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.

Bird Nesting

Apr 18, 2017
slgckgc/flickr

Spring is officially here, and I’m starting to notice the days feeling longer. For me, the increased daylight is a signal that it’s time to break out the camping gear. I feel ready to hit the trail with each uptick in sunshine hours. Birds, too, are noticing the difference.

Throughout the year, most birds use day length to tell what season it is. When daylight extends, the change triggers physiological transformations. It’s how they know it’s time to breed and nest.

Because of its history as a game bird in North America, the northern bobwhite is one of the most intensively studied bird species in the world. We know tons about them, especially with regard to human activities like pesticide application and prescribed burning.

The bobwhite is a small, rotund, ground-dwelling bird. Adults are about the size of a large grapefruit and weigh roughly as much as a baseball. They have an intricately patterned, multi-colored body with feathers in mottled-brown, rufous, buff, white, black and gray. Males have a bold, black-and-white head, a white throat and a white brow stripe. Females have a buffy throat and brow. Both sexes have short, dark tails.

From my description, you might be sure you haven’t seen a bobwhite quail in our listening area, but you have probably heard one before.

Pillbugs

Apr 4, 2017
Michel Vuijlsteke/flickr

I recently had the chance to join some of the students from the Nature Preschool at Irvine on an early spring walk. It was beautiful out, and we stopped near some decomposing tree stumps to look for insects. The quietest boy in the class suddenly got really animated, and all the students gathered around to see what he had found.

I joined in on the enthusiasm, peering over the heads of many murmuring and excited kids. The little boy gently opened his hand to reveal a tiny, grayish-brown pillbug. As if on cue, and a little like magic, the pillbug froze, then curled up into a perfectly round ball. The students cheered!

VIRGINIA STATE PARKS

 

Just imagine this.

There. At the bottom of the river.

There’s a 7-and-½-foot-long, 170-pound, armor-covered behemoth. Its brown, sandpaper-like hide has sharp bony plates along its back. Its fins are large, and its tail is just like a shark’s. And its dark eyes regard you suspiciously as it flexes its blubbery, sucker mouth and the catfish-like whiskers on its chin. The giant prehistoric-looking animal uses its snout to root around the sandy Chesapeake Bay bottom before lumbering away.

Salamanders

Mar 20, 2017
marylandbiodiversity.com

One of the more peculiar native animals in our listening area seems like it could have come from the inspired imagination of a Hollywood director.

This segment originally aired on March 17, 2015.

Fungi

Mar 14, 2017
Andy Roberts/flickr

On a recent hike through a forest in Howard County, my kids and I discovered something interesting growing on the side of a decaying beech tree stump. Each of the shelf-like fleshy growths were white-to-cream in color, oyster-shell-shaped and about the size of a CD. The top sides were smooth, almost velvety, but the undersides were heavily gilled like an infinite accordion. They were wild mushrooms, of course.

psionicman/flickr

Last week’s unseasonably warm weather brought some unwelcome visitors into my home that aren’t usually here in February: ants.

David Slater/flickr

On my drive into the office last Monday, I saw one of my favorite misunderstood native creatures. It was the first thing in the morning, and a large brown-black bird was standing on the roadside with enormous, outstretched wings. It looked like a white-tailed deer had been struck by a car the night before, as its lifeless body lay on the road’s shoulder. I slowed as I passed, and the bird’s featherless, leathery red head followed me as I rolled by.

flickr

How did you spend your free time in childhood? I remember how I did. I spent loads of time climbing trees. And investigating what was living in mud puddles. I went fly fishing with my friends, raced bikes across dirt lots with my siblings and went on what-felt-like epic hikes through Maryland’s forests and meadows. I was outside all the time. I just had to be home for dinner.

David/flickr

Many people don’t realize seals are common winter visitors along our eastern shores. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, cold-weather beach goers saw a seal on the sands at 135th street. And a few days later, Ocean City Animal Control reported seeing one lounging in the shape of a banana by the 9th street fishing pier on a Jet Ski platform.

Groundhogs

Jan 31, 2017
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

The groundhog is often caught between being a celebrity and a villain. We rely on legendary weather-creature Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow to forecast the seasons; but we’ll grumble as his relatives make meals of our carefully planted spring vegetables.

Laszlo Ilyes/Flickr Creative Commons

If you missed this episode a weeks ago, listen now to learn more about these special mammals.

Historydawg/flickr

Odds are good that a chickadee will visit your property this winter. Universally considered “cute,” the chubby little chickadee has an oversized round head, a short neck, a tiny body and a curiosity about everything, including humans. Its quickness in discovering bird feeders make it one of the first birds most of us learn.

Alexandra MacKenzie/flickr

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.

[ Leah ] /flickr

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

Cardinals

Dec 27, 2016
ERIC BÉGIN/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

This episode originally aired on January 5, 2016  

What bird is often the first to visit a feeder in the morning and the last to stop by and grab a bite at night? Bird enthusiasts all know it’s the northern cardinal.

Snow Owls

Dec 20, 2016
Tony Hisgett

Just a few weeks ago, I got some exciting news.

Some colleagues, all enthusiastic birders, I.D.’d a snowy owl sitting atop the Bay Bridge on the second to last lane signal on the eastbound span. It’s still early in the season, but this unusual visit could mean another year of these unmistakable, rare white owls visiting our shores.

Ravens

Dec 13, 2016
NH53/flickr

Everyone knows of Edgar Allen Poe’s darkest and most well-known poem, The Raven. And you’d be right to suspect that his inspiration came from a real, live bird. The illustrious avian Poe encountered had an excellent vocabulary, in fact, and it did set the ground work for the author’s macabre storytelling. The bird Poe met, however, belonged to his contemporary, Charles Dickens, and was a family pet.

Mike Keeling/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Weasels

Nov 29, 2016
Michael Bamford/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Woolly Bear

Nov 22, 2016
Juanita Demchak/Flickr Creative Commons

On an autumn walk through Schooley Mill Park in Howard County, I really had to watch my step. Every few feet or so, my well-worn hiking boots endangered another tiny black-and-copper critter crisscrossing the trail ahead of me.

Reaching a stopping point at a sunny spot, I picked up one of the 2-inch-long caterpillars before it could reach its destination. Its soft, bristled body tickled my hand as it motored across, intent on completing its journey before cold weather truly arrives. “How will our winter be, woolly bear?” I asked it.

The woolly bear caterpillar – also called a woolly worm, black-ended bear or fuzzy worm – may be a small animal, but it has a grand reputation. Regional folklore contends that the relative amounts of black and ruddy brown on the short, stiff hairs of a woolly bear caterpillar indicate the severity of the coming winter.

Moles

Nov 15, 2016
Bert Cash/Flickr Creative Commons

When I watch red tail hawks turning their heads to zoom in on prey from above, I’m captivated by how well they can use their binocular vision to hunt from the skies. When I trudge into a stream, and a frog leaps away before I’ve even seen it’s there, I’m impressed by its keen, nearly 360-degree perception. And when I watch my honeybees navigate flowers, even on cloudy days, I marvel at their talent for using ultraviolet light to see.

Which is why I find one of our native animals, the eastern mole, so very curious. It barely has any ability to see at all.

Marsh Rabbits

Nov 8, 2016
Alan McDonley/Flickr Creative Commons

A childhood friend of mine once sent me on an official snipe hunt. He lead me out into the woods with a set of ‘magic’ snipe-finding rocks and encouraged me to knock them together while I searched. I wandered around aimlessly for hours just to return to him laughing hysterically at my naiveté. There was no snipe, of course.

So when that same friend told me just last week that he’d seen something called a marsh rabbit swimming in Virginia, I instinctively believed he was ‘pulling my leg.’ I wasn’t even sure I should Google it, lest I realize it was another elaborate practical joke.

But it turns out that searching for information on marsh rabbits was no fool’s errand. They do exist! They do swim. And they even live in our Chesapeake Bay watershed!

Jessica Hickman/Flickr Creative Commons

Before the early 1900s, the American chestnut was the predominant tree species in our eastern forests. But, today, more than 100 years after a blight forced the chestnut into near extinction, scientists are resurrecting this once-great tree. Dr. Gary Carver joins Brooks in the studio to discuss the American chestnut. Dr. Carver is an emeritus board member of the American Chestnut Foundation, and has been president of our area's chapter of the foundation. 

As elementary school students, we all learn that leaves contain a pigment called chlorophyll, which colors leaves green. And shortly after, we middle-school scientists usually discover that through a process called photosynthesis, plants can use chlorophyll and energy from the sun to turn carbon dioxide, water and minerals into food.

So it took me by surprise when a recent nature center visitor asked me if plants can eat anything else. “Are there,” he asked me earnestly, “other ways for plants to feed themselves?”

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is: yes.

On our planet, there is a diverse type of plants that have evolved a very different strategy than the one we learn about as children. These plants, alien as it may seem, can actually eat animals.

Blue Heron

Oct 18, 2016

Last week as I exited my car in a sprawling Howard County neighborhood, a loud flapping sound caught me completely by surprise. Just 10 feet to my left, from out of a drainage ditch, flew a massive bird. I ducked in alarm, and then felt my pulse return to normal as the bird slowly settled on a tree limb leaning into the unnatural stream.

The very slow wingbeats were both clumsy-sounding and strangely majestic at the same time. And the bird looked shaggy and gray.

It wasn’t until I was back on the road again that I realized what the bird had been. The car in front of me had Chesapeake Bay plates which are graced with the only species to rival the blue crab as a symbol of our healthy bay: the great blue heron.

Mourning Dove

Oct 11, 2016

One of the true pleasures I find in observing nature is that repeated encounters with familiar species can evoke a much deeper appreciation, and even a fascination. The mourning dove, one of the most common and widespread birds in our country, is a perfect case in point.

One of the greatest things I have from my grandfather is a collection of wooden duck decoys. There are about a dozen different-sized, hand-carved duck pairs. My kids – who often visit my office where the decoys live on a bookcase – like to mismatch all the pairs, placing a bufflehead with a canvasback, a blue-winged teal with a common goldeneye. After the kids leave, I put all the pairs back together, and this time as I placed the male and female mallards side by side, I wondered: why is it that the male duck gets such elaborate, colorful plumage? While the female duck is nearly all light brown, and, frankly, rather drab? At a quick glance, these two look drastically dissimilar, and the untrained eye could think they were not the same species. 

Beavers

Sep 27, 2016
Bryn Davies/Flickr Creative Commons

Over the weekend, I was lucky to be hiking along a stream in Montgomery County. But the hastening sunset of early autumn took me by surprise and I found myself rushing down the trail toward the park exit. Just as dusk was reaching its end though, I saw something really incredible. 

A beaver about the size of a very overweight beagle waddled away from the trail and toward the stream. I heard the sharp, startling alarm smack of the large rodent’s wide, paddle-shaped tail hit the water. There was a pause as it looked at me, and then it gracefully escaped toward its lodge. I stood, silently watching the deep reddish-brown mammal’s comings and goings, until it was nearly too dark to see.

Canada Geese

Sep 20, 2016
SHAWN NYSTRAND/Flickr Creative Commons

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.    

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