Archive for January 2014 | Monthly archive page

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D.C.’s Wintering Birds Are Right Outside Your Door

A snowy owl perched on the Washington Post building last week, causing a 15th street commotion as locals and bird-enthusiasts scrambled for a sighting. The bird sighting, though unexpected, wasn’t all that rare this year. Snowy owls have been spotted across many southern states, and scientists aren’t totally sure why — but Harry Potter fans are delighted at the influx of Hedwig look-alikes.

But if you missed the snowy owl, have no fear! Even in winter, D.C. is rich with bird species — adorable snowy owl aside. Some of the city’s most exquisite ones might even be perched on the lamppost right above you.

Next time you take a stroll through Rock Creek Park, keep an eye out for some of D.C.’s loveliest winter birds:

Tufted Titmouse 

A  little gray bird with an even littler mohawk, the Tufted Titmouse is a has big black eyes, a small rounded bill, and an echoing voice.

If you miss the mohawk (also known as a bushy crest), you’ll be able to recognize it by its black patch right above the bill, surrounded by a silvery-gray back and a white front. They like to hang around chickadees and woodpeckers, and when it comes to birdfeeders, they dominate the smaller birds.  Titmice flutter when they fly, and can be found in backyards and parks.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

It’s probably easy to guess the defining characteristic of the yellow-rumped warbler: a stark patch of gold, smack dab on the tushie. The rest of the bird’s colors are subdued throughout winter, mostly a pale brown except for the rump. But in springtime, their molt brings an infusion of bright yellow, grey, and white to their feathers.

These warblers are larger than the songbirds mentioned above. They have a large head and a long, narrow tail. They like open woods and shrubby habitats, especially in parks and residential areas, and they whistle a sweet, even-pitched trill.

Golden Crowned Kinglet

The king of the songbirds (or perhaps, the kinglet), the Golden Crowned Kinglet is another tiny bird with a big voice. They have relatively large heads with very short, small bills, and skinny tails. You’ll spot them by their distinctive feather pattern: a bright lemon-yellow crest outlined bluntly in black, a pale olive body encasing a black-and-white striped face, and black and white wings edged in yellow.

The kinglet often keeps very high in the trees so it can be hard to find right away with the naked eye — better to listen for their thin, high-pitched song.

Hermit Thrush

The Hermit Thrush is a soft brown bird that sings a melancholy song.

You’ll be able to recognize it by its throat — with brown smudged spots that give way to soft white feathers — its chestnut head and back, and its warm reddish tail. The thrush is similar in stature to the American Robin, but slightly smaller. Its tail is fairly long, its head upright.

Hermit Thrushes hang around understories, so you don’t have to crick your neck to see it on your next bird-watching outing!

Downy Woodpecker

On the smaller side for a woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker is the most common of its subspecies in urban areas. A black-and-white striped forager, you’ll be able to spot a male by red patch on the back of its head. Males and females alike have black wings barred in white, giving a checkered impression, and a bold white stripe down its back.

The trick here is to determine betwen the Downy Woodpecker and its larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. They look extremely similar (apart from their size), but the Downy likely has more white stripes on its wings, and a thicker white band on its neck. You’ll find these small woodpeckers on tiny branches or deciduous trees, or shrubby edges in city parks, backyards and vacant lots.

White Breasted Nuthatch

The White-Breasted Nuthatch has a black or gray cap framing its white face — it kind looks like it’s wearing a hoodie. You can spot this nuthatch by its black, gray, and white streakings on its wings and back, over a stark white underbelly. It has a very short tail and a long, narrow, slightly upturned beak. While foraging, they sometimes lurk sideways, or even upside down!

This nuthatch likes deciduous trees like maple, hickory or oak, and often hangs out (sorry) in similar areas as the Titmouse: near a feeder, or in a park.

Northern Cardinal

Some say the Northern Cardinal is the most responsible for getting people to open up a field guide for the first time — a gateway bird, of sorts, as the “perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off.” There’s no doubt about it, the cardinal is an iconic winter bird.

The male cardinal’s red makes for a beautiful contrast to the white snow, and the females also have an elegant color palette: brown accented with red. Both male’s and female’s plumage stays the same year-round, making cardinals perhaps the easiest to spot on a winter walk.

Starling


The starling is a quite possibly my favorite bird. From a distance, it looks like a plain black bird —  boring,  uneventful… and there are just so MANY of them. But with a closer look you may find that this is one of the most colorful birds in the city; in summer, streaks of iridescent purple and green scatter their plumage. In the midst of winter, their brown feathers are covered in stunning white spots.

The best part? A group of starlings is called a “murmuration,” and together, their coordinated flight patterns can make for a dazzling experience — if you’re lucky enough to catch it! (Watch this video and be blown away).

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Next time you take a lunch break, or a hike in the woods, make sure to look up and see the plethora of bird life around you. Think you can spot them all? Let us know in the comments!

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The Zero Footprint Baby

How do you raise a carbon neutral baby? Should you buy toys? What about relatives who need to fly to visit? If you need a refrigerator, where do you buy the most energy efficient model? The answers to Keya Chatterjee’s questions were far flung: she found some with family members from India, others on the internet, and ended up ordering a refrigerator from Silicon Valley.

Chatterjee, the Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach at the World Wildlife Fund, was kind enough to take time out of her busy work day and speak with DC EcoWomen about the challenges of raising a zero footprint child, writing a book, and juggling a full-time job.

Before the birth of their son, Chatterjee and her husband were already well acquainted with green living. They had no refrigerator, buried their compost, and had solar panels installed in their backyard. “Some people counted calories,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. “We counted kilowatts.” But a baby changed the math. A former employee at NASA, Chatterjee had the skills to do the research and the training to write up the answers she found. “I wrote the book because I feel that climate change is an important issue for parents and there wasn’t really anything out there about the individual choices parents can make,” Chatterjee said. “The more information I was compiling, the more I thought, I don’t want everyone to do all this work.” Thus, The Zero Footprint Baby was born.

The Zero Footprint Baby looks at all aspects of childrearing, starting with pregnancy. And, of course, Chatterjee addresses the issue of diapers.

“It’s actually funny because I realized long ago in my head that it was possible to not use diapers,” she said, “thinking back to how my family members live in India. There are no books about it. It’s just normal life.” Surprisingly enough, diapers aren’t a huge part of the carbon footprint of a baby. “It’s really more the decisions that parents are making,” said Chatterjee. Though she ended up raising her son without any form of diapering at all, Chatterjee found that the size of your house, the number of flights you take (or relatives take to visit you), and medical care are all a much bigger part of the carbon footprint.

She was surprised to find how much the medical system impacted the numbers. The carbon footprint of the United States medical system is much higher than that of the United Kingdom. “It was interesting to read about as I was reading about the medicalization of birth.”

Though Chatterjee decided to breastfeed her baby, her book lists tips for reducing the carbon footprint of a formula fed child. Don’t drive to pick up the formula, buy in bulk whenever possible, and buy brands with as little secondary packaging (like shrink wrap inside a cardboard container) as possible, she suggests. In fact, many of the chapters include alternatives to some of Chatterjee’s choices, and she explains many of her own personal compromises. She and her husband eventually decided to buy a refrigerator to store breast milk, though they purchased a specialty and extremely energy efficient model.

With The Zero Footprint Baby, “My aspiration was to provide a sense of community,” Chatterjee said. “I feel very strongly that people should do whatever they can and not feel stressed about what they can’t do.”

“The biggest challenges were interacting with people around us and explaining what we were doing,” she said. “You put yourself out there, then you open yourself up to criticism.” One of the arguments she heard most was, “Oh, you’re not doing one hundred percent of what you can do… It’s a prioritization question. There will be criticism no matter how you choose to parent.”

Her book is already making an impact: The Zero Footprint Baby was featured as one of EarthShare’s best environmental stories of 2013.

When asked how she managed to transition to such a low impact lifestyle, “We wouldn’t have done any of the things we’re doing if they were hard for us,” Chatterjee said. For example, she explained, her family doesn’t use a lot of heat or air conditioning. Instead, they go to the pool in the summer or museums in the winter. “For us, our lives are much more rewarding.”

Written by Caroline Selle, Zero Waste Girl

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A Breath Of Fresh Air: Ending Coal Use In DC

To visit the largest single source of carbon emissions for Washington, D.C., you don’t have to travel far. Just walk four blocks south of the Capitol and look for two smokestacks, marking the location of the Capitol Power Plant.

This inconspicuous building has been a serious point of contention between local environmental and community groups and government for years. The reason? The Capitol Power Plant burns fossil fuels, including coal, in the middle of the D.C.’s residential neighborhoods.

Right now, the plant continues to be a major contributor of carbon emissions and adds pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and soot into the air of the Southeast D.C. But the good news is that change may be on the horizon.

The History Of The Capitol Power Plant

The Capitol Power Plant was built in 1910 to generate electricity for the Capitol complex, from the Library of Congress to the Supreme Court. It hasn’t produced the Capitol’s electricity for decades, but it continues to provide heating and air conditioning in the Capitol complex. That blast of warm air you love as you enter a Smithsonian museum in the winter? Thank the Capitol Power Plant.

For most of its history, the plant burned coal — the fossil fuel with the largest carbon emissions and the most severe public health impacts. But in 2009, environmental groups and community members demanded an end coal use in the plant, holding a rally with thousands in attendance.

While the plant has burned significantly less coal since then, it has not ended the use of coal completely. The plant holds coal in reserve for times with abnormally high demand — in response to extreme events like the recent polar vortex, for example. Coal is now about 5% of the plant’s total fuel, with the rest either natural gas or diesel fuel oil.

Health And Climate Impacts

Just because the amount of coal the Capitol Power Plant is burning has declined, doesn’t mean the health risks have disappeared for nearby neighborhoods. The American Lung Association reports that burning coal produces dangerous pollutants which are known to increase rates of asthma, lung disease, cancer, and stroke.

Some Southeast D.C. residents near to the plant can recall days where soot falls from the sky. But there is no onsite monitoring in the neighborhoods, so specific data on local impacts is hard to come by.

It isn’t just D.C. that faces repercussions from the choice of fuel at the Capitol Power Plant. For serious risks associated with coal production, look no further than the disastrous leak in West Virginia on January 9th 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water. And fracking for natural gas has the potential to contaminate groundwater and even cause earthquakes.

Of course, burning any fossil fuels will continue to release large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. In 2007 alone the plant released as much carbon as over 22,000 cars in a year.

Change On The Way

In 2013, the Capitol Power Plant received all permits to build a new natural gas-burning facility that would allow it to run 100% on natural gas. And 18 months after the new facility is complete, the plant will no longer be permitted to burn any coal at all. Although construction of this project has yet to begin, this plan means that the Capitol Power Plant may be coal-free within the next few years.

So for the near future, the Capitol Power Plant will continue to be able to burn coal in the heart of the city. But the end of coal in D.C. may be in sight.

Written By Dawn Bickett

posted by | on , , , , , | Comments Off on Brave The Cold And Camp In Style!

I love cold-weather camping – there are less critters, the campground is less crowded, and nothing beats curling up in a warm sleeping bag after a long hike! But if you aren’t prepared, cold weather camping can be miserable and uncomfortable, and worse… dangerous!

There are tons of tricks and tips to help make winter camping more fun. Here are the 5 basic steps to camp in style, even in cold weather:

1. Insulation.

In cold (and often wet) weather – insulation is key.  You need many layers for both yourself as well as your campsite.

First, dress in a wicking base layer like smart wool or polyester blends – keep that cotton long sleeved shirt at home! You want something that wicks the sweat away from you, and cotton actually captures moisture and keeps it next to your skin. You will still sweat in the cold weather, and when sweat cools your body temperature plummets.

Next, wear a mid-weight middle layer like a wool sweater or a puffy fleece hoodie, and finally wear a waterproof jacket as an outer layer.  And be sure to wear a hat – even when you are sleeping.  Much of your body heat escapes through your head – so grab a beanie and smoosh it on that noggin!

For your campsite, you will need a tarp or a footprint between your tent and the ground. It keeps the moisture from the ground from getting into your tent, and it adds an extra layer of insulation; the more layers that you have between you and the ground, the better!

You will also want a sleeping pad (or two) that have high “R” values – meaning more insulation in the sleeping pad.  Be sure to grab a sleeping bag that’s insulated – with so many cool sleeping bag options out there, you can find one that’s rated comfy for 0 – 15 degree weather.  I always sleep with a sleeping bag liner – it’s an extra fleece bag that goes inside my sleeping bag, and it makes a world of difference in the winter!

Layers are good for your sleeping clothes as well – I usually go to bed wearing all of my camping clothes and I start shedding layers as my body heat warms up my bag.  And as an extra jolt of warmth on a cold day, I carry multiple packets of hand warmers with me whenever I camp, and I use them liberally. Handwarmers can last up to 8 hours and they help make a cold night more enjoyable!

2.  Hydration.

You might not realize it, but you will need to drink more water in the cold than in warmer weather.  You will still sweat and lose moisture (and heat) throughout the day – and your body uses water to help regulate your internal temperature.  Store your water bottles in the bottom of your sleeping bag while you sleep so that they don’t freeze overnight, and be sure to drink plenty of water.  Hot tea, soup, and coffee also helps keep you warm, but alcohol doesn’t.

3.  Food.

If there was ever a time to eat a candy bar – cold weather camping is it!  Your body will burn more calories keeping you warm, so by eating small meals frequently throughout the day, you will keep your metabolism up and your internal furnace blazing.  Enjoy a couple of cookies and a hot mug of herbal tea or decaf coffee before you go to bed – the extra calories will warm you up and give you energy to keep you heated throughout the night.

4.  Be sure to pack sunscreen and sunglasses.

Though the sun might be low in the sky, you can still get sunburned.   The sunscreen also acts as a barrier between the harsh winter elements and your skin.  The sunglasses will protect your eyes from snow blindness and any strong winter winds.

And finally, the most important tip…

5. Be prepared,  have a plan and tell someone where you are going.

Bring a back up charger for your cell phone.  Take a map of the campground where you are staying.  Bring extra batteries.  Write out directions to your campsite before you head out the door – many GPS systems lose their signal in the mountains and you don’t want to get lost when then sun sets early.  Tell someone where you will be, and even show the campsite to him or her on a map if possible.  Bring a first aid kit, and always have a back-up plan – it’s OK if your plans change because of the elements – sometimes that’s half the fun of roughing it!

Want to know more?  Here are some nifty websites to get you inspired to lace up your hiking boots:

Written by Alison Alford