earthalmanac Submersible Songbird 

John Muir called it "the hummingbird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam." In summer the robin-size American dipper--so named because, when perched, it dips up and down about 40 times a minute--hunts insect larvae in headwater streams of western high country, from Alaska to Panama. Gripping the smooth gravel with its feet, it walks to the water's edge and continues until it is well below the surface, easily negotiating currents that would sweep away a fisherman in chest waders. Beneath the flow, tiny flaps seal off nostrils, while a second, transparent set of eyelids serve as goggles. Like the water nymphs of ancient lore, dippers sometimes dwell behind cataracts where the only access is through the falling water and where spray continually soaks their nests. Their call--a loud clicking, as if two stones were being struck together--evolved to make it clearly audible over the rushing water.

Model for the Devout

Praying mantises, now approaching adulthood in field and garden, were placed on earth to teach humankind the correct posture for addressing the Almighty--or so it has been reported by religious authorities. Although researchers have yet to prove this theory, what they have documented is no less astonishing. For example, the nearly six-inch-long Chinese mantis--introduced to this continent in the late 1800s and the largest and most widely distributed of our 20 species--will attack hummingbirds, frogs, and lizards. The European mantis--also an alien and pretty much restricted to the East--sometimes acquires two meals for the cost of one by seeking out the burrow of a ground wasp and waiting in ambush for the returning insect, which frequently comes in carrying prey for its young. Mantises are among the few insects that can swivel their heads. This talent allows a female to respond to an amorous male, stealthily approaching her from behind, by literally biting his head off, an admonishment that impairs his sexual performance not a whit. This behavior, however, is rare and possibly unnatural; researchers have suggested that it is induced by dis-tracting lab lights and in-sufficient feeding of study specimens.

Scent of High Summer

Long after most plants have blossomed, sweet pepperbush fills the air with a fragrance that freezes the fleeting hours of August, drugs the droning bee, and transports aging wanderers of woods and water to a time when summer never ended and one's only commitments were to fish, frogs, and turtles. This leafy shrub, also known as summer sweet, does best with full sunlight in wet soil from southern Maine to Florida and as far west as Texas. The tiny white flowers appear in clusters on upright spikes, which make fine air fresheners if your car smells of, say, wet dog.

Quarter-Ounce Bug Bomb

Throughout most of the United States, one of our more abundant backyard mammals--the quarter-ounce little brown bat--dips and wheels through the summer twilight, netting insects in skin stretched between its hind legs and tail. At this time of year the female will return to her roost several times a night to nurse her pup, which she cradles in her soft wings. While bats get rabies, they are no more prone to the disease than any other mammal, and if you don't plan on handling them, it is safe to share your attic with any species. The ability of the little brown bat to consume 1,200 mosquito-size insects in an hour often makes it a welcome houseguest. People who insist on sealing bats "out" of their attics frequently seal them in instead, thereby killing them and creating an odor problem that would otherwise never have existed. Sometimes you can attract bats to your yard by erecting bat roosting boxes. Hang them in an open, sunny area--not from a living tree. Boxes are offered for sale by Bat Conservation International (512-327-9721 or If reclamation of a subsurface mine is under way in your area, make sure bats aren't being buried alive. In Michigan, Bat Conservation International intervened in a scheduled mine reclamation that would have wiped out a million little and big brown bats--the continent's second largest hibernating colony. 

Raining Toads 

A hard summer rain strews toads across the deserts and dry grasslands of our Southwest as if they had fallen from the firmament. Where no amphibian has walked for perhaps a year, the newly wet earth is suddenly alive with Couch's spadefoot toads--green or yellow, bug-eyed, and bleating from puddles like lambs separated from their ewes. Breeding and maturation of young must happen swiftly, because the puddles won't last. Eggs can hatch in 24 hours; tadpoles may develop into toads in nine days. Keratinous "spades" on hind feet allow adults to dig three feet into the soil. Here, with metabolisms turned down to flickering pilot flames, they'll remain until the soil is again soaked.

Waltz of the Bluefish

There will come a morning in July when the wind falls and black shards, seemingly independent of subsurface mass, cleave the glassy surface of the Atlantic Ocean. They vanish and reappear mysteriously, then form daisy chains that may be 30 feet across.  

What you are watching are the tails of a toothy, voracious species whose scientific name, Pomatomus saltatrix, means "sheathed, leaping, cutting edge." But if you thought bluefish were always gluttonous, run a lure through the school and, more often than not, you'll have to cast again. For a few fleeting hours, these sleek predators are thinking about sex instead of food.  

It won't be long, however, before they are again charging about, lacerating anything in their path, sometimes including people. You can locate feeding blues by the oil slicks created when they chop up baitfish. Even when wind or fog prevents you from seeing a slick, you can often smell it--a fresh, pleasant scent, vaguely reminiscent of sliced cucumbers. 

© 2000  NASI

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