Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The New Crossley Bird Guide: A Review & Your Chance to Meet the Author

There's a new bird ID guide out, and all the bird blogs are talking about it. I figured I'd join in, since the publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy. Even better, author Richard Crossley will be giving a free lecture and booksigning at the Audubon Naturalist Society's Woodend Sanctuary on Tuesday April 5, at 7:30-9:30pm.

But should you buy a copy of his Crossley's ID Guide?  Let's take a look.

Broad winged hawk, p. 274
The basic approach of this guide is to offer a nearly full-page image (smaller for less common birds) made up of numerous photographs of a single bird species. I can't even imagine how much work must have gone into this: the book's website boasts that 10,000 photographs went into making these 640 plates. Stop and think about that for a second.

Things I like

Diversity of images. With many, many photos per bird, you get them at different angles, in flight, and engaging in some of their more common behaviors. You get close-ups and distance shots -- Crossley argues these tiny shots are most similar to how you'll see most birds. You also get a wider variation in color than many guides show: adults and juveniles, males and females, sun and shade, winter and summer, and even some molting birds.

Carolina Chickadee, p. 373

Emphasis on behavior and habitat. Crossley really emphasizes that these things, along with shape and size, give you more information than color will about the bird you're looking at. The text is dwarfed by the images, but there's a lot in there.

How to Be a Better Birder. The introduction has a very nice section whose philosophy resonated with me a lot. "Knowing the name of a bird is not important, but knowing how to look at it is crucial."

Where's Waldo? Built into the approach of this book is a game for all ages: many birds are well hidden in the composite images. You could spend hours looking for them all.  And it would probably make you a better birder in real life.

Things I don't like

Yellow-rumped warbler, p. 414

My head is about to explode. These composite pictures are not for the faint of heart: dozens of bird images have been photoshopped together onto one background, often bringing trees or other perches with them. Many backgrounds have key habitat features, but some are just needlessly busy. For example, putting a crazy pink flowering cherry behind the cardinals really doesn't add useful information. (The rainbow behind the northern goshawks is simple enough to be a nice touch, though.)

Hard to navigate. Crossley argues that since taxonomy changes all the time, most organizational schemes become quickly outdated. But 183 pages of songbirds without a subheading? I'm overwhelmed. The rows and rows of thumbnail pictures in the front don't help much. I may add some sticky notes to help me page through.

Geographic range. This book includes everything east of the Rockies in "eastern." That will be a plus to some readers, but it adds to the overwhelming: there are a lot of birds in here that we will never see anywhere near the DC area. Roadrunners, anyone?

Bottom line

This is not a guide you'll take into the field: it's the size of a college textbook. And having just started with it, I get the feeling it could serve the same purpose. It has found a place on my bedside table, not with the field guides: it's a book I hope to look at carefully, studying pictures ahead of time. I'm imprinting these pictures on my brain so that I'll know more birds when I see them, without having to look them up.

Alternatively, the heft of this book could encourage you to learn to look at birds the way Crossley learned as a child: to make detailed notes in the field, then look up information when you get home. That forces you to really look at a bird, rather than focusing on finding the name and moving on. On the page and in the field, this book should help encourage you to really look.

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Princeton University Press, March 2011
544 pages, 7.5x10 inches

Buy a copy (and support the Natural Capital through this link)
Read more reviews: Audubon magazine, 10,000 Birdsthe Birder's Library, the Drinking Bird, the Birdchaser, Avian Review
Visit Crossley's website

Monday, March 28, 2011

Calendar: Whole Goats and Other Fools (March 29-April 3)

"3 Weed Note" by Patterson Clark:
multiflora rose inks, english ivy paper, white mulberry printing block.
Our picks for this April Fools week:

Tuesday night, come see Patterson Clark discuss using invasive plant materials to make art in his alienweeds project. Talk about turning things on their heads! He'll be at the White Oak Library in Silver Spring for the monthly meeting of the Maryland Native Plant Society. Free.

You and your kids can learn about Nature's April Foolers Saturday night at a Hidden Oaks campfire in Annandale: "how animals use trickery to get a meal or to keep from being a meal." $5-7.

We posted last summer about the three sections of the Billy Goat Trail (A, B, & C). The Appalachian Mountain Club's annual Whole Goat Hike (all three in one day, total 10 miles) is on Sunday. Free, registration required.

There's always more on our calendar. Enjoy!

Friday, March 25, 2011

LOOK FOR: Bittercress

Photo credit: freethehops
If you've ever kept a garden, you've almost certainly weeded bittercress out of it. Go ahead and keep pulling it out -- the stuff seeds like crazy -- but consider saving some of those weeds and throwing them in your next salad.

Bittercress always grows in a rosette, with its leaves coming out of one central point. It sends up flower stalks from the middle of that rosette. The flowers are small and white, with four petals. The seedpods are thin and upright, along the flower stem. And yes, it's not even the end of March, and bittercress is already forming flowers and seeds here in the DC area.

Hairy Bittercress
Photo credit: Durlston Country Park
If you've ever mowed a lawn around here, you may be familiar with how this little plant manages to be so prolific. When the seeds are ripe, the slightest touch on a seedpod will send them flying everywhere. This year when it happens, just think of yourself as planting next year's salad!

Photo credit: Dandelion and Burdock
In the wild: You'll sometimes find bittercress in woods, but you're almost guaranteed to find it in open, grassy areas.

In your yard: Cultivation is beyond easy: you don't even have to plant it. It's almost certainly already growing in your yard, if you have one.  If not, I'm sure your neighbors would be glad to let you have some of theirs!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Trip Report: Last Day of Winter Walk

On Saturday we were joined by a dozen people for a foraging walk. The sap of the river birches was flowing freely, and there were abundant edible greens before we were even out of sight of the parking lot. There were also many non-edible diversions along the way -- including a vernal pond with big masses of frog eggs, and the first blooming bloodroots of the season. Spring is here!

Our next walk is on April 23, to look for morels -- sign up soon, because it's sure to fill up!

What have you been seeing on the trails lately? Leave a comment and let us know. 

Here's a list of what we found. Asterisks are for ones we sampled; links are to posts on the Natural Capital.

River Birch sap is running!

River birch* (Betula nigra)
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Red maples (Acer rubrum)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Speedwell (Veronica)
Deadnettle (Lamium)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Pennsylvania bittercress* (Cardamine pennsylvanica)
Chickweed* (Stellaria media)
Wild garlic/onion* (Allium)
Dandelion* (Taraxacum officinale)
Daylily (Hemerocallis)
Violet* (Viola sororia)
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)

False morel (Gyromitra escuentla)
Very old chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

Frog eggs (probably wood frog - Rana sylvatica)
Lots of beaver sign (Castor canadensis)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Calendar: Beginning Birding, Advanced Lampreys (March 23-26)

It caught our eye that there are two events listed as beginning birding on our calendar this week.

One is at Fort CF Smith Park in Arlington from 6 to 8 pm on Wednesday night (March 23). It will be a walk to "teach the basics of using binoculars, looking at birds, identifying field marks and using guides," followed by a discussion of how to pick binoculars & other optics. $5.

The other is a two-part class sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society on Thursday evening and Sunday morning (March 24/27). "At our evening lecture, we’ll focus on the selection of field guides, binoculars, and other resources, and we’ll discuss the basic techniques of birding finding and identification. The goal of our field trip, which visits Black Hill and Little Bennett Regional Parks in upper Montgomery County, is to develop the ability to find, study, and identify birds in their natural environment." $24 for lecture, $52.50 with field trip (discounts for members).

If we weren't going to be at the Lahr Native Plant Symposium (registration sold out) on Saturday, we'd totally head down to Jug Bay for a hike they're calling Lovesong of the Lampreys. "Lampreys living in our streams don’t really sing, but their courtship behavior at this time every year makes these animals, which are rarely seen at other times, clearly visible. We’ll hike to several streams to see and marvel at these slender animals in their reproductive rituals."

What kind of rituals, you ask? For one thing, they can move rocks around with their mouths. Check this out:

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

Friday, March 18, 2011

LOOK FOR: Spring Peepers

Spring Peeper
Photo credit: bbodjack
It has been a long-time goal of mine to actually find a spring peeper. I hear them every spring, but I never actually see them. I'm convinced they throw their voices: I'll sit for 15 minutes looking directly at where the sound seems to be coming from, and see nothing.

I shouldn't feel that bad: these little frogs are only an inch long, and they spend most of their time hanging out under cover of leaf litter. And they are mostly active at night.

But they are so LOUD! If there were a contest for decibels produced per body mass, I'd put my money on the peepers. At 100+ decibels, they're in the same range as cicadas (and chainsaws), but so much smaller.

And so it can be infuriating: I hear them, I get close, I'm patient enough to wait them out when they stop calling. I get closer. I look, I wait. The sound is coming from RIGHT THERE. I look. And look. And... nothing.

This video gives a good example of a single spring peeper calling:

How can I not find an animal making that noise?

Anyway, regardless of my inability to actually see them, going to listen to the spring peepers is a spring ritual for me and Matt. In an area with a lot of peepers, the noise can be downright deafening. And there's something just awe-inspiring to know that the racket is coming from such tiny little critters.

So, head out to a vernal pond some evening in the next few weeks around dusk, and see if you can hear the peepers. Maybe you'll be luckier than me and actually see them.

Have you heard the peepers this spring? Let us know where! Or maybe you know the secret spycraft to break the spring peepers out of their deep cover? Do tell!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's a great place to go hiking with kids?

best friends
Photo credit: crimfants
A friend asked us recently: he's got visitors with young kids coming, where's a good place to go hiking with them?

Obvious question, right? I mean, we write this blog and all. But I'll admit it: we are kid-challenged. We sometimes take our friends' kids hiking in some of our favorite places, but we don't do it often enough to know what their favorite places are. So we'll throw it open:

Are there any walks your kids just love?

And what makes a place great for hiking with kids?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Calendar: Equinox Eve (March 19)

Happy vernal equinox!
Did you know you can balance an egg on end on the equinox?
Photo credit: James Jordan
In the weather and the flowers, it's starting to look like spring out there. This Saturday is, finally, officially, the last day of winter. Perhaps you'll find a little extra Spring in your step if you join one of these walks (all on Saturday):

Matt's Habitats is taking a walk along the Northwest Branch in Silver Spring to look for frog eggs, wild edibles, and other signs of spring.  (noon - 2:30, $20)

At Huntley Meadows in Alexandria, "take a hike after dark with Huntley Meadows Park Naturalist PJ Dunn...listen for owls and frogs and watch for beaver activity." (4:30-6:00, $6)

At Jug Bay in Lothian MD, "Join a volunteer naturalist for an exploration of the Sanctuary to celebrate the coming of Spring. Look and listen for signs of the new life which is exploding all around us. We'll end up on the Marsh Boardwalk, and watch the sunset over the Patuxent." (5:00-7:30, free)

At Croydon Creek Nature Center in Rockville,  "Enjoy a hike into the forest at dusk to look and listen for signs of spring. After the hike, we’ll gather around the campfire to enjoy a campfire treat." (6:00-7:00, $5)

With Prince George's Audubon Society, go look for woodcocks. (7:00-8:00, free)

As always, there's lots more on our calendar. Happy Spring!

Friday, March 11, 2011

LOOK FOR: Woodcocks (or Timberdoodles)

Photo credit: Gene Han
Woodcocks are funny-looking birds with a shorebird's long beak and a big eye that looks a little misplaced. People have given them all kinds of silly names: mudbat, bogsucker, and -- perhaps most celebrated -- timberdoodle.

Most people will never see a woodcock, let alone worry about what to call one. They're mostly quiet during the day. They hang out on the ground, where they blend in so well with leaves and dry grasses that you might walk right past one and never notice. More likely, they're in a moist area that you're not going to walk through anyway (thus the "bogsucker" nickname).

But every spring, the male of this retiring species puts on a show. At twilight, he starts on the ground with a funny, buzzy noise that birders describe as a peent. Then he flies up 200+ feet in the air, and dives back down again, zigging and zagging, wings whistling as he goes. He'll repeat the whole thing several times in an evening. Other males will join in, all trying to outdo each other and attract the ladies.

This video gives some sense of what it's like, though there's a lot more waiting involved:

Woodcocks often return to the same mating grounds every year, so local birding groups can help you find them. Last year groups went out just about every week in March. Check our calendar for listings -- and also the longer list of groups below the calendar.

Want to try finding a bird on your own? Here's a great video from Sharon Stiteler of Birdchick on how she looks for woodcocks:

Let us know if you have any luck timberdoodling!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

DC Environmental Film Festival -- Films About Our Area

The DC Environmental Film Festival features 150 beautiful and disturbing films from around the world -- from Australia to Arabia to Argentina. But hidden among them are always films that look at nature and environment closer to home. Here are the ones we found on this year's schedule, which runs from March 15-27. Even if you can't catch all the shows, you can check out some of the trailers we found.

Kids and Nature

MOTHER NATURE’S CHILD (March 25, 6PM at THEARC, 57 min, Free). "Nature’s powerful role in children’s health and development is explored...from Vermont to Washington, D.C. The film marks a moment in time when a living generation can still recall childhoods of free play outdoors; this will not be true for most children growing up today." Followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and kids from the film.

Films about Sustainable Food in DC

A series of four short films includes two from the DC area, including a film about a guy I buy produce from every once in a while. (March 17, 7PM at the Maret School, Free) They include:

  • AMERICA'S SUSTAINABLE GARDEN "The United States Botanic Garden, at the foot of the U.S. Capitol, is a living plant museum that helps people understand that plants are not optional, but are fundamental to our society and our existence."(15 min.)
  • CORNER PLOT "Amid the tangle of commuter traffic, shopping malls and office buildings that define life inside the Capital Beltway rests a one-acre piece of farmland under the care of 89-year-old Charlie Koiner." (10 min.)

A COMMUNITY OF GARDENERS (March 25, 4PM at THEARC, 60 min, Free). "Through the voices of young people, senior citizens, immigrants, garden volunteers and educators, this documentary explores the vital role of seven D.C. urban community gardens as sources of fresh, nutritious food, outdoor classrooms, places of healing, links to immigrants’ native countries and oases of beauty and calm in inner-city neighborhoods. "

Films about Coal in West Virginia

BURNING THE FUTURE: COAL IN AMERICA (March 21, 6PM at UDC, 54 min, Free) "Faced with toxic ground water, the obliteration of 1.4 million acres of mountains, and a government that appeases industry, our heroes demonstrate a strength of purpose and character in their improbable fight to arouse the nation's help in protecting their mountains, saving their families, and preserving their way of life."

ON COAL RIVER (March 17, 7PM at American University, 80 min, Free) "Viewers embark on a gripping emotional journey into the Coal River Valley of West Virginia – a community surrounded by lush mountains and a looming toxic threat. The film follows Ed Wiley, a former coal miner, and his neighbors in a David-and-Goliath struggle for the future of their valley."

Films about the Chesapeake Bay

Four short films that explore the environmental issues facing the bay and the way of life that it has supported for decades will be shown together on March 23. (6PM at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Free)
  • THE LAST BOAT OUT  "The largest bay in the United States is dying...taking with it a way of life for the thousands of watermen whose families have made their living on the Bay for generations." (2010, 26 min.)
  • THE RUNOFF DILEMMA "Agricultural nutrient runoff represents the major pollution crisis facing the Chesapeake Bay." (2010, 30 min.)
  • WATERMEN "...a simple but powerful story of watermen’s lives." (1969, 63 min.)
  • STURGEON: EGGS TO DIE FOR  "An exploration of why the great Atlantic Sturgeon has declined in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond, and the hopes scientists have of a big comeback for the mighty fish." (2008, 30 min.)

Also look for features on Aldo Leopold and David Suzuki, films about flamingos, elephants, monkeys, and hummingbirds, animated shorts, and much much more...the full schedule is here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Calendar: DC Environmental Film Festival Events this Week (March 9-10)

Mark your calendars to check out at least one screening at the DC Environmental Film Festival, March 15-27. Two kickoff events take place this week:

There's a free pre-festival screening of BAG IT this Wednesday at 7 PM at an undisclosed location on Capitol Hill -  email for directions.  "An average guy pledges to stop using plastic bags at the grocery store. Little does he know that this deceptively simple decision will change his life completely." If you know anyone who's been grumpy about DC's bag tax, take them to see this film. Or at least show them this trailer:

This Thursday is the festival's launch party at the Warner Building, with silent auction, open bar, music, art, and dance. $20.

Stay tuned on Wednesday for our local picks from the festival lineup...or check out the schedule yourself.

And, as always, there's lots more on our calendar. Enjoy!

Friday, March 4, 2011

LOOK FOR: Migrating Canada Geese

Canada geese in flight
photo credit: Henry McLin
I've mentioned before that Matt and I keep a nature journal where we write down the dates that we see things. And every year, for the last 3 years since we've been keeping this journal, we've written down that we saw large numbers of Canada geese migrating on March 7-9.

Let's see if the dates hold again this year. Leave a comment on this post when you see your first big flock migrating!

Of course, in this area, you can see Canada geese year-round. They love the combination of mowed grass and water, which you get on the Mall, the C&O canal, and suburban parks, golf courses, and developments. It's believed many of these non-migrating geese are the descendants of geese that were re-introduced after the species was over-hunted in the early 1900s.

But plenty of geese have not been taken in by the city life and remain totally wild, flying thousands of miles every year. They breed in Canada and spend their winters in the southern US and northern Mexico. These are the geese we see in large v-shaped flocks, flying north, at this time of year. Keep an ear out for their honking, so you can wish them safe travels on their journey.

Canada geese in flight
photo credit: Joe Milmoe

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rock Creek Park: Boundary Bridge-Riley Spring Bridge Loop

The loop in the northern end of Rock Creek Park that includes Boundary Bridge is one that Matt and I return to over and over. This time of year, the highlight for us is two large patches of skunk cabbage in flower. Later in the spring you'll find mountain laurels and pinxter azaleas. But it's beautiful any time of the year.

Length: about 2.2 miles (spur up to 16th St. is an additional .25 mile each way)

Landscape: River views and stretches of woods that make you feel like you can't possibly be in the middle of a city, especially on the weekend when Beach Drive is closed. 

Terrain: Mostly smooth trails with some hills; one optional tricky spot on an eroded, root-covered hillside.

Car-Free: Easy access from buses on 16th St.

This narrated slide show walks you through the the route.

Expand this post for printable directions; click on the map above for a printable full-page .jpg.