The Nature of Things | WYPR

The Nature of Things

 

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.

And that’s when I have to take a step back and remind myself of something really important: this animal is a tiny killing machine, and my hands shouldn’t be anywhere near its belly. This animal – so cute, so fluffy, and so completely psychotic – is the stoat, also known as an ermine or a short-tailed weasel.

There is nothing better than the sound of a group of children sharing a belly laugh. And that’s just what I heard a few ago while I was out on one of my weekly property walks at Irvine Nature Center. As I rounded the corner around a small grove of trees to our wetlands I saw a group of students and one of our naturalists standing on the bank of one of our ponds, staring intently at the surface of the water. What happened next was temporarily confusing: one student pointed at the surface of the water and the entire group roared with laughter. I didn’t want to intrude, but when I saw that same naturalist later I had to ask: what on earth was so funny out at the pond?! Her answer surprised me. . .turtle farts.

Merlins

Mar 3, 2020

Last fall I was lucky enough to sit-in on one of our nature center’s popular falconry classes. During the class, the instructor talked about the different kinds of birds that are commonly used by falconers. As she rattled off the list: red tailed hawks, red shouldered hawks, kestrels, and merlins one of the class participants stopped her and said, “Merlin? Like the wizard?”

As much as I would like to imagine a mythical Arthurian figured perched on the glove of one of our naturalists, the merlin is in fact a small bird of prey in the falcon family. And while they may not technically have any magical powers, their power and adaptability are incredible to behold.

Maple Sugaring

Feb 25, 2020

Over the weekend, my family and I had a great pancake breakfast.

I loaded my plate up with buttermilk goodness and doused each hot cake in warm butter and pure maple syrup. We all used a lot of the sweet stuff. So much so that we emptied the entire jug we’d brought back from our last trip to the Adirondacks.

Watching the last drop dribble out and onto my plate got the whole family talking about just how much work nature does to put delicious maple syrup on our forks and faces.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Emerald Ash Borer

Jan 14, 2020

There’s nothing more calming and downright medicinal than taking a long walk through some our region’s beautiful hardwood forests. Pacing among the trunks of old trees, listening to the breeze lightly blow the leaves or – in the winter – the winds bend the branches. It’s perfection, all brought to you by nature.

During one of my recent walks, I was sad to see so many of these old-growth trees with small, D-shaped holes in their bark. Noticing these marks brought me from “meditative calm” to “moderate existential panic” pretty quickly. Why? These trees – most of which are ash trees – had been infected by an invasive species so damaging that we could see the complete eradication of ash trees in our region as a result. The emerald ash borer has been in Maryland since 2015 and has wreaked havoc on our ash trees since.

Hibernation

Jan 7, 2020

With our short days, long nights and frigid temperatures, our listening area is firmly amidst the Maryland winter. 

It’s a great time of year for me to eat homemade comfort foods and nap by a cozy fire. My kids tease me that I’m like a bear in hibernation.

And surprisingly, that’s partially true! My winter habits may be bear-like, but neither of us hibernate.

Cranberries

Dec 31, 2019
Irvine Nature Center

If your family is like mine, the holiday season becomes a race to see how many traditional holiday foods we can take down between the end of November and the beginning of January. Menu planning becomes akin to an Olympic sport as we try to fit in everyone’s favorites: stuffing, turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, and more. There is one dish, however, that I feel is under-appreciated. It’s usually relegated to a sad, small dish somewhere in the corner of the table, with only a small serving spoon because…let’s face it…it’s not that popular. Whether you make it from scratch or serve it in a jellied, can-shaped cylinder, cranberry sauce has been a staple on American tables since before America was even America. And I’m here to tell you that the cranberry deserves your respect.

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.

This is a re-broadcast. 

Stink Bugs

Dec 17, 2019

No one, not even the talented naturalists I know, likes stink bugs.

Though they don’t sting like bees or bite like spiders, which each have their own groups of devoted human fans, a stink bug’s smelly defense has not garnered it any love.

Holly

Dec 10, 2019

As fall quickly turns to winter, our Maryland landscape is beginning to look very brown and a little gray. It can be difficult for many who enjoy the lush green scenery and warm temperatures of summer. There are, however, a few bright spots of the impending long winter...and I’m not talking about popular winter holidays. A number of gorgeous native plants remain in bloom during the wintertime and among the most bright and beautiful are our native holly plants. Maryland is lucky enough to have three native holly plants and while they all come from the same holly family, each plant is unique and special in its own way and all are wonderful options for both décor and landscaping.  

Ruffed Grouse

Dec 4, 2019

This time of year there are some things I've come to expect: getting out to enjoy the crisp cold air, the rush of holiday shopping, and getting Christmas carols stuck in my head. Last year, I was at home and couldn't quite shake The 12 Days Of Christmas. I stood in the kitchen finishing the last bars "...and a partridge in a pear tree…" when my daughter rounded the corner. "DAD," she exclaimed, mortified, "stop singing!" Once her level of embarrassment returned to regular dad-status she looked at me and asked, "What even is a partridge anyway?"

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!”

 

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.”

American Eel

Nov 5, 2019

There are some words that you don’t get to use very often and when you finally get the opportunity, it’s a big occasion. The word I’m about to throw down might be familiar to some of our listeners – especially those who are knowledgeable about fish. Are you ready?

Catadromous.

Fishers

Oct 30, 2019

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.

Irvine Nature Center

The beginning of fall marks the start of duck hunting season in Maryland. While not every Marylander is a duck hunter, the state has a rich tradition of hunting waterfowl – both for food and sport. While I understand the sporting aspect of duck hunting, I prefer to hunt for my dinner – and there is no duck I would rather eat than the canvasback duck.

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.

Bluefish

Oct 11, 2019

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.

White Oaks

Oct 1, 2019

The storm had already passed, so I was surprised to hear a loud ‘crack’ and then an imposing ‘thump’ outside.

Walking to my front yard, I noticed an enormous dead branch had fallen off a white oak tree and crashed onto the ground.

This massive tree has been growing quietly in my yard for many years. With a 4-foot diameter trunk and crown spanning more than 100 feet, it looks both ancient and majestic. But I rarely pay it much attention.

We’ve all heard the adage that earthworms are a gardener’s best friend. While you might be glad to see these slithery, small friends in your vegetable garden, all worms may not be as beneficial as we have been led to believe.

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. 

This is a re-broadcast. 

Kudzu

Sep 10, 2019

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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. 

Monarch butterflies are famous for their southward migration and northward return in summer from here to Mexico. This impressive feat spans three-to-four generations of the butterfly and takes several months.

But it’s not the only incredible fact about monarch butterflies. Yes, monarchs are beautiful and beneficial, but they’re cool right from the start of their lifecycles.

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