Wild Ideas nature column

Wild Ideas: eBird and the Great Backyard Bird Count

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Feb. 26
During the Great Backyard Bird Count, citizens are invited to submit counts of birds they see, even those found at bird feeders, such as these common winter residents.

This year Pam Owen joined other Rappahannock County residents in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a wildlife survey that takes an annual “snapshot” of the distribution and abundance of birds.
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Wild Ideas: $3.2 million to restore monarch butterfly habitat

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Feb. 19
Adult monarchs feed on a variety of nectar plants, including this Liatris pycnostachya, a native of the Midwest, at Bruce and Susan Jones’ naturalized property near the town of Washington.

Help for the beleaguered monarch butterfly is on the way through a new cooperative initiative by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and two nongovernmental conservation organizations, but will it be enough?
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Wild Ideas: Be careful or bee stung

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Feb. 12
Although less than an inch long, bald-faced hornets are fierce predators and defenders of their nests.

Pam Owen’s passion for nature was tested last summer when she inadvertently entered into a war with hymenopterans — members of one of the largest orders of insects, comprising ants, sawflies, bees and wasps.
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Wild Ideas: When food is plentiful, animals cache in

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Feb. 5
In snowy weather, when food may be hard to find, having some cached in the ground, in low holes in trees or other places may tide them over.

When foxes keep killing prey after they’ve had a full meal, are they being wasteful or just preparing for hard times? Find out the answer in this week’s “Wild Ideas.”
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Wild Ideas: Are robins still harbingers of spring?

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Jan. 29
Although they’re considered harbingers of spring, when they are commonly spotted pulling earthworms out of yards, many American robins overwinter in Virginia, relying mainly on berries from introduced ornamental plants to tide them over until spring.

Robins were long thought to be harbingers of spring, but changes in their environment means they’re ranging further north in the winter.
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Wild Ideas: Deer down, but the sky is not falling

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Jan. 22
Acorns collected on Aaron Mountain, Castleton.

When fewer deer were spotted this fall, fingers pointed to coyotes, disease and more liberal hunting seasons as decreasing deer populations. But the main factor in why fewer deer were seen may surprise you.
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Wild Ideas: Where are the squirrels?

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Jan. 15
Fewer gray and fox squirrels were spotted in 2014, but are they disappearing?

Fewer squirrels were sighted this year, so are they disappearing? At the heart of the mystery is a complex food web and fluctuating acorn crop.
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Wild Ideas: Scatological ramblings

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Jan. 8
The tiny and properly named wintergreen plant.

While wildlife watching is more limited during the winter, you can discover who has been out and about by what they leave behind, and monarch butterflies may be headed to the endangered species list, in this week’s Wild Ideas column.
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Wild Ideas: Gaeaf followup

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Jan. 1
TC is among the cats available for adoption at RappCats.

After Pam Owen’s Wild Ideas column about helping a stray cat engendered a few heated comments online, she clarifies the plan for him.
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Wild Ideas: Of Gaeaf, Golda and birds

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Dec. 18, 2014
Gaeaf, the stray male cat.

Pam Owen contemplates what to do with a stray cat that’s been hanging around.
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Wild Ideas: Are animals smarter than we think?

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Dec. 11, 2014
Some ants farm their food, like these ants, which protect aphids in return for harvesting the “honeydew” their livestock excrete.

Just how smart are we as a species? Pam Owen explores some of the amazing things other species can do in this week’s Wild Ideas column.
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Wild Ideas: Becoming the animal

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Dec. 4, 2014
From original by Dori via Wikimedia

Pam Owen usually goes into nature armed with a camera and other encumbrances, but sometimes meeting nature with only the clothes on our backs provides bigger rewards — a chance to become another species, if only for a few minutes.
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Wild Ideas: A little snowbird is back

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Nov. 20, 2014
Although it is only four inches long, “per unit weight, the Winter Wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster,” according to AllAboutBirds.org.

Last week Rappahannock got its first dusting of snow, but our annual avian winter visitors arrived earlier, including a tiny brown bird displaying unexpected behavior at Pam Owen’s house.
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Wild Ideas: In the news: good guide, bad bug

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Nov. 13, 2014
Despite its beauty, the Asian spotted lanterfly, sighted in Pennsylvania this fall, could follow in the footsteps of the brown marmorated stink bug.

News recently arrived in Pam Owen’s email inbox of a new shrub and vine identification guide from the Virginia Department of Forestry and a report of yet another threatening bug invading Pennsylvania.
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Wild Ideas: This autumn’s gold-medal foliage

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Nov. 6, 2014
In the fall, sassafras leaves can stay green or turn yellow or red, depending on the amount of light that hits the leaves.

With wind and rain now rapidly stripping the leaves from deciduous trees, time is running out to enjoy this autumn's spectacular fall color. Pam Owen explores how and why leaves change color this time of year.
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Wild Ideas: Cool weather brings stick insects and furry cats

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Oct. 30, 2014
With its slim body, this male northern walking stick’s head is on the move, its antennae out.

Although more species of insects are out and about during the warm days of summer, some of the most interesting ones show up in the fall. Two appeared in the last couple of weeks that sent Pam Owen to her references to try to identify them.
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Wild Ideas: Fine weather and great fall outings

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Oct. 16, 2014
Visitors to the ACF walk up Race Track Hill to see the view of the SCBI campus below and the Blue Ridge beyond.

Pam Owen and her brother Dana recently took advantage of some intermittently fine fall weather to enjoy the Autumn Conservation Festival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and to hike in Shenandoah National Park and the Chester F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area.
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Wild Ideas: Planting the right tree at the right time

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Oct. 9, 2014
A white oak sports its fall colors. This beautiful, long-lived native tree provides the fattiest acorns, a favorite of many wildlife species.

Leaves are already starting to turn color and are expected to peak soon. With winter approaching, it might seem counterintuitive to plant trees, but this is actually the perfect time.
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Wild Ideas: A newly noticeable native mantis

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Oct. 2, 2014
This female Carolina mantis (spotted waiting for prey among dogwood berries) appears to be missing the last segments of its forelegs, or the legs are folded into the next segment so tightly they seem to have disappeared.

Over the course of just a few days, Pam Owen had several serendipitous encounters with an insect new to her — the Carolina mantis. After years without a single sighting, she glimpsed three in four days.
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Wild Ideas: Sorting out the sumacs as summer subsides

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Sept. 18, 2014
Smooth sumac can start turning color as early as August, and by mid-October can take on a variety of hues, as with the smooth sumac above. Photo by Pam Owen.

Sumacs spark a wide range of reactions, from love to loathing to confusion. That confusion comes mainly from trying to sort out the three larger, most common species here — the smooth, staghorn and winged sumacs, which can easily be confused with each other and with trees.
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Wild Ideas: As summer winds down, some species crank up

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Sept. 11, 2014
A tufted thyatirid or lettered habrosyne moth caterpillar on one of its hosts, the American hornbeam.

Many animals have finished reproducing for the year and are fattening up to overwinter or make their way south, while most plants have flowered and are starting to fade. But while the humid doldrums of summer’s end drag on, reproduction continues for some species.
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Wild Ideas: Beating the dog days by diving into fishes

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Sept. 4, 2014
“Freshwater Fishes of Virginia” explores the commonwealth’s 210 fish species. The cover illustration, from a watercolor by Lora L. Giessler, is courtesy of the American Fisheries Society.

With the dog days of August finally settling in last week, Pam Owen decided to visit the Rappahannock County Library’s Conservation Collection and dive into “Freshwater Fishes of Virginia,” an impressive reference that explores the 210 fish species in Virginia.
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Wild Ideas: Cool, damp weather brings ’shroom bloom 

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Aug. 21, 2014
This hemlock varnish shelf mushroom, photographed along the Limberlost trail in Shenandoah National Park in May, is big and bold, thus easy to identify.

Although you can find mushrooms pretty much year round in our area, especially in shady forests, spring and fall are the prime times for ’shrooming because of the usually cool, damp weather — especially as this summer has been cooler and damper than most.
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Wild Ideas: Butterfly numbers fall dramatically from last year

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Aug. 14, 2014
Last year the Rappahannock butterfly count reported more silvery checkerspot butterflies than any other NABA butterfly count in 2013, but the numbers fell dramatically this year.

After a steady rise in the total number of butterflies recorded during four years of the Rappahannock butterfly count, breaking records for two species, numbers fell dramatically this year. One familiar species, in particular, accounts for much of the boom and bust.
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Wild Ideas: Celebrating the underappreciated moth

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Aug. 7, 2014
Specimens of female (top) and male (bottom) io moths. The large io moth spreads its wings when disturbed to reveal spots that look like owl eyes, likely an adaptation to ward off predators.

In settling down to enjoy Science Friday last week, Pam Owen was surprised to learn it was National Moth Week, which explored some of the reasons why moths are the Cinderallas of the lepidoptera world.
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Wild Ideas: Some frogs are landlubbers

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July 31, 2014
A small pickerel frog enjoys the moisture and the insects it attracts near the outside water tap at the author’s house.

We often think of frogs as being aquatic creatures, but many spend some or most of their lives on land, returning to water only to breed. Among these is the pickerel frog, which often turns up in Pam Owen’s yard.
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Wild Ideas: Let me describe the bird song I heard

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July 24, 2014
Since the wood thrush normally sings its hauntingly beautiful song high in the forest canopy, spotting it can be problematic, and describing the song is equally challenging.

When Pam Owen recently awoke to what seemed like an unusual variation on a wood thrush’s song, it led her to contemplate the vagaries of trying to describe and memorize bird vocalizations.
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Wild Ideas: Summer wildflowers and their insect fans

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July 10, 2014
One of the many native pollinators of purple coneflowers is the color-coordinated perplexing bumblebee.

Now that summer is truly here, Pam Owen headed out to see what is blooming in the meadows and along the roadsides of Rappahannock. She found a number of brightly colored blossoms, and a variety of pollinators drawn to them.
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Wild Ideas: The decline of the monarch

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July 3, 2014
An adult monarch on butterfly weed, in the milkweed genus. While monarch caterpillers will eat only milkweed, the adults feed on nectar and fruit from a variety of plants.

Pam Owen explores the complex life of the iconic monarch butterfly and the reasons for its 15-year population decline.
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Wild Ideas: Life goes on

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June 26, 2014
A harvestman drags a struggling eight-spotted forester moth to a suitable dining spot.

Nature is amazing and endlessly fascinating, but not always pretty. Within it lie the forces of destruction as well as creation, as it constantly reminds us — and not always in subtle ways.
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Wild Ideas: Entertaining the indoor cat with cat TV

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June 19, 2014
Golda at rest, after a full schedule of cat TV, ball swatting and rug surfing.

Entertaining a cat can be not only cheap, but easy. All you need is aluminum foil, a throw rug or two and windows — or what Pam Owen thinks of as cat TV.
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Wild Ideas: The sartorial splendor of the golden-backed snipe fly

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June 12, 2014
A female golden-backed snipe fly has markings that mimic a bee or wasp, a common adaptation among flies and some other insects to avoid predators. However, her short, straight antennae and single pair of wings blow her cover.

While many male songbirds can easily catch our eye this time of year, invertebrates emerging after winter are easier to overlook but can be just as wonderful. Pam Owen noticed the sartorial splendor of one insect, the golden-backed snipe fly, the last week in May.
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Wild Ideas: Harbingers of summer

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June 5, 2014
A handsome male eastern box turtle with bright-orange markings crosses the author’s driveway.

Pam Owen saw her first fireflies of the year on Memorial Day weekend, and they were hardly alone. The fireflies’ nightly displays are just one of the many harbingers of the upcoming summer season.
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Wild Ideas: Small squirrels, shrinking habitat

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May 29, 2014
Although leaving out bird feeders can attract some very unwelcome visitors, a bit of seed left out here in Rappahannock can attract a common yet rarely seen nocturnal denizen of Virginia’s forests, the southern flying squirrel.

Learning about a species often starts on what seems to be a simple path toward a mundane life, only to become a much more complex journey into a world with fascinating interconnections. Pam Owen began such a journey recently when Larry Sherertz sent her some flying-squirrel photos.
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Wild Ideas: Of turtles and dragonflies

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May 22, 2014
A boldly colored male box turtle explores the forest floor.

This week Pam Owen headed into the forest near her house, where she found a box turtle and dragonfly that led her to contemplate how different species perceive the world and how much we can learn by slowing down and just watching nature unfold.
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Wild Ideas: The Sharks and Jets rumble on the deck

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May 15, 2014
Male red-breasted grosbeaks fend off a blue jay at a bird feeder during a pouring rain.

In an effort to build up her stock of bird photos, Pam Owen decided to put some seed out on her deck to lure a few birds into shooting range, only to be surprised at the variety and the intensity with which some tried to claim the banquet as their own.
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Wild Ideas: Villain or hero, the brown-headed cowbird is unique

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April 24, 2014
A male American goldfinch, in his bright-yellow breeding plumage, shares a bird feeder with a drabber female brown-headed cowbird, apparently unaware or unconcerned that cowbirds like to lay their eggs in finch nests.

We humans have a propensity for labeling animals as heroes and villains — but usually this reflects more on us than on the animals. Such is the case with the cowbird. Often seen as a villain, to some extent it has become one, thanks to the dramatic changes we’ve made to the land.
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Wild Ideas: The spring weather rapport

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April 17, 2014
Spotted salamander egg masses, about six inches long each, appeared recently in a former concrete trout tank near where the author lives. The clarity or cloudiness of the jelly surrounding the eggs comes from genetic variations among the salamanders.

Spring may have gotten a late and fitful start, but by the first week in April amphibian eggs started appearing in pools where Pam Owen lives on Oventop Mountain. Being on the morning side of the mountain, spring typically comes a week or two later up there.
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Wild Ideas: Black bear hibernation, part 2

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April 10, 2014
Optical and infrared (IR) images of hibernating wild black bears are advancing understanding about the daily life of bears during hibernation. Above, IR images help to identify a black bear moving in a dark den. The images, taken upon researchers’ arrival at two den sites in late December, clearly show that bears remain alert during the winter months. The bear’s fur substantially reduces heat loss, with the maximum temperatures recorded from the eyes.

With the help of advancing technology, researchers continue to dig deeper into how and why bears hibernate. What they’re finding could have implications for human medicine.
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Wild Ideas: Do black bears hibernate?

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April 3, 2014
This yearling bear decided to stick close to a the carcass of a deer it found by the side of a road, denning up under the carcass when it wasn’t feeding. VDGIF anesthetized the bear, as shown in the photo, because, according to Jaime Sajecki, “as the snow started to melt we had to move the bear because it was generating a great deal of onlookers.”

Some black bears may have already emerged from winter dens, and more should emerge soon. Bear experts have long debated whether bears actually hibernate while in their winter dens, but Pam Owen has found that recent research may have settled that issue officially.
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