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.

Sapsuckers

May 21, 2019

On a walk through the forest you might spot rows of shallow holes in tree bark. In our listening area, this is likely the work of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, an enterprising woodpecker that laps up the leaking sap with its specialized, brush-tipped tongue.

A few weeks ago, I was getting ready for bed after a long day; I was looking forward to tucking into the covers and the book I had been reading. I turned off the overhead light, turned on my reading light, and put my head back against my pillow. When I looked up at the ceiling, I saw the shadow of a massive bug. It had more legs than I wanted to take the time to count and must have been at least three inches long. This was not the relaxing evening picture I had imagined moments before, but I knew exactly what I was looking at—a house centipede.

Hummingbirds

May 7, 2019

Weeding in my garden this weekend, I saw a tiny flash of green and red speed past the brim of my hat. As I looked up, I just caught wind of a miniscule bird darting toward our hanging feeders. And before I could even get my son’s attention to catch sight of this iridescent acrobat, it was gone to the next source of nectar.

The glittering tones I noted as the bird turned to leave were a dead giveaway. It was one of the season’s first ruby throated hummingbirds.

Trout

Apr 30, 2019

If you’ve ever met me, you know that I love fly fishing. Spending the morning on the tranquil waters of Gunpowder Falls has to be one of my top ways to unwind – and springtime is a great time for trout fishing.

Trout are one of the few animals in our area where non-native species are not only available and accepted – but managed, stocked, and encouraged. There are three types of trout that can be found in Maryland waterways, but only one is a native species.

If you like oysters, you have lots of choices this season. You can buy a dozen Choptank Sweets, or you can go Skippy Dippers. The Hongatonks are plump and juicy, and the Sweet Jesus might become a new habit at least if not a new religion. Or you can go wild – a dozen of the Chesapeake’s best, harvested as they’ve always been by the watermen who have worked the bay for centuries.

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, there was one oyster, and you could only eat it in a month that ended with an R. But aquaculture oysters can be eaten all year, and they are gaining in popularity. Here to tell us more about them is Rona Kobell, science writer for Maryland Sea Grant and longtime Chesapeake Bay reporter – for the Bay Journal and before that The Baltimore Sun.

A few weeks ago, I was out later than usual attending a dinner. The food was delicious, but I was eager to get home and rest for the evening. When I pulled into my driveway, it was clear that our outdoor flood light had burned out. I hopped out of my car and, not wanting to trip on the way to my front door, I turned on the flashlight function on my cell phone. I started to walk past my garden when I stopped abruptly.

I was out for a walk recently when I thought I saw a small bird flying in the distance. Its wings were a purple-ish brown color with buttery yellow edges that were bordered by bright blue spots. This bird seemed like it was in no particular rush to be anywhere—it was just flying around aimlessly. No native bird I could think of had coloring like this, and birds are unlikely to fly without direction. It was then that I realized I wasn’t looking at a small bird at all—I was instead watching the flight of a large mourning cloak butterfly. The arrival of mourning cloak butterflies in our region is one of the ways that our natural world tells us that spring time is here to stay.

This is a rebroadcast. 

Irvine Nature Center

Eastern bluebirds are small, round thrushes – most weighing no more than 32 grams. They flit and fly quickly throughout the landscape, pausing to rest on tree branches and standing out to our human eyes due to their rare blue color. It’s no wonder that they have become a symbol of happiness and cheer – they really are a delight to see.

At Irvine, we’ve installed over 60 of wooden bird boxes that are the perfect size and shape for bluebirds, so it’s common to see bustling bluebird parents collecting nesting materials and food across our property.

But a question was posed to me recently and it got me thinking: are bluebirds really blue?

Irvine Nature Center

At Irvine Nature Center, every day is different. Some days include trail walks and ground maintenance, while other days include exciting animal encounters with native animal species. Last week, I was lucky enough to have a day that included the latter.

Irvine’s Marketing Manager and I were at her desk discussing a few upcoming projects. I glanced down briefly to the seam where two cubicle walls met and was greeted by two very tiny, shining black eyes. I stepped back, unsure of what, exactly was staring out at me. The shy creature moved forward slightly, producing two fuzzy legs. “Oh hey,” I exclaimed, “A jumping spider!”

Stoats

Mar 19, 2019
Irvine Nature Center

When it comes to incredible native animal species, Maryland has an embarrassment of riches. We have over 100 species of native mammals that grace our forests, meadows, wetlands, and waterways. And while I love ALL of our state’s native mammals, there is one that sets my heart a-flutter. It’s an animal that I have seen only a handful of times in my travels, but each time I see it I’m struck by its appearance. It’s just so…so…CUTE. This mammal has two big, brilliant black eyes set in its tiny, furry little face. It has a delicate pink nose and incredibly soft fur. In fact, when I look at pictures of this animal standing upright on its hind legs, I’m struck by an almost magnetic urge to give it a belly rub.

Salamanders

Mar 12, 2019
Irvine Nature Center

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.

Just 8 inches long, the spotted salamander is blueish-black with sunny yellow spots. On its underside, this amphibian is a blush shade of pink. Two feet, each with four toes, hang off either side of a snake-like body. And its snout is wide with a smile like a frog’s, with tiny bulging black eyes like a pug.

I was driving my son home from a school a few weeks ago when he posed me an interesting question. “Dad,” he said, “I heard that scientists might be able to clone a woolly mammoth. Is that true?”

Not being a genetic engineer myself, I wasn’t certain about the specifics about mammoth cloning efforts, but I had read about attempts to bring back these behemoth animals in various newspapers over the last few years. And while Hollywood tells us that reintroducing prehistoric species might not be the most well-informed decision that humans could make, my son’s question did get me thinking about a local fruit that is relic from the same period that mammoths roamed the Earth. The fruit in question is the Osage orange, and you will often see it strewn by the side of the road in our region. If you haven’t heard of the Osage orange, you might know it by one of its other common names: the hedge apple, the horse apple, or the bow-wood.

Witch Hazel

Feb 26, 2019

It’s not every day that I get really excited about a plant. Not that plants aren’t wonderful – they’re beautiful, useful, productive, and one of the reasons that life is able to exist on Earth – but some plants are truly incredible. I’ve talked on past episodes about seed pods that explode, plants that offer both animals and humans specific healing capabilities, and plants with uniquely beautiful flowers. The plant I’m going to talk about today has all of these characteristics and more – it’s like the super hero of cool native plants. The plant I’m referring to is witch hazel and in the plant world, it’s the equivalent of Prince: super talented, super cool, and universally appreciated for being awesome.

I was walking in the woods last week when I saw a small, furry flash race across the ground. It was too small to be a squirrel, and a little too big to be a mouse. I thought that I might have seen a mole, but this animal had small feet and lacked the flappy scuttling motion that a mole’s oversized feet would make. I stood there, puzzled by what I had seen. Was it a rat? What was it? Upon further reflection, I remembered the animal’s long snout and beady eyes. It was then that I realized I hadn’t seen a mouse or a rat or a mole…I had seen a shrew.

This is an encore broadcast. 

Irvine Nature Center

Last week while I was out for a hike, I happened across a pair of swans swimming serenely in a wetland pond. I stopped and watched the pair, marveling at their quiet grace. Later that afternoon, I considered exactly which species of swan I had seen...

This is an encore broadcast. 

There's something truly awe-inspiring about looking up at the night sky during the crisp, cold nights of mid-winter. Stargazing is as old as humankind itself -- the practice connects us to a time long ago when our ancestors looked up at the same sky and saw both divinity and functionality. They planned their future journeys, harvests, and lives by what they read in the sky. 

This time of year, the night sky tends to be the clearest and there’s less light pollution. Though the evenings might be cold, in winter constellations like the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, are easier to see and identify.

So on the clearest nights, I’ll bundle up, fill a mug with steaming hot tea and set off in search of darkness and a deep connection to our past.

Recently, I was posed a question about hypothetical superpowers: would I rather have the ability to fly or be able to make myself invisible. To me, the answer is a no-brainer: of course I'd love to fly. I can only imagine the sheer joy I would experience as the wind rushed over my face. I'd speed through the air, making quick work of my morning commute. Flying would be living the dream. Sadly, until I'm bitten by a mutant spider or am abducted by the government for genetic research, I'll be stuck in rush hour traffic like everyone else. I'll also be jealous of our local flying squirrels, adorable mammals who have this "fly-through-the-air-with-the-greatest-of-ease-thing figured out.

Chipmunks

Jan 15, 2019
Irvine Nature Center

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.

Last summer, I was out for a walk to clear my head. The sun was shining and I was lost in thought, so I didn’t take notice when my hand casually brushed up against a plant. I immediately regretted my lack of attention because suddenly, my whole hand began to sting and burn. As the burning subsided, it was replaced by an intense itching as my skin turned red and produced small, raised welts. I had inadvertently run myself right into the leaves of a stinging nettle, a plant that packs a whole lot of histamines and toxins into its leaves and stem.

Excuse me waiter, there’s a pea crab in my oyster…If you’ve ever opened an oyster and found a little orange crab inside, consider yourself lucky! Many seafood lovers have called this tiny, spider-like crab a delicious surprise for many years. In fact, an article in The New York Times from 1913 recalls a story of a restaurant patron who sent his soup back with disgust upon finding a small orange “critter” in it. He was not aware that the tiny crab that had turned his stomach was a highly-prized delicacy - back in 1913, pea crabs sold for $2 a portion, which is roughly $50 today! Even George Washington was well documented as a fan of this fine food. So, what exactly is a pea crab?

Irvine Nature Center/Facebook

One of my favorite parts of winter is the snowbirds. No, not the people who spend the cold months in Florida each year... I’m talking about the beautiful, arctic birds like Tundra Swans, Snowy Owls, and Red Crossbills. Some of my most rewarding birdwatching has occurred in the winter months when bare trees and quiet parks create the perfect condition for seeing different species of birds.

Did you know there is a creature in the Chesapeake Bay that can filter up to 50 gallons of water in one day? Perhaps one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake, the eastern oyster, is an essential part of the bay’s ecosystem. Their powerful vacuum-like ability to filter large amounts of water helps create a balanced ecosystem where many species can thrive.

Wood Ducks

Dec 11, 2018
One Day Closer/flickr

Last week, while walking by the wetlands at Irvine, I saw a young male “dressed” elegantly and walking alongside the water. He wore chestnut on his body and iridescent green on top of his head.  A white collar extended along the side of his neck and a second one ran up each cheek. His bright red eyes glanced over at me as he descended into the water. Of course, this impressive attire wasn’t for my admiration. He was hoping to attract a female. This well-dressed creature is one of the most recognizable birds because of his decorative markings, and his scientific name, Aix Sponsa, echoes his beauty. The latin word “sponsa”, meaning betrothed, refers to this bird’s striking plumage as he appears to be dressed for a wedding. However, you probably know this dapper duck as a male wood duck.

JASON DEAN/FLICKR

As I was leaving work a few days ago, I decided to take a walk around the property to enjoy what was left of the daylight. As the days get shorter and colder, I have to make an extra effort to get outdoors. I started to walk down the trail, pulling my hat on tightly and zipping my coat up close around my chin. As I walked past brightly colored red and orange trees, I thought about how just a week ago the leaves were still green. Although all trees have sap that can be used to make syrup, Maple trees have a higher sugar content than any other tree.  For this reason, the Sugar Maple is the primary tree used to make syrup, thus giving it its name, maple syrup.

Fermentation

Nov 27, 2018

One of my favorite ways to unwind after work is sitting on my deck and enjoying a fermented beverage. Okay, I’ll admit, fermented beverage is just a fancy way to describe beer, and I might be stretching it a bit when I try to convince my wife that beer is good for you. But, fermented foods and drinks DO provide us with many health benefits and some types of fermented foods can even aide in digestion. 

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.

Jay Sturner/flickr

I’ve noticed on my drive to work that the leaves are starting to turn bright red and orange. It makes me happy to know that my favorite season has finally arrived. But, did you know that for some animals, this time of year can be dangerous?  As we approach colder days, white-tailed deer will cross the road in search of food or a mate, making them vulnerable to car strikes. This is made worse by the fact that deer are naturally more active during the late evening and early morning, when there is less light. Drivers should take extra precaution during deer mating season as a car accident can be dangerous to both the deer and humans.

About six weeks ago, I was driving near Irvine Nature Center when my son, Jack, spotted several large birds with dark feathers along the side of the road. “Are those vultures?” he asked. To my surprise, the bulky, waddling creatures were wild turkeys, picking at leftover corn in a field that had recently been harvested.

Wild turkeys, once nearly extinct in Maryland, are back, and at least one wild turkey roams the property at Irvine. The resurgence of this iconic American bird is especially gratifying this time of year, when the perfume of roasted turkey fills our homes as we celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. 

 

First, a small reality check.

Kudzu

Oct 23, 2018
Melissa McMasters/flickr

Driving along 695, it’s easy to ignore the greenery beyond the concrete medians and metal guardrails.

But that’s just where one of our area’s most troublesome invasive species hides and thrives. It’s so troublesome, in fact, that residents in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have called it “the scourge that ate the south.”

Kudzu, a strong woody vine with rather lovely purple flowers, is a plant native to Asia. It was intentionally introduced to North America at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876 as an ornamental bush and an effortless, efficient shade producer.

Fifty years later, the vine was rebranded by the newly created Soil Erosion Service as a way to aid the crumbling farming industry during the tragic Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression. The government gave southern farmers eight dollars an hour to sow the topsoil with kudzu, then seen as a plant that would be a savior to the South, and heal the erosion crisis. The ensuing cultivation covered over one million acres, equivalent to the size of Rhode Island, with kudzu.

Once the plant took hold, there was no going back.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

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.

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