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.

There are some species of animals that hold a special place in my heart. I know that as an environmentalist I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but some species just have that certain something that pulls on my heart strings. Enter the bog turtle, whose name is not especially fancy, but who could definitely use a little help from us humans.

Ghost Pipe

Jul 9, 2019

Sometimes, walking through the woods can be an unsettling experience. The damp ground yields a little too much under my feet, releasing the smell of rotting plant matter and thick soil. The quiet space gives way to a sense of being…watched. On days like this, I find myself drawn to some of the more macabre aspects of our natural world. And of course, I keep my eyes peeled for ghosts. Not the spooky, supernatural variety, but the eerie, peculiar little plant called a ghost pipe, also commonly called an Indian pipe.

The ghost pipe is a part of the wild blueberry family. It is native to our area and can be found in unusual bunches in temperate regions of North America. It pops up from the damp leaf litter of the deciduous forest floor and is a startling white. Generally rare in occurrence, ghost pipes have also gone by the ghoulish nicknames corpse plant and death flower, as well as the much more intriguing name: fairy smoke. 

Poison Ivy

Jul 2, 2019

There’s not much about the weekly lawn and field maintenance I do that makes me nervous. Actually, I think there’s really just one thing. One amazing, yet harmful plant with three leaves, a furry vine a white-ish berries. Even using its 2-word common name makes me feel itchy. That’s right. It’s the mighty poison ivy.

Copperheads

Jun 25, 2019

There are 27 kinds of snakes in the state of Maryland, but only two are dangerous to humans.

While both species are in the pit viper family, the more common of the two is the northern copperhead and it was my favorite reptile when I was a youngster growing up in Baltimore City. I’d seen one staring back at me through the glass at the Maryland Zoo and was immediately transfixed.

The Nature Conservancy

As the tender buds of spring flower and bloom to make way for summer’s lush greenery, an annual battle begins anew. This clash pits our big human brains and thumbs against one of our region’s most prolific species. It has seemingly few boundaries, except that of an unattractive, tall wire fence. As summer nears, gardeners and landscapers across our state suit up for combat against hungry deer, who see their carefully-laid beds of flowers as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Irvine Nature Center

A few weeks ago, I visited a friend. We were sitting outside, enjoying the weather with a couple local brews while his daughter played nearby. Suddenly, his daughter yelled, “Dad! Come see this!”

We quickly got out of our chairs and hurried over.

“Look at this bug,” his daughter demanded, “When I poke it, it curls up!” 

My friend smiled and said, “That’s a potato bug, sweetheart. You find them under rocks and in the dirt and, you’re right, they do curl up when you poke them.” 

Luna Moths

Jun 4, 2019

Moths are often regarded as the less appealing cousins of butterflies.

Moths are seen as the night-flying pests that harass our summer porch lights 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.

But the incredible luna moth may be just the creature to change your perspective.

Coyotes

May 28, 2019

The Animal Care Team at Irvine Nature Center is always busy. When they’re not caring for Irvine’s 60-plus Animal Ambassadors, they’re fielding interesting finds and calls from our neighbors about injured or found animals.

A few weeks ago, some Good Samaritans entered the nature center with something small and furry cradled in the front of their hoodie. It was hard to see what the tiny brown fuzzball was, but it was clear from the cooing and “awwwwe-ing” that I heard that it was something adorable. When I was finally able to squeeze in among this animal’s new adoring fans, it was clear what the fuss was about. A coyote pup was sleeping soundly, its tiny belly rhythmically moving as it breathed. It had been found alone on the side of the road and I had never seen a pup that small in person. The whole experience got me thinking: coyotes are a relatively new arrival in our area, and their impact has been significant.

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.

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