• Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Our beloved bats are under attack and if we don’t do something about it soon, many of them will disappear. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungus that affects hibernating bats. First discovered in New York state in the winter of 2006/2007, WNS has already killed over a million bats along the east coast of the United States and parts of Canada. By the 2010 hibernating season, the fungus had been reported in 16 states and four Canadian Provinces and it is spreading rapidly.
Named for the white fungus that grows on the muzzle and other parts of hibernating bats, WNS has a 90%-100% mortality in affected hibernacula (bat hibernating sites). Once the spores are in a hibernacula, the fungus quickly spreads from bat to bat, killing the entire colony. The fungus mysteriously causes the bats to wake and move either to the entrance or even outside into below freezing temperatures. Because hibernating bats have just enough fat reserves to make it through the winter, the bats often starve having used all their stored energy just to wake up.
More than half of the 45 species of North American bats are hibernating bats. This includes the six native to the mid-Atlantic (see previous post titled “Let’s Hear it for the Bats”). Many scientists believe the fungus may be spread in part by humans investigating caves either casually or for sport.
So what does this all mean? Little brown bats are our most common bat in the mid-Atlantic region and they can eat 500-1000 mosquitoes per hour. If they have five, one hour feeding sessions per night, that is up to 5000 mosquitoes per bat. Let’s say there are 10 little brown bats in your yard. Now, imagine a warm July evening. You and your family are enjoying an outdoor picnic. Without little brown bats controlling the mosquito population, there could be as many as 50,000 more biting pests than there are today. I think I’ll buy stock in Caladryl.

• Wednesday, September 07th, 2011

Bats are some of the most feared and misunderstood animals in the world. Through the centuries, they’ve been equated with witchcraft, evil, blood-thirsty monsters, and vampires, but bats are harmless victims of a bad rap. Thank you, Bram Stoker. Even the feared vampire bats, which hail from Central and South America, aren’t the blood thirsty demons they are made out to be. Well, they are blood thirsty, but they don’t attack and suck human blood.

Bats from around the world eat a variety of things from fish to nectar to frogs to fruit to blood. All of the bat species we have here in the mid-Atlantic region are insect eaters though.

Insectivorous bats use echolocation to zero in on their prey. By sending out high frequency sound waves that bounce off the insect, the bat is able to hone in on its exact location. They catch prey using their wings or the membrane between the feet. The insects are sort of “scooped” into the mouth.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have six year round resident species and three that migrate.

Year round bat species which include: little brown, big brown, tricolored (formally eastern pipistrelle), northern long ear, small-footed, and Indiana bats, are active in warm months, but seek shelter to hibernate through the winter. Migratory bats include hoary, red and silver-haired bats.

The only flying mammal, these acrobatic fliers can catch and eat over 500 insects per hour and often have several feeding sessions through the night. A large percentage of their diet include moths, grain flies and mosquitoes. Without bats, the mosquito population would explode spreading disease and driving picnics indoors. That’s much scarier than Dracula ever was.


• Friday, May 27th, 2011

I’ve never been a good reader.  In school, it was painful and slow.  If I tried to push myself to go faster, I’d end up not understanding what I just read and invariably have to start again.  I didn’t read much as a result and reading out loud was worse.  I’d stutter and get hung up on words like “is” or “that”.  Maybe I’d have been diagnosed with ADD, but it wasn’t described yet.

Even today, if a book doesn’t grab me by the throat and threaten not to let go, I am very quick to put it down. So when I come across one that really catches a hold on me, I want to tell the world.

I’ve recently read two books that I can honestly say changed my life. Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home” has given me a new perspective on what I do.  For nearly 25 years, I’ve been a naturalist in and around the mid-Atlantic region.  I’ve helped educate and mold children and adults on the decisions they make and the impact it has on the environment.

I’ve always been an advocate for using native plants in the landscape, but never fully understood the ecological principles behind those choices.  That is, until I read Mr. Tallamy’s book.

“Bringing Nature Home” describes the relationship between native plants and the insects that depend on them. How native insects haven’t evolved to feed on non-native plants and therefore, can’t survive on them. This spirals out to talk about the birds and animals that depend on the insects that are depending on native plants.  I knew everything was connected, I guess I just didn’t realize to what extent those relationships existed.

The other book that I want everyone to read is Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It scared, enlightened, and thrilled me and set my resolve to do better by the animals I eat and prepare for my family. I read the young readers edition since I was assigning it to a class, but I’m sure the grown up version is just as good. Mr. Pollan describes where our food comes from, how it is processed, and why certain ingredients are so pervasive in the foods we eat. Why fast food burgers are so cheap and why it seems to cost more to eat healthy. With concise, easy to understand language and straight forward facts, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a great read for the food shoppers, cooks and consumers in your family. Be prepared to be first horrified, then inspired to take a stand.

So throw out your high fructose corn syrup and your pappas grass and enjoy the summer.

• Friday, March 11th, 2011

There is a magical event that happens in the early spring. No one knows what triggers it and no one knows exactly when it will occur. It’s a surprise. Don’t you just love surprises? It is a secret trek of the Spotted Salamanders to their breeding pools.

Vernal Pool in New Jersey

In what seems like impossibly cold weather, these amphibians have waited underground for the first warm evening spring rain. Warm being a relative term because it is still only about 45 or 50 degrees. But without fail, as the rain falls, spotted salamanders come up from their underground burrows and march sometimes by the hundreds, to vernal pools where they’ve been breeding for decades.



Vernal pools are shallow depressions in the earth where water collects in the spring but dries up by late summer or early fall. Salamanders will not breed in traditional ponds where predators such as fish loom.

Male spotted salamander. Spots are unique like finger prints.

Male salamanders migrate to their breeding pools and hang out in bachelor groups called congregations. But when the females arrive, the party really starts. 40-50 Spotted Salamanders gyrate, rub against each other and rotate their tail in hope of attracting a female’s fancy. If all this foreplay works, she’ll follow him out of the crowd as he swims away. He’ll then deposit a gelatinous sperm packet called a spermatophore. The female will trail him and pick up the spermatophore in her genital opening thus completing fertilization. Within a few days, she’ll deposit 2-3 jelly-like balls with 50-100 eggs in each. The egg sacs resemble snowballs that are attached to underwater sticks. After completing this task, both male and female adult salamanders leave the pool and return to their underground burrow until next spring.

The egg sacs remain underwater for 5-6 weeks when they hatch into tiny, gilled tadpoles. After feeding on small aquatic insects through the summer, the tadpoles metamorphose into miniature adults and leave the water by the fall.



Category: Amphibians, Seasons  | One Comment
• Saturday, February 19th, 2011

I was walking in a park I’ve never visited before with some colleagues who work there and one of them pointed out a lichen growing on a tree outside the nature center. She said up until a few years ago, there were no lichens in the park. Hmmm. How could that be? How did she know? Light bulb over head! A topic for Nature Niche!
I’m sure all of you have seen lichens, unless you never left the city, but perhaps mistook them for a moss or fungus. They are usually light green and grow on trees, rocks, really anything. Some grown in lacy patterns that remind me of the doilies my grandmother used to put on furniture.
Lichens are a combination of an algae and a fungus that grow together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus offers moisture and a place for the algae to grow. The algae photosynthesizes to make food which the fungus consumes. The reason my colleague was remarking on the return of the lichen, was because they are extremely sensitive to air pollution. They can actually be used as air quality indicators. Lichens grow in three forms— crustose, foliose and fruiticose; each of which is progressively more sensitive to poor air quality. Crustose is most common around here and is flat and well, crusty. Foliose is leafy looking and fruiticose is almost shaggy. It is difficult to find fruiticose lichens where there is any industry since they are for the most part, intolerant of air pollution.
So good news for Bristol, Pa. The lichens are returning. You can all literally breathe a little easier.
Aren’t you now wondering if there are lichens growing in your habitat? Why not go out and take a look. Here are some photos of crustose and foliose lichens.

Crustose Lichen on Silver Maple bark

Foliose lichen on oak tree

Crustose lichen on rock

Crustose lichen on brick