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.

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?


May 24, 2016
Jason Bolonski/Flickr Creative Commons

Last June, my son Jack and I were wandering through the fields behind our home, when Jack came bolting toward me with his latest nature find.

Atop his finger was a tiny, green, kneeling insect peering at me through large eyes on its triangular head. Its miniscule, yet still prominent, front legs were held together at an angle that nearly looked like they were in reverence to some greater power. I knew immediately what it was: a juvenile praying mantis.

Loblolly Pines

May 17, 2016
Ildar Sagdejev

This time of year, I love kayaking through the calm waters of Maryland’s tidal rivers and wetlands. There’s something special about our Chesapeake Bay’s blue-green inlets, briny air and abundant wildlife that make me feel like I’m home. But there’s something else I love to see while I’m paddling too: the view of hundreds of towering loblolly pine trees.

Lady Beetles

May 10, 2016
John Flannery/Flickr Creative Commons

Over the weekend, I was in my garden and saw one of nature’s own pest controllers. It was my first ladybug of the season and I was really lucky, as it was a native species, called a ‘convergent’ ladybug. The tiny, beautiful insect was an orangey-red half-sphere with 13 bold black spots and had its trademark stubby legs and roving antennae.


May 3, 2016
Peter Dickson/Flickr Creative Commons

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?


Apr 26, 2016
Kamil Gopaniuk/Flickr Creative Commons

Just this weekend, my young daughter Emma brought my wife a tiny bouquet of flowers. There were some nice greens, and many more bright yellows. The arrangement would be familiar to any parent, as it was a bunch of sweet, sun-loving dandelions.

Mike Beauregard/Flickr Creative Commons

Maryland is one of only 8 states that have designated a state dinosaur. We were the 5th state to do so, after Colorado and New Jersey started a trend in the 1980s and 90s. But only Maryland has the astrodon as its prehistoric symbol.

A hundred and 40 years before our state chose the astrodon, Maryland’s agricultural chemist Philip T. Tyson was producing the area’s first geologic map of Maryland. His work brought him Prince George's County and he did some digging in an open-pit iron mine. There, he discovered our region’s first dinosaur fossils.


Apr 5, 2016
Rodney Campbell/Flickr Creative Commons

Recently, I turned to a book by one of my conservation heroes, Aldo Leopold. In a favorite passage of mine, Leopold found himself quite taken with one of our native birds, the humble woodcock. After seeing their acrobatic mating flights, he wrote that the American woodcock is “a refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.”

Jason Ferrell/Flickr Creative Commons

Most of our native trees are preparing to sprout their 2016 crop of leaves. Only a few weeks ago, they were barren and covered in snow. But soon there will be an explosion of new life.

It’s amazing. How does it happen?

Over-simplified, plants need water, light, warmth and soil to grow. During spring, they get all the conditions they need. Frequent showers give them the water they require. Longer days mean they have more daylight and warmth from the sun. But there’s more to it than just that.


Mar 15, 2016
Eric Ellingson/Flickr Creative Commons

With all of this winter’s snow, we’re all seeking harbingers of spring.

And soon we’ll be hearing the tell-tale cheery song of one my favorites: the American robin.

The quintessential early bird, robins are North America’s largest thrushes. They are distinctive for their warm orange potbellies, long legs and fairly long tails. They are common sights on lawns across the continent, where you can often see them tugging earthworms out of the ground.


Mar 8, 2016
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.

For some of us, this would be a reason to call the authorities about a slow-moving water dinosaur loose in the Bay. But for any Maryland naturalist, it would be an incredible reason to celebrate.

Unmistakably, you’d have just seen an Atlantic sturgeon, thought perhaps extinct from Chesapeake Bay waters. But in the last few years, scientists have found them still living in the Bay. Naturalists around the state have been cheering on their resurgence. There’s reason to hope that this creature can rebound and again become a plentiful part of our waterways.

River Otters

Mar 1, 2016
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.


Feb 23, 2016
Gilles Gonthier/Flickr Creative Commons

On my weekly nature walk through the forest last Thursday, a small set of four footprints in a muddy divot caught my attention. Irvine Nature Center’s naturalists and I took an up-close look and we concluded that the tracks were from an eastern chipmunk.

And even more peculiar, we were quite positive that the tracks are from a male chipmunk. 

“How,” another staff member asked our group, “can you possibly tell the sex of an animal just from what you see in this mud?” It was, of course, a great question.

Feeding Wild Birds in America

Feb 16, 2016

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 just published a book called Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation

Horia Varlan/Flickr Creative Commons

Last week my 7-year-old son Jack came home from a field trip to our National Aquarium. He was ecstatic after seeing the baby loggerhead turtle up close and would not stop imitating the droning noises of the puffins and razorbills. He also came home with a whole new set of facts, including one that really surprised me.

“Plastics,” he told me, “take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade.” I had not realized it was quite this long. And when I did the math I realized that virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists in some shape or form on out planet.


Feb 2, 2016
Shenandoah National Park/Flickr Creative Commons

The groundhog is often caught between being a celebrity and a villain.

Today we rely on legendary weather-creature Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow to forecast the seasons; but next month we’ll grumble as his relatives make meals of our carefully planted spring vegetables.

Laszlo Ilyes/Flickr Creative Commons

Humans have long been envious of the flying squirrel.

Skydivers and base jumping enthusiasts have even developed flying suits that mimic the squirrel’s peculiarly square shape. These “wing suits” work to slow the jumpers’ descents and allow them to maneuver through the air – just like flying squirrels. The Smithsonian even tested flying squirrels – built from tiny pieces of steel and fiberglass – in a wind tunnel and found that these mammals can glide up to an astounding 30 miles per hour.


Jan 19, 2016
Joe McKenna/Flickr Creative Commons

Last weekend, I was at Irvine Nature Center and saw a gigantic flock of crows lift up off the parking lot all at once and head west. Curious, I stepped into my truck and followed them along Garrison Forest Road.

I knew that American crows congregate in large numbers in winter, but I’d never seen such an enormous group before. Where could it be headed?

After a few miles, I pulled up to their destination: a local golf course with towering conifers and other bushy evergreens. The flock headed straight for the greenery and almost disappeared. 

Stepping out of my truck to investigate, I found what seemed to be millions of crows roosting in the giant pinecone-laden boughs. “What,” I thought to myself, “could be bringing them here?”


Jan 5, 2016
Eric Bégin/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Easily recognizable because of the male’s stunningly red plumage, the northern cardinal is responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than perhaps any other bird. It’s a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness and style with a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off of. Even the light brown females sport a sharp, triangular crest and warm red accents.

Mike Mahaffie/Flickr Creative Commons

I’ll admit it: I’m not a fan of making New Year’s resolutions. They’re too easy to forget and too simple to break.

Research dictates that resolutions are easier to keep when they’re good for you and you feel good about them. So for several years now, I’ve made my resolutions worthwhile by incorporating something I love: nature. Here are 5 of my favorite ideas.

Wood Ducks

Dec 22, 2015

  Without question, the wood duck is one of the most colorful of all North American waterfowl. Males are iridescent green and chestnut with ornate patterns on nearly every feather. The elegant females have a distinctive profile and a delicate white pattern around the eye.

As the name implies, the wood duck is associated with woodlands. You’ll find them in areas with primarily deciduous trees. I’ve seen these Technicolor-feathered birds in Hughes Hollow at McKee Beshers in Montgomery County, at Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, and on the Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore. But my favorite place to see them is in Baltimore City in the Boat Lake at Patterson Park.

Mike Ostrowski/Flickr Creative Commons

Last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that over half the world’s primates – including apes, lemurs and monkeys – are facing extinction. Several of these 25 primates-in-peril have fewer than a hundred of their kind left.

It’s a startling truth, but one that doesn’t feel close to home. 

Did you know that our Chesapeake Bay watershed is fighting to save its own endangered species?


Dec 8, 2015
Paul Hurtado/Flickr Creative Commons

Over the weekend, I saw something peculiar outside my living room window. It was rather ghostly, in fact.

At first glance my eyes told me a small seagull was scouring the grass beneath our birdfeeders, but I couldn’t imagine what a gull would find worth eating there. I moved in for a better look.

The white bird was pigeon-sized, but I’ve never seen a pigeon at our feeders either. I kept examining the bird for recognizable features. Then I noticed that it had a distinct triangular crest of feathers standing up on his head. Suddenly everything made sense.

Screech Owls

Dec 1, 2015
Mike Norkum/Flickr Creative Commons

My children Jack and Emma met an eastern screech owl recently at a nature center event. Looking up at the pint-glass sized bird, Jack asked me, “Dad, is it real? Or is it a robot?” Emma looked at it quizzically and posited that it must be fake, since its eyes blink just like a toy Furby.

Despite Emma’s rather accurate description, the little bird was quite alive. Eastern screech owls have very deliberate-looking blinks and winks. Their large yellow eyes help them spot prey, even at night.


Nov 24, 2015

It’s autumn and migration is in full swing. But more than just birds are preparing for their long journey south. Bluefish are on their way to warmer weather in Florida now as well. 

During the summer, bluefish are concentrated from northern Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Lots of these greenish blue fish swim in and around the Chesapeake Bay. Their abundance reaches a peak near the mouth of the Bay from April to July and again from October to now. During the winter, most bluefish tend to be offshore and south between Cape Hatteras and Florida.

Wood Turtles

Nov 17, 2015
Jerry Edmundson/Flickr: Creative Commons

  Although the numbers fluctuate, our listening area has about 21 federally endangered and 6 federally threatened animal species. Each state also has its own endangered species lists, and in Maryland there are 91 endangered and 19 threatened animals. Conservationists often push for vulnerable animals and plants to be added to these lists because of the critical protection they provide—but it’s never a good sign to see a species reach this point. 

One of our great local animals, the wood turtle, is a short step away from being on Maryland’s list. Currently, this reptile is listed as only ‘vulnerable,’ meaning that it is in danger of being endangered.

Winter Prep

Nov 10, 2015
paul bica

All across our listening area, many Canada geese are flying in their “V” formations heading south. White-tailed deer have changed into their dull brown winter coats. And fox kits are getting fatter and furrier. 

Even though fall has truly arrived and winter’s snow is soon to follow, our local wildlife doesn’t halt its daily routines. During this time of year, animals Maryland-wide are modifying their behavior patterns and adjusting in some really interesting ways.


Nov 3, 2015
U.S. Department of Agriculture

In the animal kingdom, there are a lot of species with rather spectacular misnomers. For example, the killer whale is not actually much of a killer. The red panda isn’t actually a panda at all. Starfish and jelly fish – both aquatic, but neither fish. And the Southeast Asian bearcat, which is neither a bear nor a cat. Similarly, one of our native animals, called a ‘fisher’ or a ‘fisher cat’ is neither much of a fish catcher nor is it a member of the cat family.

Carl Wycoff

Remember playing outside until mom called you in for dinner? Me too. I would ride my bike in the twilight and listen to cricket and cicada songs. My sister would be searching the nearby woods with a magnifying glass in hopes of finding fairies. My brother would be painstakingly making mud pies. Today’s kids, though? I don’t think they’ll have those kinds of memories.

In the last two decades, childhood has overwhelmingly moved indoors. So what’s a parent to do in the face of such startling statistics? As with many problems, the first step is getting help. You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a child? Well, environmental educators believe it takes a backyard, a playground or a park.

Mike Keeling/Flickr

Our region is home to hundreds of thousands of opossums, but for a creature so commonly found in backyards, it is the subject of many misperceptions.

One myth I often hear is that opossums and possums are the same animal. In fact, our native Virginia opossums evolved in eastern North America and were named for the Algonquian word apassum, meaning “white beast.” Possums, on the other hand, are native to Australia and named for its slim resemblance to our own animal. Our opossum is a marsupial – North America’s only one actually – and its distant relatives do include other Down Under species like kangaroos and koalas. But otherwise, the 2 species are quite different.