Frog Chorus Joins in the Spring Arrival Parade

Winter is holding us in its grip longer than usual this year. But the trees are budding, the maple sap collection has stopped, birds are chirping, and the frogs are returning to the ponds at Oregon Ridge for their annual mating.

Frogs are amphibians – they live part of their life on land and part in the water. Frogs hibernated during the winter under moss and leaf litter. They return to ponds and other moist areas in the spring to mate and lay their eggs in water. The adults will leave the pond and move back into the woodland. The eggs remain in the water to develop into tadpoles, eventually becoming adults.

This pond, topped with a layer of ice at the beginning of the week, will soon hold thousands of frog eggs:

frozen pond

A wood frog, caught (and released) last week-end at a vernal pool along the Gunpowder River in northern Baltimore County:

caught wood frog

Are there more frogs this year, or less? Like with all of our wildlife, we are questioning the impact of loss of habitat and climate change on population.

2014 is the last year of a five-year program to document all of the frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, lizards, and snakes in Maryland. This is a joint project by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and The Natural History Society of Maryland and is named MARA – the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas. Documenting sightings provides historical information as well as context to develop strategies around conservation. The project sounds ambitious but relies on individuals like you and me noticing amphibians and reptiles while outdoors and then letting MARA know what we saw. If you’re interested in submitting sightings, more information is here: http://marylandnaturalist.org/how-to-get-involved-with-mara/

Are the peepers and wood frogs calling later this year because of the long winter?

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Snowfall: Finding Signs of Wildlife

tracks2_my pic

Snowfall is a great opportunity to find signs of wildlife active at Oregon Ridge Park. As mammals and birds move around and hunt for food, they leave behind impressions in the snow. You can try to identify a critter by the shape of the track; or follow it and explore what the animal may have been doing. Is it bounding away from a predator? Or stalking prey of its own? Has a bird landed, pecked for seeds, and flown off again? Often, a track or trail in the snow, or mud in the warmer months, is the only sign you may see of nocturnal mammals and others that shy away from humans.

track_my pic

When taking a closer look at tracks, look for the number of “toes”, the shape of the footpad, and overall size of the track. The pattern of tracks, the trail, will be related to the gait of the animal: is it walking, bounding, running, or galloping. Some step with their hind foot into the track left by their front foot. Tracks may be next to each other, or alternating.

tracks poster_Yankee magazine

There are some common ones you may find, such as the tracks from the dogs visiting the park, squirrels, red fox, raccoon, as well as birds such as turkey vultures and robins.   Take a picture of what you saw, or sketch a drawing. Return to the Nature Center and ask a naturalist to confirm what you’ve seen or look through one of the guide books in the library.

robinfeet

Add a comment or pic as to what you found at the park!

poster of animal tracks courtesy of Yankee Magazine 
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F is for Firsts; Firsts are For Phenology

 

Photo credit: Oregon Ridge Nature Center Naturalist Rachel Felling

Skunk Cabbage. Photo credit: Oregon Ridge Nature Center Naturalist Rachel Felling

February – the month where we start noticing our first signs of spring at Oregon Ridge Park: skunk cabbage blooming; maple tree tapping; and tree buds swelling in preparation of blooming later in spring.

Possibly you have your own “firsts” that you notice every year: buds forming in the native garden, a robin hopping across the meadow, and later, the croaking of frogs in the pond or the sight of a salamander whisking under a log. One of my personal “firsts” of spring is the first evening I make it home from work while there is still some light in the sky. We notice these signs of nature year after year, occurring like clockwork.

But do they occur on the same date each year? Tracking the dates of these “firsts” is important for studying changes in the environment, including the impact of climate change. A branch of ecology, called phenology, studies the cycles of plant and animal life by tracking the “first” occurrence of an event.

Phenology depends on regular folks like us, too — not just scientists — to notice and record the dates of “firsts”. If you’re interested in more structured observations about your springtime “firsts”, you can participate in these citizen science projects:

 What “first” do you look for every year?

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Exploring the Natural World in Winter … Indoors

An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfilment – David Attenborough

ORNC bldg

An American toad peeks out from under his current home, a hollow curve of bark. A copperhead snake, the only venomous snake found at Oregon Ridge, peers at a visitor through the glass of a display case. A red-spotted newt lounges on grasses. And a tiny deer mouse snuggles in wood chips, underneath a protective awning of fungi growing on a piece of tree branch.

Winter outdoors at the park can be serene, silent, special. But if you prefer a warmer, more sheltered environment, you can still immerse yourself in the nature of Oregon Ridge Park.  Just follow the paved road from the parking lot, up the hill, to the Nature Center – a jewelry box of nature treasures.

A black bear (taxidermy version) greets you in the lobby, along with mounts of a mountain lion, coyote, and other mammals. You’ll find the University of Maryland mascot, a terrapin, swimming in an aquarium. Observe and become familiar with other turtles, frogs, and toads, along with several species of snakes native to Maryland, thriving in displays that simulate natural habitats.

An active hive, enclosed in glass, allows you to safely watch the fascinating lives of honeybees. Display material chronicles the lifecycle and roles of the Queen bee, the Drone, and the hundreds of Worker bees.

Birds nests are fun to find in the winter woods, easily seen with the trees and shrubs now bare of leaves. The Nature Center has a collection. See how a phoebe nest is different than a bluebird’s and others – then go looking for them on your next trek in the forest.

A section of oak tree takes center court in the Nature Center, where the life of the forest is featured. The trees in the forest are like a tall apartment building. Each level has a role and its own special inhabitants of birds, insects, and other critters. Learn who lives in the “basement” (roots), the “lobby” (leaf litter), on the mid-floors (the forest understory), and the penthouse (forest canopy).

Bulletin boards feature seasonal topics. Today, you can learn how to identify animal tracks. If you go outdoors exploring, see how many of the same tracks you can find. When there’s snow on the ground, tracks are easier see.

The Nature Center also holds hands-on discovery activities tailored to children to explore animal fur, skulls and beaks.

Archaeology lovers can explore findings from when Oregon Ridge was an active mining operation in the mid 1800s. About 225 people lived on this site and you can admire artifacts from their daily life as well as the mining operation.

This is just a sampling of the natural history featured at the Nature Center.

Winter days, even if spent indoors, can still be enriching. You can gain a greater understanding and increase your awareness, knowledge, and enjoyment of what you see during your next outdoor visit.

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7 Reasons to Love Nature After the Fall Foliage

Hopefully you made a visit to Oregon Ridge within the past two weeks. Autumn seemed to arrive later than usual, but we ended October with a brilliant flourish of fall color.

fall foliage

But fallen leaves and cooler temperatures shouldn’t stop you from enjoying nature at the park. There’s a lot to explore; some of which is overlooked during all the summer activity. Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Most of us are familiar with identifying trees by their leaves. But have you stopped for closeup views of bark? Enjoy the variety of textures and patterns.

bark3  bark1  bark2  bark4

2. Explore the life of a decomposing log and dead tree stumps. Who lives in it? Who lives under it? Who’s been hunting for food on it?

decomposing log  food hoard  tree stump

3. Search for fungi. How many different types can you find? Then compare your notes with the “Fungi of Maryland” exhibit in the Nature Center. Maybe you’ve found a species not on display!

fungi

4. Collect as many shades of silver and gold, brown and green as you can find in 10 minutes. You may be amazed at the variety of color and richness of shading.

silver and gold

5. You’ll still find green! Mountain laurel, holly, and conifers retain their green all through the winter.

mountain laurel

6. The views are better. Without foliage, you can see more of the landscape. Winter weather patterns dilute pollutants, making the air less hazy, giving us a crisper view of the outdoors.

view from ski slope

7. With less foliage, it’s easier to find the birds! Cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, and more live in the park year round. Take an early morning or late afternoon hike to improve your chances of seeing them. Or sit quietly by the bird feeders at the Nature Center. Be sure to occasionally look up while hiking to catch a glimpse of our birds of prey: hawks and vultures.

What’s your favorite way to explore Oregon Ridge Park in the “off season”?

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Summer Evening Symphony

fall field cricket

The symphony of night insects — crickets and katydids — is background music to our summer evenings. We may notice the chorus when it first begins to grow in volume in July. But by now, the chorus is barely noticed, unless one takes time to pause and listen.

Typically, we don’t detect individual insects. We may hear the chirp of a fall field cricket when we’re near one. (And they’re especially easy to discern when one has sheltered in our house!) And the “tch tch tch” of the common katydid can be identified. But like the instruments of a orchestra, the individual insect sounds at night create a harmonized song.

But what if the sounds went away? How long would it take before anyone noticed? Until recently, there was no monitoring of cricket and katydid populations.

Two years ago, a citizen science project effort began and a “sound census” was organized. It’s an easy and fun activity. You can try it at Oregon Ridge one evening before leaving the park. Or you can try it at home.

The Cricket Crawl organization selected eight species of crickets and katydids to track. You can listen (and download) their songs at their website.

What to do:

  • Go to an outdoor spot at dark
  • Listen to one of the recorded sounds
  • Be quiet and listen in your environment for a minute
  • Do you hear that particular insect?
  • Repeat for the next recorded sound
  • Go through all eight

Then you can move to another location and go through the sounds again. Most people find by the third round, they can identify a few individual species without be prompted by the recorded sounds.

Taking a few minutes to listen for and appreciate the individual songs of crickets and katydids is a fun way to explore the natural world at dark.

Common true katydid:

common true katydid

Photos courtesy of songsofinsects.com

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Summer = Butterflies

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (papilio glaucus) is in abundance this year. If you’ve visited Oregon Ridge during the past few weeks, you likely have noticed these large orange, black-striped insects. Here, several swallowtails are seen on this sweet spire bush at the ORNC parking lot.:

tiger swallowtail_ORNC

Tiger swallowtails are one of the most common and easily recognizable butterflies in our area. Likely each of us notice and remember a few certain butterflies time and again. But Maryland is home to over 150 different species. Many of those, about 100 species, choose the Piedmont as their habitat. The Piedmont is the physiographic region where Oregon Ridge is located.

The range of different species of butterflies varies depending on the type and abundance of flowers they prefer for nectar; the plants they choose for their nests to lay eggs, as well as temperature and elevation, among other factors.  Butterflies become adults at different times of the summer. As an example, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is at its peak and their population will begin declining the rest of the summer. But monarchs are just starting to show up in this area.

Below are pictures of other common butterflies. How many of these have you seen? Also, have you seen a monarch butterfly yet this year?

Photos courtesy of North American Butterfly Association, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and wikipedia. Species checklist reference: Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

 

Baltimore checkerspot – the “Maryland State Insect” (euphydryas phaeton):

baltimore checkerspot

mourning cloak (nymphalis antiopa):

mourning cloak

buckeye (junonia coenia):

buckeye

spring azure (celastrina ladon):

spring azure

spicebush swallowtail (papilio troilus):

Swallowtail, Spicebush

clouded sulphur (colias philodice):

clouded sulphur

monarch (danaus plexippus):

monarch2

cabbage white (pieris marginalis):

cabbage white

american painted lady (vanessag virginiensis):

american painted lady

viceroy (euphydryas phaeton)

viceroy

 

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