Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What are your nature highlights of 2010?

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

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

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

What were your natural highlights of the year?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Vacation

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

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

Our last trip to the Everglades

Monday, December 20, 2010

Calendar: Hikes next Saturday (Dec. 25)

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

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

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

Stay warm, and have a happy holiday!

Mather Gorge at Great Falls
Mather Gorge in winter by cvconnell

Friday, December 17, 2010

LOOK FOR: Christmas Fern

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Photo credit: Kent McFarland

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Southerner's Guide to Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: gfpeck

Sunday, December 12, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

LOOK FOR: Squirrel Nests

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Identifying Trees in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sycamore by crowdive

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

Black walnut by Gemma Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swollen Buds
Red maple flower buds byMr.Mac2009

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

(See also our post on maple sap.)

Spicebush buds by the Natural Capital

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Calendar: Winter Crafts (Dec. 8-12)

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

Things to Look For in December

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Calendar: Celebrating Both Nature and the Holidays

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

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

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

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