moth.

Join National Moth Week observers from 8pm Sa July 30 to 9am Su July 31 at Glendening Nature Preserve, free, rsvp (ages 18+): 410-741-9330.

But which butterfly is which?

Who’s that flittering around your summer garden? Most likely it’s a swallowtail butterfly.
    The swallowtail family includes more than 550 species, flourishing on every continent except Antarctica.
    Among North American swallowtails, a familiar sight is the large black butterfly with yellow spots and some blue and orange scales. That’s (Papilio polyxenes), the Eastern black or American swallowtail. Named after the mythological figure Polyxena —youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy — this winged beauty enjoys Queen Anne’s lace and the herb rue. Its caterpillar is called the parsley worm because of its love of the herb.
    Eurytides marcellus, the zebra swallowtail, is noticeable for its distinct zebra-striped black and white wings. The late-summer broods have long delicate tails; look close and you may see a red stripe in the hindwing. Look for them dancing around pawpaw trees this time of year.
    The familiar Eastern tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus (shown above), is the handsome black and yellow fellow gracing your neighborhood. Females have an extra dash of blue scaling on their wings. You may even see them puddling, congregating on a patch of mud to draw nutrients and minerals from the ground. In 2013, Chesapeake Country saw a surge in their numbers.
    “Every few years, we consistently see a rebounding of swallowtail butterflies,” says Elmer Dengler of Bowie.
    He suspects the plentiful tulip poplar and cherry trees contribute to the robust swallowtail population.
    “These trees are the preferred food sources for swallowtail caterpillars. They do well when their food sources do well,” Dengler says.
    Concerted efforts to plant native species in our gardens have helped take a bit of pressure off all species of butterflies, although Dengler says he still hasn’t seen monarch numbers rise as much as he’d like.
    “We need to continue to spread the message that diversity in your lawn and garden contributes to diversity in butterfly populations,” he said.
    Take note of who’s visiting your flower patch, and be on the lookout for monarch caterpillars and chrysalises among the milkweed. They will be emerging soon to continue their northern migration and won’t hang around very long.

Find out at Calvert Marine ­Museum’s Sharkfest

Millions of years ago, long before there was a Chesapeake Bay, sharks thrived in the saltwater marine environment of the flooded river we now call Susquehanna. Big sharks that could have swallowed a man whole, had any men or women been around to be eaten.
    The megalodon, ancestor of the great white shark, was the apex marine predator of those waters. Rivaling today’s blue whale, the megalodon grew up to 50 feet long.
    He’s long gone, but his kin are still with us.
    Perhaps a dozen kinds of sharks visit the Chesapeake. Atlantic mako sharks, sand and sandbar or brown sharks, hammerheads, bonnetheads, dusky, sharp-nosed, smooth and spiny dogfish sharks, chain catsharks. And bull sharks.
    “Bull sharks are one of the notorious sharks we need to watch out for,” says David Moyer, curator of estuarine biology at Calvert Marine Museum. “They’re the inspiration species for Jaws. They come all the way up into fresh water. That story came out of a whole lot of real-life shark attacks over a short period of time in fresh waters in New Jersey.”
    At Calvert Marine Museum’s Sharkfest on Saturday, July 9, you’ll learn all that and more.
    “The annual festival is the museum’s way to teach people that sharks are not the enemy and without them the entire ocean ecosystem would collapse,” explains museum educator Mindy Quinn. “Humans kill sharks at the rate of about 11,415 per hour.”
    At Sharkfest, you’ll meet the musuem’s resident chain dogfish, all about a foot long. Their better name, says their keeper Moyer, “is chain catsharks, for their eyes have slit-like pupils like a cat’s.”
    That adaptation may be because they live in deep waters without natural sunlight. They also luminesce, perhaps for the same reason, or perhaps to attract food or their own kind or to discourage predation.
    Also on hand this year is a horn shark from the north Pacific, a shark that creeps along the bottom rather than swims.
    You’ll see shark cousins, clearnose skates and cownose rays. Like the catsharks, rays are regular visitors throughout the Chesapeake. Skates, which prefer the saltier water of the lower Bay, are a specialty of the museum, which breeds the flat fish to share with other museums and aquariums.
     Also visiting are another shark cousin and Chesapeake Bay native, the Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species being bred by GenOn Aquaculture in Virginia for reintroduction to the upper Potomac River.
    The scariest shark at Sharkfest is the full-sized megalodon, a 50-foot-long behemoth model created at the museum 15 years ago to put the past in chilling perspective.
    The biggest draw is the chance to touch the live sharks.
    The most fun is sliding down the jaws of a giant inflated shark.

SharkFest: Sat., July 9, 10am-5pm, Calvert Marine Museum, Solomons, $9;