Tag Archives: C&O Canal

Enjoying Nature During the D.C. Summer: Go Early, Go Often

by Howard Youth

The nation’s capital wears its thick cloak of green this time of year. The towering trees, the flourishing vines, the humidity. Tourists feel they’ve stumbled into a tropical city. But, no, it’s just Washington, D.C. in summer. A very exciting time and place for the naturalist. So, drink a lot of water, accept the sweat, and head out early to the city’s wonderful natural areas. You’ll be richly rewarded.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

In 1976, at the age of ten, I developed an interest in reptiles. Two years later, herons grabbed my attention. These alluring birds drew me into birding, a passion I keep to this day. In Washington, D.C. at this time of year, if you are up early and near the Potomac or Anacostia rivers, you are bound to see a heron of some stripe. When you watch one stalk the shoreline in search of frogs or small fish, it’s easy to agree with the many paleontologists who believe birds evolved from trim, predatory dinosaurs. One of the best heron-watching sites is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Walk the boardwalk into the restored tidal marsh there, or stroll along the lily and lotus ponds. By July, herons dispersing from bay or coastal breeding areas augment the small number of herons present in the area through the breeding season. At Kenilworth, you will likely see the small green heron, the large, grumpy-sounding great blue heron, and the great egret. But others show up, especially in July and August, and these might include little blue heron, black-crowned and sometimes yellow-crowned night-herons.

From July into August, spotted immature black-crowned night-herons loiter around the National Zoo’s Bird House, having just left their nests in the trees. The zoo’s night-heron colony is just one example of how zoos around the world not only exhibit, but also attract, wild creatures. The zoo is open very early for walkers, joggers, and nature buffs. If you walk from the Connecticut Avenue entrance down to the bottom of the hill and back, you not only get a great workout, but you also have the chance to see wild gray catbirds, eastern chipmunks, woodpeckers, wood ducks, cardinals, white-tailed deer, and of course gray squirrels, including black-coated ones that descended from black phase gray squirrels released at the zoo last century. These black squirrels hailed from Ontario. In many parts of that Canadian province, most gray squirrels are black.

Summer in Washington means noticing those small creatures you might have missed in other months. Even if you close your eyes, you can’t ignore the city’s summer wildlife. Listen to the growing crescendo of buzzing annual cicadas, invisible but seemingly everywhere, or the chittering of chimney swifts catching insects high over the city streets. With the abundant heat and humidity, dragonflies and damselflies flourish, snapping up mosquitoes and other small flying insects. At dusk, you might see bats doing the same thing.

Sun-drenched stumps and rock walls may be adorned with five-lined skinks, small and shiny lizards. The females and young sport black stripes running down their backs and flashy blue tails. Males are gold with red heads. Green frogs and bullfrogs, snapping and painted turtles, and maybe even a snake or two will cross your path. Likely snakes include common garter snakes and black rat snakes. The northern copperhead, the only poisonous species in the area, is rare in the city and unlikely to be seen.

While spring in Washington boasts tree and shrub blooms—yoshino and kwanza cherries, dogwoods, mountain laurels, redbuds, azaleas—summer has colors all its own. Day lilies, herbs, meadow flowers such as asters and butterfly weed, and of course, ornamental crape-myrtles: these are plants you see coloring the view at the landscape level. If you don’t want to miss anything, remember that when it comes to appreciating nature, it pays to stop and look around at the small things. The unheralded jewelweed grows in clumps along waterways and moist woodland edges. Its tiny but spectacular blooms draw hummingbirds. The white and red clover and dandelions growing in the lawn attract many pollinating insects, and cottontail rabbits as well.

Growing up in the area, I spent many hours exploring the C&O Canal. If I imagine the tow path, it’s usually a still summer morning, with a bit of mist rising from the water, a dense overhang of American sycamore, tulip tree, and mighty oaks. Another persistent memory: Walking across the entrance bridge to Roosevelt Island, blue-backed barn swallows drifting over the water with a backdrop of tangled vegetation, a mix of vines, shrubs, and trees that made it easy for me to fall in love with tropical places. For if you spend July and August in Washington, D.C. you feel that the heat, and the bounty, of equatorial realms moved north for a spell.

youthHoward Youth is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C., published by Johns Hopkins Press.

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Spring Returns to Washington (Really!)

Guest post by Howard Youth

April is a month when there’s no denying winter’s retreat. Even if the thermometer dips below freezing, it rarely stays there for long. Days stretch longer, too. For local plants and animals and the wildlife enthusiasts who observe them, it’s a very busy time.

Washington, D.C. is a capital city not only in the geopolitical sense, but also in a much more animated way. Its location, chosen by George Washington as the best place for a seat of government and commercial hub, also serves the naturalist very well. Washington hosts a staggering array of living creatures thanks to this happy combination of factors: it sits between north and south, at the confluence of two rivers, and along the fall line where piedmont meets coastal plain. Grab a backpack, a pair of binoculars, and a handy field guide (may I recommend my book?), and you will see what I mean. Let’s start with some famous flowering trees.

Youth-cherry-treeMost tourists hope to visit Washington, D.C. in spring. It’s always a gamble planning ahead and trying to be in town when the cherry blossom trees bloom. Here are some insider tips for cherry blossom watching this time of year. First, keep an eye on the National Park Service web page, where you can find updates on predicted bloom dates. Of particular interest is the predicted date for peak bloom, when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry tree blossoms (pictured above) are open. Top spots for viewing include the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. But you also want to visit East Potomac Park, where you find not only the Yoshinos but also the later-blooming Kwanzan and other ornamental cherry varieties. All of these locations are detailed in the Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C. Following the ferocious winter, this year, the cherry tree experts predict the Yoshinos’ peak bloom will fall between April 8 and 12. Last year’s peak hit within this window, on April 9. The year before was an early March 20.

But when it comes to wildlife—and I’m not talking the bar scene here—Washington, D.C. is so much more than Yoshino blooms. Below are just a few highlights. All locations mentioned here are detailed in the field guide, including visiting tips and key wildlife-watching locations, as well as identification tips.

As you walk around the capital city, watch for these sure signs of spring:

  • Millions of tulips and daffodils blooming in various parks, including along the George Washington Memorial Parkway (Lady Bird Johnson Park in particular) and at the National Arboretum, Dumbarton Oaks, the National Zoo, and many other places.
  • Walk the C&O Canal tow path and keep your eyes open and your ears ready for abundant bird song. Early this month, the adjacent Potomac River provides a corridor for migrating waterfowl and hawks. After the third week of April, neotropical migrants arrive, stake claim to territories, and begin building their nests. These birds include Baltimore and orchard orioles, warbling vireos, yellow-billed cuckoos, great crested flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers. Barn, tree, and northern rough-winged swallows arrive shortly before these species.
  • For other creatures, the business of raising young is well underway. During April, many birds fledge their young, including five woodpecker species, American robins, blue jays, European starlings, Carolina chickadees, and common grackles. Young eastern gray squirrels frisk about. Rare sights in winter, eastern chipmunks and woodchucks (or groundhogs) become familiar sights again in Rock Creek Park, Fort Dupont Park, and other green spaces.
  • Temperature also plays a role. Temperatures above 60 degrees mean dragonflies will be active and bats will be wheeling around at dusk. Above, say, 50 degrees, you may hear tiny frogs called spring peepers “beeping” in low, wet areas, or hear the long trill of breeding American toads. Warm, sunny days draw out the local reptiles, including eastern painted turtles, common water snakes, and striped lizards called five-lined skinks.
  • April also heralds the widespread return of insects. Eastern tent caterpillars’ gauzy nests appear in the crotches of cherry and other trees. Nesting and migrating birds such as cuckoos and orioles feast on this easy protein source, while tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers gather some of the caterpillar nest silk for their own cup nests.
  • Spring ephemeral wildflowers accent floodplain forests this month. These include mayapple, Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, and spring beauty.

But April is just a great head start for anyone interested in Washington, D.C.’s varied wildlife. At any season, there is much to see here. At the National Arboretum, for example, you will find something in bloom most months. Even in the dead of winter, sparrows, woodpeckers, hawks, and ducks liven up the landscape.

For those who care to look, every day in Washington, D.C. is a celebration of nature. It’s easy to escape the grind by retreating to the city’s many parks. Any naturalist knows that, when it comes to wildlife, Washington is truly a city that never sleeps.

youthHoward Youth is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C.  He is a freelance natural history writer and former associate editor and communications manager for the Friends of the National Zoo. His work has been published in Audubon magazine, National Wildlife, and the Washington Post.  The book’s illustrator, Mark A. Klingler, is a natural history artist in residence at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and illustrator of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, also published by Johns Hopkins. The book’s photographer, Robert E. Mumford, Jr., is a wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in Birder’s World, Smithsonian Zoogoer (the National Zoo’s magazine), and the New York Times.

 

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