Sounds of Spring Arriving at Oregon Ridge

The raucous “quacking” of wood frogs and the “sleigh-bell” chorus of spring peepers are delightful signs that spring is officially arriving. Hurry out to Oregon Ridge, or a nearby pond, to catch the mating calls of these little amphibians.

You can hear both frogs now, but most wood frogs will head off into the forest in a few days. The spring peepers may linger at the pond throughout the month, then head to their summer home in the woodlands.

The cheery sounds are the male frogs serenading the females to mate with them. Mating happens at a pond, marsh, or other swamp-like area because the frog eggs and later tadpoles need an aquatic environment to survive and develop. After laying eggs in the water, in clusters of up to 1,000, the male and female frogs will head upland to spend the rest of the year in the woods. One evening last year, leaving the Nature Center after a meeting, we saw dozens of tiny frogs in the roadway – the frogs’ breeding was accomplished; they were leaving the pond and heading back into the woods.

Besides their sound, how do you tell them apart – if you get a chance of seeing them?

Spring Peepers are very small. They grow less than an inch and a half long. They can be tan or gray or dark brown and have a dark “X” on their backs. Spring Peepers also have large toe pads for gripping plants when they climb:

spring peeper

Wood frogs are also very small. They range from two to two and a half inches in length. They are usually brown, tan, or rust colored, and have a dark eye mask. Two big ridges (dorsolateral folds) run down its back:

wood frog

 

Both photos courtesy of Wikipedia

A great way to learn more about these tiny amphibians is to join Oregon Ridge Nature Center’s “Froggy Frenzy Night Hike” on Friday, March 15, 7-9pm.

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It’s Maple Sugaring Time

Here in northern Maryland, we’re fortunate we can participate in a tradition that dates back to the Native Americans – the practice of “tapping” trees, drawing out the sap, and then evaporating the water until what remains is the delightfully sweet maple syrup.

The trees store “sugar” in their trunks and roots during the winter. When weather conditions are right (below freezing at night, and in the mid-40s during the day), the sap rises. In Maryland, this phenomenon occurs only for a few weeks starting in mid-February.

The right combination of maple trees and weather is found primarily in the northeast United States and Canada. Parts of Maryland and Virginia are at the very southern edge of the maple sugaring region.

At the Oregon Ridge Nature Center, you can participate in the entire process of maple sugaring:

Whittle a spile from a red sumac branch to insert into the tree. The spile acts as a straw:

sumac  spile tapped into tree

Go on a short hike to identify the right trees; tap your hole; and hang a container to collect the sap

sap in the jug

Take a turn at tending the sap, using heat to evaporate the water out of the sap. The sap has a sugar concentration of about 2% on average, so it takes 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. That’s a lot of sap to collect and tend!

50 gallons

Native American style: collecting sap into hollowed out tree trunks and placing hot stones in it to boil off the water:

native american methods

Colonial days: heating the sap in kettles over a bonfire

colonist method

Modern-day evaporator for home use:

small evaporator

Today’s “Sugar Shack” and tasting area:

sugar shack_wider view

We invite you to spend a few hours and do some hands-on maple-sugaring with us!

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Bidding Adieu to Our Fall Flowers

This milkweed pod opens to let its seeds escape

Even though there was a frost warning on Friday night, there are still fall flowers blooming at Oregon Ridge Nature Center. Take a hike and see what you can find! We found these on Saturday:

Several varieties of asters – both heath and white wood asters as well as purple New England asters:

 

Boneset:

Chicory:

Goldenrod:

Horse nettle was not blooming, but you can find the berries, in the meadow:

Other berries, found along the Nature Trail, include barberry – an invasive.

The meadow is full of milkweed now in the pod stage:

This milkweed pod has a congregation of boxelder bugs sunning themselves:

A variety of flowers are still blooming in the garden area, including this purple monkshood and yellow coreopsis:

Mountain mint was found along the ridge trail:

And our farewell to fall flowers hike ended with sightings of several woolly bear caterpillars:

What flowers and berries have you found this fall?

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The Migrating Monarch Butterflies

Oregon Ridge Nature Center will host a program on monarch butterflies on Saturday, September 22 and Sunday, September 23; 2:00-4:00pm both dates.

Monarch butterfly seen on September 15, 2012

Monarchs are the celebrities of the butterfly species. There are about 150 species of butterflies in Maryland. But monarchs seem to get the most publicity. Especially this time of year, when we are fascinated with their 3,000 mile migratory journey to Mexico and California for the winter.

Monarchs are the only butterfly to make such a long, two-way migration every year. They can travel between 25 and 50 miles a day. They are passing through Maryland now (mid- to late September).

Several generations of monarchs are born each year, but only the ones born in late summer and early fall make the migration. After hibernating in the warm sunny climes of the south, they make a return trip in the spring – because the food necessary to develop their larvae does not grow in their overwintering sites. So they travel back, northward, in the spring to lay their eggs.

Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed. The egg hatches into a larvae (a caterpillar) which eat only milkweed. But milkweed is diminishing, as natural land is taken over to build roads and houses. With the loss of milkweed, the monarch population is also diminishing. There are many conservation efforts to encourage people to plant milkweed in their gardens to restore monarch butterfly habitat. You can see a butterfly garden at Oregon Ridge and learn how to plant one.

Another fascinating aspect of the monarch migration is that the monarchs fly to the same location every year – hibernating in the very same trees year after year though they have never been there before. We wonder how do they know to do this?

Have you seen any monarch butterflies this fall?

Have you planted a butterfly garden? Please tell us about it!

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Finding Signs of Good Water Quality

Nets in hand, kids and adults spent an hour splashing through the stream at Oregon Ridge, turning over rocks, scooping up little critters in the water, and peering at the mud along the banks. Having fun while conducting a science project, the actual purpose was to collect samples to determine the water quality.

The participants were hunting for bugs, insects, fish, and frogs. But primarily, the group focused on macro-invertebrates such as crayfish, aquatic snails, and the larvae of aquatic insects. The types of samples found would be indicators of how healthy the stream is.

Stream-bottom macro-invertebrates are a link in the aquatic food chain. They survive by eating the leaves that fall in the water or algae growing on the stream bottom. In turn, they are eaten by larger animals such as fish, which in turn, are a source of food for birds, raccoons, water snakes, and people. The healthier the stream, the healthier the land around it.

Stream-bottom macro-invertebrates are good indicators of the water quality because they vary in how sensitive they are to polluted water. Some cannot survive in polluted water. Others can survive or even thrive in polluted water. In a healthy stream, the stream-bottom community will include a variety of pollution-sensitive macro-invertebrates. In an unhealthy stream, there may be only a few types of non-sensitve macro-invertebrates present.

The presence of frogs are also good indicators of water quality. Amphibians have highly permeable, exposed skin which easily absorbs toxic substances from the environment.  Frogs cannot live in polluted water.

Identifying the day’s catch:

In the recent sampling at Oregon Ridge, the collected and observed species indicate the water quality is “pretty good”. Pictures include crayfish, dragonfly larvae, a damselfly, and a frog.

 

Be sure to check the Oregon Ridge Nature Center calendar for other interesting and family-fun programs. Click here for the fall 2012 calendar.

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The Soundscape of Summer – Singing Insects

The soundscape of Oregon Ridge is bright with the music of singing insects. Evening particularly at this time of year gives you the chorus of crickets and katydids. These are the males of the species, calling to attract females in order to mate.

These insects don’t actually “sing” – their music is created by their wings, through an action called stridulation. The base of one front wing has a sharp edge, like a scraper and it is rubbed across a bumpy ridge, or “file” at the base of the other front wing.

But the songs could gently fall away from one year to another and we may hardly notice. As ubiquitous as that summer sound is, there is little information on how widespread the cricket population is and whether it’s increasing or decreasing. And rarely do we stop to distinguish one sound from another, instead listening to the entire symphony.

Enter the “Cricket Crawl” – a recent local project to guide people in identifying the sounds of 8 local species of crickets and katydids, and then to report on hearing them in their local area. It’s a fun and easy way to start to distinguish and appreciate the different sounds of these insects. The resources are available online for everyone to use.

You can listen to and download the snippets of individual sounds of 8 selected  species to your phone or computer. Then take a minute and listen on your own — either at Oregon Ridge or even in your backyard. Do you hear that sound? Try the next one. It’s a fun way to distinguish specific sounds from the chorus of music at the park.

Cricket & katydid audio clips, along with the insect pictures, can be found here on the Washington D.C. / Baltimore Cricket Crawl website.

We invite you to post what sounds you identified at Oregon Ridge!

Two of the most common singing insects are featured in this year’s Cricket Crawl: the the common true katydid and the northern fall field cricket. (Photos courtesy of Wil Herschberger and Lang Elliott)

      

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Let’s Play! – Outdoors

Jumping, balancing, climbing, running – that’s how our body is designed to move. The modern world though has kept physical activity limited, often in structured gym-based environments or formal sports. But we’re starting to realize the value of natural movement in an outdoor setting. Many organizations, such as the Oregon Ridge Nature Council, are creating natural play spaces for children.

Logs, rocks, dirt, tree stumps, sand pits – all encourage children to engage in the outdoors, explore their bodies’ natural abilities, and have fun. In other words, “play”!

Playing outdoors provides more variety than an indoor environment and encourages creativity and imagination. Studies have shown that it helps develop complex motor skills which stimulates brain function. It improves sensory processing – you’re feeling a greater variety of textures and material (think bark, mud, sand, rock surfaces) ; hearing more sounds (birds, critters, the wind in the trees); and awakening your sense of smell. Being outdoors can improve our mood, our ability to focus, and our energy levels – and how well we sleep after an active day outdoors.

It’s also important to stay within your limits, manage the risks, and play safely. We invite you to explore and play at our children’s natural play area!

A design of a potential natural play area:

 

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