Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Spicy Meatless Friday!

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This week’s recipe for Chickpea Curry is adapted from a recipe I found in the January/February 2013 issue of Cooking Light.   It’s easy and quick to make, and even my most finicky eaters enjoyed the dish, despite the fact that it’s got a little kick! (photo of chickpeas from

3 cups Jasmine rice
1 tblsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 tblsp garam masala (see below)
3 15 oz cans chickpeas, 2 with juice and 1 drained and rinsed
2 10 oz cans Rotel
1 5 oz package baby spinach
1 cup plain 2% Greek yogurt

1)  Cook rice.
2)  Heat the oil in a large pan.  Add onion and saute for about 5 minutes.
3)  Stir in garam masala.  Saute for about 1 minute.
4)  Add chickpeas, Rotel, and spinach.  Cook until the spinach wilts.
5)  Remove from heat and stir in yogurt.
6)  Serve over rice.
Note:  There are lots of ways to make garam masala, but here’s the mix I use – 5 parts ground cumin, 4 parts ground coriander, 3 parts ground black pepper, 2 parts cardamom, and 1 part ground cloves.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Aloha to this week’s endangered species!

This week’s endangered species is the Oahu Elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis ibidis), a small (12.5 grams) subspecies of monarch flycatcher found at elevations of 325 to 1800 feet on the Hawaiian island of Oahu (photo from  Adult birds form breeding pairs for a season, and it’s not unusual for pairs to remain together for several years.  In 2001, it’s population was estimated at less than 2000 individuals.  Threats to the species include predation by non-native black rats, low reproductive potential, disease, and fire. 

A scientist recently made an interesting discovery regarding coevolution between species, using the little Oahu elepaio (Vanderwerf 2012).  Since black rats, an introduced non-native species, eat the elepaio by climbing up to its nest, the scientist wondered whether  he would see an increase in the height of the bird nests over time.  He studied the birds and their nests from 1996 to 2011 and measured the average height of the bird nests.  Sure enough, over the 16 year period of the study, average nest height from the ground increased from 7.9 meters to 12.0 meters – a pretty significant change!  So were the individual birds learning to build nests higher for more success?  It doesn’t seem that way – Vanderwerf (2012) states, “there was no net change in height of sequential nests made by individual birds, which means individual elepaios have not learned to place nests higher.”  Rather, it seems that nest building behavior might have a genetic link, making the birds with a genetic predisposition to building higher nests more successful in breeding.  The author suggests that rat control could help with conservation, because “it may facilitate the evolution of nesting height by slowing the rate of population decline and providing time for this adaptive response to spread throughout the population.” (Vanderwerf 2012)

An endangered species AND a lesson on coevolution – two for the price of one this week!


State of Hawaii.  2005.  “Forest Birds.  O‘ahu ‘Elepaio.  Chasiempis sandwichensis ibidis”  Accessed online 1/25/2013.!.pdf

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  2013.  “Species Profile: Oahu Elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis ibidis)”  Accessed online 1/25/2013.

Vanderwerf, E. A.  2012.  “Evolution of Nesting Height in an Endangered Hawaiian Forest Bird in Response to a Non-Native Predator” Conservation Biology, Vol. 26, No. 5, 905-911.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

In Defense of Zoos

I’ve often heard people say, “I hate going to zoos.  It’s so cruel to keep the animals in cages.”  Recently, there have been news stories regarding the mistreatment of crocodiles by zoogoers in China.  Since I love going to the zoo, these statements and news storiesDSC_0144 trouble me, and I rethink whether zoos should exist in our modern world.  Truth be told, I’d prefer to see zoos that don’t concentrate heavily on the “charismatic megafauna” – lions and tigers and bears, oh my!  I’d rather see animals like invertebrates, Amazonian exhibits where we work to see the sloth in a tree, or birds flying freely in large enclosures.  But let’s be honest, most folks won’t visit the zoo unless they can see an elephant or a tiger or a panda.  Despite this difference of opinion on the ideal fauna for a zoo, I believe that, when the animals are treated in humane conditions, zoos do indeed have an important role to play in today’s society.  Here’s why:

  • I’ve never seen one of those!  Most of us will not be able to travel to the Galapagos or Kenya to encounter wildlife in its native habitat.  Zoos are often the only place where people can encounter and appreciate animals other than pets and farm animals.  Schools often do not allow animals in the building and field trips to observe local wildlife are pretty much non-existent.  As Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “In the patent-or-perish environment of higher education, we see the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering.”  The zoo is one of the last homes of environmental and zoological education.  At the zoo we can hear a lion’s roar, feel a sea urchin in the invertebrate house touch tank, smell the musky smell of the maned wolf during breeding season, and even be splashed as the seals and sea lions dive into cold water.
  • What?  I can help out?  Zoos are a great volunteer opportunity for people interested in learning more than can be taught in a short weekend visit.  I was a volunteer at the Smithsonian National Zoo for over 5 years, first atbeautiful swimmer the Invertebrate House and then at the Conservation Research Center in Front Royal.  What a great experience!  Under the guidance of expert zookeepers and curators, I learned about animals as varied as the octopus, the hissing cockroach, the Przewalski horse, and the leaf-cutter ant.  I helped feed many of the animals, cleaned their tanks and enclosures, taught zoo visitors about the animals, mourned the loss of old animal friends, and celebrated new births at the zoo.  For an aspiring Dr. Doolittle, it just doesn’t get any better than that!
  • The modern ark.  Zoos serve as a last preserve for animals that have either disappeared in the wild or are in danger of going extinct.  Zoos host breeding programs for many of the world’s most endangered species.  The Smithsonian National Zoo sponsors breeding programs for the Guam rail, scimitar-horned oryx, black-footed ferret, maned wolf, and the Panamanian golden frog, just to name a few.  Scientists and students from around the world come to study the latest captive breeding techniques, as well as field biology methods for surveying animals in the wild.  

Many, although not all, of today’s zoo animals were born and bred in captivity, or cannot be returned to the wild because of injury.  When a zoo is well-maintained (see accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and animals live in stimulating, enriching environments, I believe zoos have much to offer.  Why not visit and support your local zoo this weekend?


Louv, R.  2008. Last Child in the Woods.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  ISBN-13: 9781565126053.  390 pp.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pumpkin and Yellow Pepper Soup

This week’s recipe comes directly from the Cooking Light website.  The only change you need to make in order to keep it meat-free is to substitute veggie broth for chicken broth.  Perfect for a January Friday evening!Healthy Pumpkin and Yellow Pepper Soup with Smoked Paprika Recipe

Pumpkin and Yellow Pepper Soup with Smoked Paprika

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Saphira watch out– 8 cool facts about Komodo dragons!

This week’s endangered species is the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis).  Found in the wild on a few volcanic islands in Indonesia, this largest of all reptiles (with large individuals weighing over 150 lbs) will eat almost any type of meat.  It is endangeredDSC_0029  (population is estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 individuals) because of its limited range, lack of egg-laying females, human encroachment, and natural disasters.  Since it’s a top predator in its habitat, the Komodo dragon plays an important role in keeping the ecosystem in balance.

Here are 8 more really cool facts about Komodo dragons:

  1. Komodo dragons can see their prey at great distances – over the length of a football field!
  2. Komodo dragons only have light sensing cells called “cones” in their eyes – no “rods”.  “Cones” help animals see color and in bright light, while “rods” help animals see in dim light.   So if you’re going to avoid the gaze of a Komodo dragon, do so at dusk.
  3. Komodo dragons have a terrific and unique sense of smell, much like a snake’s.  Check out this description from the National Zoo (2013):   “It uses its long, yellow forked tongue to sample the air, after which the two tongue tips retreat to the roof of the mouth, where they make contact with the Jacobson's organs. The chemical analyzers "smell" a deer by recognizing airborne molecules. If the concentration present on the left tongue tip is higher than that sampled from the right, it tells the Komodo that the deer is approaching from the left. This system, along with an undulatory walk in which the head swings from side to side, helps the dragon sense the existence and direction of odoriferous carrion from as far away as 2.5 miles (four km), when the wind is right.”  So maybe trying to avoid Komodos at dusk won’t work out so well……
  4. Komodo dragons have both venom AND over 50 strains of bacteria in their saliva – good for bringing down prey.
  5. Komodo dragon venom is not toxic to other Komodo dragons!
  6. Komodo dragons can eat up to 80% of their body weight in one feeding!
  7. Komodo dragons can run up to 13 mph!
  8. Komodo dragons can be playful and have different personalities!  Don’t believe it?  Check out this article in Zoogoer magazine.

But wait, there’s more!  If you’d like to learn more about these fascinating creatures, check out the National Zoo fact sheet


National Geographic.  2013.  “Komodo dragon (Varanus Komodoensis)”  Accessed online 1/22/2013.

National Zoo.  2013.  “Reptile and Amphibian Fact Sheets:  Komodo dragon”  Accessed online 1/22/2013.

McIntosh, P.  2012.  “Dragons at Play”  Smithsonian Zoogoer Magazine.  Sept/Oct. 2012. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sit a spell, take your shoes off


It’s winter and we’re spending a lot more time indoors.  Thus, our indoor environment needs to be as healthy as possible.  When it comes to housekeeping (and dogs), turns out the Beverly Hillbillies had the right idea (photo from!  Anyone with kids and/or dogs, knows that taking shoes off before entering your home can save your carpets and limit the time you spend spot-cleaning.  But it turns out, taking your shoes off can prevent exposure to much more dangerous pollutants in the home.  EPA studies reported that, even one week after application of the herbicide 2,4 D, the pesticide can be tracked into your home on the bottoms of your shoes.   Lead, which can affect children’s intellectual and behavioral development, is another contaminant that can be carried in on your shoes.

So be sure to take those shoes off before walking into your house – and y’all come back now, ya hear?


Harnley, M.E. , and A. Bradman, M. Nishioka, D. Smith, R. McLaughlin, G. Kavanaugh-Baird, R. Castorina, B. Eskenazi.  Pesticides in Dust from Homes in an Agricultural Area.  Environ. Sci. Technol., 2009, 43 (23), pp 8767–8774.  DOI: 10.1021/es9020958.  Publication Date (Web): October 30, 2009.  Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

Nishioka, M.G, and H.M. Burkholder, M. C. Brinkman, S. M. Gordon.  Measuring Transport of Lawn-Applied Herbicide Acids from Turf to Home:  Correlation of Dislodgeable 2,4-D Turf Residues with Carpet Dust and Carpet Surface Residues.  Environ. Sci. Technol., 1996, 30 (11), pp 3313–3320.  DOI: 10.1021/es960111r.  Publication Date (Web): October 29, 1996.  Copyright © 1996 American Chemical Society

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Veggie Stew with Polenta

I adapted this recipe from one I found many moons ago on the back of a can of Furmano’s Italian Style Diced Tomatoes.  Nice and hearty for a winter Friday.

32 oz. vegetable broth
2 cups chopped carrots
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped onion
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes (drained)
1 tblsp basil
1 tblsp oregano
1 tsp red pepper
4 tblsp cornstarch
1 15 oz. can cannellini (white kidney) beans (drained)
1 package polenta – prepared as directed on the package
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1)  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
2)  Combine broth, carrots, celery and onion.  Bring to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes.
3)  Stir cornstarch, basil, oregano, and red pepper into tomatoes.
4)  Add tomatoes and beans to simmering vegetable mixture and stir until thickened.
5)  Grease a 2 quart baking pan and spoon the vegetable mixture in.  Layer polenta over vegetable mixture and top with cheese.
6)  Bake for about 40 minutes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

That Crocodile Smile

This week’s endangered species is the cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer)(photo:  D. Di Mauro, National Zoo).  Recognizable by the yellow and black speckled pattern on their backs, these crocodiles are found only in the Zapata swamp, a one-million acre wilderness in southeastern Cuba, and the Lanier Swamp on the Isla de Juventud.IMG_0270  Found primarily in freshwater areas, these crocodiles feed on a multitude of prey including small mammals, birds, reptiles, and many invertebrates.  Turtles are one of their primary prey, and they have special back teeth that they use to crush turtle shells.  Although their lifespan in the wild is unknown, they’ve been known to live up to 75 years in zoos.  The species is threatened by habitat alteration and loss, hunting, and competition from caimans (another member of the alligator family). 

Although the species is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN’s red list, there is some good news – the population in the Zapata swamp has rebounded to 3,000 to 6,000 individuals.  Want to learn more about crocodiles of all types?  Check out Crocodilians, Natural History and Conservation website.


ARKive.  2013.  “Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer)”  Accessed online 1/16/2013.

Smithsonian National Zoological Park.  2000.  “Cuban Crocodile Fact Sheet.”  Accessed online 1/16/2013.

Monday, January 14, 2013

In our stream, hope springs eternal!

IMG_0243If you’ve been following our stream saga, you know that I went through the training to be a stream monitor, we were assigned a local stream to monitor, and we checked the stream in the summer and fall of 2012.  It turned out thatIMG_0245 our assigned stream wasn’t as healthy as we might hope.  In order to make this both a volunteer activity that benefits our local environment AND an educational activity that benefits our kids, our local coordinator assigned us a new stream.  It’s a section of Difficult Run in northern Virginia that sits behind a long-established neighborhood and the W&OD bike trail.

Since the weather forecasters were calling for a relatively warm weekend, we figured it was the perfect time to put on our boots and wade into the water of our new stream.  Standing in the cold water and doing the “invertebrate shuffle” we conducted three 1-minute samples of stream invertebrates.  The results – drumroll please – were mixed.  On the downside, we did not catch the number of invertebrates we needed in order to log the stream’s data in the county database.  On the upside, while we saw the common, tolerant invertebrates such as flies and worms, we also saw some invertebrates that are a little more sensitive, like caddisflies.  Perhaps our low numbers were simply due to the cold weather and water, and we just needed to get a little deeper in the mud.  Only time will tell!  Our next survey will be in the spring – we’ll keep you posted!

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

And it was good!

Today we enjoyed a nice Sunday at the zoo, marveling at the incredible diversity and beauty of the world’s animals.  

“And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind:  cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.  God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind.  And God saw that it was good.”  Genesis 1: 24-25.




peacock feathersimpressionist pandaimpressionist prairie dog

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tell me again–Why is meat-free Friday environmentally friendly?

Why should we try meat-free Friday?  If Osler’s Razor recent posts aren’t reason enough, there are lots more.  A great environmental goal is to “eat lower on the food chain.” What exactly does this mean? Well, let’s start at the beginning. When we talk about a food chain, we’re talking about a series of plants and animals that are related to one another through predation. Food chains always start with a plant (an autotroph, in ecological terms) which converts sunlight energy into energy that can be used by plants and animals. Plants are the source of energy and nutrients for all animals. As we move up the food chain, we’re looking at animals (heterotrophs) that eat certain plants. Moving further up the food chain we’d see animals that eat the animals that ate the plants. A sample food chain would be:

Grass ---> grasshopper ---> bird ---> hawk 

So why do we want to “eat lower on the food chain”, that is, eat more plants and less meat? The way that our food is produced in our industrialized society, much energy goes into the production of food. The higher one eats on the food chain (meat, that is), the more energy that must go into producing that meat. So, if you eat a 2,000 calorie per day diet, a diet of vegetables will require much less energy input, than a 2,000 calorie diet that contains substantial amounts of meat. Another way of thinking about it -- for the same energy input, much more plant-based food can be produced. Eating lower on the food chain can also help to reduce greenhouse gases – the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that agriculture accounts for 14% of global meat production is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Unless you live in an area with a very short growing season (think arctic), a plant-based diet is a realistic goal. But many folks say they can’t or don’t want to go totally vegetarian. How about 1 night per week? As stated on the Monday Campaigns, Inc. website, going meatless, even just once or twice a week can really reduce water and fuel consumption: 

Our family eats meat-free in our home. Outside of the house, the kids and my husband eat whatever they want. Why not give it a try? Once a week, I post a recipe that has been a success at our house.  I’ll also include meatless products that I like because people often ask me which products I like best, but you can substitute any brand that you like. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy “Meat-free Friday!”


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  2006.  “Spotlight 2006.  Livestock Impacts on the Environment”  11/2006.  Accessed 1/8/13.

The Monday Campaigns, Inc.  2013.  “Why Meatless?”  2013.  Accessed 1/8/13.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Following Atticus

Over the holidays, I found the perfect vacation read – Following Atticus by Tom Ryan.  I love books about dogs.  Merle’s Door?  But, of course. A Three Dog Life?  Wouldn’t miss it.  Marley and Me?  Been there.  Herriot’s Dog Stories?  Done that.  Anything by Jon Katz?  Got the t-shirt.  I also really enjoy books about adventures outdoors. Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship Following Atticus combines these two great topics into a very entertaining book.   Tom Ryan was the owner and publisher of a small newspaper in Newburyport MA, when he found himself the unexpected owner of a little schnauzer named Max.  Tom and Max became each other’s best friends, even though their time together was relatively short.  Still mourning the loss of his little friend, Mr. Ryan found his next best friend – Atticus M. Finch (see book cover). 

Don’t let Atticus’ small size fool you – this little guy was born to hike.  Thanks to Atticus’ passion for the great outdoors, Mr. Ryan began a life-changing challenge.  As stated on the back cover of the book, “After a close friend died of cancer, middle-aged, overweight, acrophobic newpaperman Tom Ryan decided to pay tribute to her in a most unorthodox manner.”  He and Atticus began hiking for charity.  They hiked for an entire summer, conquering New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot peaks.  Next they attempted to hike all 48 peaks again, but this time during the winter AND twice each!

Using descriptive language that puts the reader right in the snowy New Hampshire mountains, Mr. Ryan skillfully leads the reader along each path.  He also leads the reader along his path of self-discovery, writing about his relationship with his father, his brothers, and even with the breeder who brought him together with Atticus.  Although, at times, I could’ve skipped one or two of the hike descriptions, I found this book to be very well-written, entertaining, and honest.  Makes me want to tie on my hiking boots and hit the trail – and I’m sure my dogs wouldn’t my joining me.  Of course, since I’m not quite as hardy as Mr. Ryan, I think I’ll just re-read his book until the weather turns nice and warm!

Be sure to check out Tom and Atticus’ blog, home of this book trailer: 


Saturday, January 5, 2013

New Years Resolution for 2013–green for frogs!

We’ve talked about frogs in previous posts, and frogs are once again our endangered species of the week.   Many frog species are critically endangered throughout the world (up to 40% of species).  Since frogs are keystone species in many of their ecosystems this fact is newsworthy – atwo frogs 2 keystone species is a species that has a disproportionate impact on its ecosystem, relative to its biomass; like a keystone in an archway, if the keystone species is removed, the arch, or ecosystem, could collapse.  A recent front-page Washington Post article provides a valuable update on frog conservation.   

So what’s a greenmomster to do? 

Conservation efforts of this size cost money, but this is a problem we can help address.  Did you know that, according to the National Retail Federation, the average American spent $80 on Halloween, totaling nearly $8 billion in 2012?  And that in 2010 American consumers were estimated to have spent over $20 billion on video games?  Why not resolve to spend a little less on entertainment, and a little more on our kids’ future environment in 2013?

Here’s a great interview with a Smithsonian scientist who’s on the front lines of frog conservation:



Investopedia.  2012.  “How Much Americans Spend on Halloween.”  October 24, 2012.  Accessed online 12/31/12.

Venturebeat. 2010.  “Americans spend $25.3B each year on video games.”  May 9, 2010.  Accessed online 12/31/12.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Phil’s Cornbread–a re-post!

As promised last week, here’s the cornbread recipe that’s the perfect side to last week’s chili!  Make more than you think you'll need -- this is a crowd-pleaser and perfect for a cool winter evening!2012Christmas37


1 ½ cups flour (all purpose white for really fluffy corn bread; ½ white, ½ wheat for a little heavier, but healthier)
1 cup sugar
½ cup cornmeal
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 ¼ cups milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup veg oil (you can also use canola)
3 tbsp melted butter


1) Sift together the flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt – don’t skip the sifting if you want really fluffy cornbread.
2) In a separate bowl, mix together milk, eggs, oil, and butter.
3) Add liquid to solid and mix well
4) Pour into a greased, 9x9 inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the pan comes out clean.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy 2013!

I’m looking forward to 2013!  13 is my lucky number, and I consider Friday the 13th a GREAT day (we got engaged on Friday the 13th!).  What better way to ring in the new year than our family’s annual hike innewyears6 our favorite state park – Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane VA.  After sleeping in a bit and enjoying a breakfast of bagels, fruit, and hard-boiled eggs, we packed our two friendly dogs in the car (leaving Cujo at home to guard our Christmas tree), and headed west!

newyearsbluesSince our entire family is fighting the latest creeping crud that seems to be infecting all of northern Virginia, we decided to keep the hike relatively easy.  We took the south ridge trail, to north ridge trail, to Piedmont trail (a total of about 3 miles) up to the spectacular views of the valley.  A light dusting of snow and some cloud cover resulted in a beautiful vista of wintertime whites, blues, and grays.  Unlike last year, temperatures were chilly and skies were overcast.  That’s probably the reason that crowds were fewer than last year.  Park staff led a New Years hike on the other side of the park, and the hardworking Friends of Sky Meadows volunteers provided free snacks for the cold weather hikers. 

As I wrote last year, there’s really no better place for our family to start each new year.  We really enjoy hiking together in this beautiful park and starting the year off calmly, just before someone shoots the starter’s pistol and we’re off to the sprint of our daily lives!