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.

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.

Brian Ralphs/flickr

I consider myself to be an experienced fisherman. I spent most of my childhood with a fishing rod in my hands and I've braved extreme weather in hopes of catching that "legendary" fish. Occasionally, I will take my two children, Jack and Emma, to a nearby lake or pond where we spend all day casting lines. One day during a fishing expedition, we ran into some serious competition. Our challenger had long, skinny legs, a graceful neck, and the ability to grab fish straight out of the water!

FRIENDS OF THE PRAIRIE LEARNING CENTER AND NEAL SMITH NWR/FLICKR

The end of summer is often announced by the arrival of Goldenrod, the yellow clusters of tall stemmed flowers popping up everywhere. If you’re like me, you dread this change of season not because of the colder weather settling in but because of the dreadful allergies it brings with it. My son and I both suffer from seasonal allergies and this time of year can be the worst. Our sneezing, wheezing, coughing, and itching was thought to be a result of those yellow flowers we’ve seen sprouting up everywhere. However, while Goldenrod does produce pollen, it is falsely accused of your seasonal suffering.

Many assume that nature is at its peak and glory only in the sunny seasons of spring and summer. But if you observe carefully, you’ll find that autumn has quite a few things you thought were reserved only for warmer months.

Autumn brings cooler and shorter days, but wildlife activity has not ceased or even slowed. The most magnificent sign of the season is the flourish of color and activity that bursts out during this time of year.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Earlier this season, an invasion of ants came flooding into our mud room. They came in two by two, three by three, and eventually just in a big army. They set up shop in some gardening equipment I’d meant to put away but forgotten about. Most people’s first reaction would be to get ant killer from the store. Just a couple minutes of spraying would kill them and keep them from coming back.

But spraying them wasn’t on my mind at all.

Did you know that over 95% of the insects aren’t really pests? That means that the great majority of creepy crawlies we swat, squash and flush are actually beneficial.

Gray Squirrels

Sep 11, 2018
Maryland DNR

I recently visited a class at the Nature Preschool at Irvine and got to see the 3 to 5 year olds during some imaginative outdoor play. A few of the kids were digging small holes in the dirt, depositing acorns and then giggling.

“We’re playing squirrels,” one of them told me before scampering away through the autumn leaves. The other kids gave me all kinds of great details they’d learned about squirrels. For example, one little boy told me that a group of squirrels is in fact called a scurry! They were all so excited about them, it got me thinking about these busy, bushy-tailed rodents.

FRIENDS OF THE PRAIRIE LEARNING CENTER AND NEAL SMITH NWR/FLICKR

The end of summer is often announced by the arrival of Goldenrod, the yellow clusters of tall stemmed flowers popping up everywhere. If you’re like me, you dread this change of season not because of the colder weather settling in but because of the dreadful allergies it brings with it. My son and I both suffer from seasonal allergies and this time of year can be the worst. Our sneezing, wheezing, coughing, and itching was thought to be a result of those yellow flowers we’ve seen sprouting up everywhere. However, while Goldenrod does produce pollen, it is falsely accused of your seasonal suffering.

Chris Luczkow/flickr

My kids used to gather a bucket full of plants and twigs they foraged from our backyard and offer it to me and my wife as “soup.” While most of those ingredients were inedible, you’d be surprised how many were edible and rich in vitamins and minerals! Their favorite food to serve, and most easily harvested, was Dandelions. I can remember the shock on their faces when I put the whole thing, stem and flower, in my mouth, chewed and then swallowed.

Bats

Aug 21, 2018
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife

Sometimes when I mention that I have a bat house on my home, I see people visibly shudder. I can understand that reaction because bats, just like 8-legged arachnids and slithering reptiles, have a sordid on-screen history that makes a lot of people really uncomfortable.

Whole horror movie franchises have been built from our fear of bats. Vampire bats. Sewer bats. I even remember a grocery store tabloid with a terrifying image of a child with large, pointed ears and sharp incisors that read, “BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE.” No wonder we’re all a little nervous about them. But what I tell people who are bat-averse is to “try to think of them as furry nocturnal birds clearing the skies of the insects that spread diseases and damage our crops and gardens.” That’s because bats are the major predator performing a true ecological miracle every night. Just one bat can eat over a thousand insects each night. They work the night shift so other insect-eaters can get some shut eye.

National Geographic

As a former Latin teacher, I’m always interested in the evolution of the English language. Civilizations that we consider to be ancient (or at least unbelievably old) still shape the words and phrases that we use every day. Those ancient people developed some pretty interesting ways of communicating what they were seeing and how they were experiencing the world around them. I’m always struck by the way that cultures from around the world have influenced our modern English language – and the animal kingdom is a great place to see language in action.

Pages