Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Growing Native: Nuts for the Potomac

Growing Native is a local organization that collects tree seeds and plants them in the Potomac watershed, restoring the land to improve water quality. Since 2001, nearly 30,000 volunteers have collected more than 94,000 pounds of acorns, walnuts, and other hardwood tree seeds. Seeds are delivered to state nurseries and local schools to be grown into tree seedlings, which are then planted along streams and rivers in our area. This creates a buffer zone that helps to regulate water temperature, provide habitat for animals, and prevent pollutants from entering the water.

Interested in helping out? Upcoming group collections include:

October 3, 2009 - Cub Run RECenter, Chantilly, VA
October 10, 2009 - Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
October 10, 2009 - Apple Festival at Tayamentasachta Center for Environmental Studies, Greencastle, PA
October 10, 2009 - Bear Branch Nature Center at Hashawha Environmental Center, Westminster, MD

Check the Growing Native website to register, to get more details, and to check for recently added events.

Another way to help is to collect tree seeds on your own and take them to a drop off site (click on your area in this map to find the sites nearest you). You have until October 31, 2009 in MD, PA, DC and WV; drop-off sites will close on October 26 in VA. If you register here, Ford will donate $1 to Growing Native for every pound you collect.

You can collect seeds from your own yard, or anywhere else that you can get permission: try churches, cemeteries, parking lots, historical monuments, and local parks. (However, the restrictions against removing any material from National Park Service land include tree seeds, even for a good cause). This information sheet has more on what they're looking for -- basically sorted, viable seeds from healthy trees. And only certain species:


  • Atlantic white cedar
  • Bald cypress
  • Oaks: black, chestnut, chinkapin, northern red, southern red, swamp white, overcup, pin, water, willow, white
  • Black walnut
  • Green ash & White ash
  • Hazelnut
  • Pawpaw
  • Persimmon
  • Sassafras
  • Swamp chestnut
  • Yellow/Tulip poplar

Until we get around to writing up posts on all these trees (!), see the Growing Native field guide for more information about each one and what its seed looks like. What a great opportunity to learn a little tree identification this fall!


Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Natural Happenings: New and Improved Calendar of Upcoming Nature Events!

We're pleased to present a new and improved calendar of upcoming hikes and other nature-related events this week. New features include:

  • Events are sorted by date. No more scrolling through lots of groups and trying to figure out what's going on this Saturday.
  • Expandable summaries. Click on the title of an activity and a more detailed description will come up. You no longer have to follow a link to the original calendar that we pulled the event from.
  • Some color coding. Activities aimed at kids are in blue; volunteer opportunities are in purple, and everything else (hikes, classes, birding, boating...) is in brown.
  • Advance planning. We've entered everything we can as far as advance as possible. Hopefully this will help with getting the jump on events that require advance registration, and with those of you who plan your weekends more than a week in advance.
The permanent home of this calendar will be here. You can also find it under the "Things To Do" category on the navigation bar above. On that page, we've also got links to the organizations sponsoring most of these events, in case you need to follow up or double-check something.

Take a look, and let us know what you think in the comments below. Then get outside!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Welcome to the Natural Capital!

The Natural Capital is a blog celebrating the wealth of nature in the Washington, DC area. We aim to open your eyes to the plants, animals, and scenery in our region as the seasons unfold. And we'll recommend places to hike, bike, boat, and bird -- many of them accessible by public transportation.

Ready to get going? Use the navigation bar above to find posts that might interest you. Or click here to go to our most recent post.

Comments? Questions? Ideas for future posts? Contact us at thenaturalcapital@gmail.com.

Friday, September 25, 2009

America's Best Idea


Ken Burns' new documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, starts this Sunday, September 27, on PBS (at 8 PM on WETA). It promises amazing scenery and inspiring stories of the people who worked to protect these places.

Writer/producer Dayton Duncan perfectly captures why we agree that National Parks are one of the best things about this country:
By virtue of being an American, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or they just arrived, whether you're from a big city or from a rural state, whether your daddy owns the factory or your mother is a maid, you -- you -- are the owner of some of the best seafront property the nation's got. You own magnificent waterfalls, you own stunning views of mountains and canyons. They belong to you. They're yours. And all that's asked of you is to put it in your will, for your children, so that they can have it too...Hopefully, you'll provide for proper maintenance of this property that is yours. But that's all you've got to do. Now, that's quite a bargain.
Tomorrow (Saturday, September 26), the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation are throwing a party with Ken Burns, on the Ellipse from 5:00 to 8:30 PM. From 5:00-7:00 there will be live music, free ice cream, and activities sponsored by the 14 local national parks. At 7:00 there will be a preview of the documentary.

If you can't make it tomorrow, PBS has made a half hour preview available on YouTube - check it out, and be inspired:


Thursday, September 24, 2009

LOOK FOR: Spicebush Berries

If you have ever been hiking in the woods in the DC area, chances are you've walked by hundreds of spicebush shrubs. They've got small yellow flowers in the spring, then they form a nondescript green backdrop in the woods for the rest of the summer. Until September -- when their berries turn bright red.

spicebush berries
Spicebush can grow up to 20 feet tall, but we commonly see them at about 5-10 feet. The leaves have smooth edges and alternate along the branch. As fall progresses, the leaves will turn yellow.  The berries may remain on the shrub after the leaves have fallen off, but the birds may get to them first.

The twigs, leaves, and berries of spicebush all have a smell reminiscent of nutmeg or allspice when crushed.  Presumably, the Latin name Lindera benzoin was given as a reference to benzoin resin, which was used to make incense and perfume in Asia and Europe.  It's actually more related to laurels, including the bay laurel that gives us bay leaves.

Spicebush parts don't just smell good -- you can use them as a spice. The twigs can be brewed in hot water to make tea. Berries can be used fresh or frozen, as an allspice substitute. (Steve Brill recommends against drying.) We'll often cook them up with sliced apples to make a delicious topping for pancakes. Each berry has a single seed inside, which can be ground up with the rest if you're going to use it as a spice -- that's a lot less work than trying to get the seed out of each one. 


Photo credit: poppy2323
As you're looking for the berries, also take a peek if you see any leaves folded over. You might find the caterpillar of a spicebush swallowtail butterfly, whose only host plant is the spicebush. They're lovely black butterflies, but their caterpillars are adorable -- they have big eyespots that make them look like a cartoon snake. You might also find the caterpillar of a promethea silkmoth, a large and beautiful moth that we have seen far more as a cocoon hanging from spicebush than in any other stage of its life cycle.

In the wild: Spicebush is one of the dominant understory shrubs in our local forest.  In Rock Creek Park, we recently noticed large groves on both sides of the Valley Trail, in the section east of Boundary Bridge.



In your yard: Spicebush need shade, but a few hours of sun will encourage them to flower more and set more fruit. They can also suffer if they get too dry, especially as they're getting established -- they'll do best with reasonably moist soil.

Matt keeps a little stock of spicebush seedlings to put into clients' yards. They regularly get eaten up by spicebush swallowtail caterpillars in the summer. Most bounce back from the damage -- after all, these caterpillars have been eating these bushes for millions of years. And we love supporting the butterflies!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ten Great Places to Hike Around DC by Public Transportation (and counting)

Two of the things we love best about living in the DC metro area are the public transportation system, and the parks. And so, one of our main topics on the Natural Capital has been combining the two: how to get to our favorite parks in the DC area without a car. Turns out there are a lot of options.The links in this post go to our write-ups of each park and how to get there.

  1. The National Arboretum: a riot of azaleas in the spring, fields of wildflowers in the summer, and the lovely Fern Valley are our favorite spots. You'll also find a bonsai collection, a youth garden where local kids have their own plots, a grove consisting of the official trees of every state, waterfront along the Anacostia River…all by taking the B2 bus from Stadium Armory.
  2. Rock Creek Park is another treasure in the heart of DC, especially when Beach drive is closed on the weekend. Our post includes 10 points of entry by public transportation, from the Potomac waterfront all the way up to the DC/Maryland border.
  3. The Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River is followed by a trail through Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, with something for everyone: the northern part is rocky and hilly, but further south it's an easy, paved trail. There are several ways to get there by bus and Metro.
  4. The C&O Canal is a 184.5 mile-long canal that was built to transport goods from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD. The towpath – and green space on both sides of the canal – make it a great place to explore. You can get to a few places in the first 4 miles of the trail by public transportation; after that, you'll have to bike if you want to stay car-free.
  5. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is at its peak in July and August, when the water lilies and water lotuses are blooming. But it also has a lovely stretch of marsh on the Anacostia River that you can visit year-round. The park is less than a mile from Deanwood Metro.
  6. Greenbelt Park offers a chance not just to hike and bike (with over 8 miles of trails), but you can also  camp there. And it's less than a mile from the College Park Metro.
  7. Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the Potomac, is a surprisingly diverse oasis not far from the intensely urban settings of Rosslyn and Georgetown: the island includes woods and a tidal freshwater marsh. The entrance is less than a mile from Rosslyn Metro.
  8. Lake Artemesia is 38-acre lake that was created during construction of Metro, appropriately enough. You'll find a 2 mile trail around the lake, connecting to the trails that follow the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia. It's not far from College Park Metro.
  9. Glover-Archbold Park is another green oasis in the middle of the city -- a long, narrow park that follows Foundry Branch from Van Ness Street in Tenleytown to Canal Road, just west of Georgetown University. Buses cross the park at several points, giving several different options for getting there.
  10. Huntley Meadows is 1,425 acre park of wetlands, meadows, and forest just south of the Beltway in Fairfax County. You can get there by bus from Huntington Avenue Metro.
  11. Fort Dupont is the second largest park in the District, accessible from Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue Metro stations.
We'll continue adding links to this post as we cover more car-free hiking spots in the DC area -- there are more to come. If you know of a place we should write about, please drop us a line in the comments. Thanks!

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Natural Happenings: 9/21-9/27

Each week, we list opportunities to get outdoors or learn about nature. Click through to the organization hosting each event for more details -- some events require registration or charge a fee.

This week's highlight: Saturday is National Public Lands Day -- "the nation's largest hands-on volunteer effort to improve and enhance the public lands Americans enjoy." Check this site for events near you. Many, many parks in the area have volunteer opportunities. You can remove invasive plants, maintain trails, take trash out of the Potomac and many of its tributaries, help prepare the lotus plants at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens for the winter, restore wetlands at Carderock, and even build a butterfly garden at Andrews AFB (I guess bases do count as public land!). Give a little something back to one of the places you feel gives something to you.

Also this week:

Sierra Club
all weekend: multiple Shenandoah NP backpacking trips
Sat: Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge (8-mi)
Sat: Boiling Springs and Cumberland Valley, PA (13 mi, carpool from Shady Grove)
Sat: Little Devils Stairs, SNP (10.7 mi, 2800 ft elevation, carpool from Vienna metro)
Sun: Rock Creek Park (12 mi, from Van Ness Metro)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips. In particular, Saturday is the september worktrip for Rock Creek Park.
Tue: Massanutten Hike and Shenandoah Paddle (12 mi each)
Wed: Germantown paths and the Phillips Farm Pumpkin Patch (5 mi)

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Great Falls Gold Mine trail (8 mi, from Twinbrook Metro)
Sun: Rock Creek Park (5.5 mi, from Cleveland Park Metro)

Maryland Outdoor Club
all weekend: campout at George Washington National Forest, Signal Knob

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: Rocky Mount, SNP (10 mi, 2500 ft elevation gain)
Sat: Battery Kemble Park (10 mi, from Tenleytown Metro to Cleveland Park Metro)
Sun: Rosaryville State Park (7.2 mi, from Branch Ave. Metro)

Wanderbirds
Sun: Tuscarora Trail, Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, WV (8.8-12.5 mi, Farragut and Vienna Metro pickups)

Washington Women Outdoors
Sat: South Mountain Inn to White Rocks AT Day Hike (8 mi) - Register by Wednesday

Audubon Naturalist Society
Wed: Difficult Run Trail at Great Falls
Fri eve: Bats About - slide lecture by director of Bat World NOVA, followed by outdoor ID with ultrasonic detector
Sat: birding at Occoquan Bay NWR, VA
Sun: Geology at Chain Bridge
Sun: Late Summer Butterflies of the National Arboretum

Mycological Association of Washington
Sun: look for mushrooms at Prince William Forest Park (check to make sure it's happening)

Maryland Native Plant Society

all weekend: Fall Conference in Frederick County MD. Workshops as well as field trips at Catoctin Mountain Park, Gambrill State Park, Snyder's Landing, and Cunningham Falls State Park

Rock Creek Park
Sat: Rock Creek Park Day -- Rock Creek Park's 119th Birthday -- all day delebration at the Nature Center
Sat eve: Explore the sky with the telescopes of the National Capital Astronomers
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)
Sun: Sneak peek of Ken Burns' new documentary on the National Parks, America's Best Idea

United States Botanic Garden
Mon and Thurs: Lunchtime tours of the conservatory
Sat: The National Garden’s 3rd Birthday – A Celebration for All Ages! Discover how to attract beneficial wildlife, compost, and utilize native plants in your landscape. Children can create a pollinator, seed packet, or art sculpture.
Sat: Tour of the National Garden's native plants of the Mid-Atlantic region

Bladensburg Waterfront Park
Tue-Fri: free tour by pontoon boat at noon
Sat-Sun: free tour by pontoon boat at 5PM

The Nature Conservancy
Mon: birding at Roosevelt Island
Fri: birding by bike on the Anacostia River Trail

FOR KIDS

Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the park - drawing outdoors (ages 10+)
Wed: Pierce Mill walk (ages 5+)
Thu: Nature journal (ages 9+)
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Rock Creek Park Day -- Rock Creek Park's 119th Birthday -- all day delebration at the Nature Center
Sat eve: Explore the sky with the telescpoes of the National Capital Astronomers
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)
Sun: Sneak peek of Ken Burns' new documentary on the National Parks, America's Best Idea

United States Botanic Garden
Sat: The National Garden’s 3rd Birthday – A Celebration for All Ages! Discover how to attract beneficial wildlife, compost, and utilize native plants in your landscape. Children can create a pollinator, seed packet, or art sculpture.

Maryland Native Plant Society

Sat: To Be a Tree: activities, games, and a hike. Rock Creek Regional Park (ages 7-10)

Museum of Natural History
Daily tarantula feedings in the insect zoo and museum tours.
Tue: Hands-on activities in the Dig It! soil exhibit
Wed: Look at specimens or artifacts with a scientist in the Ocean Hall

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Friday, September 18, 2009

International Rock-Flipping Day

When was the last time you flipped over a rock (or a log) to see what was underneath? You can find all kinds of cool creepy-crawly things under there, if you're lucky. Our coolest finds over the years have included salamanders and enormous beetles. You never know until you look.

In this spirit, Dave Bonta and Bev Wigney started International Rock Flipping Day in 2007. This year, it is being observed on Sunday, September 20. To inspire you to get out there and flip some rocks this weekend, we've started our rock-flipping a few days early. All of these critters (and one cool patch of mycelium) were found as we flipped the many rocks in our backyard in Silver Spring, Maryland, this week:



Now get out there and join in!
  • Find a rock and flip it over.
  • Marvel at what you find.
  • Replace the rock as you found it.
  • Repeat.
Remember, your rock is likely someone's home. Be gentle, and if there are critters underneath, don't squish them when you replace it. It's better to move the animals to the side if you can, then replace the rock and let them scurry back.

If you'd like to share what you find with the rest of the rock-flipping community, here's how:
  • Record it in still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry.
  • Load images to the Rock-Flipping Day Flickr group, post observations on your own blog, or just leave a comment on this post. We'd love to hear about what you found!
  • For anything besides a comment here, send a link to the coordinator, Susannah Anderson at Wanderin' Weeta, via email or a comment to her post on Rock-Flipping Day.
Whether you share your observations or not, you can check back with Wanderin' Weeta to see what everyone sent her. She'll collect all the links and post them in one place.

Now get outside and flip some rocks!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

LOOK FOR: Paw Paws

The paw paw is the largest fruit of any native plant in our area. And you can eat it. And they should be ripening over the next few weeks. Need I say more?

Paw paw fruits have a green skin and soft yellow flesh, and are typically about the size of two golf balls stacked together. The flavor has been described as similar to many different things -- banana, custard, mango -- but really it has its own taste. Pawpaws can have an unusual aftertaste that limit me to enjoying one or two fruits. But those few fruits are such a treat when they come from the forest!

Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) is the northernmost member of the Annonaceae family, which includes other tropical fruits such as the soursop. I had always thought they were related to papaya, but apparently it is in name (and somewhat appearance) only.

Immature paw paw trees are abundant in the forests in and around Washington, DC. When young, they look more like an understory shrub than a fruit-bearing tree. You will often see groves of them growing together, because they can spread by underground roots. Their large, broad leaves (6 to 12 inches long) alternate along the branches and have a distinctive smell when they are rubbed or broken. (It reminds me of kerosene.)

It seems only a small fraction of the abundant small trees actually become large enough to bear fruit. They also fruit more when the trees that allowed them to thrive as shade-loving seedlings die and fall, leaving the pawpaws with more sun. Under the right conditions, they can bear quite a crop. Paw paws attract not only humans but are also a good food source for racoons, opossums, and squirrels. (As an added bonus, the leaves of the paw paw tree are the larval food of beautiful zebra swallowtail butterflies.)

For harvesting, you want the fruit to be quite soft; the best way to find ripe fruits is to shake the tree and go after the ones that fall down. The skin will be green even when ripe.

In the wild: We seem to find the most large, fruit bearing trees along the Potomac flood plain. Look for breaks in the tree canopy where pawpaws may be getting more sun. We've seen numerous fruits recently (not yet ripe) on trees in the Carderock area and at Scott's Run...and even a few in Rock Creek Park.

In your yard: Pawpaws were once cultivated by Native Americans, and Thomas Jefferson is said to have planted them at Monticello - so you'd be in good company if you want to try to grow one. They're supposed to be easy to start from seed. You might have the best luck with seed collected from racoon or opossum scat. However, that presages a challenge to getting the fruit from your trees -- the raccoons may beat you to them.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Patuxent River Park: Jug Bay Natural Area

The Patuxent River flows 110 miles from Parrs Ridge in Carroll County, all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. In 1968, it was designated one of Maryland's scenic rivers. And, in response to that designation, more than 6,000 acres of land are protected around the river. Jug Bay Natural Area is the headquarters of them all. In its 2,000 acres there are more than eight miles of trails, and there's more to explore on the water.

With a moderately short drive from DC (15 miles from the beltway), you'll be a world away. This part of the river is a tidal estuary. The water level rises and falls with the tide, and the flow of the river can slow or even reverse when the tide is coming in. These conditions attract a unique combination of plants and animals, and they're thriving in this protected area. More than 250 species of birds have been reported here; you're almost guaranteed to see ospreys, ducks, herons, cormorants, and red-winged blackbirds, and we often see bald eagles. The marshes have extensive swaths of wild rice, pickerel weed, and spatterdock. In the summer, joe pye weed, swamp milkweed, and ironweed attract lots of butterflies along the sides of the river. We've come across beavers and muskrats, and been delighted by many jumping fish.

Whether you get there by land or by water, we recommend a trip down to Mattaponi Creek, at the south end of the park. There, you'll find a small tower for wildlife observation, and a 1000-foot-long wooden bridge that goes through a marsh habitat. Six days a week, this area is closed to cars, but open to foot and bike traffic. On Sundays you can drive across the bridge and into Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, on what is called the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Tour.

(A note on names: the Jug Bay Natural Area of Patuxent River Park is on the west side of the Patuxent. There is also a fantastic park on the east side of the river called Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. We'll tell you more about them in another post.)

Hiking, biking, and horses: People, mountain bikes, and horses are all allowed on the trails in this park. Stop in the park office to get a map. MAMBO has this description:  "The trails on the right (west side of the park) are mostly easy, wide lanes; the extensive system of trails to the left are more technical single-track.The trails range from wide, grassy wood lanes to twisting single-track trails littered with downed tree limbs and roots. The trails occasionally plunge into narrow creek valleys, cross wooden footbridges, and then ascend on short, steep climbs. The high clay content in the soil holds water and the paths are often wet long after it rains." 

Boating: The park has two boat ramps (Jackson Landing and Selby Landing), and offers canoe and kayak rentals for the extremely reasonable rate of $15/day ($12 for PG County residents). Reservations are required - call the park office at 301-627-6074. Be sure to look at the tide tables when you're planning your trip. It's much more fun if you're working with the tide. Boats with trailers are also allowed with a fee.

Camping:
There are two group campsites in the park, but you have to reserve them far in advance (or go mid-week). Call the park for more information.

Fishing and Hunting: Fishing is permitted with a license. Waterfowl hunting is also permitted in the park; a limited number of blind sites are leased on a seasonal basis.

Dogs: Allowed in the park, but supposed to remain on leash at all times.

Patuxent River Park
16000 Croom Airport Road
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772
301-627-6074

Monday, September 14, 2009

Natural Happenings; 9/14-9/20

Each week, we list opportunities to get outdoors or learn about nature. Click through to the organization hosting each event for more details -- some events require registration or charge a fee.

This week's highlights: Saturday is Children's Day at Brookside Gardens, aimed primarily at families with children in pre-school through elementary school. There will be music, crafts, activities, and displays on the theme "Nature's Fun in Your Backyard.""Get outdoors amongst fun-filled nature activity tents, listen to the sounds of the RTT’s, and learn what to do with nature’s treasures in your own backyard. Check in at the information desk to obtain your “passport” for a schedule and map of the day’s event."

Also on Saturday, from 9 to 1, our very own Matt Cohen will be leading a wild edibles hike at Scott's Run for Ancestral Knowledge. Among some of the wild foods we’ll keep an eye out for will be pawpaws, hickory nuts, jewelweed, ramps, spicebush berries, wild grapes, and fungi such as chicken-of-the-woods, hen-of-the-woods, oyster mushrooms, and puffballs. Register here.

Also this week:

District Department of the Environment
Thu eve and Sat AM: 2-part workshop on backyard wildlife habitat and landscaping with native plants. At Walter Pierce Park. Contact backyardhabitat@dc.gov

Sierra Club
Sat: work, hike, canoe at American Chestnut Land Trust (res. required for canoe)
Sat: Bear Church Rock, SNP. (13 mi, 3000’ elevation gain)
Sun: Knob Mountain - Jeremy's Run, SNP (12.3 mi.; ~5200 ft. of elev. change)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: Conway River Over and Back (18 mi, 4200 ft elevation gain)
Wed: Sandy Spring Underground Railroad Trail (5 mi)

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Alexandria to National Harbor and back via the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (10 mi, from King Street Metro)
Sun: Doubletop Mountain, SNP (11 mi, from Vienna Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
Sat: Edinburg Gap to Mine Gap / Woodstock Tower, Massanutten Mtns.(9.1-12.8 mi, 1300-1500 ft ascent, bus transport)

Maryland Outdoor Club
Thu: Gunpowder Falls State Park
all weekend: Campout and Primitive Cooking Workshop at Earth Connection

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: Mt. Marshall, AT to Waterfall Branch in SNP (12-16 mi, 3400 ft elevation gain)
Sat: Hightop Mtn – Simmons Gap, SNP (10 mi)
Sun: North Mountain Trail in GWNF (13 mi)

Wanderbirds
Sat: Trout Pond and Rockcliff Lake, GWNF (8 or 12 mi, Farragut and Vienna Metro pickups)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Thu eve and Sun: Fall Wildflowers: Confusing Composites (class and field trip)
Thu to Fri: Fall Migration at Cape May
Fri: Late Summer Wings and Wildflowers at Lois Green Conservation Area in Mont. Cty
Sun: Thornton River Trail in SNP (5.5 mi)

Mycological Association of Washington
Sat: foray at Cabin John Regional Park (check to make sure it's happening)

United States Botanic Garden
Sat and Sun: Demonstration - Creating Dyes and Baskets with Native Plants
Sat and Sun: Art class - Painting Succulents in Gouache

Bladensburg Waterfront Park
Tue-Fri: free tour by pontoon boat at noon
Sat-Sun: free tour by pontoon boat at 5PM

Potomac Conservancy
Sat-Sun: Canoe camping on the Potomac

The Nature Conservancy
Tue: birding at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Sat: Fall River Discovery Program on the Nanticoke River

FOR KIDS

Audubon Naturalist Society
Sat: The Salamander Room (ages 3-6)
Sat: Centipedes (ages 6-9)

Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the park - drawing outdoors (ages 10+)
Wed: Pierce Mill walk (ages 5+)
Thu: Nature journal (ages 9+)
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Hiking basics 101 (ages 7+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)
Sun: Mushroom Madness (ages 7+)

Museum of Natural History
Daily tarantula feedings in the insect zoo and museum tours.
Tue: Hands-on activities in the Dig It! soil exhibit
Wed: Look at specimens or artifacts with a scientist in the Ocean Hall

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fire: Destruction and Regeneration

My heart goes out to the people who have suffered massive destruction from wildfires in California over the last weeks. But as I hear the stories of destruction, my mind can't help wandering to stories I have also heard recently about the constructive power of fire.

The most striking local example is at Nassawango Creek, a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Managers burned 240 of Nassawango Creek's 10,000 acres this spring. Dozens of orchids of multiple species sprang up after the fire -- in an area where there had been only seven orchid plants before. Most impressively, one of the orchids that emerged was last seen in Maryland 18 years ago.

Fires knock back invasive trees and other plants, and they enrich the soil. This gives native plants a chance to thrive, particularly those that have evolved in relationship to fire. It turns out some biologists in California think the wildfires will have a similar regenerative effect to the experience at Nassawango Creek. Manzanita seeds have probably been lying dormant on those hillsides since the last fire there in 1948. The wildfire will wake them up, and they won't have any competition from the Douglas firs and other trees that covered the hills before the fire. And the hills will start to look a little more like they did for centuries, or millenia, before Spanish missionaries arrived and started fighting fires.

Like the photo in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

LOOK FOR: Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the woods is a great mushroom with a great name. The fungus forms overlapping orange fans that look a little like the tailfeathers of a chicken. And if you cook it and eat it (only after careful ID, please!) you may find the texture a lot like chicken, too.


Photo by the Natural Capital
Before the tree leaves start to change, there isn't much orange in the woods. So chicken of the woods (also known as sulfur shelf, or Laetiporus sulphureus, literally "bright-pored sulphur-yellow") can be eye-catching even from quite a distance. There are actually two varieties. One is bright orange on top, with bright sulphur-yellow underneath. It always grows on tree trunks (standing or fallen). The other is a paler orange on top, and nearly white on the underside. It often grows from tree roots. Both have tiny pores on the underside, rather than the gills you see on grocery store mushrooms.

Chicken of the woods is fairly difficult to confuse with other mushroom species once you know what you're looking for. Still, if you want to eat the mushrooms you find, we highly recommend a foray with the Mycological Association of Washington. If you can't make it out with the group, get yourself a couple of ID books to cross-check your identification. And, even once you're sure you've got the right fungus, start out by eating only a little bit and see how it sits with you. For a small percentage of people, chicken of the woods can cause stomach upset.


Photo credit: Matt Reinbold
In the wild: As the name suggests, look in the woods -- although we've seen a few specimens of the root-growing variety coming up in suburban yards, we've found far more of the tree-growing variety in the woods. If you find some, check back again next year in the same spot -- they can come back several years in a row.

In your yard: Although there are companies that sell mushroom kits, we haven't seen this species for sale yet. You'll just have to go for a walk in the woods!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Natural History Classes at the USDA - Fall Schedule

Looking to learn about a specific subject in nature in more depth? Take your nature study to the next level with natural history classes jointly run by USDA and the Audubon Naturalist Society. We have taken other classes in this series and they have been very good. The only drawback: it's an investment of both time and money -- they meet weekly for about 10 weeks, and cost $355.

Geology
Saturdays 9 AM-12 PM, L'Enfant Plaza
September 26 - December 12, with field trips October 18 and November 15

We may not have the Rockies in our back yard, but we have the roots of mountains that were as high as the Alps. Although local earthquakes are rare now, this area broke in two twice and ocean flowed in. Central Atlantic geology tells a story as fascinating as any place on the planet. Course lectures introduce the landscapes, subsurface structures and geologic history of our region. Three field trips emphasize the recognition of local rock units and of the geological processes that created them.

Fall Woody Plant Identification
Thursday evenings, 7 - 9:15 PM, Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase
September 24 - November 12, with field trips October 3, October 24, and November 7

Autumn's glory is created by colorful trees and shrubs, so fall is the ideal time to study techniques of woody plant field identification. Participants study the major woody plant families and species found in the Central Atlantic's forest communities. Field trips feature the use of recognition characteristics and botanical keys to identify many local woody plants.

Introduction to Ecology
Tuesday evenings, 7-9 PM, Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase
September 22- November 24, with full-day field trips October 10 and November 7

A fundamental understanding of ecology and the physical and biological principles on which ecosystems depend is essential for any naturalist. Learn to interpret the patterns and processes of nature by studying energy flow, food webs, biogeochemical cycles, population dynamics, communities, behavioral and evolutionary ecology, biodiversity, biomes and plant/animal interactions.

Birds of the World
Monday evenings, 7-9 PM, Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase
September 21 - November 30, with a field trip October 24

Learn about the avifauna of each continent or region. Review the factors that contribute to the climate, geography and topography of each continent or region and how they affect the distribution of birds. Study the diversity of families, the number of species, the endemic and/or unique species of each continent, and the conservation efforts being taken to preserve endangered and threatened species. Each lesson will use the instructor's slides and other media to illustrate points in the discussion. Knowledge of bird classification would be helpful.

Estuarine Ecosystems
Monday evenings, 6-8 PM, Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase
September 21 - November 30, with field trips October 10, October 17, and October 24

Discover the dynamic nature of the estuarine environment through study of the interaction between basic physical, chemical and biological processes in the Chesapeake Bay. Explore biological and geochemical cycles and discuss the interaction between nutrients and overall productivity affecting the health of the Bay. Examine the effects of pollution and resources management and the processes that influence temperature and salinity distributions.

Eastern Forest Ecosystems
Monday evenings, 6-8 PM, L'Enfant Plaza
September 21- November 30, with field trips October 3, October 17, October 24-25 (overnight in Canaan Valley), and November 14
Explore the interconnectedness between deciduous and coniferous forest biomes of the mid-Atlantic region. Using field studies to augment in-class sessions, you delve into the study of mid-Atlantic forest ecosystems in order to chart this region's environmental uniqueness on a national scale. Forest ecosystem topics include: oak-hickory, oak-chestnut (mixed oak), mixed mesophytic, and bottomland deciduous forest communities. You explore localize biological relationships in geographical terms. Discussions cover the following forest ecosystems: the coniferous forests of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, Eastern Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Southern, Southwestern, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions. You discover the intimate relationships between northern coniferous, deciduous forest mixtures of the Allegheny Mountains and the local environments of various states.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Natural Happenings: 9/7-9/13

Each week, we list opportunities to get outdoors or learn about nature. Click through to the organization hosting each event for more details -- some events require registration or charge a fee.

This week's highlight: On Sunday, the Sierra Club is leading a 5 mile hike on a new section of the Potomac Heritage Trail in eastern Loudoun County, through Algonkian Regional Park and the adjacent Horsepen Run Preserve. "Excellent views of the Potomac River, and the forests and meadows of a beautiful wildlife sanctuary." Followed by a picnic at Algonkian Park with other folks from the Sierra Club outings group: "Enjoy volleyball/badminton, horseshoes, or watching your dog swim at the park pool. There is a great children’s playground, and a boat launch ramp, so bring you own canoe/kayak for a paddle in the Potomac River...There are also miniature and championship golf courses nearby. We’ll provide hotdogs, hamburgers, veggie burgers, trimmings, bread, chips, and nonalcoholic beverages, along with paper and plastic ware; you may bring appetizers, side dishes, or desserts to share."

Also this week:

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: SNP - Thornton Gap and Hollow Highlights (15 mi, 4000 ft ascent)
Wed: Meadowside Nature Center hike (5 mi)

Center Hiking Club
Mon: Lake Frank with both hiking and biking (5-6 mi, from Shady Grove)
Sat: Kent Island in Queen Anne's County (6 mi, from New Carrollton Metro)
Sun: Hoover Camp in SNP (10 mi, from Vienna Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
Sat: Hannah Run Trail/Hazel Country, SNP (6.2-10.2 mi, 2700-3600 ft ascent, bus transport)

Maryland Outdoor Club
Sun: Jug Bay pontoon boat tour and hike

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: Tuscarora Trail (9 mi)
Sat: Thompson Wildlife Management Area (6.3 mi)
Sun: Hound Hike Around Lake Mercer (4 mi)

Washington Women Outdoors
Sat: Register by Wednesday - Patapsco River Half-Day Hike (5 mi)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Thu eve: Antomology: An Introduction to the Natural History of Backyard Ants
Sat: Spiders 101 at McKee Beshers
Sun: birding at Little Bennett Park, MD
Sun: Geology along Four Mile Run (4 mi hike)
Sun eve: Evening Walk on the Canal

Maryland Native Plant Society
Sun: Plant and Pollinator Photography, Blue Marsh Nature Trail, Montgomery County

Rock Creek Park
Sat: Dumbarton Oaks tour (ages 8+)
Sat: Sneak Peak of Ken Burns' documentary America's Best Idea, about the National Parks
Sat eve: Owl hunt (ages 8+)

United States Botanic Garden
Mon and Thurs: Lunchtime tours of the conservatory
Fri: Victory Gardens: Join the Garden Revolution!
Sat: Tour of the National Garden's native plants of the Mid-Atlantic region

Bladensburg Waterfront Park
Tue-Fri: free tour by pontoon boat at noon
Sat-Sun: free tour by pontoon boat at 5PM

Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Sat: Paddle the Potomac with the Surfrider Foundation from Thompson Boat Center to Key Bridge; pick up trash at Roosevelt Island

Museum of Natural History
see below for kids activities.
Sat: Darwin Anniversary Symposium

FOR KIDS

Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the park - drawing outdoors (ages 10+)
Wed: Pierce Mill walk (ages 5+)
Thu: Nature journal (ages 9+)
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Dumbarton Oaks tour (ages 8+)
Sat: Sneak Peak of Ken Burns' documentary America's Best Idea, about the National Parks
Sat eve: Owl hunt (ages 8+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)
Sun: A Bug's Life (ages 5-10)

United States Botanic Garden
Preschool "Sprouts" program, Wednesday mornings - must register for a month at a time. September session starts on this Wednesday. Ages 3-5.

Museum of Natural History
Daily tarantula feedings in the insect zoo and museum tours.
Tue: Hands-on activities in the Dig It! soil exhibit
Wed: Look at specimens or artifacts with a scientist in the Ocean Hall
Sat: Create your own nature bio-journal (Ages 4+)

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stop Deer from Destroying Rock Creek Park

There are far too many deer in Rock Creek Park. I'm not talking about how they leave the park to eat your hostas. They're hurting the park itself. Please take a minute to read this post and do something about it.

Estimates of how many deer can live sustainably in a forest vary, but the park's science team thinks 15 to 20 deer per square mile is reasonable for Rock Creek Park. Before European settlement of this region, there were even fewer -- maybe 8 to 11 deer per square mile. The number in Rock Creek Park? As of 2007, 82 deer per square mile and growing at 20% per year. Yikes.

At this population level, deer are preventing regeneration of the forest. Tree seedlings get chomped by a passing deer before they can grow large enough to survive. The loss of vegetation can also increase erosion and stormwater runoff, and it destroys cover that protects numerous birds and other animals. Not to mention destroying the shrubs and plants themselves.

How did we get to this point? First of all, there are no deer predators left in the District, other than cars. Second, ongoing development in the suburbs creates lots of "edge" habitat where deer thrive, while simultaneously reducing hunting. And Rock Creek is part of a long green corridor that reaches into Montgomery County, meaning what is going on up there can affect conditions in the park.

In light of all this, the park has developed a new deer management plan. This 400-page report is full of interesting information (including a list of endangered and rare species in the park, bird lists, and maps of dominant vegetation types, which may inspire other posts here soon). But most importantly, it describes four alternatives for dealing with the deer:

  1. No new action - Monitoring, data management, research, and use of protective caging and repellents in landscaped areas; the deer population would likely continue to grow.
  2. Non-lethal actions - Very large fenced areas (5% of the park) would allow some forest regeneration while park staff would slowly reduce the deer population through reproductive control. There would still be a lot of damage to unfenced areas in the park while we wait for the population to decline.
  3. Lethal actions - Killing the deer through sharpshooting (and by capture and killing where sharpshooting would not be appropriate). This would rapidly reduce the deer population to a sustainable level.
  4. Both lethal and non-lethal actions (the recommended alternative) - quickly reduce the number of deer, following up with population control so they never get back to this point.

The park is asking for feedback on these options. You can weigh in by mail or online. The comment periods ends on October 2, 2009. If you love Rock Creek Park, please take a minute to submit a comment on the plan. And if you've got another minute, come back here and leave your comment as a comment on this post. We'd love to see what you said!

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

LOOK FOR: Goldfinches

Goldfinches are one of the most brightly colored common birds in the DC area. If you saw one in a tropical area, you might be transfixed...but here, it's just a goldfinch. Well, stop and let yourself be transfixed anyway. They're lovely birds.


Male goldfinch by ehpien
It's the male goldfinch that's a showy yellow-and-black bird. The female is the same size and shape, but is much duller-colored. You'll often see them together in pairs (they're monogamous) or groups. During the winter, the males will molt and take on the duller colors of the female. They'll grow brighter feathers again in the spring in time for mating season, which is the real purpose of all that color, after all.

Unlike most birds, goldfinches rely almost entirely on seeds; they don't seek out insects for food at all. In fact, you could call them "thistle birds" -- the first part of the Latin name Carduelis tristis comes from Carduus, a genus of thistle found in Europe and Asia. (The species name, tristis, comes from the Latin for "sad," which makes no sense to me - anyone?)


Female goldfinch by sofafort
Around August, the goldfinches start to regularly come to our yard to eat the seeds of our summer flowers. Among the flowers we offer, they seem to be particularly attracted to anise hyssop, purple coneflower, oxeye sunflower, and black-eyed susan. In the spring it also brings in the goldfinches when we let the kale and cilantro go to seed in the vegetable garden. Other flowers reported as attractive include milkweed, asters, and sunflowers. They'll also feed on grasses and the seeds of trees, including alder, birch, western red cedar, and elm.

Besides looking for the distinctive yellow markings, you can learn to listen for the song of the goldfinch. This video has a good example:



In the wild: Look for meadows on edges of woods. Goldfinches will feed on the seeds of the sun-loving flowers in the meadow (where you'll be able to see them better), but nest in the trees and shrubs.

In your yard: You can purchase birdfeeders specially designed for goldfinches, and fill them with thistle or nyjer seed. Squirrels seem less interested in these tiny seeds than in a typical birdseed mix, but be careful -- those plants may start growing where you don't want them from spilled seed. Goldfinches will also eat sunflower seeds out of a more typical birdseed. Or, just plant yourself a goldfinch garden with some of the native flowers listed above.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chesapeake Bay: "As Dead As the Face of the Moon"

Frontline's 2-hour special, "Poisoned Waters" is not exactly light end-of-summer fun...unless you like horror stories. But if you love the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac, it's a highly disturbing must-watch program. As we reach the end of beach season, it seemed worth passing along.

The first hour uses our area as an example of the problems facing numerous water systems: pollution and dead zones due to sewage and runoff (sections 3&4), including a vast array of new contaminants like endocrine disruptors that are unregulated by the EPA (sections 5&6). The local examples pick back up at 1h30min, with case studies of development in "ecological disaster" Tyson's Corner and successful citizen action to slow development in Loudon County (section 12). The good news continues with "showcase for smart growth" Arlington (section 13).

One of the closing quotes:

"The estuaries and the wetlands are worth vastly more money than we have acknowledged. If we could calculate and persuade the public how valuable the wetlands are in terms of the web of life, we would be guarding them like the family jewels, instead of using them as our great sewage dump."