Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Car-free DC: Roosevelt Island

This is the sixth article in a series on hikes in DC that can be reached by public transportation.

Although part of Roosevelt Island has been commandeered for a formal plaza with a statue of Teddy Roosevelt -- not literally carrying a big stick, but at 17 feet tall, imposing nonetheless -- the rest is a surprisingly diverse oasis in the midst of an intensely urban setting. Yes, you can hear multiple highways. Yes, you will hear planes flying low overhead as they take off and land at National Airport. But somehow, it is possible to ignore all that and enjoy the riches the island has to offer.

It's hard to get too lost once you're on the island, but here is a map of the trails to help you plan your visit. The island includes areas that are bottomland woods, typical of what you'd see in other parks along the Potomac. More unusual is a tidal freshwater marsh on the interior of the island, along the Swamp Trail. The wetlands include numerous flowers that attract pollinators over the summer, including pickerel weed, hibiscus, cardinal flower, joe pye weed, and ironweed. Some of our notable wildlife sightings here include hummingbirds, great blue herons, and a cuckoo.

From Rosslyn Metro:
  • Take Wilson Blvd. to North Lynn St.
  • Go north (left) on N. Lynn, crossing Lee Highway (which includes two multi-lane sections and a bridge over Rte. 66).
  • Just after you've passed the west-bound section of Lee Highway, take the paved hiker-biker trail going to the right. Follow the trail over a pedestrian bridge over the GW Parkway.
  • Once you're over the Parkway, you'll head south (downstream) along the path, through the parking lot, then take another footbridge across the river to the island.

By this route, it's about .8 mi from Metro to the island. From Georgetown, you can cross the Key Bridge, stay on the left and follow the same path off N. Lynn at Lee Highway.

Dogs: "
Pets are permitted on Theodore Roosevelt Island if they are wearing a leash no longer than 6 feet and the owner is holding the leash at all times."

Bikes: Bikes are a great way to get to Roosevelt Island, but they're not allowed on the island.
Bicycles are allowed on Metro trains all day on weekends, and at non-peak times on weekdays (not 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.). There's a bike rack by the footbridge.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Natural Happenings: June 29 - July 5

Each week, we will list opportunities to get outdoors, to learn about nature, and to do service. We'll list just brief teasers about each one. Please click through to the organization hosting each event for more details. Some events require prior registration; some charge a fee.

This week's highlight: July 4th. It's a day when many of us spend a great deal of time outside at picnics, parades, and fireworks displays, despite the DC summer heat and humidity. Enjoy your holiday, and don't forget to drink lots of water along with whatever else you may be drinking!

And if you can brave the heat for the 4th, why not on other days? The offerings this week are a little lighter than average, but there's still a lot going on -- get out there!

Sierra Club
Sat: Bull Run Mtn Natural Area (7-8 mi; carpool)
Sun: C&O Canal, Carderock/Gold Mine (7 mi)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: Tuscarora Trail (18 mi + 4000' ascent)
Fri: Registration deadline for basic wilderness first aid class to take place July 11-12

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Lake Frank and Lake Needwood (9 mi; Twinbrook Metro)
Sun: W&OD trail from East Falls Church (4 mi); Overall Run hike/swim (9 mi; Vienna Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
Fri eve: C&O Canal (4 mi)
Sat: Rock Creek Park (9 mi; Cleveland Park Metro)

Sun: Great Falls and Billy Goat trails (8-13 mi; carpool)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Sat: Rose River Falls, Shenandoah National Park (4-6 mi)
Sun: Summer butterflies of Patuxent Research Refuge

Maryland Native Plant Society

Tue: Monthly Meeting: The Secret to Maintaining a Productive Butterfly Garden

Anacostia Watershed Society
Sat:Invasives removal at Greenbelt Park

Potomac Conservancy
Sun: Medicinal Plant Walk


Rock Creek Park
Wed: Art in the Park exploring wildlife (ages 5+)
Thurs: Nature journal (ages 5+)

: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: Native American Hunting (ages 8+)
Sun:Rolling Meadow Bridge Hike (2.5 mi; ages 8+)
Sun: Ranger-led horseback tour (ages 12+)

Museum of Natural History
Tue: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil activities
Wed: Ask an Expert in the Ocean Hall

Friday, June 26, 2009

Beat the Heat

As the summer heats up, don't let it keep you inside all day. Here are some tips for keeping cool outdoors.

More plants, less pavement. Pavement acts as a heat sink, capturing the sun's heat. Plants, meanwhile, are taking the same solar energy and using it to perform the chemical reactions of photosynthesis. They're also evaporating water from their leaves, which cools the air around them.

Seek shade.
Clearly, the shade of trees will help. Also consider walking in areas that are even more intensely shaded, like north-facing slopes and creek ravines. How about Soapstone Valley in Rock Creek Park (previous post)? For a spot that gets no sunlight, ever, check out the Dalecarlia Tunnel, where the Capital Crescent Trail passes under MacArthur Blvd (map). It is deliciously cool all summer.

Find water. Being wet will help you stay cool. Find a creek to stick your feet in briefly, or make your whole excursion a wade in a creek. Just be safe -- don't wade (or swim) where there's a strong current.

Northwest BranchDrink water. Remember to bring lots of water and stay hydrated. Even better, freeze your water bottle before you go and you'll have cold water on your hike (remember to leave room for the water to expand before you put it in the freezer).

Acclimate. Your body makes physiological changes to deal with heat. If you spend most of your time in cold, dry air conditioning and then try to spend time in the hot, humid outdoors, you'll be physically less able to deal with the heat. Spend more time outdoors, and set your thermostat to a higher temperature. It will take a few days for your body to adjust, but you should find the heat more bearable.

Go early. Even if you're acclimated, there's no reason to be out at the hottest time of day. If we're going out (or working in the garden), we'll do it early and be back inside before noon. On a typical summer day, heat will continue building until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon; after that it may start to cool off a little as the sun goes lower in the sky, but it still won't be as cool as it was in the morning.

Take it easy. Similarly, there's no reason to push too hard. If you're feeling wiped out by the heat, take a break. Listen to the birds. Sit by some flowers and watch the pollinators. You may find that you cover less ground, but see just as much.

Do you have a favorite cool spot or a tip for keeping cool? Post a comment.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

LOOK FOR: Ramp Flowers

Ramps are well-known in the Appalachians as a sign of spring. When their broad green leaves emerge in April, there are ramp festivals throughout the region, as people cook up the roots and leaves. A member of the genus Allium, ramps are closely related to garlic and onions -- and are often called wild leeks.

By early June, the leaves have completely disappeared -- they can't photosynthesize much once the trees block their light. But right around now, where the leaves once were, you'll see a single stalk (about 6-8 inches tall) with a pompom of white flowers on top. As they mature, each of the small flower stalks on top will dry and remain in place. In the fall and winter, these dried pompoms stand out even when all other signs of the plant have disappeared -- especially if they still have the shiny black seeds at their tips. (The species name, Allium tricoccum, refers to the three seeds produced by each flower.)

Doug Elliot gives this interesting factoid about ramps in his book Wild Roots:
Because of their strong odor, Ramps were called pikwute sikakushia (the skunk) in the language of the midwestern Menomini Indians. Rich woodlands near the southern end of Lake Michigan were said to be a favorite Ramp gathering area, for which reason they called this area shikako, (the skunk place). This is where the fuming, seething, metropolis, now known as Chicago, gets its name.
Skunky or no, many wild food enthusiasts say ramps are tastier than any cultivated allium.

In the wild: Ramps are associated with the mountains, but they do grow in the wild along the Potomac -- perhaps the seeds have washed downstream. They grow in profusion at Scott's Run. We also have seen them on an island off the C&O Canal.

In your yard: You'll want a shady spot with rich soil. I'm not aware of nurseries that sell them, but you could try collecting seed in the fall and see if you can get them to come up. They will need to be in the cold outdoors over the winter, just like they would be in the wild. And some may take more than a year before they germinate. But it's worth a try!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Car-free DC: Greenbelt Park

This is the sixth article in a series on hikes in DC that can be reached by public transportation.

Have you ever wished you could go camping inside the beltway? Greenbelt Park is your best bet, with 174 sites at $16 a night (you'll need reservations in the summer).

Not a camper? With 1,100 acres, and over 8 miles of hiking trails (map), Greenbelt Park has more to offer. You'd never believe you were only 12 miles from the White House. Several creeks pass through the park on their way to the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River. And in the summer, the woods are noticeably cooler than the city, offering a little respite from the urban heat island.

Let's be clear: it's hard to get completely out of earshot of a road -- the park is touched by the beltway, Kenilworth Avenue, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But this park is definitely worth exploring. My favorite memory was a particular hike several years ago when we saw multiple luna moths in one day. It's also a fairly common location for forays by the Mycological Association of Washington.

By public transportation: The southeast corner of the park is under a mile from College Park metro station. Follow Paint Branch Parkway across Kenilworth Ave, where it will become Good Luck Road; the park is on your left. There is some limited bus service from College Park to Kenilworth Ave: weekdays and Saturdays, you can take Metrobus R12, and weekdays only, Metrobus F6 or PG Bus 14.

The main entrance to Greenbelt Park is about 3 miles from the Greenbelt Metro station. From there, several buses will take you by the park, but none run on Sundays. On weekdays and Saturdays, try Metrobus C2, T16/17, or R12 . Weekdays only, you can also take PG County buses 15 and 16.

Dogs: Dogs are allowed in the park, but are supposed to remain on leash. However, there's currently a major tick problem in the park, so you might want to think twice about taking your pet.

Allowed on the roads and several paved trails marked on the park map (including an entrance off Good Luck Road that is closed to other vehicles). On Wednesday evenings in the summer, there is a "Tour de France style" bike race from 6:00 to 8:30 PM (registration required). Up to 2 bikes can be stashed on the front of any Metrobus; you can take your bike on Metro anytime on the weekend, and anytime except 7-10 AM and 4-7 PM during the week.

Greenbelt Park

Do you have other tips on Greenbelt Park, or experiences to report? Share in the comments section.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This Week in the Natural Capital: June 22-28

Each week, we list opportunities to get outdoors, to learn about nature, and to do service. We'll list just brief teasers about each one. Please click through to the organization hosting each event for more details. Some events require prior registration; some include a fee.

This week's highlight: Thursday evening (8-9:30 pm) is the annual Firefly Fling at Woodend Nature Sanctuary. "As dusk descends, come and enjoys nature’s fireworks - the courting of fireflies over the Woodend fields. The evening begins with a discussion of the life history and behavior of these luminescent beetles. We’ll then move outdoors to observe the various flash and light patterns of different species and try to “communicate” with these insects ourselves." Free, but registration required.

Also: Saturday June 27 is the National Wildlife Federation's Great American Backyard Campout. Check out their website for ideas of activities to do in your own backyard campout. And if you don't have a backyard, check out our upcoming post on Greenbelt Park, where you can camp inside the Beltway (if there are any campsites left).

Other events:

Maryland Native Plant Society
Sun: Native plants and pollinators at Brookside Nature Center

Sierra Club
Tue eve: Canoe & Kayak lessons at Fletcher's Boat House
Sat: Meadowood on Mason Neck work trip and hike
Sat-Sun: SNP Bear Church Rock/Jones Mountain overnight backpack (14 mi)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: Hike about halfway across Maryland (19 mi)
Wed: Seneca Creek SP (5 mi)
Sun: SNP - Harris Hollow/Big Devils Stairs, the Marshalls (8-10.5 mi, bus from metro)

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: AT - Big Meadows to Hawksbill Gap (7.5 mi)
Sun: Annapolis Rocks (10.5 mi)
Sun: Lake Accotink (4 mi)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Sat: Geology of the Gettysburg Battlefield
Sat:Western Montgomery County Butterfly Count

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Cleveland Park to Folklife Festival (8 mi)
Sat eve: Old Town, Dyke's Marsh (6+ mi, meets at King St. Metro)
Sun: Trail Work in SNP

Capital Hiking Club
June schedule was not posted when we compiled this post; check the link now

Washington Women Outdoors
Sat: Blockhouse Point on the Potomac (6 mi, strenuous)
Sat: Rock climbing class at Great Falls
Sun: Seneca-Poolesville bike ride (34 mi)
Sun: Shenandoah River sea kayaking

United States Botanical Garden
Mon eve: Tour of native plants in the National Garden

Rock Creek Park
Sat: River walk (3 mi, ages 7+)


Rock Creek Park
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Sat: River walk (3 mi, ages 7+)
Sun: Bike Hike, Nature Center to Boundary Bridge (ages 8+)

Friday, June 19, 2009

On Fathers (and Daughters)

On my commute, I've been reading a book of essays by geneticist/journalist/environmental activist David Suzuki that my father gave me. The other day, I got all choked up over a piece that centered around a speech that Suzuki's daughter, Severn, gave at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio:

One thing clearly at work here was the role of Severn's father -- he took her fishing and hiking regularly, and showed her his love and curiosity for nature. And he modeled the translation of that love of nature into action, with his work as the host of environmental TV shows and regularly speaking out on environmental issues.

My own dad was no internationally-known TV host, but he (and my mom) did much the same thing. There's a picture from before I can remember of me, fascinated by a mouse Dad brought home from his lab. Later, he'd take me in to feed crickets to his frogs. We went fishing, hiking, camping, scrambling over rocks, looking under logs, and bringing bugs home as pets. My parents made sure we saved our recycling (even though, in the late 70's, we had to drive to a collection spot to drop it off), and they canvassed for green politicians. They haven't stopped, and neither have my brother and I.

Thanks, Dad. Happy Father's Day!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

LOOK FOR: Tiger Swallowtails

DC may be erupting in flowers, but there's something about seeing my first tiger swallowtail that makes me feel like it's really spring. In the fall, tiger swallowtails will 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 really over. In June, you'll start to see more. Summer's here.

Tiger swallowtails are large butterflies (they can have a wingspan up to 6 inches), and their black-and-yellow pattern is hard to miss. They have slightly different markings depending on whether they're male or female. The female has more blue on its bottom wings; males have little to no blue. (Just remember, blue is for...girls.) It must be this blue that Linneus was referring to when he gave this butterfly its species name, Papilio glaucus: "glaucus" can mean cerulean blue.

Remarkably, females can also be almost entirely black. There is some speculation that this might be mimicry of the pipevine swallowtail, which is much rarer in the DC area. It's also easy to confuse the black form of female tiger swallowtails with other black-colored swallowtails, such as the spicebush and black swallowtails. If you compare the two pictures on the right of the post, you'll see the edges of the wings are almost identical, but the blue is less pronounced. (Spicebush swallowtail has light blue, not yellow, spots on the edges of the wings; black swallowtail has more yellow on the wings.) They're all lovely.

In your yard: To attract tiger swallowtails temporarily, plant nectar flowers. But to really support them, plant one of their host plants -- which will provide the leaves the caterpillars need to eat. These include several trees; black cherry and tuliptree are favorites.

In the wild: You'll see tiger swallowtails in both woods and open fields. We've noticed they like to fly over trails and streams, perhaps because there are fewer obstacles. They sometimes will "puddle" in a sunny, muddy area, where they absorb minerals from the mud.

Sources for this post:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bookshelf: Bird ID

You would think not much could change in the world of identifying birds. The birds themselves don't change. But I still have my mother's copy of Peterson's Field Guide (2nd edition), complete with her parent's phone number on the inside front cover and notes from her college ornithology class in the margins. And I will tell you, we've come a long way from the days of those mostly black-and-white plates.

In this post, we'll review three current field guides to birds in our area. As a case study, we'll use a bird that was an occasional visitor to our condo's flower boxes in Dupont Circle: the house finch.

Peterson Field Guides: Birds of Eastern and Central North America (probably about 600 birds, 450 pages): This guide covers the birds you might expect to see in the US and Canada from the east coast all the way west to Texas and North Dakota. The shot to the right is from Matt's copy, which is a 4th edition; the 5th edition fixes one of our pet peeves about the book by adding small maps to each entry to show each bird's range. This makes it much easier to quickly exclude the birds whose range doesn't even come close to the DC area when trying to make an ID. The text is minimal, but provides basic descriptions of distinguishing visual characteristics, song, and habitat. The strength of Peterson's is that it typically shows at least 4 species on a single page; this allows for side-by-side comparison of similar species. In most cases the illustrations are clear. However, for several years, we had trouble applying the distinctions between the illustrations of the house finch (top right corner) and the purple finch (below it) to the birds we saw in front of us, and had an ongoing debate over which bird we were seeing.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (650 birds, 432 pages): Sibley's covers about the same range as Peterson's, but makes several nice additions to the Peterson model. They still manage to fit about four birds to each two page spread, but by making the illustrations smaller, there is room for more information. Each description starts off with where you are likely to find each bird, which goes a long way toward settling our purple finch ("uncommon in woody and brushy areas") vs. house finch ("common and widespread in suburbs") dispute. The written descriptions of visual characteristics are associated with arrows to the relevant part of each illustration; this is much easier to follow than Peterson's method of stringing them together in a paragraph. Another nice bonus is a short section at the beginning of each group of birds (e.g. wading birds, raptors) with general information and comparing the genera or species within the group. Unfortunately, these sections don't really stand out as breaks; it's easy to skip over them as you're flipping through the guide.

Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of the Mid-Atlantic (328 birds, 400 pages): This guide focuses on a smaller geographic range (VA/WV through NY/NJ), and thus has room for a full page per bird. The benefit of this approach is much richer information about each bird, including notes on behavior, breeding, nesting, flight patterns, and what they're attracted to in bird feeders. The downside is that you lose the ability to compare birds side-by-side: you have to turn a page between our purple finch and house finch (we pasted them together here). The book tries to make up for this by including a small inset on each page about similar birds, but it's not as easy to use. This guide uses photographs instead of illustrations, which is helpful in the case of our finches. If the pictures are accurate, it's clear we never saw a purple finch at our flower boxes. In general, the photos are a mixed bag: some more difficult-to-photograph birds are a little blurry or in odd poses. And the photo of the great egret, a pure white bird, looks largely grey from a shadow. Failing to at least Photoshop that shot seems like a major oversight. One other drawback in this guide is that unlike the other two books, there's no label like "hawks" or "ducks" in the upper corners of the pages to help you flip to the right general area as you narrow down your search for a bird.

Bottom line: I think it might be time for us to move beyond Peterson's. Sibley's gained another edge last week when it was the only book of these three that clearly identified a juvenile starling (which is grey, instead of black like the adults). It had a clear picture and also an apt description of it "waddling," which was a clincher for my confidence that I had made the right ID. But I keep going back to the Smithsonian book, as well, for the longer descriptions.

Do you have a favorite field guide? What do you like about it? Click below to leave a comment.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

This Week in the Natural Capital: June 15-21

Each week, we will list opportunities to get outdoors, to learn about nature, and to do service. We'll list just brief teasers about each one. Please click through to the organization hosting each event for more details. Some events require prior registration; some charge a fee.

This week's highlight: These may the shortest nights of the year, but that shouldn't stop you from looking at the stars. The National Capital Astronomers will bring telescopes to a field in Rock Creek Park on Saturday night, and anyone can use them. This is an informal monthly program that has been going for nearly fifty years. Meet after dark (sunset is at 8:37) in the field just south of the intersection of Military and Glover Roads NW (map, bus), near the Nature Center. A parking lot is located immediately next to the field, with entrances from Glover Road and Ridge Road. Kids are welcome; no registration is required.

Other events:

Maryland Native Plant Society

Sat: Chapman Forest South, Charles County
Sun: Ferns on the Gunpowder River (near Baltimore)

Sierra Club
Tue eve: Canoe & Kayak lessons at Fletcher's Boat House
Sun: American Chestnut Land Trust hike/canoe

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: SNP - Austin Mtn, AT, Furnace Mtn Trails (19 mi)
Wed: Rock Creek Park (5 mi)
Sun: George Washington NF, Massanutten & other peaks (9-14.5 mi, bus from metro)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Tue: Firefly Fling
Wed: C&O Canal, Riley's Lock
: Sunset Safari at the National Zoo
Sat: Boundary Bridge (2.5 mi)
Sun: Paddle on the Patuxent at Jug Bay

Center Hiking Club
Tue eve: Old Town Alexandria (2-4 mi)
Fri eve: Glover, Whitehaven, and Dumbarton Oaks Parks (5 mi)
Sat: Historic Arlington Bike Tour
Sat: Big Meadows Waterfalls (10 mi, meets at Vienna Metro)
Sun: Jeremy's Run in SNP (11 mi, meets at Vienna Metro)

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: SNP - Brown Mtn/Big Run (10 mi)
Sat: South Run to Burke Lake (8 mi)
Sun: Sky Meadows (8.4 mi)
Sun: Hound Hike at Wakefield Park (5 mi)

Capital Hiking Club
Schedule wasn't up when we compiled this post; check the link now.

Washington Women Outdoors
Sat: Catoctin Valley bike ride to Waterford, VA (37 mi)
Sat: AT - Weverton Cliffs to Gathland (13 mi)

United States Botanical Garden
Mon eve: Tour of native plants in the National Garden


Rock Creek Park
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Fri: make a clay pot in the American Indian tradition (ages 6+)
Just "fur" fun (all ages)
Sat eve: explore the sky with telescopes (all ages)
Sun: make a clay pot in the American Indian tradition (ages 6+)

Did we miss something? Post it in the comments.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Weekend Update

A couple of events I missed in compiling this week's list...

Just announced: the Mycological Association of Washington will be looking for mushrooms in Greenbelt Park on Saturday at 10:00. There are always a couple of real experts on these forays, so it's a great opportunity to learn something new, no matter what your experience level. With all this rain we've been having, there's sure to be plenty to look at! We're hoping to make it out on this one.

The American Horticultural Society is holding a Community Green festival on Sunday at River Farm in Alexandria (entry $10 adults/kids 3+ $5/bicyclists free). Local gardening coach Susan Harris will give a talk on removing your turfgrass at noon. Local photographer Don Chernoff will be giving a slide show at 3:00 with pictures from his book, Wild Washington: Amazing Wildlife In and Around Our Nation's Capital.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

LOOK FOR: Fireflies

One night many years ago I looked out over a field dancing with fireflies and I had a realization: this is why people believed in fairies. I must have been thinking of Disney's Tinkerbell and her trail of twinkling pixie dust, so much like the swooping, twinkling light of the fireflies. Or J.M. Barrie's description: "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."

But those dancing lights aren't fairies. They aren't flies, either: they're beetles, actually. In the light of day, they look like nothing special: black beetles, sometimes with a red head. The exact looks of a firefly depends on the species; there are 23 genera and about 200 species of fireflies in North America.

The different species also have different flashing patterns at night. (The Museum of Science, Boston, has an animation that shows what to look for to tell the difference.) Some come out at dusk; others wait for more darkness. Some are high in the trees; others are closer to ground level. They also may flash different numbers of times, with different duration, and flying in different patterns while they flash. That way, they only seek mates of their own species. Unless, that is, they've been tricked by an impostor in the genus Photuris, which mimics the flashing patterns of other fireflies to lure them in and eat them.

When they're done mating, female fireflies lay their eggs in the ground or in rotting logs. The larva of a firefly looks like a grub, and eats other insects, as well as worms, snails and slugs. The larvae -- and the eggs -- can glow in the dark. This gives the family of fireflies their name: Lampyridae, from the Latin and Greek words for "glowworm." One theory is that the green glow is a warning sign to predators that these larvae don't taste good. Apparently, the adults don't taste good either.

But humans don't care what they taste like. And so we like the dancing green glow: as a sign of summer, as a memory of childhood. Or as a glimmer of hope that fairies really do exist, if we only believe.

In the wild: Different species like different habitats, but a good bet is to look at the edge between forest and open field. They also seem to like to be near a source of water. The picnic areas at Rock Creek Park are probably ideal.

In your yard: Even when we lived in a 6th floor condo in Dupont Circle, we could see fireflies in the street trees. But there are some things you can do to help attract and protect fireflies in your yard, if you have one:
  1. Habitat. Because they spend a lot of time on the ground during the day, fireflies may be harmed by lawn mowing. In addition, lawn pesticides aimed at grubs may kill firefly larvae, which also live in the soil. This is just one more reason it makes sense to avoid spraying your lawn, and let it grow to at least 3 inches before cutting. Better yet, consider replacing some lawn with plants that do not need to be mowed.
  2. Darkness. Some scientists think outdoor lights and streetlights may interfere with fireflies' ability to communicate and find mates. You may have a better show if you leave your outdoor light off.
  3. Research. The Museum of Science, Boston asks people to report their observations of fireflies once a week throughout the summer, to learn more about firefly distribution and behavior. Sign up at Firefly Watch.
Also this week:
The mulberries are still dropping, but honestly, with all this rain, they're pretty tasteless. The serviceberries are probably also still going.

Sources for this post:
Museum of Science, Boston

Have you started seeing fireflies yet? Do you have a favorite place to watch them? Leave a comment.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Local Nature in the Media

Wilson bridge open to pedestrians and bikes: the consensus seems to be that the view is great, but once you're in Maryland, it's hard to bike much further. See this Post article and a damning review of National Harbor's readiness for the non-car traffic at Greater Greater Washington.

Hawks are nesting on the Rayburn Building: The Post's John Kelly takes a walk with a Hill birder to see the hawks (with a great picture) and whatever other birds they can find.

Beavers have rebounded, but not everyone is happy: The beaver population in North America has rebounded from 100,000 in 1900, to 10-15 million today, possibly close to original levels. This NY Times article is primarily about clashes between homeowners and beavers in Massachusetts, but makes reference to their comeback in DC as well. Bottom line: in humans vs. beavers, beavers often win.

Beauty of the Chesapeake: The Washington Post Sunday Magazine ran a gorgeous set of aerial photos showing both pristine nature and the human footprint on the Bay. It was accompanied by an essay asking, can we stop ourselves from destroying the Chesapeake Bay's natural wonders?: "The Chesapeake was alive with crabs, sturgeon and rockfish. Oysters grew on oysters, in reefs so big they broke the surface of the water. The bay's bounty, which helped sustain Native Americans for centuries, seemed endless...Some fear that eventually the bay may be pushed beyond an invisible point of no return -- that even if we finally muster the will to mend our ways, we'll find that the crabs, oysters and underwater grasses are so depleted that they can't return. "

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Car-free DC: Kenilworth Gardens

This is the fifth article in a series on hikes in DC that can be reached by public transportation.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is located across the Anacostia River from the National Arboretum. It was started as a private garden in the 1880's, and was purchased by the Park Service in the 1930's. The park includes both local and imported plants, but features exotic water lilies. Different varieties of lily are in bloom from late May through early September. Morning is the best time to see them; the flowers close when the temperature rises above 89 degrees. In keeping with this, the park has unusual hours: 7 AM to 4 PM.

Even if the water lilies are from far away, the wildlife that graces the park are all locals seeking out the wetland habitat. The 14 acres of cultivated gardens are surrounded by 77 acres of marsh, which supports much diversity. In 1992, the Park Service began a major wetlands restoration that planted native plants such as cattail and wild rice along the river. A short boardwalk gives access to this marsh area; there is also a short path along the river. You may see waterfowl, dragonflies, and possibly beavers and muskrats.

The entrance to the Aquatic Gardens is at 1550 Anacostia Avenue between Douglas Street and Quarles Street. To get there by public transportation, take the Orange Line to the Deanwood station. Walking west from the station, use the pedestrian overpass to cross 295 (Kenilworth Avenue), then turn left (west) on Douglass Street and make a right on Anacostia Avenue to reach the gardens. This is a walk of less than a mile. To shorten the walk, take the V7 or V8 bus from the east side of the Deanwood station to the intersection of Kenilworth Avenue and Douglass Street, then walk to Anacostia Avenue.

Other info:

Dogs are allowed in the park, but must remain on leash. Please scoop your poop.

There isn't really space for a good bike ride in this park.

Do you have other tips on Kenilworth Gardens, or experiences to report? Make a comment!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Natural History Classes at USDA

Looking to learn about a specific subject in nature in more depth? Take your nature study to the next level with natural history classes jointly run by USDA and the Audubon Naturalist Society. We have taken other classes in this series and they have been very good. All classes meet at Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase. Three classes are being offered for this summer:

Insect Life
Wednesday evenings, July 1-Sept. 2
Learn to identify insects and discover their roles in the balance of nature. Study their histories, the ecologies of important insect forms, the necessity of insects in biotic communities and principal insect families of the Central Atlantic region. Field Trip Dates: July 18, August 8, and August 29, 2009.

Summer Wildflower Identification
Wednesday evenings, July 8-29
From milkweeds and morning glories to orchids and asters, summer presents a diverse array of wildflowers for study of plant family characteristics and ways to identify different species. Field trips to two scenic locations for summer wildflowers provide an opportunity for practice in the use of identification guides. Previous Spring Flower Identification class or similar course is recommended but not required. Field Trips: July 18 and July 25.

Tuesday evenings, June 30-July 28
Explore the genetic basis and investigate mechanisms of evolution, including founder effects, genetic drift, speciation, altruistic behavior, sexual selection, extinction and environmental factors. Review the intellectual background of Darwin's theories from Aristotle to Wallace and survey the literature of evolution from Darwin and Huxley to Mayr and E.O. Wilson. Topics are presented for the layperson and amateur naturalist, but a background in biology is helpful. Field Trip Date: July 18, 2009.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This Week in the Natural Capital: June 8-14

Each week, we will list opportunities to get outdoors, to learn about nature, and to do service. We'll list just brief teasers about each one. Please click through to the organization hosting each event for more details. Some events require prior registration; some charge a fee.

This week's highlight: If you work near the National Mall, pop over to the the US Botanical Garden after work on Monday evening. From 5:30 to 6:30 every Monday in June, there will be a free guided walk through the native plants in the outdoor National Garden, including folktales and stories surrounding the plants. This is a great opportunity to learn some of the plants you may see while you're out and about.


Sierra Club
Tue eve: Canoe & Kayak lessons at Fletcher's Boat House
Sat: Seneca Creek cleanup by canoe - service trip
Sat: Big Schloss/Great North Mountain (12 mi)
Sat: Halfmoon Mountain and Cherry Ridge (17 mi, carpool from Oakton Shopping Ctr)
Sat-Sun: Backpack Shenandoah National Park (14 mi)
Sun:St. Mary's River State Park (8-9 mi, carpool from metro)
Sun: Shenandoah NP - Neighbor Mtn/Jeremy's Run (14.5 mi, carpool from metro)
Sun: AT Snickers Gap to Buzzard Hill (10 mi, strenuous)

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club
Many cabin and trail crew work trips.
Tue: SNP - three peaks in Central District (17 mi)
Wed: W&OD Trail in Arlington (4-5 mi)
Sat: George Washington Nat'l Forest (18 mi)
Fri-Sun: Mid-State Trail/Dawson Cabin
Sun: AT Turners Gap to Thruston Griggs Trail (5.5-9.5 mi, bus pick-up from metro)

Audubon Naturalist Society
Thurs/Sat: 2-part class: Advanced Dragonfly Studies
Sun: AT, Hogback Mtn. to Thornton River (5.5 mi)

Northern Virginia Hiking Club
Sat: SNP - Nicholson Hollow (12 mi)
Sat: Canoe Shenandoah River (7 mi)
Sun: South Run Recreation Center (4.1 mi)
Sun: Social hike/happy hour on Four Mile Run (short)

Washington Women Outdoors
Sat: Learn to kayak, kayak to lunch
Sat: Bike ride from Chestertown to Rock Hall on the Chesapeake Bay/Eastern Shore (33 mi)
Sun: Beginner river/whitewater kayaking at Harpers Ferry

United States Botanical Garden
Mon eve: Tour of native plants in the National Garden
Sat-Sun: Botanical Drawing workshop

Center Hiking Club
Sat: Trout Pond in GWNF (10 mi, swimming; meets at Vienna Metro)
Sun: Rip Rap Hollow in SNP (10 mi, meets at Vienna Metro)

Capital Hiking Club
June schedule was not posted when we compiled this post; try the links to see if there's more info now.


Rock Creek Park
Fri: Creature Feature (all ages)
Fri: American Indian points (ages 9+)
Sat: Theodore Roosevelt hike (2 mi; ages 8+)
Sat: Milling, from prehistory to factories (all ages)

Did we miss something? Post it in the comments.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Avoiding Poison Ivy

On most of the hikes we lead, poison ivy is one of the very first plants we point out. And so we have been remiss in not doing the same here. Learn this plant. Do not touch it. It might give you a really miserable rash.

The two rules we learned as kids tell you most of what you need to know:
  • Leaves of three, let them be.
  • Don't be a dope and touch the hairy rope.
Leaves of three: Many people could pick out the plant on the right as poison ivy: leaves of three, sometimes with notches on the sides of the leaves, growing close to the ground. Some exceptions to the leaves-of-three rule: Blackberries and raspberries also have leaves of three, but they have thorns; poison ivy has smooth stems. Box elder (a type of maple) has very similar leaves of three, but each set of three grows directly opposite another set of three; in poison ivy, the leaves alternate down the stem. Confused? Just follow the more general rule: leaves of three, let them be.

The hairy rope: Poison ivy will seek out trees and climb up them. The vines are covered in hairs -- not just on the side of the vine attached to the tree, but all over. The vines can be pencil-thin when young, growing to several inches wide as they age. All of the leaves you see in the picture to the left are poison ivy, not tree leaves. All parts contain the chemical that gives you an itchy rash: the leaves, their stems, and the vine they're growing from. So don't be a dope and touch the hairy rope.

Other forms: Poison ivy can be a shape-shifting, sneaky plant. See, for example, the branch to the right, which was sticking out at least 6 feet from a tree. The entire branch is poison ivy, growing off a vine, not out of the tree trunk. The plants are also strong enough to send up shoots from the ground that can grow to at least 3 feet tall. In these cases, many people assume the poison ivy is a tree or a shrub. It may not be. Repeat after me: leaves of three, let them be.

Avoiding the rash: At this time of year, it's tempting to wear shorts, but you'll be much safer wearing a pair of lightweight pants, especially if you like to go off trail. If you think you might have brushed against poison ivy, wash it off with rubbing alcohol (it breaks up the oils) or soap and cool water. The sooner the better.

More info: Poison-ivy.org
Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac Information Center

Do you have other tips for recognizing (and avoiding) poison ivy? Please share!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

LOOK FOR: Serviceberries

serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Photo credit: dbarronoss
When people ask us what kind of flowering tree they should plant in their yard, Matt has lots of nuanced answers. I almost always say: a serviceberry. White flowers in the spring, tasty fruits for you and the birds in June, fall foliage, and often a nice multi-stemmed growing habit...what's not to love?

But whether you have a yard or not, now is the time to look for the berries. They're smaller than a typical cultivated blueberry, but they have the same sepals on the bottom. As they ripen, they turn from magenta to a dark purple. Serviceberries were widely used as a food by Native Americans, and George Washington planted several at Mount Vernon. But they don't ship well, so they've never taken off as a commercial fruit.

Serviceberries go by many names, and each name has a story. The story I have heard related to the "service" is that they bloom around the time the ground thaws in the spring, and so were associated with the funeral services that happened when graves could first be dug (other authors say it's a corruption of "sarvisberry," a reference to the European mountain ash). Around the same time of year, shad (a type of saltwater fish) come up rivers to spawn, and so serviceberry is also known as shadbush. The name we first learned for serviceberry was Juneberry; this may be more or less accurate depending on your latitude and elevation. Then there's the Latin genus name: Amelanchier, which comes from the French amelanche, an old word for a small apple.

There are several species within the genus; native to this area are canadensis, laevis, and arborea. But, William Cullina writes, "They freely interbreed where ranges overlap, creating a vast and notorious hybrid swarm that has driven sober botanists to drink. You really never know for sure what you are going to get." We're usually just happy to know we're looking at an Amelanchier.

serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Photo credit: ocean des etoiles
In the wild: Serviceberries are scattered through the woods here; they're an understory tree that's rarely more than 2o feet tall, but can reach 40 feet. It may be easier to find some of the ornamental plantings we're aware of: to start with, a few at the corner of Carroll and Laurel in Takoma Park; several large trees at the Lowell School on the edge of Rock Creek Park; and several in the 1600 block of Corcoran St. NW in DC. The densest population of serviceberries we have ever seen is in the Dolly Sods area of Monongahela National Forest, but they won't be ripe there until July or August.

In your yard: Yes, please. Local nurseries carry them in stock. Different species and cultivars have different characteristics (e.g., single stem vs. multi-stem), so be sure you know what you're getting if you have a preference. In general, serviceberries will flower and set fruit better with some sun, but they can also take shade.

Where else have you found serviceberries? Leave a comment if you're willing to give away your spot!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ghost Deer and Other Miracles of the Northwest Branch

We went out to the Rachel Carson Trail on the Northwest Branch (just upstream of Colesville Road) this weekend to get one last look at the mountain laurels before their flowers fade. We went in the evening, hoping to see more critters around sunset. But we never expected this.

First, the cool stuff we did expect: We checked on the wood thrush nest we discovered a week and a half ago, and one of the eggs had hatched, with one of the scrawniest, ugliest, most miraculous little baby birds I have ever seen. We didn't see the piliated woodpeckers at the nest we spotted last time, but further down the trail, we saw downy woodpeckers flying to and from their nest repeatedly, and we could hear the babies inside squawking. The tadpoles in the frog pond are getting their legs -- and we found some crawdads in there too. We stopped to watch the sunset on a hillside of mountain laurels. And after the sun was down, we walked back to a beaver dam to see if we could spot a beaver before the light completely faded.

There was no beaver. But on the way to the dam, we saw several groups of deer browsing. And, when we reached the dam, standing only a few feet from the trail, was an all white deer. In the fading light, the four deer it was with were harder and harder to see, but the ghost deer stood on the hillside, glowing, and looked at us for quite a while before it walked up and over the hill.

I'm reminded of the legend of White Buffalo Woman, who is supposed to return four times in the guise of a white buffalo and usher in an era of peace and understanding, if we're ready for it. Apparently there are also legends about white deer: for the Housatonic Indians, the killing of a white deer by a French military officer led to an era of wars, blights, and displacement. (I'm not sure the deer was really the problem, but the symbolism is potent).

A Chickasaw story follows the classic storyline of a father asking an impossible price (a white deer) before a suitor can wed his daughter. The suitor never returns, but the daughter never marries, because she sees a white deer every full moon in the smoke of her campfire.

But this was no campfire. It was right there in front of us. Right on the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia.