May 24, 2016

Arlington County's Nature Centers, Part 2 - Gulf Branch Nature Center Preview

We haven't yet visited Gulf Branch Nature Center but we plan to do so on June 12th, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the nature center. The center will host a birthday party on that day during the afternoon. The Central Library's current exhibit is of the nature center. When we visited the library last weekend I took several photos of the exhibit which I share below. Coincidentally, while keeping a recent appointment I read an article about the origins of Gulf Branch in the May/June 2016 issue of Arlington Magazine.

The wildlife preserve was a country house known as "White Pines" between 1937 and 1944. In 1966, its second owner sold the property to Arlington County and in 1963 the county matched federal funds to purchase additional land to expand the conservation area to 40 acres. I am looking forward to our visit this nature center next month.

Interested in nature centers? Read about our walk in Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

May 10, 2016

Species in My Yard, Part Two - Three Bird Nests

There is so much wildness in our yard in Arlington County, VA! Here's an excerpt from a recent email I sent to a friend.
[We] saw a warbler or a finch recently. There's a robin's nest in a redbud growing in the sidewalk. House sparrows are using the bird house. Unfortunately two clutches of cardinal eggs were eaten; the nest was in our lilac. There's a bat box on our chimney; we've seen them once, flying on a Saturday night. There are oh, so many rabbits. Friends had a resident peregrine for a while. These same friends also had visual access to a fox den beneath their neighbors' shed.
I wrote about the cardinals, rabbits, bats, and other Species in My Yard a couple of weeks ago, but I am going to spotlight the now abandoned cardinal nest today along with two other nests. One is a house sparrow nest inside a nest box and the other is a robin nest in a redbud growing in the sidewalk.

A pair of cardinals made a nest in the lilac shrub growing on the south side of our house. I discovered the nest only after seeing the male cardinal fly out of the shrub. The female was well camouflaged within the interior of the lilac as well as on the nest itself. Two clutches of eggs were eaten by a yet unidentified animal. The nest has been abandoned.

On top of the swing set in our yard is a nest box. It's old and in poor shape. A month ago or so, my son and I opened the side flap and saw a thick duff of old nest material. However, starting last week, we have observed a pair of house sparrows flying and out of the box and the male house sparrow is behaving territorially. This morning, he chased a bird out of the box! It all happened so quickly, I was not able to identify the interloper. Since the nest appears to be active, I did not want to lift the side flap to look inside the box. Curious about the state of the interior of the box, I used a selfie stick and my phone to take some photographs. It was difficult to get a clear shot of the inside of the box.

Simultaneously, a pair of robins have constructed a nest in one of the redbuds lining our street. I also used a selfie and a phone to investigate this nest. The nest is disappointingly empty. Notice the mud on the upper portion of the nest? The female typically "reinforces the nest using soft mud gathered from worm castings to make a heavy, sturdy nest." I have observed robins pulling worms out of the grass strip in the sidewalk so I know worm castings are plentiful. Hopefully the damp mud indicates that the next is still under construction, and that egg laying will follow soon.

Are you watching nests where you live?

May 3, 2016

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

I have a goal for my family which I know we won't achieve before we leave Arlington. I would like for us to visit almost every NOVA regional park. I wrote about our walk at Potomac Overlook Regional Park and the park's nature center. We have been to Upton Hill Regional Park many times. If you follow me on Instagram, you may recall photos I posted there last fall.

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Almost two months ago we visited our third regional park, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. On our way we saw signs for Wolf Trap National Park and exited the highway, at my urging. What we saw were lots of signs indicating that the park was a performance space only. Later online research yielded information about a two trails, one of which takes hikers through wetlands and woodlands. We didn't know this at the time so we got back unto the highway and continued on to Meadowlark.

We were not expecting an entry fee but it was a reasonable total of $10 for our family of four. Once we walked out of the visitor's center we entered the Fairy Garden which was another surprise. At that point we were skeptical about our choice of park but once down the path in sight of the lake our outlook changed.

We spent a couple of hours at the park. Each area we explored was a favorite for a different reason. You can get to the water's edge of Lake Gardiner. The koi and turtles in Lake Caroline provided seemingly endless fascination.

My favorites were the trail through the Young Forest and the combined Lake Lina - Virginia Native Wetlands - Bog Garden zone. The Korean Bell Garden was another high point as I enjoy Korean green and black teas. I have a Periscope tour of the Historic Tree Grove. One thing I wished we had time to see was the Virginia Native Tree Trail.

If you are in or around Vienna, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is worth a visit and I imagine the seasonal plantings and perennial borders are stunning now, in the spring, and later, in the summer.

Apr 28, 2016

National Park Week Family Adventures

Did you know that last week was National Park Week? If you didn't, mark your calendar now for next year. On April 15, 2016, President Barack Obama declared April 16 to 24 as National Park Week. Admission is free to all national parks during park week. (This first year of National Park Week coincides with the National Park Service Centennial.) I don't know the actual number of national parks; I have read numbers ranging from 58 to 400. We visited two local national parks -- the National Mall and Memorial Parks and Shenandoah National Park. These two parks bookend our national park continuum; the former represents more urbanized parks and the latter wilder landscapes. (We have visited the White House grounds, also known as President's Park, several times this year, so technically we have been to three of our local  national parks.)

We drove into DC on a bright sunny Saturday morning. We parked on Constitution Avenue across from the Washington Monument. Our first stop was the National World War II Memorial. The fountain is exuberant but also calming. Another feature of the memorial that I was drawn to is the Freedom Wall which is decorated with 4,058 stars each of which represents 100 Americans who died during the war. From there we walked along the northern side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool towards the Lincoln's statue. The pool is lined with an allee of mostly mature trees including some very old, large American elms.

I walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the first time that day. The memorial is beautiful. The temperature and light quality in the interior makes the space feel like a refuge even among the crush of visitors. The edges of the interior are less crowded and contain the Speeches (the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address) and the Murals ("The Angel of Truth" and reunification).

At this point we had a decision to make. Should we visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? We were scheduled to tour the West Wing and thought we only had time for one of these memorials. Fortunately for us, we were able to visit both. I had seen photos of the Korean War memorial in the winter and was struck by the loads of snow on the statues. The memorial is striking in person and on a spring day. The expressions as captured by the sculptor Frank Gaylord are very realistic. The faces are haunting. Researching the memorial after our visit, I learned that the statues represent the ethnicity of the troops who served in that war.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is actually composed of four parts of which the Memorial Wall is probably the most well known component. We did not see The Three Servicemen, the Vietnam Women's Memorial, or the In Memory Plaque for those who died after service in the war. We walked the wall from west to east. You start walking at one tapered end and end at the other tapered end both of which are well below knee height. The height of the apex of the wall is 10.1 feet. Walking the wall elicited a sinking feeling as you literally descend below ground. There is almost a sense of release when you emerge on the other side.

One week after our National Mall excursion we visited Shenandoah National Park. This was my first* trip to Shenandoah and it is something I have wanted to do since college. In my freshman class there was a girl named Shenandoah. We left Arlington in the rain but well before we arrived at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, the rain had stopped, though it drizzled for a short time on our hike.

The visitor center was a big hit. There is a animal artifact display table with a prominent sign that reads, "Please Touch." My son asked why visitors were encouraged to touch the display and I answered that it was a way for us to better understand and appreciate the wildlife that live in the park.

We asked the park ranger to recommend a hike given the following factors: (1) It might rain; (2) It was our first visit to the park; (3) We were a party with two young children, one of whom is a toddler and would be hiking during her nap time. He recommended hiking the Fox Hollow Trail [pdf] specifically walking to see Snead Farm. We started our hike east of the picnic area. It was a slightly hilly walk which led to foot dragging and calls for piggy pack rides but also running downhill. We saw a blue bird which I thought was a Bluebird but it might have been an Indigo Bunting. We also observed two Eastern red-spotted newts. I was the only interested in walking around the Snead Farm barn. (You may have seen my walkabout on Periscope. If you use the app, my handle is @locaecologist.)

The park was abloom with dogwoods. The American dogwood is the state flower of Virginia and the Shenandoah floral logo resembles a dogwood flower (well, the flowers surrounded by white bracts).

Did you observe National Park Week? If you didn't which national parks are on your bucket list?

*Shenandoah was officially established as a national park in 1935. Initially, the State of Virginia wanted to ban African Americans from entering the park but was limited to segregated facilities in the park by the Department of the Interior. By 1950, all park facilities were fully integrated in compliance with a Department of the Interior mandate. Shenandoah was "the 'test case' for integration the parks."

Apr 26, 2016

Species in My Yard

I had another post scheduled for today but after yesterday's incident with the cardinal eggs, I thought I should share the wildlife using my yard. I currently live in Arlington, VA and the house we rent has a yard. The lot is triangular in shape, fairly close to an isosceles triangle in form. Now imagine the triangle on its side with the house sitting towards the base leaving a large side yard.

Azaleas, hydrangeas, roses, and rhododendrons grow in the front yard. Redbuds line the sidewalk. A large holly grows behind the house. We are attempting to grow a vegetable garden in the back yard, too. (A bike path runs behind the house. Numerous back yards filled with large-stature trees and gardens line both sides of the path. Crows are often chased up and down the path by bluejays and mockingbirds.) A Bing cherry, lilac, and two dogwoods grow in the side yard. Much of the wildlife action occurs in the lilac, the cherry, and the holly. When the holly first came into flower, it was buzzing with bees. Mourning doves like to roost in the soil below the holly. The cherry sees a lot of bird action. Robins, bluejays, mockingbirds, and cardinals eat the fruit and sing and all from the branches.

Image: Cardinal nest, one egg remaining of a clutch of three
A cardinal pair made a next in the lilac. Yesterday, I tiptoed close to the nest but didn't spy the female through the leaves. As I continued my approach, a bird did not fly out so I stepped next to the nest and noticed a few things: (1) the female was absent; (2) only one egg was in the nest and it was broken; (3) the other two eggs were on the ground, intact. I asked on Twitter for advice and thanks to Metro Field Guide and Must-see Birds, I removed the broken egg from the nest and returned the other two eggs to the nest. I also propped up the nest. I am sad to report that one of the two intact eggs is missing. There are no signs of it on the ground. Only one intact egg remains in the nest. Very disheartening. Cardinals make 1-2 broods per nesting season and each clutch contains 2-5 eggs. I am hopeful that these eggs are part of the first brood but now I remember that when I first noticed the nest, there was only one egg in it and later two were laid, so in fact, the egg pictured above might be from the second attempt of this nesting pair. Snakes and bluejays are among the predators of Northern cardinal eggs and nestlings and I've observed in and around the yard. Actually, we saw one snake last fall, but there are many bluejays in the neighborhood. Other predators include red squirrels, chipmunks, and cowbirds. I haven't noticed either of these animals.

Other signs of life in the yard are wasps, carpenter bees, rabbits, and bats. There is a bat box on the chimney, installed by a previous tenant or the owner. Two weekends ago one night, my husband called my attention to small bats circling above the house. The rabbits are back! I have seen so many this week. Last weekend, we watched two leaping and frolicking in the yard, literally by starlight. There are at least two wasp nests in the deck railing (see the top photo). I used the selfie function on my phone to photograph one. My attempts to examine the railing have been thwarted by the insects. We don't feel comfortable with active wasp nests on the deck we use this space regularly. Yesterday when I went to the shed to take out my daughter's scooter and helmet, I observed a carpenter bee burrowing into one of the wooden window frames. New additions to the yard nature have been butterflies. In recent days, we have observed small whites and monarchs.

I would love to hear what's blooming, buzzing, nesting in your yard or greenspace.

Apr 22, 2016

Nat Geo WILD Celebrates All Animals from A to Z

This year's Earth Day kicked off with the signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change at the United Nations in New York. To joyfully remind us of some of the life that's at stake, Nat Geo WILD produced this moving animal alphabet.

How will you celebrate Earth Day weekend?

If you like this video, you might like to enter our book giveaway of 8: An Animal Alphabet by Elisha Cooper.

Video courtesy of Nat Geo Networks.

P.S. This week has brought both good and sad news. Although this isn't a lifestyle blog, I would like to acknowledge, here, the death of singer, songwriter, musician, producer, and actor Prince Rogers Nelson on April 21, 2016.

Apr 18, 2016

Wild About: Animals for Earth Day + Elisha Cooper book giveaway

Every year, Earth Day is celebrated on April 22nd. The first Earth Day was held in 1970. When I've participated in Earth Days past, I usually participated in tree planting or gardening events. There are a terrific number of tree-oriented events on Earth Day. Furthermore, events seem to emphasize the conservation and restoration of Earth for human benefit. However, as Joel Satore, founder of National Geographic's Photo Ark project to document every animal species in captivity, reminds us, "It’s their #EarthDay, too." And it's not only terrestrial animals that are important to celebrate. The National Aquarium in Baltimore will launch its 48 Days of Blue campaign again this year on Earth Day. The campaign will run for 48 days until World Oceans Day on June 8th. John Racanelli, CEO of the aquarium, notes, "It’s been said that the best way to imagine Earth without its ocean is to look at Mars. No ocean, no us." With these messages in mind, I am happy to host another book giveaway!

Last month I read a favorable review of 8: An Animal Alphabet, a new book by Elisha Cooper's. (I don't think any of Mr. Cooper's books have received poor reviews.) I borrowed the book from my public library and we enjoyed it very much. The illustrations of animals from aardvark to zebu are classic Cooper. The book is engaging. Eight animals are named on each page. And one of these animals is drawn in eight different ways. It's fun to spot that animal. You can probably guess that eight is Mr. Cooper's favorite number. Finally, the book concludes with "Did You Know?" facts about each animal.

*** The Giveaway ***

Scholastic Inc., the publisher of 8: An Animal Alphabet and other Elisha Cooper books, has provided the books for this giveaway. Two winners will be selected. Each winner will receive a signed copy of 8: An Animal Alphabet and a copy of either Where's Walrus and Penguin by Stephen Savage or Elephant in the Dark by Mina Javaherbin with illustrations by Eugene Yeltsin.

Enter by telling us about a wild animal encounter in one of two ways: 

1. In the comments section. Please include an email address or social media handle, for contact purposes only.

2. Or via social media. Make sure to tag @localecologist.

The deadline to enter is Monday, April 25, 2016 at 11:59 pm ET and two winners will be chosen randomly.* Fingers crossed!

This giveaway is now closed and the winners have been notified.

*The giveaway is open to US residents only. You must be at least 18 years old to enter. The approximate total value of each prize pack is $35. Books provided by Scholastic, Inc.
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