Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Our Local National Parks

On Sunday I highlighted some of the walks folks are taking in local national parks this weekend. Which reminded me about this post I did last year -- which I've now updated with links to all of the posts we've written about these parks. Still a few more to cover! In honor of the 4th, let us know: What's your favorite local national park?

Photo credit: Steve Took It
There's not much that makes me feel more patriotic than our national park system. And although other places in the US may boast larger and grander national parks, I am grateful to live in an urban area where you're never more than a few miles from a park. Check out this map to see what I mean. Or consider this list:

Rock Creek Park is one of the oldest parks in the National Park Service and, at 1754 acres, one of the largest urban forests in the United States. Several other parks are under the jurisdiction of Rock Creek Park, adding even more to the total acreage, including Glover Archbold Park, Montrose Park , Dumbarton Park, Meridian Hill Park, Battery Kemble Park, Palisades Park, and Whitehaven Park.

C&O Canal National Historic Park follows the Potomac River and the C&O Canal for 184.5 miles from Cumberland, MD, to Washington, DC, running right by Great Falls Park, another gem of the DC-area National Parks (see also our recent post on visiting at sunset).

Anacostia Park includes Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens and Kenilworth Marsh, 1200 acres along the Potomac, home to gorgeous cultivated water gardens and a wild stretch along the Anacostia River.

Greenbelt Park is an 1100 acre National Park just inside the beltway in Greenbelt, MD, with hiking and biking trails and a large campground.

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail will eventually include over 825 miles of trails, from Pittsburgh to the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the C&O Canal, it includes 15 miles in Loudoun County (link); 7.7 miles of trails within Riverbend Park (link), Great Falls Park, and Scott’s Run Nature Preserve in northern Fairfax County; two partially-completed routes within the District of Columbia— including the 23 mile Fort Circle Parks Trail, a multi-use route between Georgetown and Oxon Cove Park, the 18.5-mile Mount Vernon Trail, and the 10-mile Potomac Heritage Trail within George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Speaking of the GW Parkway, it's not just the narrow corridor around the higway. This National Park property includes several sub-parks along the way, including the beautiful 700-acre Turkey Run, 91-acre Theodore Roosevelt Island , the 17-acre Ladybird Johnson Park/LBJ Memorial Grove (link) (which is supposed to be a good place to watch the fireworks, though we've never tried it), a marina on Daingerfield Island, 380-acre Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve (link), and more.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington are also run by the NPS. Some of the most notable are Fort Dupont Park (376 acres), Fort Washington Park (link) (341 acres), and Battleground National Cemetery (link).

Oxon Cove Park/Oxon Hill Farm (link) is a 512 acre working farm with educational programs on farm life, 19th century history, and the environment.

Piscataway Park (link) exists mainly to protect 6 miles along the Potomac that can be seen from Mount Vernon (which, incidentally, is not a National Park). The 5000 acre park is partly privately owned, and part jointly run by the NPS. The part that is open to the public includes a National Colonial Farm.

Photo credit: breenzanemom
And then, of course, there is the National Mall and all of its Memorials, all run by the National Park service. NPS also has jurisdiction over many of the smaller parks scattered throughout the city, including Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, many parks on Capitol Hill, and many National Historic Sites from the Frederick Douglass NHS to the White House itself.

I suspect I've even missed some. So, while we're honoring national heroes this weekend, don't forget to include the ones at the National Park Service.

What's your favorite park on this list? Did we miss any? Leave a comment.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Calendar: Fourth of July Weekend in National Parks

I bring you pre-July 4th greetings from Boston, home of the American Revolution. They've still got ripe serviceberries up here, as I discovered last night as I was walking down a city street. There's nothing that quite makes you feel at home in another city like knowing you can eat the fruit off the street trees.

Photo credit: Hourman
But you, dear readers, are not in Boston. You are in the DC area. And you want to know what you should do next weekend, when you're not attending barbecues and parades. Our local National Parks aren't necessarily doing anything in particular to celebrate July 4th -- well, except for a little fireworks thing down on the National Mall, which is also a national park, after all -- but our local hiking clubs will be visiting lots of our local national parks and nationally protected areas in the upcoming weekend. What a great way to celebrate our country.

See our calendar for more details on any of these. And feel free to highlight anything else you want to highlight in the comments section.

Saturday (July 3):
  • The Sierra Club is sponsoring a cleanup at Edwards Ferry on the C&O Canal.
  • The Center Hiking Club and Capital Hiking Clubs are both hiking sections of the Billy Goat Trail, and the Gold Mine Loop around Great Falls, also in the C&O Canal Historic Park.
  • A ranger at Rock Creek Park will lead a 2-mile hike to Rapids Bridge.
Sunday (July 4):
  • The Sierra Club is sponsoring a commemorative hike at Bull Run. "At a forest graveyard, we remember our fallen soldiers and ancestors on this commemorative day."
  • The Audubon Naturalist Society will hike at Piscataway Park.
  • The NoVA Audubon Society will have their regular birding sessions at Great Falls and Dyke Marsh. 
  • The NoVA Hiking Club is taking a hike through DC that includes the C&O Canal and Glover Park.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LOOK FOR (and listen for): Dog-Day Cicadas

Those of you who lived in the DC area in 2004 remember all the hubbub about the 17-year cicadas (who were making quite a hubbub themselves that summer). But you don't have to wait until 2021 to see another cicada -- some come out every summer.

Cicada lyrica by DaynaT
The annual "dog-day" cicadas actually spend 2 to 3 years in a nymph stage before coming out to fill your evening with the sound of summer. The nymphs hang out under the ground, feeding on tree roots. Then one day they get an adolescent itch to grow up. The next thing you know, they've come above ground, attached themselves to some handy object (often a tree or fencepost), split open their exoskeleton, and emerged as an adult. They emerge all light green and soft, but harden up over several hours. (This is very cool to watch; I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance!)

Emerging cicada
Emerging cicada by Anita Gould
Of course, their job as adults is to mate. Toward that end, male cicadas make an enormous racket -- some individuals have been recorded at over 100 decibels, around the same noise level as a lawnmower or chainsaw, and among the loudest insect noises in the world. (The Latin name for the genus suggests something a little gentler -- Tibicen means "flute-player.")

Different species each have a different sound, which helps them to find appropriate mates. Three of the earliest to come out in the Mid-Atlantic area are Neocicada heiroglyphica (sound), Tibicen lyricen (sound) and Tibicen tibicen (aka chloromerus) (sound).

Because they're active mostly at night, and up in the treetops, it's not that common to actually see cicadas. The ones we've seen most have been either a) molting or b) bird food. But keep an ear out and you're sure to hear some soon in the evenings.

Cicada encounter by Oakley Originals

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

See a Sunny Day in a Whole New Way: Solar Natural Capital!

You know we appreciate nature, and as a Florida girl I've always appreciated the sun. But this is a whole new level.

our house, with solar panels
Our house, with solar panels
This spring, we had 14 solar panels put in on our roof -- a 2.45 kW system. The system is designed to totally cover our electricity use, averaged over the year.

Because we started production during some of the longest days of the year, we've generated 126 more kilowatt hours of electricity than we've used. Meanwhile, 29 coal miners have died in West Virginia and catastrophic, heartbreaking amounts of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. I can't even describe how good it feels to be doing our tiny little part to move toward energy independence.

Our installation company (Astrum Solar) has the slogan, "See a sunny day in a whole new way." We didn't realize how true that was until we were up and running. Sure enough, on a beautiful sunny day recently Matt said to me with delight, "this is gonna be a 10 kWh day." (He obsessively checks this site to watch our production-- you're welcome to watch too!)

If you own a sunny roof, the incentives right now are pretty amazing. Most solar companies in the area will come and do a free site assessment and estimate for you; Astrum also has a cool calculator. In our case, after all is said and done with tax credits and renewable energy credits, we will pay only about a third of the cost of the system (about $7K out of $21K). With some ongoing credits, we'll have made back the cost in about 7 or 8 years. After that, we should have at least 20 years of free electricity. That's the kind of thing most people are talking about when they use the term natural capital.

Don't own, or not ready to make the plunge? If you live in DC or MD, you can sign up for wind energy -- it's actually cheaper than PEPCO's coal-and-nuclear energy right now (that was what we did for years before taking this step). Perhaps you'll see a windy day in a whole new way!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Calendar: Summer Evening Activities

As we enjoy the longest days of the year (and the days are getting hotter), there are lots of activities scheduled in the evenings. It's a great way to get out and enjoy nature without having to worry about the sun. In fact, the animals follow the same philosophy -- so you're more likely to see critters on some of these events than if you go out at high noon. Advance registration is required for many of these events; check our calendar or the sponsoring organization for details.

Photo credit: FreeWine
Monday evenings bring a recurring tour of the National Garden at the US Botanic Garden on the Mall.

Wednesday evening, there are movies and nature activities at Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda; a walk at Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton to listen for wood thrushes and other "crepuscular creatures"; and fishing at Walney Pond in Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly.

Thursday brings a parent-child fishing event at Riverbend Park, and an advanced dragonfly class with the Audubon Naturalist Society (to be followed by a full-day field trip on Saturday).

Friday, you can go fishing by kayak at Riverbend Park, or on an evening C&O Canal hike with the Center Hiking Club.

Saturday, there are evening pontoon boat rides on the Anacostia leaving from Bladensburg Waterfront Park, and a moonlight paddle tour at Pohick Bay in Lorton. Long Branch Nature Center is having a campfire, and there's an evening walk at Huntley Meadows.

As always, there's plenty more on our calendar, and you're welcome to highlight more in the comments. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

LOOK FOR: Mosquito Larvae

The mosquito population is starting to pick up, and it's enough to drive people insane, or indoors, or both. Looking for mosquito larvae is one way to make life a little more bearable, if you have any control over your outdoor living space.

Mosquito larvae and pupae by Alvaro Rodriquez
All mosquitoes spend their larval stage in water. You'll see them as thin little "wrigglers" in the water. They frequently hang down from the surface of the water; they're breathing air through tiny tubes. When they pupate, they curl up and float at the surface. A few days later, the adult emerges from this pupa.

Our local mosquitoes rarely travel far from where they hatch. If you can stop them from breeding in your neighborhood, it may be a lot more pleasant to go outside. Even small amounts of water can harbor mosquito larvae -- for tiger mosquitoes, as small as a few teaspoons. And the whole cycle from egg to adult can take as little as six days.

Adult mosquito emerging by safoocat
Clogged rain gutters are a primo breeding site. Don't let out-of-sight be out-of-mind: make sure water is draining out of them completely after it rains. Also look around for anything else that might be collecting water: furniture, containers, tarps...basically, anything you're storing outside could easily become a mosquito Club Med if it's got a little pool that stands for more than a couple of days.

If you've got something that you want to hold water, like a birdbath, either replace the water every few days (we do this with our birdbath) or use dunks that include BT to prevent larvae from maturing (we do this with our pond).

Photo by James Jordan: "I sacrificed myself in the name of art"
Talk to your neighbors and get them to do the same, and you may actually see a significant reduction in mosquitoes.

But, when you can't completely beat 'em, just remember: mosquitoes are part of the bottom of the food chain. That blood you donate will be bird food soon.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Calendar: Father's Day

Father's Day is next Sunday, and there are several events throughout the weekend pitched toward dads who want to spend some time outside with their kids -- and more that fit the bill even though they're not labeled as such. Advance registration is required for most of these events. More details are available on our calendar and/or by following the links below to the park or organization sponsoring the event.

Photo credit: Rashida Simmons
The fun starts Friday evening with a hike, campfire, and s'mores at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly; fishing and a campfire at Riverbend Park in Great Falls; and another campfire at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington.

On Saturday, Audubon Naturalist Society is holding a family kayaking excursion on Piscataway Creek (ages 8+). You can learn how to start a fire by hand at Gulf Branch (ages 12+), or to find edible wild plants at Potomac Overlook Park in Arlington (ages 8+). Or bond as you do service; there's an Anacostia River cleanup at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.

On Father's Day eve (aka Saturday night), there are campfires at Gulf Branch and Hidden Oaks, a hike at Lake Accotink, or you can go check out the night sky with astronomers and their telescopes in Rock Creek Park.

Sunday brings events with titles like Father's Day Picnic in a Boat (Riverbend Park), Father in the Forest (Hidden Oaks; not clear dads are actually invited on this one) and Hike with Dad (Rock Creek Park; ages 5+).

I'm sure I missed some -- leave a comment with anything else you'd like to highlight. And, as always, there's plenty more on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Friday, June 11, 2010

LOOK FOR: Solomon's Seal

This is not a post about marine mammals...it's about a plant. And it's in honor of our friend Solomon, whose birthday is coming up. The Solomon's seals are celebrating with flowers.

Photo credit: Rachel Ford James
Solomon's seal is a plant of moist woods that sends up an 18" arc of horizontal green leaves that alternate along the stem. At this time of year, if you look carefully under those leaves, you may find little white flowers dangling from the stem. Later in the summer, each pollinated flower will become a little berry -- starting green, then turning dark blue.

Before it was the name for a plant, the term "Solomon's seal" referred to a ring given to King Solomon -- which had on it the symbol we now call the Star of David. Apparently, the plant gets its name from some round "seals" on its roots that reminded somebody of that ring. The roots also have lots of joints and bends, giving this genus its scientific name, Polygonatum -- many-kneed.

Why people spend all that time worrying about the roots, I'm not exactly sure. Seems to me there's plenty of action above ground to enjoy.

In your yard: We are successfully growing Solomon's seal in our shady backyard. I'm not sure if you can buy them at retail nurseries; we ordered ours from a nearby nursery that specializes in native plants.

In the wild: Solomon's seal isn't super-common, but we've seen it in many local parks.

The one thing you might confuse it with is a plant called Solomon's plume (also "false" Solomon's seal) that has similar leaves, but the flowers are quite different and stick out at the end of the stalk rather than hanging down along it. More about that for Solomon's next birthday!

Photo credit: PCHGorman

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

C&O: Angler's Inn to Great Falls at Sunset

A couple of weeks ago, Matt and I took one of the most beautiful hikes we've taken in quite a while. It wasn't so much the location -- though this is a pretty section of the canal -- but the timing.

sunset at Great Falls
Sunset at Great Falls from Vicki Ashton
We left the Angler's parking lot at about 7:30 pm and walked the mile and a half to Great Falls along the canal. (See the park map - pdf.) Along the way there was lots of bird activity as the day was winding down, including a family of geese with lots of goslings, two pileated woodpeckers, and lots of songbirds and dragonflies. At our slow, stopping-to-look-at-everything pace we reached Great Falls just after sunset, with pink still in the sky. There were at least half a dozen great blue herons fishing below the falls, and more flying overhead -- they must roost somewhere upstream.

On the way back it got quite dark, but the towpath is wide, mostly level, and light colored -- as long as you're reasonably careful it's really not challenging in the dark. And the world is transformed: there are frogs croaking, and thousands of fireflies dancing. And, if you stay out long enough, there are some wide sections of the canal that will give you a patch of open sky for stargazing, with no lights nearby to ruin the view.

Sunset on the C&O Canal
Sunset on the C&O Canal by Vicki Ashton
Given our pace, I would have started a half hour earlier to catch more of the sunset at the falls. Your mileage may vary. You can also check the sunset time here and adjust accordingly -- but remember, the color peaks before the time of actual sunset. For a more rigorous hike, give yourself some extra time and take the Billy Goat A trail on the way out to the falls (it parallels the canal here). It's stunning -- I'm hoping to get a minute to write about it soon. 

Here's a map to the Angler's parking lot -- it's directly across the street from Old Angler's Inn. Unlike the lot up at Great Falls, there's no fee, and no closing time. (There's a bus stop nearby -- but it's the 32 Ride On bus, which only runs during rush hours on weekdays.)


View Anglers in a larger map

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Calendar: Native Trees and Plants

I'm overwhelmed by choice as I look at our calendar. Maybe this should be a weekly contest: pick a set of three or four activities and tell us what they have in common. Or, tell us how you'd spend your week/weekend if you could spend it just doing activities from the calendar!

When all else fails, we like to geek out on plants. There are options at many levels of plant geekiness this week:

Photo credit: izik
Throughout June, the US Botanic Garden on the Mall offers Monday evening tours (at 5:30) in the wonderful outdoor native plant garden known as the "National Garden." The tour description promises stories about the plants and advice about whether they'd grow well in your home garden.

The local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society meets Thursday (6/10) at 7:30 at Green Springs Gardens. They'll be talking about sites on the VNPS registry, which have significance as an exemplary occurrence of a habitat, a plant community, or a plant species.

Saturday morning at 9:00, Casey Trees is offering a "Trees 101" class, including a walk to explore the District's urban tree canopy. Free, with breakfast provided, but you need to register.

Other options for Saturday morning include a 9:00 hike at Huntley Meadows, which promises blooming buttonbush, swamp rose, and lizard's tail, or a 10:00 walk with the Anacostia Watershed Society and the Maryland Native Plant Society at Fort Dupont Park.

See? There was a theme. And there's so much more on our calendar. Check it out. And leave a comment with anything else you'd like to highlight.

We'll see you out there -- with my aunt and my parents in tow this weekend!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Things to Look For in June

I love this time of year...butterflies are dancing through the air, fireflies light up the night, and fruit is dripping from the trees. These are the things we wrote about last year in June, and I love them all over again this year (links are to last year's posts):

serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Serviceberries by dbarronoss
Serviceberries: We first learned these native, edible fruits as "Juneberries," but we're starting to think they should maybe be called "Mayberries" around here. (Does something already have that name, or is it just a place in tv land?) They've been ripe for a couple of weeks already. They're scattered throughout the woods in the DC area, but you'll get the most fruit from trees that have been planted ornamentally...see our list of some of the best areas we've found, and try some yourself -- or add your favorite trees to the comments!

Tiger swallowtail
Tiger swallowtail in our backyard
Tiger swallowtails: In the fall, tiger swallowtail caterpillars form a chrysalis in which they'll spend the whole winter, waiting for the right time to emerge. And then, on some warm, sunny day in April or May, you'll see one fluttering by. And you'll know: winter's over. In June, you'll start to see more. To me, tiger swallowtails are one of the things that make summer summer in Washington, DC. If you spend enough time outside on a sunny day, you're bound to see one.

Firefly by James Jordan
Fireflies: J.M. Barrie wrote: "when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies." I feel like you could say the same of fireflies. They've been out for a few weeks now, but they're really starting to be plentiful now. We sit and watch them almost every night in our backyard. What better way to celebrate the summer?

Mulberries by PRB
Mulberries: These berries are bane of some homeowners' existence as they drop and ferment on sidewalks and driveways throughout the metro area. And our clothesline (with white sheets!) was the victim of some badly-placed purple bird poop this year. Still, we choose to see mulberries as a glorious abundance of free fruit, rather than an annoyance.

By the way, if you've got a mulberry pie recipe that you love, please share...we are in charge of baking a crazy number of pies for a wedding this month, and we'd love to add some wildcrafted mulberry pie to the mix!

ramp flowers (allium tricoccum)
Ramp flowers by milesizz
Ramp flowers: Ramps are sought out earlier in the spring for their edible leaves and roots. But later in June, they send up flower stalks topped with a puffball of white flowers. If you can find a big patch, it's a very impressive sight. We've seen a lot at Scott's Run and Carderock...keep an eye out and let us know if you see some.

What else have you been seeing on the trails lately? Leave a comment and let us know!