Thursday, December 31, 2009

What are your thoughts on Sligo Golf Course?

Save Sligo Golf wants to hear from you, even if you don't golf or ever intend to learn how to do so. They are taking a survey of non-golfers right now, in order to give a voice to those who actually live near the area, since many feel that recent actions taken by Montgomery County to cut funding for the course have not actually acknowledged the park's real users.

To participate in the survey, go to:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Merry Mistletoe Story for You

Christmas is always full of fun news stories, as the various media outlets try to find something to fill their pages during the holiday slow down.

This year, the December blizzard made for oddly exciting news, so there were fewer of those fluff stories out there. I guess the white snow was fluffy enough.

The Washington Post health section, however, continued to report with their usual "be afraid, be very afraid" style, and devoted its section front page to "worst case scenario" stories about Christmas, complete with artistic renditions of Christmas trees catching on fire, innocent people being injured during violent gift opening sessions, and descriptions of egg nog food poisoning.

(In other sections, the editors also made a point of calling referring to the snowy weather forecast as "gory." I kept debating with friends whether these stories were meant to be amusing or alarming. It was hard to tell, but either way they did actually make me laugh.)

To counteract this odd alarmism, I bring you the following link from

"Is Mistletoe REALLY the Kiss of Death?"

Happy Holidays everyone!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Careful What You Wish For

For my column in the Voice newspapers this month I wrote the following:

"I actually wish we would get a serious winter. I miss snow and cold temperatures, and I don’t like the thought that these lame-ass winters we’ve been experiencing the last few Decembers are the result of climate change...

And besides, more than anything else, I want some snow, damn it. Lots of it. Now. Blizzards and snowstorms, snowmen and sledding parties. Bring it, old man winter. Bring it. I am ready to play, ready to enjoy it, ready to count snow flakes and make snow angels, ready for cocoa and craziness. I long for snow the way thirsty people in the desert long for a drink of water. A long brown-gray winter without it is just that: boring, long and dreary. I want the beauty of a snow-filled sunrise where every branch of every tree is draped in white. One or two snowstorms a season just isn’t enough to satisfy this Marylander. I want a real winter. "

We are now under blizzard conditions (this a quote from the radio) with wind and fifteen inches of snow and more coming down each minute.

Perhaps next month I will write about how much I'd like a MILLION DOLLARS.

Meanwhile, WAHOO! I am going out to have some fun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Conference on Clean Water Announced

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Coalition is hosting the first annual Choose Clean Water Conference, this January 10-12 in DC.

As their website says, 2010 will be a critical year for Bay restoration. The conference will reflect upon President Obama’s historic Executive Order on Chesapeake Bay restoration, the approaching deadline for federal Bay clean-up and the pending re-authorization of the Chesapeake Bay Program in Congress.
Registration info is available on their website.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

MoCo's Street Tree Budget Gets AXED

Citizens and tree lovers all over Montgomery County are up in arms about a budget cut which was pushed through very quietly right around Thanksgiving. The county’s street tree planting program, which is run by the Department of Transportation, has had its entire planting budget zeroed, removed, AXED.

The DOT’s street tree office performs an important role in the county. When trees along the right-of-ways or ROWs in the county have to be cut down due to disease or damage, the DOT replaces them. According to the county's own website, the office plants about 1800 trees a year. Residents can also request a tree for the ROW in front of their home and if the ROW can safely have one, the office will plant one for free using trees which are grown in municipal nurseries.

This is especially important because residents can’t legally plant anything higher than 18 inches in these spaces. But the DOT *can* plant there, and can do so in a way that is safe and will avoid future conflicts with wires, etc. Their skilled and highly trained arborists oversee both the removal of the declining trees and the replanting of new ones. And sadly, many of the oldest street trees in the county’s ROWs are dying and will need to be replaced at a rapid rate if we are to maintain any kind of street tree canopy in the future.

The tree planting program has been popular, despite being anemically funded for several years. $247,000 is a small amount of money relative to the rest of the Montgomery County budget. In return for this small investment, the trees grow and perform many ecosystem services which are extremely valuable. These include:

-water filtration
-pollution reduction
-providing shade which can often reduce energy use for homeowners
-cooling the air by evapotranspiration
-providing habitat for many kinds of wildlife.

Mature trees can also increase the dollar value of homes; homes with well tended trees tend to attract more interest and can sometimes command a higher price than those on streets which lack leafy canopies.

Many who have voiced anger over the budget cut have expressed dismay at the disconnect between tree planting goals, such as the Million Trees for Maryland sponsored through out the state by Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley, and the elimination of the street tree funding in Montgomery County.

Especially appalling is the way that the budget cut was kind of slipped through very quietly during the holidays. According to some sources, the office of County Executive Ike Leggett did not even seek the advice of its own Forest Conservation Advisory Committee before making the decision, and the group was not even alerted before the council vote took place on December 1.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

DC Says: Skip the Bag to Save the River

As noted earlier in the year on this blog, Washington, DC is joining other cities all around the globe in an effort to reduce feral shopping bag pollution.

As of January 1, DC businesses that sell food or alcohol must charge 5 cents for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag distributed during a purchase.

According to the District Department of the Environment's website, the business keeps 1 cent, or 2 cents if it offers a rebate when you bring your own bag. The remaining 3 or 4 cents go to the new Anacostia River Protection Fund.

DDOE will be administering this fund and will use it to provide reusable bags, educate the public about litter, and support clean up efforts in the Anacostia river.

Concerns have been raised about those with limited income; no one wants to see the grocery bill climb for people who are already feeling the pinch of the tight economy. In an effort to address those concerns, the city is partnering with a large pharmacy chain to provide resuable bags to those who need them the most.

Personally, I am all for this program because those who feel the tight pinch of the economy are also often forced to live with the fall out of the polluted Anacostia River. This initiative will create a new stream of funding for helping ameliorate some of those problems.

You can find out and help promote these bag give away locations at the DDE's Skip the Bag to Save the River website.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cutting Through the FOG

My dishwasher broke a couple of weeks a ago. Luckily, the machine was under warranty, and the repair was pretty easy. The guy simply had to unhook the tubing at the back, and clear the clog that had accumulated in the drain piece.

My family stood like drivers passing an accident scene and rubbernecked while he worked. It was gross and yet fascinating. The repair guy requested a bucket. We obliged, and then watched as the goo splurged and gurgled outward in thick, smelly, blackish abundance. Yuck… whewwie!...the smell was so bad, my kids had to run out of the kitchen holding their noses.

The thing is, we clear our plates pretty well. We aren’t going into the kitchen with whole cakes to put in the dishwasher, like that ad they used to have on tv a few years back.

“Oh,” the repair guy said, seeming like a professorial surgeon standing over a patient undergoing open heart surgery. “This goo here, this is mostly grease and stuff. Gravy, sauce, butter. All that. It builds up.”

All this brought me to think back to something that people who work on clean water issues have been saying lately. Namely, the pipes in our water system are a lot like the little tube at the back of my dishwasher, or the arteries of the human heart. When we put fats, oils and grease down the drain, we are causing some major problems in water infrastructure of the US.

According the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), when liquids such as grease and oil are poured down the drain, they can quickly harden on the inside of the pipes which carry waste water from our homes. This can cause a back up of sewage and waste water into the house, which is very expensive and messy to fix.

Theses liquids also imperil efforts to achieve clean water in the region. When those big pipes get clogged, sewer overflows occur, which can then lead to untreated sewage entering creeks and rivers. Such pollution is an-all-too common problem all over the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

And fats, oils and grease (known collectively as FOG) are no small problem elsewhere, either. According to the North Carolina Department of Environment’s fact sheet on the topic, over one third of 1999 sanitary sewer overflows in that state were the result of pipe blockages from FOG accumulation.

Like I said before, I thought that we were pretty good in our house about emptying, scraping and cleaning our plates, but the dishwasher breakdown event made me realize we still weren’t doing all we could to address the issue. Tooling around on different websites, I found some great tips which could help us do a better job. Many of these seemed like they’d be especially timely for the holidays, since making a big feast can cause a lot of excess grease to suddenly show up in your kitchen.

Can the grease.
Am I dating myself if I say that I can recall the days when my parents and grandparents all used to save fat in a coffee can under the sink? This used to be a common kitchen practice until the widespread installation and use of home garbage disposals made people think it was okay to pour grease and fat down the sink every day. Everyone was also eschewing fat in their diets, so there was no longer a need to save lard for cooking and baking. Now WSSC is asking us all to return to this practice, not because they think we need to make biscuits from scratch, but because by pouring the grease into a can, sealing it with a lid and throwing it away in the trash we can avoid clogging up the sewer lines. (Some communities are also encouraging the active recycling of the stuff for industrial purposes, although I know of no such program in our area for homeowners.)

Remember that FOG problems are not just caused by lard.

FOG is not just caused by the fat from things like bacon. Food scraps, margarine, butter, baked goods, sauces, yogurt and ice cream break down in water and the fats and oils are released. So when you are tempted to simply send chunks of food down the garbage disposal (even via the dishwasher), think twice and throw it away in the trash can. WSSC also asks homeowners to also not pour liquid foods down the drain including milk, milk shakes or syrups, batters, and gravy for this reason.

Take only what you can really eat in the first place.

This is one of the simplest environmental steps we can all take to reduce trash and prevent sewer blockages. At a time when portions at restaurants seem designed for elephant appetites, this is a real cultural challenge for Americans. But it can reduce waste on many levels… less trash accumulates but it also takes less energy to cook smaller meals. Less FOG in the pipes, too.

I personally find this is the biggest hurdle for my family to overcome, because it seems that my kids sometimes race to see who can pile their plate higher without any regard to the actual hunger they feel in their stomachs. (This is really one of those bizarre examples of sibling rivalry, where it sometimes is all about making sure your brother or sister is not getting a bigger dinner than you, even when you don’t like the food and you aren’t hungry.)

My kids, who have both been brought up to honor Earth Day and do things like reduce, reuse and recycle since birth were shocked recently when I pointed out that taking too much food was like not composting, or refusing to recycle paper, or not bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. They had simply never thought of it that way.

So we’ve decided to make it part of our Thanksgiving this year; instead of seeing how much we can eat, we’re aiming to see how little we can waste. Take only what you can finish. Share the rest. It’s a nice way to show you are grateful.

Frankly its also a nice way to prevent more dishwasher breakdowns and save money at the grocery store, even though saying so might not really capture the holiday spirit. I mean, money is tight and I know how expensive sewer breakdowns can be. I just probably won’t point that out while everyone’s sitting around feasting on turkey.

For more information about FOG problems, you can visit the WSSC website.

(This article originally appeared in the November issue of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park and Silver Spring.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Do we need a DARK green awakening to Save the Bay?

The Anacostia Watershed Society has been hosting a really interesting lecture series this fall. Thursday night's event, as listed below, really intrigues me.

I love the Bay, and my environmental heroes are those fighting to save it. Many of them have been fighting the good fight for decades, against all odds. Still, I look at the Save the Bay bumperstickers and think, wow, that same exact logo has also been around for decades. Do people even see it anymore, or has it become invisible to them?

What *will* it take to wake up people to the truth that we all need to do more to Save the Bay? Do we need a dark green awakening? What exactly is a dark green awakening?

I don't know yet myself. Should be an interesting lecture.

Here's the announcement from AWS:

The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) invites you to attend a lecture series event at the George Washington House featuring professor and author Howard Ernst. Dr. Ernst is Associate Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of several books, including his latest, Fight for the Bay: Why a Dark Green Environmental Awakening is Needed to Save the Chesapeake Bay.

His talk will focus on several themes covered in that work, including his evaluations of past and present programs aimed at restoring Bay ecology.

What: AWS Lecture Series Event featuring Dr. Howard Ernst

When: Thursday, November 12, 2009; 7:00PM to 8:30PM


The George Washington House

4302 Baltimore Avenue, Bladensburg, MD

RSVPs are required. To RSVP, please write to
or call 301-699-6204.

For more information about this event, please call 301-699-6204. For more information about Dr. Ernst or his book, visit

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ash Trees, Hopefully Frozen in Time

The US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has announced that will it use what it calls cryopreservation methods to store frozen budwood from the imperiled ash trees of North America.

Ash trees (Fraxinus) have long been prized as sources of remarkably hard wood. They were historically used as the main source of wood in American baseball bats, for example. And the lovely leaves provided both fantastic fall color and summer shade in both managed landscapes and forested wilderness areas.

But the accidentally introduced emerald ash borer beetle has devastated this once common tree species. Here in Maryland, the problem has been particularly bad in Prince Georges County, where most of the ash trees have had to come down to control the damage and further spread of the beetle. Municipal foresters and arborists say there is not any point in using the trees at all any more in either residential or commercial plantings, because they are simply too vulnerable to the pest. Campers may have also noticed that everywhere in the state there are restrictions on moving firewood; in an effort to control the beetle's spread parks are asking visitors to use only wood that is provided on site. But the beetles continue to show up and damage the ash trees.

Researchers who are working on the preservation methods hope that one day they will be able to thaw the stored buds and use them in propagation research.

(By the way, that is NOT an ash tree in the picture... )

Congress Approves Funding for White Nose Syndrome Research

According to Bat Conservation International, Congress has approved $1.9 million in federal funding for research to identify the cause and seek solutions to White-nose Syndrome, a disease that is killing huge numbers of bats all over the Eastern United States.

Nice news for the day after Halloween.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Living with the Leaves

In the next few weeks I am not planning to rake leaves.

Well, that's not entirely true... I will be raking them, but not removing them. I plan to do what I did last year, which is "shape" them into place with the rake, leaving the yard beneath the tree root zones blanketed with natural mulch. By placing them this way, my yard looks tidy and the lawn areas stay lush where there are no tree roots.

Last year, the leaves all decomposed before mid summer, which I know fed the soil under the trees and made lush habitat for the many important insects that like leaf litter. Those insects, I am sure, also helped to arate the soil, which in turns benefitted my aging urban trees.

I also suspect that those same insects provided a lot of food for birds. We had some surprise bird visitors in the spring, including a towhee that showed up in May and stayed for a week, pecking through the leaf litter hungrily.

This morning I opened my email inbox and found a timely message from my friend Kathy M, who sent a link to the Fairfield Weekly newspaper in Connecticut. Pretty cool article there entitled "Leaf It Be" about others who are choosing not to remove the leaves this year. Thanks, Kathy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tamiflu in Rivers?

Two weeks ago, an open flu shot clinic caused a traffic jam in Silver Spring. Several police officers were called into direct traffic around the Dennis Avenue health center after the Washington Post reported that H1N1 vaccinations would be available there all morning. A line of people waiting in the cold snaked all the way into the middle of the parking lot by mid morning.

As people everywhere seem to be scrambling to get vaccinated against the flu, Science News had an interesting report on their website this week, highlighting the concern that medicine used to treat influenza called Tamiflu might be going into rivers via human waste.

Janet Raloff's article on the website states: "Concerns are now building that birds, which are natural influenza carriers, are being exposed to waterborne residues of Tamiflu’s active form and might develop and spread drug-resistant strains of seasonal and avian flu."

Worries such as this one have come up previously, when researchers began reporting all kinds of pharmaceuticals were making their way from humans into waterways. This newest research is particularly troubling, however, due to concerns regarding H1N1 and its treatment, since the huge numbers of H1N1 cases could send the use of Tamiflu "skyrocketing," according to the article.

This is also one more example of how connected we are to problems of pollution and clean water, all the time, no matter how far we live from rivers and streams.

Are Acorns Edible?

We are having one of those noisy autumns again, where the acorns fall in plentiful, loud abundance. I'm not sure it qualifies as a "mast year." (That's what scientists call it when there's an OVER abundance of the nuts.) I think it might be just average, at least around my neighborhood.

Anyway, all those nuts lying around prompted one parent on one of the local listservs to ask: can we eat them or are they poisonous?

A bit of a debate went back and forth in the replies. It was all friendly. Some said, no, they are not poisonous but they cannot be eaten. Others said, bosh, we eat them all the time in pancakes and stuff and they taste great!

Well, I noticed someone had asked the same question about these nuts last week in the New York Times Science section. Pretty interesting, although I have to admit that I've never been tempted by them myself. Somehow, it would see a lot like eating bark to me. And the Claiborne Ray's article didn't make them seem any more appealing. Too much work to make them edible. I think I'd have to be pretty hungry to try it, frankly.

Meanwhile, the almonds in my cabinet are calling out to me. Think its time for a snack...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Speaks for the Creek? Maybe you.

On Tuesday, Oct 20, Larry Silverman will be speaking about ways that citizen watershed groups to carry out advocacy and communicate with public officials. He will be sharing his personal strategies, insights, and advice on the matter.

Larry has spent his career working for clean water and other environmental causes in Montgomery County and the Anacostia watershed and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw from. He is currently chair of Montgomery County's Water Quality Advisory Group and a board member of the Patuxent Waterkeeper. He is also a founding member of the Anacostia Watershed Society. He was instrumental in getting a consent decree against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Larry is a professor at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches Environmental Sciences and Policy.

Larry's presentation will be given as a part of the Friends of Sligo Creek program meeting for the month. The location will be the Long Branch Community Center 8700 Piney Branch Road in Takoma Park/Silver Spring. Come at 7:15 for chatting. We will start the discussion at 7:30. Refreshments will be served.

From Sligo Parkway, drive east on Piney Branch toward Flower Ave. After about 3/10 of a mile, watch for the sign on a building for Miles Glass. Turn left into the community center parking lot. Go to second floor.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

No, Its Not Your Imagination, the Stink Bugs Are Getting Worse

They have a goofy name, and they make a funny smell when bothered, so it is a bit hard to take them seriously. But believe it or not, stink bugs (also known as brown shield bugs) are becoming a major annoyance in many parts of the northeastern US.

The bugs are not particularly dangerous to humans but like the Asian ladybeetles, they are increasingly taking up residence in people's homes in North America. Once inside, they prove difficult to remove because they defend themselves by releasing a potent and very unpleasant smell. Vacuuming them or smashing them can prove to be quite stinky indeed.

The bugs, which are native to Asia, were first reported in North America in the late 1990s. Many accounts online point to initial infestations in the town of Allentown, PA. No one knows for sure how they got to the US.

But lately lots of my neighbors in Silver Spring are asking if I know anything about them. They are suddenly everywhere. They've been showing up on our car windshields each morning. They meander across our window screens. They slowly creep across the front porch. We are trying to make sure they don’t get inside. I sometimes feel like the volunteers each summer at the Brookside Gardens butterfly exhibit, checking each visitor carefully to see if any bugs have come in on their clothes. Not the most hospitable way to greet a guest, for sure. I’m wondering if we can really fight them off.

Researchers at the USDA are apparently wondering that, too. One researcher, Jeffry Aldrich, has begun working on traps which could be used to effectively lure them out of people’s homes. Aldrich is an entomologist and expert on stink bugs at the Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory in Beltsville, MD. According to press releases put out by the USDA, he’s working on a weapon to fight the bug invaders that will use the insect’s own body chemistry: a pheromone-based trap.

According to an article published by the USDA, Aldrich was “stunned” at the degree of infestation he saw at a private in Maryland last year, particularly in the attic.

Friends of mine who live in rural Pennsylvania at a location not too far from Allentown, PA where the first infestations were noted a few years back have also had surprisingly awful infestations. One friend says the bugs moved into mattresses in the guest room of her old Victorian home, only to emerge when guests came to stay the night. She also kept finding them in sofa cushions and pillows. Ugh!

This week the stink bugs were also “bug of the week” on Mike Raupp's website, and featured in John Kelly’s column in the Washington Post.

(Photo by Stephen Ausmus, used courtesy of the USDA ARS. )

Friday, October 9, 2009

Become "Riversmart"

Want to know more about rain barrels and reducing the amount of run-off that leaves your property?

On Thursday, October 22 7:30-9:00pm there will be a special showing of "RiverSmart" at Rockville High School. Learn how our roofs and driveways funnel pollutants into our local streams, the Chesapeake Bay, and our drinking water. Then speak to members of local watershed groups and Montgomery County’s RainScapes Program to discover how beautifying your yard can protect our environment and save you money.

The evening will end with the chance to win several door prizes, including a rain barrel donated by the RainScapes program, a county rebate initiative that rewards homeowners for their water-friendly landscaping. Students are encouraged to attend - particularly those participating in the MCPS Environmental Film Festival Project, as the winning student film for 2008 will also be shown.

This event is co-sponsored by the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, Water Quality Advisory Group, and MCPS Outdoor and Environmental Education Programs. Members of the Friends of Sligo Creek and the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch will be there, too, to present information for homeowners.

Students admitted free. A $2 donation from adults is requested.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Walk part of the Underground Railroad in Mo Co

There are some really cool underground railroad sites in Montgomery County, Maryland. Sandy Spring, in particular, makes for a great hike and an awesome history experience.

The Sierra Club is offering a chance this weekend to both hike and help the trail, where invasive exotic plants could ruin some of the best, most historic spots if not kept in check.

WHEN: Saturday, October 10, 9:30am – 12:00pm
WHERE: Underground Railroad Experience Trail, 16501 Norwood Road, Sandy Spring, MD

WHAT: Dr. Jenny Masur of the National Park Service will speak on the history of the Underground Railroad in the DC area. Dr. Masur is the National Capitol Region Manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Dr. Masur will highlight some of the personalities in Montgomery County, locations, and methods of escape through the Underground Railroad system. We will then remove invasive plant species.

RSVP: Jeremy Arling at or 240-398-3635.

Get Nuts for Clean Water in Arlington Cemetery

The Potomac Conservancy is collecting native hardwood seeds all over the region this fall as a part of their Growing Native project. Here is a description of one of their more interesting events.

Growing Native seed collection at Arlington National Cemetery this Saturday, October 10 from 10 am- 2 pm.

Spend the day at one of our nation’s greatest landmarks collecting, indentifying and bagging native hardwood seeds. The collection will take place on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.

Growing Native is a project, managed by Potomac Conservancy, which emphasizes the connection between clean water and healthy forested land. Each fall, thousands of volunteers throughout the Potomac River watershed collect native hardwood seeds, which are donated to state nurseries, and used to restore streamside forests along the Potomac and its tributaries.

Pre-register by calling Deanna Tricarico, Director of Outreach, at (301) 608-1188 x204, or show up and register at the event when you get there.

Clean the Stream for Halloween in the Northwest Branch

From a press release sent out by the

Neighbors of the Northwest Branch
Clean the Stream for Halloween Event

Come join the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch for the Clean the Stream for Halloween Event!

You can make a spooktacular difference for our stream!

Grab your family, friends, and neighbors and participate in cleaning up the truly scary amount of trash and litter that can be found along the Northwest Branch. The trick is to reduce trash in our watershed in order to enjoy the treat of a clean Chesapeake Bay.

Be sure to wear long sleeves and pants. If you have waterproof boots, bring them. We'll have extra gloves, but bring yours if you have heavy-duty waterproof gloves. Younger children are welcome to join in the cleanup with a parent or adult guardian accompanying them.

The Clean the Stream for Halloween Event will take place on Saturday, October 24, 2009 from 10:00 am until 12 noon.
We have three sites participating in this event along the Northwest Branch.

Directions to the sites and contact info for the site coordinators are as follows:
Randolph/Kemp Mill Rd Site: Contact Glenn Welch at
Directions: From New Hampshire Ave./Randolph Rd. intersection, go west on Randolph Rd. and left at the light at Kemp Mill Rd. Park along Kemp Mill Rd near Glenallan Ave. From the Randolph Rd./Georgia Ave. intersection, go east on Randolph and right at the Kemp Mill Rd. traffic light, then as above. Look for us at the NWB trailhead on Kemp Mill Rd. near the foot of Glenallan Ave.

Burnt Mills Site: Contact Larry Hush at

Directions: From I-495 head West on University Blvd. Turn right on Rte. 29/Colesville Rd. In ~1/2 make a u-turn at the Citgo station. Park in the lot behind the red brick building on the right.

West Hyattsville Metro Site: Contact James Graham at
Directions: Take either Riggs Rd or Queens Chapel Rd to Ager Rd and the West Hyattsville Metro is on the west side of Ager Rd. We will meet in the Metro parking lot and access the clean-up site via the Northwest Branch Trail.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kensington Bans Kids over 5 from Reinhart Park

Question: When is a public park not really for the public?

Answer: When that park is in the town of Kensington, MD.

I was alerted by email about a little controversy that is brewing over in the neighboring suburb of Kensington. Because I’m an outspoken supporter of both parks and recess for all children, this story really grabbed me. Seems the town council has officially banned anyone over the age of five from using the playground at Reinhart Park, which has the playground next to the Safeway, during midday hours from 9am -4pm Monday through Friday.

Now why on earth would any self respecting town council do such a thing, unless they are they ran that creepy fictional town from the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang??? (Remember, the town where Dick Van Dyke drives up in his old beaten up noisy car and finds that all the kids were put into an underground dungeon?)

To get one version of the story, you can visit this Channel 7 news clip:

I think this entire thing seems fishy. In addition to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’m reminded of the sheriffs in the old wild west movies who would only give protection to those store owners that paid extra money each month…

I’ve been around that park during the day, and I’ve seen those girls playing. They are always well supervised by teams of teachers, and always polite to other visitors that come to the park. In fact, I use that park about once a week and I have never seen any real damage that would cause undo expense, such as broken swings, graffiti, or the like. It seems much cleaner, actually, than a lot of county parks because it is usually free from litter.

I also tend to think that having a really well run school like Brookewood in the middle of town is a real asset. I wouldn't go doing things (if I was on the town council I mean) to chase them off.

Meanwhile, if I worked for the Brookewood School, I’d be calling around and asking about county policies regarding park use by other schools. (I have a feeling those law supersede any Kensington Town Council votes.) I’d be finding out if there are laws governing open park usage and public space accommodations. (I know for a fact that several of the nearby county public schools use the county public parks and fields quite actively for recess and gym all day long. I am not aware of any extra fees imposed for such a use. This includes some schools within just a few miles of this school and this park.)

Furthermore, I’d be out at that park taking surveys of all the families that come every week. I’d ask those parents what they think of this new restriction.

Oh and one final thing: if this was some big scheme dreamed up by the Kensington town council as a way of making their little burg seem really unwelcoming to families, it sure is working!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What's in Bloom: Swamp Sunflower

The Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) are out in full glory today. The sun came up cold, but still no frost. And as the morning wore on, the light picked up each bright yellow petal like stained glass.

In the past I tried incorporating this flower into a hedgerow I've formed in my yard. I had this idea that it would look great between the highbush cranberries and the arrowwood shrubs. But it seemed crowded and sad there.

So, last fall after it had finished blooming, I moved it over to be next to two another tall native perennials, the Joe Pye Weed and the Ironweed. These three plants seem really happy together. They all soak up the excessive wash out that occurs under the one rain spout in my back yard that lacks a rain barrel. And they all can get big and tall and lean over in old which way with complete abandon. No shrubby branches to bump into.

In the photo you can see, for example, the that the swamp sunflower is leaning over my pineapple sage. This is no accident. In fact, this is one piece of garden choreography that I am very proud to say I planned. The sage waits all season to bloom. Then, just when October hits, those red flowers burst forth like fireworks. At that exact same time, the swamp sunflowers are ready to blossom, too. Both are also wonderful for wildlife. Bees and birds love the sunflowers and the migrating hummingbirds make the most of those tubular red sage blossoms.

People complain a lot about how the garden can be boring in fall. I think this is one of the key reasons to plant native stuff. If you do you discover that fall is one of the best seasons of all to be outside. You can find interesting seed heads, ripening berries, fantastic leaf patterns and fall colors, and of course, late blooming flowers. Plus, all of the above are used by the wildlife that is preparing for the long cold season ahead, making the fall garden crazy, vibrant and colorful. A fall garden full of native plants is not ever sad or forlorn.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Just in time for Halloween: Cornell's Spooky Birds

Funny how often birds are considered scary in fictional movies and literature. Groups of crows, for example, are called "murders." And Edgar Allan Poe was haunted by a raven. Then there's the whole thing with that classic Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds...

The people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology think the "scary" bird behaviors people see in their own backyards can easily be explained. In fact, they are challenging people to take photos, do a painting, write a story or poem, even shoot a video showing crows, pigeons, starlings, an owl, or any kind of bird doing something puzzling or strange. They will then reveal what the behaviors are really all about.

"There’s usually a perfectly natural, non-scary explanation!" they say on their website.

This seems like a great activity for school groups, homeschoolers, and parents who want to do some backyard naturalist activities in fall. You can find more info on their website at:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cash for Lawnmowing Clunkers

We once had a friend who couldn't bear to give up anything old. He hated to throw away stuff, and although most of the time that kind of thriftiness can add up to an enviro ethic, in this particular case it sometimes caused a lot of pollution... because he even refused to throw away his father's old lawn mower from the 70s. His dad had died some fifteen years earlier. The mower, unfortunately, just kept on ticking away, spewing out clouds of horrible, smoky exhaust year after year. We used to tease him and say that his old mower was responsible for all of the "code red" bad air days in our county.

I was thinking about that old mower and that old friend today when I got an interesting email from a friend up in Baltimore. It would be great to replicate this kind of event down here in Montgomery County. For one thing, it would provide me with a great discount on a wonderful new battery powered mower, including one of those Neuton ones. Those things are SOOO cool.

Anyhow, here's the low down on the mower trade in event:

Lawnmower Trade-In Event AND Native Plant Sale –
two ways to save and go green!

Trade in your old, noisy, gas-guzzling lawn mower for a coupon worth up to 1/3 off the cost of a brand new battery-powered, cordless, rechargeable, electric mower.

Sunday, October 18, Noon to 4:00 pm
@ Herring Run Nursery
6131 Hillen Rd., Baltimore in the Mount Pleasant Golf Course

Help clean up the air and local water, make your community a healthier (and quieter) place, provide for birds… and save money at the same time!
Event presented by Together Green, Audubon Maryland-DC, Herring Run Watershed Association, Herring Run Nursery, Neuton Mowers, and Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

Need to know:
• Only push mowers will be accepted, no riding mowers at this event.
• Your mower must be drained of all oil and gas – recycling facility and assistance provided onsite if needed. Or drain in advance and properly dispose of fluids (such as at Baltimore City Household Hazardous Waste event October 10 -11
• Coupon is for $110 off of a specific brand of mower plus free shipping.
• Limit one mower/ coupon per household.
Need more information?
Lawnmower Event: email or call (410) 271-2481
Native Plant Sale including inventory and prices:

County Council votes to keep Golf in Sligo Creek Park

Just got an email from The Sligo Creek Golf Association as follows:

The SCGA applauds the County Council's 7-2 vote today to keep the 9-hole course open through June 30, 2010. SCGA also looks forward to participating on the 17- to 19-member task force that will recommend a long-term financial plan for the course by Jan. 19.

The course had been slated to close on October 1...

...Councilmember Valerie Ervin authored the resolution forming the task force, which will include representatives from the Sligo Creek Golf Association, Friends of Sligo Creek and the North Hills of Sligo Civic Association as well as county officials and representatives of veterans’ organizations.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Duchy Trachtenberg. Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Nancy Navarro also supported the $150,000 supplemental appropriation proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett.

“The people in the community surrounding Sligo Creek Golf Course and golfers from around the county should be commended for their advocacy and the efficacy of their advocacy,” said Ervin. “We’ve heard you. We’ve hard you loud and clear. We understand that Sligo Creek Golf Course is really a jewel in our community. So we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Berliner, who was the last undecided member of the Council, said he went over to the course Monday to talk to Sligo Creek golfers. “People were clearly enjoying it and people from all socioeconomic backgrounds were enjoying it. That is one of the things that strikes you immediately,” said Berliner.

{end quoted part of press release}

Well, I'm glad anyhow. I've been advocating all along to keep it as a golf course. I'd love to see the whole place turned into a green model, complete with low impact design and low fertilizer use, native plants and more trees. We'll have to see about that. At least for now it won't be heavily developed, heavily lighted, or otherwise built up.

For more info visit the SCGA website by clicking here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wow! We can finally recycle milk cartons!

This just in: residents of Montgomery County can now recycle all kinds of new stuff. Fantastic! Now if I could just get recycling bins in all the parks so that I can recycle all those silly plastic water bottles I find when walking the dog... that would be super fantastic....

Here's the scoop on from Leggett's office:

"Montgomery County’s nationally recognized recycling program today became even more extensive with the announcement by County Executive Isiah Leggett that an array of additional items can now be recycled.

Under the improved program, residents of single-family homes can now recycle non-hazardous aerosol cans and Tupperware™ and Rubbermaid™-type durable reusable plastic containers and lids. Non-hazardous aerosol cans include whipped topping, spray cooking oil, deodorant, shaving cream and hair spray aerosol cans. These cans must be emptied before being placed into the blue commingled materials recycling bin.

In addition, the mixed paper recycling program has been expanded to include various types of coated paper items. These items include milk and juice cartons, frozen food boxes, cardboard ice cream containers and lids, paper coffee and drink cups, wax-coated fruit and produce boxes, and juice and drink boxes. "

(The above info was taken from a press release put out today by Ike Leggett's office.)

For more information about the County’s expanded recycling program, or for additional blue recycling bins in the 22-gallon size, call 240-777-6410 or visit

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Can They Say They Are Working for the Trees when Mostly they Plant the ICC?

It is horribly depressing to drive down 95 these days between Baltimore and DC and see the work of the Intercounty Connector (ICC) moving ahead, snaking through the green trees like ugly brown tracks left by a very destructive monster.

I hate this road. I hate the idea of this road. I cannot stand to think of the areas being destroyed in its wake, and the more subtle destruction which will follow in decades to come, as developments inevitably will grow up all around its finished path.

This morning I received the following message, posted by Mike Smith to the Friends of Sligo Creek listserv:

"Rob Shreve from the State Highway Administration will be at Montgomery County's Forest Conservation Advisory Committee meeting next Tuesday to discuss the Intercounty Connector and Anacostia forestation. Note that this is not a public hearing, and non-committee members are considered observers and only able to ask questions at the discretion of the 22 member committee. There are hopes to have a DNR representative at their October meeting to further discuss the issue as it relates to the 2001 Agreement.This meeting will be Tuesday September 22nd at 7:00 p.m.

The location is 255 Rockville Pike in Rockville in the Department of Environmental Protection conference room on the first floor, right next to the Rockville Metro Station.Here are related documents:

1). The 2001 Anacostia Watershed Restoration Agreement signed by the Maryland Governor and Montgomery Executive as well as the Prince George's Executive and District Mayor.

Goal 5 was: "To protect and expand forest cover throughout the watershed..." with five parts to the goal.

2). This agreement led to the The Anacostia Watershed Forest Management and Protection Strategy (released June 2005) which can be found at "

((end message))

Indeed, how can they say they say they are working for the trees when all they seem to plant is the ICC?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Native Plant Exchange This Sunday from 3-5pm

Native Plant Exchange

Sunday, Sept 20 from 3-5pm.

Location will be Dennis Avenue Park, Silver Spring, MD. This park is near the playground where it is shady at the corner of Dennis and Sligo Creek Parkway.

Please bring any and all native plants, shrubs and trees that you might have to share with others. Seeds are okay, too, but try to avoid putting them in plastic bags. Envelopes are better.

Please also feel free to come see if we have something you like... This is not an even exchange. Lots of people bring stuff but don't take anything home. Lots of people come just looking for free native plants! Which is fine by me. The more natives we get growing out there in people's yards, the better.

Plants must be native to the US. (You can argue amongst yourselves about what truly constitutes a local native.)

Everything you bring must be labelled. No exceptions!

This is an outdoor event, and really just a casual swap. Heavy rain will cancel.

Why Are Invasive Plants a Problem?

Next month Lynette Scaffidi from the Parks Dept will give a presentation on the issue of invasive exotic plants. She will discuss many parts of the topic, including identification of several of the really problematic invasives and what people can do about them in their yards and in the parks.

Wednesday, October 21, 7 – 8 PM Brookside Nature Center (next to Brookside Gardens)1400 Glenallan Ave, Wheaton, Maryland 20902

More information at 301-949-0223 or ScaffidiNatural Resources SpecialistMontgomery County Parks301-949-0223

Monday, September 7, 2009

Whispering to the Wasps

When I was about seven years old my best friend and next door neighbor, Bruce, was stung fifteen times by wasps. He was playing hide and seek and somehow bumped up against their nest in a bush. The wasps swarmed to protect their home, and he was completely engulfed in their rage.

I’ve been thinking about Bruce’s bad day a lot lately, realizing that there are not a lot of people out there who would be willing to host these creatures purposefully. I think that convincing anyone to plant a garden to attract wasps would be a hard sell.

Even so, I have found myself really enjoying them in the garden these last couple of weeks. Somehow, the wasps and I have found a way to peacefully co-exist. They like to tap dance around on the tops of the flat yellow flowers in my garden, such as the bronze fennel. Soon, the goldenrod will also begin to bloom in brilliant yellow and I’ll have my camera ready to take some shots.

The wasps are fantastic creatures, busy all the time and very efficient. I like to drink strong coffee in the morning, and watch them up close. It’s a pretty good relationship so far. We each enjoy our drinks and sunshine and no one gets injured.

Being so close to these predators feels a bit like swimming with sharks or petting the lions at the zoo. There’s an element of danger, but also something peaceful and soothing in the graceful way they move. I am simultaneously admiring their slender, strange, alien-like bodies, and fearful that they could turn on me at any moment. I think of my son at these times; I understand his fascination with sharks several years ago. I know where his brain was at then. I’m there now, watching the wasps, thinking how their faces are permanently painted with scowls, but their wings and bodies are almost like those of ballet dancers.

According to most sources I found on the bookshelf and online, wasps are not terribly important pollinators in North America. They do some pollinating while they drink up that nectar. But they are smooth, not fuzzy like bees, so they don’t spread around the pollen that much.

They do, however, help gardeners in other ways. Namely, they feed a lot of pest caterpillars, flies and crickets to their young early in the season. They are fierce predators.

Annoyingly, by the time August and September roll around, the queens stop laying eggs and their nests start to decline. There aren’t any young to feed, and so the adults go out on what could be called a bender for sugar. In addition to the nectar of my flowers, they begin to crave sweet drinks and greasy food. They stay away from my coffee, but if I brought a soda or glass of juice out the garden in the morning there would be trouble for sure.

Yellow jackets, in particular, can really get aggressive. You can control them with some cool gizmos. Most of them involve a bottle containing a small amount of sugary liquid. The mouth of the bottle or container is small; the wasps fly in but they can’t make their way back out. Then later you put the stopper on and let them die slow painful deaths in the bottle.

I’ve been told these wasp traps can be effective if hung a few feet away from the food table of your picnic. I have no idea if they work, because I always forget them until the picnic is in progress, so mostly I stick to drinking water and try to eat with an eye on what the wasps are doing with each bite I take.

One thing I find particularly annoying at such moments: there are a lot of people who think that bees and wasps are the same. They are not! Most of the time, bees want to steer clear of humans, and stay away from their food. Bees are also incredibly important pollinators and although it is not scientific to say so, bees actually look kind of cute. Here again I think of ocean animals; if wasps are like sharks, then bees are like dolphins – almost dopey or playful in appearance. (Bees can sting… some more than others… and dolphins can bite and be aggressive, but hey… that’s a different article. Some other time perhaps.)

I’ve never actually been stung by a wasp or a bee, which might explain why I am so forgiving of their presence in my garden. I do wish the wasps would stop building nests in my favorite wooden bird house. But considering how many hours I spend with my hands in the plants and my back bent over the rows of veggies out there, you’d think I’d have been stung at least once.

I sometimes wonder if it is like that guy called the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel, Cesar Milan. He says that his calm demeanor around tough, wild dogs earns their respect. Maybe my calm demeanor in the garden makes the wasps respect me. Maybe I can get a show on that channel, too. The Wasp Whisperer.


But considering that I am rarely calm and hardly ever manage to whisper about anything, it is far more likely that I’ve just been lucky so far. After all, it could have easily been me getting stung 15 times on that day long ago during the hide and seek game. If so, this would have been a whole different piece of writing.

(This story originally appeared in the September 2009 edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park and Silver Spring.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sligo Golf Course... Where to Begin Before it Ends

Every time I get ready to post something about the Sligo Creek Golf Course on this blog, the whole story changes so much that I decide not to post... YET. I wanted to write something which would explain the mess that is the political battle over the course.... how environmentalists, golfers, people who live near to the course are all fighting to try to keep this incredibly popular course open. I wanted to write something about how it happens that a bunch of people who have never played golf EVER want to hold on to this resource, and those that do play golf want to hold on to it even more... and I wanted to explain how much the course and its relatively low impact current use means to those who work for the betterment of the creek.

At the very least I wanted to explain to the uninformed what the heck all those green signs that say "Keep Sligo Golf Open" mean.

I have realized that would take such an insane amount of time that it would be plain stupid. By the time I finished writing such a post, the whole thing would be over and done.

So instead I will say this.

County Council member Valerie Ervin has sent an email out that says her office is working hard to try to keep the course open. Delegate Al Carr has said the same. There have been warnings that notices will soon go up saying the course will close for ever on Oct 1. This is not a done deal, according to many many people.


If you care about the course or the creek, I would say now is the time to contact your county council members. Because nothing is final and they need to hear that we, as voters, want to see the course stay open.

It is my own dream to see the course remain open but become a model for green golf course maintenance in the county. I can't understand why we have a huge effort underway to GREEN up Bethesda, but here we have a great opportunity presenting itself in good old Silver Spring and well... the green option has yet to be seriously explored.

Okay. Actually, I can understand it. Its par for the course in this county. We are sometimes treated like second class citizens over here. The amazing thing is, we like our community and have some great things going on. We actually would not wish to live over THERE. But some of us would LIKE to PLAY golf close to home. We have no other options. This lovely little public course has provided a close by option to many for many years.

As an aside I have to say that I am not a golfer myself, and neither is anyone in my family. But I bike past the course several times a week, and shiver to think what would happen if the course was destroyed and that area became heavily developed for other purposes...

Giving up the course to lighted mini golf was unthinkable both from a traffic control stand point and an environmental standpoint. (This had been suggested back at the beginning of the controversy. Several angry town hall like meetings later this suggestion was withdrawn.) There are simply loads of people in this part of the county who LOVE to golf. And a lot of them would then have to drive to the upper part of the county. This would be stupid, but also show a complete disregard for those who live in the downcounty area and pay taxes. Meanwhile, it would also add more cars to crowded roads like 270. Again and again traffic planners have told us that one of the best ways to reduce traffic is to provide resources locally, and not force people to drive everywhere.

But also, the course is well used and well loved now. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Or, more to the point, don't throw it away.

And besides, many of us are suspicious about the reasons for the course's possible closure in the first place. Somethin just aint right in those numbers. Somethin just aint right in the way the whole thing has unfolded...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Native Plant Sale at Adkins Arboretum

Adkins Arboretum Public Plant Sale
Saturday, September 12, 9a.m. – 1 p.m.

Enjoy fall in the garden! A wide variety of native perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees will be for sale. Master Gardeners will be available to answer questions, and Arboretum docents will be on hand to lead guided walks.
Members, including those who join on the sale day, receive a 10% discount on plants, gift shop items, and new books. Sale days are popular and can be crowded, so please leave dogs at home. The sale benefits the Arboretum’s education programs and introduces the public to the beauty and benefit of gardening with native plants.

Monday, August 31, 2009

USDA's new green roof, as explained by ED!

My good friend and fellow volunteer, Ed, has just become a YouTube star.

Ed is famous in Montgomery County for being the go-to-guy on green roofs and stormwater. Now he's in a video that explains the impetus behind the USDA's new green roof in downtown DC.

Very cool!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Monarch caterpillars have "arrived" in the garden

Every year around the end of August, we find large numbers of monarch caterpillars in our garden. The butterflies come and go all summer, but we only see the caterpillars at the end of the season.

I always wonder if the ones we are seeing are heading off on the long journey southward. I always intend to research it a bit, read more on the topic. According to some of what I've read, it is possible. I would need to read more to be able to say that with more authority. But every year school starts and the butterfly reading gets lost in the shuffle.

I know that monarchs hatch all summer, but only the final brood or instar will head south on the long migration. Hard to know if this is the final brood in my garden , though, and I'm always left wondering why we only see the caterpillars now and not earlier in the year, too.

We never forget to watch for them, though, and their arrival is a big deal in my house. We climb out through our fake meadow (which is no more than a few feet across)... over the air conditioning compressor fan... around the basement window wells to the area where the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is allowed to grow free and tall. We watch them eat, we witness their growth, we search for their chrysalises elsewhere in the yard.

Finding one of those jewel-like sacs hanging upside down from a place like the coiled up garden hose is a bit like finding an Easter egg. I can't help but yell to the rest of the family with excitement.

Yesterday was the first day we saw the caterpillars out there, crawling around gorging themselves on the milky leaves. So far we've seen only three. We'll keep monitoring it, hoping to break the record of 2005, when we saw more than thirty in one day.

It never stops amazing me that our little city yard can host so much wildlife. I like to think that the monarchs will grow wings and head south. I like to imagine them floating up over Georgia Avenue, over the beltway, and across the streets of DC. I like to think of them months from now, hanging like garland from the branches of Mexican trees. Worth hoping for, anyway.
(Note: the photo above is a monarch, but the insect is not hanging from common milkweed.)

The Scourge of Styrofoam

I was at a big public event recently where styrofoam plates and cups were being used. The guy next to me in the food line saw me looking at my plate and exclaimed, "When are they finally gonna make it illegal to manufacture this stuff? We all know its bad."

I was thinking of that guy and the styrofoam when I read this week's Science News, where a story appeared about new research on just how bad styrofoam pollution has become in the Pacific Ocean. The most discouraging quote came from Bill Henry of the Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Plastics are a contaminant that goes beyond the visual,” he states. Yes, but the visuals are pretty bad, too. A photo accompanying the story shows a boy on the beach in Japan standing next to a huge thing that looks like a white boulder, which turns out to be a big blob of styrofoam. (The product breaks down in sea water, floats around, and then washes up again on the beach.)

When are we going to get around to banning that stuff???

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Working toward better butterfly habitats at McKee-Besher's park

An interesting email has been floating around on some of the Montgomery County environmental listservs this month. I asked the original author/poster of the message, Dick Smith, if I could put his stuff on my blog.

Those of us working on environmental issues put a lot of effort towards the preservation of trees in this county. What is interesting about Dick's thoughts, below, is that he proposes that we need to also remember to preserve all kinds of habitats, not just forested areas.

Dick has been involved in butterfly study and state and federally contracted surveys and conservation projects for butterflies for the past 30 years. He writes that he is not a professional entomologist, but as an amateur he has gained a lot of field knowledge and experience. He's an officer (Secretary) in the Maryland Entomological Society and takes the lead in their conservation projects.

I can't speak with any authority about his stuff on McKee-Beshers. I've only hiked there a couple of times. But I post it here because I think this is an important discussion to be having right now as environmentalists in a county blessed with green space and cursed by rapid growth.

In his email, Dick wrote:

"Thanks for cueing me in on the McKee-Beshers WMA discussion. This was a former hotspot for butterflies not far from DC and just north of the Potomac Riv. in southwestern Montgomery Co., MD. Phil Kean (MD Ent. Soc. VP) and I composed a list of butterflies from this area from our own and other local lepidopterists' records for the period from the early 1970's through the 1980's. The list appears on pp. 118-119 in Jeff Glassbergs's original 1993 book, "Butterflies Through Binoculars, A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region." We listed 81 known species (make that 84 now because we didn't know then about Harry Pavulaan's Hickory Hairstreak, Baltimore Checkerspot, and Summer Azure
record there).

Today unfortunately, many of the less common species no longer occur there. As far as I know, the missing species include:

1. Giant Swallowtail

2. Palamedes Swallowtail (most likely a stray)

3. Checkered White

4. Little Yellow

5. American Copper

6. Bronze Copper

7. Coral Hairstreak

8. Banded Hairstreak

9. Hickory Hairstreak

10. Eastern Pine Elfin

11. Henry's Elfin

12. White M Hairstreak
13. Spring Azure
14. Regal Fritillary (gone from most of East Coast too)15. Meadow Fritillary16. Silver-bordered Fritillary
17. Silvery Checkerspot
18. Baltimore Checkerspot
19. Long-tailed Skipper (as immigrant)
20. Hoary Edge
21. Southern Cloudywing
22. Northern Cloudywing
23. Sleepy Duskywing
24. Swarthy Skipper
25. European Skipper
26. Two-spotted Skipper

Clearly, this represents a loss of approximately 30% of the butterfly fauna from this area within the past 20 years. (Please drop me an e-mail if anyone has seen any of these species at McKee-Beshers in the last 10 years, and I will gladly drop them from the "missing" species list.) The loss is not an exception either. Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Westchester, NY, also written up in Glassberg's book (pp. 105-106), has suffered an almost similar fate (see Rick Cech's NY Times article, "Fluttering into Oblivion").

Why has this happened at McKee-Beshers? It has certainly not been anyone's intention, but my own observations lay the blame to management decisions and practices in the past 20 years that have been perhaps favorable to game species, hunting, and local farmers but detrimental to butterflies.

I see two primary factors:

1.) Ditching and draining of many open seep areas and wet meadowlands and replacement with dry-field croplands, apparently rented to local farmers. This is particularly obvious in several areas south of Hunting Quarter Road. Also, ditching, draining, and frequent vegetative clearances of large acreages of former wet meadowlands for hunting dog training areas. These are evident south of Hughes Hollow and also west of Sycamore Landing Road. Dogbane, milkweed species, Joe Pye, NY Ironweed, wild sunflower, and Mints were abundant and thrived in these areas before the conversions.

2.) Allowing all remaining formerly wet meadowlands to succeed to dense woodland.Restoring such areas for a wider range of wildlife, including butterflies, is however occurring in several areas along the East Coast. The Albany Pine Bush has been managed for Karner Blues for almost 20 years now.

A restoration project is underway in the Concord, NH area - see .
Ward Pound Ridge itself is undergoing restoration -see
Restoration of butterfly habitat is among the primary restoration goals at the Buckshutem WMA in Cumberland Co., New Jersey - see

We butterfly advocates in the DC area obviously need to get on the bandwagon. I am not aware of any remnant open wet meadowlands left at McKee-Beshers anymore. If anyone finds any, they need to be conserved and managed with butterflies in mind this time. If none exist, we obviously need to have some trees cleared out and let some open meadow wetlands develop over time in some of the existing wetland treed areas. Abundant plantings of native butterfly larval host and adult nectar plants would then also surely help.

Dick Smith

Conservation Projects Manager, Maryland Entomological Society."
(Special thanks to Patricia Durkin for letting me use the awesome pic of the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Clicking with Dog Day Cicadas

Seems like some of my best nature encounters happen in the early morning when I'm out walking the dog. This morning was no different; the dog placed her nose upon a large, live, cicada resting in the grass at the park. The cicada clicked, my dog sneezed, and I saw my chance to grab it and bring it home for some up close loud science.

The thing clicked and clicked over and over again as we ran home. I put it into our Big Bad Booming Bugs jar, so we could all take a close look. It peered out at us and waited. The clicking stopped. No one had the guts to put the head phones on... too afraid if it clicked we'd go deaf. Those things make some of the loudest sounds in nature.

The insect books came out and my kids hooted with laughter when I read that these bugs are called Dog Day Cicadas, due to the fact that they peak at this time of year. Found by a dog, on a dog day of summer....The dog days of summer have nothing to do with dogs or cicadas actually; the name comes from connections with astrology and the dog star, Sirius. '

We saved it in the jar with some leaves until one our best friends came by to play. Once she'd had a look and we'd all marvelled at the monster bug's oddness, we took it out of the jar and held it up to the sun. Then the clicking really started. We screamed, the bug levitated off my hand and we watched it join the hundreds of other cicadas up, up in the trees already clicking away in the heat.

(Read more about cicadas here, in an old edition of the Silver Spring Voice.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not THAT kind of Town Hall Meeting...

Realizing that no man – or woman – or garden -- is an island, I headed off to a town hall meeting on Tuesday night in Annapolis. This town hall meeting was not about healthcare reform, but it did involve some Obama administration officials and loads of unhappy people. No one chanted or threw chairs, but there were lots of reporters and lots of interesting things were said by citizens from all over the state.

The meeting was held to highlight an upcoming deadline. President Obama has asked his new top officials on the Chesapeake to draft a work plan for the Bay. The plan is to be submitted on September 9. Advocates had hoped that a town meeting would 1) give the EPA a chance to hear from locals and, 2) highlight the importance of submitting comments to the EPA now, before the draft plan is complete. A lot of the people who organized and promoted the meeting were saying it this way: what happens now could determine the work done on the Bay for the next decade or more.

I have to tell you that my hopes were not high for this event. Its August and in Washington, which is kind of like a political dead zone. Hypoxia for humans. There’s lots of stuff floating around out there in the political waters, but nothing is really happening. Its dead. Parking lots are empty, roads are clear for driving and there are a lot more seats available on the Metro. People aren’t really interested in starting new projects. Mostly, everyone counts the days till they get to go to the beach and people wait for Congress to get started again in the fall.

It was also hotter than the hinges of hell on Tuesday, a real scorcher of an afternoon. Emails were flying back and forth here in Silver Spring; a lot of people were wondering if anyone was going to show in Annapolis, and would it be worth the long trek over there at rush hour? It had been a long, hot day and maybe the whole thing would be a waste.

Well, turns out a lot of people have been waiting for a long time to talk about what exactly is wrong with the Bay and its recovery plan. A long time. Like, eight years. Now, we’ve got a president who might, I emphasize MIGHT, be interested in reversing some of the environmental damage that has occurred during the Bush years. People obviously came to find out just what Obama’s team intends to do. It was anything but a waste.

There was a real sense of urgency in the crowd, of feeling that someone upstairs needed to hear what the locals were saying and seeing. A lot of people there seemed to feel that we are fiddling while Rome burns, and that forty years of recovery don’t really mean much if the local governments are not held accountable, and that we might not know everything about forging ahead with a large scale recovery but we owe it to future generations to try.

The meeting was hosted by Environment Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and was held in a medium-sized church in the suburbs on Bestgate Road. This wasn’t a sleepy August meeting. Car upon car pulled into the lot, then they began to fill the field behind the church, then they began to line the streets in adjoining subdivisions. (I haven’t seen that many Priuses in one parking lot ever before.) And the people just kept on coming. The whole church hall was filled to capacity and then some. The church ran out of folding chairs, but people said, okay, we’ll stand. Then the room was so full there was no room to even stand, so big speakers were put up in the hallway and people sat out the hall, and up the steps, listening intently to what was being said inside. (The Baltimore Sun later reported that more 350 people were there.)

It was so hot in the main room that it radiated heat like a bread oven. But almost everyone stayed for the whole two hours, heat be damned. People turned their environmental flyers into fans, opened windows and sat like parishoners at an old home tent revival. If you build it, they will come. And come then did.

There was a whole team of people who seemed to be Eastern Shore farmers, wearing shirts that said NO FARMS, NO FOOD. There were guys in Docksider shoes who looked like everyone’s dad from the neighborhood I knew as a kid in Baltimore. There were sailing advocates, and guys wearing those “Retired Navy” baseball caps. There were surfer girl types, and animal rights activists. There were seniors citizens, and a girl in a bright pink sparkly skirt and her high school friends. There were activists from the urban heart of DC, and a whole slew of people in suits who looked like they were going to drown in the heat. There were college students wanting to make a difference, and loads of people with t-shirts saying they were with one creek group or another. (I was kicking myself for not wearing my Friends of Sligo Creek t-shirt, or my Anacostia Watershed Society tee which I saved from the 2005 clean up. Oh well.)

By the time the program started some on stage mumbled, “Man, it looks like the 80s tonite,” making reference to the years when Bay activism seemed to peak.

From that moment on, the energy in the room seemed to change somehow. It was almost as if people realized that the Bay might be dying, but interest in the Bay had only hibernated and gone local for a while. The people who love the Bay and want to change it have not died. The more they talked about their local activism and recovery efforts, the more the sense of purpose in the room seemed to coalesce. In light of the fact that the Federal government hadn’t been too keen on doing much for the Bay, people had been hard at work in their own little streams and towns. Now, they wanted to see if the Fed would step up the plate to help them.

The meeting was called to officially highlight two important things. President Obama has ordered the EPA and other federal agencies to draft plans by Sept. 9 to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Towards that goal, the president has named Chuck Fox as a special advisor on the issue. Mr. Fox was introduced to the crowd and after all the speeches were over, questions were taken from the floor.

The organizers had sent out emails asking people to come voice their concerns this way: “We want to be able to fish and swim throughout our Bay. We want marine life to thrive any time of the year. We want our blue crabs, oysters and rockfish back to healthy, plentiful levels. We need to unite our voices to overcome the big developers and chicken companies that are trying to drown us out.” Other notices had implored readers to “make sure Mr. Fox gets the message loud and clear.”

To start off the presentation, Don Boesch was asked to give a science update on the health of the Chesapeake. Dr. Boesch is the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

As someone who writes regularly about the science of ecology, I was so glad to have him on the docket to kind of frame the evening. I want science to be the compass in this fight. I understand the need to be guided by empirical evidence and the need to avoid making random guesses about where to go next. As a good scientist, he of course presented the crowd with a sense of objectivity. I listened with great interest to his “state of the Bay’s science” description.

The thing is, science’s uncertainty never goes over well with political crowds. People come to these meetings wanting definitive answers and solutions. It is a conflict that has occurred time and time again, not just in the Chesapeake Bay but anywhere in the world where science, culture and policymakers meet.

So it was no surprise that as Dr. Boesch explained that “the ugly truth is, we really don’t know if what we do is helping or hurting,” I could hear some of the people behind me groan. Nonetheless, I understood his message. We don’t know much about how to recover large ecosystems. We have to do better, we have to do more, but we have to check ourselves from time to time to see what is working and what is not.

It was the next part of his speech that seemed to resonate the most with a lot of people, though. Up till now, he pointed out, we’ve been relying mostly on voluntary measures to help the Bay. And one thing we do know: there are not many examples of times when strictly voluntary measures have netted results. Voluntary measures don’t cut it.

Mandates, strong mandates are much more effective. And although they may seem initially expensive, they can net positive social impacts. Farmers in Denmark, for example, have gained a great deal from incentives and requirements involving the reduction of nitrogen in that country, causing a 50% reduction in the country’s nitrogen run-off. We could learn from these kinds of examples.

After Dr. Boesch, a preacher from a small Methodist church on Smith Island named Reverend Edmund talked for a while. It was unclear (even to the minister himself) why he had been asked to talk. But as he described life in his small Bay town and how the livelihoods of the people there were disappearing, it became evident that he had been asked to paint a picture of the people who have lived on the Bay for decades and depended on its bounty to sustain themselves and their families.

As the heat continued to radiate from the room, no one left.

Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation took the stage next and gave the advocates’ point of view. There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news: green is in and we have O’Malley (MD’s governor) and O’Bama both saying they want to do more for the Bay. We do see some small improvements in the Bay. Mostly, he said, modest adjustments in the predictions made about dead zones created by the abundance of nitrogen in the water. Things aren’t as bad as we thought they’d be at this point.

The bad news, though, is of course the bigger deal. We certainly can’t declare victory. The Bay, its rivers and streams are still terribly polluted, he told the crowd. The fish are dying and getting strange growths. Infections are on the rise among those who fish and swim. The state of “The National Estuary” ought to make everyone ashamed.

Baker then outlined his ideas for change. State officials, he said, have said the Federal government needs to do more to support and enforce the legislation that is already out there. The EPA, he added, is far too much of an entrenched bureaucracy. They need to pick one permit in MD, VA, DE and PA and say they are going to enforce it throughout. And then do it consistently and well.

After Baker’s presentation, Chuck Fox the aforementioned new EPA Senior Advisor on the Chesapeake, gave his remarks.

“We have to look at a game changing solution,” Fox said. What has been done hasn’t worked so far. We have to bring down the numbers on nitrogen and phosphorus.

“I believe,” he continued, “that we can get there, or frankly I wouldn’t have taken this job.”

According to Fox, urban and suburban developments present one of the biggest areas for change and difference. Run-off from such areas are one of the only pollutants that are increasing in the Bay.

We have made big differences in agriculture, he explained, and there’s lots of enthusiasm in this sector for improving water quality. Agriculture also presents some of the most cost-effective controls that can be put in place. Changing what happens on farms can make a quick improvement.

Then: finally, finally, finally. The crowd was able to voice their concerns. People from watermen’s associations and neighborhood associations talked about sewage treatment being one of the biggest issues. Untreated sewage could be seen in the Bay regularly, people said. Why was this not addressed by anyone on stage, they asked.

A man from one of the local river groups discussed his own river’s struggles to deal with sediment left from sloppy home construction practices along the banks. He pleaded with those on stage to “give some of those millions you spend on studies to groups like ours, so we can go out there and do the work to solve these problems?”
(I personally found this last comment very disheartening. While I understand that man's frustration level, I also know that science funding has been cut to the quick lately, and it seems to me that one reason we don't know much about how to help the Bay is that we just don't fund enough really good science monitoring programs. Every time we get gauges set up out there we lose the funding we need to maintain them. I want more science funding AND funding to those working on the local level on solutions. But hey, I wanted a pony for Christmas once, too. So there you go.)

A woman who described herself as an environmental justice advocate from Bowie in Prince Georges County gave an impassioned, short speech that drew lots of applause from the crowd. There is no relationship, she said, between the local entities and these land use issues you discuss. No one at the local level is being made to abide by federal regulations. “Local interests,” she said, “are diametrically opposed to what the state and federal laws demand.” Such interests are far more worried about increasing their tax base than they are about the environment.

Another man who called himself a farmer and a retired engineer from the Conowingo area said people in his area were not so much canaries in the coal mines as they were people seeing “buzzards on the back fence.” He talked about the problems locals were seeing which were being ignored by those on the federal and state level. It would only take one really bad storm to make the dam a real disaster.

Another man pointed to the weakness of the stormwater permits in the Bay area, which seemed puzzling. Septic systems need to be addressed, said another speaker.

One man who said he was from a group working on the Magothy River talked about what his group had done and asked the simple question: “Where are you guys?” Pointing to Chuck Fox he pleaded: “Why don’t you come down to the river sometime? Down to the local level? See what is happening. We see it every day. We need you to enforce the federal laws.”

A woman who said she was from southeast DC took the mic and was incredibly eloquent and to the point. “I just want everyone to remember,” she said calmly. “The Chesapeake Bay includes the Anacostia.” All the pollution, all the problems….You can’t solve the Bay’s worries, she said, without solving the problems of that river. (I whooped in agreement with that, by the way. It is really weird that a lot of people don’t even know the Anacostia is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.)
There were tons of other comments. Some were kind of wacky, of course. Some sounded downright conspiracy theory-like. Some were just not relevant. But it was great to see such energy and enthusiasm, and find out there are loads of people who are working on their creek, their river, their spot on the watershed so hard.

As the evening closed down, it was amazing to see that the majority of those 350 people stayed through almost the entire event.
At the end, the Environment Maryland team reminded everyone that they should submit comments to the EPA now.

To read more about the upcoming deadline visit the Chesapeake Bay Program website:

You can also visit the Environment Maryland website:

And to read more about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, go to:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Carol Kaesuk Yoon: What's the big deal about Taxonomy?

I think this may be one of the best pieces of writing I've read in a long, long time: Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. Almost like reading a letter from a dear, intelligent friend. She ties in science, the need to relate to nature, and the need to make sure our kids get outside. And it is fun. I was reading this while eating alone in a restaurant and laughed outloud, prompting my waitress to do a double take. Only a truly great writer could make a story about the dying craft of taxonomy funny.

If you need something interesting to read because you are in an August state of mind, this is the ticket. Do not be afraid: you need not be a scientist to understand the big deal here.

Bravo, Carol.