Birds led Colin Rees — a former environmental advisor for the World Bank — to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. There he discovered a wider love, of the natural world, so strong it led to his latest book, Nature’s Calendar: A Year in the Life of a Wildlife Sanctuary.
An avid birder, Rees has followed the migrations and behaviors of birds around the globe. For his latest project he narrowed his focus to all the flora and fauna within the confines of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary.
“The sanctuary comprises several different ecosystems in one unique place.” Rees says. “It contains multiple habitats from wetlands to woodlands to agricultural landscapes to tidal marsh.”
In Jug Bay, Rees documented an ecological year from a variety of viewpoints. His weekly visits to the park coincided with citizen science projects, sampling and surveys with volunteers or researchers. During active times in the sanctuary, he visited as often as three times a week to make his observations, which take the form of a diary of sorts, much in the style of Sand County Almanac.
“The diary format kept me disciplined as well as aware that I was observing an ever-changing and challenging cycle,” said Rees, who had done something similar with his book Birds of a Feather, which followed birds on two coasts of the Atlantic Ocean over a full year.
Rees, who lives with his wife on a creek in Annapolis, describes Jug Bay as a living laboratory for the natural world.
“The sanctuary really pushed me at times to identify plants and animals and understand their interactions,” he says. “Plus, seeing all the people working to conserve species and understand the impact of climate change on the land was just a delight.”
Each chapter is named with both the calendar month and a local name for the moon, derived from Maryland native tribes. The book also includes observations on record-breaking weather conditions and dramatic departures from annual rainfall and temperature norms.
“We live in anticipation of the first appearance of a particular plant or animal, now made more challenging by the effects of climate change,” he writes.
Rees hopes his book will encourage readers “to a deepened appreciation of the complexity and resiliency of nature. I want people to make more of a connection to the natural world and find wonder and joy as they walk through it.
“All nature is on your doorstep, waiting to be explored. In this hurried life, it offers us a time to reflect and enjoy this remarkable world before it is too late.”
From Nature’s Calendar:
25 July | Moths
by Colin Rees
A warm evening and a bright light will attract some of the 27 species of moths recorded at Jug Bay. My hope is that by dusk they will fall or tumble down (with a soft landing) into a trap I have placed in the woodland to observe them more easily. Nocturnal moths use the night sky for navigation, and the trap’s bright light serves to confuse and direct them to the container. After my inspection, they are released to complete their brief lives.
The first candidate — a beautiful large nais tiger moth — zooms out of the dark and, after much fluttering, falls to earth only to rise briefly and become trapped. Its abdomen is light pink, with a dorsal row of black spots. The forewings are mostly pinkish white, with small black wedges. Next, out of nowhere, an American ermine moth arrives, and I see full justification for its name. It has brilliant white wings, with dark fleck marks, and possesses a fluffy thorax and abdomen. Southern flannel moths are also aptly named, with a body covered in long, dull orange fur, hairy legs and fuzzy black feet. They are sometimes called woolly slugs.
Many moth species do not feed as an adult; their only task is reproduction. To find a mate, males possess feathered antennae that are acutely sensitive to pheromones borne on the night air. Female moths release approximately one billionth of a gram of pheromones from a special gland located on the abdomen. Males of the same species can detect it within 300 feet and fly toward the source to find a mate.
As Jeanne Grunert notes, Swedish scientists recently discovered that male moth pheromones communicate detailed information to potential mates: age, reproductive fitness and ancestry. This indicates a more complex courtship model for moths than was originally thought. It’s also consistent with Darwin’s prediction, in The Descent of Man, that sexual selection favors exaggerated sensory receptor structures, like antennae.
The dusk has given way to darkness, and more moths (plus a few beetles) invite my attention. I am much taken with a crocus geometer moth, with its slender abdomen and broad, pale yellow wings giving it a butterfly-like appearance. Then comes a brown male gypsy moth, an invasive species that has caused widespread defoliation of the trees in the Northeast after spreading from Medford, Massachusetts, in 1868. Though the white-colored females cannot fly, people transporting egg masses in firewood have been responsible for its spread.
As I leave the woodland, my thoughts turn to the larval (caterpillar) stages of these and other moths. They frequently assume bizarre forms, are often poisonous and possess an incredible diversity of structural defenses and cryptic coloration. I am also reminded of the skinny, orange-colored ailanthus webworm moth that looks more like a beetle, thanks to its colorful pattern and tightly closed wings, and has an appreciation for the flowers of its namesake, Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven). Along with many other moths, it is active in daylight and resembles a wasp in flight.
Strange as these forms may be, I am inclined to nominate the young larvae of eastern tiger swallowtails as the most inventive. The first instars (a larvae stage of insects just hatched from eggs) are dark, with a large white spot on the abdomen, and they resemble bird droppings. After molting to the fourth instar, these caterpillars become green, with a swollen throat and a transverse band of faint blue dots on each abdominal segment. On the hindmost thorax, the larvae also have a single pair of false eyespots — yellow ringed with black — that contain a smaller blue spot lined with black and a black line behind the blue spot.
The eyespots have been described as an example of the “terrifying devices” nature has provided to frighten away enemies.