Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Destruction: Our Civil War Oak Tree

Matt and I went to bed Saturday night talking about how the local and national 24-hour news generating machine had possibly over-hyped Hurricane Irene.

I woke up at 3:45 to the noise of the 150+ year old post oak that was the centerpiece of our backyard starting to fall down.

Matt woke up to me screaming as I realized what was happening.

In slow motion, with an enormous creaking noise, the whole tree snapped and fell, hitting mostly the laundry room on the corner of our house and our neighbor's two vehicles, with some other scattered damage in its wake.

It could have been so much worse. Last night we walked around the neighborhood and visited a house where a huge section of the second floor, including the bedroom, was totally obliterated by a tree less than half the size of ours. Miraculously the person who normally would have been sleeping in the now-flattened bed was on the first floor of her house, unable to sleep in the storm.

Still, we will miss this tree -- and all the critters who visited it and lived in it.

I found a couple of pictures we had of the tree in all its glory and tried to match them up with some pictures of the aftermath, but it's hard to convey even in pictures the magnitude of the destruction. (For a sense of scale, notice tiny me in the last picture.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

LOOK FOR: Sphinx Moths (aka Hummingbird or Hawk Moths)

It's another world out there after dark.

We were out along the Potomac River last week, from afternoon until just past sunset, enjoying the bald eagles and ospreys across the river and a yellow billed cuckoo right overhead. Along with some gorgeous rose mallow and green coneflowers, there's a lot of jimson weed growing along the river there.

Jimson weed (a member of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes and tobacco) has large, tubular flowers that only open as the sun starts going down. (Exactly opposite of the rose mallow, which was closing up at the end of the day.)

Jimson Weed
Photo credit: flat-outcrazy

Just before sunset, we noticed a big sphinx moth flying all the way into the jimson weed flowers. It flew from flower to flower so fast I could never get a picture of it, until Matt just grabbed an entire flower with the moth inside. I think it's a Pandorus Sphinx (Eumphora pandorus).

After sunset, as it was starting to get darker, we started seeing another beautiful sphinx -- this one we identified as a Carolina Sphinx moth (Manduca sexta). Except this one, instead of going inside the flowers, hovered over them and stuck its inconceivably long proboscis in. If it's reaching the bottom of the flower, the extended proboscis might be twice as long as the moth!

Isn't that amazing? Wayne Armstrong has some much better pictures of the extended and coiled proboscis.

Butterflies and Moths of North America lists over 125 species of sphinx moths. Our Pandorus sphinx lays its eggs on grapes and Virginia creeper, which are certainly abundant along the Potomac. And the Carolina sphinx? Its caterpillars grow up on nightshades -- jimson weed, tobacco, and tomatoes. In fact, its caterpillars are known as tobacco hornworm, a close relative of the tomato hornworm. Next time we find one of those big green monsters on our tomato plants, we may leave it be. These moths are amazing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Calendar: Bat Fest and Monarch Watch

Monarch Butterfly
photo credit: Timothy K Hamilton
Have any of you seen many monarchs this summer? We've usually got an aquarium full of caterpillars by this time of year, but our milkweed plants are empty and we've seen only a few adults all summer. You can try your luck at Gulf Branch Nature Center's Monarch Watch event on Sunday afternoon, where they'll grab and tag any monarchs that stop by their milkweed patch. $5. Register here.

There's also a monarch event for 5 to 12 year olds on Saturday at Brookside Nature Center: "We'll learn about monarchs, scout the meadow for them, and make a simple nectar feeder that may replenish them on their journey." $6.

Also Saturday: Bat Fest Arlington 2011, at Gulf Branch. "Enjoy a thoroughly batty evening and add to your knowledge of local night life at this bat conservation and appreciation program. See a presentation with live bats at 6:30. All other activities on-going: go on a walk to see bats flying and to hear their echolocation calls, learn about foods that are pollinated by bats, play bat games, make a bat craft, take a bat quiz or visit our bat art gallery, all while learning lots about our local furry bug zappers. Live bat shows will be presented by Leslie Sturges, Director of Bat World NOVA, an organization established in 2001 to promote the conservation and protection of bats in this region. Parking lot closed for program. Please park on Military Rd. or 36th Rd. N. No refund of registration fee after August 6." $7 for children 12 and under, $10 for adults. Register here.

There's more on our calendar. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Time to Register for USDA Natural History Courses

It seems like ages ago -- it WAS ages ago -- that Matt took evening classes on wild edibles and mushrooms and launched us on one of the best parts of this crazy adventure that is our lives. USDA doesn't do much on edibles anymore, but they still offer lots of fantastic natural history courses. You can even get a certificate in Natural History Studies.

Classes typically meet two hours one evening a week, and also have weekend field trips. They cost $355 for a 10 week course. Meetings are at the Audubon Naturalist Society's Woodend Sanctuary unless otherwise noted. Links go to the registration page for each course.

red-tailed hawk at arroyo laguna
Photo credit: minicooper93402
Bird Life. "Study the life histories and ecology of resident and migrant birds of the Central Atlantic region. Emphasis is on birding techniques, use of field guides, introduction to birdsong, and identification of our area’s birds. Bird forms and adaptations, habitats, classification, plumage, migration, and conservation are also covered. The course features a field trip to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland as well as two other field trips." Led by Mark England, trip leader for the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Montgomery Bird Club.
Mondays, 7-9 pm, September 19- November 28, with field trips Oct. 1, Oct. 22, and Nov. 19

Birds of Prey. "Experience the wonder of the fall raptor migration and learn to identify raptors in flight. Study habitat requirements of birds of prey and their relationships to other species. This course will concentrate on species typically found in eastern North America but will also cover additional selected species. Three field trips are planned, with one likely to be to Cape May." Led by Liam McGranaghan, who teaches Biology at Northern Virginia Community College and Loudon Valley High School.
Wednesdays, 7-9 pm, September 21-November 30, with field trips Oct. 1, Oct. 22, and Nov. 5 or 19. At Oakton High School, VA.

jug bay
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Estuarine Ecosystems. "Discover the dynamic nature of the estuarine environment through study of the interaction between basic physical, chemical and biological processes in the Chesapeake Bay. Explore biological and geochemical cycles and discuss the interaction between nutrients and overall productivity affecting the health of the Bay. Examine the effects of pollution and resources management and the processes that influence temperature and salinity distributions." Led by Teresa McTigue, acting director of NOAA's Center of Coastal Monitoring and Assessment.
Mondays, 6-8 pm, September 19-November 28, with field trips Oct. 1, 15, and 22.

Introduction to Ecology. "A fundamental understanding of ecology and the physical and biological principles on which ecosystems depend is essential for any naturalist. In this course students learn to interpret the patterns and processes of nature by studying energy flow, food webs, biogeochemical cycles, population dynamics, communities, behavioral and evolutionary ecology, biodiversity, biomes and plant/animal interactions." Led by Dr. Jane Huff, a natural science educator and former Director of Education for the Audubon Naturalist Society.
Prerequisite: Biology for Naturalists (NATH 1110E) or another biology course.
Tuesdays, 7-9 pm, September 20-November 22, with field trips Oct. 1 and Nov. 5

Liquidamber leaf
Photo credit: rogersanderson
Fall Woody Plant Identification. "Autumn's glory is created by colorful trees and shrubs, so fall is the ideal time to study techniques of woody plant field identification. Participants study the major woody plant families and species found in the Central Atlantic's forest communities. Field trips feature the use of recognition characteristics and botanical keys to identify many local woody plants." Led by Melanie Choukas-Bradley, field guide and natural history author.
Wednesdays, 7-9:15 pm, September 21-November 16, with field trips Oct. 1, 22 and Nov. 5.

Geology. "We may not have the Rockies in our back yard, but we have the roots of mountains that were as high as the Alps. Although local earthquakes are rare now, this area broke in two twice and oceans flowed in. Central Atlantic geology tells a story as fascinating as any place on the planet. Course lectures introduce the landscapes, subsurface structures and geologic history of our region. Two field trips emphasize the recognition of local landforms and of the geological processes that created them." Led by Joe Marx, who teaches physical and historical geology at Northern Virginia Community College.
Saturdays, 9 am-noon, September 24-December 17, with field trips Oct. 23 and Nov. 13. At Capital Gallery (L'Enfant Plaza), DC.

Weather and Climate. "Explore a wide range of weather phenomena. Learn about weather observation, clouds and cloud formation, weather map analysis and forecasting, weather satellite imagery and the weather's role in global and local ecological systems and the environment." Led by Dan Ferandez, Coordinator of the Earth-Space Science Program at Johns Hopkins University Graduate Division of Education.
Wednesdays, 7-9 pm, September 21-November 30. At Capital Gallery (L'Enfant Plaza), DC .

If only there were more hours in the day!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Things to Look For in August

Last year, at the beginning of my August round-up, I wrote, "It's been the hottest summer on record and August probably won't be any different." And here we are again. But, as there is every year, there's still plenty to see outside, if you can take it. Links are to previous LOOK FOR posts:

Photo credit: Rongem Boyo
The Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 13, but there's also a full moon then, which will make it hard to see many of the meteors. (If you click through to last year's post, the viewing info will be off because of this.) This year, EarthSky recommends looking earlier in August, when the moon isn't so bright. Like tonight, even. The shower has already started, it just isn't at its peak yet.
monarch caterpillar
Monarch larva by The Natural Capital
Monarch butterflies are laying their eggs, and if you look closely on milkweed, you may see some stripey caterpillars. Every year, we bring a few inside and raise them. It's a pretty amazing process. (This post on raising monarchs has been one of the all-time most popular posts on the Natural Capital.)

joe pye weed
Joe Pye weed by Garden Beth
Joe Pye Weed is another butterfly magnet at this time of year -- not so much for the monarchs as for the swallowtails. Keep an eye out for Joe Pye weed in wetland areas and then watch for the butterflies...look closely and you'll find lots of other pollinators, too.

Passion Flower Close-Up
Passionflower by Texas Eagle
Joe Pye is one of our tallest flowers; passionflower is surely one of the most exotic-looking. The tropical look of this flower may lead you to think of steamy nights of passion, but the 17th century missionaries who named it claimed to have religion in mind.

Halloween pennant dragonfly
Dragonfly by afagen
Dragonflies are common sight this time of year. They hang out around water, because they lay their eggs there and spend their nymph stage as aquatic creatures. In our post we highlighted 6 common species, and shared a video of a dragonfly shedding its aquatic skin to become an adult.

Sumac berries by j.e.s.1981VA
Sumac has extremely distinctive clusters of dark red, hairy berries in the late summer. They're great for making pink lemonade! Check out our post from last summer to find out how.

What have you been seeing lately? Leave a comment and let us know!