Sunday, February 28, 2010

Calendar: Some of our Favorite Places

This Sunday afternoon, local groups are taking walks at some of our favorite parks. Join one of them, find something else to do on our calendar, or venture out on your own...

Sugarloaf Mountain, MD
Photo credit: Shira Golding
Sugarloaf Mountain - As an Audubon Naturalist Society hike, this will be slow and information-packed. Their description:  "Explore the winter woods of Sugarloaf Mountain with the co-authors/illustrators of two books on this monadnock’s natural and cultural history. We’ll hike from 1-3 miles, depending on trail and weather conditions, stopping to identify woody plants along the way, including oak species, heath family members, and the summit’s noteworthy table mountain pines. We’ll keep an eye out for seasonal birds, including chickadees, kinglets, woodpeckers, and even tundra swans. Melanie will talk about the mountain’s history and geology. Tina will share tips on gathering field information for your art/nature journal. Our hike will include some uphill/downhill walking and, depending on trail conditions, a fairly steep ¼ mile hike up to the summit - all at a slow pace." Members: $23; Nonmembers: $32 Registration required.

Great Blue Heron over C&O Canal
Photo credit: Carly & Art
Carderock/Gold Mine Tract - If you're up for a longer hike, the Sierra Club is leading a walk along a beautiful stretch of the C&O Canal and surrounding areas. Their description:  "Easy 7-mile walk along C&O Towpath and the Gold Mine Tract to Great Falls Tavern, return via towpath. We will extend this hike ~1 mile to observe bald eagles and great blue heron feeding chicks - bring binoculars." See our calendar entry for meeting location and contact information for the trip leader.

Huntley Meadows
Photo credit: geopungo
Huntley Meadows - For a slow and flat walk, with a carpool from the Metro, check out the Center Hiking Club's trip to Huntley Meadows. They promise a "2-3 mile meander" through this beautiful park. See our calendar entry for info on how to meet up at Huntington Metro, and contact information for the trip leader.

For all three trips, it's wise to check with the trip leader and make sure everything's still on, given recent trail conditions. Even if the trails are clear of snow, expect mud. Happy spring!

Friday, February 26, 2010

LOOK FOR: Skunk Cabbage, First Flower of the Year

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year...There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.  -- Henry David Thoreau

skunk cabbage spadix inside the spathe
Photo credit: gareandkitty
So much of the diversity in the natural world is the result of plants and animals figuring out how to survive in territory where others can't. A few weeks ago, we talked about rock tripe and how it manages to pluck enough moisture and nutrients from the air that it can colonize rock surfaces. Today, we bring you skunk cabbage -- which not only survives in a wetland environment many plants find inhospitable, but manages to attract pollinators in late winter, when nothing else is flowering.

To attract those pollinators, skunk cabbage relies more on guile than on charm. The skunk cabbage flower is no sweet-smelling bull's eye like most of the flowers we'll see later in the year. In fact, it stinks. Somehow, this plant has figured out how to make the molecules cadaverine (normally put off by rotting flesh) and skatole (otherwise found in scat). And with them, it attracts flies and beetles seeking a meal.

skunk cabbage spathes
Photo credit: cyanocorax
The flowers continue their deception with a streaky reddish-purple spathe (the hood-shaped bract around the flowers) that is not unlike the color of carrion these insects are seeking. Inside that hood is a spadix made up of dozens of flowers, which get inadvertently pollinated by insects seeking a stinky bite to eat.

And skunk cabbage has one more trick up its sleeve (or should we say, spathe). Amazingly, it produces its own heat -- it may be 50 degrees or more above the ambient air temperature when the female flowers are in full bloom. This brings in more insects. For one thing, the warmth makes the stinky carrion smells more volatile. And insects might expect a piece of carrion to be warm, because of the heat released by the bacteria that are breaking it down.

skunk cabbage in snow
Photo credit: Hljod.Huskona
But some insects just seem to want a little vacation from winter, like the rest of us do. Skunk cabbage can be warm enough to melt snow and ice, which surely feels good to insects trying to make a living at this time of year. The flowering season for skunk cabbage can vary by the weather, but in the Washington DC area they can start flowering in January and may go as late as March.

So, if you've been feeling the melancholy of the season, or having trouble seeing the summer's a great time to start looking for flowers.

skunk cabbage flowers
Photo credit: Colin Purrington
In the wild: Skunk cabbage tends to grow in relatively flat areas that stay wet or muddy for most of the year. Look along small streams and seeps -- perhaps even growing in shallow water. There are many patches of skunk cabbage in Rock Creek Park and lots of other local parks. You may have noticed it in the summer with its large clumps of 2-foot-long leaves growing close to the ground. Right now you won't see much hint of the leaves -- you're just looking for the purplish spathes poking up from the ground.

In your yard: You won't have much luck growing skunk cabbage unless you've got a wetland in your backyard. If you do, go for it -- skunk cabbage are deer resistant, and that foliage is hard to beat.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Call - Feedback and Flowers by Friday

Thanks to all of you who have already filled out our reader survey. If you haven't yet, you've got until Friday. Why not take a minute now? As a little incentive, we'll select three responses at random to receive some seeds from some of our favorite native plants: cardinal flower, rose mallow, and Joe Pye weed. Start them in your yard, or scatter them in a wild place you visit.

We'll be back next week with the results.

Just answer the 7 questions below, and be sure to click the "done" button when you're done. (If you don't see a survey below, click here.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Natural Happenings: the Moon, George Washington, Bones, Frogs, and More

frog on the moon
Four random events for you this weekend, selected from our calendar:

This weekend will be the full moon. The full moon hikes at the National Arboretum are sold out -- sign up now for future months! There's also a full moon hike with the Sierra Club on the National Mall on Friday.

This week is also the actual birthday of George Washington. The Center Hiking Club is celebrating on Saturday with a 10-mile hike from Huntington Metro to Mount Vernon.

If your kids would rather look into dead animals than dead presidents, there's a program on animal bones at Huntley Meadows on Sunday. It's aimed at ages 9-12.

And, if they'd rather celebrate life, there's a program at Gulf Branch Nature Center called "Get Ready for Wood Frogs!" on Sunday. It's aimed at ages 5+.

Of course, there's lots more going on this week -- check out the calendar.

Mouse over for credits for the goofy photo; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

LOOK FOR: Maple Sap (and Pancakes)

maple sap coming out of spile
Photo credit: sighthound
Every spring, as temperatures rise, trees start to wake up from their dormancy. They've been storing energy  all winter as starch in their wood. But now, they want to use it to start producing leaves. And the way they get that energy to their leaves? Sap.

There's a particular window of opportunity for maple sap that is determined by temperature. When the temperature of the wood rises to the mid-30s, enzymes start to convert the stored starch into sugar. And once the tree warms up to about 45 degrees, the starch stops converting into sugar. In between, when days are relatively warm but the nights are relatively cold, pressure builds up in the tree, and the sap comes pouring out of any wounds -- particularly a wound that was put there intentionally to direct that sap into a bucket.

tasting maple sap from the spile
If you taste the sap when it comes out of a tree, it will be only very slightly sweet; the sap is usually less than 3 percent sugar. In contrast, maple syrup is typically around 66 percent sugar. To get from 3 to 66 percent, you have to boil off an enormous amount of water. A single tap may release 10 to 20 gallons of sap from a tree over the several weeks that the sap is running. But that 20 gallons of sap boils down to less than a gallon of syrup. No wonder it's so expensive!

maple sap bucket
Photo credit: Lolly Knit
Several local parks have demonstrations of making maple syrup -- browse our calendar for many of them. But perhaps most noteworthy is the one that's going on Feb 20-21 at Wheaton Regional Park (11 to 3 on both Saturday and Sunday). They'll have someone to explain the whole process and opportunities to taste both fresh sap and finished maple syrup, the latter ladled over little pancakes for your tasting pleasure. Weather permitting, they'll have a vat of sap boiling over the fire all weekend. We may see you there!

Do you have any maple syrup stories to share? Leave us a comment.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Car Free DC: Wheaton Regional Park

trees and water, Brookside GardensAt 536 acres, Wheaton Regional Park is one of the largest parks in Montgomery County, and probably the most diverse in recreational opportunities. On the western edge of the park is a humongous playground area, a 1915 carousel, and a kids' train. On the south side of the park, there is an athletic complex, an ice skating rink, and a half-acre dog park. To the north are stables and the beautiful Brookside Gardens (which deserves its own post).

And surrounded by all this recreational development? The woods. Wheaton Regional Park boasts 11 miles of trails, with about half being paved and half unpaved (see the park map). Those trails also link up to the Northwest Branch trail and the paved Sligo Creek trail, expanding your options far beyond the park.

Stop by Brookside Nature Center for some guaranteed critter sightings -- they usually have some box turtles and other reptiles and amphibians inside. They've also got interactive stations along the boardwalk that leads up to the nature center, including bird songs and smells for you to identify.

Brookside Maple Sugar Festival 2009The Nature Center also leads lots of activities. Coming up this weekend (Feb. 20-21): their Maple Sugar Festival (11:00-3:00 Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine). Start out with a movie and a short talk on the process of sap and making syrup at the nature center. Then head down the trail to a historic log cabin, where you can see trees that have been tapped, then watch the sap boiling over an open fire. Perhaps most importantly, you can compare the taste of homemade maple syrup against commercial brands on (silver-dollar-sized) pancakes. It's all free, and it's a great excuse to come check out some of the other things this great park has to offer.

people on trailHiking: Our favorite trails are the unpaved network of trails (purple on the park map) that link into the Brookside Nature Center. Pine Lake is also nice, and contrary to what the map shows, it is possible to walk all the way around it if you're willing to brave a little mud.

Bikes: Are allowed on the paved trails and some of the unpaved trails, but not the ones immediately around the Nature Center (this is noted on trail markers). There are sometimes large trees down in some of the trails; be prepared for the possibility that you may have to get your bike over a tree, or turn back around.

Dogs: Are allowed in most of the park, on leash, but are not allowed in Brookside Gardens.

Fishing: Is allowed in Pine Lake, with a Maryland fishing license.

Glenmont MetroGetting there by public transportation: Glenmont Metro is about a mile away from the entrance to Brookside Gardens and the playground entrance. There are bus routes that can get you even closer.

To the Brookside entrance (#2 on the park map): Catch Ride On bus 10 or Metrobus C8 -- they will take you to the intersection of Randolph Road and Heurich Road, about .2 miles from the Brookside entrance.

To the playground entrance (#1 on the park map): Glenmont Metro station is about a mile away. You can catch Metrobus Y8/9 to the intersection of Georgia and Shorefield, about .3 miles from the park entrance.

If you're going on a weekday, you can also catch a bus that will leave you on the eastern edge of the park. You want Ride On bus 31, which runs between Glenmont and Wheaton. It has stops along Kemp Mill Road at Randolph Road (near the horse stables, #5 on the park map) and also at Kemp Mill Forest Road (not shown on the map).

Brookside Nature Center     Wheaton Regional Park
1400 Glenallan Ave.      2000 Shorefield Road
Wheaton, MD 20902      Wheaton, MD 20902
301-962-1480     301-680-3803

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer's website.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Natural Happenings: Learn About Winter Trees, and Taste Them

winter tree
There are three, count them, THREE, winter tree identification workshops on our calendar this week. It was enough to get me to check when Arbor Day is! (Not until April.)

On Saturday morning, Cris Fleming will lead a tree ID workshop at the Audubon Naturalist Society's Woodend Sanctuary ($28-$39; registration required).

At 1:00 on Saturday, Karyn Molines is leading one at Jug Bay for the Maryland Native Plant Society. (Free - register by Friday).

And also at 1:00 on Saturday, Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of a book about DC's trees, is leading a winter tree tour on the grounds of the US Capitol for the US Botanic Garden ($8 for non-members; registration required).

You can't go wrong with any one of these walks -- all three trip leaders are experts and super-nice people as well.

On Sunday, there's an event for ages 6 to 8 at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington, called "Trees are Tree-mendous!" It looks like this session will include a little winter tree identification as well as learning about the importance of trees.

And then, there are the maples. As we've mentioned before, this weekend is the Maple Sugar Festival at Wheaton Regional Park (11 to 3 on both Saturday and Sunday). They'll have someone there to explain the whole process and opportunities to taste both fresh sap and finished maple syrup, the latter ladled over little pancakes for your tasting pleasure. Weather permitting, they'll have a vat of sap boiling over the fire all weekend. It's all free.

Also getting in on the sugaring action: Meadowside Nature Center has sessions on Wednesday and Friday, and Brookside Nature Center has one on Friday.

And, as always, there are plenty more activities on our calendar. We'll see you out there!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


We were going to tell you about skunk cabbage this week, because we saw them blooming about this time last year. But even with their ability to generate their own heat, it may take a little while for them to melt their way through all this snow. (More on that later.)

Our world is transformed. What have you seen? Leave us your stories, or links to your pictures, in the comments section!


squirrel tracks in snow

street in the snow

wren eating walnut in the snow


Also see:
Our pictures from last week of the Northwest Branch in the snow.
Lists of sledding hills in the DC area: Washington Family;

All pictures by the Natural Capital. Click on any of them to go to the photo's page on Flickr.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count

Great Backyard Bird Count buttonThe Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual event that enlists people to take a massive snapshot of where birds are in North America over the course of four days in February. In 2009, participants reported on a mind-boggling 11.5 million birds (check out the results for Washington, DC here). Scientists could never gather such a broad data set in such a short time without enlisting help from the general public.

It all works because they make it really easy to help. As little as 15 minutes of bird counting qualifies you to report your observations to the GBBC. You can literally observe in your backyard -- or you can go to a park and count birds there. And, perhaps most importantly, you don't have to be an expert to participate. Here's what you do:
  1. Look for birds for at least 15 minutes on February 13-16.

  2. Keep track of the species of birds that you see, and for each species, the largest number that you see together simultaneously. (You might find it helpful to use a checklist of the possible birds in our area. And if you see a bird that you can't identify, and you don't have a field guide, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a fantastic online guide.)

  3. Enter the information on the GBBC website. (Note that if you observe on more than one day, or in more than one place, you should enter the info separately. You'll also be asked to report the times that you were looking, the type of habitat, and some other basic information -- see this form.)
Once everyone has entered their results, the information is available online for researchers to get a sense of how bird populations are faring in general, how they react to specific weather patterns or larger climate changes, and how their migration patterns vary from year to year. These first-pass observations from the GBBC are usually followed up with more in-depth study, but the GBBC can help tell folks where to look.

Let's make sure there's plenty in the database on the Washington DC region -- go count some birds!

Photo credit: That nuthatch is by Christine Haines, via the GBBC.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Natural Happenings: Celebrate (or Ignore) Valentine's Day

heart treeValentine's Day is coming up on Sunday (already?!) and we have to say, the Montgomery County Parks have gotten on the ball with Valentine-themed events for this week. There are also lots of things scheduled on Sunday all over the metro area (and beyond) that aren't trying to make any kind of lovey-dovey claim on the day.

That is, of course, if they'll be on at all. Check with the organization sponsoring a trip or the individual trip leader to see whether they'll be venturing out into the snow this week. Especially if we get the extra snow now predicted for Wednesday!

That being said, if you're looking to escape all the hearts and chocolate in the company of others, take a look at the calendar while we detail the sappier options:

FOR KIDS: The festivities start on Wednesday at Brookside Nature Center with a "Valentine Trees" session for ages 3-5 ($4). In addition to a craft activity, this includes visiting the maple trees, whose sap may be running. (Is that where the word "sappy" comes from??)

On Friday, Meadowside Nature Center has a "Love Bugs" activity for ages 3-6 -- learning about bugs, and making buggy valentines ($5). (That's our kind of valentine!)

And on Sunday afternoon, Brookside Nature Center will be making all-ages "Valentine Treats for the Animals" that you can take home with you. ($2) 

heart treeFOR ADULTS: On Friday night, Locust Grove Nature Center has a session called "Wild Love": a presentation on "nature's unusual ways of expressing affection and finding lifelong love." It's adults only -- are they getting racy with the animal sex, or do they just not want kids running around? Come find out. ($5)

On Sunday, Brookside Nature Center is sponsoring a hike at Seneca Greenway Trail called "Hike With Your Honey." Locust Grove Nature Center is doing a similar couples hike to Sugarloaf Mountain ($10). "We'll see how nature acknowledges this day of love and create warm memories while doing so," they say.

Of course, you can do that on your own, too...or with the many group hikes that didn't think of capitalizing on the Valentine's theme.

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.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

LOOK FOR: Juncos, Here For Our Warm Winter

juncoAs we look forward to spring with great anticipation, it's good to remember the junco -- who thinks our winters are balmy. Juncos generally breed further north, coming down to the DC area from about October through mid-March to enjoy our milder weather. Based on reports of the bird from Virginia, early taxonomists gave it the Latin name Junco hyemalis, or winter junco. We have to wonder what Canadians think of that.

Actually, Junco hyemalis is more often referred to as the Dark-eyed Junco, perhaps as a nod to our friends in the north. In addition to their dark eyes, juncos have a white belly and a light-colored pinkish beak that stand out against their otherwise slate-grey body.  They've also got white in their outer tailfeathers, which you may notice especially when they're in flight. That white gives the junco some camouflage in the snow. They may not need it so much here, but their winter range includes places as cold as the Dakotas -- which still beats spending the winter in northern Saskatchewan.

juncos in snowWherever they are, juncos generally hang out on the ground -- they even nest on the ground most of the time (though not until they get to their summer homes). Their plumage is well designed for this habitat and often makes them hard to see. So, it can be helpful to keep an ear out for their songs and calls. They make several different trills and chipping noises. Examples of both are here and here.

In the wild: Look on especially on forest floors as you're hiking, but in the winter juncos can also be in fields and roadsides as they forage for food. Keep an eye out for them hopping around and pecking in the leaf litter, or flying into the underbrush to get away from you.

In your yard: About three quarters of a junco's diet comes from seeds. That makes it a good chance that you'll see them at a birdfeeder -- or, even more likely, foraging among the seeds that have spilled onto the ground. Without a birdfeeder, we've seen them foraging on the ground in our yard in the leaf litter, but not very frequently.

Any other tips for spotting juncos? Have you seen any recently? Let us know!

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you some pictures we took this morning along the Northwest Branch Trail off Colesville Road. It was such a treat to be out there early -- there was only one other set of human footprints, but lots of fox, deer, and rabbit tracks. In fact, Matt managed to see a rabbit before it hopped away from us.

Have you been having your own snow-based adventures? We'd love to hear about them!

Frozen NW Branch

NW Branch

river birch by NW branch


beaver dam

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Feedback Please!

Thanks to all of you who have already filled out our reader survey. If you haven't yet, would you please take a couple of minutes to give us some feedback? We want to make sure we're giving folks the types of information they want, and not wasting our time on stuff that noone cares about.

As a little incentive, we'll select three responses at random to receive some seeds from some of our favorite native plants: cardinal flower, rose mallow, and Joe Pye weed. Start them in your yard, or scatter them in a wild place you visit.

Just answer the 7 questions below, and be sure to click the "done" button when you're done. (If you don't see a survey below, click here.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Natural Happenings: Groundhogs, Maple Syrup, and Much More

After a month off, we're happy to announce that the Natural Capital master calendar of nature-oriented activities is back up and running, and chock-full for February. Some highlights for this week:

Groundhog Day is on Tuesday, February 2. Punxsutawney Phil has entered the digital era; you can sign up to get a text of his prognostication by texting "Groundhog" to 247365.

Brookside Nature Center is holding Groundhog Day puppet shows at 11:30 and 1:30 Tuesday ($2/person) and Meadowside Nature Center is making Groundhog Day crafts at 9:30 ($5/person). Ellanor C. Lawrence Park is waiting for the weekend, with an event Sunday afternoon at 1:00 ($5/person). Maybe if Punxsatawney Phil comes up with the wrong answer, they can try again then.

Locust Grove Nature Center is kicking off the maple sugaring season with a kids program this Thursday, Feb. 4. On Sunday, Feb. 7, Colvin Run Mill gets in on the action. (It may be a little early for sap to be running, but I'm sure they'll figure something out.) Browse the calendar for lots more sugaring events to come...particularly the free Maple Sugar Festival at Brookside Nature Center on Feb. 20-21. There will be pancakes.

And, as always, folks are leading a boatload of hikes in and around DC this weekend, from the C&O Canal to Shenandoah National Park. Check it out.

Photo credit: Eric Begin; a click takes you to the page on Flickr.