Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What are your nature highlights of 2010?

At the end of the year I love to go back through all the pictures and notes we made during the year. Here are five local nature experiences I had in 2010 that rise to the top - links are to posts on our personal (and very intermittent) photo blog:

  • Snowpocalypse will be memorable for a long time. Especially beautiful were walks we took on the Northwest Branch and on the Billy Goat Trail. It's amazing to see how transformed the world can be.
  • A mixed flock of spring migrants that came to our yard while we happened to be looking out our bedroom window -- including three warbler species we'd never seen in our yard before.
  • In June, we were camping on the Shenandoah River for a friends' wedding and went out canoeing every morning. One day, I saw a catfish flopping around on the surface of the water and realized it was being caught by a mink!
  • At one point this summer, it was so hot that the raccoon that lives in our oak tree came down and went swimming in our little backyard pond -- and we happened to notice.
  • And then we went camping at Jug Bay when the pickerel weed was blooming and covered in hundreds of butterflies.

Beyond DC, we took an amazing trip to Costa Rica last winter. I like to argue that DC has plenty to keep a nature lover entertained for a lifetime, but we don't have monkeys or quetzals. Or warm weather in January. We also went to Colorado to visit family, and I went to Yellowstone this summer, tacked onto a work trip. Both amazing.

What were your natural highlights of the year?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Vacation

We're headed to Florida for Christmas: a week in the Keys with family and stopping in the Everglades and Merritt Island on the way back. (To live vicariously, here are our pictures from our last trip to South Florida.)

Do you have any exciting plans for the holiday break? We'd love to hear about it!

Our last trip to the Everglades

Monday, December 20, 2010

Calendar: Hikes next Saturday (Dec. 25)

How will you get outside this Christmas? We'll be in the Florida Keys, so I'm hoping to go swimming! For those of you staying in town, our calendar is a little thin this week. But there are a couple of hikes scheduled for next Saturday morning.

The Capital Hiking Club will be doing a 10 mile route along the Virignia side of one of the most beautiful stretches of the Potomac River -- from Riverbend Park to Great Falls.

And the Center Hiking Club will be on the other side of the river, hiking from Tenleytown to Rosslyn through Glover Archbold and Battery Kemble Parks and along the C&O Canal. Some of the group will eat together in Rosslyn after the hike.

Stay warm, and have a happy holiday!

Mather Gorge at Great Falls
Mather Gorge in winter by cvconnell

Friday, December 17, 2010

LOOK FOR: Christmas Fern

There are 12,000 species of ferns in the world, but I can only identify about five of them without looking them up. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the easiest.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostiichoides)
Photo credit: Kent McFarland
At this time of year, one of the most notable things about Christmas fern is that it is one of just a few ferns that grow in our area that is evergreen. In fact, people used to harvest the leaves for use in wreaths and other Christmas decorations -- thus the common name.

But you can easily identify Christmas fern at other times of year, too. Look at the shape of the leaflets: they're bent into a J shape near where the leaflet joins the stem. Think of them as little Christmas stockings, and you will always recognize the Christmas fern!

In the wild: Christmas fern is common in our local woods, especially along streams and on hillsides. Its green should stand out at this time of year.

In your yard: These are a great option to get a little year-round green in a shady spot that doesn't get too dry. Christmas ferns are widely available at local nurseries, but they aren't cheap -- ferns are hard to propagate. They can be divided if you've got a friend with a healthy clump: do it in the spring when they're sending up new shoots, and make sure you get several fiddleheads per division.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Photo credit: Kent McFarland

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Southerner's Guide to Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter

DC is in a funny middle ground, geographically speaking. Is it the northern edge of the south, or the southern edge of the north? Having spent good chunks of my life in much warmer climes, DC is about as far north as I'm willing to live. I'm just not a big fan of cold weather. (If DC is as far south as you're willing to live, this post might not be for you.)

I am a big fan of being outdoors, so I try not to let the cold keep me inside all winter. Every year as the thermometer takes a nose-dive I have to remind myself of all the coping strategies I've come up with:

>> Do you have tricks for staying warm outside? Leave a comment below.

Sugar Plum Snowflake
Photo credit: CaptPiper
Stay dry. Moisture is a killer in cold temperatures. This is the number one rule, underlying several of the others on this list.

Removable layers on top. If I'm going to be moving around, I know I'll stay drier (and therefore possibly even warmer) if I can easily take off a layer once I warm up.

Long johns on the bottom. My discovery of long underwear after leaving Florida for college changed my experience of winter from agony to a reluctant truce. I've got three different weights (silk, polypro, and fleece) so I can aim for just the right level of insulation. For me, this is a below-the-waist solution: most long john tops actually make me too hot.

Learn to live with hat-head. Every day I cringe on my way to the metro when I see people walking around without a hat in this weather. How do they do it? Mom was only partially right: it turns out your head is no more efficient than any other exposed part of your body at losing heat. But if it's the only part of your body that's uncovered, you'll lose a lot of heat that way. And your head is more sensitive to cold than other body parts. I'd rather go with a hat and lighter clothing than the other way around.

Matt in the snowy forest
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Mittens are warmer than gloves. Somehow, pooling the body heat from all four digits makes a huge difference. This is another item I have to take off once I get moving. But it's so nice on a cold winter day to have warm hands!

Europeans know how to tie a scarf. You do wear a scarf, don't you? I just learned this trick last year: fold your scarf in half, put the folded scarf around your neck, then tuck the loose ends through the fold. This is much warmer than just wrapping: it seems to stay a lot snugger on my neck.

Keep moving. Inside your layers, you'll generate a good amount of heat if you keep moving. But there's a corrollary that goes back to rule #1: don't get all sweaty.

Adjust your attitude. I'll admit it: this is the hardest one for me. But if I go outside expecting to be miserable, there's a much better chance that I'll be miserable. There's always something beautiful in nature to be discovered, even on the coldest day. But you have to go outside to find it!

How do you stay warm in winter? Leave us a comment below.

Photo credit: gfpeck

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Calendar: Meteors, Lunar Eclipse, Solstice (Dec. 13-21)

There are three astronomical events over the week or so that are well worth paying attention to.

1. The Geminid meteor shower peaks Monday night, December 13. The very best time to watch is actually 2 AM or later (set an early alarm clock?) but there should be sporadic shooting stars throughout the night. Bundle up and take your sleeping bag to the darkest patch of sky you can find. If you want company, there will be a campfire for meteor watchers on Monday night at Maydale Park in Colesville, MD at 7 PM. (Organized through Brookside Nature Center)

During Lunar Eclipse
Lunar eclipse by Not Quite a Photographr
2. On the night of Monday, December 20, there will be a total lunar eclipse, with the moon moving into the earth's shadow. The next one won't be until 2014. The eclipse will start about half an hour after midnight and last for about 70 minutes. You can watch from home, but if you want company, folks will be watching from the Montgomery College Planetarium with a telescope (or inside online if the weather is bad).

3. The winter solstice will occur at 6:38 PM on Tuesday, December 21. This forms the theme of a Montgomery College Planetarium show that night: it will explore the astronomical events associated with the first day of winter. The planetarium director adds, "If any one asks about the Star of Bethlehem I will answer the question."

There are lots more activities and hikes on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Friday, December 10, 2010

LOOK FOR: Squirrel Nests

If you're ever stuck in the wilderness without shelter, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from the cold is to build a shelter out of sticks, insulated by several feet of leaves.

squirrel nest
Photo credit: Heart Windows Art
Squirrels do exactly that, high up in the trees. And now that the leaves have dropped, you can see them all over the place.

Squirrels' nests (also known as dreys) look like a big pile of leaves caught on a tree branch. In the summer, they may not be much more than that. But winter nests are much more carefully constructed. The squirrels weave together twigs and vines to build a roofed living space. Often, they'll use twigs that still have leaves attached, which starts their outer layer of insulation. Then, they'll add more leaves on the outside. And they line the inside with bark, grass, leaves, and other soft materials -- even animal hair. (Your shedding dog or cat may have done its part to keep a squirrel warm this winter.)

Along with a good fur coat, this multi-layer construction is enough to keep the squirrels safe and warm on most winter nights. For very cold weather, though, squirrels may hold sleepovers, bringing friends into their nest for extra body heat. If you've ever shared a good comforter on a cold night, you know what a difference another body can make. Apparently, so do the squirrels.

This video has great close-up footage of a nest -- and baby squirrels!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Identifying Trees in Winter

If making sense of trees seems daunting with the leaves to help you, it can seem downright impossible without them. But if you look closely, there are lots of clues: seed pods, leaf and flower buds, and bark can all help tell one tree from another even in the dead of winter. On Saturday we went out with a hardy crew to see what we could see in Sligo Creek park.

>> Do you have a favorite tree in the winter? Leave a comment below.

Eastern Hemlock
Hemlock by Mr.Mac2009
Hemlocks are rare in our area, but there happened to be a nice large one planted right by the parking lot where we started on Saturday. Notice the flat needles, growing more or less in a plane off each twig. Their cones are much smaller than a pine cone but similar in shape.

(See our previous post on hemlocks and why they're struggling to survive.)

Wet Red River Birch (Gaithersburg, MD)
River birch bytakomabibelot
River birch is also fairly uncommon in our area. When you see it, it will be near water. Or in someone's yard: this tree has really attractive exfoliating bark and a very fine branching structure, made even frillier by catkins hanging off the ends of the twigs.

On our walk, a big river birch was covered in birds including nuthatches, titmice, and a woodpecker. I bet the layers of that bark are a good place to look for insects at this time of year.

Tuliptree seed pods by geneva_wirth
One of the most common trees in our area is the tuliptree (or tulip poplar). High up in the winter canopy, the seed clusters are a surefire way to identify this tree. The ground beneath the tree will probably be littered with seeds, as well.

(See also our post about the wonderful flowers that produce these seeds.)

Sycamore by crowdive

Sycamores also hold their seedpods through the winter: soft little balls of seeds that often attract birds. But what really makes sycamores stand out in our forest canopy is their white branches. Their lower trunks are often covered with exfoliating bark that makes a pattern a lot like army camouflage.

Black walnut by Gemma Grace

If sycamores are the lightest tree in our forest, black walnuts are the darkest. It's not a perfect test, but often if there's a tree darker than all the others around it, it's a walnut. At this time of year, there may be a few stray nuts hanging on the branches or dropped on the ground to help you identify the tree.

(See also our post on collecting black walnuts in the fall.)

Beech bud
Beech leaf bud by bob the lomond
Beeches are another tree with distinctive bark: it's grey and smooth, even when they're quite large. (This has made them the favorite of lovers and graffiti artists throughout the ages.)

Beech trees often hold their leaves into winter, and they have these distinctive leaf buds on the ends of each twig: thin and pointy.

Ash by withrow
In contrast, ash trees have fat, squat leaf buds, to accommodate their big compound leaves. This can make the twigs look much blunter than the finely tapering branches of other trees.

Ash is one of the few tall trees native to our area that has leaves and branches that grow directly opposite each other. The side branches often curve toward the end of the branch, making a pitchfork shape.

Swollen Buds
Red maple flower buds byMr.Mac2009

Maples are the other tall trees common to our area that have opposite leaves and branches. Red maples have already set their buds for the tiny flowers that will bloom early in the spring. This gives the twigs a knobby look, even from far away.

(See also our post on maple sap.)

Spicebush buds by the Natural Capital

Spicebush has also set its flower buds for next year. The branches of spicebush are not opposite each other on the stem, but the flowers do tend to come in pairs. The surest way to identify spicebush is by smell: scratch and sniff a twig. If it reminds you of something like allspice or nutmeg, it's spicebush.

(See also our posts on spicebush flowers and berries.)

Even in December, we found some wild edibles on our walk as well: oyster mushrooms and dock.

This was our last organized hike for 2010; to get on a mailing list for 2011 send an email to

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Calendar: Winter Crafts (Dec. 8-12)

It's a crafty time of year for kids and adults alike, and local nature centers know it. All activities below require advance registration. As always, there are many hikes and other activities on our calendar.

Kissing ball by Robb & Jessie Stankey
On Wednesday at Long Branch Nature Center, there will be a kids' nature program on snow that includes making a snow globe. I'm intrigued. Ages 6-10. $5.

On Saturday at Meadowside Nature Center they'll be making holiday "kissing balls" made with natural materials and mistletoe. The activity includes a hike to collect materials; bring clippers. Ages 16+. $7.

On both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Long Branch Nature Center and Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington have a great offer: leave your kids from 1-5, and they'll entertain them with crafts and nature activities. Ages 4-14; $25.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Things to Look For in December

Over at the Jackdaw's Nest, there's a wonderful collection of poems about December. Marge Piercy writes:

Every day we are shortchanged a bit more,
night pressing down on the afternoon
throttling it. Wan sunrise later
and later, every day trimmed
like an old candle you beg to give
an hour's more light.

Here are a few of the things that give our winter a little more light. Links are to last year's posts:

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco by ehpien
As I get grumpy about cold weather, it's good to remind myself of the junco -- who comes down from Canada to enjoy our (relatively) balmy winter. At least we're not in Canada, I say. Plus, they're cute little birds.

Berry Pretty 3
Holly by Kevin H.
The garlands of greenery went up in my office building this week, just like clockwork. But the tradition of bringing holly inside at this time of year pre-dates Christmas. And there's plenty to celebrate about these berries -- and the birds they attract -- even if you're not decking the halls.

Ben's breath
Ben's Breath by nordicshutter
Your breath is often visible around this time of year. Look at it as a measure of temperature and humidity, or enjoy the visible reminder of the breath of all life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Calendar: Celebrating Both Nature and the Holidays

Christmas is the focus of most light displays at this time of year, but there are a few impressive shows whose focus is as much about nature as the holidays.

Scale Model_The Capitol (side view)
The Capitol, in sticks. Photo by catface3
The US Botanic Garden's annual holiday exhibit is open now through January 2. They're open every day from 10am to 5pm, with extended hours and musical performances on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Last year we were utterly charmed by the model village filled with Washington buildings and more fanciful dwellings all made out of plant materials and fungi! Free.

Brookside Gardens also brings a decidedly botanic and nature-loving twist to its impressive holiday celebration, the Garden of Lights. They're open now, every night through the end of the year except Christmas eve and Christmas, from 5:30 to 9pm. $20-25 per vehicle (but it's a walk-through display).

Zoo Lights opens this Friday (from 6-8:30pm), and each week it will highlight a different area of the zoo with animal themed light displays. They're open Friday through Sunday for the next couple of weeks, then most nights of the weeks before and after Christmas. Free (there's charge for parking even if you're a member).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Calendar: Thanksgiving Weekend (Nov. 25-28)

We'll be taking the rest of the week off from the Natural Capital to spend time with family. Have a great holiday!

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard
Thursday marks the beginning of calorie overload season (unless, of course, you want to count back to Halloween). Some of our local hiking organizations have your back.

For those of you who won't be cooking all morning, the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club have a joint hike on Thanksgiving morning: 5 miles in Huntley Meadows, promised to be done by noon. Trip leaders may be able to help you find a ride. Free.

After the fact, there are a couple of long hikes scheduled aimed to work off your big meal over the weekend:

On Saturday, the Capital Hiking Club will go 9 miles on the Potomac Heritage Trail and C&O from Key Bridge to Chain Bridge and back. $3.

And on Sunday, the Center Hiking Club will cover 10 miles in the southernmost part of Rock Creek Park, leaving from Rosslyn Metro. $2 for non-members.

For kids: T is for Turkey at Brookside Nature Center Saturday morning. " Learn all about turkeys through a story and hike." Ages 2-6; $3.

As always, there are many more hikes and other activities on our calendar.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

LOOK FOR: Lichens

As the leaves disappear from the trees and many other plants die back to the ground, many lichens will remain in their glorious diversity, bringing color to the forest even in the winter. Science Friday recently produced this charming video that will get you started in the wide world of lichenology.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Geography Week Quiz: Can You Name These Parks?

Every year for National Geography Awareness Week (this week!), the National Air and Space Museum runs a contest in which participants identify a variety of locations around the world, from aerial photos. This is our local version. Can you name these local parks? (Hint: We've featured them all on the Natural Capital.)

Type your answers in the blanks below then click "submit" to see the correct answers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Calendar: Early Thanksgiving-Themed Activities (November 20-21)

Wild Turkey / Dindon sauvage
Photo credit: Eric Bégin
On Saturday morning, Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton is hosting an event for ages 3-12: "Give thanks to the park's animals by hiking to their homes & leaving a favorite treat. Then make a treat to take with you for the animals at home." $5; Reservations required.

And on Sunday morning, there's a turkey-themed walk at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly. "Discover the wild turkey's habits and secret ways during a walk in the cedar forest. Look for wild turkeys and their signs." $5; Register online or call 703-222-4664.

While it's not explicitly called a Thanksgiving activity, the kid-oriented Native American Stories, Games and Hunting program at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale could be a great reminder of the original history of Thanksgiving. "With traditional stories and games, children age four and older with an adult explore the culture of eastern woodland Indians during the period of first European contact. The woodland walk highlights the use of native plants and animals for staples in our grocery stores and pharmacies." $6; Register online or call 703-222-4664.

As always, there are many more hikes and other activities on our calendar.

Want to receive ideas from our calendar in your inbox, once a week (or on Facebook or Twitter)? Sign up here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Trip Report: Fall Fruits on the C&O Canal

This time of year is the last hurrah for late-fruiting trees and plants, before everything shuts down for the winter. Several of these late fruits are high in sugar and/or fat:  important to birds as they fuel their migration or hunker down for the winter, and tasty to humans. Here's a list of the things we found on our walk on the C&O Canal last Saturday. The fruits we sampled are marked with an asterisk; links are to previous posts on the Natural Capital. Check for our future walks here.

Edible fruits
Persimmon* (Diospyros virginiana)
Hackberry* (Celtis sp.)
Blackhaw* (Viburnum prunifolium)
Grape* (Vitis sp.)
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)

Persimmon tree on the C&O Canal by Cindy Cohen

Inedible fruits
Arrowood (Viburnum dentatum)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Greenbrier (Smilax sp.)
Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla sp.)

Staghorn sumac on the C&O Canal by Cindy Cohen

Matt with chicken & hen of the woods by Cindy Cohen
Also noted
Pawpaw (fruited earlier in the fall)
Maple (good for syrup later in the winter!)

Bonus fungi
Michael brought us two large mushroom clusters that he found in his neighbor's yard: hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) and chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). It's late for chicken but you may still see hens -- others brought big clusters to the meeting of the Mycological Association of Washington this Tuesday.

What have you been seeing out on the trail lately?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What's the Best Book You Read About Nature in 2010?

I come from a family of book readers and gift givers, and at this time of year the two converge pretty heavily as I start thinking about books to give and to request for Christmas.

For those of you in the same boat, or just looking for a good read, I'll tell you the best nature-oriented book I read this year, hands down:

Where the Wild Things Were, by William Stolzenburg. It's a fascinating review of recent research on the importance of predators as regulators of ecosystems. Most notably, there's an entire chapter devoted to the overpopulated deer of the DC metro area. Long story short: because there are no predators for the deer, the entire forest ecosystem is having trouble reproducing.

I know there are lots of books I haven't made it to this year -- any you'd recommend?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Calendar: Some of Our Favorite Trails (November 13-14)

Among the many hiking offerings on this week's calendar are visits to several of our favorite trails.

Curly Fern
Photo credit: Cowtools
Potomac Heritage: Saturday, the Audubon Naturalist Society is hiking from Riverbend Park in Fairfax to Great Falls on the Potomac Heritage Trail ($20-$35). And on Sunday, the Sierra Club is hiking the stretch from Algonkian Regional Park in Loudoun County to Riverbend Park (Free).

Fern Valley: Casey Trees is leading a tree walk on the National Arboretum's Fern Valley Trail on Saturday (Free). It's a beautiful section dedicated to native trees and plants.

Northwest Branch: on Sunday, the Audubon Naturalist Society is back out with a hike on this gem of a trail along the northwest branch of the Anacostia River, in Montgomery County ($20-28).

There are plenty more ideas of things to do on the calendar. We'll see you out there!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Things to Look For in November

I am a grouch about the cold, but really, there are a lot of things to love about this time of year. Links are to previous posts on the Natural Capital.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia Albicollis)
White throated sparrow by Dave Maher
The white throated sparrows are back in town for the winter. Listen for their song of "Oh Canada, Canada, Canada" as they long for their summer home. It's always nice, as the weather starts to get colder and colder, to remind myself that some critters think our winter is downright balmy, and travel hundreds of miles to enjoy it.
Witch hazel by pellaea
As one of the last things in the DC area to flower in the fall, witch hazel has a special place in my heart. It's not that the flowers are particularly showy -- the petals are just small yellow wisps, really. But they start blooming in October, and can keep going until Thanksgiving or even later.
Persimmon fruits, my Thanksgiving treat
Persimmons by Janet Powell
Persimmons are another special late-year treat -- though this year, they've been falling for a few weeks already. When they're not ripe, they'll make your mouth pucker. But when they're soft to the point of falling off the tree, they're sweet and luscious. We're hoping to find some on our walk this Saturday.
Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)
Wild turkeys by pverdonk
Of course, by the end of the month, most of us will be thinking of turkey. Read our post for some fun facts about wild turkeys, which apparently live in Rock Creek Park -- last year just after our post a reader told me she regularly sees them off Military Road. Keep an eye out!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Calendar: Trees (November 6-7)

Greetings from Connecticut, where this cold snap is five degrees colder than in DC. (The fall leaves sure made for a pretty train ride, though.) We can complain about the cold, but don't let the sudden change of weather keep you back: there's lots to do outside!

I'm looking forward to being back in town in time for the walk Matt's leading on Saturday. Come out with us to our favorite stretch of the canal and we'll check on several fruit-bearing trees, including persimmons, black haw, and hackberry. (Register here.)

Also on Saturday, the Anacostia Watershed Society is holding a tree planting event in Hyattsville, the Maryland Native Plant Society is leading a tree anatomy walk at Wheaton Regional Park, and there's a walk to look for the biggest trees at Brookside Nature Center.

Look for details on these and many other options on our calendar.

Racoon in a persimmon tree by Michael Hodge

Friday, October 29, 2010

LOOK FOR: Marmorated Stink Bugs

Have you had stink bugs in your home yet? As it cools down, expect to see more. I'm not a huge fan, but these bugs aren't going anywhere. So let's take a closer look.

Stink Bug
Photo credit: fangleman
If you're a gardener you may recognize stink bugs as a relative of other "shield" bugs like the harlequin beetle. They share a triangular shield on their backs, and sucking mouth parts that they use to sip sap from leaves and juice from fruits. Our brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) are distinguished by a marbled (marmorated) brown back, with white markings on the bottoms of the wings and white stripes on the antennae. And, most distinguishing of all, they emit a stinky chemical from their abdomen and thorax when they feel threatened -- a very effective weapon against predators.

Stink bug
Photo credit: Allie's Dad
Marmorated stink bugs just came to Pennsylvania around 1998, and have been spreading through the eastern United States. Since they didn't evolve here, we don't have any critters around that have evolved to hold their noses and eat them. (In Asia, there's a parasitic wasp that attacks their eggs.) So, these bugs are here to stay.

Stink bugs don't bite or sting, and are generally harmless to humans except for their smell. The best thing is to keep them out of your house in the first place: seal up cracks around windows and doors where they can squeeze in. (It's good for your heating bill, too.) When you do catch them indoors, don't squash them -- you'll regret it for hours. Instead, drop them in a glass of soapy water, or just scoot them outdoors.

And then, you can sing this song:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Three Billy Goats: Section C

If I could rename just one of the trails in the DC metro area, I might pick Section C of the Billy Goat Trail. There's no rock scrambling, so it's the least billy goat-y of the three billy goats. Instead, I think of it as the Paw Paw Trail. Paw paw trees line much of the route, and we've reliably found ripe fruit here every September for several years.

Whatever it's called, this is an easy 1.6 mile trail (plus a mile back on the towpath). It's accessible from Carderock Recreation Area off the Clara Barton Parkway (see the park service map). From the westernmost parking lot, you'll start on a boardwalk and then follow the blue blazes as the trail goes off to the left. There are lots of little side trails in this area that have been bushwhacked by rock climbers. Considering how many great rock faces to climb and boulders to boulder on there are around here, the trail is remarkably un-rocky.

You'll go downhill and cross a couple of streams. By the second stream there's good access to the Potomac, with a wide open view of the river.

After about a mile, you'll come to a T in the trail. If you go to the left, it will take you up to the easternmost parking lot at Carderock. But keep following the blue blazes and cross the bridge instead. In a few tenths of a mile you'll happen upon another stream, with a very small waterfall. Hop across and you'll soon come to a quiet, sunny little pond. From here, the trail heads left and uphill before it quickly reaches the canal towpath.

Out of the three Billy Goat sections, this walk back on the towpath is the least interesting -- and the closest to the road. You'll hear, and even see, cars on the Clara Barton Parkway for most of the way back. If you're up for the extra half mile, you might do better to just retrace your steps and take the Billy Goat back to where you started.

See also: Section A, Section B

Monday, October 25, 2010

Calendar: Tricks & Treats (October 29-31)

The fun started last week, but there's plenty more on our calendar for Halloween this weekend.

haunted tree
Photo credit: garibaldi
Friday is a Halloween party (ages 3+) at Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville: "Wear your costume and join the Meadowside staff for a howling night of family fun...We’ll go on a haunted hike, and make fun Halloween crafts to take home." Register kids ($8); adults are free.

On Saturday, Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton will have a Halloween-themed scavenger hunt on the trail.

Saturday night, take your kids trick-or-treating in Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna ($10), or to the Halloween party and hike at Potomac Overlook Park in Arlington ($10-15).

Rock Creek Park will show special Halloween-themed shows in the planetarium several times over the weekend. They've also got a program about bats on Saturday at 2:00.

Of course, there's a whole bunch of walks on our calendar that have nothing whatsoever to do with Halloween. Work off all the sugar, escape the sanity on the Mall, or just get out and enjoy this time of year for its own sake.

We'll see you out there!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

LOOK FOR: Jack O'Lantern Mushrooms

The jack o'lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius) is a poisonous orange mushroom that glows in the dark. We've found it twice in the last two weeks -- perfect for the lead up to Halloween!

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom (do NOT eat!)
Photo credit: plussed
When they're fresh, jack o'lantern mushrooms are a bright orange, enough to catch your eye from far away in the woods, like chicken of the woods. Unlike chicken of the woods, which grows in shelf-like clusters, these mushrooms have a cap on a stalk. Jack o'lanterns also have gills on the undersides, rather than pores. They grow in clusters, and each individual cap and stalk can be up to 8 inches tall and 8 inches across -- a pretty impressive sight.

But the truly cool thing about these mushrooms is that the gills glow in the dark. You need absolute darkness to see it, and they need to be in their prime (one source recommends wrapping them in moist paper towels to bring home).
Jack-O-Lantern Mushroom Glowing (Omphalotus olearius)
Photo credit: amuderick

Just don't go trick-or-treating on these beauties. They may look and smell great, but they'll make you really, really sick.

Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom
Photo credit: pellaea

In the wild: We've found these mushrooms twice in Rock Creek Park (once on Oregon Avenue and once by Boundary Bridge), and also in Scott's Run.