Thursday, June 23, 2011

Become a Master Watershed Steward

Below is an announcement from the organizers of the Master Watershed Academy. This a fantastic program and is a great way to help the Anacostia River in the Maryland-DC area.

Become a Master Watershed Steward in the National Capital Region!

Applications Open NOW - Deadline July 22nd

The fall course of the cutting edge National Capital Region-Watershed Stewards Academy will begin in September.

A 15-class course spanning 5 months, the Academy will be held primarily at the University of the District of Columbia at the Van Ness campus in DC right near Metro.

Through the course, we will help empower community activists and leaders help their neighbors change how they handle stormwater. Participants become Master Watershed Stewards by completing the course and taking on a Capstone Project that will begin to reduce pollution and runoff at its source, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Applicants will be drawn from the District, Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. Course charge is $225, but scholarships are available.

The Academy is being run by a coalition of local and regional watershed nonprofit organizations.

If you want to expand your activism and deepen your knowledge base and resources about the environment as it pertains to watersheds and stormwater management and the quality of life of your community, we invite you to apply to the Watershed Stewards Academy.

Please visit for questions and to apply.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Native Plant Database for Chesapeake Region Now Online

Last week the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and Image Matters LLC unveiled their new online Native Plant Center. The new site provides a very user-friendly way to identify and/or select native plant species for the Bay watershed.

The online portal includes a fully-searchable database and online access to their incredibly popular booklet titled Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

That small booklet with the long title is often simply called that "orange booklet magazine thing that has all those native plants in it." Being able to access the publication online anytime will be a real boon for those of us who find ourselves in field, garden or hardware store asking questions about the plants in front of us. (My own hard copy of the booklet is quite dog-eared and coffee stained at this point, and has traveled the state in the passenger seat of my car as I went plant shopping.)

"Since its release in 2003, the demand for the resource has never waned," said Leopoldo Miranda Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, referring to the booklet in a recent Alliance press release.

He's not kidding. I once was at a native plant meeting where someone opened a box of them to give away for free and the audience members descended like hungry hungry birds to grab their copies. Having it freely available online is really great.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hunting for Illusive Moth Caterpillars with John Dill

(Photo of the infamous slug saddleback caterpillar, Archaria stimulea, courtesy of John Lill.)

I was in a bit of a panic. For weeks I had been promising the five-year-olds in my nature class that we’d study tent caterpillars, just as soon as we saw them emerge in late April or early May. Now the time had come. We were almost half way through the month of May, and the course was about to end for the semester. But the tent caterpillars had not been seen.

I had checked for them each day since late April. Tent caterpillars particularly like the native cherry leaves, and often you can find their huge webby tents in the park where those trees sprout up with abandon. But my morning walks this spring resulted in the discovery of only one bedraggled caterpillar, all alone… sans tent and tent mates.

Tent caterpillars, those little black insects with the sky-blue stripes down their backs are sometimes mistaken for the much more destructive gypsy moths. But they are also beloved by suburban children who like to gather them up on warm, sunny days and treat them like teddy bears. Perfect content for a nature class, I had assumed, because they are both benign and abundant.

What I didn’t anticipate was the variability of spring weather. The caterpillars don’t like to leave their tents when the weather stays cool and damp, and this spring that phrase pretty much described the entire month of May. Cool and damp. Those insects were only really out for a couple of weeks, and in many places their populations did not really reach their typical numbers. There weren’t the usual masses of them to be seen in many local parks.

A friend finally came to the rescue when her kids up in Germantown found lots of the caterpillars and brought them to my class where we watched them make cocoons and prepare to turn into moths, so I was saved.

John Lill, who studies caterpillars at George Washington University, has often had to face similar problems when he’s headed out to the woods with students. Caterpillars lives can be impacted by all kinds of variables and may sometimes prove very difficult to locate in any patch of woods or lawn.

This can be especially true for those which he refers to as the “ephemeral” species in our area. Until I heard him use that word for caterpillars I had only ever heard it used in reference to certain plants. But as Lill described it, there are some caterpillars which are like those spring wildflowers -- they only appear for a few short weeks each year before they quickly form cocoons and turn into moths. This category includes the beloved and friendly-looking tent caterpillar. It also includes the hickory-horned devil, a huge, green creature with red and black horns which Lill called the “holy grail of caterpillar scientists” because it is so difficult to find on local trees.

Lill discussed hunting for the hickory-horned devil and many other aspects of studying moth caterpillars in the eastern forests of the US at the May meeting of the Friends of Sligo Creek.

I really enjoyed his talk, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I were listening to Dr. Who describe aliens from outer space. There were descriptions of caterpillars who ambulate without obvious legs, and others which look like sea urchins and sting like jelly fish. There were some who give painful pricks with their spines to evade the mandibles of wasps. Others he’s been studying can secrete liquids from hidden holes in their skin, or are covered with white hairs that look and act like spun glass.

“I am completely obsessed with these lately,” Lill said with great warmth as he worked his way through photos of slug caterpillars. His enthusiasm was equal only to that of the five-year-olds in my nature class, so it was easy to assume he must be very popular when he visits classrooms each year throughout Montgomery County to teach students about his multi-legged study subjects.

When asked about collecting the insects with kids, Lill emphasized three things:

1) Only collect the caterpillars you find on foliage. Never take a caterpillar home from black top or sidewalks, because you will have a tough time figuring out what your study subject needs or likes to eat. Most caterpillars are very specific in their dietary needs and habits, and will restrict their munching to one or two kinds of plants or trees. Without the right kind of leaf they will quickly die.

2) Figuring out what they like to eat is important, because caterpillars can eat a lot in one day! In fact, some species can eat enough to gain more than 10,000 times their own body weight over the course of development. This would be, Lill says, “like a child becoming as large as an elephant just a few months after its birth.” You should gather a lot of fresh leaves on a frequent basis.

3) Poking air holes in the lid of a jar isn’t as important as most people think. In fact, the amount of air most caterpillars need is pretty small and the air can be refreshed each day just by opening and closing the container’s lid. But what caterpillars DO need desperately is moisture, which is often released in a jar with lots of air holes. Lill says you can even use a zipper style plastic bag to keep the caterpillar moist, happy and healthy. He also likes to use recycled plastic deli tubs for his study subjects in the lab and for his school visits.

Although the tent caterpillars I described earlier are only around for a short time each spring, there are many caterpillars which become more abundant as the summer wears on and fall approaches. Lill will lead a walk sometime in late summer for the Friends of Sligo Creek, in order to teach people about these dynamic creatures. Keep your eyes on the Friends of Sligo Creek website for more details.

This piece was published in the June 2011 Voice newspapers of Montgomery County, Maryland where Alison Gillespie is the author of the Sligo Naturalist column.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Take A Survey About PEPCO's Tree Trimming

We've been lucky so far this season; the thunderstorms haven't knocked out the power for long periods of time like they did in the fall and summer of last year.

PEPCO, our local power company, has tried to blame the trees for all of those outages and many others which have taken place in the last few years, although several officials who have investigated have come to the conclusion that PEPCO's own poor management is probably the ultimate culprit.

Last week a letter to the editor of the Gazette newspapers brought the issue forward in a new way, and it seems the Montgomery Countryside Alliance is calling attention to the issue of PEPCO's severe trimming practices in our county's Agricultural Reserve.

Caren Madsen, one of the authors of the Gazette letter, sent around the message below and ask people to take the survey and forward the link:

"Before Pepco goes into more overdrive on trimming with summer storm season approaching, let's see what others around the county are saying. "

Here's the survey everyone, have at it:

Film Screening and Lecture about Organic Lawns

Here are two events being publicized by the Little Falls Watershed Association. (Although I've heard that Paul Tukey is a great speaker, I personally think the better bet of the two events below is probably the film screening.)

Renowned Environmentalist Paul Tukey discusses Organic Lawn Care:
The Safe Lawn: How & Why to Create a Beautiful, Natural Landscape
Monday, June 13 2011• 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Tenley-Friendship Library
4200 Wisconsin Avenue NW #117, Washington, D.C.
Presentation is FREE and open to the public

Free One-Night Screening and Appearance by Filmmaker Paul Tukey
“A Chemical Reaction: The Story of a True Green Revolution”
Tuesday, June 14, 2011•7:00 pm – 9:30 pm
Wayside Elementary School
10011 Glen Road, Potomac, MD

Acclaimed film is based on the first town in North America to ban lawn and garden pesticides.
If you have any questions or would like to attend please contact
Stephanie Wight

Sunday, June 5, 2011

MoCo Street Tree Update

I was thrilled to read an article in the most recent update from Conservation Montgomery about the street tree budget in Montgomery County.

As someone who has advocated hard for the street tree program, I had become very worried about the huge backlog of maintenance the county's Department of Transportation had acquired in the last two years. Without funding, trees inspections were not happening in a regular or timely manner either, which seemed like a big safety problem waiting to happen.

According to Conservation Montgomery, about $2 million in county street tree maintenance funding will be restored to the FY12 operating budget which was approved by the Council. Although that is a meager portion of the overall budget, it will help to alleviate the backlog of work which has built up regarding the county's 425,000 right-of-way trees. And in this tight budget time, it seems miraculous.

Visit Conservation Montgomery online to read more.

Honeysuckle As Sunblock Boost?

In urban parks like Sligo Creek and the Northwest Branch, the fight against invasive exotic plants often produces huge amounts of leafy garbage, prompting land managers and volunteers alike to wish for some creative use for all of the so-called “yard waste.”

In the past this has led to garlic mustard recipe books and kudzu cook-offs, and even artwork made of vines. Such efforts, however, seem to barely make a dent in the huge amount of green stuff pulled from our parks in order to save the trees and native plants.

So I was really excited to read last week about a paper recently published by the American Chemical Society on a potential new use for honeysuckle. Writing in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, two Chinese researchers say they’ve found a way to use honeysuckle to boost fabric’s ability to block UV rays. This new discovery could potentially improve the design of so-called “sunblock shirts” by making them more effective and more sustainably produced.

The researchers note that honeysuckle has long been used to treat colds and fevers in Asia, and that it is currently also used as a food preservative. Some cosmetic makers also use the plant in products which are touted to make customer’s skin look younger.

There’s a down side to all of this, however. The initial research was conducted on fabric made of wool, and most of us are searching for sunblocking clothes which are both lightweight and UV protective.

Still, it would be nice to find a good use for all that stuff strangling the trees out there in the park. And I wonder what it smells like, too… sweet, or wooly?

June Concert Series at Brookside Gardens

On Friday afternoon I went over to see this year’s Wings of Fancy Exhibit with some relatives who were in town for the day. I never get tired of Brookside or the butterflies, and we were even delighted to have a Baltimore Oriole land a few feet away from us in the raingarden as we walked by.

This June, Brookside will once again hold concerts each Tuesday night. These concerts are free!!! And I’m told that the garden staff is willing to bend their usual strict rules against bringing food – they’ll look the other way so long as you take all of your own trash home with you. So bring a picnic and a date! (And a garbage bag...)

For a full concert schedule, visit the park online: