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Articles by Kathy Knotts

Spring’s sirens are sounding

The chirping call of spring peepers, Pseudacris crucifer, is my favorite sound of spring. Perhaps it was my upbringing in swampy Louisiana that draws me to frog songs. I often find myself rolling down the windows as I drive home along Muddy Creek Road in southern Anne Arundel County to catch a wave of springtime from the marshes and wetlands along the road.
    The chorus of these tiny frogs is one of our first harbingers of warmer temperatures and longer days. You’ll hear them long before spring’s official arrival.
    “It’s that time of the year, getting a little warmer,” says DNR’s Glenn Therres. “We heard them a couple of weeks ago. Then the cold front quieted them down. Now they’re itching to jump out and start singing.”
    Peepers spend the winter in hibernation, to the point of being frozen alive. Surprisingly, they can survive up to a week after being frozen. Their blood contains a biological antifreeze that prevents immediate death. Peepers emerge from hibernation once temperatures being their annual rise.
    The song we hear is the males’ inflating their vocal sacs to attract the ladies. Biologists think the females prefer the loudest singers. Their calls have been compared to a refrain of sleigh bells, and that’s music to my ears.
    While they are easy to hear, I can’t recall seeing a spring peeper. Trying to sneak up on one is near impossible as this species is primed to jump for its life.
    These high-pitched amphibians are tiny brownish-yellow, olive or gray frogs with a dark X on their back. They are also small; one can fit on a fingertip.
    “Listen and look for them in shallow-water ponds without fish; otherwise tadpoles become fish bait,” Therres advises. “They show up in wet depressions in woods and fields, sediment ponds, in almost any shallow body of water that persists for a couple of months.”
    After Romeo has wooed his Juliet, tadpoles emerge in two to three weeks, meaning more peepers to sing us into next spring.
    They are probably Maryland’s most common frog species, Therres says, “and definitely the most vocal.”

Check out Calvert Marine Museum’s new otter and otter cam

They are otterly adorable. The two North American river otters, 14-year-old Chumley (aka Squeak) and year-old Chessie-Grace (aka Bubbles), love to romp and play throughout their habitat at the Calvert Marine Museum. Now you can see what’s going on behind the scenes in their indoor habitat when you can’t see these furry mammals in-person.
    A newly installed otter cam lets you experience remotely what’s up with these museum favorites seven days a week. Log in to get a peak: http://www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/375/River-Otter-Live-Cam.
    “Visiting in-person is always best, as the new lodging area includes a feeding panel that allows guests to get face-to-face with the otters while they dine,” says Dave Moyer, curator of Estuarine Biology. “When you need to get your otter fix, remember a great time to view the cam is during feeding times.”
    The indoor holding area where the otters reside has been updated with new nesting dens, play yards, an infinity pool and LED lighting.
    Plus a newly rescued otter from Louisiana has joined the exhibit.
    “He was extricated from an aquaculture pond,” Moyer explains. “On a fish farm, it is bad for business to have otters eating all your profits.”
    After acclimating and getting a clean bill of health from the museum veterinarian, What’s His Name may join Chumley and Chessie-Grace.
    “It will depend on the animals as to whether he stays separated,” Moyer says. “Personalities and social dynamics play huge roles.”
    Chumley, also rescued as a pup, came to the museum via Clearwater Aquarium in Florida. Chessie-Grace was hand-raised and bottle-fed after her mother failed to care for her pups.
    Guess the newcomer’s name and win a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour with the otters and animal care staff.
    Otter Name Game clues appear each Wednesday at noon on the Otter Cam website and the museum’s Facebook page.

New loggerhead hatchling joins National Aquarium

A baby loggerhead turtle will be celebrating her first Christmas at home at the National Aquarium. Named in honor of Baltimore’s beloved NFL football team and as a nod to the unique dark birthmarks on her face, Raven will be swimming in the Maryland: Mountains to the Sea gallery in the new year.
    Until she is large enough to be released back into the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina, Raven will receive lots of TLC from the Aquarium’s animal healh and welfare team. The rescue program, celebrating its 25th anniversary, rehabilitates patients for release into warmer waters in the spring and summer.
    Weighing just 91 grams and measuring four inches from head to tail when she arrived, Raven spent several weeks behind the scenes acclimating to the new environment and undergoing full monitoring.
    Raven is one of many hatchlings rescued so far from the ocean and rehabilitated through the Sea Turtle Awareness Program, founded by the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The National Aquarium, which has participated in the program since 2004, is one of many institutions around the country helping these hatchlings return to the wild in good health.
    Sheldon, the Aquarium’s 2015 Head Start rescue, recently finished his year of residence and was released in October.
     Endangered in the wild, loggerhead turtles face many threats, including predation of their sandy nests by shore birds and entrapment in fishing nets. If they survive their first year, loggerheads can grow to be the largest of all hard-shelled sea turtles. As such, they play a part in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.
     This is a busy season for the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program as animals are affected by quickly cooling waters in the Atlantic as well other traumas like boat strikes.

Our best family night at the theater — ever

Anight at the theater — or anywhere, for that matter — is always an adventure when you have children in tow. A few weeks ago, our family of four attended a musical production in Baltimore that left me wondering if I had made a big mistake thinking my sons would enjoy the theater.
    Dad slept through the whole thing, the younger said there was too much singing, and the elder commented all the way through, despite my insistent hushing.
    So when we were invited to see Twin Beach Players’ holiday production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in North Beach, I was hesitant.
    Turns out I had no reason to worry. This was a performance crafted especially for the younger set.
    The boys began way more interested in the snack selection than the production to come. But once we were seated in our second row spots (they thought being so close to the stage was super-cool), their eyes were glued to the action.
    That revolves around a typical small-town Protestant church recreation of the nativity, complete with baby angels, shepherds in bathrobes and Mary and Joseph at the manger. This particular church, however, gets shaken to its core by the arrival of the Herdman children, a group of juvenile delinquents who terrorize and bully everyone they meet.
    The boys noted that it was “very meta. A Christmas play about a Christmas play.”
    They enjoyed watching the kid actors running around the stage during a faux fire in a type of Freleng Door Gag.
     “It was pretty nice,” says Jonah, the 12-year-old. “My favorite part was all the Herdmans — those are the naughty kids — discussing how they are going to change the church’s Christmas pageant. I can’t believe what they wanted the Wise Men to bring to the baby Jesus.”
    The entire cast did a delightful job bringing this hilarious story to life.
    I totally related to the stressed-out mom, Mrs. Bradley, played by Terri McKinstry, who is stretched thin trying to wrangle this production into something just short of organized chaos. Then I remembered … I was Mrs. Bradley! During my high school years, I portrayed this very woman in our own church performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I wore my mom’s corduroy jumper in that role. McKinstry was much more believable in the role.
    Elle VanBuskirk, playing the lead role of Beth Bradley, was composed, engaging and quite professional. It wasn’t till the show was almost over (a speedy two hours with one intermission) that we realized that the remarkable actress portraying the manipulative and cunning Imogene Herdman was VanBuskirk’s sister Emma. These two actresses were standout performers; we expect to see them in lead roles in many future shows.
    Son Jordan, eight, had his own favorite. “The girl who plays Gladys (Melly Byram) stole the show,” he says.
    He gave the production a hearty thumbs-up, his favorite ranking system.
    “I give it 4.8 stars,” he said. “I think people of all ages should see it, but it was very funny and especially good for children. And they should call it Revenge at Bethlehem, like the Herdmans suggested.”
    Jordan was also happy that there was very little singing … until the end, when he glared at me as the cast sang Christmas carols. I had promised him it was not a musical.
    “I gave it 4.5 stars,” Jonah said. “It was a little slow in parts but it was pretty good overall. It made me feel like I should look at people a bit differently in the future. We shouldn’t judge kids who act bad or are messy.”
    Thanks, Twin Beach Players, for opening his eyes — and for showing me that there is plenty of room in the theater for kids.


Fri. Dec. 2 & Sat. Dec. 3 7pm; Sun. Dec. 4, 3pm, Boys and Girls Club, North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: ­www.twinbeachplayers.com.

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.

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.

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.”