Monday, May 31, 2010

Calendar: National Trails Day

Saturday, June 5, is the first Saturday in June. That makes it National Trails Day, an annual event sponsored by the American Hiking Society to inspire people to discover, learn about, and celebrate trails.

Give your favorite trails a little love at one of these volunteer events (links are to the event listing or the sponsoring organization's website):

Rock Creek Park
Potomac Heritage Trail
C&O Canal at Lock 8 or Great Falls
Meadowood Recreation Area
Prince William Forest Park
Washington Monument State Park
Cunningham Falls
Brookside Nature Center 

There are also some plain old hikes and celebrations that don't ask you to do anything but enjoy the trail, like the "Meet the Met" party on a newly-opened stretch of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, the ribbon cutting for a new "Chesapeake Bay Trail" at Northwood High School, and a bike tour on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail in Alexandria (pdf). There are many more events listed in DC, Maryland, and Virginia and on our calendar.

And if you'd rather be on the water, Saturday is also the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Clean the Bay Day.

Have another event you want to highlight? Leave a comment. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

LOOK FOR: Tufted Titmice

Saturday morning, while we were sitting in a big patch of mountain laurel, we had a real treat: watching tufted titmice come repeatedly to and from their nest to feed their young.

tufted titmouse
One of the proud parents we saw on Saturday
These birds are in the DC area year-round, and they're fairly common at feeders. But if you can find a nest to watch right now, you'll be in for a treat. Tufted titmice tend to nest in holes in trees, either natural cavities or sometimes abandoned woodpecker holes. We were able to hear the babies chirping inside, and the parents were taking turns bringing in insects for them to eat.

As we do with many birds, we found our titmice from their calls, not because we knew where to look. Have a listen here and learn what to listen for. Many people think it sounds like they're saying Peter-Peter-Peter.

Once you've heard the call, you're looking for a pretty little grey bird with a "tuft" on its head -- feathers that come to a point on top. The breast and part of the face is white, with a big black eye.

Photo credit: Runner Jenny
In the wild: Tufted titmice can be found throughout deciduous woods and suburbs.

In your yard: Titmice are common at feeders; they like sunflower seeds. But most of their diet comes from insects, especially when they are feeding their young. So you can also attract them by planting native trees and plants, which support the insects. We see them frequently in our oak tree, even without a feeder.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Trip Report: What's Up on the Northwest Branch?

It's times like these that I really appreciate keeping a nature journal. Months ago, Matt scheduled a hike for the Maryland Native plant society to look at our favorite patch of mountain laurels. And this Saturday, when a big crowd showed up for hike, the bushes were in peak bloom, just as we had hoped. It doesn't always work this way -- a lot of spring flowers were a couple weeks early with all the warm weather we had. But it's views like this -- and the looks on a bunch of seasoned naturalists' faces as they entered a hillside just bursting with flowers -- that make me really appreciate trying to keep track of nature's cycles.

looking at the mountain laurels along the Northwest Branch
Cindy and Elizabeth in the mountain laurels

We were on the trail I described last Tuesday as our favorite spot to see mountain laurel. Going at our typical "naturalist's shuffle," we covered less than a mile of the trail, but in that mile we went through a variety of habitats, from river banks to high, dry slopes, and moist woods in between. Here's the list of plants we stopped to look at -- or at least, the ones I managed to write down. (Links are to previous posts on the Natural Capital. )

huckleberry - gaylussacia
Huckleberries growing under the mountain laurels

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor)
Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
Venus' pride (Houstonia purpurea)
Blackberry (Rubus sp.)

With seeds or fruit
Blueberry (Vaccinium sp.)
Huckleberry (Gaylussacia sp.)
Black willow (Salix nigra)
Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens)
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

Poison ivy
Poison ivy in flower. Remember: Leaves of three, leave them be!!

Also noted (most will bloom later this summer)
Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
Jewelweed (Impatiens sp.)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Dogbane (Apocynum sp.)
False nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
Horse balm (Collinsonia canadensis)
Maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)
Dock (Rumex sp.)
Greenbrier (Smilax glauca)

More photos from the walk are on the MNPS Meetup page.

What have you been noticing on the trail lately?

Indian cucumber root by Ken-Ichi (my photos didn't come out!)
Mountain laurel - Kalmia latifolia
Mountain laurel

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Calendar: In and On the Water

The weather's warming up and we have our eye on the water.

kayak on the potomac river
Photo credit: Matt Herzog
Bladensburg Waterfront Park offers free pontoon boat tours on the Anacostia River Tuesdays through Friday at noon.This Saturday (5/29), they'll also be offering free canoeing lessons from 9:00 to 11:30 and from 12:30-3:00. If you already know how, they've also got canoes and kayaks for rent, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 to 6:00. There are some surprisingly lovely stretches along the river, and we've seen lots of critters there.

If you'd rather try your hand at kayaking, Lake Artemesia will offer a trip around the lake on Saturday morning. $5 per person includes your kayak. 301-627-7755 for more info.

Pohick Bay in Lorton is offering a moonlight paddle tour (adults only) on Friday (5/28) at 6:30, and a morning canoe trip through the march on Sunday (5/30) at 8:00 AM. Cost for each is $30 per person, and space is limited, so call 703-28-406 to reserve a spot. They, too, rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, and rowboats.

Or, you could forget the boats entirely and wade right in. Brookside Nature Center has a "Stream Splash" kids program on Saturday (5/29) at 1:00 where you can hunt for crayfish, salamanders, and more.

These and many more activities on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

LOOK FOR: Blue Flag Iris

The first spring that we moved into our house, I was thrilled to discover an abundance of bearded irises in our front yard. Along with some daffodils and tulips and a crepe myrtle, the irises are among the few non-edible, non-native plants that we've kept, because they're just so pretty. But their place in my heart may soon be usurped by our thriving native blue flag iris, which is blooming right now.

Blue flag iris on the Northwest Branch
Blue flag iris on the Northwest Branch
Blue flag iris grows in a different environment, mind you -- it's a wetland plant. There are two species native to this area; we're in the overlapping part of the range of northern blue flag (Iris veriscolor) and southern blue flag (Iris virginica). Both are a little smaller and more delicate feeling than most cultivated irises -- but they've still got the long, spiky leaves and that amazing flower that's impossible to mistake for anything else.

The two native species are hard to tell apart, and I won't bore you with the details. But there is one similar non-native iris you may see growing in wetlands -- yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), which, as you might guess from the name "yellow flag", has bright yellow flowers. It's an import from Asia, and there's some concern that it's displacing blue flag in natural areas. Sure enough, there's been more and more yellow mixed in with the blue flag in our favorite spot over the last several years. We really should talk to someone about getting it out of there.

Blue flag iris in our pond
Blue flag iris in our pond
In the wild: We've seen blue flag scattered along the C&O canal here and there, and it's growing at Lake Artemesia. I'm sure there's some at Kenilworth Gardens, and it's worth looking at Huntley Meadows and Jug Bay. Or, if you're heading to look at the mountain laurels along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia that I wrote about on Tuesday, there's some blue flag across the river. Rather than following the trail on the right hand side of Burnt Mills dam, cross the river (using the sidewalk along Colesville Road), follow the trail upstream on the left hand side, and keep an eye out to your right along the water.

In your yard: We've got a clump of blue flag iris submerged in our pond, and a few more in our rain garden. They seem to do well in both locations. And I love their spiky foliage, even when they're not in bloom!

Monday, May 17, 2010

What's Your Favorite Spot for Mountain Laurel?

We went to check out the mountain laurel in our favorite spot on Saturday and it's coming on strong -- if this rain doesn't knock off a lot of flowers (and I think it's been gentle enough that it shouldn't) they should be just beautiful this weekend.

Mountain Laurel blooms
Photo credit: ac4lt
So, do you have a favorite spot to go when the mountain laurels are blooming?

I'll tell you ours: the Rachel Carson Trail along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia. Park at Burnt Mills Dam (or take one of the Z buses from Silver Spring to the Burnt Mills Shopping Center, whose anchor is a Trader Joe's) and head upstream -- from the dam it's less than half a mile to a hillside that is covered in blooming mountain laurels right now.

Click on the map for driving directions, or check WMATA for the schedules of the Z buses and some RideOn buses that also go by this spot (you're aiming for 10765 Colesville Road).

View Burnt Mills Dam in a larger map

This may be a ways out if you're coming from points further south -- so tell us, what's your favorite spot for mountain laurel?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Calendar: WalkingTown DC

Every spring and fall, WalkingTown DC and BikingTown DC offer dozens of opportunities to see the city in a new way. Most of the focus is on neighborhoods, but there are lots of tours that take in natural sights as well.

A few particularly nature oriented highlights:

  • Saturday at 8:30, a bike tour of the Anacostia River
  • Saturday and Sunday at 10:00 and 1:00, a tree tour on Massachusetts Ave
  • Saturday at 10:00, Discover the National Arboretum
  • Saturday at 10:30, a tour of the National Garden at the US Botanic Garden

All tours are free, but most require advance registration. Much more info at Cultural Tourism DC's WalkingTown DC page, or just download the PDF brochure for the full schedule.

As always, there's much more on our full calendar.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

LOOK FOR: Oyster Mushrooms

They're not as sexy as morels, nor as predictable, but oyster mushrooms -- Pleurotus ostreatus -- might just be my favorite wild mushroom. And I don't even like oysters.

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
We find oyster mushrooms spring through fall here in the DC area, but they are whitest (and therefore most eye-catching) in the spring and summer. They grow on dead or dying wood, usually on logs that still have their bark. Young caps are about 2 inches across but they can get as wide as 8 inches -- at which point they're a little rubbery for eating.

The stalks of oyster mushrooms are very short, and they don't come out of the middle of the caps. Instead, the stem is off to the side, allowing the mushrooms to grow in overlapping clusters. In fact, their genus name, Pleurotus, comes from the Greek word for side. (And I always thought it was related to the French word for rain!)

Oyster mushroom, pleurotus ostreus, with fungus beetle, triplax thoracica
Oyster mushroom with fungus beetle by the Natural Capital
But one of the most distinguishing characteristics of oyster mushrooms is not a part of the mushroom itself -- it's a little black beetle that we absolutely always find between the gills. They're actually part of a group of beetles known as the Pleasing Fungus Beetles. Triplax lay their eggs on oyster mushrooms, and spend the rest of their lives hanging out among the gills and slowly eating them. They're harmless and easy enough to wash off, and a great identification aid.

Which is important, because there are other similar white mushrooms that grow on wood. They probably won't kill you, but they're supposed to taste awful. Luckily, oyster mushrooms are frequently available at farmers' markets and at high-end grocery stores. You can stop there, or you can use cultivated mushrooms to get a good sense of what they're like there before you go out looking for them (though the ones you see in the store will be relatively dried up after several days of storage, and some farmers select for more colorful strains). Your absolute best bet for safely identifying wild mushrooms is to out with experienced mushroomers, like the ones at the Mycological Association of Washington. (We sometimes find mushrooms on our wild food walks as well.)

Photo credit: Mr Snootyhamper
In the wild: Like many mushrooms, oysters like shade, and they clearly respond to rain -- you'll often see them a day or two after a good soaking. Keep an eye out when you pass downed logs. Once you do find some, they'll come back in the same location repeatedly.

In your yard (or apartment): Oyster mushrooms can be cultivated on many different substrates that contain cellulose -- not just logs but also shredded paper, coffee grounds, or sawdust. There are even kits using rolls of toilet paper as the base, designed to grow indoors. If you want to give it a try, check out the products at Field & Forest or Fungi Perfecti.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

America's Great Outdoors Initiative - What Do You Hope For?

A few weeks ago, President Obama launched a "Great Outdoors" initiative with two main goals:
1. Conservation, and
2. Reconnecting Americans to the outdoors.

Interestingly, Obama made a case for conservation during tough economic times in passing during his introductions -- saying "conservation is not contrary to economic growth, it is an integral part of economic growth" -- and came back later in the speech to make the point more fully: "It was in the midst of civil war that Abraham Lincoln set aside lands that are now Yosemite.  It was in midst of a great depression that FDR formed the Civilian Conservation Corps that built the trails and campgrounds and parks we enjoy today. Even in times of crisis, we’re called to take the long view to preserve our national heritage –- because in doing so we fulfill one of the responsibilities that falls to all of us as Americans, and as inhabitants of this same small planet."

Of course, it remains to be seen what substance will come out of this. First up: a series of listening sessions that will culminate in a Nov. 15 report. What do you hope to see come out of the plan? Leave us a comment below. Or hop on over to the intiative's website, and share your ideas.

Skip to 2:15 to miss the tedious introductions -- and to 3:40 for the best laugh line.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Calendar: Camping and Campfires

Several local parks offer the opportunity to do kid-friendly, beginner-level camping close to home.

Photo credit: sharsha
Up this weekend: Riverbend Park, with a program Saturday night (5/15) that starts at 6:00. The cost is $45 per family. To register, call 703-759-9018. (On May 22, Gulf Branch Nature Center will have a similar program for $80 per family - call 703-228-4747.)

If you don't want the programming, of course, you can always head to Greenbelt Park. The campground's open, it only costs $16/night, and you don't need reservations until after Memorial Day.

Not up for spending the whole night? Long Branch Nature Center has a campfire program at 7:00 on Saturday night (5/15), with stories, s'mores, and possibly "animal guests" from the nature center. The cost is $5 per person ($20 max per family). Register online or at 703-228-4747.

As always, there are many more things to do listed on our full calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

LOOK FOR: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

North America is a summer home to 15 species of hummingbirds, but only one species -- the ruby throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris -- comes to Washington, DC. These tiny three-inch birds migrate 2,000 miles from Central America every spring to breed here. Have you ever seen one here? They're more common than you may think.

ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilocus colubris
Photo credit: Jason Means
Archilochus is named after a Greek warrior-poet, but hummingbirds don't have a lyrical song, just a little high-pitched chatter. Once you learn to recognize the buzz of their super-fast wings, though, it's a sure tip-off for spotting them. So much so that it's part of the "typical voice" recording for hummingbirds on All About Birds.

Those tiny wings are beating about 53 times a second. They give hummingbirds helicopter-like abilities -- they're one of the only birds that can hover or fly backwards. Which is pretty fun to see. They can also fly really fast -- which makes them hard to see.

Your best bet is to find flowers that hummingbirds like to feed on. In our yard, the sure winners every year are bee balm, cardinal flower, and native honeysuckle. Other flowers we've seen them on in the wild include jewelweed, trumpet creeper, and even common milkweed. Notice anything these flowers have in common? They're all trumpet-shaped, perfect for the hummer's long beak. And they've all got red or orange flowers.

ruby-throated hummingbird on cardinal flower
hummingbird on cardinal flower in our yard
But hummingbirds don't subsist on a pure sugar diet -- they'll eat small insects like ants, gnats, and mosquitoes. One more reason to love them!

The biggest treat is when the light catches a bird just right -- its feathers, which may have looked more or less gray a moment ago, will flash bright green in the sun. And the males are even more spectacular, with a ruby throat designed for attracting the jewel-loving ladies. I've seen that flash of red maybe one in every 50 times that I've seen a hummingbird. But it's worth the wait.

In the wild: Sit quietly by a patch of likely-seeming flowers. Keep an ear out for the buzz of the wings. In our experience, hummingbirds are creatures of habit. Once you find an area that hummingbirds come to, they're likely to come back -- several times throughout the day, and from day to day, as long as the flowers are producing nectar.

Photo credit: Jason Means
In your yard: We'd love to hear your tricks for attracting hummingbirds.  Out of the flowers I mentioned above, we love the cardinal flower and the native honeysuckle (it's less aggressive than the more-common Japanese honeysuckle, and has red flowers). Bee balm is also easy to grow, but spreads more -- it's in the mint family. The others are a little harder: jewelweed wants a lot of moisture, and I don't know anyone who's happy about planting trumpet creeper -- it just spreads way too aggressively.

I've heard mixed reviews about whether hummingbird feeders are a good idea. The problem is that if you have one, you need to wash it out every few days. Otherwise, it can ferment, which is bad for the hummers. We've opted to let the plants do the work for us instead.

Do you have favorite way of attracting hummingbirds, or a spot where you see them? Have you seen one yet this spring? We'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Happy Birthday to Us!

That's right, it's been a year since we started the Natural Capital.

Photo credit: Theresa Thompson
What do we want for our birthday? Leave us a comment and tell us your favorite post from the last year, or something that you've learned from the Natural Capital, or a new place you visited because you read about it here. Or, just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Just click below where it says "comments/questions - leave one here!" to go to the comment form. We made it all big so you won't miss it. (Unless you're reading us in RSS, in which case you'll have to come on over here first. Come on, you can do it!)

To get you started, here's a list of our ten most popular posts in the last year, according to Google Analytics:

1. Car-Free DC: Rock Creek Park
2. LOOK FOR: Monarch Caterpillars (and Raise Them!)
3. Car-Free DC: Ten Great Places to Hike Around DC by Public Transportation (and Counting)
4. Where Do You Go For Fall Foliage? and Places to Look for Fall Foliage in the DC Area
5. Getting Kids Into Nature: Great Websites
6. Car-Free DC: Glover Archbold Park
7. LOOK FOR: Sumac Berries
8. Scott's Run Nature Preserve
9. Attachment to Nature Parenting:  10 Tools to Give Kids a Passion for Nature
10. Patuxent River Park: Jug Bay Natural Area

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Calendar: Wild Food Tasting This Tuesday

Cream of wild mushroom soup by dejathoris
Every May, the Mycological Association of Washington organizes a wild food tasting that's one of our favorite events of the year. It's nothing fancy -- it's in the basement of a library -- but people who love mushrooms and edible wild plants come out to share morsels of their best recipes in a friendly tasting competition. Some of last year's highlights included a divine cream of morel soup, and wild mushroom quiche.

We'll be there competing for your vote with some spicy garlic mustard pesto and sweet black locust blossoms...that is, unless some other inspiration (or a big score of mushrooms) comes our way between now and Tuesday night.

You have to join MAW to come to the tasting, but you can join at the door for $20 single/$30 family. Existing members pay $10 at the door unless you bring a dish to share in the tasting.

If you want to cook, you'll do it there - MAW has strict rules about getting a knowledgeable person to check your mushrooms and other wild food before you cook them. Also, if you have a good mushroom recipe, there will be some donated cultivated mushrooms of several varieties that you can use. Many more details here.

As always, there are many, many more things on our calendar for this week and weekend -- we'll see you out there!