Thursday, March 29, 2012

Avian Architecture

**** I'm giving away a copy of this book! Details at the end of the post. ****

Nest Building Time
Robin collecting nest materials by ingridtaylar
Over the last week I've been watching robins hop around my yard, picking out old plant stalks and other bits and pieces to build their nests. There's a pair working on a nest in the rose trellis over our front sidewalk -- always an exciting location, because we can watch the parents feed their babies from our porch. Plus, every time someone passes through our front gate a bird comes flying out!

Most nests are a little harder to see. They're usually in out-of-the-way places, and sometimes fiercely protected -- as I once learned when some mockingbirds built a nest in my hedge (I was seriously concerned for a minute there that my eyes would get pecked out). And actually, it's bad when humans get too close to bird nests anyway -- some species will abandon a nest if they are too bothered by the intrusion.

Peter Goodfellow gives us a better look in his book Avian Architecture, which won the 2011 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (The PROSE Awards) in Popular Science & Popular Mathematics.

Attleson Farm: Hummingbird Nest
Tiny hummingbird nest by eliduke
Just take a moment to marvel at the diversity of bird nests. They range in complexity from the barely-there scrapes in the ground of the arctic tern to the elaborately woven nest of the oropendula; they range in size from the super-tiny cup nest of the ruby-throated hummingbird to the six-foot-deep and six-foot-wide nest of the African white stork.

In addition to grasses and twigs, birds use rocks, mud, cacti, lichen, dandelion seeds, caterpillar silk, animal hairs, and spiderwebs to build their nests. Most surprising, perhaps, is the edible-nest swiftlet, which makes its nest entirely out of spit.

Goodfellow categorizes this diversity into 12 basic architectural styles: platforms, cups, domes, holes and tunnels, scrapes, mounds, bowers, colonies, aquatic nests, mud nests, hanging and woven nests, and edible nests.

The Baltimore Oriole nest in progress
Hanging Baltimore oriole nest by dendroica
Each section of the book includes "blueprint" line drawings for archetypal examples of the style, followed by short case studies on the materials and techniques birds use (examples here). The building technique pages are my favorites: the step-by-step drawings of how birds actually put a nest together really bring to life how much effort goes into the process.

My one complaint is that in seeking the diversity of nests from around the world, the book includes a relative scarcity of birds from our region. Of over 80 species illustrated in the book, only 13 are native to the mid-Atlantic.

My neighbors the robins make an appearance, but I have to say their nest architecture pales in comparison to some of the other locals Goodfellow picks:
  • The bald eagle builds an 8-foot wide platform nest that can weigh two tons and last for over 50 years.
  • The nest of a ruby-throated hummingbird is held together with spiderwebs, and is "smaller than a shot glass."
  • Red-winged blackbirds weave their cup nests around the stems of plants that are growing in the water, giving eggs protection from land-based predators.
  • Cliff swallows build colonies of tube-shaped nests out of mud attached to a rock wall.
  • The Baltimore oriole makes about 10,000 stitches to weave a nest that hangs down from the branches of a tree.
This is not a detailed academic tome; it's a thin coffeetable book highlighting fun examples. In many cases it left me wanting more. But it made me appreciate all of these birds -- including my rose-trellis robins -- that much more to realize what engineering and craft goes into their nest building.

Cliff swallow nests by Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife
The giveaway:
Princeton University Press sent me a free review copy of this book, and I'd like to pass it on to one of you. There are two ways to enter:
1. Go to our Facebook page and "share" one of our recent posts.
2. Go to our Twitter feed and retweet one of our tweets.

Deadline is midnight on Friday, April 6. If you're selected I'll contact you to ask for your address.

Don't win the giveaway? Your local library probably has a copy. If you buy the book through this link the Natural Capital gets a small commission.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Calendar: Nature at the USA Science and Engineering Festival

Mark your calendars for the weekend of April 28 and 29. At the DC Convention Center there will be a huge, free event aimed at getting kids excited about science: the USA Science and Engineering Festival. (There are also some pre-events listed here.)

Speakers and performers include Bill Nye the Science Guy, folks from Mythbusters, Benjamin Franklin (or a guy who looks and acts like him), astronauts, magicians, and more. Sessions and exhibits will include the science of the magic of Harry Potter, the mathematics of jump roping, the physics of superheroes, the chemistry of Thanksgiving Dinner, the engineering of baseball bats and balls, the science behind special effects in movies, renewable energy sources of the future, and much more.

Natural history will be a tiny part of the 3000 exhibits at the broad-ranging festival, but I thought I'd point out some of the items most in line with the things we like to cover here at the Natural Capital:

Insects Rule!: "Buzz over to the Entomology section and learn about: 1) Bees and Pollinators; 2) Insect Zoos; 3) Cutting-Edge Insect Technology; 4) Insects as Human Food; 5) Biodiversity, Systematics and Taxonomy; and 6) Entomology organizations and clubs engaging in Entomological education and outreach."

Skulls, Scat, and Scales with the Audubon Naturalist Society: "Discover the fascinating world of mammals, reptiles, birds and more by getting up close and personal with real animal skulls, pelts, snake sheds, and replica scat models of our LOCAL wildlife."

Expedition Chesapeake: "Explore the trickle down effects of life in a watershed through hands-on experiences and web-based resources. Discover opportunities which span from the shoreline to the silver screen and include valuable first-hand experiences where the Chesapeake Bay watershed is the classroom. "

Walk on the Wild Side: "Did you know that there are millions of acres of land in the United States that belong to you? The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for more than 245 million acres of those public lands. You'll explore some of the natural and cultural resources managed by BLM as you search for clues from the distant past, solve a problem from the present, and learn how you can shape the future by choosing a career with BLM. "

Biome in a Box: "See how to make your own organic soil quickly...Vermicomposting is an odorless, portable hands-on activity that you can share all year with your students. Discover the easiest class pet around: the earthworm (red wiggler to be exact.) Learn about (1) the power of worms (2) "worm tea" and "worm poop" better known as black gold, and (3) the soil food web."

Ecology - Fun Science You Can Do Anywhere: "Ecology happens everywhere-in forests, rivers, fields, backyards, and in big cities...Come see and touch plants and animals that live in Washington, DC, that you probably never noticed before. Test your ecological know-how for a chance at a prize. Discover the flabbergasting things that are happening under your feet and all around you right here in the nation's capital."

Is a Plant, a Plant, a Plant?: "Are all plants the same?...Come measure plant traits to better understand how traits vary within and among plant species. Here we will build on the booth we presented last year. Our aim is to explore variation in nature and highlight that variation within a species can be as important as variation among species....We will have attendees collect data (plant traits such as leaf length & width, plant height) on three different species of plants as well as three different genotypes of plants we bring to the festival. We will graph the data and use them to discuss what variation is & why variation is important (can buffer against changes) in nature."

Maggot Monet: "Maggots, maggots, maggots! Create your own 'maggot monet' while learning about the usefulness of fly larvae in nature and forensic entomology (use of insects in mediolegal investigatons). Participants will get to paint their own master piece with the aid of live fly larvae trailing across the paper!" there's a good idea for an upcoming blog post!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Local highlights at the Environmental Film Festival

Spooled Up
Photo credit: davefancher
This year is the 20th anniversary of the DC Environmental Film Festival, from March 13 to 25. Films from all over the world will highlight the amazing beauty of our planet and the forces that threaten it.

As I've done for the past few years, I'll highlight a few picks here that have a local bent:
March 20 at 6:30, Carnegie Institution for Science: Two films on the Potomac River

EXPEDITION BLUE PLANET (Clips). "Alexandra Cousteau, Founder and President of Blue Legacy International and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, traveled across North America on “Expedition Blue Planet,” a 17,000-mile journey investigating water issues “in the backyard” of the world’s largest consumer economy. Alexandra and her team used everything from the underwater gear invented by her grandfather, to the latest in satellite technology and live social media to explore some of the great water treasures, investigate issues of water conservation and hear stories of people from all walks of life who are working to solve the global water crisis. She will show footage of the Potomac River from the expedition and discuss the role of film, social media and live engagement in environmental advocacy."

POTOMAC: AMERICAN REFLECTIONS (57 min.). "Everyone knows the Potomac as the river that flows past Washington, D.C. But what do we know about the river beyond our capital city? This film follows the 382-mile course of the Potomac from its origins at a small spring in West Virginia, through old coal town communities, past solitary nomads and bargemen’s children who grew up on the C&O Canal to mountain farms, survivors of the Piscataway Indian tribe and finally to the 12-mile wide river of ships that meets the Chesapeake Bay."

March 21 at 7 PM, American University: Films by local students

THE CAPITAL BUZZ (15 min.) Out of sight of local authorities and neighbors, amateur beekeepers are working hard to propagate bees all across Washington, D.C.
ALIENS AMONG US (15 min.) A satirical film about alien invaders in the Galapagos Islands.
TALKING TRASH IN BALTIMORE (5 min.) This film focuses on young inner city students as they learn how their habits can improve the health of the Baltimore Harbor and by consequence the Chesapeake and surrounding areas.
MICROBREWERIES, MAXIMUM SUSTAINABILITY (3 min.) An examination of small craft beer companies illustrates an increased commitment to newer sustainable practices.
FROM FRYER TO FUEL (4 min.) In search of energy alternatives, the filmmakers visit the Green Light Biofuels Company in Maryland where vegetable oil is converted into biofuel.
COFFEE IN CRISIS (4 min.) Learn how climate change is affecting the business of a local coffee company and bringing climate change right down to your coffee cup!

March 24 at 9:30 AM, Patuxent Wildlife Refuge: A film on Patuxent NWR (and two others)

THE HISTORY OF PATUXENT: AMERICA'S CONSERVATION STORY (27 min.). "Come learn the history of the only designated National Wildlife Refuge dedicated solely to habitat research. Located in the backyard of the nation’s capital between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Md., it was established by executive order in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt, who declared that wildlife research is the “barometer for climate change.” As one of 540 such refuges throughout the U.S., Patuxent’s focus is mainly on bird research, but it also played an important early role in establishing the link between DDT and its ill effects on local earthworms and birds. The film reminds us that, regardless of decades of change, Patuxent’s mission of conserving and protecting the nation’s wildlife and habitat through research and wildlife management techniques has remained virtually unchanged.

Friday, March 9, 2012

How to Find a Spring Peeper

Last year I wrote about spring peepers: how it is one of our spring rituals to go out in the evening to listen to their calls, and how unbelievable it is that I couldn't find any when they're so loud.

Spring Peeper 1
Photo credit: buckeye98
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we found a technique that actually worked! We found a peeper, and held it in our hands! See if it works for you.

You will need:
  • at least three people,
  • a flashlight or headlamp for each person,
  • patience, and
  • the ability to sit quietly, close to a really loud noise.

Here's what you do:

  1. First, go to a spot where the peepers are calling. (Check our previous post.) They will probably stop calling when you get close. Sit quietly until the peepers start calling around you.
  2. Pick out the sound of an individual peeper that seems to be on land, in a spot accessible from multiple directions.
  3. Divide up your group and move so that you are standing on three different sides of where you think the sound is coming from. (This may take a few more quiet pauses, because when you move, it will probably stop calling again.)
  4. When you are arranged around the frog, and it is calling, say "go!" and all at once, shine your flashlights on the ground where it seems like the sound is coming from.
  5. Where the beams of your flashlights intersect is your best best for finding a peeper. Rummage around in the leaf litter and see if you can find that noisy little critter.

Then come back here and tell us if it worked!

Peeper 2
Photo credit: sfgamchick

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Things to Look For in March

If the 70 degree days last week didn't convince you that spring is coming, I'm here to remind you of what's ahead this month: Spring beauties! Spring Peepers! And all kinds of other cool stuff. 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 Peeper
Photo credit: bbodjack
Spring peepers are another pilgrimage-inspiring phenomenon in our household. How are these tiny critters so LOUD? And why are they so hard to find? Actually, I am proud to report, last spring we finally figured out how to spot them. More on that soon...

Wood frog eggs by The Natural Capital
The frogs are noisy because they're looking to mate. Spring peepers lay their eggs in out-of-the-way places, but we often find wood frog eggs in March, easily visible in vernal ponds in many of the local parks. (Shameless self-promotion: Matt's leading a walk on March 17 that will end up at one pool where we have reliably seen eggs in the past.)
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.

Photo credit: Dandelion and Burdock
Bittercress is less adorable, but more abundant than spring beauties -- and edible! Throw some in your spring salad mix for a vitamin-packed punch.
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.
Canada Geese
Photo credit: Henry McLin
As the sapsuckers are coming to town, the Canada Geese are leaving.  We usually notice large flocks heading north at the beginning of March, but all bets are off on the timing this year, with the unusually warm weather we've had.

Photo credit: Gene Han
Woodcocks are much harder to spot, but they'll put on even more of a show than the sapsuckers and the geese, if you can find them.

Want more? See also the list of things we found on a walk we took in mid-March last year.