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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Three Billy Goats: Section B

On this week's caprine adventures we come to Section B of the Billy Goat Trail. I think of this as the "island-y" Billy Goat -- as you'll see in a moment. The scenery is good, but less spectacular than Section A. But this trail is a heck of a lot less crowded on the weekends. Most days, I'll take that trade.

The western end of Section B is near the Angler's parking lot. (Go left briefly on the towpath to reach the trailhead.) Billy Goat B is 1.4 miles, plus a mile to get back to where you started via the towpath. The rock scrambling isn't as constant or extreme as on Section A, but there are some scrambles, so wear appropriate shoes. You may also want to take a copy of the Park Service map.

From the Angler's end of the trail, you'll have an easy walk of about a half mile through the woods to get to your first view of the Potomac. You'll see the cliffs of Offutt Island: in the 1700's, the Offutt family owned this area (and much of what is now Washington, DC). The island was anonymously donated to the Nature Conservancy in 2007.

As you start following the Potomac, you'll notice the trail is much rockier. Soon, though, you'll break away from the river views and the rocks to follow a stream inland briefly, before crossing it. The last time I hiked the trail, I came across two deer browsing along the banks here as I was crossing the rocks.

The trail heads back to the Potomac for more open, rocky scrambles and more island views, interspersed with sections of woods dotted with enormous boulders.

If you follow the blue blazes, you'll eventually curve off to the left, following the small piece of the river that's channeled between the mainland and Herzog and Vaso Islands. Up a set of stone steps and you'll be back at the towpath.

From here, it's an uneventful mile along the towpath back to Angler's. Or, to keep going, Billy Goat C is less than half a mile to the east. Extra bonus: as of September, at least, there was a beaver dam in the section of the canal between B and C.

Last week: Billy Goat A
Next week: Billy Goat C

Monday, October 18, 2010

Calendar: Starting to Get Scared (Oct. 22-24)

Halloween-themed activities are already starting to pop up on the calendar for next weekend. But first, a public service announcement: please go out and get a flu shot. I spent 3 miserable days this week confined to bed with the highest fever I've had in a very long time. Trust me, you want to avoid this thing if at all possible.

On to the calendar...

Friday night is the monthly full moon hike by the Capital Hiking Club on the C&O Canal. They leave from the Angler's parking lot at 8:30pm.

A couple of nature centers are getting in the Halloween mood on Saturday:

Huntley Meadows is hosting a bat program at 1:00. "See a vampire bat skull, hear bat calls and explore the amazing world of these nocturnal flyers through naturalist-led activities and games." $6 per person; register at 703-768-2525.

And Hidden Oaks is hosting a night hike and kids activities on Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. "Meet costumed creatures including a black widow spider, skunk, owl and a dead tree that explain why they have scary reputations. Investigate real animal skulls and owl pellets and make crafts." Ages 4+, $7 per person; register at 703-941-1065.

And if you need to do some preparing for Halloween weekend, check out our list of 10 nature-themed halloween costumes. We'd love to hear more ideas!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

LOOK FOR: Clean Water

Aqua Man
Photo credit: nickwheeleroz
So many of the places we love in DC center around water: Great Falls, The Northwest Branch, Rock Creek Park, Scott's Run...we draw our drinking water from the Potomac, for heaven's sake.

So why do we let the water stay so dirty?

Sure, we're able to run the Potomac's water through a sterilization system so folks in DC don't have to join the 42,000 people in the world who die every week from water-borne illnesses. And for that we should be truly grateful.

But at the same time we're sterilizing our drinking water, what's left behind is incredibly polluted. So much so, that it's not considered safe to swim in our stretch of the Potomac or the Anacostia.

And the critters that do swim in the rivers aren't doing so hot: the US Fish and Wildlife Service has found eggs in the testes of over 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass they studied in the Potomac, and cancerous lesions or sores in two thirds of the brown bullhead catfish they studied in the Anacostia River.

Jumping Smallmouth Bass
Smallmouth bass, trying to escape? Photo credit: onthespiral
What are some of the sources of the pollution? There are many, but I'll highlight four big ones, and some suggestions for how you can do your part to clean them up. Add your own in the comments!

DC's antiquated sewer system combines stormwater and sewage in the same pipes. When there's a big storm, the combined overflow goes into our rivers. DC Water's long-term plan (required by a consent decree) includes over $2 billion in improvements over the next 10 years, but still will allow several overflows each year into the Potomac, the Anacostia, and Rock Creek.

>> Support efforts by Anacostia Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, DC Environmental Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Groundwork Anacostia River DC to keep pressure on DC Water to continue upgrading their plans.

Many pollutants aren't cleaned out of our sewage, even when it makes it to the treatment plant. Scientists think it's the funky chemicals from pharmaceuticals, lotions, soaps, and other household products that might be causing those intersex fish.

>>Look for products labeled as biodegradable, and dispose of things in the trash, not by washing them down the drain; sign the Potomac Conservancy's petition for more research and accountability on this issue.

The city is covered in impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground. Instead, rainwater picks up heat and pollutants from roofs and streets and crashes into our streams. Local jurisdictions have been making some strides to require stormwater mitigation for new development, but there's a long way to go.

>>You may be able to improve the stormwater situation around your home; programs in DC and Montgomery County will even cover some of the cost.

Fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste wash into the water from farms upstream, and from yards here inside the beltway.

>>Keep your own yard chemical free, and support local farms that raise food with minimal or no chemicals. Also support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's work to control nutrient pollution.

Wouldn't you love to go for a carefree swim someday in the Anacostia River? A girl can dream, can't she?

Photo credit: Stefan Gara

This post wass inspired by Blog Action Day 2010: Water.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Three Billy Goats: Section A

There are people in this world (my brother is one of them) who believe that a hike is not a hike unless there is rock scrambling involved -- everything else is just a walk. Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is for those people.

Mather Gorge
Photo credit: Shannon Simmons
The three Billy Goat Trails (A, B, and C) are all relatively short trails (each under 2 miles) parallel to the C&O Canal, looping out to follow bends in the Potomac River where canal-builders decided to go straight. (See the park service map.) Each one can be combined as a loop with its section of the canal, and they can be strung together in series for even longer hikes. We'll be bringing you one a week over the next few weeks.

Section A is by far the most popular Billy Goat, and also the most rugged and challenging. This has got to be one of the most scenic 4 mile loops in the DC area:
  • start at the Angler's Inn parking lot (.4 miles east of the trailhead),
  • take Billy Goat A (1.6 miles),
  • detour up to Great Falls (1 mile roundtrip), and
  • come back on the towpath (1 mile back to Angler's).

You'll be scrambling over boulders and up and down rock faces for a good portion of the hike; you'll be rewarded by beautiful views. Start early to avoid the crowds and the sun: all those rocks mean not a lot of shade. (You can also start late and aim to catch a sunset at Great Falls -- just be sure to leave plenty of extra time for rock scrambling.)

From the Angler's towpath entrance, you'll head right (west) to get to the eastern trailhead of Billy Goat A. From the Billy Goat trailhead, the trail goes south along the stream that separates Bear Island (where you are) from Sherwin Island (on your left). Already you'll be going up and down, with plenty of rocks in the trail; if you don't like this, turn around, because there are far more rocks and climbs in your near future.

After crossing the stream, you'll come to a wide open view of the Potomac. Difficult Run enters the river on the other side.

At this point the trail heads to the right to follow the edge of Bear Island, and passes two ponds. Beyond the second pond, you'll be at river level, at an area called Purplehorse Beach. (I have yet to see any purple horses there.)

Photo credit: chsanfino

Not enough scrambling for you yet? Just wait until you get to Spitzbergen Cliffs, which are named after a mountainous, arctic island in Norway. This won't feel arctic on a summer day, but it might feel a little mountainous.

Photo credit: MV Jantzen
You'll go back down to the river one more time before heading back up to cliff height, with great views of Mather Gorge.

Potomac's Mather Gorge
Photo credit: 'justme07'
As you approach the Great Falls end of the Billy Goat trail, it becomes flatter and less rocky, until eventually you emerge onto the towpath. You're half a mile from Great Falls -- who can resist the detour? On the way back to the parking lot you can either retrace your steps, or take the shorter and much easier towpath along a very pretty section of the canal.

071118 012
Photo credit: Carly & Art

Up next week: Continue the adventure with Billy Goat B!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Calendar: Celebrations & Work Days Oct. 16-17

I hope everyone's been enjoying this beautiful weather we've been having. It's a fantastic time of year to get outside, and accordingly there are several outdoor celebrations and work days scheduled for next weekend:

simplest of mysteries
Photo credit: greenhem
The trails you hike on in Rock Creek get a lot of help from volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. PATC would love for you to join in the fun on Saturday, starting at 8:20 AM from the Nature Center just south of Military Road. Contact Alex Sanders at (703)465-8140 or for more info.

Also on Saturday, Fairfax County parks are having a coordinated Watershed Clean-up Day (9-11:30). There will be workdays at Huntley Meadows, Hidden Oaks, Cub Run RECenter, Frying Pan Farm, Lake Accotink, and others.

When you're done working, you can stop by the World Animal Day celebration at National Geographic (10-3 on Saturday) for geckos, wild music, and other activities.

And, on Sunday (8-3:30), stop by the Potomac Conservancy's Potomac River Jam for music, art, and outdoor activities along the canal.

As always, there are lots more activities on our calendar. What are you looking forward to this weekend?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Things to Look For in October

With the weather we've been having, there's no question that fall is here. These are some of the things we love to look for in October:

Wild Grapes
Wild grapes by Memotions
Wild Grapes are tart but tasty trailside treats -- if you can reach them. We had some at Carderock in September; have you found any lately?

Acorns on tree
Acorns by VS Anderson
Acorns are littering the forest floor -- though not as many as last year, when they were clearly masting. We've been playing around with making acorn flour: take off the shells, grind the nutmeats into coarse flour, then put them in a coffee filter and run cold water through the flour repeatedly, until it's not bitter anymore. Then dry. Use it to replace a little flour in any baking recipe that doesn't require a lot of gluten. We love it in pancakes.

Virginia Creeper
Virginia Creeper by Rene J
Virginia Creeper has started to turn a brilliant red in some places. It's the harbinger of fall color.

New England Aster
New England Aster by giveawayboy
New England Asters are lighting up our backyard right now, and on a sunny day they're covered in pollinators. Do you have a favorite spot that they grow in the wild? We'd love to hear about it.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar waxwing by Kelly Colgan Azar
Cedar waxwings are beautiful but gluttonous birds that come through our yard every fall and feast on our holly berries. I love to find them by their high-pitched calls, which you can hear on a video in our post.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

5 Questions for: Jennifer Chambers, Hiking Along

Jennifer Chambers is an environmental educator who started Hiking Along in 2004 to engage children in exploration of the natural world. She leads hikes for kids on D.C. metro trails, doing hands-on science activities along the way.

Jennifer also developed Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Student Trail Steward program, a partnership with Northwood High School. They recently restored a 15 acre greenway between Sligo Creek and the Northwest Branch -- removing several tons of trash and creating the Northwood Chesapeake Bay Trail. We're very happy to have her as this month's guest on the Natural Capital!

Who else should we feature in this series -- could you be next? Leave a comment or drop us an email at

You have a great love of and curiosity for the natural world, how did that come about?

My father has incredible respect and love for the outdoors as a responsible hunter and avid canoe camper. He instilled a base for my love of nature. However, I rarely ventured out with him as a kid, leaving that to my brother, choosing to hang with my mom as she disliked bugs.

Jennifer lives in Silver Spring with her husband and 2 children.
At a private school for children with learning disabilities in Silver Spring, I further developed passion for outdoor recreation and the natural world when I discovered awe and wonder through my student’s eyes, smiles, laughter, adventures, experiences, and changed self-confidence. The school had a great outdoor education program: camping, hiking, caving, rock climbing, ropes course, and white water rafting.

Through these shared experiences with my students, and now my children, I want to do everything in my power to share more of it with others and to protect it for today and tomorrow’s generations.

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?

1. Clean-up Northwest Branch and the Park – the trails along the Branch are my personal oasis and sanctuary. A place I find peace and tranquility and adventure with my children and dog. Sometimes that peace is broken when I witness irresponsible human impacts to the park, such as, dumping and dog poop left on the trail.
2. Reduce littering - Help people to install a sense of pride and respect for their communities and neighborhoods to create better communal living and create a healthier local environment.
3. Stop vehicle speeding on my neighborhood street to improve safety for the children who live there – 10 years of trying has made small dents – Education, Engineering, and Enforcement!

Describe your most profound encounter in the natural world.

Every encounter, from the big to the small, is profound, particularly when I am able to share it with my family. Here are some highlights:

Pseudacris crucifer crucifer
Spring peeper by squamatologist
• Hiking in a canyon near Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and being surprised by a juvenile brown bear in the crown of a tree. (Instant thought: where is its mother?)
• Experiencing the power of water on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
• Watching a school of sun fish try to eat a bee caught on the water’s surface.
• Being deafened by spring peepers in March.
• Crossing the path of a rattlesnake while hiking in Catoctin.
• Finding a freshly dead barred owl with my students in Northwest Branch Park.

A hike with Hiking Along
What's your favorite natural place in the DC area, and why?

My absolute favorite natural place in DC is on a large rock bar in Northwest Branch Park, just below the Loxford Terrace trailhead and extension. It's a beautiful, serene, tree-canopied spot in the middle of the Branch.

With the Branch’s riffles and sweet bird songs as background music, I have shared big, bright smiles with children of all ages who express carefree spirits, ah-ha moments with students when they discover a northern dusky salamander and learn about its important role in the Branch’s ecosystem, and most importantly participate in nature’s play with my own children. They have developed a wonderful relationship with nature because of this oasis in the heart of Silver Spring.

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

Just do it! Jump in with both hands and feet and a smile on your face. Yes, fear may appear on the forefront of your mind (it does for me with a new experience) but remember that once you have done it, you will experience an exhilarating feeling and a renewal in your self-confidence. I did it!

We hope you're enjoying these answers as much as we are! Who should we feature next?