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.

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.

Raccoons

Aug 7, 2018
National Geographic

A few weeks ago, I was tucked snuggly into my bed, eyes closed, attempting mightily to fall asleep when a loud crash echoed from outside my home. I sat up quickly, listening for more clues about what the sound could have been. I heard nothing. I sighed, knowing that my already vain attempts at sleep were now well and truly dashed. I set my feet on the floor to investigate the noise.

When I arrived downstairs, I grabbed my flashlight and walked out my door. In the dark of the night, the bright light shone on what appeared to be many, many eyes. As my own eyes adjusted to the light, I could see four raccoons staring intently back at me from the area surrounding the trash can they had knocked over. 

Irvine Nature Center/Facebook

A few days ago, one of our teachers pitched me an idea for a weekend program, something called “forest bathing.” I’ll admit I was skeptical at first as she listed the benefits promised by this Japanese practice: reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and increased mindfulness. How could “taking a bath” in the forest increase your well-being and how exactly does it work?

Edible Plants

Jul 24, 2018
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.

I’ve spoken often about the impact that our ever-more-connected human world has on our native plant and animal species. In the case of invasive species, human efforts to connect to new lands and new people can result in the introduction of a plant, animal, or insect that can often produce devastating consequences for native species. The battle against invasive species is real, and environmental education organizations like Irvine Nature Center are on the front lines.

For some invasive plants in particular, the best way to beat them is to eat them. This is especially true for garlic mustard, an invasive plant that you can find throughout our area.

Bog Turtle

Jul 10, 2018

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.

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.

Meadow Voles

Jun 19, 2018
The New York Times

One of the most significant benefits to my position as Executive Director of Irvine Nature Center is access to the 210 acres of wild land we have here—and the incredible species that call it home. Our meadow, a wide open space filled with tall grasses and wildflowers, is a prime location to see large birds of prey on the hunt. Last week, I went out to the meadow for a walk after lunch. There were a number of hawks circling the space, waiting to swoop down and grab their prey. When one decided to strike, I saw it dive quickly and come back up from the grasses with something small, furry, and brown. I initially thought it was a mole, but moles spend so much of their time in their underground burrows, it would be surprising that one would be caught so easily above ground. Plus, this would have been a very small mole. It was then I remembered the meadow vole, a small rodent that is native to our area and quite prevalent. I’m sure that’s what this hawk grabbed for his late afternoon lunch.

BBC

I was having a conversation recently about these larger predators like coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions, whose territories are constantly changing in response to human decisions. With fewer and fewer wild, open spaces for these animals to hunt, it’s becoming increasingly common for us to see these species where we wouldn’t expect to – in our parks, our yards, and our highways. The plight of the mountain lion is especially interesting, as human interference has significantly impacted this species for centuries.

University of Maryland Extension Service

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!” So 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.” Cue the sound of a record scratch on this idyllic scene. A potato bug? Surely my friend was confused. I didn’t want to contradict him in front of his child, so when we sat back down I said casually, “You called that a potato bug. I always called it a pill bug. I’ve heard it called a roly-poly…but not a potato bug.” “It’s a potato bug,” my friend retorted. I could see this wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided to drop it and read more about it later. As it turns out, we were both correct.

Dickcissel

May 22, 2018
All About Birds

I’m always on the lookout for our native plants and animals, and bright and early in the morning is a great time to see some of our most unusual species. Last week, I was up early and enjoying a cup of coffee before I started my day. I looked out my window at our birdfeeder, where a number of small songbirds had gathered for breakfast. One bird stood out from the rest with bright yellow markings. Initially, I thought this bird might be special – a rare find for our area. I looked for the rare bird’s markings – a back the same dusty brown as our common sparrows, with a bright yellow breast. It would also have a yellow “mask” around its eyes, making it look like a sparrow that was dressed up like a super hero. The bird I thought I saw was a dickcissel, a species that is now more commonly found in the Midwest than here on the East Coast. Alas, this time, my bleary morning eyes were just misidentifying a goldfinch.

Fungus Gnats

May 15, 2018
Planet Natural

Last week, I talked about one of our unsung insect heroes, the house centipede. This got me thinking about other small insects in our natural world that probably don’t get the attention or respect they deserve. Many of these creatures are very small and in many cases, are seen as a nuisance to us humans who just want to enjoy a nice day outside without insect interruption. Even though we view many insects as pests, their presence is an important link in the natural chain that ties all species together. So, I thought what better bug to feature than one who is instrumental in the reproduction of one of our native plant species, jack-in-the-pulpit? The insect I have in mind is the fungus gnat and, with a name like that, I think it could use some positive PR.

insectidentification.org

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.

Lockwood Gardens

A few nights ago, I was walking my dogs and enjoying a peaceful evening stroll. The breeze was light and the air was just starting to chill -- it was a perfect spring night. Suddenly without warning, I started to hear what sounded like small projectiles hitting the large boxwood next to me. I stopped and stood silently -- listening for the source of the sound. I continued to hear the repeated "tunk, tunk" of something hitting the tree. I thought for a moment that someone with very poor aim might be shooting at me with a sling shot or pellet gun. I decided to move along quickly and head home. When I got home, I immediately shared my experience with my wife. "It was probably just the wisteria seed pods popping," she said. Confused, I suggested that we sit down and research it together and sure enough, wisteria pods do that!

Ohio State University

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.

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