Saturday, January 29, 2011

Adventist Hospital Pollutes the Creek (AGAIN!)

Once again a steward of our neighborhood creek here in Montgomery County came upon pollution entering the watershed due to the negligence of someone associated with Washington Adventist Hospital. You can read her report in full here.

If you see any kind of pollution or dumping along the creek please use this helpful link on the Friends of Sligo Creek website to report the trouble. Much of the info here can be used to report problems along at Montgomery County waterway.

This story proves once again it is usually the local neighbors who actually walk the banks of the creek everyday and who know what is really going on. We are, essentially, the eyes and ears of our streams. It is up to us to alert officials to problems as they happen.
One of the biggest stressors on the creek is the enormous amount of urbanization along its banks and within the overall watershed. But this can also be one of the creek's biggest assets; there are more of us to see problems and see that they are addressed.

If you see trouble, please report it right away. As Marty Ittner reflects, it is sometimes prudent to first call the Fire Department if what you are seeing or smelling seems to be fuel.

But, given the fact that 911 is habitually overwhelmed to the point of giving a busy signal, driving straight to the fire station might actually get you faster service. (I only wish I was kidding.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Bill to Banish the Bags in Maryland

Stopping those Urban Tumbleweeds:
The Sligo Naturalist for January 2011

December was a very windy month. I spent a lot of mornings walking my dog through an empty park with my collar turned up against the cold, watching the tumbleweeds roll across the abandoned soccer fields.

Only wait!… those weren’t tumbleweeds. They were plastic shopping bags!

One particularly blustery morning I worked with my kids to untangle no less than five of them from a single brambled corner of our local park. We hurried to catch them and dispose of them before they sailed towards our favorite tall oak trees. Sometimes the bags make their way to the highest branches there, mocking us with their crackly calling sounds for years.

The bags can be more than just noisy and unsightly; they are also increasingly seen as a potential health hazard. Many times they make their way to streams and rivers. In fact, some past trash clean-ups in our area have recorded close to 30,000 of them along the Anacostia’s banks – and that only includes the ones which volunteers were able to snag by hand and record for the official count. The ones that remain behind drape themselves across the shrubs that line river banks like parodies of weeping willow branches, sometimes strangling animals and suffocating aquatic animals who mistake them for prey.

What’s more, the plastic in the bags does not biodegrade -- it simply becomes part of the industrial flotsam which is now accumulating in the world’s oceans. There is growing scientific concern about the effect the plastic particles from bags and other kinds trash are having on the planet’s food webs. The fish eat the plastic… we eat the fish… we all consume the pollution.

So with all of these things in mind I heartily celebrated the January 1 anniversary of the new DC bag law. It has been one full year since the District imposed a five cent fee on all plastic bags given out in the city during retail transactions, and by all accounts the new law has been a resounding success. Retail bag use has declined by 80 percent since last winter.

Groups that work to clean the rivers have even noticed a reduction in trash. The Alice Ferguson Foundation, a group that works along the region’s rivers each year, saw a marked reduction in the amount of bags reported during their events last spring.

“Plastic bags were down sixty percent at the clean-ups,” Julie Lawson from the Maryland’s Trash Free Alliance told me. “That was only three months after the law went into effect.”

Initially, there was doubt about how it would all work, even from those in environmental quarters.

"I was really shocked at how effective the small fee was in DC. You wouldn't think that five cents a bag would change anyone's behavior. But apparently it really helped make people think twice about needing a bag," Michael Wilpers, President of the Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC), said at the organization’s December meeting in Silver Spring.

FOSC had gathered that night to hear State Delegate Al Carr from District 18 discuss the possibility of enacting a similar bag law Maryland next year. Carr worked on a bill about bags last year in Annapolis, but was unable to get the support needed from other regions of the state. He suspects the fact that it was an election year during tight budget times made candidates blanch at the idea of imposing any kind of new fee on anything.

Carr and State Senator Jamie Raskin, however, have had tremendous constituent support in our local area for their proposed bill, which would place a five cent fee on all single-use plastic and paper bags distributed at carryout food establishments and liquor stores in the state. Raskin’s supporters even handed out reusable bags imprinted with his name to promote his support of bag reduction at parades and other events over the summer, and Carr thinks his own sponsorship of the bill helped him become the “top vote getter” in the general election in November.

“Support the bag bill and you’ll be supported by the voters,” Carr told me over the phone recently. He plans to take that message to Annapolis again this year, where he hopes to gain new support for the legislation.

Some have worried that a bag fee might disproportionally impact low income families in Maryland. To answer this concern, reusable bags would be distributed in neighborhoods where poverty remains a constant problem and the bag bill’s authors say a large portion of the money collected from a new bag law could be used to fund environmental restoration projects. The funds would most likely be made available through grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

In urban areas like those around DC and Baltimore, it is often the impoverished communities which suffer the most from pollution’s many ills. To have the bag fees available for environmental projects in such locations would add an extra bonus to the bag reduction law.

Maryland’s Trash Free Alliance has started a blog ( about the bag bill for those who are seeking more up-to-date information as the legislative season gets under way this year.

When I visited the site last week I was really entertained by entries about activists in California who are working on bag reduction programs. You can find, for example, a link to a “mockumentary” narrated by actor Jeremy Irons about the “life” of a plastic bag in his state’s “wild urban environment.” You can also find pictures of protestors in San Jose who staged a protest at a city council meeting, complete with people dressed in Bag Monster costumes made entirely of plastic bags. What surprises me is that this same kind of political theater hasn’t happened in Takoma Park… at least not yet!
This article was originally published in the Voice newspapers of Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Kensington.

Beavers Trying to Dam Sligo Creek Again

There’s evidence of beaver activity along the Sligo again. This time the animal has been spotted just behind the soccer fields, across from the Sligo Golf Course and south of Holy Cross Hospital.

Apparently it has been, well, busy. At least twenty small sized trees had been cut by the animal’s teeth as of last week, and several medium sized trees also showed evidence of incisor damage.

I took my kids out for a glance. We were hoping to see the actual beaver swimming around, but no such luck. What we did see was an obvious attempt at dam building, just above the pedestrian bridge that crosses the stream.

Owl Prowls Full

Note to self: when you write about an upcoming program in Montgomery County, be sure to register for the program yourself before the article gets published!

I just tried to register for the Owl Prowl up in Wheaton and found we'd have to settle for the WAIT LIST. This month's prowl had been hotlinked from the article I'd submitted to Homeschool Montgomery this month.

Glad to know the program is popular now. A couple of months ago we were the only family in attendance.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Following Urban Owls in Silver Spring: The Sligo Naturalist

I thought the dog had a serious nose whistle. Know what I mean by that? Like, when someone breathes in and out in their sleep and it makes a little breezy whistling noise? Not a full snore, mind you, kind of a teeny, tiny snore. A nose whistle.

But how, how was she able to make that noise??? I couldn’t figure it out. I was awake in bed with terrible insomnia, and she was in her little cozy dog bed. Was her nose against something hard, like the wall? It was such an ODD nose whistle.

There it was again.

But wait!! That wasn’t her. She was awake in the dark wagging her tail, wondering why I was staring at her. Suddenly, so was my very groggy husband whom I had accidentally awakened.

“Do you hear it?” I asked him. We both listened. Toot toot tooooo… Toot toot toooo…

“Uh, yeah, I think it’s an owl. Go back to sleep,” he said with exasperation.

The thing was, I wasn’t expecting to hear an owl out our window. We live awfully close to several urban arteries, and very close to the busiest section of the capital beltway. This ain’t Walton’s Mountain.

Whoo who whoooo…. it went again. Whoo cooks for you….

I was dying to get out of bed, but that would have been too disruptive and my poor husband had just gotten back to sleep. Could that REALLY be an owl in my yard? Gosh I was just dying to know. Now I really would never sleep. This was far too exciting.

I should not have been surprised. Several different neighbors have reported seeing owls in the last two years. One emailed videos of a large bird that did, indeed, seem to be a barred owl, splashing around in her bird bath. Another friend woke up one morning thinking she was hearing a domestic dispute in the empty house next door and instead found two owls sending jolly messages across the two sides of her back deck. She was unsure of what species but said they were pretty big. And just upstream, at the headwaters of the Sligo, people see and hear owls all the time.

Even so, I still mostly associate owl calls with camping in the mountains. For one thing, almost all of the local owl species like to nest in the hollowed out parts of old, dead trees. There just aren’t a lot of those in the close-in suburbs Montgomery County. For another thing, these birds are known to do best in large tracts of forest, which really is not a sentence any planner would use to describe Silver Spring these days.

But somehow the owls, like many other birds of prey, are adapting and continue to be out there among us. In fact, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, most barred owl populations seem to be increasing, placing them in the category of species which are of the “least concern.” And the birds seem to be living pretty happily in certain urban areas.

So maybe the only reason I don’t hear them so often is because I don’t really camp in my own back yard.

Last winter I became particularly fascinated by these tenacious birds, and I decided to go on one of Brookside Nature Center’s Owl Walks in December. About four other people came along, including one couple that seemed to be on a first date. (How cool is that?) We all bundled up and headed out into the dark with a naturalist who had some recorded owl calls in hand.

We hiked with flashlights in the lighted snowy woods, and tried not to giggle too much. It was kind of exhilarating, and I kept thinking of those goofy shows where people try to find Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. Anyhow, once we got deep enough into the woods we turned off the lights and played the recordings of screech owls. Sure enough, a real owl in the distance answered. Eventually, the real owl even came closer, flying just about eighteen inches over our heads in the dark. We were able to spot its silhouette in the trees and caught a glance of it with a flashlight. It blinked, then quickly flew off.

Eastern Screech Owls have long been common in urban habitats and like the barred owls are considered a species of “least concern.” They are tiny – measuring in at anywhere between six and nine inches tall -- but tough. They can eat songbirds that are their equal in size and weight.

Their calls sound so much like a scream that it is easy to see how they got their name. I am sure anyone hearing that sound along a busy part of our watershed would certainly think they were hearing something quite frightful and human.

But they also make a really cool sound which isn’t scary at all. Its almost like a coo, trilled over and over. It is sometimes referred to as the Bounce Song. The screech owls, which are known pair up for life, use this song to call to their potential mates across the woods.

Like other owls they also have HUGE ears which are really just holes hidden deep under soft feathers at the sides of their heads. The holes are surprisingly unsymmetrical, which enables the owls to be excellent hunters.

The only thing that beats seeing and hearing an owl call in person is dissecting an owl pellet. If you want a really cool way to learn about owls at home, you can order these one online. The pellets (which arrive after being sanitized in a autoclave) are not poop; rather, they are the little tufted balls of the leftover stuff that the bird is not able to digest when it gulps down its prey. Fur, feathers, bones, teeth… these can all be found in the mix. It is possible to play forensic scientist and ID what the owl ate for dinner. There are loads of charts online that will help you figure it all out.

Really experienced birders also say you can find owl roosts by looking in the woods for these pellets on the ground near hollow trees. I’ve even met a few bird watchers who claim that they can tell you immediately what species of bird left what kind of pellet.

I’ll keep looking, although I doubt I could do that kind of expert ID at this point. I have learned, however, to hear the difference between a dog’s nose whistle and a barred owl, which will come in handy someday if I decide to go camping in my own backyard with the dog.

(This article was originally published in the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington in November 2010.)