The Nature of Things | WYPR

The Nature of Things

Tuesday at 4:44 pm

The Nature of Things is a weekly broadcast about our area’s native flora and fauna, hosted by Irvine Nature Center’s Executive Director Brooks Paternotte.  At the start of each week, The Nature of Things offers an eco-friendly perspective on everything from our changing seasons to the sounds of our migrating birds to the plants invading our yards, fields and forests.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 4:44 pm. as Brooks inspires us all to explore, respect and protect nature.

Kevin Schofield/Flickr Creativ Commons

I’ve been to Gunpowder Falls State Park hundreds of times. I’ve gone canoeing through quiet streams, hiked miles upon miles, and fished throughout its narrow corridors. Each time I go, I hope to see an amazing, but elusive, animal that’s on most naturalists’ version of a bucket list. The remarkable ‘water acrobat:’ the river otter.

The Shrew

Mar 7, 2018

I was walking in the woods last week when I saw a small, furry flash race across the ground. It was too small to be a squirrel, and a little too big to be a mouse. I thought that I might have seen a mole, but this animal had small feet and lacked the flappy scuttling motion that a mole’s oversized feet would make. I stood there, puzzled by what I had seen. Was it a rat? What was it? Upon further reflection, I remembered the animal’s long snout and beady eyes. It was then that I realized I hadn’t seen a mouse or a rat or a mole…I had seen a shrew.


Feb 27, 2018

We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather recently, which teases so many possibilities for springtime and beyond. Of course, when we’re having such pleasant weather in February, it makes me think of one of my favorite outdoor activities—fishing.

Last year in May, I was out on the Bay for a Saturday fishing trip. The sun was shining, the breeze was blowing—it was a truly picture perfect day in Maryland. Suddenly, my line tightened—I had a bite! As I embarked on one of man’s most harrowing primeval adventures—the battle between a man and a fish on his line—I could feel the excitement build. The fish put up quite a fight, but in the end I had caught a 25 inch Rockfish, also known as a Striped Bass.

Tundra Swans

Feb 22, 2018

Last week while I was out for a hike, I happened across a pair of swans swimming serenely in a wetland pond. I stopped and watched the pair, marveling at their quiet grace. Later that afternoon, I considered exactly which species of swan I had seen...


Feb 13, 2018
Andrejus Garkusa/flickr

Underneath the earth, spanning hundreds of miles below our feet, is a massive colony. Often referred to as the “internet of fungus”, this vast system of roots has the ability to connect with plants several miles away. Mycelium, the living body of a mushroom, is made up of a web of tiny filaments. It allows fungi, and other species, to communicate with each other. It helps plants receive water and nutrients and it can even help protect plants against certain infections. While all of this is happening below the ground, the mushroom we see above the earth is just as fascinating.

Pea Crabs

Feb 6, 2018
FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute/flickr

Excuse me waiter, there’s a pea crab in my oyster…If you’ve ever opened an oyster and found a little orange crab inside, consider yourself lucky! Many seafood lovers have called this tiny, spider-like crab a delicious surprise for many years. In fact, an article in The New York Times from 1913 recalls a story of a restaurant patron who sent his soup back with disgust upon finding a small orange “critter” in it. He was not aware that the tiny crab that had turned his stomach was a highly-prized delicacy - back in 1913, pea crabs sold for $2 a portion, which is roughly $50 today! Even George Washington was well documented as a fan of this fine food. So, what exactly is a pea crab?

Blue Crabs

Jan 30, 2018

As I sat in my car this morning, with the defroster on and the heat blasting, I thought about warmer weather. It seemed like just a few weeks ago I was sitting at the dinner table with friends and family enjoying one of my favorite Maryland treats – Blue Crabs. It will be awhile before I get to dig into this summer staple again and it seems like forever until I’ll need air conditioning in my car.


After brunch this Saturday, I was looking out the kitchen window while rinsing some dishes. Perching in a tree overlooking one of our bird feeders was a crow-sized hawk I hadn’t noticed before. From my vantage point, it appeared lightly colored in the front, with dark wings. I turned off the faucet to lean forward and get a closer look, when the hawk swooped into action. It flew toward the feeder, scattering visiting songbirds in all directions. A cardinal took off for the bushes and some house sparrows shot for the forest line.


Jan 16, 2018
Irvine Nature Center/Facebook

One of my favorite parts of winter is the snowbirds. No, not the people who spend the cold months in Florida each year... I’m talking about the beautiful, artic birds like Tundra Swans, Snowy Owls, and Red Crossbills. Some of my most rewarding birdwatching has occurred in the winter months when bare trees and quiet parks create the perfect condition for seeing different species of birds.

Wood Frogs

Jan 9, 2018
Dave Huth/flickr

There’s a popular children’s movie, Frozen, that I have “watched” way too many times. It’s one of my children’s favorite movies and it is always on as soon as the first snow falls. In case you haven’t seen it, the main character has the ability to freeze people and objects with the wave of her hand. When we first watched it my son asked me “can people really be frozen?” I think he was disappointed to hear my answer, “no”. However, his curiosity did remind me of an animal who can freeze and thaw….a little brown frog who spends winter almost completely frozen, the Wood Frog.


Brooks tells us about about our region's Southern flying squirrel!


Dec 26, 2017
Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble Follow/flickr

Did you know there is a creature in the Chesapeake Bay that can filter up to 50 gallons of water in one day? Perhaps one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake, the eastern oyster, is an essential part of the bay’s ecosystem. Their powerful vacuum-like ability to filter large amounts of water helps create a balanced ecosystem where many species can thrive.


Think about the last time it rained. Maybe you were cozy at home reading a book, or you took your kids outside to jump in puddles. For me, rain reminds me of a harsh reality – trash pollution. When it rains, I imagine the piles of garbage sitting on the side of the street and think about where it goes, and then I think of Mr. Trash Wheel. Since May 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has collected 1.4 million pounds of trash.

Wood Ducks

Dec 13, 2017
One Day Closer/flickr

Last week, while walking by the wetlands at Irvine, I saw a young male “dressed” elegantly and walking alongside the water. He wore chestnut on his body and iridescent green on top of his head.  A white collar extended along the side of his neck and a second one ran up each cheek. His bright red eyes glanced over at me as he descended into the water. Of course, this impressive attire wasn’t for my admiration. He was hoping to attract a female. This well-dressed creature is one of the most recognizable birds because of his decorative markings, and his scientific name, Aix Sponsa, echoes his beauty. The latin word “sponsa”, meaning betrothed, refers to this bird’s striking plumage as he appears to be dressed for a wedding. However, you probably know this dapper duck as a male wood duck.

Maple Syrup

Dec 6, 2017
Jason Dean/flickr

As I was leaving work a few days ago, I decided to take a walk around the property to enjoy what was left of the daylight. As the days get shorter and colder, I have to make an extra effort to get outdoors. I started to walk down the trail, pulling my hat on tightly and zipping my coat up close around my chin. As I walked past brightly colored red and orange trees, I thought about how just a week ago the leaves were still green. Although all trees have sap that can be used to make syrup, Maple trees have a higher sugar content than any other tree.  For this reason, the Sugar Maple is the primary tree used to make syrup, thus giving it its name, maple syrup.


This past Thanksgiving I had turkey galore. And there was so much ham. Sausage for breakfast, I think. Some duck. Even bacon-wrapped venison at one point. I was quite the carnivore. But I’ve got nothing on one of our area’s hungriest carnivores and most efficient predators: the long-tailed weasel.

Irvine Nature Center/Facebook

A few days ago, one of our teachers pitched me an idea for a weekend program, something called “forest bathing.” I’ll admit I was skeptical at first as she listed the benefits promised by this Japanese practice: reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and increased mindfulness. How could “taking a bath” in the forest increase your well-being and how exactly does it work?


Nov 15, 2017

One of my favorite ways to unwind after work is sitting on my deck and enjoying a fermented beverage. Okay, I’ll admit, fermented beverage is just a fancy way to describe beer, and I might be stretching it a bit when I try to convince my wife that beer is good for you. But, fermented foods and drinks DO provide us with many health benefits and some types of fermented foods can even aide in digestion. 

Jay Sturner/flickr

I’ve noticed on my drive to work that the leaves are starting to turn bright red and orange. It makes me happy to know that my favorite season has finally arrived. But, did you know that for some animals, this time of year can be dangerous?  As we approach colder days, white-tailed deer will cross the road in search of food or a mate, making them vulnerable to car strikes. This is made worse by the fact that deer are naturally more active during the late evening and early morning, when there is less light. Drivers should take extra precaution during deer mating season as a car accident can be dangerous to both the deer and humans.

Black Bears

Nov 2, 2017

Every Halloween when I was a kid, my dad used to tell me a story about a big growling beast who terrorized families after dark. The beast would roam neighborhoods at night searching for a tasty treat, knocking over garbage cans and ripping through any bags left behind from trick or treaters. My heart would race as he described the beast; 600 pounds, covered in black fur with sharp teeth. I shivered and pulled the covers up closer around my shoulders as I envisioned the beast standing on its hind legs reaching my bedroom window and growling at me.

It would be a few years later during a camping trip to Shenandoah when I would see “the beast” for the first time.  My dad and I were about a mile into a hike when he abruptly stopped and put his finger to his lips, motioning for me to be silent. A hundred yards ahead of us off the trail was an adult black bear.

Brian Ralphs/flickr

I consider myself to be an experienced fisherman. I spent most of my childhood with a fishing rod in my hands and I've braved extreme weather in hopes of catching that "legendary" fish. Occasionally, I will take my two children, Jack and Emma, to a nearby lake or pond where we spend all day casting lines. One day during a fishing expedition, we ran into some serious competition. Our challenger had long, skinny legs, a graceful neck, and the ability to grab fish straight out of the water!

Irvine Nature Center/Facebook

One of my family’s favorite places to vacation in the summer is the beach. We always enjoy exploring the beach and seeing the wildlife that lives there. I love watching the sandpipers poke in the sand for insects in between the waves crashing on the shore. However, recently we’ve noticed new hotels, parking lots, and buildings popping up around our favorite beach town and it made me wonder how much we're losing in return. 

Edible Plants

Oct 12, 2017
Chris Luczkow/flickr

My kids used to gather a bucket full of plants and twigs they foraged from our backyard and offer it to me and my wife as “soup.” While most of those ingredients were inedible, you’d be surprised how many were edible and rich in vitamins and minerals! Their favorite food to serve, and most easily harvested, was Dandelions. I can remember the shock on their faces when I put the whole thing, stem and flower, in my mouth, chewed and then swallowed.


Oct 3, 2017
Friends of the Prairie Learning Center and Neal Smith NWR/flickr

The end of summer is often announced by the arrival of Goldenrod, the yellow clusters of tall stemmed flowers popping up everywhere. If you’re like me, you dread this change of season not because of the colder weather settling in but because of the dreadful allergies it brings with it. My son and I both suffer from seasonal allergies and this time of year can be the worst. Our sneezing, wheezing, coughing, and itching was thought to be a result of those yellow flowers we’ve seen sprouting up everywhere. However, while Goldenrod does produce pollen, it is falsely accused of your seasonal suffering.


Sep 28, 2017
Becky Matsubara/flickr

Last spring, our Nature Preschool class thought they found an injured bird while exploring the property. The bird, who had two black bands across its white chest, was fluttering on the ground with what appeared to be a broken wing. What the students didn’t realize is that they were actually witnessing a great performance. . .

Canada Geese

Sep 19, 2017

You might be able to ignore the increasing amounts of leaves falling from trees, or the suddenly sinking nighttime temperatures. But when you hear the noisy, distinctive honking of a v-shaped flock of Canada geese as they migrate above you, there is no denying that autumn has arrived. 



When children visit Irvine’s exhibit hall, they are often most excited to see our lively snakes. They can meet any of the 4 species of native snakes we have, from the corn snake to the leucistic black rat snake. Immediately, these kids step forward and want to get up close. And they have so many questions: “How big does it get? What does it eat? Where does it live? What animals eat it?”

But when adults visit, they often see a snake and quickly take one big step back. And they only have one question: “Is it poisonous?”

Of Maryland’s 27 species of snakes, only 2 are dangerous. But none are poisonous. Not one. And worldwide, few slithering species are poisonous. That’s because the small, select group of non-constrictor snakes that are dangerous are venomous, not poisonous. And it’s an important difference.


Aug 29, 2017
David Heise/flickr

Flying insects are usually annoying. Mosquitoes can bite, leaving itchy red welts. Bees and wasps can sting. Flies are quick to invade your meal at a picnic. But there’s something really magical about dragonflies.

Barred Owl

Aug 22, 2017
Ralph Daily/flickr

The rich baritone hooting of my favorite owl species is a characteristic sound in our listening area, where breeding pairs often call back and forth to one another.

Bird enthusiasts quickly learn this easy-to-recognize rhythm with the mnemonic “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” It is, all bird watchers will tell you, the sound of the magnificent barred owl.


We have long been fascinated with the history of the wild birds in our country, so we're excited to get writer and educator Margaret Barker in the studio for a conversation. Margaret is a Chesapeake Bay native with an interest in watching birds. She and her colleagues Paul Baicich and Carrol Henderson published a book called Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation