Monday, February 28, 2011

Calendar: Looking for Spring (Mar. 1-6)

I've been craving mushrooms this week. I think it's part of an itching for spring. But morels, which kick off the mushrooming year, won't be up for another six weeks yet. In the meantime, I made myself a big batch of stroganoff with store-bought mushrooms.

Viola pedata
Photo credit: squamatologist
And I'm hoping to make it to the monthly meeting of the Mycological Association of Washington tomorrow (Tuesday) night in Kensington. Dr. Lauraine Hawkins, a biology professor at Penn State, will give an illustrated talk about her work for the National Park Service inventorying the wide variety of mushrooms present from Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia, and their critical ecological interrelationships.

Sunday afternoon, look for signs of spring at Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna, where there will be a guided walk through their native plant collection. We've seen one birdsfoot violet blooming, and there's a chance of spring beauties and maybe some other early spring ephemerals if you're lucky.

And Sunday evening, you can look for woodcocks at Jug Bay. It's one of the most remarkable displays you'll ever see: at dusk, the male woodcock flies high in the air until it looks like just a speck, then drops all the way back down to the ground, spiraling and whistling.

There's always plenty more on our calendar. Enjoy!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Things to Look for in March

Putting together this post, I'm reminded how much I love this time of year. The sap is running and the earth is waking up and breaking out into flower. What have you been seeing lately?

Photo credit: Carly & Art
Bloodroot is one of our favorite spring flowers. Each plant blooms only briefly, and there's a window of only a few weeks that the bloodroots bloom at all. It's one more thing that inspires us to spend as much time as possible in the woods at this time of year.
Spicebush in bloom (IMG_2598)
Photo credit: PIWO
Every year we look for the cheery flowers of the
spicebush as they emerge to light up the understory. It's common throughout our local forests.
Spring Beauties (IMG_2610)
Photo credit: PIWO
Spring Beauties are not a showy flower, but we find them dainty and adorable. They're one of the first spring ephemerals: perennial flowers that emerge every spring on the forest floor, and they last a little longer than most.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, adult male
Photo credit: bcfoto70
I love to watch yellow-bellied sapsuckers as they feed: they make a series of round holes in a tree's bark, then lap up the sap that comes out -- and the insects that are attracted to it. The yellow-bellied sapsucker is considered a "keystone" species by some ecologists because so many other birds rely on them, following along for their leftovers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Calendar: Winter Nature (Feb 26-27)

I hope you had a wonderful long weekend, if you work somewhere that gives you the long weekend. The maples are starting to bloom, and the spring beauties are starting to send up their leaves...slowly but surely, spring is on the way. In the meantime, lots of local organizations are exploring winter.

Photo credit: Brian Hefele
Expert ecologist Rod Simmons will lead a winter tree ID workshop at Ford Nature Center in Alexandria on Saturday morning. (ages 16 and up; free but donation requested.)

Rock Creek Park will feature winter birds on Saturday afternoon. (ages 8 and up; free.)

The Patuxent NWR has a program called "Winter's Alive" on Sunday morning. (Ages 5 and up; free but reservations required.)

And Brookside Nature Center is having a Winter Ecology Walk on Sunday morning. (ages 12 and up; free but registration required.)

There's plenty more on our calendar, including hikes, geology, water politics, and tree activism. Enjoy!

Friday, February 18, 2011

LOOK FOR: Backyard Birds (and count them)

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual event that takes a massive snapshot of where birds are in North America. In 2010, volunteers reported on a mind-boggling 11.2 million birds. I did it for the first time last year, and it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling to be part of something so huge.

Here's all it takes to participate in this weekend's count:
  1. Look for birds for at least 15 minutes on February 18-21. You can count anywhere; it doesn't actually have to be a backyard.
  2. Keep track of the species that you see, and for each species, the largest number that you see together simultaneously. 
  3. Enter the information on the GBBC website.
For those of you who are just starting your bird watching careers, here's a quick guide to the 10 birds most commonly reported by DC Backyard Bird Counters in the last few years. Seasoned birdwatchers: any surprises on this list?

House sparrows by Melvin Yap
House Sparrow     (66% of lists)
Passer domesticus
6.25 inches

If you've got a birdfeeder, you've got house sparrows. These birds were brought over from Europe sometime in the mid-1800s and have proceeded to make quite a home for themselves. Males have a lighter breast with black patch on their throat; females are plain and brown.

Cardinals by Henry McLin (male/female)
Northern Cardinal     (66% of lists)
Cardinalis cardinalis
8.75 inches

There's something about a bright red bird that makes people happy. But female cardinals are pretty too: a hard-to-define mix of tan, red, and orange, with a bright orange bill. You'll often hear both sexes making short "chip" noises to check on each other.
Mourning dove / Tourterelle triste
Mourning dove by Eric Bégin
Mourning Dove      (64% of lists)
Zenaida macroura
12 inches

What color is a mourning dove? A brownish-grey, with pink undertones in the breast and maybe some blue if the light hits it right. We almost always see them in pairs or groups, walking around in our yard or perched on the utility lines, where they show off their long tails. Their song is in fact mournful sounding.
European Starling, PA, USA
Starling by Kelly Colgan Azar
European Starling     (50% of lists)
Sturnus vulgaris
8.5 inches

This bird is another import that has become widespread. Every once in a while a huge flock lands in our yard to forage, then disappears again. Starlings are smaller than crows, and their beaks are longer and thinner. Juveniles are covered in small white flecks, which make a beautiful pattern.

American Robin on Branch
Robin by Mr. T in DC
American Robin     (43% of lists)
Turdus migratorius
10 inches

Everyone knows the robin, but you can amuse your friends by learning the Latin name for this bird (my brother in law calls out "turdus!" every time he sees one). Some robins spend the winter in our area, so they're not necessarily a sign of spring -- though they do become more plentiful as it starts to warm up.
Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker by Ed Gaillard
Downy Woodpecker     (43% of lists)
Picoides pubescens
6.75 inches

Downies are our smallest woodpecker. I was surprised to see this bird on the list as frequently as robins, but we do see them almost every day on our peanut bird feeder. Males have that red spot on the back of their head; in females it's just white.

House finch
House Finch by Henry McLin
House Finch     (41% of lists)
Carpodacus mexicanus
6 inches

We used to have a pair of house finches that visited our windowboxes in Dupont Circle and delighted us with their sweet songs and the splash of color on the male's head. These birds are the third import on our list; they're native to the western US, but someone brought them east in the 1950s.

my little chickadee
Chickadee by ehpien
Chickadee     (41% of lists)
Poecile carolinensis/atricapilla
5 inches

Chickadees are the shortest, roundest birds on our list: fluffy balls of cuteness that fly from tree to tree looking for insects. Washington DC is in the overlap of the range of two hard-to-distinguish species; Carolina chickadees are smaller than their black-capped cousins.

Junco by Jason Means
Dark-eyed Junco     (40% of lists)
Junco hyemalis
6.25 inches

Juncos are snowbirds -- and Washington is part of their southern winter home. When it warms up a little more, they'll be off for Canada. For now, look carefully for these grey or grey-brown birds on the ground: they can blend in quite sneakily.  (See our full post on juncos)

White-striped White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) Great Backyard Bird Count 2010
White-throated sparrow by Stephen Little
White-throated Sparrow (39% of lists)
Zonotrichia albicollis
6.75 inches

White-throated sparrows are another winter resident of the DC area. If one thing surprised me more than seeing the tiny yellow patches on this sparrow's head for the first time, it was learning that it's named for the white patch just under its beak, and not that eye-catching yellow. (See our full post on white throated sparrows.)

That should get you started...for more, browse posts about birds here on the Natural Capital, or check out the fantastic online guide at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Forcing Flowers

The hedge between our yard and our neighbor's yard includes a long stretch of forsythia. Every January, we cut a vase full of bare branches and stick them in our kitchen.

Gradually, those bare branches are transformed as the buds swell and then explode into a riot of yellow blooms -- several weeks before the branches outside bloom. It's a sure pick-me-up in the middle of the end-of-winter doldrums.

Want to give it a try? Keep in mind that you're basically pruning your tree or shrub -- don't cut too many branches from any one plant, and work for symmetry. And (this should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway) stick to trees in yards -- don't go hacking up the forest.

Other blooming trees that you could try forcing include maple, dogwood, redbud, spicebush, and cherry.

See if you can beat the spring -- or at least bring a little spring indoors!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Calendar: Outdoors Presidents (Feb. 19-21)

There are lots of maple-tapping events on this week's calendar -- including one of Matt's famed wild edibles walks on Saturday. It's also President's Day weekend. I always forget about this holiday until it's pretty much upon us, but some local hike planners managed to work it into their schedules:

Bald eagle
Photo credit: fusky
  • On both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, a Rock Creek Park ranger will lead a hike "In the Footsteps of Giants," telling tales of the 5 presidents who used the park extensively. Free.
  • Saturday at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a ranger will lead a program on bald eagles. Look for them soaring over the refuge and get an idea why they were chosen for the Presidential Seal. Free, but reservations are required.
  • On Monday, the Audubon Naturalist Society is taking advantage of the holiday with a walk along the C&O Canal from Great Falls to Carderock. Registration required: $23/32.

There are lots more events this weekend on our calendar

Friday, February 11, 2011

LOOK FOR: Vultures (They Make Better Valentines than Teddy Bears)

Black vulture Great falls,  Maryland, USA
Vultures at Great Falls by badjoby
I'm willing to bet the vast majority of you have either given or received a teddy bear on Valentine's Day at some point in your life. It's part of what we do. But I am here to speak truth to the power of the Valentine-industrial complex: vultures would make better valentines than bears. (If you value monogamy and shared child-raising, that is.)

If you're looking for a life partner, a bear is not a good role model. Bears spend the summer mating season hooking up -- both males and females may have multiple partners even within the same season. Then the females are on their own to raise their young. Different cubs in the same litter may have different fathers, but it doesn't really matter, because none of those dads will be around to help raise them.

Vultures, on the other hand, mate for life. When it's time to raise young, both parents help incubate the eggs and feed the babies. And they do it with the same partner, over and over again.

Which is the message you'd like to send to your partner this Valentines Day?  
  1. Baby, you're cute, but when you start gaining weight with your first pregnancy I'll go out hunting one day and never come back.
  2. I know you're going to grow old and wrinkly, but I want to grow old and wrinkly with you.
Vulture Chick
Photo credit: whiteoakart
Despite this winningly romantic message, I'm not seeing a big future in vulture stuffed animals, though Disney has tried. Maybe they'd have better luck if they focused on vulture chicks -- they are quite fluffy.

When you're out on a walk to a romantic spot this weekend, you're likely to see vultures circling above in the thermal currents. Impress your date by knowing the difference between our two native vulture species, even when they're high above:
  • Black vultures' wings are mostly black, with lighter feathers just at the tips. They hold them in a flat line, and may flap them quickly.
  • Turkey vultures, on the other hand, have a light stripe across the bottom of their wings and tail. They hold their wings in more of a v-shape, and they flap less and more slowly.

Black vulture (on left) by Jerry Oldnettel
Turkey vulture (on right) by Larry Meade
Up close, black vultures have black heads. Turkey vultures have red heads. Some say it looks like a turkey head; some say the red blends in with the carrion they like to eat.

But when you see them up there, don't just think, there's a bird that spends its entire life eating rotting flesh. Now you can think, there's a bird that spends its entire life eating rotting flesh and raising its young in a monogamous pair bond.

How romantic.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What's the Most Romantic Outdoor Spot in the DC Area?

Inside a Seed
Photo credit: Phoney Nickle
Let's say, hypothetically, I wanted to go for a hike with my honey on Valentine's Day. What's the most romantic spot I could go to, in your opinion?

Do you go for the sweeping vistas, or the secluded spots that noone knows about?

Or maybe there's a spot that's special to you and your partner for a particular reason?

Tell us about it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Calendar: Learn Something (Feb 7-13)

This week's calendar is heavy on lectures and classes -- you could attend one a day if you wanted to:

Tonight is the monthly program at Brown Planetarium in Arlington ($2/3).

Tuesday at noon there's a tour of medicinal and poisonous plants at the US Botanical Garden on the Mall (free).

Bluebird hanging on in the wind
Bluebird at Jug Bay by Art Drauglis
Wednesday night, the Montgomery Bird Club's monthly meeting in Potomac will have a presentation on newly designated Important Bird Areas, and how volunteer-based bird surveys help establish which areas should be targeted for bird conservation efforts.

And then you can get up early on Thursday morning and help count birds at Jug Bay. They're looking for waterbirds and raptors, and often see bald eagles on their counts.

Friday night is the monthly show at the Owens Planetarium in Lanham. They'll have a talk by someone from the University of Maryland about imaging the very early universe with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA), and then "explore some visible-wavelength wonders of the planetarium sky" ($2/$4).

Saturday, Casey Trees is having a class on Trees 101. " This course provides a foundation in tree anatomy, tree identification and an overview of how trees function to provide the benefits we enjoy in the urban forest. The session will culminate with a street tree identification walk led by Casey Trees staff." (free; pre-registration required)

And on Sunday, the Audubon Naturalist Society will have a class on winter ecology in Chevy Chase. They promise to explore the many strategies organisms "from grasses to grackles to gray tree frogs" use to survive winter. (free; pre-registration required)

Enjoy! As always, there's more on our full calendar.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Things to Look For in February

Eastern skunk cabbage
Skunk cabbage by Colin Purrington
Skunk cabbage is one of the select group of plants in the world that attracts pollinators by imitating rotting flesh. And, it's just about the only native flower you're going to find blooming at this time of year.

I like to think of maple syrup as the taste of trees waking up in the spring. They've been storing energy all winter as starch in their wood. But now, they want to use it to start producing leaves. And the way they get that energy to their leaves? Sap. Which we collect, and boil down, and eat on our pancakes.
Elizabeth sledding
Elizabeth sledding, by Matt
Remember all that snow we had last February? Did you know that out of the top ten 3-day snowfall totals in DC, seven have been in February? We'll see what this month has in store for us...
What have you been noticing in nature lately? Leave us a comment!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Top 10 Posts of 2010

A month after the end of the new year, I've gotten around to checking the stats on 2010. Check out these posts if you haven't already. Which was your favorite? And what would you like to see us write about in 2011?

Please help spread the word about the Natural Capital and pass this list -- or one of your favorite posts -- along to your friends!

Ten most-visited posts of 2010

  1. Natural Places to Swim (Somewhat) Near DC
  2. McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area
  3. Glover Archbold Park (Car Free DC)
  4. Rock Creek Park (Car Free DC)
  5. Thompson Wildlife Management Area
  6. Ten Great Places To Hike Around DC By Public Transportation
  7. Places to Rent a Canoe or Kayak in the DC Area
  8. LOOK FOR: Frog and Toad Eggs (and Tadpoles)
  9. Turkey Run Park
  10. LOOK FOR: Monarch Caterpillars (and Raise Them)
Ten most-discussed posts of 2010
  1. LOOK FOR: Snow  and Snow!
  2. C&O: Angler's Inn to Great Falls at Sunset
  3. A Southerner's Guide to Staying Outdoors in the Winter
  4. What's Your Favorite Spot for Mountain Laurel?
  5. LOOK FOR: Jack O'Lantern Mushrooms
  6. LOOK FOR: Oyster Mushrooms
  7. LOOK FOR: Hemlock Trees (While You Still Can)
  8. Stay in a Lockhouse on the C&O Canal
  9. LOOK FOR: Marmorated Stink Bugs
  10. LOOK FOR: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers