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Features (Creature Feature)

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.

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.