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.

[ Leah ] /flickr

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


Dec 27, 2016

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.


Dec 13, 2016

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.


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.


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. 


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.    


Sep 13, 2016
James Jardine/Flickr Creative Commons

Over the weekend, my daughter Emma and I picked a posy of flowers for her mom. I was helping her tie a ribbon around the bunch when Emma stopped to pulled one green stalk out from the tiny bunch. She eyed the base of the stem curiously.

“This one’s square,” she told me, looking puzzled.

I took the greenery from her hands to confirm. She was right – though my expectation was for the stem to be round, this one was very clearly square. It had simple leaves that were opposite each other and smelled divine. We went straight to a plant book for some answers. In it, we learned quickly that if you pick a plant with a distinctly square stalk, then it is very likely a member of the mint family.

Andy Powell/Flickr Creative Commons

I always feel like I’m in a hurry. I hastily speed to work for a fast meeting. Then the kids need to get to soccer practice, stat. I fly home to let the dogs out—chop, chop, chop. I inhale a quick dinner while I’m on the run. And I hit ‘send’ on a rapid-fire text to a colleague about a task to bang out ASAP. Before I can blink, it seems, I’m racing to get back home for not-quite-enough shut-eye.

But a lot of animals live life in no hurry at all. Take slugs and snails, for example. They live luxuriously without a rush. For them, it’s a life in the slow lane. 

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.  


Aug 23, 2016
WAYNE THUME/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

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.


Aug 9, 2016

My family and I recently headed to Deep Creek Lake for some largemouth bass fishing. And although we caught and released some sizable fish, the highlight of our vacation was seeing a North American porcupine eating bark from a sugar maple along the side of Interstate 68.

The presence of porcupines in Maryland came as a surprise to me and my wife, but we have since learned that our state’s western counties have a regular population of these nocturnal rodents.  

Red Foxes

Aug 2, 2016
Anthony Adams/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Bird Boxes

Jul 26, 2016
Rick Leche/Flickr Creative Commons

Each day when I arrive at Irvine, birds busily flit between the many nest boxes that line the long driveway. These small wooden boxes provide essential nesting locations for many cavity-dwelling birds like eastern bluebirds and chickadees. And this year, Irvine inserted a camera into one of the boxes to get an up-close look at what’s going inside. I’m excited to have Irvine’s Director of Education, Robert Mardiney, with me in the studio today. Rob is a master naturalist and has monitored the box-visiting birds this season. 


Jul 12, 2016
Henri Sivonen/Flickr Creative Commons

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.


Jul 5, 2016
Rodney Campbell/Flickr Creative Commons

Last month, a friend of mine posted a photo of a local bird's nest onto Facebook. The caption read, "one of these things is not like the other," and the image featured 4 robin's-egg blue eggs alongside one larger white egg with cocoa-colored speckles.

“Not like the other,” indeed.

The outlier belonged to the brown-headed cowbird, a smallish, stocky blackbird with a fascinating approach to raising its young. Cowbirds are our area’s most common brood parasites, meaning that they make no nest of their own and instead lay eggs in the nests of other avian species.

Lightning Bugs

Jun 28, 2016
Terry Priest/Flickr Creative Commons

As a child, the first time I saw a firefly was magical. I distinctly remember the way its seemingly weightless body felt after I captured it in my hands. And the way it revealed itself with a yellowish green light like a tiny firework. Then, just as quickly, disappeared into the summer’s evening skies.

Peter Miller/Flickr Creative Commons

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

Box Turtles

Jun 7, 2016
Michael Mulqueen/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

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?