Thursday, July 29, 2010

Things to Look For in August

It's been the hottest summer on record and August probably won't be any different. But there's still plenty to see outside, if you can take it. Links are to last year's LOOK FOR posts:

monarch caterpillar
Monarch larva by The Natural Capital
Monarch butterflies are laying their eggs, and if you look closely on milkweed, you may see some stripey caterpillars. Every year, we bring a few inside and raise them. It's a pretty amazing process. This has been one of the all-time most popular posts on the Natural Capital.

Photo credit: Rongem Boyo
The Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 12. Last year, this fell close to a full moon, but this year, it will be closer to the new moon, making for a darker sky and better viewing. The National Capital Astonomers will be out in Rock Creek Park on August 14 to see what they can see; there may still be a few meteors left then.
Halloween pennant dragonfly
Photo credit: afagen
Dragonflies are common sight this time of year. They hang out around water, because they lay their eggs there and spend their nymph stage as aquatic creatures. In our post we highlighted 6 common species, and shared a video of a dragonfly shedding its aquatic skin to become an adult.

Sumac berries by j.e.s.1981VA
Sumac has extremely distinctive clusters of dark red, hairy berries in the late summer. They're great for making pink lemonade! Check out our post from last summer to find out how.

What have you been seeing lately? Leave a comment and let us know!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

5 Questions, Answered

There's a little meme that's been going around among some of the nature bloggers I like to read. As far as I can tell, it started up in Alaska, made its way to Seabrooke Leckie of The Marvelous in Nature and Susannah of Wanderin' Weeta in Canada, Dave Bonta's Via Negativa in Pennsylvania, and is working its way through a second generation including Jason Hogle's Xenogere in Texas, which is where I first came across it. You know this type of game from Facebook and other places, but these are five thoughtful questions and I've really been enjoying reading other bloggers' answers. So I thought I'd try my hand at them. Do you feel like sharing your answers, or is there someone whose answers you'd like to see? Let me know and we can try to make it into a future post on the Natural Capital.

1) You seem to have an intense curiosity of the natural world, how did that curiosity come about?

Until 7th grade I lived in the woods in rural southern Illinois, and spent a lot of time outside -- there wasn't a lot else to do.  (It can't hurt that we only got about 2 and a half channels on tv, one of which was PBS). Even after we moved to a more populated area in north Florida, camping and hiking was something my family continued to do regularly. So I've been comfortable in the outdoors pretty much my whole life.

But the curiosity is something I have continued to cultivate as an adult and especially since moving to the DC area. I don't remember really learning to identify a lot of plants or animals as a child. As I have learned more about the natural world, these green spaces that I have always loved have magically metamorphosed into communities of individual species that I know and love. It makes it very difficult to hike quickly -- there's always something to stop and look at more closely. I'm just starting to do the same thing with bird songs -- to hear what used to be just musical chaos as individual birds. It's transformational.

2) What would you change about your home, your neighborhood, your corner of the world? What one thing would you change to make it a better place?

This is a really tough question. I can think of lots of specific fixes, but taking a step back, I think people in DC work too hard. I wonder if we would take better care of the natural places in our community if people had more time to spend in them, and if they actually unplugged and were present when they did spend that time. And, in turn, I think people in our area would be a lot happier if they did.

3) Describe your most profound encounter in the natural world.

I don't think I can pick just one. Watching the sunset and thinking about the earth turning, or looking at a starry sky away from light pollution and really thinking about what I'm looking at, because they both make me feel tiny and yet connected to everything.

Seeing a bobcat
, because I never thought in a million years I would see what to me is a symbol of an old, wild Florida that is struggling to even exist anymore.

Seeing the way sunlight turns blue when filtered through a glacier, after hiking 2 days to get there, by myself, because I had just broken up with the person who was supposed to go with me, and being healed by that sense of awe and connection to something far larger and more important than myself.

Snorkeling with sharks. Holding a wild owl. Watching a mink catch a catfish right in front of me.

4) If you could have a conversation with any person in history who would it be, and why that person?

I'd like to speak with one of the Indians who knew the land near where my house is now, before contact with Europeans. I'm guessing they knew things about the natural world around here that probably haven't been passed down.

For future rounds on the Natural Capital, I'd like this question to be: What's your favorite natural place in the DC area, and why? My answer (at least today) would be the stretch of the Northwest Branch around Burnt Mills Dam, because we always see cool stuff there, and the scenery along the river is just really pretty. Especially when the mountain laurels are blooming.

5) What advice would you give to anyone wanting to better experience the natural world?

Don't just blow through. Going jogging in the park is great scenery, but if you really want to experience the natural world, you've got to really slow down. Learn names, not for the names themselves, but for the practice of looking closely enough to be able to identify one thing from another. Keep a journal of what you see. But most of all, just stop and look. Most of the animals on my "profound" list above were ones that I saw because I had stopped to look at something else, first -- I didn't even know they were right there, the whole time.

Would you like to share your answers, or is there someone whose answers you'd like to see? Leave a comment or email me at and we can try to make it into a future post on the Natural Capital!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

LOOK FOR: Rose Mallow, our local hibiscus

I always thought of hibiscus as a tropical flower. It's the kind of thing you expect to see printed on Hawaiian shirts, or tucked behind a hula dancer's ear. But we've got native hibiscus right here in DC.

hibiscus laevis at Jug Bay
Hibiscus at Jug Bay by the Natural Capital

Unlike the bright red tropical hibiscus, our native hibiscus has five petals that can range in color from light pink to white, with a darker magenta center. Protruding from that dark center is a showy yellow set of reproductive parts: a tube covered in pollen-producing stamens, with five pollen-collecting pistils branching out on the end. The flowers can be six inches across, on stalks that reach 5 (or more) feet high. It's quite an impressive plant.

bee pollinating hibiscus
Bee pollinating hibiscus, by Mean and Pinchy
The name Hibiscus covers a large genus of related plants. We have at least two native species in the DC area: Hibiscus laevis, often called halberd-leaved rose mallow, and Hibiscus moscheutos, or swamp rose mallow.  We usually are happy to just say "hibiscus" or "rose mallow," and leave it at that.  But if you want to get to the species, remember that laevis means smooth -- Hibiscus laevis has smooth leaves; Hibiscus moscheutos has leaves with hairy undersides.

The genus Hibiscus also includes the imported Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), which many people have in their yards. But the flowers of Rose of Sharon don't get nearly as large as our native hibiscus -- maybe 4 inches across as opposed to 6 inches or more.

pink swamp rose mallow
Pink rose mallow by Urtica
In my experience, the best time to catch rose mallow blooms is in the morning. By afternoon, they fold up as protection against the heat. Each flower is short-lived, but each plant produces many flowers. And each flower produces a seedpod about an inch in diameter. These can be showy in their own right in the fall and winter, when they bust open along five lines, leaving an open pod that looks almost like a dried flower itself.

In the wild: Rose mallow likes wetlands. We've seen it growing at Roosevelt Island, and there's lots of it at Jug Bay. I'm sure it's in other spots as well.

In your yard: We're growing rose mallow that we started from wild-collected seed in our raingarden and in our dry backyard; it seems to be thriving in both locations. So, even though it grows in marshy areas naturally, it doesn't seem to require them.  It does need at least several hours of sun to bloom well, though.

Where have you seen hibiscus growing? Leave us a comment!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stay in a Lockhouse on the C&O Canal

For years, Matt and I have seen certain lockhouses on the C&O Canal and said, "wouldn't it be awesome to live there?". Little did we know, the C&O Canal Trust was working on a program to let you stay in some of them.

Enter Canal Quarters. There are currently three lockhouses open for reservations, with plans to open another near Point of Rocks later this year. We haven't stayed in any of these, we just think it's cool that you can. In fact, we're hoping some of you will stay in them and come back here and tell us all about it!

Lockhouse 6 on the C&O Canal
Photo credit: ctankcycles
Lockhouse 6 (towpath mile 5.4, near Cabin John) is the most modern of the houses, boasting A/C, running water, stove, and refrigerator. It's furnished as a mid-1950's house, to commemorate the time period when Supreme Court Justice O. William Douglas fought to preserve the canal from becoming a highway. It sleeps 8 in single beds and a pullout sofa, and costs $100/night.

Lockhouse 22 on the C&O Canal, at Pennyfield Lock
Photo credit: Daniel Ashton
Lockhouse 22 (towpath mile 19.6, near Potomac) is at a spot known as Pennyfield Lock. A stream known as Muddy Branch runs near the parking lot here before going under the Canal through a viaduct; many people use this as a boat put-in to reach the Potomac. This spot was also favored by President Glover Cleveland for fishing. But the lockhouse is furnished to represent an even earlier period, the 1830s and 1840s, when the canal was being built. As such, it has no heat, electricity, or indoor bathroom (just a portable toilet outside). It sleeps 8 in single beds and trundle beds, and costs $70/night.

Lockhouse 49 at Four Locks on the C&O Canal
Photo credit: jerbec
Lockhouse 49 (towpath mile 108.7, Four Locks) is at a location where the C&O Canal cuts across a bend in the Potomac River, saving three miles in canal construction, but requiring four locks to cover the change in elevation. There was once a thriving little town here, based around the activity at the locks. This section of the canal is dry now, but several old buildings remain. Furnished as a 1920's house, Lockhouse 49 has electricity (including baseboard heat and a hotplate) but no running water. It sleeps 8 in single beds and trundle beds, and costs $85/night.

Have you ever stayed in one of these lockhouses? Have a nomination for the next one the C&O Canal Trust should fix up? We'd love to hear about it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Calendar: Choose Your Own Adventure

Greetings from Yellowstone National Park! I had to be in southeast Montana for work this week, so I came out a few days early to play. I'm going to depart from my mantra of "There's planty of nature to enjoy right here in DC" to say, if you ever get the chance to come to Yellowstone, do it. There's plenty of nature in DC, but not colorful hot springs or bursting geysers or 300-foot waterfalls or wolves or grizzly bears or bison or elk. All of which I saw today.

This is all a long way of saying, I haven't looked at our calendar lately. But there's plenty on it for the week ahead. Take a look and choose your own adventure!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

LOOK FOR: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn

Tonight through Friday, there are a whopping four planets lined up in our evening sky. It seemed worth noting in a special Tuesday edition of "look for."

To find the four planets, you'll want to look as the sky starts getting truly dark, around 9:00 PM. Look for the crescent moon in the western sky. You should be able to see, from upper left to bottom right, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, pretty much lined up in a diagonal line. To the naked eye, they'll look like bright stars. (Mercury is very small and close to the horizon, so you're pretty unlikely to see it...but three out of four ain't bad.)

mercury, venus, mars, and saturn with a crescent moon
OSTP simulation of the night sky using Stellarium

One option to get a better look is to use a pair of binoculars. Even then, don't be expecting wonders. You probably won't be able to see Saturn's rings clearly, for example, but you might be able to see a shape that's more ovoid than round because of the rings. And you should be able to tell that Mars has an orange-ish tint to it. It can be hard to hold the binoculars steady while looking up -- lean your elbows on something, or lie on your back, to stabilize yourself, and you should get a much better view. (This article has more tips on stargazing with binoculars.)

Of course, your best bet for a look at the planets is a telescope. But you don't have to go out and buy your own...the Office of Science and Technology Policy (with help from Hoftra U, the National Capital Astronomers, and the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club) is sponsoring an Astronomy Night on the National Mall, near the Washington Monument, on Thursday evening, from 6:00 to 11:00. That start time is way too early for stargazing, but they'll have filtered telescopes that you can use to look at the sun, which sounds pretty cool. The Marine Corps Band will also be playing that night on the mall, so you could make quite an event of it.

Any luck finding the planets? Any other tips from the professional and amateur astronomers lurking out there? Leave us a comment!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Calendar: Fun, Exercise, Love

Every week our calendar includes many volunteer opportunities in local parks, but we don't always highlight them. Get out and show your favorite park or trail some love, have fun, meet some new people, and you may even get a little exercise in the process.

Photo credit: Jenny Lee Silver
On Wednesday evening, the Brookside Nature Center is hosting a wineberry eat-and-pull at Wheaton Regional Park, for ages 8 – adult. Free, but registration is required.

Every other Thursday morning (including this Thursday), there's a group of volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) that works on the Potomac Heritage Trail for a few hours. Contact Bruce Glendening, 703-532-9093 or

And this Saturday morning, PATC will have a Rock Creek Park worktrip. Meet at the Nature Center at 8:20 AM and carpool over to the worksite. No experience necessary; tools and instruction will be provided, but bring gloves and wear appropriate clothing for outdoor work. Contact Alex Sanders, (703) 465-8140 or

On Saturday and Sunday, there are also several invasive plant removal projects in Arlington and Bethesda -- see our calendar for more details on those and many other activities happening this week.

Not volunteer-related, but pretty cool: on Thursday, there will be an Astronomy Night on the National Mall. We'll post more about that on Tuesday!

Have something else you want to highlight? Leave us a comment. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

LOOK FOR: Chipmunks

Is it just me, or has the chipmunk population in Rock Creek Park exploded over the last couple of years?

Photo credit: Gilles Gonthier (who has many more)
It seems to me like it used to be unusual to see a chipmunk around here. But last week when we were out walking, I was struck by how many of these little critters were scampering around on the forest floor. Well, whether it's a population explosion or I've just become more observant, there are chipmunks to be seen in these parts. And they're adorable.

Chipmunks are known for being able to hold food in their cheek pouches (six acorns at once!) and for gathering large caches of food for winter (often hundreds of acorns and other nuts and seeds). This activity gave rise to their genus name, Tamias, Greek for "storer." Chipmunks also eat insects, berries, and mushrooms when they're available.

chipmunk with acorn in cheek
Photo credit: Gilles Gonthier (who has many more)
Those cheek pouches can also come in handy for moving dirt around when chipmunks are digging burrows. These dwellings apparently can be quite extensive, with up to five openings and 100 feet of tunnels and chambers (they need multiple chambers to store all that food!). In the winter, chipmunks will go into a hibernation-like state of torpor, but they'll get up periodically and snack on their stash.

The Eastern chipmunk is Tamias striatus, or "striped storer." Look for a pattern of two black stripes on each side, with a lighter stripe in between them, and a fifth black stripe down the middle of the chipmunk's back. Between the puffy cheeks and the racing stripes, you can see why Disney and others have found them appealing.

In the wild, chipmunks don't exactly sing. But they do frequently make warning calls that sound more like what you would expect out of a bird than a mammal. We love to stump people with this! Listen here, and you'll be prepared to spot an alarmed chipmunk on your next walk:

Or, maybe you still prefer this version:

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How Would You Staycation?

My summer travel schedule is reaching nightmarish -- for me -- proportions. I just came home from an amazing four-day wedding trip thinking, "I need a vacation to recover from my vacation." And it's just the beginning: between work and some long-planned vacations, I'll be away from home for at least 36 days over the next three months. (Bear with me if I skip some posts here and there in the normal schedule of the Natural Capital.)

This level of travel seems normal to some of you, I'm sure, but my head is spinning a little. I like sleeping in my own bed, and checking in on my garden in the morning (not to mention eating from it). Besides, there's always plenty to do close to home -- which is, after all, one of the points of this blog.

Which brings me to my question for you: if you were designing your dream staycation in the DC area, what would you do?

Photo credit: Carlo Alberto

Let's say you have at least 4 days off of work, but you want to stay with an hour's drive of your home. We want a real vacation here, not just sitting around home catching up on sleep (though we could use some of that, too). And, as a Natural Capital reader, we're assuming you'd want to spend most of that vacation outside. Would you go camping? Take lots of day trips? Where would you go? Check out some parks you haven't been to? Visit an old favorite?

Leave us your dream itinerary in the comment section.  Or, if you can't think of an itinerary, tell us some things that would make you feel like you were on vacation, and we'll see if we can't come up with some posts on places that would fit the bill!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Calendar: Fireflies and Butterflies

A couple of fly ideas for your weekend. (Do people still use the word "fly" that way?)

Photo credit: Art Farmer
The fireflies are out in full force, and it's time for the 2nd Annual Firefly Festival at Fort C.F. Smith Park in Arlington on Sunday evening. "Well have lots ways to have fun and learn all about the critters that light up the night. Events include; bug hunts, games, crafts, walks, and talks about fireflies. Bring your picnic blanket and dinner to enjoy as we wait for the sun to go down and the lights to come out." Registration is required ($5 per person).

While we're talking about pretty flying insects, I don't think we've mentioned Wings of Fancy yet this summer -- the butterfly exhibit up at Brookside Gardens. It's open 10:00 to 4:00 every day. Walk around inside the conservatory with hundreds of local and exotic butterflies, and learn about their life cycles. $6 ages 13+/$4 ages 3-12 (frequent visitor passes are also available). Be prepared: the greenhouse can be even warmer than outside, especially in the afternoon.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Things to Look For in July

Summer is so abundant! We're looking forward to a month of flowers and wild edibles. (Links are to last year's LOOK FOR posts):

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Milkweed is a beautiful, once-common roadside plant that is struggling in modern times. If you love monarch butterflies, you should show milkweed some love. Their lives depend on it: monarch larvae can only survive by eating milkweed leaves.

Photo credit: kthread
We're generally opposed to the Asian plants that have made it into our local woods, but the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) might be one exception. For several weeks in July, these relatives of our native raspberries are abundant and delicious. And, if we can get to the berries before the birds do, and keep the plants from spreading, all the better. Get out there and do your part!

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Jewelweed is a pretty flower, a sparkly wonder, a trailside snack, and a soothing skin treatment. What's not to love?

hummingbird and cardinal flower
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
I used to love cardinal flower just because it's a gorgeous flower. It took a few years before I realized that if you sit quietly for long enough by a large patch, a hummingbird will come by. And that takes it to another level.

Photo credit: brocktopia
Chantarelles are a choice culinary mushroom prized by chefs around the world. And they grow in Washington, DC.