visits to Lake Artemesia

In an effort to get out into nature more, we walked to Lake Artemesia twice from our house in the weeks before our trip.

The first time, we took a meandering route, first heading to check out the new condos going up in Hyattsville. From there, we walked over to the river, and followed that path north to the lake. On that route, past Linson Pool and up behind the College Park airport, we had several good wildlife sightings. Just beyond East-West highway, I finally spotted and identified a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a new life bird. My birding acquaintance had been hearing them nearly every time we were out together, but I hadn’t gotten a good glimpse of one. As we were making our way around the back of the airport, we came across the largest muskrats we’d ever seen chomping away in the grass. Initially we thought it was a groundhog, but as it scuttled off it definitely had the long skinny tail of a muskrat. Finally, once we’d rested and made our way around the lake, we came across a doe on the path back to Paint Branch.

Our second walk to Lake Artemesia was both more direct and less eventful. From our town, we walked to Rhode Island Avenue in College Park and north, crossing Paint Branch to the path where we saw the deer. We brought an early dinner, and had a small picnic on a bench. We saw plenty of birds, although no entirely new ones for me. I did spot a Common Yellowthroat, which I’d only seen a few times before, entirely by accident as I was tracking some Song Sparrows through a bush.

Since those two visits, we’ve been back a couple of times in cars with friends. On our most recent visit together, we spotted several Killdeer, in addition to the general horde of Wood Ducks and the local Great Blue Heron. The most exciting sighting was a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chasing each other about; I got a good look at the red collar of the male with the binoculars. That sighting marks only the second time I’ve seen hummingbirds away from feeders, the first being earlier this spring at the pond.

It seems that Killdeer are starting their migration, as I also spotted one at the University Hills pond earlier this week. That particular visit was eventful for me, birdwise, as I got a better look at several Blue-gray gnatcatchers flitting around and spotted a pair of Solitary Sandpipers (another new life bird!). The identification of the Solitary Sandpipers was my best guess based on size, behavior, location, and general non-breeding coloring (as best I could tell, neither the bills nor the legs and feet were yellow). Since they were poking about on a freshwater mudflat, that seemed the most likely species, but I’m open to other suggestions. There isn’t usually a mudflat there at all, so I can thank the drought for bringing them and the Killdeer into the neighborhood. A pair of Wood Ducks was also hanging out with the regular Mallards, and several Eastern Kingbirds were darting about. It’s always fun to see these species which, while common in these environments, are unusual to me after my early life in the woodsy Midwest.

I’ve been told that Lake Artemesia is a favorite resting spot of all kinds of birds during migration, so I’m excited to see what I find there over the next couple of months.

visits to Lake Artemesia

cycling expeditions

Over the past few weeks I’ve been out on Pearl for three longer rides, in the range of 15-18 miles. I’m not my friend Frances, who’s been racking up hundreds of kilometers per week on her bike, Lucky. Nonetheless, after those two years when Pearl languished in the back room looking sad as her tires slowly deflated, I’m feeling pretty good about my efforts.

A few weeks ago I accompanied my friend all the way to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, instead of branching off at Lake Artemesia as I’d been doing. The ride was good, along a clear route, with plenty of space on the streets to ride out of the stream of traffic. Except for Pearl’s chain coming off when I downshifted too suddenly—my own fault as it desperately needed to be cleaned—everything went smoothly. There are a few decent hills, and I got a workout, as this was the first ride longer than an hour that I’d been on this year. We paused briefly at Lake Artemesia, and were able to see a mother Wood Duck and her brood of ducklings paddling along through the lilies. On the way back I saw some Baltimore Orioles, as well as several Goldfinches, darting around just at the exit of the research park.

The weekend after that ride, I joined a neighbor and her friend for another two hour ride on a Sunday morning. We first went up to, and around, Lake Artemesia, where we were again lucky to catch sight of two Wood Duck mamas with ducklings. From there we did the loop I’d done last month, down the Northeast Branch to the Northwest Branch and back up to the University Hills pond. Along the Northeast Branch Trail, south of Riverdale Park, we spotted a Belted Kingfisher, a life bird for me! My neighbor has seen it (or one of its relatives) there quite regularly, so I hope to catch another look on a future ride. As we went north again on the Northwest Branch Trail, I learned that my neighbor’s friend is undertaking a river bank study that involves reestablishing native plants in the hope of aiding with flood control. I hadn’t realized that aster, which we’ve planted in our front bed, is a wildflower native to this area, so that was a nice piece of information. Later on in the ride, in the stretch near East-West Highway, we heard what my neighbor’s friend identified by ear as a Yellow-Breasted Chat. I really should take my binoculars and field guide back to that stretch of woods one morning, as we saw a Baltimore Oriole not far from where we heard the Chat.

Most recently, I played hookey from ditch digging weed pulling last Friday and enjoyed the gorgeous afternoon from atop my bike. The day before, I had (finally!) cleaned Pearl’s chain and derailleur, so I was spared the guilt-inducing grinding and scraping I’d been hearing more and more. I rode the Sligo Creek Trail from the Northwest Branch (this is the trailhead that I’ve passed a few times, so I knew how to get on it from this point) to Wayne Avenue, and then back from there. The trail itself is fine, if a little winding with all of the switchbacks over the creek which make it difficult to build up speed. Or rather, make it difficult to build up speed without fearing that I’ll steamroll a dog or small child when I come around a blind turn.

I didn’t go quite early enough in the day to avoid all the dogs and small children, nor to miss the beginning of rush hour traffic. At most street crossings I had a light, but the first two (Riggs Road and East-West Highway) were a little hairy. The path itself was relatively deserted when I headed out, but all of the after-work crowd was out two deep on the way back. I did get a cup of pink lemonade from an enterprising child and her dad in Takoma Park. I hope I didn’t scare her too much with my talk about weathering spills early in life. I meant only to extol the virtues of my trusty helmet, forgetting that words like ‘smash’ and ‘crash’ can loom large in the minds of small children.

Despite not really looking for birds, I saw a Baltimore Oriole on the Northwest Branch, in the same stretch just south of East-West Highway where we’d heard a Yellow-Breasted Chat on my previous ride. I haven’t yet seen so many orioles in my life that it’s not a thrill to catch sight of one, so that was nice. The other high point of the ride was my skill at unwrapping and eating a semi-melted Luna Bar without either getting off my bike or littering. A feat which, sadly, no one was around to appreciate.

cycling expeditions

early morning birding at Lake Artemesia

Lake Artemesia under early morning mist.

This morning I rode with an acquaintance up to Lake Artemesia for some birding. Once there, we walked our bikes, and just enjoyed being out on the path (nearly) alone. The lake was beautiful, and we spotted a female Wood Duck out in the middle just after we arrived. Our next sighting was of a couple of baby rabbits, and shortly thereafter, of a tree absolutely crawling with Cedar Waxwings. While I’d seen a Waxwing twice before, I hadn’t seen them in the large groups they travel in, nor had I been able to see them so clearly without binoculars.

A short way down the path, we found the place in the sun where the warblers were hanging out and spotted several in quick succession, including two new life birds for me. I found a Yellow Warbler in a treetop, and then, a bit farther along, a Blackpoll Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, young Oriole, and male Wilson’s Warbler all flitting around the same vine-laden tree lakeside. We hung out watching them until the Waxwings descended en masse, and then moved on.

Once my friend continued on to work, I biked slowly around the rest of the lake before heading home. I saw a couple of other familiar birds—Kingbirds and Tree Swallows—and found a Blackpoll Warbler again, after hearing its call in shrubs quite close to the path. I was just thrilled to have seen the warblers, and happy to head home for breakfast at that point.

My trip home was somewhat marred by having to have another ‘f* you, it’s an g-d crosswalk, *hole!’ ‘conversation’ with a driver while crossing Paint Branch Parkway. I don’t mind (that much) when drivers don’t stop to let pedestrians (or cyclists) cross when they’re waiting, but for the love of the baby Jesus, you are required to stop for me when I am already in the road because cars on the other side of the street have stopped to allow me to go. Also, just a thought: how about slowing down a bit and clearing me with no inconvenience? Or, maybe, just don’t speed? I see that you’d rather hit the accelerator and lay on the horn (scaring the bejeezus out of your passenger, I note), but maybe you’re not aware that it’s freaking illegal! One of these days, I am going to be not so blinded by rage that I will actually follow the car and take a photo of the license plate without fearing that it will lead to me instigating an, um, altercation.

Despite that unpleasantness, it was a great morning. I look forward to repeating it, and riding onward to the Patuxent Wildlife Center, on Friday.

early morning birding at Lake Artemesia

back in the (bike) saddle along the Anacostia

This past week I got back on my bike—Pearl—for the first time in over a year. I didn’t ride her at all in 2006, only 4 times in 2005, and not at all in 2004. In 2003, I did the Tour de Friends AIDS ride from North Carolina to DC, and rode Pearl all the freaking time. And, I only got her when we moved out here, in May of 2002. Which means that on average I’ve ridden her over 100 miles a year, but really I haven’t ridden her regularly in 4 years. Pearl is a Raleigh c500, a hybrid that I selected because it was light enough for me to carry up and down two flights of stairs in the apartment we were occupying that year. I’ve replaced the seat (with an old school Liberator that I’ve had for a decade now) and added handlebar extenders, but otherwise she’s just as I bought her.

Well, except for being covered with stickers. Pearl goes undercover as a beater bike, something that made me feel better about locking her to signposts in the District when I first bought her. At the time I started training for the AIDS ride, I had stickers from surf camp (the Surf Diva and Yoga for Surfers logos) and a ‘No Plot? No Problem!‘ one that I was dying to put to good use. Onto Pearl they went. Since then, she’s become a bit more political (NOW, Rails to Trails, a ‘Debbie Dick’ sticker from the Haring shop on Lafayette Street, bought just 2 months before it closed) and advertises the places she’s been (Canada, Chincoteague Island).

At any rate, I pumped up her tires, oiled her chain (I really should clean it before I ride her again) and took her out three times this past week. We are much closer to the trail system up here than we were in the District, which is nice; I used to have to ride several miles one way to get to any trail. University Park is located right at the base of the ‘Y’ made by the Northwest and Northeast branches of the Anacostia River, which means easy access to the path system that follows the tributaries. This week, all three of my rides were along these trails.

My first ride, last Wednesday, was up to Lake Artemesia and back, which took me about 45 minutes (it bears saying: I ride slowly). From my house, I was able to stay on neighborhood side streets until the College Park metro, and then ride down Paint Branch Road to the trail access point at Linson Pool. I’d heard from neighbors that the lake itself is a beautiful place to bike or jog, and I wasn’t disappointed. I spotted all kinds of familiar birds, including Tree Swallows using the nesting boxes, but no new ones (I was handicapped by not having my glasses, let alone binoculars or the bird book, so the likelihood of conclusively identifying something new was slim to nil). Nonetheless, I’m sure there are some relatively common ones around that I personally haven’t seen yet (the Wood Duck springs to mind), and I’m looking forward to going back up there for bird-watching purposes. As a ride, it was on the short end, but there are trails that continue past the lake that I can explore in the future. All in all, it was a lovely way to get back on my bike.

On Saturday, I took Pearl over to the new community garden to water my wee pepper plants (more on that later), and then made a loop back to my house on the Northeast and Northwest Branch trails. Riding along the river was lovely, and very different in a wide-open way from what I’m used to when riding the creek trails through woods. I saw barn swallows galore, but not too many other humans. I also violated one of the cardinal rules of biking and hiking when I made the transition onto the Northwest Branch, which is: ‘When greeted by a used condom at the trailhead, turn back!’ All’s well that ends well, I figure. The ride did end well; I ended up at my pond, and then had to face the climb back to higher ground. The steep hills right at the end of the ride are my least favorite thing about riding along rivers, but I can’t complain; cycling on the flats was getting a little boring, not to mention making my legs beg for a nice downhill break. Which I got as I cruised through my neighborhood back to my house (with the exception of the very last block, which is also uphill from the creek at the end of our street).

On yesterday’s ride I went exploring in a different direction, taking the Paint Branch Trail north from Lake Artemesia through College Park. I wasn’t super thrilled with the route and probably won’t ride it again. The trail itself was perfectly well maintained, it just wasn’t that interesting and the surrounds were quite suburban. The winding around to avoid the roads also made it hard to build up speed, so it felt more like a meander than a decent ride. But, I learned a bit more about my local geography, so that’s always good. And, I saw some fresh-out-of-the-egg (still brown and yellow like ducklings) goslings at the Paint Branch Golf Course, so that was a nice surprise. On the way back home, I stopped in at my new local bike shop and discovered that a guy who used to work at my old local bike shop—and fixed up my derailleur after Pearl tumbled off the top of a car—now works there. He recognized me, and once he made the connection I remembered him as well. So that was a pleasant surprise. While there I confirmed that, despite my fixation to the contrary, my front left brake pad does not in fact rub against the wheel (this was the purpose of my stop).

This coming week, I think I’ll ride over to Silver Spring on the Sligo Creek trail, and/or continue further north on the Northwest Branch trail. I’m planning to stick with hour long rides for a while, and build up to making a loop of DC on the trails (something I’ve wanted to do for years). I’ll keep you posted on how that works out.

back in the (bike) saddle along the Anacostia