Thursday, December 29, 2011

Greatest Hits of 2011

With only 2 days left in the year, it seems safe to take stock of our visitors in 2011. There were over 21,000 of you this year. As far as Big Brother Google can tell, about a quarter of you live in DC, a fifth in Virginia, and a fifth in Maryland, with the rest coming in from around the world -- including all 50 states and over a hundred countries. Thanks so much for joining us on our adventures through the natural world.

Help us find even more readers for 2012! If you have friends who enjoy the outdoors (or some who should get out more), send them a link to your favorite post -- or send along this list of the most popular posts of 2011. Have other ideas about how to spread the word? We're all ears.

Greatest Hits - Of the things we posted in 2011, these got the most traffic:

How Cold is Too Cold to Play Outside?
Nature Centers in the DC Area
Public Campgrounds in the DC Area
LOOK FOR: Footprints in the Snow
LOOK FOR: Bear Corn (or Cancer Root, or Squaw Root)
What's the Most Romantic Outdoor Spot in the DC Area?
LOOK FOR: Garlic Mustard
Rock Creek Park: Boundary Bridge - Riley Spring Bridge Loop
LOOK FOR: Backyard Birds
LOOK FOR: Vultures (They Make Better Valentines than Teddy Bears)

Recurring Favorites - These posts keep getting lots of visits even though they were published over a year ago. I knew the swimming and canoeing posts would be perennial local favorites, but the post on frog and toad eggs continues to draw readers from British Columbia to Kuala Lampur. Who knew?

Natural Places to Swim (Somewhat) Near Washington, DC (August 2010)
Car-Free DC: Ten Great Places to Hike Around DC by Public Transportation(Sept 2009)
Places to Rent a Canoe or Kayak in the Washington, DC Area (August 2010)
McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area (March 2010)
LOOK FOR: Frog and Toad Eggs (and Tadpoles) (April 2010)
Scott's Run Nature Preserve (Nov 2009)
10 Nature-Themed Halloween Costumes (Oct 2009)
LOOK FOR: Oyster Mushrooms (May 2010)
Stay in a Lockhouse on the C&O Canal (July 2010)
LOOK FOR: Mosquito Larvae (June 2010)

Did you have a favorite post on the Natural Capital this year? Something you'd like to see more or less of next year? We'd love your feedback!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Read Any Good Books Lately?

Every year around this time I like to browse best-of-the-year book lists. Here are some of the books that caught my eye as possibly of interest to Natural Capital readers. What have you read this year that you think we should look at? Leave a comment below.

From the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Environmental Creative Writing Award:

Birdwatching in Wartime by Jeffrey Thomson

"In Thomson's poetry collection, the animals are real and so is the singing. Whether mourning a wren killed by the atomic bomb or riffing on Borges, Thomson pays exquisite attention to creatures in literature and the world that might otherwise be lost, enriching our aesthetic and ethical life. Birdwatching gives the lie to the notion that formalism is devoid of passion by drenching its finely-wrought lines in sensual detail and biting intelligence. That it manages to be funny and experimental at the same time is a small miracle. Everyone who wonders about the fate of the green fire in American letters should read this book."

From the National Outdoor Book Awards:

Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees, by Nancy Ross Hugo

"Author Nancy Ross Hugo is smitten with trees. In fact she’ll unabashedly tell you that tree viewing is as exciting as bird-watching. And you’ll see why. Just spend a little time paging through this book—sample a bit of Hugo’s personable and insightful writing, absorb Robert Llewellyn’s splendid photography—and it becomes clear. What this book does differently than many is to examine trees in a close up and personal manner: the resplendent emerging leaves of a white oak, the secreted and graceful immature seed pods of the redbud, the thrilling appearance of a red cedar flower. This striking and delightful book will draw your eyes upward toward the world of leaves and entwining branches, and like Hugo, you may find yourself smitten and thrilled by what you see.

From the Orion Book Awards:

Insectopedia, by Hugh Raffles


"A stunningly original exploration of the ties that bind us to the beautiful, ancient, astoundingly accomplished, largely unknown, and unfathomably different species with whom we share the world. For as long as humans have existed, insects have been our constant companions. Yet we hardly know them, not even the ones we’re closest to: those that eat our food, share our beds, and live in our homes. Organizing his book alphabetically, Hugh Raffles weaves together brief vignettes, meditations, and extended essays, taking the reader on a mesmerizing exploration of history and science, anthropology and travel, economics, philosophy, and popular culture. Insectopedia shows us how insects have triggered our obsessions, stirred our passions, and beguiled our imaginations."

From Mother Nature Network's Best Green and Environmental Books of 2011:

Listed: Dispatches from America's Endangered Species Act, by Joe Roman


"Author Joe Roman, a conservation biologist, delves into the question of extinction, and how we aught best prevent it. He writes about a number of extinct and near-extinct animals and their effects on the ecosystems that we live in too. His central narrative is the fascinating history of the Endangered Species Act, in the course of which he asks: does the landmark law, passed in 1973, actually work? In other words, does listing a species as endangered prevent it from becoming extinct? And if so, why are the numbers of extinct species going up instead of down? To answer this question, the author introduces us to fish, bison, woodpeckers, whales, wolves, panthers, and a variety of plants in need of protection, turning what might have been an academic book into one inhabited by a wealth of characters. The trees and birds we meet in "Listed" are charming ambassadors for the cause."

From Amazon's Best Books of 2011 in Outdoors and Nature:

Mycophilia, by Eugenia Bone


"An incredibly versatile cooking ingredient containing an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and possibly cancer-fighting properties, mushrooms are among the most expensive and sought-after foods on the planet. Yet when it comes to fungi, culinary uses are only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout history fungus has been prized for its diverse properties—medicinal, ecological, even recreational—and has spawned its own quirky subculture dedicated to exploring the weird biology and celebrating the unique role it plays on earth. In Mycophilia, accomplished food writer and cookbook author Eugenia Bone examines the role of fungi as exotic delicacy, curative, poison, and hallucinogen, and ultimately discovers that a greater understanding of fungi is key to facing many challenges of the 21st century. Engrossing, surprising, and packed with up-to-date science and cultural exploration, Mycophilia is part narrative and part primer for foodies, science buffs, environmental advocates, and anyone interested in learning a lot about one of the least understood and most curious organisms in nature."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Things to look for in December

Hello dear readers, we've been slowing down the rate of posts here at the Natural Capital due to...well, life. And it's about to get a whole lot slower as we leave town, first to visit family in Florida, and then to visit the coral reefs, jungles, and cloud forests of Honduras for a big chunk of January. We've scheduled a few posts to show up here automatically while we're gone, just so you don't think we've forgotten about you! In the meantime, there's plenty to explore for those of you staying up here in colder climes.

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.

squirrel nest in my back yard
Squirrel nest by Heart Windows Art
Meanwhile, the squirrels have built their nests for the winter and are hunkering down. Cute alert: this post includes BBC footage of baby squirrels.

Berry Pretty 3
Holly by Kevin H.
The garlands of greenery went up in my office building last 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.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Christmas Fern by K.P. McFarland
Christmas ferns were also once used as holiday decorations, for the same reason -- they stay green all winter.

Eastern Hemlock
Hemlock by Mr.Mac2009
While you're out and about enjoying the winter sunshine, try your hand at identifying some trees. It's a lot harder without the leaves! We made a quick guide to ten winter trees that often catch our eye.

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.

And, for those of you who tend to feel a little house-bound as it gets colder and colder outside, last year we also wrote a Southerner's Guide to Staying Warm Outside in the Winter. Now get out there and explore!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Glowing Leaf Thanksgiving Card
Photo credit: wmartin63
Hope you're having a wonderful day with friends and family as we are.

For those of you who can't turn away from the computer even on Thanksgiving, here are some posts on the Natural Capital that relate to turkeys and giving thanks, in one way or another:


Now get outdoors and work off that turkey!


Friday, November 18, 2011

LOOK FOR: Turkey Tails


Photo credit: Coastlander
As we think about the things that we are thankful for in nature, we should all pause to be thankful for mushrooms. Not just because they are yummy, or beautiful -- which many are -- but because they enable us to walk around in the woods in the first place.

After all, imagine a world where every tree that fell over in the forest just stayed there. A few hundred years and it would be an impassible maze of giant Pick-Up Sticks.

No, we should be grateful for the saprobes -- those thankless little mushrooms that eat wood. And what better to single out at Thanksgiving time than the turkey tail? This very common shelf mushroom typically grows on (and eats) logs and stumps, clearing the way for future generations of trees and hikers.

Turkey tails grow in overlapping, semi-circular layers that really can look like the back end of a turkey. The effect is enhanced by stripes of various colors in the grey-to-brown (sometimes to orange) spectrum. (These stripes are the source of the name Trametes versicolor -- thin and multi-colored). The surface is often velvety when fresh. All in all, they're a lovely mushroom -- and all the more eye catching at this time of year when colors are fading in the woods.

Trametes versicolor
Photo credit: lfelliott
Chinese medicine has used turkey tails for centuries, and Western scientists are now studying extracts as cancer treatments. Perhaps one more reason to be thankful for the turkey tail.

In the wild: Turkey tail is extremely common in the woods. There are other common shelf mushrooms that can look very similar to the "true" turkey tail; chief among them is Stereum ostrea, the "false" turkey tail. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty, try Michael Kuo's key.

In your yard: You can order a turkey tail growing kit from Fungi Perfecti. (But, did we mention how common they are?)

turkey tail
Photo credit: Cornell Fungi

Thursday, November 10, 2011

LOOK FOR: Starlings

You know I stick mostly to native species on this blog. There are so many wonderful creatures and plants to explore without needing to focus on the imported counterparts that are crowding them out. But a friend forwarded a beautiful little video that I thought I would pass along, because this truly is one of the natural phenomena that takes my breath away a few times a year.

Sturnus vulgaris
Photo credit: Kristof Borkowski
Starlings were brought to the United States in the late 19th century by a group called the American Acclimitization Society, whose sole purpose was introducing European species of plants and animals. A sub-project of this larger work was to introduce into New York city parks every species of bird mentioned in a work of Shakespeare.

And what did Shakespeare think of starlings? They won't shut up. (Those of you who've been near a flock will agree.) In Henry IV, the king was refusing to pay a ransom to release his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer. Hotspur, who took the prisoners in a battle, says:

He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!'
Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.


I don't think Hotspur ever went through with this plan, but the Acclimitization Society's dreams were fulfilled beyond their wildest expectations. It's estimated there are now more than 200 million starlings in North America, reaching coast to coast and into Canada and Mexico. The Introduced Species Summary Project complains that besides being noisy and messy, they ravage crops and crowd out native bird species as they travel around in flocks that sometimes number in the thousands.

Invasive though they are, such big flocks can also be a thing of beauty. Check it out.

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Things to Look For in November

I've been traveling and away from the Natural Capital a bit, including a trip to the midwest to celebrate some of life's extremes: I visited my grandma, who is turning 90 next month, and my friend's baby, who is 9 months old. Apologies for the lighter posting schedule, but you can always check out places to go in old posts via the navigation bar up above. Here are some of the wonderful things to look for that we've posted in previous Novembers. Links are to previous posts on the Natural Capital.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia Albicollis)
White throated sparrow by Dave Maher
The white throated sparrows are back in town for the winter. Listen for their song of "Oh Canada, Canada, Canada" as they long for their summer home. It's always nice, as the weather starts to get colder and colder, to remind myself that some critters think our winter is downright balmy, and travel hundreds of miles to enjoy it.
Witch-Hazel
Witch hazel by pellaea
As one of the last things in the DC area to flower in the fall, witch hazel has a special place in my heart. It's not that the flowers are particularly showy -- the petals are just small yellow wisps, really. But they start blooming in October, and can keep going until Thanksgiving or even later.
Persimmon fruits, my Thanksgiving treat
Persimmons by Janet Powell
Persimmons are another special late-year treat -- though this year, they've been falling for a few weeks already. When they're not ripe, they'll make your mouth pucker. But when they're soft to the point of falling off the tree, they're sweet and luscious.

Staghorn sumac on the C&O Canal by Cindy Cohen
One of Matt's walks found persimmons and several other fruits on the C&O canal in the middle of November last year. Check out the list of what they found, complete with pictures.
Flavoparmelia caperata
Lichen by Paul Morris
As most of the plants are dying back, our attention starts to turn to less showy but still fascinating things in the forest. Like lichen. Take a field trip with a lichenologist in this video from Science Friday.
Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)
Wild turkeys by pverdonk
Of course, by the end of the month, most of us will be thinking of turkey. Read our post for some fun facts about wild turkeys, which apparently live in Rock Creek Park -- last year just after our post a reader told me she regularly sees them off Military Road. Keep an eye out!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Can You Name These 10 Autumn Leaves?

I picked up these leaves around the neighborhood this week. How many can you name?
Answers are at the bottom of this post.



How did you do? Hard to do from a photo? Get out there and enjoy the leaves this weekend, in person!

1. Mulberry 2.Beech 3. Dogwood 4. White oak 5. Redbud 6. Tuliptree 7. Pin oak 8. Spicebush 9. Sugar maple 10. Sycamore

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Trip Report: Mushrooms

Last Saturday Matt led a mushrooming 101 class. While the fungi are slowing down compared to the incredible abundance of a month ago, there's still plenty to look at.

On the way to the park, we found two prized medicinal mushrooms: reishi and hen-of-the-woods. Growing right along the side of the road on the base of an oak tree in the neighborhood.

With the park we found good examples of most of the broad classifications of mushrooms you'll see: gilled cap-and-stalk mushrooms, boletes (cap-and-stalk mushrooms with pores instead of gills), shelf or polypore mushrooms, and even some coral mushrooms. We saw some fantastic examples of how mushrooms spread their mycelium through the vertical tube structure of wood. And we looked at the colored spores they drop to reproduce.

At one point someone said to me, "You can walk through the woods and it's just beautiful, but there are so many things to see if you stop and look!" Indeed.


Reishi (Ganoderma) and hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa)


Looking for the beetles we always see in oyster mushrooms.


Unidentified cap-and-stalk mushroom with gills


Miscellaneous polypores


Puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.?)


Very young oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)


Coral mushroom


Maze-gilled polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Calendar: Oct.15-16

The leaves are starting to turn and the weather has stopped running hot and cold and hit just about right. What a fantastic time of year to get outdoors.

yellow reflection
Foliage at Kenilworth by NCinDC
We've got canoeing plans for this weekend with some friends, and you could too if there's still space with the Sierra Club outing on Sunday (Oct. 16) to paddle the Anacostia River Water Trail for "a very different view of our nation’s capital." If you think industrial waste and concrete when you think Anacostia, don't knock it til you've tried it: we've seen beaver and herons in this stretch of the river and the Kenilworth/ Arboretum area is downright beautiful. Contact leaders for more details, including information about boat rentals. Michael Darzi, michael.darzi@saic.com or 301/580-9387, and Glenn Gillis, glennpotomacfalls@yahoo.com or 703/430-0568.

On Saturday there's a Wildlife Festival at the Patuxtent Wildlife Refuge. They promise live animals; behind-the-scenes tours of the refuge's research with whooping cranes and ducks; children's activities; and music. 10:00-3:00. Free.

You know how great it is to enjoy Beach Drive through Rock Creek Park on the weekends when it's closed to traffic. Saturday from 9 to 3, the roads through Fort Dupont will be closed for Feet in the Street.

There's lots more on our calendar. Enjoy!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tree Update: Ten Things Our Insurance Won't Cover

Our insurance company has actually been very generous in paying to repair the damage our big old oak tree did to our house when it came down in Hurricane Irene. We're still living with tarps on our roof, but we have faith everything will be fixed up before winter sets in.

Even when all the work is done, there will still be a big hole in the sky where that tree was. I offer this list not seeking pity, but to remind all of us to appreciate the wonderful trees in our lives. There are a lot of things that just can't be replaced anytime soon:

  1. Elevated squirrel highway (and racetrack) across the full width of our yard.
  2. Squirrel & Red Oak
  3. Leaves to feed up to 517 species of insect larvae.
  4. Caterpillar on Oak
  5. Visits from migratory warblers attracted by abundant insect life.
  6. About 75 pounds of acorns per year (extrapolating from this estimate) to feed squirrels, birds, raccoons, and opossums.
  7. Acorns
  8. Shade for some beloved woodland perennials, and for us humans too.
  9. Shelter for one raccoon, visible from our bedroom window.
  10. An anchor for a hammock, and the green view overhead to make it my favorite place in the yard.
  11. Support for a swing with a 15+ foot radius, long enough to swing out over the pond.
  12. The view out my bedroom window every morning.
  13. A feeling of connection to something larger and older than ourselves, and to the generations of people who lived in this house before us.
Consider planting a few acorns this fall, or collecting them for Growing Native. A hundred or two hundred years from now, someone will thank you for those trees.