Wild Ideas nature column

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
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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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Wild Ideas: The spicy, sassy sassafras tree

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Nov. 7, 2013
Sassafras leaves in early November. They often add a brilliant color accent to the forest that is already turning brown.

As leaves turn brown and fall off the trees, Pam Owen has been appreciating the persistent, sassy attitude of our native sassafras, whose golden, deep-orange, red or purple leaves still brighten up the landscape.
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Wild Ideas: The (extra)ordinary junco

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Oct. 31, 2013
The grey, cheery junco is the subject of a new film, "Ordinary Extraordinary Junco."

While many birds go south for the winter this time of year, others are just arriving, including a small flock of juncos now foraging in Pam Owen’s backyard. They arrived from their northern breeding grounds the same week a fascinating new film about juncos arrived in her mailbox.
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Wild Ideas: Beavers: nature’s engineer

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Oct. 24, 2013
Its long, scaly tail, webbed feet and thick fur make this beaver well adapted for aquatic living. Photo by Steve via Wikimedia.

David Morrison, director of archeology and history at the Musee de Civilisation Canadiens in Hull, Quebec, describes the beaver as “an unaggressive, hard-working, waterproof, unassuming, wonderful animal” — and he’s absolutely right.
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Wild Ideas: Fall colors arrive while hummers head south

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Oct. 17, 2013
This otherwise normal-looking tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of the Carolina sphinx moth, is infested with the parasitic braconid wasp. What look like grains of rice attached to the caterpillar are larvae that were feeding inside the caterpillar and have now pupated. Photo by Pam Owen.

With her brother now back in rainy Juneau, Alaska, Pam Owen has been taking a look around to see how fall is progressing here in Rappahannock.
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Wild Ideas: The park’s shut, but nature is still open

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Oct. 10, 2013
The writer’s brother, Dana Owen, looks across the Shenandoah River to Massanutten Mountain during a hike last week in Raymond R. “Andy” Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park, near Bentonville.

Pam Owen’s brother Dana usually comes to visit for a week once a year. Because of the shutdown, however, Shenandoah National Park was closed and they had to look for other opportunities to enjoy nature.
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Wild Ideas: Tiny predators enjoy buggy year

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Oct. 3, 2013
Like Gulliver, but with a more unfortunate end, this green stink bug is surrounded by Lilliputian predators — in this case, flies and a micrathena spider. The web belonged to a barn spider, closer to the size of the stink bug (about .75 inches long), which was hiding nearby. Photos by Pam Owen.

At least a few native predators have been spotted munching on brown marmorated stink bugs (BMSB), as well as numerous other native insects that have proliferated this year.
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Wild Ideas: Strange ‘cats’ are eating my plants

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Sept. 26, 2013
The white-marked tussock moth is easily distinguished from similar-looking caterpillars by its red head. The setae on this caterpillar take various shapes, including ones on its back that look like cotton balls.

The cavalcade of bugs around Pam Owen's yard have been a joy to observe, photograph and wonder about this year. Some of her favorites have been the larvae of butterflies and moths, better known as caterpillars — or “cats,” as Lepidoptera enthusiasts call them.
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Wild Ideas: Dances with skunks

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Sept. 19, 2013
A young skunk hunts for the grubs of green June bugs in the author’s yard. Photo by Pam Owen.

A couple months ago a skunk started showing up regularly near Pam Owen’s house — right under her bedroom window, in fact, judging by the smell it generated. It was so strong it woke her up a couple of nights.
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Wild Ideas: A mournful whinny haunts the night

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Sept. 12, 2013
The eastern screech-owl, Virginia’s smallest owl, is famous for its whinnying call. Photo by Larry Sherertz.

The screech owl’s name is actually misleading, Pam Owen writes, as its call is less a screech and more, as Roger Tory Peterson writes in his “Eastern Birds” field guide, “a mournful whinny, or wail; tremulous, descending in pitch.”
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Wild Ideas: There will be blood

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Sept. 5, 2013
Although most species of the tiny no-see-um are plant eaters, some are bloodsuckers, like the North American species Culicoides sonorensis, shown here engorged with blood. They are thought thought to be vectors of disease in livestock. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s just been a great year for bugs, and a great year to observe and write about them — the good, the bad and the ugly — so Pam Owen can’t resist doing one more before moving on to other topics.
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Wild Ideas: The sound of katydids fills the night

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Aug. 22, 2013
With the sun behind it, this female’s curved ovipositor, used to lay her eggs, can be seen clearly under her wings.

If it seems Pam Owen obsessed with bugs, she is, but this is the time of year when bugs are out and about, and this seems to be a buggy summer. Some butterfly species are out in record number and the constant, loud chorusing of the common true katydid seems to come from everywhere...
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Wild Ideas: Heat, humidity, singing and skittering

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Aug. 15, 2013
Two instars of green stink bug feed on a sunflower stalk. Photos by Pam Owen.

July and August, usually the hottest months here, are often referred to as the “dog days” of summer. Still, nature keeps unfolding, and Pam Owen keeps roaming around the yard and the county taking stock.
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Wild Ideas: Pokeweed: nuisance or nutrient?

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Aug. 1, 2013
wildPokeweedRIGHT-1W

Native plants evolve to fill a particular niche in an ecosystem and play an important role in it. Pokeweed is no exception.
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Wild Ideas: The world of insects just outside

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July 25, 2013
Looking like its namesake, this hummingbird moth is particularly fond of native phlox, into which it’s dipping its tongue. Primarily nocturnal, it will also show up at dusk, on cloudy days and even in full daylight. Photo by Pam Owen.

With more than 900,000 known species, insects comprise approximately 80 percent of the world's species of organisms, which makes them the most diverse group, according to Encyclopedia Smithsonian.
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Wild Ideas: Opening the door to wildlife

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July 18, 2013
This large black rat snake was one of many visitors to the writer's deck this year, thanks to her open-door policy. Photo by Pam Owen.

Interesting things happen when Pam Owen opens the door to wildlife. She's not speaking metaphorically, either; she means literally leaving the door to her house open.
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Wild Ideas: Contemplating bear scenarios

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July 11, 2013
Bear yearlings, which can range from 40 to 100 pounds, depending on how well they’ve been eating, often look a bit gawky, like teenagers who haven’t quite grown into their ears. Photos courtesy Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Plumbing the mysteries of the natural world can be a great pastime — like trying to put together a large, intricate jigsaw puzzle that is constantly changing. Take, for example, a black bear encounter Pam Owen had recently while walking her dog.
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Wild Ideas: A chickadee mystery

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July 4, 2013
A Carolina chickadee. In the Blue Ridge, the range of this species, which has moved north in the last few decades, may overlap with the black-capped chickadee, and the two species may interbreed. Photo by Dick Daniels, via Wikimedia.

Pam Owen seems to be up to her eyeballs in wildlife mysteries these days, with the most recent one involving a pair of Carolina chickadees that may or may not be nesting in the bluebird box in her backyard.
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Wild Ideas: What to do if you see a fawn

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June 27, 2013
This tiny young fawn was discovered by former Rappahannock County Sheriff Larry Sherertz while on a hike. He took the photo and wisely left the fawn alone, knowing its mother would return. Photo by Larry Sherertz.

This time of year, some of us are lucky enough to find a fawn, silently curled up in tall grass or other cover, apparently abandoned. The best thing to do in those situations is to follow the advice the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries: Leave it alone.
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