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Features (Creature Feature)

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 insectidentification.org, 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; www.calvertmarinemuseum.com.

Chesapeake Bay gets a summer show

Go out on the Bay this summer and you’re likely to see dolphins. Not just two or three but huge pods of the big aquatic mammals, arcing out of the roiled water.
    Dolphins are familiar sights on ocean horizons. Not so much in the Chesapeake, though they are seasonal visitors.
    “Dolphins migrate every summer and are often seen throughout midsummer,” says Amanda Weschler, Department of Natural Resources marine mammal and sea turtle stranding coordinator. Rising water temperatures bring more frequent sightings as dolphins come farther up the Bay, often following fishing boats.
    This year they’ve come early.
    In late May, pods off Herring Bay startled Bay Weekly cofounder Bill Lambrecht.
    “Off Herring Bay in about 35 feet of water, I saw groupings that ranged from several to a dozen, spread out in an area approximately 100 yards wide, perhaps 100 or more dolphins altogether,” he reports.
    Dolphins can grow up to 12 feet long and weigh almost 400 pounds. They’re also speedy, swimming over 18 miles per hour. They form large groups because they’re protective of their own kind, and they won’t leave a member of the family behind. They communicate through a complex system of clicks and whistles, making up to 1,000 sounds per minute. If you’re lucky enough to be swimming near dolphins, dunking underwater will give a firsthand experience of their sounds.
    Sightings continued through this month — and thoughout the Bay.
    Fisherman Bryan Garner of Deale saw a field of them at the mouth of the West River “doing dolphin stuff.”
    On a Schooner Woodwind sunset cruise near the Bay Bridge, crew-woman Charlotte Faraci captured them on video: www.facebook.com/SchoonerWoodwind/?fref=nf.
    Weschler also warns us that bottle­nose dolphins are protected by law:     “Enjoy the dolphins from afar, but be sure not to touch or feed them because it is considered abuse.”

After rescue and recuperation, turtles released on World Sea ­Turtle Day

After seven months of swimming circles doing rehab in the pools at the National Aquarium, two juvenile green sea turtles have returned to the open wilds of the ocean, stronger and healthier.
    The duo swam into the waters off Assateague Island National Seashore on June 16. The date marked World Sea Turtle Day and coincided with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Turtle Week as well as the National Park Service’s centennial and the Aquarium’s Animal Care Center’s 25th anniversary.
    Hardhead and Beachcomber (all of the patients get nicknames) came to the center in November 2015. Hardhead was rescued on the coast of Delaware and transferred to the aquarium for long-term rehabilitation. He arrived with a low body temperature, broken ribs and a torn lung, which left him unable to swim.
    Beachcomber suffered a rare blood infection and kidney problems after being stranded along the coast of Cape Cod. Thanks to a round of antibiotics and assisted feeding, he has returned to eating on his own and is healthy enough to return to his natural habitat.
    “The triumph of returning a healthy animal to the wild is the reason we have such a devoted Animal Rescue team,” says Aquarium Rescue program manager Jennifer Dittmar. “The program is successful today with the help of our staff, volunteers and the good Samaritans who call in tips.”
    Ten rehabbed Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium and National Marine Life Center animal rescue programs were also released. These turtles were among some 200 cold-stunned turtles that washed up on Cape Cod beaches this winter.
    Since 1991, the National Aquarium team has successfully rescued, treated and returned more than 160 animals to their natural habitats, primarily along the Maryland coastline.
    “Our sea turtle stranding and entanglement network partners improve the survival of not just these individual animals,” says NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Dave Gouveia. “They are making a big difference in the recovery of these threatened and endangered species as a whole, and to our understanding of the threats these species face.”

Scientists refute their reputation as oyster bandits

The rays are back. Anglers and paddlers are already spotting schools — sometimes called fevers — of cownose rays in Bay waters.
    Perhaps this year they will be met with a warmer welcome than in years past thanks to a long-awaited acquittal for their impacts on wild oyster populations.
    These gentle gliders migrate up the Bay in May to give birth to their pups. They generally stay till October. A decade ago, cownose rays in the Atlantic were accused of gorging on oysters in the Bay at the time oyster populations were crashing. The rays became the villains.
    An ensuing campaign to “Save the Bay, Eat a Ray” encouraged ray fishing tournaments as well as creative efforts to promote cownose ray as a table fish.
    New research has cleared the big flappers of many charges of villainy.
    Rays eat oysters — as we do — when they can get them.
    “Both oyster restoration and aquaculture efforts placed large numbers of small single oysters out where rays could eat them like popcorn,” explains Smithsonian Environment Research Center scientist Matt Ogburn. “By modifying how oysters are planted on shellfish beds (i.e., oyster spat set on shell), predation has been minimized.”
    The historic decline of oysters in the Bay seems to have more to do with excessive harvesting and pollution than with rays.
    To get better answers, scientists are studying the creatures and have recorded the first full annual migration of a Chesapeake cownose ray.
    “We don’t know exactly what ecological role cownose rays play in the Bay,” says Simon Brown, biologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
    “But we know that the Chesapeake Bay plays a huge role as the place where they come to give birth and mate, and we know that rays have always been here. Stingray Point is named for where Captain John Smith was stung by a ray,” Brown says. “I know they can be a nuisance to both watermen and restoration projects, but a restored Bay should be resilient enough to support both vibrant fisheries and the Bay’s native creatures.”

But not so great for forests

Robins and sparrows sing the praises of our unending rain. Their beaks and bellies are filled with wriggling worms.
    Earthworms surface as wet conditions make easy work of relocating. No, worms don’t come up to escape drowning. They are capable of surviving several days submerged.
    The vibration of raindrops sounds like the predatory rumble of moles looking for a snack, causing the worms to head for the surface, where fishermen and hungry birds find them. Some birds have shifted to eating an earthworm-only diet.
    Gardeners also appreciate the nutrient-rich deposits our red wrigglers leave in our compost and soil. But their presence is causing a bit of havoc in our forests.
    “Every one of those earthworms you see on the sidewalks and driveways after a rain is an invasive,” Melissa McCormick says.
    McCormick is a research scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, where she studies the interaction of plants with fungi. Including how invasive earthworms are changing the forest environment.
    “We still have a few native earthworms, but the vast majority are non-natives from Europe and Asia,” she says. It is possible that some of these visitors arrived as early as the first European settlers on this continent.
    As with human invasions, these wormy tourists have pushed out native species and caused trouble in the new land.
    “Forests are adapted to work with native earthworms and fungi to support late successional trees,” McCormick explains. Alien worms eat through leaf litter more quickly, baring soil to invasive plants. By affecting the nutrient cycle in the forest, invasive worms give bacteria and more aggressive fungi a favorable environment.
    The Smithsonian research team looked at populations of earthworms at test sites, digging trenches in blocks of soil and using electroshock to coax the worms out. They then planted tree seedlings to see what fungi grew and how the soil affected their growth. A healthy forest has many diverse layers and ages of trees.
    “Most native plants and trees are dependent on their association with fungi to get their nutrients,” McCormick says. “These large populations of invasive earthworms basically bias the soil against the fungi the trees rely on, especially late successional.”
    The experiment proved that oak, hickory and beech trees did not grow as well with lots of invasive earthworms around. Tulip poplar and red maple — both early successional species — grew just as well if not better.

Happy Mothers Day to Linne’s two-toed sloth Ivy

Does Hallmark make cards for sloth mothers? Not likely, so let’s send a special Happy Mother’s Day wish to Ivy at the National Aquarium. Ivy, a Linne’s two-toed sloth, gave birth to a baby girl, named Fern, two weeks ago.
    The baby sloth is the newest ­addition to the Upland Tropical Rain Forest and the sixth sloth born at the National Aquarium.
    “We’re thrilled to welcome Fern,” says Ken Howell, curator of the Rain Forest exhibits.
    Mother and daughter are doing so well that they’re back home in the exhibit. But you’ll have to look sharp to spot them. Sloths are well camouflaged.
    Ivy came to the exhibit in 2007 from a captive breeder. She gave birth to Felize in 2015, Scout in 2013, Camden in 2012 and now Fern.
    Baby sloths tend to be a bit on the clingy side. They start eating solid foods within a couple of weeks after birth but remain with their mother for nearly a year. Fully grown, Linne’s two-toed sloths will reach the size of a small dog, about 12 to 20 pounds. When she’s ready, baby Fern will be fed a diet of green beans, sweet potatoes, grapes and other fruits. It can take up to a month for a sloth to digest a single meal. Now you understand where the term sloth got its meaning.
    In the wild, this species is common in South America’s rain forests, where they spend their lives among the treetops, mostly hanging from their four-inch claws. With two claws on their front feet and three on the back, these nocturnal creatures are ideally designed for life in the canopy. They can sleep up to 20 hours a day. Sloths even mate and give birth while hanging upside-down.
    Linne’s two-toed sloths are not endangered like their cousins, the maned three-toed sloth and pygmy three-toed sloth. All sloths are however threatened by continued habitat loss and fragmentation of forests, which forces them to come to the ground to travel to additional trees. On the ground, they become easy prey and face injury and death trying to cross roadways.