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.


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.

Bald Eagles

Oct 15, 2015
Jason Mrachina

  Over the weekend, I took my 7-year-old son Jack, to Conowingo Dam in northeastern Maryland for our now annual excursion. We gathered with hundreds of other people along the Harford County shore of the Susquehanna River.

Lots of the other visitors were photographers, but all of us had our eyes trained to the skies. For a moment, it was breathlessly quiet. And then Jack spotted what we came to see. And the whole crowd caught wind of it.

Together, we marveled as a stunning bald eagle soared over the river below the dam and then skimmed the surface of the water to snag a wriggling fish in its talons.

Hickory Trees

Oct 6, 2015
Ann Fisher

In my mind, hickory is the perfect tree for making axe handles and for smoking barbeque. But in my daughter Emma’s mind, hickory is the best tree for her long-desired tire swing. The grand old shagbark hickory on our property would, in fact, be perfect for all 3 uses.

Canada Geese

Oct 1, 2015
Shawn Nystrand

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 23, 2015
Dan Nydick

“Good intentions gone bad.”

What a perfect way to describe the spreading of the invasive autumn-olive throughout our country. Like the famous examples of kudzu and multi-flora rose, autumn-olive was once thought to be a beneficial plant. But now, it’s a major hassle and doing serious damage to our native ecosystems across the country.

Brian Henderson

Is there anything more “Chesapeake” than the blue crab? Probably not. Our bay’s signature crustacean is one of the most recognizable critters in our watershed.

As both predator and prey, blue crabs are a keystone species in our region’s food web. Blue crabs also support the most productive commercial and recreational fisheries in the bay, so they are a vital economic driver in our area.

John Flannery

Everyone knows the monarch butterfly. But do you know the tiger swallowtail? 

It is one of our listening area’s more easily recognizable butterflies due to its large size, bright yellow color and black tiger stripes. Swallowtails can be found all over the Baltimore area, especially near water, but also in meadows, gardens, parks and roadsides.

With a wingspan of as much as 4 and a half inches, tiger swallowtails are big and beautiful with additional blues and sometimes tiny dots of orange. But there is much more to this butterfly than meets the eye.


Sep 1, 2015
Wayne Thume

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.

Barred Owl

Aug 25, 2015
Ralph Daily

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.


Aug 19, 2015
Tracey Barnes, Smithsonian's National Zoo

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.

Debbie Ballentine

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 7, 2015
David Heise

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.

Shark Myths

Jul 28, 2015
Elias Levy/Flickr

  Sharks have a bad rap.  Especially lately as Sharknado 3 airs on cable, Jaws celebrates its 40th anniversary and a rash of shark attacks cropped up along the East Coast. Thanks to sensationalized stories and stereotyping, sharks have become feared rather than revered.

Painted Ladies

Jul 22, 2015
Bill Gracey/Flickr

The aptly named painted lady butterfly wears brush strokes and splatters of color on her wings. The top sides of her wings are oriole colors: orange with black blotches and white spots. Underneath, her wing color is a beautiful combination of pink, brown, olive, black and white.

House Sparrows

Jul 14, 2015
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

You can find house sparrows in most places there are homes or other buildings. Along with the European starling and the rock pigeon, also introduced species, house sparrows are some of our listening area's most common birds.

Save The Bees

Jul 7, 2015
Bob Peterson/Flickr

The media has recently stepped up coverage of a serious problem facing not only North America, but also anywhere bees are used for crop pollination.  Bee colonies around the world have been failing at an increasingly alarming rate over the last several years.

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission

What do purple loosestrife flowers, large fuzzy nutria, emerald ash beetles, chestnut tree blight and the nefarious snakehead fish have in common? They are all non-native, invasive species in our listening area. Invasive species can cause damage that far outweighs their numbers.

Luna Moths

Jun 23, 2015

Moths are often regarded as country-mouse cousins of butterflies. Moths are night-flying pests that tangle in our hair and eat holes in our clothing. Their relatives, the butterflies, steal all the glory, flitting through flowery fields and delicately sipping nectar from colorful flowers.