Nature in the Natural State

Various times, daily

These educational spots are brought to you by the Central Arkansas Master Naturalists and KUAR. The Central Arkansas Master Naturalists' mission is to develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities.

Ways to Connect

Nandina domestica is a beautiful shrub with dark green leaves and bright red berries. It’s native to China and Japan and is sold at many garden stores. But did you know that its berries are poisonous?

Just a few of the bird species that depend on winter berries to survive are robins, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and cedar waxwings. In 2009, a flock of dead cedar waxwings in Georgia was autopsied and it was found that nandina berries had killed them.

We’re depleting the earth at a faster rate than it can sustain itself. This means we’re headed for a disaster, unless we can slow our rate of consumption.

Have you ever taken a minute to think about how if at all you help to sustain the earth’s biosystems? Here are some suggestions.

In the spring, tent caterpillars build tents around the nodes of young leaves and feed on these leaves, particularly on wild cherry trees. But at this time of year, fall webworms build their tents around mature leaves.

You’ll find lots of information on the internet about how to kill them. But they’re a valuable part of the ecosystem. Almost always, trees whose spring leaves are eaten bounce back. And in the autumn, the leaves will soon fall anyway. Their decay process is accelerated by being eaten.

This month, hummingbirds will depart our yards for their long migration to Mexico and Central America. Male birds leave first, followed by females.

In preparation for their journey, they feed voraciously and develop fat deposits that almost double their weight. While over land they travel about 20 miles a day, but over the Gulf they fly 500 miles in less than a day.

Hummingbirds are solitary, and migrate alone. They do not ride on the backs of larger birds, but fly under their own power.

Three small wafer ash trees grew in a yard, planted to be host plants for butterflies. This year, in mid-August, a giant swallowtail butterfly mother laid eggs on the leaves over a period of days. Caterpillars soon hatched and began munching on the leaves.

One sign of autumn is the leaves of our native Virginia creeper vine, which turn beautiful colors ranging from pink orange to maroon.

Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, is often mistaken for poison ivy. But they’re easy to tell apart. Virginia creeper has five leaflets, and poison ivy only three.

Do you have Virginia Creeper in your yard? It makes a great ground cover. It grows well in sun or shade and does not need fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide.

The Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest flowers—more than a foot across—and the largest entire leaves—up to three feet long—of any Arkansas native tree. It is listed as endangered in Arkansas.

Bigleaf Magnolias are understory trees that do well in part shade and in locations sheltered from wind. They are host plants for 15 species of Lepidoptera, including the Tuliptree Silkmoth and the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

Their flowers are pollinated by beetles, and not by bees. This is because magnolias evolved twenty or thirty million years before bees.

If you’re walking in Arkansas nature this month, be sure to watch out for the webs of orbweaver spiders. It’s not pleasant to walk into an orbweaver’s web at face height, but you probably won’t see its creator, because most orbweavers hide during the day time.

In the evening, many will eat the old web and then spin a new one, with both sticky and non-sticky silk. Orbweavers use their third claw to travel over the nonsticky part of the web. They stun their prey, which includes flies, mosquitoes, and ants, with venom and wrap it in silk.

Have you ever found a feather and wondered what kind of bird it belonged to?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains the Feather Atlas, an image database on the Internet dedicated to the identification and study of the feathers of North American birds. The Atlas contains images of the three types of flight feathers—primaries, or outer wing feathers—secondaries, or inner wing feathers—and rectrices, or tail feathers.

Birds need our help. Research has shown that billions of birds have disappeared from the U.S. in the last few decades.

The most important factor in attracting a bird is not a feeder in your yard, but instead is the habitat you provide. Consider eastern bluebirds. Males have deep blue backs and wings and rusty or brick-red throats and breasts.

Bluebirds like open areas with mature, spaced out trees. Put up a nesting box—bluebirds are cavity nesters and will use them.

Bumblebees are those bees that belong to the genus Bombus. They are generalist feeders, meaning that they feed from a variety of flowers.

One of the first bees seen in the spring and the last in the fall, the bumblebee can tolerate colder weather than most bees. Like honeybees, bumblebees are social, with a queen and workers, but they don’t make honey. A bumblebee colony lasts for only a year, after which the new queens leave to form new colonies elsewhere and the worker bees and old queen die. Most bumblebee colonies are underground.

Nature needs our help; most species of wildlife are rapidly declining in numbers because we are destroying their habitat. Native perennials can be food for wildlife.

Are you wondering what kind of native perennial to plant? Try goldenrod. The Goldenrod or Solidago genus supports more caterpillars—that birds eat—than any other flowering plant genus in Pulaski County.

Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod pollen does not cause hay fever, because it doesn’t travel far from the plant.

This month, we are sharing our own personal experiences in nature.

On 40 acres of open meadow near Ward, Ark. on a temperate May evening just at nightfall, it begins. Gradually, here and there, then seemingly everywhere at once, the high grass of the field lights up with an absolute storm of insect paparazzi-flashes as tens of thousands of fireflies take to the air in their own version of a massive date night extravaganza.

This month, we are sharing our own personal experiences in nature.

I witnessed the following in April. A female hummingbird perched on the small feeder above my deck. Suddenly a male sporting his glittering ruby gorget or throat swooped in and hovered in front of her. Instead of chasing him away, she remained motionless. He began to make U-shaped dives in front of her, flying down then up, in a wide arc at top speed.

This month, we are sharing our own personal experiences in nature.

I’ve again this year had two pair of Carolina wrens display their great energy in the dense and undisturbed bushes of my house. They feed on insects, caterpillars and spiders on the grounds and are particular at the feeders. The monogamous pairs have created nests using discovered materials positioned into unique and unintended nesting places such as upturned bicycle helmets, or gardening shoes on a shelf.

In late March and early April ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to Arkansas.

Do you feed hummingbirds? They are attracted to the color red, but dying their sugar water can harm them, so instead provide a feeder with a red cap or base.

Their food should be one part sugar to four parts water. Less sugar, and it will not be as nutritious and won’t attract them. More sugar, and the birds will have problems drinking it because it will be too thick.

The opossum is the only marsupial, or pouched mammal, native to the United States.

The name opossum comes from the Algonquin language, and means “white animal.” In 1608, John Smith wrote in Map of Virginia that “an opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”

The opossum is the only marsupial, or pouched mammal, native to the United States.

The name opossum comes from the Algonquin language, and means “white animal.” In 1608, John Smith wrote in Map of Virginia that “an opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”

The honeybee, Apis millifera, is the Arkansas state insect. But the honeybee is not a native bee—it was brought to the United States by Europeans after 1600.

On the other hand, there are at least six species of bumblebees native to Arkansas. They nest either underground in deserted rodent burrows, on the surface in thick grass, or in holes in trees. Bumblebee colonies typically only last one year.

Did you know that turtles have lived on earth for over 200 million years, since the time of dinosaurs? Today they are threatened in Arkansas by habitat loss, roads, and the pet trade.

How can you help turtles? First, if you see a turtle on the road, stop if there is a safe place for you to pull over, and take the turtle to the side of the road it was heading for. Do not try to carry or touch a snapping turtle—they have strong jaws and can stretch their long necks and easily bite you.

Spring officially begins in March, and blooming shrubs and trees are a welcome sight!

As much as we love to see forsythia, blooming quince, and azaleas, it’s worth noting that none of them are native to Arkansas, and so will attract fewer pollinators and host few if at all caterpillars that our birds need to raise their young.

Do you enjoy watching birds? They are on the decline due to climate change, cats, loss of habitat, industrial threats such as power lines and oil pits, and ever more structures with glass that cause collisions.

What can you do to help? If you have a yard, make it bird friendly.

Arkansas Audubon Society sponsors a certification program called Bird-Friendly Yards. Certification is based on four categories: planting natives and removing invasives, removing hazards, supplying basic needs, and personal actions.

Nothing is more beautiful to hear on a cold winter's night than the call of a great horned owl.

They are native throughout Arkansas and live in diverse habitats from forests to cities. Specially formed feathers enable most owls to fly silently the better to seize their unwitting prey. Owls' flat faces remind us of our own with forward facing eyes, but unlike us, owls can rotate their heads around 270 degrees.

Are you interested in natural habitat and ecology? One of the first books ever written about the environment is "A Sand County Almanac' by Aldo Leopold, published in 1949.

Beginning with a beautifully written description of the seasonal changes in nature and their effect on the delicate ecological balance, the book proceeds to examples of our interference and expresses the philosophy that stresses the need for wild spaces; not just for animals but for us as well.

We live in Arkansas, the Natural State, but what is nature?

A native plant is one that is part of the food web around it. This isn't true of manicured lawns, Bradford pear trees or burning bushes just to name a few plants in the typical landscaped yard.

Plants are the center of nature's food web, but most plant-eating insects only eat a few types of plants; those they have evolved with over thousands of years. A yard with Kentucky bluegrass, Japanese maples and Chinese privet is not much better for Arkansas birds and butterflies than a yard paved over with concrete.

Here’s a New Year’s resolution from the master naturalists.

Now is the perfect time of year to start a brush pile. They can be located as a bridge between two habitats, such as a pond and a woodland, near a feeder, or simply in a corner of your yard. A brush pile serves many of nature’s purposes. Butterflies and moths will overwinter in them, birds will shelter and feed in them, and small mammals and reptiles will also use them as a shelter and feeding place.

Many of us feed birds in the wintertime by putting out seed and suet. But you can also feed birds more naturally by planting native habitat they can eat throughout the winter. This native habitat will also serve as food for caterpillars in the spring and summer, which in turn will feed other animals up the foodchain.

The American beautyberry, Callicarpa Americana, is a native shrub that produces brilliant purple berries. Possumhaw, Ilex decidua, another native, has bright red berries.

Do you have a yard? Do you see birds in it? Do you feed them? If so, please check out Project FeederWatch, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This citizen science project is more than 30 years old. Thousands of feeder watchers count birds every year from November through April. You can count at times that work for you. You may see a species you’ve never seen before, like the beautiful Eastern towhee, or observe new behavior from a species you’ve seen many times, like the Carolina chickadee.

With the onset of winter, days shorten and temperatures drop.

Animals meet winter’s challenges in different ways. Some mammalian species like chipmunks, bats, and bears experience different types of dormancy, lowering their body temperatures, slowing their heart rates and metabolisms, and going without food for periods ranging from several days to several months.

Reptiles have their own version of dormancy, called brumation, often going for months without food and oxygen, but drinking water throughout the period.

Foxes and deer grow heavy winter coats.

Did you notice a large number of acorns on the ground this fall? That’s because this year was what naturalists call a mast year.

Mast is the fruit of forest trees and shrubs. Hard mast is nuts, like acorns, hickory nuts, and beechnuts. Mast seeding is the production of above average numbers of seeds by an entire of population of plants. Mast years are good for the wildlife that feed on the nuts, and also good for the trees themselves, because the larger than usual crop of nuts means the potential for nuts that will escape being eaten and will go on to sprout.