Friday, October 18, 2013

Birding Resources Part II: Other People

I will say this up front: I am not an expert birder. I like birds, I can identify most the ones that come through my yard, and when Matt quizzes me on bird calls as we're hiking, I have about a 50-50 chance of being able to say what that bird is.

Bird of prey-watching in the Trossachs
Photo credit: Saskia Heijltjes
That's why it's so awesome to occasionally go birding with people who really know what they're doing. There are many, many people in this area who can hear a birdsong and be able to tell you -- without seeing the bird -- what it is, how common it is, where it's been lately, whether it's worth looking for...and if it's worth looking for, they'll help you find it.

If you're not one of these people, consider going out birdwatching with one of these groups sometime, and see (and hear) what you're missing. (And if you are one of those people, please comment and let me know if I missed anything!)

Maryland Ornithological Society has meetings and field trips all over Maryland, including some in Rock Creek Park. Their September/October schedule is nine pages long!

Audubon Naturalist Society has free birding trips in the metro area and beyond. Also look through their catalog for paid classes and trips that focus on birds -- there are many.

Prince George's Audubon Society has regular walks on 1st and 3rd Thursdays at Lake Artemesia, and 1st and 3rd Saturdays at Patuxent River Park.

The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia has classes, programs, and field trips at local sites like Huntley Meadows, Riverbend Park, and many others.

The Northern Virginia Bird Club lists a couple of outings a week on their calendar as well.

The Nature Conservancy has free birding outings for members about once a week this fall.

This post is part of a series on birding resources...

Birding Resources Part I: Bird ID Books

Up next: Birding resources on the web & birding apps. Let us know if you have any recommendations!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Things to look for in October

October is here, time for apples, crisp nights, and fall colors. And, the brain-hurting exercise of coming up with an original Halloween costume. For help with that, we once compiled a list of ten relatively easy (for a somewhat crafty person) nature-themed Halloween costumes. The mushroom hat was a hit.

Here are some of the other things we try to take time to enjoy in October. What have you been noticing lately?

Maryland Shore
Maryland shore of the Potomac by Todor Kamenov
Fall foliage will start becoming more apparent soon. See our list of favorite local places to enjoy the color, and leave a comment with your own favorite spot. Or try our quiz of 10 fall leaves.
Wild Grapes
Wild grapes by Memotions
Wild Grapes are tart but tasty trailside treats -- if you can reach them. We had some at Carderock in September; have you found any lately?

Acorns on tree
Acorns by VS Anderson
Acorns are dropping. We've been playing around with making acorn flour: take off the shells, grind the nutmeats into coarse flour, then put them in a filter and let them soak in repeated changes of water over several days. Then dry and grind into finer flour. Use it to replace a little flour in any baking recipe that doesn't require a lot of gluten. We love it in pancakes.

Virginia Creeper
Virginia Creeper by Rene J
Virginia Creeper has started to turn a brilliant red in some places. It's the harbinger of fall color.

New England Aster
New England Aster by giveawayboy
New England Asters are lighting up our backyard right now, and on a sunny day they're covered in pollinators. Do you have a favorite spot that they grow in the wild? We'd love to hear about it.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar waxwing by Kelly Colgan Azar
Cedar waxwings are beautiful but gluttonous birds that come through our yard every fall and feast on our holly berries. I love to find them by their high-pitched calls, which you can hear on a video in our post.
Stink Bug
Stink bug by fangleman
Marmorated stink bugs will probably start coming into your home as it gets cooler, if they haven't already. These bugs just came to Pennsylvania around 1998, and have been spreading through the eastern United States with stinky abandon.
chicken of the woods
chicken of the woods by zwavelzwam
Matt just brought home a couple pounds of chicken of the woods this week, and this rain should keep bringing out the mushrooms. It might be a good time to join the Mycological Association of Washington for a foray, and keep an eye out for new walks with Matt.
Jack-o-Lantern Mushroom
Jack-o-Lantern by pellaea
Jack O'Lantern mushrooms are a poisonous orange mushroom that glow in the dark. Don't expect to use them to light up a pumpkin though...the glow is so faint it requires absolute darkness to see it.
We always love to hear what other people are noticing out there...leave us a comment below about your favorite things or new finds for this time of year!

Friday, September 20, 2013

What's Your Peaceful Place?

September 21 is an International Day of Peace observed by the United Nations. Of course, in the world of the UN, this is more about non-violence and ceasefire. But it got me of the reasons people love to be in nature is for the sense of inner peace it brings them.

So, what's your most peaceful natural place? The place you go to recharge and reconnect...that place you think of when someone says, "imagine yourself in a totally tranquil environment"?

I'll tell you about two: one inside and one outside the beltway.

Honestly, the one that most often comes to mind when someone says "imagine your peaceful place" is way outside the beltway: Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia. I went camping there every winter in middle school and high school and I'm overdue for a trip back. You can walk for miles on the beach and not see another person, and the huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss make you feel like you could be in a world before people. I imagine myself sitting in the crook of one of those stately trees, looking out at the ocean.

Near the beach
The path to the beach. Photo credit: Linda N.

The other is a spot in Rock Creek Park, on the Pinehurst Branch. It's a little-used trail and once you're a little ways off Beach Drive you can't hear the traffic. You're in the middle of DC but you could be in the middle of nowhere. At one of the stream crossings we almost always just stop and sit a little while to enjoy the peace and quiet until some noisy chatty group comes along. Sometimes that can take quite a while.

Pinehurst streambed in Rock Creek Park
Photo credit: Steve/PhilaSilva

What's your peaceful place?

Friday, September 6, 2013

LOOK FOR: Boogie-Woogie Aphids

We often see them this time of year: small tree branches covered in fuzzy aphids that all seem to dance and sway when we walk by.

They're the beech blight aphid (Grylloprociphilus imbricator), also known as the boogie-woogie aphid. That dance is a defensive mechanism. When disturbed, the aphids raise their abdomens and wave their waxy white butt fluff in the air. The signal spreads through the colony, and soon the whole tree looks like it's covered in wriggling fur. Here's a closer look at what's going on:

The aphids feed on the sap of the beech tree. (If they're feeding when you disturb them, they'll stay in one place and keep drinking while they do their dance.) But even though they're stealing sap, these aphid colonies don't seem to do much lasting damage to the tree.

Photo credit: Dan Molter
They will attract another noticeable adornment, though. A perfect contrast to the woolly white aphids, the sooty mold Scorias spongiosa feeds on aphid poop (also known as honeydew) and covers the tree branches in black fungus.

I'm fascinated by this interconnected chain: the fungus grows exclusively on the honeydew of this particular aphid, which feeds exclusively on beech trees. And this is only scratching the surface of the world that relies on beeches...Doug Tallamy reports that beeches also support at least 100 other species of insects.

But for now we'll just enjoy the boogie-woogie aphids!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Things to look for in September

Is it really that time of year again? Back to school and before we know it the leaves will be changing. Already the days are noticeably shorter. Make sure you stop and take a few minutes to enjoy the here and now.

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. 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. I recently saw someone mention fixing it like buffalo wings...we may have to try that!

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!

Moth 17, Sandy Point State Park
Photo credit: David Heise
Moths are easy to look for at this time of year, partly because you don't have to stay up so late to do it. When life brings you darkness, look for things in the dark!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

LOOK FOR: Giant Silkworm Moths

A couple of weeks ago we were hiking in Pennsylvania and stumbled upon a large patch of wild highbush blueberries. Yum! But the real find of the day was this humongous caterpillar.

It's the larva of a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) -- one of the members of a subfamily known as giant silkworm moths (Saturniinae). Like their Asian cousins (in a related family), the caterpillars in this family all spin cocoons out of lots of silk. But no one has made a successful commercial venture out of raising them.

Below are the five giant silkworm moths you're likely to see in the Washington, DC area. Aren't they beautiful?

Luna moth
Photo credit: Geoff Gallice

American moon moth (Actias luna) caterpillar, final instar

Photo credit: Dean Morley
Luna Moth
Actias luna
Typical wingspan: 4.5 inches

Larvae eat the leaves of a variety of native trees including birch, black gum, hickory, persimmon, sweet gum, and walnut.

Luna is the Roman moon goddess. These pale green moths do almost seem to glow at twilight.

(More pictures of the life cycle here)

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) male - Batavia, Illinois
Photo credit: Jason Sturner

American oak silkmoth (Antheraea polyphemus) caterpillar
Photo credit: Dean Morley
Polyphemus moth
Antheraea polyphemus
Typical wingspan: 6 inches

Larvae eat the leaves of many shrubs and trees -- especially birch, rose, and willow, but many others.

In Greek mythology, Polyphemus was a cyclops -- a fitting namesake for a moth with big eyespots.

(More pictures of the life cycle here)

Promethea Silkmoth
Photo credit: iceberg273

promethea caterpillars
Photo credit: Andrea Janda
Promethea moth
Callosamia promethea
Typical wingspan: 3-4 inches

Larvae eat the leaves of native shrubs and trees including spicebush, sassafras, cherry, tulip tree, ash, and many others.

In Greek mythology, remember, Prometheus was the one who gave fire to humans and was sentenced to eternal punishment for it.

(More pictures of life cycle here)

Photo credit: Circeson

Tulip-tree Silkmoth Callosamia angulifera
Photo credit: Michael Hodge
Tuliptree silkmoth
Callosamia angulifera
Typical wingspan: 3-4.5 inches

Larvae eat the leaves of the tulip tree, which is common in our local forest -- but the branches are usually out of reach. Still, our caterpillar book recommends looking up at dusk to see them flying.

Cecropia Moth  W V
Photo credit: Linda Tanner

Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia)
Photo credit: Michael Hodge
Cecropia moth
Hyalophora cecropia
Typical wingspan: up to 6 inches

Larvae eat the leaves of many woody plants including maple, birch, apple, cherry, and others -- apparently including blueberry.

In Greek mythology, Cecrops was a half-man, half-snake born from the earth. He was the first king of Athens, and first to worship Zeus.

(More pictures of life cycle here)

Much of this info on host plants comes from a great field guide called Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History -- check it out!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Things to Look for in June

Hasn't June been off to a lovely start? After the tropical storm passes through and the rain clears tonight, the trails may be a little soggy but you should be able to get out for a walk without fear of getting rained on tomorrow morning. Matt's still got a few spaces available on a walk he's leading and mulberries are on the menu. I'll be on my way to Illinois to visit my 91-year-old grandma.

Mulberries by akeg
Mulberries: These berries are bane of some homeowners' existence as they drop and ferment on sidewalks and driveways throughout the metro area...not to mention the purple bird poop. We choose to see mulberries as a glorious abundance of free fruit, rather than an annoyance.

Mosquito by James Jordan
Mosquitoes: Especially after lots of rain, it can really pay off to look for where water might be collecting. See our tips on looking for spots where the mosquitoes might be breeding.

Tiger swallowtail
Tiger swallowtail in our backyard
Tiger swallowtails: In the fall, tiger swallowtail caterpillars form a chrysalis in which they'll spend the whole winter, waiting for the right time to emerge. And then, on some warm, sunny day in April or May, you'll see one fluttering by. And you'll know: winter's over. In June, you'll start to see more. To me, tiger swallowtails are one of the things that make summer summer in Washington, DC. If you spend enough time outside on a sunny day, you're bound to see one.

Firefly by James Jordan
Fireflies: They're out. J.M. Barrie wrote: "when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies." We sit and watch them almost every night in our backyard. What better way to celebrate the summer?

ramp flowers (allium tricoccum)
Ramp flowers by milesizz
Ramp flowers: Ramps are sought out earlier in the spring for their edible leaves and roots. But later in June, they send up flower stalks topped with a puffball of white flowers. If you can find a big patch, it's a very impressive sight. We've seen a lot at Scott's Run and Carderock...keep an eye out and let us know if you see some.

Cicada lyrica by DaynaT
Cicadas: In most of DC and MD, we're missing out on the 17-year cicadas that emerged in Virginia this year. But toward the end of the month, keep an eye and an ear out for the dog-day cicadas. It doesn't take much work to hear them: they're some of the loudest insects on the planet.

Photo credit: the Natural Capital
Pickerel weed: This water-loving plant has gorgeous flowers that attract butterflies.

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Milkweed is a beautiful, once-common roadside plant that is struggling in modern times. If you love monarch butterflies, you should show milkweed some love. Their lives depend on it: monarch larvae can only survive by eating milkweed leaves.

Lone Star Tick from CDC
And while you're out looking for all these things, don't forget to keep checking for ticks. Lyme disease is rampant in our area, and a big deal if you get it. And there are other crazy problems they can transmit, like an allergy to red meat. So just suck it up and look for the little bloodsuckers.

What else have you been seeing on the trails lately? Leave a comment and let us know!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Do Plants Behave?

Last month the PBS program Nature had a fantastic episode about plant behavior -- a controversial term. Do plants really "behave"? This show argues yes: plants can communicate, move purposefully, and compete selectively. They just do it in ways that are much harder to observe than the animal behaviors that usually make it into nature documentaries:

  • Parasitic plants use their sense of smell to choose the best host plants, and grow toward them.
  • Some plants can change their blooming pattern and chemical composition to avoid overpredation -- and pick up cues to do this from other plants that are getting eaten.
  • Some plants can recognize siblings, and their roots grow less competitively with their siblings' roots.
  • A vast underground network of fungi not only takes carbon from trees in exchange for nutrients, but actually helps shuttle carbon to baby trees.

In another interview, one scientist featured in this episode says, "I was raised to believe that plants are plants. You eat them, you grow them, and they look pretty, but this is suggesting that there is a lot more to them than just that. I really think that we’re at the cusp of a real paradigm shift and that people are going to be viewing plants very differently in the next ten years."

Check it out:

Watch What Plants Talk About on PBS. See more from Nature.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Alpha-Gal Syndrome: One more reason to look out for ticks

Lone Star Tick from CDC
via the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences.
We're not big consumers of red meat here at the Natural Capital. In fact, I haven't eaten it in years. But Matt has been known to eat a burger now and then...until recently.

The last three times he has eaten red meat -- even organic, free range meat -- he has broken out in hives. Itchy, all-body, take-several-Benadryls-and-go-to-bed-til-it's-over hives.

For some people, the reaction can be even worse: they can go into anaphylactic shock.

The culprit? Researchers at the University of Virginia think it's tick spit.

More precisely, the spit of lone star ticks that contains a sugar known as alpha-gal (galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose) -- a sugar that's also in red meat. If a tick bites you, and the alpha-gal gets into your bloodstream, you may develop antibodies to it. Then, when you eat that hamburger, your immune system attacks the alpha-gal, releases lots of histamines, and you end up with hives...or worse.

There are over 1,500 reported cases of alpha-gal syndrome, and probably many more that have gone unreported -- including Matt.

Lyme disease is still much more prevalent and problematic than alpha-gal syndrome. But as with Lyme disease, the DC area is right on the edge of the highest-prevalence area.

I've written before about how important it is to avoid tick bites and to get any ticks that do bite out as soon as possible. If you like to eat meat, you can now add this as one more reason to be vigilant.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Things to look for in May

Last spring was hot and way ahead of schedule, and this spring has been cold and a little slow. Morels, in particular, took forever to show up. We just found some on Wednesday, later in the year than we ever have before. I have a feeling that May will even out to be about below are all the things we've highlighted before on the Natural Capital in the month of May. It's getting to be a long list!

What else have you been seeing out there? Enjoy the beautiful weekend outdoors and come back and leave us a comment here or on Facebook!

yellow ladyslipper orchid
yellow ladyslipper at TWMA by Carly&Art
We often make it out to Thomspon Wildlife Management Area in early May to see the trilliums and ladyslipper orchids. I know I usually say that there's so much to see in the DC metro area that roadtrips are unnecessary, but the display at Thompson's is really unbelievable. Last weekend the trilliums were out in Charlottesville so I think they should also be going at Thompson's.

Photo credit: cotinis
Pinxter Azaleas - Some yards are an absolute riot of hot pinks and purples in the spring with azaleas bred from Asian species. But there is actually an azalea native to this area, and it's quite showy in its own right. They're blooming in Rock Creek Park right now.

tuliptree flower
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Tuliptree Flowers - Tuliptrees are one of the dominant species in the forests in and around Washington, DC. But because the trees are so tall, many people have never seen their flowers. You may find some falling on the ground even if you can't see them in the treetops. (But the real treat is, you can drink their nectar.)

Baltimore oriole
Photo credit: Eric Begin

Baltimore Orioles - Migrating right along with the tuliptree nectar are the orioles. Learn to recognize their pretty song and you may greatly improve your chances of actually seeing one. We just saw one for the first time this year on Wednesday, and we knew to look because we heard it first.

Hummingbird by Jason Means
Ruby throated hummingbirds - Need I say more? Love, love, love these birds and I'm always so happy to see them come back in the spring. We saw our first one of the season last weekend near Charlottesville, so they're probably around here too -- or will be soon.

Canada Warbler (male)
Canada warbler by Jeremy Meyer
There are also many species of migratory warblers -- pretty little songbirds with pretty little songs. In the last several years, we've had a day or two in mid-May when a lot pass through our yard. This post shows some of the species we see the most.

Mountain Laurel blooms
Photo credit: ac4lt
Mountain Laurel -  The gnarled, shaggy trunks of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) make it a showy shrub at any time of year. But in late May or early June, they burst into flower.

Tiny Tim the Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse by RunnerJenny
Tufted titmice - These birds are in the Washington DC area year round, but (like many birds) they're nesting in May. This post was inspired by catching a pair flying back and forth repeatedly to their nest to feed their young.

Blue Flag Iris
Blue flag iris by dermoidhome
Blue flag iris - This gorgeous iris can be found in our local wetlands. It's one of the showiest flowers native to the DC region.

Oyster mushrooms by justresting
Oyster mushrooms - These are quite possibly my favorite local mushroom. They're not showy like chicken of the woods or early like morels, just a reliable, plentiful mushroom with a nice mushroomy flavor.

Putty Root - closeup
Photo credit: NC Orchid
Putty root orchid - I had been looking for this flower for years. I finally saw one last May.

serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Serviceberries by dbarronoss
Serviceberries - We first learned these native, edible fruits as "Juneberries," but we're starting to think they should maybe be called "Mayberries" around here. (Does something already have that name, or is it just a place in tv land?) They should start ripening at the end of the month. They're scattered throughout the woods in the DC area, but you'll get the most fruit from trees that have been planted ornamentally...see our list of some of the best areas we've found, and a few more in the comments to the post.

Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus)
Photo credit: Mary Keim
Eyed click beetles - We love these funky insects and their acrobatics. If you've never seen one in action, check out the videos in our post. For some reason we seem to always see them around this time of year. I'm not sure if that's just chance, or something about their life cycle.

Photo credit: USDA
And while you're out looking for all these things, don't forget to start checking for ticks. I've already found one crawling on me this year. Lyme disease is rampant in our area, and a big deal if you get it. But if you find a tick within 24 hours of it attaching itself to you, chances are you won't get Lyme. So just suck it up and look for the little bloodsuckers.