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.

Canada Geese

Sep 19, 2017
SHAWN NYSTRAND/FLICKR

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. 

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.

Dragonflies

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

Marsh Rabbits

Aug 9, 2017

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!

Acid Pix/flickr

 

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.

louie Daurio/flickr

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. 

It turns out that differences like these in the same animal species are known scientifically as “sexual dimorphism.” Sexual dimorphism is the condition where the two sexes of the same species, like the boy and girl mallard, exhibit different characteristics – beyond just the differences of their sexual organs. The condition occurs in many animals, insects, birds and even some plants.

This episode originally aired October 2016. 

Cicadas

Jul 19, 2017
WAYNE THUME/FLICKR

 

Sitting outside on my patio this weekend, my attempts at reading the Sunday paper were thwarted by an unmistakable, buzzsaw-like song.

I could hear, but not see, the culprit. With my kids at my heels, I ascended a nearby pine tree to pinpoint the noise and locate its source. Just a few limbs up, my son found a stout, one-inch long, black-and-green insect loudly calling out. My daughter knew it instantly. It was a cicada.

This episode originally aired August 2016. 

Red Foxes

Jul 11, 2017
ANTHONY ADAMS/FLICKR

 

There is a very clever animal that lives near my house. It’s so cunning, it knows to wait until my 3 Labradors are inside the house before coming onto my property. And it has a penchant for my chickens.

I could be quick to say that this fox has become my nemesis, with its maddening habit of sneaking in and stealing my egg layers. But the shrewdness with which this fox has outsmarted my chickens, my dogs and even me makes me hold his ingenuity and abilities in high regard.

Chris Luczkow/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.

Brittany Lindsey

A snapping turtle's prehistoric appearance makes it an easy local species to identify. It's an impressive reptile with a large head and a strong, hooked beak that makes it resemble a toothless yet ferocious old man.

Glenn Euloth/Flickr Creative Commons

One of the most popular questions I overhear at Irvine’s comes from every age group. Our Nature Preschoolers ask it. High school-aged visitors on field trips ask it. Moms and dads coming in to hike the trails ask it. And then right on their heels, seniors from our area garden clubs ask it too.

What’s the difference between frogs and toads?

This episode aired in May 2016.

 

Butterflies

Jun 11, 2017

Butterflies of all kinds can be found flitting across our listening area’s woods, fields, yards and gardens. In fact, Maryland has more than 150 species of these winged wonders. Brooks wits down with Laura Soder, Irvine’s coordinator of its native Butterfly House, to chat about butterflies.

This episode originally aired in June 2016. 

The Nutria

Jun 6, 2017

 

With the exception of my kids after those messy, artificially flavored orange popsicles, there’s only one animal I can think of that has orange teeth. While some people might be turned off by this critter’s hairless, rat-like tail, it’s actually the teeth that stick with me.

The hooked, stubby, Tang-colored fangs protrude forward prominently. They are long, sharp and perfect for eating marsh plants.

And they belong to an animal called the nutria.

This segment aired July 2016. 

Box Turtles

May 30, 2017
Michael Mulqueen/Flickr

Driving on a quiet back road this Sunday, I rounded a slight curve and hit the brakes. In the middle of the road was a ball-cap-sized animal stranded near the double yellow line. I knew immediately it was a turtle in need.

This segment originally aired in June 2017.

Glenn Fleishman/flickr

 

Pollination is something that’s happening in the natural world 24 hours a day. Its ordinariness might be why we forget how vital it is to our everyday lives.

The transfer of pollen from the male part to the female part of a flowering plant is essential to life on earth, for without pollination we would not have enough food. Over 90 percent of all known flowering plants, and almost all fruits, vegetables and grains, require pollination to produce crops. And since one out of every three bites of food we eat each day requires pollination to make it to our plate, we are indebted to the creatures that perform this critical service.

This segment originally aired in August 2016. 

Ticks

May 17, 2017
Ted and Jen/flickr

 

There may be no bug creepier than a tick.

These sesame-seed-sized parasites crawl slowly and silently up our bodies, surround their mouth-parts in our skin, and then casually slurp their fill of our blood until their bodies expand like tiny water balloons.

So as you carefully pluck a tick from your skin, you may undoubtedly wonder: what purpose could they possibly serve? What good are ticks, exactly?

This episode originally aired on May 3, 2016.

Chesapeake Conservancy

I don’t watch a lot of TV. But I do watch a lot of animal webcams. And one of my favorites is the Chesapeake Conservancy’s osprey cam, which has had a lot of activity lately.

Mitchell Orr/Unsplash

 

On weekends, I love to play with my three, big Labrador retrievers. Homer, Fletcher and Violet are great dogs, and they live for the days when we’re all outside together. They get really excited when I hide a spoonful of peanut butter in our neighboring field. All three dogs sprint to see who can track it first. Other times, I’ll play “red rover” of sorts with signal sounds. And on hot summer days, I’ll offer them big ice blocks with frozen meat inside to encourage them to use their instincts to solve an icy puzzle. I call these games, “enrichment activities,” after the kinds of work I see Irvine’s animal care staff doing every day.

Enrichment activities improve the lives of animals in captivity. It’s a way for animal caretakers to encourage and stimulate natural behaviors in captive animals through sight, smell, taste, touch and interaction.

Zachary Bedrosian/Unsplash

With its intimidating yellow-eyed stare and deep hooting voice, the great horned owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. In fact, one of my daughter’s favorite picture books was Jane Yolan’s timeless story Owl Moon, featuring a great horned owl with cat-like eyes and tall, earlike tufts.  

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.

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