Wild Ideas: Nature notes: Bird count, bat chatter and more   

Not enjoying the recent blast of Arctic weather, I curled up under my comforter with my computer and scanned my email for nature events and news, and was not disappointed. Below is a sampling.

Are cougars in Virginia? Find out at February’s Woods and Wildlife Conference. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region.


ISO artisanal works for Natural Bridge Artisan Center (Jan. 19-20): Natural Bridge, in Rockbridge County, has been added to Virginia’s state park system, with the Department of Conservation and Recreation taking over its management on Sept. 24, 2016. DCR is inviting artisans to apply for “representation of their work” at the new Artisan Center there. “The center will sell hand-crafted work that exemplifies Virginia and the region while supporting the park’s mission,” says a DCR representative. A range of craft and art media will be considered, along with agricultural products from vendors with a valid Virginia Health Department Inspection Certificate. Park officials will meet with artisans at the park to make selections. For more information or to receive an application, call 540-291-1331 or email naturalbridge@dcr.virginia.gov.

Montpelier Working Woods Walk (Jan. 29, 2-4): Walk with Virginia Master Naturalists through James Madison’s beloved woodlands. As part of the Virginia LEAF (Link to Education About Forests) program, the walk is intended to enable attendees to “experience the austere beauty of the winter landscape, and contemplate our connections to Madison’s era through our mutual dependence on this important natural resource.” The guided walk will include information about the ecological and economic contributions a well-managed forest provides in terms of habitat, wildlife, wood products and such basic needs as clean air and water. Attendees will also learn how various techniques of active forest management constitute stewardship of the woodlands to renew and preserve them for future generations. The fee is $5 per person; free for children under 6 years old. The tour begins at the Visitor Center, 11407 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station, VA 22957. For more information, go to montpelier.org/visit. In case of inclement weather, call 540-672-2728, ext. 141 or 252, for any changes.

Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 17-20): Help bird conservation through participating in this annual count. Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the count collects data on birds worldwide, producing a “snapshot” of their distribution and abundance. Collect data on the birds at your feeders, in your backyard or at other locations. While bird-identification expertise is helpful, it’s not required but sites must be registered, which is free. Check with the GBBC website for more information.

Help collect data on birds during next month’s Great Backyard Bird Count. By Pam Owen

13th Annual Woods and Wildlife Conference (Feb. 25, 8:30-4:30): A popular winter event for woodland owners, this annual conference is sponsored by Virginia Tech and “addresses the latest issues and trends in forest and wildlife management,” says event founder Adam Downing of Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Owners of woodlands large and small can learn how to maximize their property’s potential,” he adds, and “participants can tailor their own program by attending sessions that target large property management, small woodlot projects, or topics of general interest to any landowner.”  Topics are still being added but so far include whether mountain lions and other exciting mammals are here in Virginia, vernal pools, Virginia’s snakes, the relationship between trees and pollinators, measuring trees and forests, Virginia’s Conservation Assistance Program and earning income by leasing your land. At the Daniel Technology Center, Germanna Community College, Culpeper. Register by Feb. 14: $45 for an individual, $80 per couple, which includes lunch and materials. For more details or to register, online to tinyurl.com/wi-wwconference. For more information, contact Katie Jenkins at 540-948-6881 or kjenk@vt.edu.


New books on bird intelligence: Added to the growing number of books on bird intelligence are Jennifer Ackerman’s “Genius of Birds” and Mason Emery’s “Bird Brain.” According to a review on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, these two recently published books have very different formats and approaches. Which is best? Get both, says the reviewer, Stephen J. Bodio: “Ackerman’s almost novelistic narrative skill brought her protagonists, both avian and mammal, to life, but I learned more from Emery.”

Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers downloadable guidelines on what to feed birds in winter. By Pam Owen

What to feed birds in winter: Cornell Lab offers downloadable guidelines on winter bird feeding — what kind of foods to offer, the types of feeders to consider and where to place feeders to reduce the chance of window collisions. And find out about some of the birds most likely to visit suet feeders from the National Audubon Society’s website.

Rough scales give butterflies lift: The incredibly tiny scales on butterfly wings are arranged like roof shingles, making the wings a little rough, according to a Jan. 5 article in “Science” online, which has an accompanying video.

New research shows that the tiny, rough, overlapping scales of butterflies, such as this European peacock, boosts their climbing efficiency. Cropped detail from a photo by Michael Apel via Wikimedia

Scientists in Louisiana have discovered that the roughness boosted climbing efficiency between 16 percent and 82 percent. The researchers think scales may also help flight in other, still unknown ways. For monarch butterflies, which make annual long-distance migrations of thousands of miles, “even a slight advantage could go a long way in helping them reach their destination.” Scales may one day help engineers, too, by improving the design of small flying robots, the article concludes.

Arguments in the bat cave: No, this is not about Batman having a dustup with Robin. Rather, according to a Dec. 22 article in “The Guardian,” researchers have found that high-pitched chattering in colonies of bats perched together in caves is arguing — basically bats just “shouting” at each other. The researchers used a form of artificial intelligence — machine learning algorithms, which “are ‘trained’ by being fed data that has already been sorted into categories, and then used to apply the patterns and relationships the system has spotted to sort new data.” By viewing video, the researchers could figure out which bats were arguing and the outcome of each row, and sort the squabbles into four different bones of contention: sleep, food, perching position and unwanted mating attempts.

Scent-seeking moth drives car: Another Lepidoptera-related article in “Science” caught my eye recently. The Jan. 3 piece is about an insect-piloted robotic vehicle “that could help scientists build better odor-tracking robots to find disaster victims, detect illicit drugs or explosives, and sense leaks of hazardous materials.” The driver of the car is a commercial silkworm moth (Bombyx mori), which is native to Asia, “tethered in a tiny cockpit so that its legs can move freely over an air-supported ball, a bit like an upside-down computer mouse trackball.” Using optical sensors, “the car follows the ball’s movement and moves in the same direction.” As the moth’s odor-sensitive antennae pick up a target smell, the moth walks toward it along the trackball, driving the robotic car. 

Beware of bad seeds in pollinator mixes: According to a Dec. 7 ScienceDaily article, weed scientists in at least two Midwestern states have been reporting for years that a conservation program meant to provide habitat for pollinating insects “is sowing bad seeds — including seeds of the potentially devastating agricultural weed Palmer amaranth — along with the good.” Researchers have now traced the weed seeds to at least one source: pollinator habitat seed sold by a company in the Midwest. The provider of the seed is one of dozens of companies that sells seed mixes used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pollinator Habitat Initiative and Conservation Reserve Program. The researchers did not name the provider because they “don’t think this is the only one distributing weed seeds in their pollinator seed,” the article says.

“Evergreen and creepy: It’s winter creeper!”: Hankering the chance to remove yet another invasive nonnative plant from your property? The Virginia Native Plant Society has a new article on its website about winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei, aka creeping euonymus), which, “with its glossy evergreen leaves, is easy to spot in the woods right now.” Like many other invasive, nonnative plants this Asian member of the bittersweet family was introduced here as an ornamental but has escaped cultivation and is now invasive in most of the eastern states of the United States. Although pretty, it takes over habitat from native plants, which native wildlife depend on. The article has more information and several photos to help with identifying it.

Tracing the history of tomatoes: The tomato on your sandwich evolved from a plant ancestor that existed more than 50 million years ago, according to a study published Jan. 5 in the journal “Science.” Researchers found two fossils compressed into 52.2-million-year-old Patagonian stone that resemble modern-day members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, eggplants and tobacco.

© 2016 Pam Owen


Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”