Saturday, July 28, 2012

LOOK FOR: Blue-tailed, Five-lined Skinks

Photo credit: Holly Sparkman
I was on a pretty intense site visit in Greenville, SC for a few days last week, but you know me -- I had an hour off and I ended up on the walking path that goes along the river downtown. A tiny blue-tailed skink ran right across the path in front of a colleague and me. I pointed it out: hey look, a blue-tailed skink. My colleague was astonished: How did you know that? she said.

I don't know. I don't remember learning the blue-tailed skink. But if you ever saw a lizard with a bright electric-blue tail, wouldn't you want to know what it was?

Just one catch: it turns out that "blue-tailed skink" isn't really their proper name. There are two species of skinks in our area that have blue tails when young. Most likely to be seen is the Five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus): they tend to nest on the ground, in leaf litter. Broad-headed skinks (Plestiodon laticeps) also have blue tails for part of their lives, but they tend to hang out in trees (though they may come down to forage).

In both species, though, that blue tail is eye-catching. And it's brightest on the juveniles; the blue fades as they age.

Why would a species evolve to have their young be so visible? The trick is that the tail is a relatively dispensable part of a skink. In fact, if a predator grabs the tail, it will break off, and the skink will escape and grow a new one. So, it's not so much that the blue makes the young visible: it makes the tail visible, and gives the rest of the skink more of a fighting chance.

Skinks lay eggs once a year, and the hatchlings appear in late summer. So keep an eye out for those little blue tails.
Blue tailed skink
Photo credit: Teague O'Mara

Friday, July 20, 2012

Things to Look for in July

Better late than never, our monthly roundup of things to look for this month:

A Clean Getaway
Photo credit: InspiredinDesMoines
I originally wrote about bald eagles for the 4th of July, but they're around all summer -- and some stay over the winter. Still, it's a great time of year to get out on the water and look for them. Matt went canoeing last weekend on Jug Bay and had the pleasure of watching an eagle fight an osprey for the fish it had just caught -- evidence of the theiving behavior that made Ben Franklin prefer the wild turkey for national bird.

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
While you're hanging out in wet places, keep an eye out for moisture-loving jewelweed. It's a pretty flower, a sparkly wonder, a trailside snack, and a soothing skin treatment. What's not to love?

hummingbird and cardinal flower
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Another moisture-lover is cardinal flower. I used to love cardinal flower just because it's a gorgeous flower. It took a few years before I realized that if you sit quietly for long enough by a large patch, a hummingbird will come by. And that takes it to another level.

rose mallow (hibiscus)
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
I always thought of hibiscus as a tropical flower. It's the kind of thing you expect to see printed on Hawaiian shirts, or tucked behind a hula dancer's ear. But we've got native hibiscus right here in DC. It blooms in July, also in wet areas. (I guess I spend a lot of time on the water in July!)

Photo credit: brocktopia
Also out in July: Chantarelles. They are a choice culinary mushroom prized by chefs around the world. And they grow in Washington, DC. Have you seen any yet?

At this time last year we also found several other wild edibles, including milkweed buds, black locust beans, and sassafras.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Walden (Happy 195th Birthday, Henry!)

I first read my dad's copy of Walden when I was in high school. It's a 35-cent paperback edition that, if I recall correctly, my dad picked up while he was teaching in East Africa in the early 60's.

Somehow the book survived his motorcycle ride from Africa to the Middle East and Europe, an ocean voyage, and the subsequent pilfering of the motorcycle's saddlebags on the docks of New York City. It has spent another 40+ years on our family's bookshelves, in at least 6 states and the District of Columbia. It's now a loose collection of pages held together by a rubber band.

This book has seen a lot of the world, but it's not for that cachet of adventure that I love it. It's for the sense of adventure found inside its pages -- the sense of adventure Henry David Thoreau found in staying in one place.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

What follows is part nature observation, part simple living, part transcendental philosophy, all recorded during two years in which Thoreau didn't venture farther than he could walk in a day. The ultimate message of Walden is one of introspection: explore thyself. But in the process of exploring himself, Thoreau explores the world around him. He watches the birds, the mice, the ants, the weather. And, ultimately, it becomes one process.

In the midst of a gentle rain...I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me...Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me...There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still.

That's the spirit that keeps me coming back to this book again and again -- and the spirit that moves me to write the Natural Capital.

Happy Birthday, Henry!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Is This Normal?

Tomorrow's heat index could be 110°. The Post is reporting today that this may be part of a new normal: when you keep having above-average temperatures every year, the average starts shifting upward.

Here's what they show for this year. Ah, remember that deliciously comfortable weekend of June 16-17?

Graphic by the Washington Post

I have to admit, I've succumbed to the tendency to hunker down inside during this latest temperature spike. I just pulled up a post I wrote a few years ago to remind myself: there are ways to stay cool in the heat.

What are your strategies for getting outdoors in this weather?