Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Natural Capital Is On Vacation

We're headed to Florida to visit family for a week, then to Costa Rica until January 13. Expect a lighter posting schedule, though we've queued up a few things for our absence.

Meanwhile, now's your chance to catch up on previous posts on the Natural Capital. The left sidebar lists some of our all-time most popular posts; up above you'll find a navigation bar that sorts posts into various categories.

Have any ideas for how to improve navigation on our site? Leave a comment and let us know.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

End-of-Year Giving: Local Conservation Organizations Need Your Help

Like many families, charitable organizations have taken a big hit during this recession. If you can afford it, local groups need your help now more than ever. As we've been reviewing our donation plans for the end of the year, we thought we'd pass along the local environmental organizations that get our support.

Potomac Conservancy - So many of the places we love are located along the Potomac River. The Potomac Conservancy is does hands-on work to address the river's many challenges through clean-ups and restoration projects, as well as fighting for the Potomac in the policy arena.

Anacostia Watershed Society - The Potomac may be ailing, but the Anacostia has historically been the Potomac's neglected cousin. AWS has been changing that, through restoration and protection. Their education efforts have gotten thousands of area kids out on the river.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation - As go our rivers, so goes the Chesapeake Bay. CBF has been working since 1967 to Save the Bay and its tributaries, which drain a 64,000 square mile watershed.

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club - PATC maintains not only our local stretch of the Appalachian Trail but many miles of other trails in our area (including trails in Rock Creek Park), a network of great cabins, and a full schedule of group hikes.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network - CCAN is a grassroots group that brings climate change home on the local level. We give them more than cash - Matt will be jumping in the Chesapeake Bay in January at their Polar Bear Plunge. Sponsor him here, or sign up to join him!

Sierra Club - At 1.3 million members, the Sierra Club is the largest environmental organization in the US. But it's a local organization too, involved in many very local issues. When you donate to the national Sierra Club, you automatically become a member of your local chapter. But you can also donate directly to your chapter in DC, Maryland, or Virginia.

The local Catalogue for Philanthropy has featured some of these groups and many others on its Featured Nature Nonprofits list.

Which groups do you like to support? Make your case in the comments.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Natural Happenings: Take a Break from the Holidays

There's nothing like spending time in nature to recharge from visiting relatives, rampant consumerism, and the 501st replay of "Deck the Halls." The schedule's a little light this week, what with the big holiday and all. Still, there's something on our calendar almost every day. Some highlights:

Tuesday night, there's jazz at the US Botanic Garden on the Mall from 6 to 8. If you haven't seen their cool "storybook garden" of fairy houses made of natural materials yet, you should.

Friday (also known as Christmas), the Center Hiking Club is leading an easy-to-moderate 8-mile hike from Tenleytown Metro, through Glover Archibald Park, along the C&O Canal and through Battery Kemble Park. If you like, stick around and have dinner in Rosslyn with the group.

Things pick back up on Saturday and Sunday with hikes to Manassas Battlefield, Reston Lakes, Tuckahoe State Park, and the Billy Goat Trail -- plus plenty of birding. Check it out.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Links: Solstice Edition

I've always thought of the solstice as the shortest day of the year. It is that, but astronomers actually determine the moment of solstice -- which, this year, will be Monday at 12:45 PM. It's the exact time out of the entire year when the Earth's axis is most inclined away from the sun. Enjoy your lunch!

Other things that caught our eye this week:
And a quote for your week:
Interest in the changing seasons is a much happier state of mind than being hopelessly in love with spring. -- Santayana

Thursday, December 17, 2009

LOOK FOR: Holly, a Symbol in Winter Long Before Christmas

 holly in snowDecking the halls with boughs of holly is a tradition that pre-dates Christmas by quite a while. Romans used holly as a decoration and a gift for Saturnalia, a festival that took place around the winter solstice. Similarly, the Celts would place boughs around their house in the winter for protection and good luck. These traditions were absorbed by the Christian church, and holly became a common Christmas decoration.

Although decorating with holly started as a European tradition, hollies are native to North America as well. Many species are quite different from our classic idea of a holly tree -- some lose their leaves, some have black berries. But Ilex opaca, known as American holly, has the distinctive spiny, evergreen leaves and bright red berries that have been treasured as a winter decoration for millenia. Early colonists noticed them, too, and holly became an entrenched symbol of Christmas in North America.

cedar waxwing eating a holly berryHolly berries are important food for birds, but poisonous to humans. Birds tend to wait a while into the winter before they start eating them -- repeated freezing and thawing can soften them up and make them more palatable. Meanwhile, we get to enjoy their decoration in the woods. The trees are dioecious -- meaning each tree is either male or female. At this time of year, if you spot a holly without berries, there could be several explanations: 1) it's a male; 2) it's a female without a male nearby; 3) its berries have been completely devoured relatively early in the season, or 4) it doesn't get enough light to set fruit.

In the wild: Ilex opaca is scattered throughout the woods of the Washington, DC region. They can grow up to 40 feet, but it's more common to see shorter trees. Now is a great time to spot them, because the evergreen leaves will stand out when other trees have lost their foliage.

In your yard:  Holly is a great addition to a yard: for winter interest, habitat value, and as an evergreen screen. They prefer acidic soil. European and asian species are also sold in nurseries; ask for the native Ilex opaca. Compared to imported species, the native should have the most wildlife value -- although birds will eat the berries of most species, insects that have evolved relationships with the leaves of the native may not be able to survive off imports. And those insects serve as more bird food, throughout the year. 

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The 110th Annual Christmas Bird Count Has Begun!

blue jay bird countFor over 100 years, volunteers have been braving the cold to spend a December day outside counting birds.  It's the longest continually running wildlife-monitoring program in the world. Their data has become an invaluable resource for conservationists wanting to track  bird populations, and an example for other groups looking to conduct "citizen science."

It all began at the turn of the 20th century when Frank Chapman, an officer in the then-new Audubon Society, proposed an alternative to the Christmas "Side Hunt." He was concerned that this tradition of holiday hunting competitions (in which revelers chose sides and sought to shoot more birds and other animals than the other team) was harming bird populations. At Chapman's suggestion, the 1900 Christmas Bird Census took place in 25 locations, with 27 participants.

From that humble beginning, the Christmas Bird Count has expanded to over 2,000 events and 55,000 participants. Each local group picks a date between December 14 and January 5 to do their count, following a specific methodology developed by the Audubon Society. Birders of all levels are welcome; beginning birders are placed in a group with at least one experienced birdwatcher. Counts often culminate in a "tally rally" at the end of the day that involves food and drink with other counters, the modern equivalent of the bragging party that surely accompanied the original "side hunts."

Interested in participating? The Washington, DC, Bird Count will be this Saturday, December 19. Contact Larry Cartwright at or Kathy Wilson at the Audubon Naturalist Society, 301-652-9188, to sign up and get your instructions.

Other local counts (and their organizers) include:

Sunday, December 20:
  • Jug Bay (Sam Droege, 301-390-7759,
  • Seneca (Mark England, 240-252-4218,
  • Port Tobacco (Gwen Brewer, 301-843-3524,
Sunday, December 27:
  • C&O Canal near Whites Ferry in Central Loudon County (Joe Coleman, 540-554-2542)
  • Nokesville (Kim Hosen, 703-499-4954,
Sunday, January 3:
  • Patuxent River (Andy Brown, 410-535-5327,
  • Fort Belvoir (MD - Carol Ghebelian, 301-753-6754. VA - Kurt Gaskill, 703-768-2172 or
  • Sugarloaf Mountain (Janet Millenson, 301-983-9337,
For counts elsewhere, see the list on the Audubon website, or check in with a local group -- some seem to have counts that aren't on the main list yet.

Can't make it to one of these events? Stay tuned for the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 12-15!

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Natural Happenings: Nature-Themed Light Displays

With long winter nights, we all enjoy a little sparkle. Christmas is the focus of most light displays at this time of year, but there are at least two impressive shows whose focus is primarily nature, not holidays.
Any others we should know about?

snowflakes at Brookside Garden of LightsBrookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD offers their Garden of Lights from 5:30 to 9:00 most nights through January 3 (not December 24 or 25).This huge display has hundreds of flowers, trees, animals (including a persimmon-eating giraffe and a walk-through caterpillar tunnel), topped by a delightful rainbow with rain clouds and lightning. This video from Washington Gardener gives a feel for part of the display. They've also got a toy train running through the conservatory, and live music every night in the visitor's center. Although this is a walk-through display, admission is per-car: $15/car Mon-Thur and $20/car Fri-Sun (cash only).

pandas at ZooLightsAt the National Zoo, ZooLights not only offers thousands of sparkling lights in animal-themed displays, but also keeps some of the animal houses open into the evening, and offers puppet shows and other entertainment. Their website has a slideshow from the 2008 display. Starting Friday, ZooLights will be open from 6:00 to 8:30 most nights, through January 2 (not December 24, 25, and 31). Tickets are $8 per person at the Zoo ($5 for FONZ members) or you can order ahead through Ticketmaster for an additional $3 per ticket. Free for military families on many nights.

As always, we've got a full calendar of group hikes and other activities going on this week in parks around the DC area. 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, December 11, 2009

Links: Woody Woodpecker Edition

The kids at Locust Grove Nature Center are watching Woody Woodpecker this morning, and so can you:

Woody's supposed to be a piliated woodpecker. But the cartoonists take quite a bit of artistic license. What do they get right, and where do they go horribly wrong? Watch a little and see what you think.

Other things that have caught our eye lately:
  • Geminid Meteor Shower to peak this weekend.
  • Rain gardens make a local Habitat for Humanity building site greener.
  • Join Sierra's trails forum to enter this month's photo contest -- or just check out the COLD photos.
  • In Forest Kindergarten, kids spend three hours each day outside regardless of the weather.
  • Birds can throw their voices in the direction of a predator.
  • Ever Seen a Black Hiker Before? Great video from Funny or Die, via Outdoor Afro.
  • A wonderful collection of tree writing (including a piece from the Natural Capital) at Festival of the Trees.
  • Nice little video from local author Mary Amato on how mushrooms are like the writing process.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

LOOK FOR: Your Breath

As residents of the DC area know well, warm air can hold more moisture than cold air can -- thus our humid summer days and (relatively) dry winter days. Your breath is warm and moist, just like a 98 degree summer day in DC. When that warm, moist breath hits the much cooler air of winter, the water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets.

There's not a specific temperature at which you can see your breath -- it depends on how much moisture is already in the air. On more humid days, you'll be able to see your breath at a warmer temperature.

Adults often think of seeing our breath as proof of just how miserably cold it is outside. But there are other ways to think of it. Just hang out with kids who still think it's exciting to see their breath (remember?). Or take the opportunity to reflect on the way your breath is connected to all other beings on the planet. In The Lost Gospel of the Earth, Tom Hayden writes:
We are all breathing the same air our ancestors did, the same air as those with whom we think we share nothing in common. We breathe through nature. The air we breathe is generated and maintained by trillions of active organisms, from bacteria and termites to flowers and redwoods. I breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide; the trees in my yard give oxygen to us and receive the carbon dioxide...We all breathe individually, but there is only one breathing process going on. When I look at photos of the thin cradle of atmosphere around the planet earth, I am seeing the breath of life.
Look for your breath, indeed.

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bookshelf: Noteworthy Books About Nature in 2009

Whether you're looking for a holiday present, or just looking for a good book to read, here are some books on nature and the environment that caught our attention in 2009.

What's the best nature-oriented book you read this year? Leave us a comment!

Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators
by William Stolzenburg (paperback, 304 pages)

Stolzenburg examines the critical role of predators in this highly-praised book. Predators are "keystone species" essential to biodiversity, and disasters can happen when they are removed from an ecosystem. Included among the examples in this book are the prolific white-tailed deer of Eastern forests, who are stripping undergrowth and destroying flora in our area because there are no longer wolves and cougars to keep them in check.

The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild
by Craig Childs (paperback, 352 pages)

In this book of first-person essays, Childs tells of his many encounters with animals, from mountain lions and grizzly bears to hummingbirds and red-spotted toads. Publisher's Weekly calls the essays "hauntingly beautiful": "Seeking entrée into animal societies, he interprets messages left in marks on the ground and in scents on leaves and trees, and communicates with animals directly using their own language of stares, gestures, postures, sounds, scents and gaits."

Built by Animals: The Natural History of Animal Architecture
by Mike Hansell (paperback, 280 pages)

This book explores the complex structures that animals build, including bird nests, butterfly pupae, caddis larvae traps, beaver dams, and more.  Hansell asks, how do creatures with such small brains achieve these impressive feats of engineering? The answers are explored through the results of scientific investigations on social structures, the biochemistry and mechanics of materials, and the impact of these structures on the larger ecosystem.

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World
by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman (hardcover, 368 pages)

This book chronicles Hempton's travels from Seattle to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to find natural silence: a spot with "no audible human noise intrusions of any kind for a minimum of 15 minutes." Along the way, he discusses topics such as the decline in songbird populations, the effects of noise stress on both animals and humans, and the basics of audio science. He argues: "If a loud noise... can affect many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100 percent noise-free condition, will likewise affect many square miles around it.".

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Ed. by Bill McKibben (hardcover, 900 pages)

In his introduction to this anthology, McKibben argues that "environmental writing is America's most distinctive contribution to the world's literature." He goes on to present the work of 101 American writers chronologically, from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir to contemporary writers including Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, and Paul Hawken. At 900 pages, there's a lot to chew on here.

Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day
by Diane Ackerman (hardcover, 256 pages)

Ackerman launches each essay in this collection with the fresh start of a sunrise and launches into explorations of nature, mythology, and life -- especially life, and the need to live in the moment. A review in the Washington Post called it "glorious prose, studded with arresting phrases and breathtakingly beautiful images," with "sections that employ the precision of a naturalist and scientist to convey the wonder of a poet."

Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
by Steve Nicholls (hardcover, 536 pages)

"We have diminished nature far more than most people know." writes Nicholls. In a book he refers to as a "time machine," he sets out to describe just how abundant the natural world was in America before European settlement. From vast herds of buffalo, to flocks of carrier pigeons that blackened the sky, to fish so thick in the water that observers said they could have crossed a river without touching bottom, Nicholls draws on the accounts of explorers and settlers to document all that has been lost since those early Europeans first arrived.

If you're looking to read these books yourself, consider conserving resources by checking your local library for a copy. If you're gift shopping, we'll get a small percentage of the purchase price if you purchase from Amazon through one of the links in this post.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Natural Happenings: Kids Activities This Week

Sure, we've got lots of hikes on our calendar. But we don't often highlight the numerous events for kids that we put up there as well.

Monday: Make holiday crafts at Huntley Meadows in the afternoon. (Ages 6-8, $5, registration required.)

Tuesday: The Museum of Natural History has a program every week in their soil exhibit called "Dig It!" with hands-on activities for kids. 

Wednesday. Huntley Meadows has another holiday craft session, this one for ages 3-5, in the morning. The planetarium at Rock Creek Park has an afternoon program aimed at ages 4+ (no registration required), and Long Branch Nature Center has an after-school activity to learn about snow and make snow globes (ages 6-10, $5, registration required).

Thursday. Huntley Meadows has another holiday craft session (ages 3-5) in the morning. Thursday afternoon in  Rock Creek Park, there's a short hike aimed at kids to look at the forest in winter (ages 5+). Or stop by Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington, where they'll be having "Christmas for the Animals," with stories for ages 5-9 and decorating and outdoor tree with treats for the birds.

Friday. Actually, one event really inspired this week's whole theme. I loved Woody Woodpecker as a kid. On Friday morning at 9:30, at the Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda, they'll show Woody Woodpecker cartoons, to be followed by a short hike. Maybe you'll even spot a pileated woodpecker. Advance registration is required - it's $2. (ages 2+)

On Friday night, there will be a walk at Locust Grove to listen for owls (ages 6+). Or stop by Long Branch Nature Center to look for flying squirrels (all ages, advance registration required, $5).

Saturday. Saturday morning, head to Locust Grove to learn about birds and make a birdfeeder (ages 6+). Or head to the Audubon Naturalist Society for a craft activity making holiday decorations that "highlight the colors, textures, and smells of nature"  (Ages 5+, $15-18). Registration is required for both events.

Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, a Rock Creek Park ranger will lead a hike to Milkhouse Ford (ages 7+).

Both Saturday and Sunday. The Rock Creek Park planetarium will have multiple programs on both Saturday and Sunday. And the Long Branch Nature Center program on flying squirrels repeats on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

Perhaps most enticing for parents, on both Saturday and Sunday, parents can drop their kids (ages 4-14) at Long Branch from noon to 4:00 for nature-themed activities, for just $20. Advance registration is required.

Of course there are lots of hikes and programs aimed at adults on our weekly calendar. We'll see you out there!

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is The Giving Tree an Environmentalist Book?

I loved Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree as a kid. I loved reading it to my little brother when I was in middle school. I took it with me to college. And it has survived every weeding-out of my bookshelf ever since. It's been sitting on my shelf, mostly untouched, for years. But I've found myself reading it to toddlers several times in the last few months. And it has me deeply conflicted.

For those of you who need a refresher, the basic premise of the story is this: a tree and a little boy are best friends. As the boy grows up, he's no longer interested in playing with the tree. Trying to make the boy happy, the tree gives more and more of herself (her branches to build a house, her trunk to build a boat), until the boy (now a man) has chopped her down to a stump. In the end, the boy comes back as an old man, needing a place to sit and rest -- and then, finally, both he and the tree are really happy again.

Reading this book as an adult, it's clear to me that Silverstein is trying to convey the sense that material things don't make you happy. Seeking wealth and belongings just keeps the boy coming back for more. The only times he is really satisfied are when he's playing or sitting with the tree, enjoying their friendship. That is a good environmental message: more relationships, less stuff.

I do think that message may get through to kids a little. At least on a more simplistic level, one four year old remembered it to me as "the book about the boy and the tree that are best friends." That was probably my first take-away message as well: you can befriend the natural world. Another good message for kids.

And yet, I can't get over this: the boy cuts down an entire tree. And the tree asks him to do it, thinking she'll make him happy. I can't help worrying that this plants somewhere in kids' minds the idea that it might be ok to cut down trees. Not good. (Feminists also note stereotypical gender roles: the tree is female, reinforcing the idea that women give everything and men just take. Also bad.)

My solution? At least at the toddler level, I've been keeping a running commentary. "Oh, how sad! The tree doesn't have any branches anymore!" "It seems like that didn't really make the boy happy, did it?" That kind of thing. Maybe that will let me keep reading one of my favorite books from childhood.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

LOOK FOR: Persimmon, Fruit of the Gods

Persimmon fruits hanging from the tree (Diospyros virginiana)I have a very early (and not entirely pleasant) childhood memory of getting pelted with persimmons as my mother shook them out of a tree in the woods near our house. Sometime in my twenties I overcame this trauma, and now I am likely to be the one shaking them town. Their scientific name says it all -- Diospyros virginiana, the Virginian food of the gods.

Persimmons have come up with an ingenious method for protecting themselves until they're fully ripe: they are horribly, mouth-puckeringly astringent when immature. There is a common saying (among folks who eat persimmons, at least) that a frost makes persimmons lose this astringency. This is close, but not exactly true: persimmons ripen up around the time of our first frost, but the two events aren't related. We've found edible persimmons before a frost, and horribly astringent ones after frost.

Persimmons, mushy and ready to eatThe real rule of thumb is that you only want to eat fruit that are gooey-soft and falling off the tree. Give the trunk a gentle shake and collect the fruits that fall. (Beware any fruit that are still attached to a twig when they fall: they weren't actually ready to come down yet.) Before you eat a whole fruit, take a small bite and wait a minute to make sure it's not going to make your mouth feel like it's been sucked dry: the puckering power of the persimmon is definitely related to how much you've eaten. You can take home close-but-not-quite-ripe fruits and let them continue ripening indoors for a week or two. But don't let all this talk of astringency scare you off: when they're good, they're really, really good.

Persimmon bark (Diospyros virginiana)At this time of year, you have two ways of identifying a persimmon tree: by bark, and by fruit. The bark is dark grey and chunky, broken up into squares. Learning to recognize it is key, because the fruits are usually well above eye level. When you see the bark, look up: the fruits are round and orange, about the size of a golf ball, hanging on the tree long after it has lost its leaves. Each fruit has a distinctive four-part sepal on top. There's nothing I can think of that you could confuse them with. So, shake away!

In the wild: Persimmons need sun to set a lot of fruit. You'll often see them on the edges of woods. We know of a few on the C&O Canal between Great Falls Tavern and the falls, and many along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia north of Colesville Road. And we always keep an eye out for fruit along Eastern Avenue at Jecquie Park in Takoma, where there's a tall persimmon right next to the sidewalk.

In your yard: Persimmons can grow in a wide range of soils. You'll need sun, and room for a tree that will eventually be 20 feet or more. Edible Landscaping has a selection of saplings grafted from trees found in the wild with unusually large fruits. They appear to have also grafted them to be self-fertile, which is important, because wild persimmons have male and female trees.

Do you have a persimmon story, or a favorite spot where you find persimmons? Leave us a comment!

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rainy Day Nature: the National Aquarium in DC

fish at the National AquariumDid you know there's an aquarium just off the mall, on 14th St.? Sure, it's nothing near the size of the Baltimore Aquarium. But it's closer, cheaper, and much less crowded.

The 250+ species at the National Aquarium are organized by ecosystem, highlighting the National Marine Sanctuaries of the US, major freshwater rivers, and the Amazon River. Highlights include alligators, beautiful tropical fish, pirahnas, some small sharks, poison dart frogs, and an invasive snakehead. Feedings are at 2:00 every day.

alligator at the National AquariumThe National Aquarium started in 1878 in some lakes by the Washington Monument. It moved around the Mall a few times until landing in the basement of the Commerce Building (then home of the Bureau of Fisheries) in 1932. In 1982, they lost their federal funding, and there have been some lean years. But in 2003, the aquarium affiliated with the Baltimore Aquarium, and they've since undergone a multi-million-dollar face-lift. It's definitely an improvement. So if you haven't been in a while, it might be worth another visit.

baby loggerhead at the National Aquarium
Hours: daily 9 AM to 5 PM (last admission at 4:30), except Christmas and Thanksgiving Day

$7 for ages 11 and up
$3 ages 2-10
$6 seniors and military

Public Transportation: Federal Triangle is the closest metro station.

National Aquarium
14th and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230

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