Friday, October 30, 2009

First Freezes and Heat Islands

As gardeners, we've always been quite aware of the national maps of hardiness zones and first frost dates. On these maps, the DC metro area is generally lumped with the surrounding regions, which have an average first frost date sometime between October 15 and October 31.

But downtown DC actually tends to freeze even later. In fact, we were sad to note that we lost almost a week off the end of our growing season just by moving from Dupont Circle to Silver Spring. This map, taken from The Washington Star Garden Book: The Encyclopedia of Gardening for the Chesapeake & Potomac Region by Deborah R. Fialka, shows a very localized picture of the average first freeze (I suspect these dates would be shifted later using more recent data):

map of first freeze dates in Washington DC metro area
What's going on in this picture? Two things: topography and urbanity. The area by National Airport, where the Potomac and the Anacostia meet, is the lowest-lying area in Washington, DC, and it freezes later than anywhere else in the metro area. The other oval on the map corresponds roughly with the Rock Creek valley.

Other than these river valleys, though, there's something else going on.  There are circles radiating out from DC not just because of altitude, but also because there is a higher density of buildings and pavement in downtown DC. And those create what's known as an "urban heat island," trapping heat. It's enough to change the weather.

Folks worried about global warming think one way to slow down climate change is to address some of the factors that create urban heat islands. For one, street trees can keep the sun off of pavement, so that it doesn't heat up as much. Likewise, green roofs and highly reflective roofs can keep buildings from absorbing so much heat.

In the meantime, you can observe the subtle differences in nature that stem from these temperature differences. Do the trees drop their leaves a little later in one place vs. another?  Do flowers last longer in the fall or come up earlier in the spring? Keep an eye out, and let us know what you see.

Thanks to Flickr user DCTropics for the map!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

LOOK FOR: Cedar Waxwings

Cedar waxwings are gorgeous birds. Most of their plumage is muted brownish-grey. This doesn't sound so interesting, I know, but they're so silky-looking that their latin name, Bombycilla, comes from the Greek for silk, bombux. To add a little intrigue, their slight crest and black face mask can give them a Donnie Brasco-meets-Batman look. And then, if you can get close enough, you'll see a striking yellow bar on the bottom of their tail, and (on most birds) a few bright red dots of wax on the wings.

Cedar waxwings rely on small fruits and berries for over 80 percent of their diet, though they supplement their spring and summer diet with insects when fruits are scarce. They travel in flocks, and a flock will often completely devour the berries of a tree before moving on to their next spot.

In fact, these birds have quite a reputation for gluttony. Audubon once noted that waxwings “gorge themselves to such excess as sometimes to be unable to fly...I have seen some which, although wounded and confined to a cage, have eaten of apples until suffocation deprived them of life.” Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that their courtship rituals revolve around food: the male brings a berry or an insect to a female, and they pass it back and forth several times before the female finally eats it.

We usually hear cedar waxwings before we see them. Their calls are a soft, high-pitched whistle; in a flock, the noise can be fairly continuous. This video from YouTube has a good example:

In the wild: Cedar waxwings like forest edges. Their numbers are actually increasing, possibly because suburban landscapes offer lots of edge-like habitat. Keep an ear out for their whistling, and an eye out for large flocks of birds eating tree fruits.

In your yard: The best way to attract cedar waxwings is to plant native trees and shrubs that bear small fruits, including dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, hawthorn, cherry, winterberry, holly, mulberry, chokecherry, and hackberry. Research has found that more than half of cedar waxwing nests are in either maple or cedar trees.

More info:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Cedar Waxwing
Waxwing Lyrical: Flying with Icarus and Daedelus
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Week of Links: Butterfly Ear Edition

The natural world never ceases to amaze me. Butterflies have ears on their wings?!? Who knew? Well, apparently entomologists have known since 1912.

Some other things we found interesting this week:

And a quote of the week:

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts." - Rachel Carson

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Finding People to Hike With: Meetups in the DC Area

The founder of has said he was inspired by the book Bowling Alone, by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, about the decline of community in America. "People were staying in front of their computers, DVD players and TVs more and more, and losing personal connections," and Meetup wanted to "do something positive in the world by having people reconnect—not with people in chatrooms across the globe—but in their own communities." We know of Meetup mostly as a political organizing tool. But there are thousands of people in the DC area who use it just to meet folks who want to do things together -- including going hiking.

DC Metropolitan Hikers has over 3,000 members and has held over 300 events in the last 3 years. They do lots of local hikes, trips to Shenandoah, and also long-distance travel. They frequently get over 30 people for local trips on the weekend.

The MD.DC.VA Hiking Group is another extremely active Meetup with over 2,000 members and multiple activities every week, regularly getting a dozen or more people for each event on the weekends. Hikes are rated for pace and/or difficulty, so you can find one that meets your desires and abilities.

Outdoors for Beginners is a group with over 2,000 members aimed at folks without much outdoors experience. "But this is not an outdoors-for-dummies group," they say. "We try to keep it challenging, but without making it impossible. We make sure it will be fun, not intimidating...On our own we could learn to hike, to ski, or snorkel, but how much fun is that? It is always better when we do it together."

The Nature Lovers Meetup has about 1,300 members and has held nearly 150 events over the last two and a half years, and they can get turnout from 5 to 30 people. Events include hiking, camping, volunteer activities, and even some book discussions. "Meet other outdoors enthusiasts who are environmentally conscious and spiritually inclined," they say.

Young Adventurers and Company is a meetup aimed at the under-40 crowd who "love the thrill of the outdoors." They regularly have a dozen or more participants at their events, and activities have included skiing, tubing, and other adventures as well as plain old hiking.

Wandering Soles is a group organized by the head of the Sierra Club Potomac Regional Outings, and their events are often cross-listed. They don't require RSVPs, but they still show at least a dozen people saying they're coming to many events. Events are primarily day hikes and have ratings from easy to difficult.

Mid-Atlantic Backpackers and the Fairfax Camping Group are organized specifically for folks who want to go on overnight trips. Mid-Atlantic Backpackers trips are mostly in the mountains and as far away as Tennessee; the Fairfax group stays a little closer to home.

The Northern VA Walking Group takes easy-to-moderate, dog- and kid-friendly walks in places like Huntley Meadows, Manassas Battlefield, Arlington Cemetery, and the C&O Canal, as well as some that are farther away. They've got about 470 members, and get a nice-sized turnout of 7 to 15 people for many of their walks. 

The 20s/30s Hiking/Camping Group just started in September and already has over 120 members. "I started this group to bring together young, fun, outgoing people in the MD/DC/VA area that are active and like to be outdoors," says the organizer.

The Primitive Earth Skills group is a small, brand new group that works together on primitive living/survival skills such as edible wild plants, shelter construction, flint-knapping, basket-weaving, and light-impact camping. The organizer is an instructor at Ancestral Knowledge, but the group is aimed at folks who already have some skills and want to practice them together.

Even newer is the Maryland LGBT Nature Lovers Group. "This group is for nature loving, tree hugging, dirt worshipping lgbt people and anyone who wants to be in the presence of good company doing fun stuff in the outdoors! Lesbian moms, gay dads and all lgbt families & children are welcome to be part of our adventures."

The $3 Charity Hikers are a small, but worthy, group. They collect $3 from each hiker, to be donated to charity.

You can join any of these groups and get email reminders about their events. From time to time, we'll try to add some of these Meetup hikes to our own calendar of nature events in the DC area.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over to see which group they came from; a click takes you to that Meetup's page.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Natural Happenings: Full Moon, Devils, and More...

Our calendar of events for this week is a little lighter than usual. Not only is Saturday Halloween, but clocks turn back an hour on Sunday -- I'm guessing the 8 AM birdwatching trips won't be too popular this Sunday morning. Instead, our weekend picks:

How about kicking off the Halloween weekend with a nighttime hike along the C&O Canal? The moon will be nearly full. Meet the Capital Hiking Club in the parking lot across from Old Angler's Inn at 8:30 p.m. on Friday night and see what spooky things you will come across. Or just enjoy the moonlight on the water.

On Saturday, the Center Hiking Club is going to the aptly-named Little Devil's Stairs. There's a long, steep climb at the beginning, but that same steepness contributes to a beautiful hike. It's 8 miles total. To complete the Halloween aura, the trip description also notes that you'll pass by a graveyard on the hike. $2 for non-members. Meets 9 am at the Vienna Metro. Contact: Russ, (703) 860-6735.

If these don't appeal, there are several other hikes and events on the calendar. Now get outside -- we'll see you out there!

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Friday, October 23, 2009

We Are All Smith Islanders: The Local Effects of Climate Change

In 2004 the Chesapeake Climate Action Network created the film "We Are All Smith Islanders" to put a local face on climate change. The movie shows poignant examples of how global warming is already changing the Chesapeake Bay region. Through both erosion and sea level rise, Smith Island, an inhabited island in the Bay reachable only by boat, has already lost a notable amount of land. If the sea level continues to rise as predicted, Smith Island will entirely disappear.

Tomorrow, Saturday, October 24, people all over the world will be staging events calling for action to reach 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (we're already at 390 PPM). "They’ll be school children planting 350 trees in Bangladesh," says the invite, "scientists hanging banners saying 350 on the statues on Easter Island, 350 scuba divers diving underwater at the Great Barrier Reef." The main event in DC kicks off at Malcolm X Park at noon, with a march down to the White House "mid-afternoon," wrapping up at 5:00.

Need inspiration? Watch this movie. We are all Smith Islanders.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

LOOK FOR: Wild Grapes

I had a book of Aesop's Fables as a child, and the story I remember best is the story of the Fox and the Grapes. There's a big, juicy bunch of grapes hanging from a vine, and a fox is trying as hard as he can to get to them, but just can't quite reach. When he gives up, the fox says, "I don't want those grapes anyway -- they're probably sour!"

Sounds like the wild grapes of ancient Greece weren't too different from our own -- very tempting but very sour. Our native grapes are also very small. But we like them anyway...and like the fox in Aesop's fable, we'll go to some lengths to get some every fall.

Before you try to eat wild grapes, be confident in your identification. The leaves can be quite varied in size and shape, but generally have roughly toothed edges. The leaves may have three distinct lobes, or they may just hint at them. The vines climb with distinctive, curly tendrils that wrap around whatever they can for support. As they get older, the vines shed their bark, giving them a shredded texture. It's not uncommon to see thick, peeling grapevines reaching far up into the canopy -- they've kept pace with the tree they're hanging from, making sure they can get sun for their leaves even as the tree puts on new growth.

But you're looking for fruit that's within reach, which will likely be on younger vines. Clusters of wild grapes look something like miniature clusters of cultivated grapes. When ripe, they are dark purple, but (like cultivated grapes) they may have a blush of yeast on them that makes them look a little lighter. They have multiple crunchy seeds which take up a lot of the fruit. But the fruit that is there has an intense flavor.

There are several other small, purple fruits in the fall. Make sure you rule these out -- none of them are edible, and some are quite poisonous: virginia creeper (which has leaves made of five leaflets, and red stems on the fruit), Canada moonseed (whose leaves are a similar shape to grapes, but smooth, not toothed; each fruit has a single, moon-shaped seed), porcelain berry (also has grape-like leaves, but the berries are blue and white before ripening, not green like unripe grapes), and pokeweed (not a vine, but it can be mixed into thickets that also include grapes; fruits branch off a very straight stalk that's often reddish).

Enough warnings. We've taught 3-year-olds to reliably recognize wild can do it too.

In the wild: Wild grapes need some sunlight to fruit well but they also like the support of trees. They generally thrive where there has been a disturbance in the forest canopy, or on the trees on the edge of a forest. There are tons of grapes out there that you have no hope of reaching, but every once in a while, a younger vine will have some fruit low enough for you to get a taste.

In your yard: Wild grapes are a lot easier to grow than cultivated grapes, in the sense that they don't get as many pests and diseases. But the vines can grow up to 75 feet long. They'll do best in full sun, on a trellis. You can also try a more naturalistic planting, as long as there's something for the tendrils to wrap around for support.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Week of Links: Breathing Easy Edition

This week I have had the pleasure of reflecting on how there's nothing like getting over a head cold to make you appreciate being able to breathe through your nose. For that matter, there's nothing like last weekend to make you appreciate the weather we're supposed to have today in DC. Make sure you at least step outside for a few minutes at lunchtime, if you can't play hooky and look at leaves today.

Some links we've found interesting lately:
And a quote for the week:
 "The day I see a leaf is a marvel of a day."  ~ Kenneth Patton

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Places to Look for Fall Foliage in the DC Area

Lots of people from DC drive out to Shenandoah National Park to see the fall foliage. But after a long drive, you can end up stuck in traffic in the park with all the other leaf-peepers. Not to mention the traffic on I-66. Why not stay closer to home, spend less time in the car, and have more time in the crisp air, crunching leaves underfoot? Just keep an eye on the forecast -- it may rain again on Saturday.

Here are a few of our favorite local spots:

Rock Creek Park. The Ridge Trail gives more panoramic views, but we especially like to see the fall colors reflected in the water from the Valley Trail and Beach Drive. Take advantage of the weekend road closures on Beach Drive.

The Potomac Gorge - Virginia Side. The deep valley carved by the Potomac gives the opportunity to see relatively dramatic bluffs any time of the year. There will be trees across the river just about anywhere you go on the Virginia side -- the waterfront in Maryland is all part of the C&O Canal park. There are many parks along this stretch of the river, including Riverbend Park, Great Falls, Turkey Run, Scott's Run, Fort Marcy, and Gulf Branch Nature Center.

C&O Canal. Whether you're in Georgetown, up at Great Falls, or anywhere in between, the foliage along the canal is lovely and offers another chance for catching reflections in the water. In many places you'll also have access to dramatic views of the bluffs across the river.

The Arboretum. The wide variety of trees at the Arboretum means there's something colorful going on here throughout the fall. Check out Fern Valley for the local color.(Thanks to John Beetham of A DC Birding Blog for reminding us of this option!)

And speaking of intentionally planted trees, what about your neighborhood? Within a few blocks of our house are probably more gorgeous maples than in all of Rock Creek park.

There are so many other options. The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine both have their own lists. Where do you go for fall foliage in the DC area? Leave us a comment!

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Natural Happenings: Peeping, Rallying, Building, Boating, and More...

Our calendar of events for this week is chock full of trips to the mountains for hiking and leaf-peeping. It's hard to pick among them, so we'll let you browse them for yourself. A few things we find interesting this weekend:

Saturday has been designated as a world-wide day of action on climate change. There are dozens of activities around the DC area, but the main event is a rally at Malcolm X Park and march to the White House.

Looking for something even more hands-on? There are several work trips with the PATC, including an overnight weekend trip with the Cadillac Crew to work on the AT, a Saturday trip with the Flying McCleods, work on a shelter on the Tuscarora Trail, and Saturday work on trails at Manassas Battlefield. On Sunday, PATC will lead a 7-mile hike on a new section of the Tuscarora Trail, followed by a celebration of the work that all the trail crews do at 2:30 pm at the Basore's Ridge Shelter. See our calendar for more info on all of these events.

If you want a work day closer to home, check out the park-related events at Volunteer Fairfax on Saturday morning. Participating parks include Annandale, Fred Crabtree, Huntley Meadows, Nottoway, and Woodglen Lake. Many of these events include pulling invasive plants, to give the native plants room to grow.

On Sunday at 2:00, you have one last chance to go on a pontoon boat tour at Patuxent River Park. Participants will learn about the wetlands, wildlife, research projects, management issues and 10,000 years of human history in the area. Tours run only through October, so this is your last chance for the year. Reservations required; call the park office at 301-627-6074. Even if the pontoon boat fills up, it's gorgeous out there when the leaves are changing.

Now get outside -- we'll see you out there!

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ten Relatively Easy Nature-Themed Halloween Costumes

I love Halloween, but I've always had a hard time coming up with Halloween costumes. (Procrastination doesn't help.) And so, as a public service, I offer you some relatively simple, nature-themed costumes.

1. Ladybug (or any other beetle). Wear all black. Cut a thick piece of cardboard into the shape of a shell, and paint it red with black spots (or the appropriate colors for whatever type of beetle you want to be). Or, use a saucer-shaped snow sled as your shell. For either, attach black straps to go over each arm like a backpack. Make antennae out of black pipe cleaners and attach them to a headband. See also this bug.

2. Bat. Cut the top of a black umbrella in half. You will have two semi-circular pieces of black fabric that will be your wings. To a black hoodie, attach the straight edge of each wing so that it runs along the underside of the sleeve and down the side of the torso. (You can use black duct tape, safety pins, or sew them on.) Make ears and attach to the hood. Or, make a bat hat.

3. Bee. Wear a yellow sweatshirt and black pants. Use black electrical tape to make stripes on the sweatshirt. Make antennae with a headband and some pipe cleaners. Use a pair of fairy wings. Or see this site for a more sewing-intensive, but probably better, costume.  (For a team costume, a second person could be a beekeeper: put netting on a wide-brimmed hat and wear khaki clothing.)

4. The Four Seasons. Go as a group of four, or pick your favorite season. Cover brown clothes in autumn leaves, black or blue with homemade snowflakes, light green with fake flowers for spring, and wear yellow clothes with sunglasses for summer. (I was once in a group that added a fifth person in a tuxedo with a conducting baton: Verdi.)

5. Turtle. Wear green or brown clothes. Cut two large ovals out of heavy cardboard. The larger one will be the back of the shell, and the smaller one will be the front (the turtle's underside). Paint to look like a turtle shell. Attach the shells to each other with two sets of straps: one that goes over your shoulders, and one that connects them at the waist. This costume is especially adorable on children who are still crawling. Ninja eye scarf optional.

6. Butterfly. Wear clothes of one color, and strap on some contrasting wings like a backpack. (Buy a pair of wings, see this template, or make your own template for your favorite butterfly.) Make some antennae out of pipe cleaners and a headband.

7. Mother Nature. Wear a flowing skirt and shirt. Attach to your clothes and hair a variety of fake flowers, leaves, and vines. Pick up a fake bird at a craft store and perch it on your shoulder or in your hair. And so on.

8. Deer. Wear all brown. You may know someone that already has an antler headband from Christmas, or you can make cardboard antlers and attach them to a headband. A partner could dress as a hunter, or as your best friend Flower, the skunk.

9. Skunk. Wear a black hoodie and black pants; attach a strip of white fake fur that goes from the edge of the hood, all the way down your back, and onto a tail made of black fake fur. Make some ears out of wire and more black fur, and attach them to the head of the sweatshirt.

10. Mushroom. Use a hat with a very large brim as the base for your "cap." Make it into a mushroom shape with newspaper or bubblewrap. Then use a glue gun to attach fabric to cover the whole thing -- one color of fabric for the top, and another for the bottom. Wear clothes of a single color for the stalk. Option: put spots on the top of the mushroom and draw gills on the bottom. We're totally going to use this one the next time we get invited to a Halloween party. (And, we may have to get someone who plays video games to tell us about Mushroom Men.)

Do you have ideas for another nature-themed costume? Do tell! Leave us a comment below.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

LOOK FOR: Acorns of many shapes and sizes - an identification guide for 12 common oak species

There are 90 species of oak in North America. Their acorns are an important food for a broad diversity of wildlife, from insects to deer. And historically, they were a staple food for Native Americans in this area.

Oaks are generally split into two groups: "red" and "white." Red oaks have leaves whose lobes come to a point, with a little bristle on each point. Their acorns take two years to mature, so even as they're dropping this year's crop, they've already got half-grown acorns for next year. White oaks have leaves with more rounded lobes, typically lighter-colored bark, and their acorns take only one year to mature. But even within those two groups, there's a wonderful diversity of acorn shapes and sizes. Below are a selection of some of the acorns you might see in the greater DC area. (We've tried to line them up so they're to scale.) How many can you find in the wild?

Red Oaks

Northern Red Oak
Quercus rubra
Southern red oak
Quercus falcata
Black oak
Quercus velutina

Willow Oak
Quercus phellos
Pin oak
Quercus palustris
Blackjack oak
Quercus marilandica

White Oaks

White oak
Quercus alba
Overcup oak
Quercus lyrata
Swamp white oak
Quercus bicolor

Chestnut oak
Quercus prinus
Post oak
Quercus stellata
Bur oak
Quercus macrocarpa

One way to really get familiar with acorns is to collect them for Growing Native. The Potomac Conservancy will use them to replant buffer zones along the Potomac and its tributaries. This improves water quality and provides important wildlife habitat. You can donate collected acorns until October 26 in Virginia and October 31 in  Maryland and DC.

All photos by Steve Hurst at the amazing USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database, except the post oak acorns, which are from the magnificent old tree here at The Natural Capital headquarters.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Week of Links: Meadows Cabin Edition

We're headed out to Syria, VA tomorrow to stay at the PATC's Meadows Cabin. This is one of our favorites in the PATC system and it's become an annual trip with a group of friends to go during the weekend of the Graves Mountain Apple Harvest Festival. Last year, it was warm enough that the toddlers took a bath in a wheelbarrow outside. This year, the forecast is for highs in the 40s and rain. But we'll have a fantastic view from the outhouse, and eat apples, wild grapes, and spicebush berries from the yard.

Some things we found interesting this week:
  • It's not too late to answer our question: Where Do You Go For Fall Foliage?
  • NWF: Landscaping can be for the birds:
  • Disturbing story, & MD is on the list: Some Coal Plants Cleanse the Air at the Expense of Waterways (NYTimes)
  • New take on nobel in econ: Ostrom an expert on sustainable ag
  • New Park coming soon to Columbia Heights -
  • Wonderful WaPo article about 'My Side of the Mountain' - I loved that book.
  • Ride WMATA or like reducing congestion? Sign CSG's petition for more support from local gov'ts
  • Seeing the monarchs in Michoacan was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Monarch migration
  • John Brown 150th Commemoration next weekend at Harpers Ferry:
  • Someday I will bike the 334 mi from Gtown to Pittsburgh: Great Allegheny Passage rail trail in USA Today
  • Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire is coming to PBS on 10/28 - preview here:
  • Very cool - the Solar Decathlon will be connected to PEPCO's grid. The homes will contribute more energy than they consume.
  • This would be so cool if it works - Making Algae Biodiesel from Chesapeake Bay Pollution
  • Great Kojo Show about the role of nature in healing
  • RIP Ben Ali. Great picture of him in front of Ben's Chili Bowl @ReadysetDC
Quote of the week:
"A naturalist in a hurry never learns anything of value." Gerald Durrell

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Getting Kids Into Nature: Great Websites

We've had lofty ambitions here at the Natural Capital for lots of posts about fun activities to do with kids outdoors. But, why reinvent the wheel? Here's a list of great websites and blogs that already have a ton of resources for fun with kids and nature.
  1. Nature Rocks is a website full of activities that you can search by the amount of time you have available and the age of your child. They're organized into themes like explore, create, and play. Check it out -- you're sure to find good ideas here. Sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and the Children and Nature Network.
  2. Green Hour is a program of the National Wildlife Federation aimed at getting kids outside for an hour a day of unstructured play. They, too, have a searchable list of activities, as well as a blog. I liked their recent post on how to work in outdoor time during the busy school year.
  3. Ranger Rick is another project of the National Wildlife Foundation, and it was my favorite magazine as a kid. Their website posts seasonal activities, crafts, and book recommendations.
  4. The Children and Nature Network was created "to encourage and support the people and organizations working nationally and internationally to reconnect children with nature." Check out their guide for starting a kids' nature club.
  5. Take a Child Outside is the home of "Take a Child Outside Week," September 24—September 30, 2009. They have a simpler list of activities but some of them are quite sweet.
  6. Let's Go Outside is a website sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They have an elaborate, kid-oriented website called Neighborhood Explorers where kids can earn "patches" as they complete projects, answer trivia questions and play games. Action projects include building bird houses, planting native plants, and adopting new habits, such as recycling and conserving water and electricity.
  7. Sanborn Western Camps has a PDF of 101 Nature Activities with some fantastic ideas. Some are group activities, but many could be done with one or two kids. A 100 inch hike? Love it. (Thanks to the Grass Stain Guru for passing this one along!)
  8. Where the Other You Lives is a campaign by the Ad Council aimed at getting tweens outdoors. (Work warning: lots of audio on this site!) They've got a few on-line activities, and a PDF book of outdoor activities, here.
  9. Wild Zones is a website dedicated to resources for designing outdoor play spaces that encourage unstructured play in nature: building forts, making nature art, playing in the mud -- things that may not be encouraged by a typical park. They offer a PDF toolkit that describes the concept and gives ideas for how communities can create Wild Zones.
  10. The Grass Stain Guru is of the philosophy that  childhood should be "Messy. Muddy. Slimy. Silly. And most of all, joyful...[and] spent outdoors as much as possible." In addition to writing about all that, she has a cute "Mystery Critter" post on Saturdays for kids (ok, I play too).
  11. Play Outdoors has a blog they call "the Campfire" which "aims to provide inspirational tips, tricks and motivation to get your kids and the whole family outside playing together." They first caught my attention with this post on sunscreen, which applies to adults as well as kids.
  12. The Outdoor Parent is "a collection of surfers, climbers and skiers who have embarked the greatest adventure -- parenthood -- and lived to tell about it." This is a relatively new blog but I really like their tone so far -- and loved their post on teaching girls to pee outdoors.
  13. Mama Joules blogs about science and kids, and much of her science involves the outdoors. I especially liked her post this summer on cricket ears. Which, apparently, are located on cricket knees. Who knew?
  14. Similarly, the Growing With Science Blog includes lots of hands-on nature study. See this post on nature journals, or their fun "bug of the week" series.
  15. Nature for Kids is a blog by two parents with three kids under the age of six. (How do they find the time?!) They have quite a few good posts for fun outdoor activities with young children. Recent activities have included shadow drawings, footprints, and "binoculars" made of toilet paper tubes
  16. Birdfreak (a bird conservation blog) has some excellent guides to taking kids birding.
That should keep you busy for a while! But who did we miss? Feel free to post more resources in the comments.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Natural Happenings: Waterfalls, Trees, Stars, Music, and more...

Our calendar of events for this week is chock full of activities, from "Woodpeckers and Wine" to butterfly and dragonfly identification. Our picks for this week:

We just wrote about Great Falls last week - so it seems appropriate to point out that there's a workday there on Saturday, sponsored by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (the work crew calls themselves "the Acme Treadway Company"). Meet on the Virginia side at the parking area by the visitor's center at 9:30 AM. Bring your lunch and water (at least 3 quarts or liters). Picnic afterwards in the park. Contact Info : Don White Email :

Also on Saturday, we were amused to learn that there will be a Tree Hugger Day celebration from noon to 3 pm at the Jefferson Memorial.  This is a family-oriented event with music, crafts, guided tree walks, free trees, and a Group Tree Hug around a grove of cherry trees along the Tidal Basin.

Saturday night, the Capital Astronomers will be back at Rock Creek Park at 7:30. They're advertising it as a chance to see the Orionid meteors, but in general, you'll also be able to view stars, planets, and other night sky phenomena with telescopes. Hope for clear skies. In Picnic Grove 13.

On Sunday, we're thinking of checking out the Potomac River Jam, a celebration of the Potomac and the C&O Canal sponsored by the Potomac Conservancy. Three morning walks: photography (8 AM) and birds (9 AM), and tree identification and medicinal plants (10 AM), followed by local musicians starting at 11:30. Canoe trips over to Minnie’s Island at 9, noon, and 2:15. Face-painting and other kids activities, from 8:00am to 4:00pm. All events are free. At the River Center at Lockhouse 8, 7906 Riverside Ave, Cabin John, MD.

Now get outside -- we'll see you out there!

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Where Do You Go For Fall Foliage?

As the leaves slowly start to turn, we're working on a post about great places in the DC area to look at fall foliage. In the meantime, we want to know: where do you go to look at fall foliage?

Leave us a comment below with your favorite spot(s). Answers can fall into three categories:
a) within the Washington, DC metro area,
b) within day-trip distance of DC, and
c) anywhere else in the world.

Answers in categories A and B may be used as fodder for future posts in The Natural Capital!

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

LOOK FOR: Bright Red Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper is one of the first signs of fall in the DC area. You should notice its leaves (each made of five leaflets, in a palmate form, alternating up the vine) turning red soon.

The scientific name for Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, literally means "five-leaved virgin-ivy." (Perhaps starting the name with partheno, or virgin, was an old-school pun on the plant's common name.) Some people call it five-leaved ivy, though it's in a different family from the other "ivies" we know, and certainly won't make you itch like poison ivy (which, you'll remember, has three leaves).

But Virginia creeper and poison ivy do share the characteristic of turning red early in the fall. Most plants turn color simply because they're giving up on photosynthesis for the year, and they're losing the chlorophyll that turns their leaves green. But these vines have evolved to turn red a little earlier than they really need to. It turns out that they're colorful around the time that their berries are ripe, which serves as a loud announcement to birds to come and check them out. The extra advantage in seed spreading must be worth trading off for the extra bit of energy the plants might gain by photosynthesizing for a little longer.

In the wild: Virginia creeper grows throughout the DC metro area, and can live in many different environments -- sunny and shady, wet and dry. If you learn to spot it this fall while it's red, perhaps you'll it notice next year while it's green.

In your yard: Virginia creeper is considered fairly aggressive -- it can take over an area if you don't stay on top of it. But this characteristic can make it a good solution for an area that needs covering -- an ugly fence, a wall, or as William Cullina suggests, "an old rusty Chevy out in the yard that is becoming an eyesore."

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Week of Links: Blame it on Mungo Edition

As we surf the web we tend to pass along little tidbits via our Twitter account. Here, for your surfing pleasure, are the links we found interesting in the last week. We blame this post on Mungo Says Bah!, because he just did the same thing. And because we like his name.
And a quote for the week:
"People in the city...have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not."
~Georgia O'Keeffe

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Great Falls

For spectacular scenery within an easy drive of Washington, DC, it's hard to beat Great Falls. The wide, flat Potomac River drops 76 feet over the course of a mile, culminating in a series of rapids and 20-foot waterfalls that you can view from overlooks on either side of the river. The river then enters deep, narrow Mather Gorge, with rocky cliffs on both sides. This is about as dramatic as it gets around here.

The Maryland side, which is managed as part of the C&O Canal, is the side we usually go to -- mostly because it's easier to get there from where we live. From the C&O Canal towpath, you'll walk along a boardwalk, across a bridge that crosses some rapids that are impressive in their own right, then along a boardwalk over Olmstead Island to a view of the falls.

Away from the falls, you can walk for miles along the canal, as well as along several more challenging, rocky trails along the river. (See the park map and trails description.) We'll often stop by the falls, then hike the Billy Goat A trail and come back on the canal, which is a loop of about 4 miles (see this description). April through October, you can ride on a boat in the canal as it goes through the locks of the canal. Uphill from the canal, there are trails through the woods to an old gold mine -- it's not much to look at, but has an interesting history.

The Virginia side, which is managed as part of the GW Parkway, is the more heavily visited side. The park offers three overlooks of the falls here, and they involve a shorter walk than on the Maryland side -- one is just a 2 minute walk from the visitor center.

Beyond the overlooks, you'll find miles of hiking on this side of the river as well. (See the park map.) To the north, you can walk to Riverbend Park; to the south, you can catch the Difficult Run Trail, which follows that river for 15 miles through Fairfax County. See this description of a 5-mile hike that combines a stretch of Difficult Run, the path along the Potomac as it passes through Mather Gorge, the overlooks of the falls, and a return through the middle of the park on the Swamp Trail.

Entrance fee: $5/car on either side. Your receipt is good for 3 days and will get you in to both parks. Folks often park outside the parks and hike in. On the Maryland side, it's a little over 2 miles from Angler's Inn to the falls. On the Virginia side, you can park where Difficult Run crosses Georgetown Pike, also a little over 2 miles from the falls. But why not give $5 to your National Parks? They could use the cash.

Dogs: In Maryland, dogs are not allowed on the trail to the falls on the Maryland side or the Billy Goat A trail, but are allowed on the canal and other hiking trails. In Virginia, dogs are allowed throughout the parkIn both parks, dogs must be on leash. And please scoop their poop, to avoid polluting the water.

Bikes: In Maryland, bikes aren't allowed on any of the hiking paths. But you can ride to your heart's content on the C&O Canal -- you'll just need tires that can take the rough path. In Virginia, five miles of trails are open to bikes: the Old Carriage Road, Ridge, and Difficult Run trails.  Biking is not permitted on the River, Patowmack Canal, Mine Run, or Matildaville Trails.

Climbing: The cliffs along the river are a popular rock climbing destination. This site has descriptions of the routes on the Virginia side.

Kayaking: Not for the faint of heart, or inexperienced kayakers -- this is serious whitewater. These sites have descriptions of the rapids and their difficulty.

Swimming is prohibited. Several people have died swimming in this section of the Potomac.

Fishing is allowed, with the appropriate state license.

Great Falls Tavern (Maryland Side)
11710 MacArthur Blvd.
Potomac, MD 20854
Great Falls Park (Virginia Side)
9200 Old Dominion Dr.
McLean, VA 22102
Do you have a favorite spot or trail at Great Falls, or a story to tell? Leave us a comment!

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Natural Happenings: Mushrooms, Acorns, Green Festival, and More...

Our calendar of events for this week is chock full of activities, from sailing with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Our picks for this week:

If you go to one meeting of the Mycological Association of Washington, Tuesday evening might be a good pick -- it's their annual mushroom tasting. If you're not a member, you'll have to join at the door for $20 ($30/household), which will also cover your admission. In return you'll get to taste and vote on a roomful of mushrooms, cooked in every way you could imagine, by people who are really, really into fungi.

If you can stand to be inside the DC Convention Center this weekend, we love the Green Festival: 2 days of amazing speakers (Joel Salatin, Cornel West, Lester Brown, Amy Goodman, and many, many others) and an overwhelming array of exhibitors, including many local conservation groups, green home improvement, good food, and other green goods. Also, music, yoga, and a kids area. $15, but $10 if you bike or ride public transit; free if you're under 18 or if you volunteer to help out.

If you'd rather be outside (and who could blame you?), there are dozens of choices on our calendar. We'll just point out that you're running out of time to collect acorns and other tree seeds for Growing Native. They're holding two collection events on Saturday: from 10-2 at Arlington National Cemetery and from 10-12 at Bear Branch Nature Center in Westminster, MD. For more information or to register, contact Deanna Tricarico, Outreach Coordinator, at or (301) 608-1188 x204.

Now get outside -- we'll see you out there!

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