The Magic of Spring and the Desolation of Smaug

By Maria and Rob

Early spring is a wonderfully unique time of year to go for a walk in the woods. The landscape is still mostly draped in browns and grays, but here and then, little blushes of green glow from thickets and undergrowth while fat little buds tentatively wait to burst from the ends of tree branches. Last weekend, we went on such a walk at a nearby park, just to see the magic in progress, and we were not disappointed!

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It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green.

It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green. There were already plenty of birds flittering through the thickets. I can just imagine that they are all looking for the perfect place to build their nests–a little home hidden from the threat of predaators and surrounded by resources like food and water. Oh to think of baby birds!

Oh snap, wild garlic! Tastes…like onion. Members of the Allium family, which includes both wild and cultivated onions, garlics, leeks, scallions, and ramps. (Note, there are some non-edible/poisonous look-alikes out there. A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t smell like an onion, it’s not an onion.)

We also saw deer tracks! Can’t escape those in Western Pa 😊

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We saw female scat nearby (less clumpy than male scat), so I would guess this was from a female as well. Where do you think she was going?

We saw plenty of lichen! Like Hagrid’s interestin’ creatures, lichens are an underappreciated weirdness of the wild world, in our humble opinion. Lichens are actually algae or bacteria and fungi living in a mutually beneficial relationship (a symbiotic relationship.) So a “single” lichen is almost like a little community.

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Quirky beauty.

Of course, the world may look drab, but under the surface, life is still stirring. Here we see the green of life just under the bark of a vine (don’t worry, this was an invasive vine – I wouldn’t purposely go around destroying a park). Did you know that many woody plants can perform photosynthesis in the first layer under the bark?

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But the dragon…

As our title notes, though, the spring does indeed bring magic, but human activity often leaves behind problems in a habitat. Smaug the Dragon of Tolkien fame was known for his greed and destruction – we don’t want to resemble that, now do we?

Dragon 1: Invasive Plants

This entire hillside is covered in an invasive vine called mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata). As the name implies, the vine grows very quickly—possibly as much as six inches in a single day. It can take over habitats by growing over existing trees and shrubs and blocking out the sunlight from them. Originally from Asia, mile-a-minute was introduced to the US sometime around 1930, and in our environment, it lacks the natural checks and balances that would keep it from over-growing like this.

This particular park actually hosted Allegheny GoatScape this past summer in an effort to start getting the invasive plants under control. Allegheny GoatScape is a non-profit that uses goats to help manage landscapes that are difficult for humans to access (e.g., steep hillsides or rocky terrain) or contain an overgrowth of plants that are concerning for humans to manage (e.g. poison ivy.) A crew of goats is brought in, along with their guard donkey, and they are fenced in a large area to start eating away at the problematic plants! In the time they were here, the goats certainly made a dent, but they will have to come back to continue working on the problem.

Dragon 2: Litter

We saw plenty of litter left behind, which was disappointing. Can we all just take responsibility for our trash?

Well, ok, so this one was kind of interesting—someone lost a Tupperware container, but when we flipped it over, it must have been a mini greenhouse under there!

Dragon 3: When Should the Flowers Bloom and the Birds Come Back?

The silent concern on that walk in the woods was the impact of climate change. Scientists first began publishing on the notable changes in nature’s sense of timing (phenology) back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Phenology is the study of the timing of bird migrations, flowering times, pollinator emergence–all of those little things we take for granted. When humans are mindful and respectful of the natural world and its processes, it can continue to function as God created it to. When we act as though our actions have no consequence, though, we can disrupt things.

But in the end…

Nature brings out a sense of peace like few other things can. Designed by the Greatest of Artists, there is so much beauty, and yet so much power and wonder in every glimpse of a forest, a mountain, an ocean wave. Spending time away from the built environment is refreshing to the soul and just all-around good for well-being!

On the flipside, though, in the book of Genesis we humans were charged with the stewardship of this home. It’s not ours; it’s a loan. Do we want to act like dragons, or be responsible stewards and ensure that future generations have a chance to see the beauty and magic of an early spring walk? We vote beauty and magic! Every time.

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Yes, Maria does have sparkles next to her eyes. She had been dressed up like a princess for a toddler birthday party earlier in the day 🙂

P.S. we actually really like dragons…no offense to all the dragons out there.

 

Take a Peek into a Black Bear Den

By Rob

If you can’t handle the cuteness of little bear cubs – look out! The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a live-stream camera on a female black bear (called a sow) denning for the winter. This sow picked a spot under a house deck in Monroe County, PA as it’s cozy den to hibernate for the winter. We’ve been able to watch her and her new cub napping, nursing, and the mom just trying to keep the little one out of trouble. Continue reading

Of Orcas and Species

By Rob and Maria

If you’ve been following the wildlife news circuit, you probably were quite intrigued by the story that broke earlier this week about the “type D” orcas, sometimes also referred to as the New Zealand killer whales, found in the Southern Ocean! These whales (well, dolphins, technically) are much smaller than other known killer whales; they have shorter, more rounded heads; their fins are pointier; and their classic killer whale eye patches are distinctively small. A handful of these unusual individuals were first observed in New Zealand in 1955, but they had not been definitively spotted since then. Of course, marine biology fans are abuzz—are they a whole separate species than the killer whales we all are familiar with? Time will tell. NOAA biologists (including a married couple team—we can appreciate a good nerd love story) are hard at work to unravel the mystery of these mysterious killer whales. Continue reading

Sycamore Sunday

by Rob

This past weekend, we came across the little, round fruits of a sycamore along the banks of the Ohio River on the North Shore of Pittsburgh, next to the Carnegie Science Center.  It was pretty windy, but we had some time to kill before meeting my parents inside.  The February weather was too nasty for any bird watching except for one lonely duck, so we turned our attention to some trees along the river.  They looked as cold as we felt, no leaves for shelter from the gray, stormy sky and the bases of their trunks were unceremoniously caked in mud from the recent flooding from the yet another winter rain storm.  Yet, they still stood along the riverbank, maybe hoping that stupid groundhog had been right about warmer days coming. Continue reading

Volunteering for the Birds!

By Rob and Maria

We’ve been volunteering twice a month at the National Aviary since October. In our busy, modern world, sometimes even those alternating weekends feel tough to schedule, but once we’re there, it’s such a joy. It just does not get old to talk with kids and families to spark excitement for conservation and wildlife. Plus, there is just something about the sheer beauty and mysteriousness of nature that can coax a smile from even someone having the worst day. We get to watch some of those smiles appear. Continue reading

Can We Talk to a Gorilla? Revisited

By Maria

Most of the content below was from a post I originally shared in 2016. The gorilla in focus passed away earlier last year, and the foundation where she lived has been embroiled in legal battles over their remaining gorilla ever since. Those human squabbles have kept the gorillas in my mind, though, and I wanted to bring up these ideas again. We share this planet with these magnificent creatures, and we have so much power over what happens to them and their homes, we at least owe them this sheer wonder!

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The Science of Wanderlust

By Maria

Ever catch yourself staring out the window, perhaps at 2:15 on a Tuesday, only to realize you’re not really looking at the trees and traffic outside? Perhaps you’re really looking at the ruins of an old Irish castle, hauntingly beautiful in its age and surrounded by rolling green hills. Or perhaps you’re exploring the streets of a small Hungarian village—not understanding a single word around, but overjoyed by the new experience of cobblestone under your feet and the inviting smells from bakeries and little restaurants. Or maybe you’re lounging in a chair under a palm tree, toes in the sand, and watching the brilliant turquoise of ocean water gently roll up the beach and back.

If any of this rings a proverbial bell, you, my friend, might have wanderlust. Especially if this desire to travel and explore is intense, and you’re willing to work with whatever budget you have, the tourism industry would define you as a wanderluster. Continue reading

For the Love of Pandas

By Maria

Next week, on August 22nd, a very special little guy named Bei Bei will have his first birthday. Bei Bei is a giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, who lives at the National Zoo, as do his parents Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and his sister Bao Bao. In honor of his upcoming birthday, can we just take a moment to appreciate some panda?

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She’s laying down to eat. How can you not admire that? (BaoBao, I think.)

Last summer, I traveled with a friend to Washington, D.C., to see pandas at the National Zoo. I remember pulling into the parking lot, almost crying because I was so excited that I was about to see a panda for the first time in my life. And when I finally got to see one… Continue reading

Budding Urban Naturalists

By Rob

During the past few weeks I’ve gotten to go on a few outdoor adventures with my wife.  She’s truly the perfect adventure partner, always up for getting dirty or sweaty, equally enjoying chasing some bird down a trail to snap a picture or making a coffee stop.  And she knows quite a bit about what we’re looking at while outdoors (Maria: he’s being sweet).

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Coffee…the most important part of going outdoors

I’ve always found many positive things in the outdoors, solace when getting over a heart-ache, adventure while orienteering, quiet conversations while fishing with my family, and the chance to push my physical limits when biking and running.  A new aspect I’ve recently started adding is that of an aspiring naturalist.

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Top Ten Citizen Science Projects That You Can Join In

cit·i·zen sci·ence

noun

noun: citizen science

  1. the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

When I was a kid, I had a burning desire to see how much electricity was in a bolt of lightning. I didn’t understand watts, volts, amps, or Ohms yet. All I wanted to know was if those bright streaks that crashed to the ground were strong enough to power a light bulb. Continue reading