Monday, December 10, 2012

Best Nature Books of 2012

Every year we scan the book awards for the year and share titles that have some relationship to the things we write about at the Natural Capital. As usual, I found a couple I'm excited to add to my reading list, one we already really enjoyed...and a couple of books that look like great kid gifts, to boot.

In the National Outdoor Book Awards:

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Natureby David George Haskell

"One square meter. That’s what Forest Unseen is about: one square meter of a Tennessee forest. But in George Haskell’s able hands, that’s all that is needed to reveal a world of wonder and magic. An engaging and poetic writer, Haskell takes us on a journey through the seasons, documenting the changes in an old growth forest and describing the many ecological processes occurring there. Through Haskell's words, the forest comes alive and seeps gently and unobtrusively into our conscience. Haskell has done it masterfully — writing with a quiet humility and a deceptive simplicity that mirrors the life in his small patch of the natural world."

For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Peggy Thomas and illustrated by Laura Jacques

"For the Birds is a delightful biography for children from 7 to 11 years of age. Who is it about? Why . . . none other than “Professor Nuts Peterson.” Professor Nuts, who might carry a snake in his pocket or a bird’s egg in his hat, is the American artist and passionate bird lover who created the Peterson Field Guides. His guides weren’t designed for scientists and specialists. Rather, they were for everyone, making it easier for adults — and kids of all stripes and ages — to identifying birds, animals and plants. Author Peggy Thomas quite handedly describes Peterson’s life from his childhood, to his success as an illustrator, and to his work as a conservationist. Fitting winningly with the text are bright and cheery illustrations by Laura Jacques."

Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History by Carol Gracie

"Spring Wildflowers is as elegant as the flowers found within its pages. That’s due to the multi-talented Carol Gracie who is a writer, a botanist and a photographer. In the book, she describes a host of Northeastern plants, but she doesn't stop at the usual botanical boundaries. Unique among plant guides, she goes on to include what species pollinate each plant. She further firmly places each plant into the context of its habitat, what animals consume it, how it has been used as a medicinal plant. Gracie’s book is a noteworthy achievement and quite effectively broadens our thinking about plants to include their many-sided relationship with all aspects of the ecosystem." (We received a copy of this book and I can vouch for its beauty and depth: each plant description is extensive and the photographs are wonderful.)

AMC Guide to Outdoor Digital Photography: Creating Great Nature and Adventure Photos by Jerry Monkman

"If you’ve been prospecting for just the right book on outdoor digital photography, look no further. You’ll strike pay dirt with this new Appalachian Mountain Club guide. Accomplished photographer Jerry Monkman who has worked for a variety of national outdoor and wildlife magazines, nicely elaborates on the subject in one easily readable and visually instructive book. The book covers equipment, lenses, lighting, composition, exposure, and processing software. The text is supplemented with case studies and expert advice. This is outdoor photography after all, and Monkman doesn’t leave out suggestions on taking photos in adverse weather. You’ll find plenty to be mined from this fine reference, and you won’t even need a pick and shovel."

From the San Francisco Green Book Festival:

Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature
by Nicola Davies

(Ages 3-7) "Reading poetry may seem an activity for the winter-bound and introverted, but this lovely collection, organized by season, urges children to dash outside, slamming the screen door behind them. Unlike so much poetry geared toward children, not all the verse here rhymes, introducing readers to poetic language outside the predictable cadences of Dr. Seuss. Mixed-media illustrations, with an emphasis on woodblock and silhouette, offer plenty of beauty to contemplate." —The New York Times

From the Nautilus Book Awards:

The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age by Richard Louv

"In this sanguine, wide-ranging study of how humans can thrive through the "renaturing of everyday life," Louv takes nature deficit disorder, introduced in his seminal Last Child in the Woods, a step further, to argue that adults need nature, too. "A reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health," he writes, asking, "What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in electronics?" Louv's "Nature Principle" consists of seven precepts, including balancing technology excess with time in nature; a mind/body/nature connection, which Louv calls "vitamin N," that enhances physical and mental health; expanding our sense of community to include all living things; and purposefully developing a spiritual, psychological, physical attachment to a region and its natural history. The book presents examples of these precepts, from studies of how exposure to a common soil bacteria increases production of serotonin in the brain to designing shopping malls inspired by termite mounds. Although lightweight for longtime nature lovers, the book may be just what our high-tech, urban culture needs to bring us down to earth." -- Publishers Weekly

Also see our lists from 2011, 2010, and 2009

What have you been reading lately? What would you add to this list?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Things to look for in December

It's been hard to believe it's December with the warm weather we've been having, but the plant and animal world have slowed down on schedule. I'm hoping for a little cold weather to make us appreciate our family trip to Florida -- but not so much that it keeps everyone inside! Here are some of the things we like to look for in the greyer world of winter.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco by ehpien
When the cold whether does come, I tend to get grumpy about it. 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 1, 2012

Great Falls After Hurricane Sandy

If you can go to Great Falls in the next couple of days, it's worth the trip. Call ahead to make sure trails are open: the water level is likely to rise before it falls. On Wednesday, the MD boardwalk to the falls was closed (towpath was open) but the VA side was all open -- and amazing.

great falls virginia after hurricane sandy
There are usually a lot more rocks visible here.

great falls va after hurricane sandy

The DC area definitely dodged the worst of this storm -- there's a post on the VA side of Great Falls showing how much higher the water has gotten in the past. This is really nothing in comparison. And yet it's still a dizzying amount of water. Huge logs are floating downstream. The familiar landscape of rocks is almost completely covered. And it's all moving so FAST.

We also stopped by Carderock to check out the Billy Goat C trail -- which is completely underwater in many places:

billy goat c trail under water
I hope you all get a chance to get out and enjoy ever-changing nature safe!

Monday, September 17, 2012


I suspect those of you who have ever had a hole eaten in a sweater by a Tineola bisselliella are repelled by the title of this post, but stick with me -- we're keeping the moths outside this time. (And, if you like, there's beer involved.)

More than 11,000 species of moth have been recorded in North America -- and there are probably still some that haven't been discovered yet. Here's a challenge: how many different species can you find in an evening?

Photo credit: Cyndy Sims Parr
There several ways you can try to increase your moth census. Many methods rely on the tendency of many moth species to fly toward light:

1. Turn on an outside light and just look for whatever stops by.

2. String up a white sheet and put a lightbulb behind it; this distributes the light and gives you a larger  surface for attracting the moths.

3. String up a white sheet and put a UV light behind it; this will attract even more moths than a normal lightbulb.

4. If you want to get really into this, you can build a moth trap with a light and a funnel and leave it out for a while. Just be sure to let your moths go in a few hours, or at the latest, before the trap heats up in the morning.

Some species of moth do eat, and couldn't care less about your white sheet. For them, you can mix up a concoction of bananas and beer, with some molasses and brown sugar thrown in for good measure. Some people recommend letting this mixture ferment for several days or weeks; others say you can use it immediately. Spread this moth goo on a tree or fencepost (not on anything that can't be stained) in the late afternoon and see who comes in for a snack over the course of the evening.

Once you've attracted some moths, you can either just enjoy them for their diversity and beauty, or you can pick some that you want to identify. There are three amazing web sites that can help with identification if you're so inclined.
  • has an extensive collection of moth pictures organized by family. You can browse through until you find a likely family, then drill down until you think you've found your moth. 
  • Or, try your luck with this binomial key from North Dakota State University, which will ask you to look at a series of things about your moth (starting with the shape of the antennae) to narrow down your identification.
  • Bob Patterson has photographed over 1,000 moths and listed the pictures on his website Moths of Prince George's County.
Happy hunting! Let us know what you find!
Moth 17, Sandy Point State Park
Photo credit: David Heise

Monday, September 10, 2012

Things to Look For in September

We're just getting back from a week of visiting family and a four-day canoe trip in Wisconsin. In the northern part of the state, the leaves are already changing. We kept feeling like we were taking pictures for jigsaw puzzles: birch trees with yellow foliage and white trunks being reflected in the water. Back in DC I'm kind of glad we've got several more weeks before fall really sets in. Time flies too quickly!

Here are some of the things we like to keep an eye out for in September. Links are to previous posts on the Natural Capital.

What have you been seeing out in nature lately? Leave us a comment!

Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Photo credit: Metric X
The goldenrods in our yard are beautiful right now. Open sunny areas should be full of their yellow glow. Be sure to look closely for all the cool little critters that are attracted to the bright flowers.
common ragweed in bloom
Photo credit: oceansdesetoiles

Ragweed is also blooming: the scourge of the fall allergy sufferers of Washington, DC. Unlike goldenrod, which attracts all kinds of pollinating insects, ragweed relies on the wind to spread its pollen. I just wish it wouldn't spread it into my nose. Rain makes things better: those airborne pollen particles get sogged down and don't fly around as much.
Black Walnut Hulls
Photo credit: knitting iris

Black Walnuts are starting to fall from trees all over the DC metro area. They're a hard nut to crack, which could explain why they sell for $16 a pound. But they are prized by bakers for adding a special something to brownies and other treats. Pick up a few for yourself and see what all the fuss is about.

Mockernut hickory nuts
While you're looking for walnuts, you may also find hickory nuts. They've got a similar green husk but slightly smaller, with four divisions in it. The nuts of some species of hickory are much more edible than others.

pawpaw fruits
Pawpaws by dmitri_66

Pawpaws are the largest fruit native to the DC area. In groves of mature trees, you can find them littering the ground, ready for eating. Of course, you'll have to beat the raccoons and opossums to them. Since we've been out of town, I haven't been able to monitor the season, but I suspect they may be just about gone by now. If you can find enough, you can make pawpaw-walnut cookies.

Chicken of the woods by girlguyed

Chicken of the woods is a hard-to-mistake and hard-to-match mushroom. We found several with all the rain in August...keep an eye out in September as well.

Male goldfinch by ehpien

Goldfinches live in the DC area year-round, but we seem to see more of them at this time of year as they come to feed on the seedheads in our flower garden. They're such a pretty little bird.

Spicebush berries by The Natural Capital

Spicebush is a common understory shrub in our local forests. In the early spring, it's got pretty yellow flowers. Over the course of the summer, the pollinated flowers transformed into little green berries. And soon, they will be turning bright red. Also, keep an eye out for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars, who you can sometimes found curled up inside a leaf. In my opinion, they're one of the best-looking caterpillars around!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Five Amazing Facts About Crows

Crows are so common and well-known in our area that I've never bothered to write about them -- or really think much about them. I finally got around to reading a copy of Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans that I received as a review copy, and am blown away.

Here are my top 5 amazing facts:

1. Crows display remarkable teamwork. You may have seen them mobbing a hawk to make it go away. They've also been seen to steal from other animals in pairs -- with one pulling a seagull's tail, say, while the other crow grabbing the tasty mollusk the seagull drops. And they have been seen to come to each other's aid, helping an injured crow walk to shelter.

2. Did you ever learn in elementary school that one of the things that separates humans from the animals is that humans use tools? Well, crows use tools. For example, this one figured out how to bend a wire into a hook to retrieve food.

3. Crows recognize faces, remember the behavior of the people with those faces, and pass on knowledge of the faces to other crows. If a person wearing a certain mask does something to threaten or annoy a crow, anyone wearing that mask in the future will be scolded and harrassed by crows in the area.

4. Crows are very persistent. One Seattle resident spent a day shooing crows away from a robin's nest in his yard (crows steal and eat eggs). For a year, scolding crows followed the man to the bus stop every workday, sometimes dive-bombing and hitting him in the head. When he moved to a new house 20 blocks away, he left at three in the morning to be sure the crows were asleep and wouldn't start pestering him at his new location.

5. A raven saying "Nevermore" is actually possible. Crows and ravens have been known to learn short words and phrases. Some even appear to understand the context of human language: one responded "what?" when its owner called it by name; one would say "Hello, Bob" only to its owner Bob; one would reply to "that's for you" with "that's for me."

There's much more detail on how crows do this, and possible reasons why, in Gifts of the Crow. Have you observed any cool crow behavior? We'd love to hear about it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Trip Report: Scott's Run

We had a great walk at Scott's Run with a nice surprise: the pawpaws are just starting to drop. In fact, a few dropped with a loud *plunk* right as we were walking by!

We found a nice stand of cardinal flowers, sat down for a bit, and sure enough, a hummingbird came by and fed on the flowers just a few feet in front of us. It almost never fails, but it never fails to take my breath away when one comes so close.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cardinal Flower
Photo credit: Bill Buchanan / USFWS

Also blooming:
Conoclinium coelestinum
Mistflower by Pris Sears
Joe pye weed (Eupatorium sp.)
Jimson weed (but no sphinx moths, not a big surprise since we were there during the day)
Woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus)
Wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia)
New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
Mistflower (aka Wild Ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum)
Blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica)
Sharpwinged monkey flower (Mimulus alatus)
Phlox (Phlox paniculata?)

and the spicebush berries (Lindera benzoin) are starting to turn red.

Heron, Green  (Immature)
Green heron by Tom Coleman
other critters of note:
Baltimore oriole
Spicebush and tiger swallowtail butterflies
Great blue herons
Green heron
Piliated woodpecker
and lots of toads

And some fun fungi:
A nice flush of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
A big Berkeley's polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi)
and bright orange Mycena leaiana.

What have you been seeing on the trail lately? We'd love to hear about it!

Fall on the C&O Canal Trail
Pawpaws by Jerry Edmundsen

Monday, August 20, 2012

LOOK FOR: Katniss (a.k.a. Wapato, Duck Potato, Arrowhead, Sagittaria)

I finally got around to reading The Hunger Games this summer. The main character, Katniss, has grown up hunting and foraging in Appalachia, which turns out to be a real asset when she is forced to spend weeks fighting to the death with other teenagers in a large expanse of forest. I haven't read a novel with so much foraging in it since My Side of the Mountain.

Photo credit: Jerry Oldnettel
But it drove me crazy that I didn't know one of the main vegetables she relies on: katniss. When she was a child, Katniss's father told her: As long as you can find yourself, you'll never starve.

I was too engrossed to put the book down and look it up, but as the story went on katniss sure sounded a heck of a lot like a plant I know by three other names: wapato, duck potato, or arrowhead (for some reason "duck potato" always comes to mind first -- what a great name!).

This abundance of names is why botanists like Latin names (in this case, Sagittaria). It's not just to be arcane: they help make sure we're all talking about the same plant.

And sure enough, katniss is an Algonquin name for Sagittaria. It's another nice link to the main character: she's not just a forager, but an expert archer -- just like Sagittarius.
And you can see from the leaf how the plant got its name:

Photo credit: Tom Brandt
The USDA plants database lists 10 different species of Sagittaria as growing in the mid-Atlantic. They've all got arrowhead-shaped leaves -- some skinner than others.

There are other wetland plants with arrow-shaped leaves, but you can tell Saggitaria from its beautiful vein pattern: all veins starting from a single point at the stem, with some pointing down to end in the pointy bottoms of the arrowhead.

Sagittaria was cultivated by native people of North America for its tubers, which are also eaten by ducks, geese, and muskrats. Sam Thayer gives an extensive account of how to find and harvest the tubers in his excellent book The Forager's Harvest.

In some parts of North America (including Sam Thayer's Wisconsin) there are wetlands with acres of Saggitaria growing in clean water, just begging to be eaten. The Washington, DC metro area is not in that category. All of our water is polluted, and while Saggitaria is growing somewhere in most wetlands I've visited, it is not abundant. It's just not realistic to get up your hopes of responsibly foraging for katniss in our area.

But you can find it, and appreciate knowing the connection to foragers in centuries past...and in the futuristic world of the Hunger Games.

In the wild: There's quite a bit of Saggitaria growing in the C&O Canal between the westernmost parking lot at Carderock and the Marsden Tract Campground (map). I'd love to hear about other patches!

In your yard: We've had a single Sagittaria growing in our pond for a few years...the leaves are smaller than in the wild, possibly because it wants deeper mud to form bigger tubers? We haven't mucked around in the water to figure out what's going on. Right now I'm just enjoying the lovely flowers!
Wapato is in Bloom
Photo credit: Tom Brandt

Monday, August 13, 2012

LOOK FOR: Katydids

On Saturday Matt and I went out to hike, watch the sunset, and see if the sky would clear up so we could catch the Perseid meteor shower (it didn't). We've been trying this summer to learn some insects by their sounds, and just hanging out at sunset with nothing in particular going on was a fantastic chance to practice.

The most striking thing, now that I recognize more of the sounds, is what a changing of the guard there is as it gets dark.

At dusk, the cicadas are noisy. They sing in big masses, in a pulsing drone.

And then, as it gets dark, the katydids start making themselves known. Singly at first, then choruses of the Common True Katydid.

Ah, summer.

These are the five species we've been trying to learn, thanks to the DC/Baltimore Cricket Crawl. There are more species out there, but five seems like a good set to start with:

Often heard, seldom seen
Photo credit: Lisa Brown
Common True Katydid
(Pterophylla camellifolia)

Constantly repeating TCH-TCH-TCH (like ka-ty-did), from the tops of trees. One of the lowest pitched songs.

Male Lesser Angle-wing
Photo credit: Patrick Coin
Lesser Anglewing
(Microcentrum retinerve)

A faster, higher-pictched TCH-TCH-TCH, with long pauses in between each set.
Photo credit: Jerry Oldnettel
Greater Anglewing
(Microcentrum rhombifolium)

High pitched clicks that rapidly speed up, coming from the tops of trees

Oblong-winged katydid / Scuddérie à ailes oblongue
Photo credit: Eric Begin
Oblong-winged Katydid
(Amblycorypha oblongifolia)

ZEE-TIC every few seconds. From shrubs, usually in wooded areas.
Photo credit: Marcia Cirillo
Fork-tailed Bush Katydid
(Scudderia furcata)

A single high-pitched TCHIP, well-spaced-out. Usually given from short trees.

Only once now since we really started listening, we've been able to follow a single chirper, shine a flashlight, and find the katydid to confirm our ID. Many just hang out in the treetops -- we'll just have to listen. How many can you hear where you live?

Hooked? Check out Lang Elliot's wonderful book/CD set, The Songs of Insects.