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!