Plant Trees While You Search the Web, with Ecosia

Ecosia is both a search engine and a social business founded in 2009 after CEO Christian Kroll took a trip around the world.

The idea is that you, as a user of the search engine, plant trees while you search the web.

Ecosia uses the profit they make from search ads to plant trees where they are needed most. As of this writing, Ecosia has planted more than 117 million trees. Yes, they publish their financial reports.

In terms of privacy, Ecosia does not create personal profiles of you based on your search history. They anonymize all searches within one week. In addition, they do not sell data to advertisers.

Here’s a review of the company.

Get the free browser extension and plant trees with every search.

Review of Naming Nature, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Reviewed by Michael Reinemer

In the midst of an accelerating mass extinction where we are losing species much faster than science can identify them, this is an engrossing look at taxonomy, or how we organize life on earth.

Yoon laments our disconnects from nature. A child living among the Indigenous Tzeltal Maya people in Mexico can identify about 100 different plant species, Yoon says. How many American adults can do that?

She provides an account of “folk” taxonomies that are binominal, two-word descriptors the predate Carl Linnaeus, the botanical whiz kid from Sweden who published Systema Naturae in 1735. That system laid out the framework that most of us learned, the Linnaean hierarchy — kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. (Of course, we use that every time we select an unadulterated native plant for our garden, relying on the scientific name — genus and species — rather than a vague or even misleading common or commercial name. Don’t we?)

Later schools of thought refined how we might arrange living things. Well into the 20th century, “cladists” organized the tree of life around the branches (clades) based on evolutionary relationships. They famously declared that, technically, fish don’t exist. Lungfish, they would explain, are more closely related to cows than they are to salmon. That news would have been nonsensical to Linnaeus, and perhaps blasphemous to Izaak Walton. Walton described his 17th century meditation on conservation, The Compleat Angler, as a “Discourse of Fish and Fishing.” In any case, the cladists’ fish-dissing were fightin’ words to other taxonomists. With breezy, engaging insights, Yoon chronicles the debates.

Want to review a resource? We’d love to hear from you. Instructions for submission await your click and commitment.

Drawdown 101: An Introduction to the Science of Climate Change

A well-reasoned, thoughtful conversation on climate, with data, stories, and counsel.

Dr. Jonathan Foley is the Executive Director of Project Drawdown and the California Academy of Sciences (which brings us iNaturalist).

Yup, the video is an hour, and absolutely worth the investment of time. Learn the science behind bending the curve, viable drawdown scenarios, environmental justice, potential technical interventions, and steps we ourselves can easily take.

Look here for curated Creative Commons classroom materials.

Your turn: Which videos and resources are your own go-to’s? Share them in Comments and we’ll add them here with pleasure and great interest.

Winter is for Nature Lovers

Article and photos by Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Don’t hibernate! Winter is for nature lovers.

You can glimpse Bald Eagles nesting, self-heated skunk cabbage wildflowers that resemble Georgia O’Keefe paintings, perky kinglets that pop up their ruby-red crests when they’re excited, sly foxes hunting for a mate, and many other winter wonders mentioned below. It’s enough to transform winter loathers into winter lovers.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

But before heading out on frosty trails, it’s important to gear up and to prepare so you truly have fun and stay safe rather than just enduring an uncomfortable walk.

Bring water, a snack, and a fully charged cell phone. Watch the radar with your own eyes and consult two different weather apps. Tell someone where you’re going. Dress for 20° colder than it is, especially if you’ll be standing around for more than 60 seconds. Wear layers. Feel fireplace-warm with a scarf, a hat, gloves, ear muffs, wool socks, and hand/toe warmers.  If it’s snowy, icy, or soggy wet, clip Yaktrax or similar cleats onto your waterproof shoes or consider Gore-tex boots or spiked trail-running shoes to stay warm and to prevent falling. Or grab your snowshoes or cross-country skis to discover more of winter’s treasures. 

There are also a slew of other benefits to winter treks, such as a shot of long-lasting energy, stronger muscles and bones, better cardiovascular health, and an uplifted soul.

Whose soul would not be inspired by watching colorful “snowbirds” that choose to winter in Virginia instead of Costa Rica, greenery that paints khaki forests with cheer, and Instagram-worthy views of landscapes and critters that are usually hidden by a tangled thicket of trees and shrubs? And did I mention that (virtually all) snakes and ticks are “sleeping”?

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


Some of my favorite winter birds are Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (no, it’s not a cartoon character), White-throated Sparrows (they sometimes sound like computers), Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Golden-crowned Kinglets (my latest infatuation), Red-breasted Nuthatches (2021 is an irruption year), and Dark-eyed Juncos (I once saw a leucistic one). I also adore photographing wintering waterfowl like Canvasback ducks with rusty red heads and bright red “vampire” eyes, elegant “super-model” Tundra Swans, chunky “boy-next-door” Snow Geese, and feisty American Wigeon ducks with green-striped heads and squeaky voices.

You can pinpoint these birds’ locations with the free eBird app and it can alert you to rarer visitors, like teensy but tough Rufous Hummingbirds.  (One is visiting the Beatrix-Farrand designed Green Spring Gardens as of late December, 2020.) Free Merlin, Audubon, and other birding apps can help you identify your finds with photos, bird songs, territory maps, and more. 

Red fox

You’ll know you’ve stumbled upon a sapsucker if you hear meow-like sounds and spot trees with perfect rows of square holes.  Itsy-bitsy Golden-crowned Kinglets might flit down beside you to show off their sunflower-yellow crests.  These and many other birds hang out in forests or at the forest edge, especially if it bumps into a meadow.  It doesn’t hurt if there’s a creek, a waterfall, a bird bath, or another water source nearby. In Northern Virginia and throughout the DMV, you’re never more than a mile from a “birdy” park or other public land. Winter ducks even promenade around the pond at Constitution Gardens near the U.S. Capitol.  Red foxes also live on the National Mall, parading around at dawn and dusk before joggers and tourists scare them away. Red foxes are probably prowling through your own backyard or neighborhood park in the winter since it’s their breeding season.

Juvenile Great Horned Owl

And don’t forget our common birds like fire-engine red Northern Cardinals (one of the most beautiful birds on the planet) that you can often see better without leaves obscuring your views. The more you notice about them, the more likely you’ll fall in love.  Relatively common birds like Bald Eagles and owls nest in the winter.  Depending on the weather, Virginia’s Great Horned owlets typically hatch in the winter. Fuzzy eaglets greet the world a tad later: by late winter or early spring.  But if you’re lucky, you might catch Ma and Pa Eagle adding new sticks to their massive nests in early winter and sitting on their eggs by February.  Both of these big nesters live along the Potomac River in Arlington near Spout Run. Another eagles’ nest flanks the main trail through the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. To find dozens of others in Northern Virginia, consult the Center for Conservation Biology’s unparalleled eagle nest map. Just don’t venture closer than 330 feet to an active nest or the feds might swoop in to bust you for breaking the law since eagles are still protected.  

At Dyke Marsh, you might also see Barred Owls “honeymooning” this winter.  Babies come a bit later. This popular peninsula on the Potomac River attracts a great variety of birds year-round.

Huntley Meadows Park is another “must see” bird hangout.  Cute Brown Creepers with two-toned curved beaks zip head first down the frigid tree trunks while Northern Pintail ducks dabble for dinner along the boardwalk of this locally famous wetland. If you’re extra lucky, you might spy a common muskrat chomping on its leafy green dinner. In late February and early March, woodcocks perform spiral “sky dances” to lure mates.

Muskrat

Some parks, like Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, hang bird feeders, which makes it even easier to gawk at beautiful birds close-up.   But you don’t have to visit those hotspots for a bevy of birds. Just trek anywhere along Fairfax County’s 40+ mile Cross County Trail and NOVA Park’s 45-mile W&OD Trail to find these treasures.  Before you go, open Fairfax County’s comprehensive “Trail Buddy” trail map in the free ArcGIS Explorer app and you’re all set.  With that in your pocket, try going on an adventure alone one day.  You’ll likely find more birds and critters.  Or if you’re in a group, stop often to listen for sounds of life.  

Wherever you go, you might encounter rascally raccoons, acrobatic eastern gray squirrels (and maybe some black morphs), white-tailed deer, and perhaps even a Virginia opossum, North America’s sole marsupial.  Salamanders and green treefrogs also stick around in the winter. Sometimes they’re no farther away than underneath a flat log or a hefty rock.  It’s best to leave them slumbering. (Unless you’re conducting an iNaturalist bioblitz!) But thumb-nail sized spring peeper frogs will announce where they are in late winter with their deafening, high-pitched wailing.

Virginia’s forests are dotted with green life all winter long. Clumps of American mistletoe are visible near the treetops. The white berries of this parasitic plant are poisonous for humans but a yummy snack for Cedar Waxwings and other crayon-colored birds.  

Lush Christmas ferns paint the forests a deep green hue.  Light-green, yellow-green, and gray-green lichens light up trees and rocks. Bog clubmosses form a spongy green oasis on the ground. Invasive plants, such as English ivy, wind their way up trees. They’re not good for the health of the trees, but birds and critters find them a warm and welcoming hideout. Pint-size partridge-berry plants (the Virginia Native Plant Society’s “Wildflower of the Year” in 2012) and spotted wintergreen plants also decorate the dirt.  The leaves of August-blooming Cranefly orchids stand out. They are green on top and plum-colored underneath.

Native and non-native flowers, berries, and seeds also brighten the winter woods. You can find little white snow drops spreading along the ground; sunshine-yellow leatherleaf mahonia and winter jasmine; spiky apricot-colored and pale yellow witch hazel flowers; and ivory and pink hellebores; along with brick-red sumac seeds, beaming American red holly berries; and glowing red winter holly berries.

And all those eye-candy seeds and berries must taste like real candy to critters and birds. Maybe they like them so much that it has transformed them from winter loathers into winter lovers. 

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Yesh Pavlik Slenk Hosts “Degrees,” a Podcast About Sustainability

Six inspiring episodes so far:

Why employees are key for a hopeful future, with Bill Wiehl

Chemical soup: The quest to create a toxic-free marketplace, with Boma Brown-West

Global recycling, career reinvention… and the double life of Vienna Teng, with Cynthia Shih

Tackling trash with data… and turning disappointment into delight, with Chris Kirschner

Climate intrapreneurship: Think big, start small, scale fast!, with Chris Castro

Transforming energy, unlocking change… and Bubba Gump Shrimp, with Steph Speirs

But, hey, start here for a real overview so you can meet the people and the host and the mission.

American Energy Innovation: The Federal Policy Landscape

This Zoom Webinar was held on Dec. 14, 2020, noon-1 pm

Here is a recording of the session.

Decarbonizing the US economy will require substantial investment in research, development, and deployment of technologies that have not yet entered the marketplace at large scale. There is bipartisan support for federal policy to support such clean energy innovation—particularly under the auspices of the American Energy Innovation Act, a multi-billion-dollar piece of legislation currently under consideration in the US Senate. (A companion bill, the Clean Energy and Jobs Innovation Act, was passed by the US House of Representatives in September 2020.)

Join Resources for the Future (RFF) at this important moment for innovation policy as they host a conversation, “American Energy Innovation: The Federal Policy Landscape.” Their distinguished set of panelists—including one of the lead architects of the American Energy Innovation Act—will discuss what parts of the innovation ecosystem policy can most readily support; how past innovation policies in the United States have fared, both in the energy sector and elsewhere; how the private sector takes signals from policies; and how the discussion around energy innovation policy has unfolded on Capitol Hill over the past year.

Speakers

  • Colin Cunliff, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
  • Spencer Nelson, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
  • Richard G. Newell, Resources for the Future
  • Kristin Hayes, Resources for the Future (moderator)

Additional speakers to be announced.

About the Advanced Energy Technologies Project

RFF’s Advanced Energy Technologies Project uses new research to incorporate a number of these advanced technologies into our E4ST power sector model, which offers a detailed representation of the grid and is widely used in policy analysis related to power sector decarbonization.

The related events series covers topics such as carbon capture and sequestration, advanced nuclear energy, enhanced geothermal systems, energy storage, and direct air capture. The series will conclude with an additional event showcasing the results of RFF’s analysis of how various policy proposals will drive investment in and deployment of these technologies.

RSVP

Rainbow Pools of Huntley Meadows Park

I am almost certain that most of the FMN newsletter readers have seen or heard of the phenomenon described in this article, commonly called rainbow pools. However, since I recently had my first opportunity, unplanned as it was, to photograph them at Huntley Meadows Park I thought I would share my good fortune. I was returning to the nature center following an afternoon of trail monitoring when conditions came together and gifted me with a fleeting glimpse of this colorful phenomenon. I say fleeting because several conditions need to be met to see the rainbow effect: A. decomposed organic surface slime, B. still waters, and C. just the right angle of sun light. And they were all in convergence as I unsuspectingly walked by; and alas, the effect dissolved in ten minutes as condition C degraded.

They are called rainbow pools because the surface coating on the pools resemble oily layers of red, blue, pink, yellow, purple, and colors that may not have a name. The coating is iridescent too like an oil slick but it disperses when disturbed unlike an oil slick, so disturbing the slick is a good way to test between the two.

HMP Rainbow Pool – photo Jerry Nissley

These rainbow pools are not a sign of pollution but are instead a natural occurrence in most wetlands. Given a combination of very still waters, a few days without rain or wind to disturb surface tension, and the correct angle of light, nature may provide you with a truly colorful experience. I have seen photos that show much more vibrant colors then in the ones I took. My personal observation is that the darker the water (more tannin) the higher the reflective value of the surface material. In addition, these pools sit among hardwood trees so less oil is exuded in the decomposition process of leaf litter when compared to pine or cypress forests. The pools in this section of the park tend to be temporal and, therefore, are less stained with leached tannins and oils creating a more pastel pallet.

HMP Rainbow Pool – photo Jerry Nissley

Most often the sheen forms as a result of decaying vegetation, especially from plant materials that exude natural oils, such as pine cones and needles. Another cause can be anaerobic bacteria breaking down iron in the soil. Once the cells begin to decay, they release a reddish slime material, which floats to the surface. Iron bacteria are of no threat to human health. They are found naturally in soils and water in low numbers and will thrive as more iron becomes available. Yet another example of how wetlands are ecologically important systems due to their high plant productivity and their capacity to recycle nutrients. Bacteria in wetland soils break down organic and inorganic structures.

The rainbow effect is typically seen during cooler months and as the sun approaches the lower degrees of an acute angle such as in the morning or as the sun is setting, providing the appropriate reflective angle. The pools pictured in this article are located in the back still waters off the wooded section of Cedar trail at HMP, not in areas near the creeks or other moving water. These photos were taken on 3 December around 3:30 p.m. as I finished an afternoon of trail monitoring. Other pools can be found in other sections of the park.

So you want to chase a rainbow? Try running down a rainbow pool at Huntley Meadows. But running on the boardwalk is not permitted … those trail monitors will get cha.

Learning Path: The Circular Economy in Detail

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation is sponsoring a free, self-paced class on the circular economy, which they describe thus:

“A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the “take-make-waste” linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources. After defining what an economy actually is, this learning path explores the nuances of the concept of a circular economy with text, videos, and interactive and reflective exercises. It probes the difference between biological and technical materials, the different opportunities that exist to keep materials and products in use, and the history of the idea.”

Super interesting material and great user interface–they both make a compelling case and make it easy to engage with the content. By the time you complete the reading, videos, and exercises, the benefits of shifting from a linear to a circular economy will be clear as will how they apply to all of the work we do as naturalists.

This opportunity is approved for CE credit for FMN members.

Check back regularly for links to additional resources from which you can learn more and, maybe, will want to review for us here. This subject is amazingly rich. Please share your thoughts and resources in comments and we’ll add them to this repo.

Hope Jahren: The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where We Go From Here. Honestly, the entire book is quotable, but here are some take-aways from one early Sunday morning: “An effort tempered by humility will go much further than one armored with righteousness…. We [scientists] are watching and working, not just worrying. Climate science is part of science after all…. Having hope requires courage. It matters how we talk about this. Everything we do matters.” (Consider starting with Appendix 1: The Action You Take, and then go dig into the data in the rest of the book.) By the way, she reads the audio book herself, and she’s a kind teacher.

Joel Onorato: Stop Going Round in Circles About the Circular Economy; also see his awesome presentation to the Sierra Club as pdf or live (along with the materials of the other panelists). “Keeping materials in use means preserving the maximum value of each thing that has been produced for the longest time possible. Reuse it as long as you can (give it to another user or share it). Repair it if you can’t reuse it as is. Or, if it has too little value, then remanufacture it (turn it back into something with an as-new condition). At worst, break it down and recycle each material (or compost it) for another future use.”

Rare’s Inspiring Human Nature: Tim Ma, Chef and Garbage Picker. “Tim Ma embraces his garbage. The famed Washington, DC-area chef and restaurateur is notorious for turning food trash into dinner treasure—which he does both for environmental sustainability and his bottom-line. ‘I don’t know how I became DC’s food waste champion,’ he laughs. ‘But I love talking about it.’” Meet someone who walks his talk.

Jonathan Safran Foer: We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. The term circular economy never appears in this book because it’s about particular decisions we make and “our all-too-human reluctance to sacrifice immediate comfort for the sake of the future. We have, he reveals, turned our planet into a farm for growing animal products, and the consequences are catastrophic. Only collective action will save our home. And it all starts with what we eat—and don’t eat—for breakfast.” Please don’t let that stop you from considering his case and drawing your own insights. He wields data as effectively as Hope Jahren, and he tells a story just as compelling.

Bringing Dragonflies to Your Yard

Article by Plant NOVA Natives staff

For anyone who enjoys watching birds at a feeder, there is another pastime available that is just as entertaining but less well known: watching the dragonflies and damselflies patrolling your yard. There are over eighty species in Northern Virginia, a few of which are happy to frequent our gardens if we offer the right conditions. Some are hefty and like to land on walkways, making them hard to miss. Others, including most damselflies, are so wispy as to escape our notice if we aren’t paying attention.

Most dragonflies lay their eggs in fresh water ponds and streams, where they hatch and live as little aquatic predators for years before emerging as adults. We can provide a breeding area in our yards by installing a pond, which need not be large and can be a do-it-yourself project. Frogs and salamanders will make it their home as well, and the sound and sight of moving water transforms any garden into a place to sit and watch the whole carnival.

All these pond inhabitants require more than just water. Dead leaves and algae are the basis for a pond’s ecosystem, as the tiny organisms that use them for shelter and food are themselves eaten by larger ones. It is therefore important to treat a pond not as a chlorinated fountain but as a living thing, avoiding excess cleaning and protecting it from insecticides or other chemicals.

Once dragonflies become adults, they spend their time catching large numbers of mosquitoes and other insects and looking for opportunities to mate. The males will find a perch near the water and guard against rivals, waiting for a female to approach. If you are lucky, you may see a female ovipositing, bouncing up and down as she dips the tip of her abdomen into the water to lay her eggs.

Even without a pond, your yard is likely to be visited by dragonflies if it is providing other natural habitat, because that is where there will be a balance of prey and predatory insects. Besides avoiding chemicals, the key to building that kind of habitat is to plant a lot of native species, because most plant-eating insects can only eat the plants with which they evolved. There are hundreds of species of garden-worthy native plants available, including a couple dozen species of native pond plants.

Here is a three minute video about the ups and downs of owning a fancy ornamental pond. The gardener who made that video has since learned that disruptions to the pond critters can be minimized by only cleaning the pond once a year in mid winter, and by leaving most of the algae and leaves in place. Information about native pond plants and how to care for a pond as habitat can be found on the pond page of the Plant NOVA Natives website. It is very fun to learn to recognize the various species. A great resource for that is Bob Blakney’s book Northern Virginia Dragonflies and Damselflies.

Virginia is for Wildlife Photography Lovers

Article and photos (c) by Barbara J. Saffir; Feature photo from dcr.viginia.gov

No need to zip off to Zimbabwe or cruise to Costa Rica to photograph cool critters, bodacious birds, and blindingly beautiful flowers. Just go on safari at a Virginia State Park.

Sunflower-yellow prothonotary warblers adorn the trees and the trails at Mason Neck State Park, practically in the shadow of the nation’s capital. Acrobatic dolphins frolic along the Atlantic Ocean beaches at pristine False Cape State Park. And perhaps Virginia’s most unique fantasyland of nature and wildlife can be captured at mountainous Grayson Highlands State Park, where fuzzy black bears forage in the forests and wild ponies pose by purple rhododendrons and orange flame azaleas along the legendary Appalachian Trail.

Virginia is one of the most diverse states in the entire country as far as flora and fauna go. And with 39 state parks — and counting, as more continue to open — all 8.6 million Virginians are roughly an hour away from one or more of Virginia’s award-winning parks.

Treasures await casual to advanced photographers year-round, though the critter parade and the backdrops change with the seasons. For example, winter is the best time to capture bald eagles nesting along the Potomac River at Mason Neck, Westmoreland, and Caledon state parks.

And with no leaves to block the views, it’s easier to catch mama eagle carting a carp in her razor-like talons to feed her famished eaglets. At Sky Meadows State Park in winter, no leaves mean a clear shot of a fox squirrel or a red-headed woodpecker.

In January along the muddiest of creeks, Virginia’s earliest wildflower blooms: curvy cranberry-and-yellow skunk cabbage, which harkens to a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Spring and summer literally paint a rainbow in all Virginia State Parks. Fields of bluebells glow at Shenandoah River State Park. Pink and yellow orchids burst into bloom at others.

Tawny chipmunks perch in mulberry trees and stuff their cheeks with squishy purple berries. Iridescent blue-green ebony jewelwing damselflies sun themselves on rocks and reeds. Red-orange scarlet tanagers fly home with juicy, green caterpillars dangling from their beaks to feed their babies. Violet coral fungus pops out of the musty brown muck.

Fall brings hawks with red shoulders, red tails, or red eyes by the droves to Kiptopeke State Park. And all over the Commonwealth, autumn brings orange, russet, red, and yellow leaves — and orange, russet, red, and yellow birds migrating through that tangled tapestry.

And sure, it doesn’t hurt to own an expensive DSLR camera with a long telephoto lens but a cell phone or pocket camera can capture many memories. One of my mentors started shooting with a $27 camera. Since she only photographed close-ups and never printed photos, it performed perfectly for online posts.

I still carry a point-and-shoot even when I’m lugging around a heavy camera and lens. Sometimes I use it to capture one of my favorite late-summer stars: itsy bitsy green treefrogs with sticky toes and gold eyelids at Leesylvania State Park. At Leesylvania and other state parks, gangly great blue herons sometimes venture so close that a long lens is almost worthless. And it’s especially good to snag close-ups of beauty-queen bugs like handsome meadow katydids with baby blue eyes and red, orange, green, yellow, and turquoise bodies.

At First Landing State Park, nabbing a shot of pelicans promenading above a sandy Chesapeake Bay beach at sunset does not lend itself to a pricy, “fancy-schmancy” camera. But if I’m photographing black bears when they’re gorging on blueberries in June, I prefer a 600 mm lens — and to take the photograph from inside my nice safe car!

Stalking wildlife with a camera is the same as a hunter stalking prey. The most successful safaris require patience, knowledge of the critters and their habitats, silence — and luck. Even when I’m hiking, I stop every few minutes to listen for the sounds of life.

If I glimpse a bird or beast I really crave, my patience grows to equal my desire to capture the subjects and share their beauty, in part so others also fall in love with them and work to protect them. And I always try to photograph ethically as the National Audubon Society teaches: never harm a critter or disturb its ability to thrive.

The best time to capture wildlife is typically near dawn or dusk. But I’ve grabbed some of my most memorable shots when other photographers were sitting on their sofas. Like tree swallows and other birds puffing up their feathers to cope with 95-degree heat at noon. And pint-sized southern flying squirrels — “fairy diddles” — with bulging eyes that only venture out at night. And a red fox and an otter fishing together like BFFs on a snowy riverbank on a blustery 20-degree day.

Every time of day — and every time of the year — is great for nature and wildlife photography. You never know what treasures you’ll discover.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation blog and has been reprinted with permission.