Wild Ideas nature column

Wild Ideas: Sorting out the sumacs as summer subsides

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Sept. 18
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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Wild Ideas: Beeps, peeps and lovely yellow flowers

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April 3
Wild Ideas: Beeps, peeps and lovely yellow flowers

Although spring is getting a slow start, on a recent warmish night, Pam Owen heard woodcocks and spring peepers calling, and noticed more signs of a welcome change.
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Wild Ideas: Spring finally arrives . . . sort of

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March 27
A father teaches his young daughter to fish on opening day at Skyline Trout Farm, near Sperryville.

It’s official — it’s spring. Although a warm Saturday was followed by another plunge in temperature, Pam Owen notes that spring officially arrived with the vernal equinox last Thursday. Days are now getting longer, animals are reappearing and Skyline Trout Farm has reopened.
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Wild Ideas: Not an angry bird, but a clever grackle

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March 20
Angry? Demonic? For reasons unknown, grackles have evolved to have white irises. More likely this is an adaptation to help them identify others of their species, making it easier to reproduce.

When a great photo from Larry Sherertz appeared in Pam Owen’s inbox, she realized that she hadn’t thought about grackles for a while. That’s no surprise, since she doesn’t live in the bird’s ideal habitat.
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Wild Ideas: Where is spring?

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March 13
With its breeding season on the way, the woodrat that has been living in the author’s attic has been relocated outdoors.

Pam Owen has been searching for signs of spring, but other than a few more skunk-cabbage blossoms poking up through the mud in the wetlands near her house, she’s found few so far. She did, however, find an opossum’s den and an otter.
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Wild Ideas: The saga of Cubby the bear

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March 6
Cubby last month visited the DeBerghs, who got the dogs inside quickly enough but not their food, although the cub appeared not to eat any of it.

When a small bear started visiting houses in Harris Hollow regularly this winter, some of the residents were concerned about their dogs and livestock, but mostly they worried about the bear’s survival.
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Wild Ideas: Misery rides the wind

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Feb. 27
Eastern redcedars kick off Rappahannock’s tree-pollen season in February. This young, bushy tree is in the author’s yard. The small, overlapping leaves on young trees are more pointed than the ones of mature redcedars.

Last week Pam Owen woke up feeling like she was coming down with a virus. Instead, despite several inches of snow still remaining on the ground, the pollen season had started.
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Wild Ideas: Snowstorm impressions

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Feb. 20
An opossum seeks privacy in a pokeberry patch to eat a prize it dug up from a compost pile buried under deep snow.

The day after the latest snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow in Rappahannock, Pam Owen put a snack, camera equipment, binoculars and the Falcon guide “Scats and Tracks of the Mid-Atlantic” into a daypack and headed outside to look for tracks.
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Wild Ideas: Beautiful bones: the sycamore

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Feb. 13
Without having to compete with other trees for light, this huge old sycamore on Main Street in Sperryville has expanded its canopy. Its trunk measures around four feet in diameter near the base.

The trees in Virginia’s deciduous forests are diverse and downright beautiful, displaying different seasonal looks before losing their leaves and exposing their earthy structures in winter. With one exception — the sycamore.
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Wild Ideas: Cold-hardy hummers show up at local feeder

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Feb. 6
Female and juvenile rufous hummingbirds can be hard to tell apart, since both have spots on their throats. Some females have a small orange throat patch.

When Pam Owen was growing up, she knew there was only one species of hummingbird she was likely to see in Virginia, the ruby-throated, and that was only in the summer. But that was before the cold-hardy rufous hummer expanded it range into the commonwealth.
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Wild Ideas: The little brown bird of the forest

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Jan. 30
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.

The diversity of animal species out and about shrinks drastically in winter, and the forest around Pam Owen house is often quite quiet, especially during stretches of unusually cold weather. Recently, however, an unexpected visitor braved the cold winds: the winter wren.
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Wild Ideas: The wandering, whimsical water weasel

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Jan. 23
wildOtterRope-23

Last spring Pam Owen found a pile of fish scales down by the pond in what appeared to be some loose animal scat — the sign of a river otter’s visit. Having never seen a river otter in the wild, she looked forward to perhaps getting a chance to observe this one — that...
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Wild Ideas: Surviving Arctic winters: a caterpillar’s tale

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Jan. 16
Virginia’s native banded woolly bear caterpillar can survive freezing temperatures in this larval stage through supercooling and adding antifreeze to bodily fluids.

A recent NPR story said the unusually cold winter we’ve been having here in Virginia is likely to damp down populations of invasive exotic insects. While this is likely to be the case, we need to keep in mind that insects are highly adaptable . . . and can be surprisingly hardy.
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Wild Ideas: For some, it’s torpor time

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Jan. 9
Arctic ground squirrels, also known as “parkas” in Alaska, not only survive extreme temperatures by keeping their blood liquid below the temperature at which it should freeze, but also increase their metabolism periodically during hibernation for reasons that are not clear.

Not being a lover of the cold, Pam Owen is not enjoying this winter so far. One bitterly cold recent day, she ventured outdoors and found herself contemplating how animals cope with this weather. Namely, hibernation.
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Wild Ideas: Farewell to bugs, and to a loyal friend

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Dec. 26, 2013
The author’s dog, Mai Coh, in the snow in Gid Brown Hollow in 2007.

Pam Owen will always think of 2013 as the Year of the Bug, and the year she lost a long-time companion — her dog, Mai Coh.
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Wild Ideas: The mysteries of mast

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Dec. 19, 2013
While northern cardinals, such as the male at the feeder above, are well adapted to finding sufficient food here in Virginia in the winter, this year it may be a bit harder in some areas, according to anecdotal reports.

With the holidays just around the corner, many of us may be looking forward to sharing the holidays with friends and families and eating. However, for wildlife, finding food can be tough this time of year, and apparent shortages of some mast crops could add more stress this year.
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Wild Ideas: The pitter patter of not-so-tiny feet

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Dec. 12, 2013
While Virginia’s native Allegheny woodrat (seen here with its young) looks similar to the nonnative brown rat, the tails differ: the woodrat’s is covered with fur, while the brown rat’s is bare and scaly.

Pam Owen had lots of different species of rodents as pets and harbors no ill will against them generally, but living with rodents loose in the house is just not a healthy or practical situation for several reasons.
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Wild Ideas: The raucous, acrobatic belted kingfisher

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Dec. 5, 2013
This animated female belted kingfisher could have spotted the photographer, raising her ragged crest and giving a rattle call in alarm.

The belted kingfisher is a stocky, medium-sized bird that is packed with power — and knows it. Loud, raucous, flashy, lively, quick, conspicuous and yet elusive, the kingfisher is a cocky bird that displays “an air of self-importance” as it patrols its territory.
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Wild Ideas: Get along, little larvae 

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Nov. 28, 2013
Ants, most likely reddish carpenter ants, check for excretions from their herd of treehopper larvae. The ants eat this byproduct and, in return, protect the “livestock.”

Most of us grow up thinking that animals either eat or ignore each other, but close observation reveals much more complex relationships, such as symbiosis, the long-term relationships of species that have evolved to live together.
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Wild Ideas: The least flycatcher: Small, smart, brave and noisy

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Nov. 14, 2013
The least flycatcher, one of the tiniest but most common birds in the Blue Ridge.

In this season when many bird species are on the move to overwintering areas, activity seems to have increased among one of the tiniest but most common birds in the Blue Ridge, the least flycatcher.
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