Just for fun: Two nature photography events

Article and photos by Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Critters (& more) Challenge

LIFE’S TOO EASY RIGHT NOW! Right? Of course not. But to take our minds off the pandemic, here’s a nature photography CHALLENGE! From May 1 to May 31, try to photograph as many of the following as you can while social distancing, abiding by all CDC & locale jurisdiction rules, and following ethical photography guidelines. Most of these critters, birds, plants, & landscapes can be found in your own neighborhood or nearby.

Please join the Meetup BEFORE MAY 18 and then upload your photos (1 per category) to our Meetup album by May 31. Each find counts ONE point. The “extra credit” categories count FIVE points each. The photographer with the most points who uploads her/his photos by 5/31 at 11:59 p.m. wins. FIRST-PLACE WINNER GETS BRAGGING RIGHTS — AND FIVE (5) FREE PHOTO OUTINGS after our lockdown is lifted and before 5/31/21. SECOND-PLACE WINNER GETS TWO FREE OUTINGS. (Safaris usually cost $5 within 100 miles of the Beltway and $10 outside.)

More information here

“Indoor” Critter Hunt

Look inside your computer, tap your cloud storage, and stroll down memory lane on your external drives for photos of critters & birds that you took ANYTIME for this virtual hunting expedition. RSVP for this critter hunt, upload one photograph per category into this Meetup album, and receive one point. The wildlife photographer with the most points by 5/31/20 at 11:59 pm wins bragging rights and two free photo safaris before 5/31/21. A tie(s) will be decided by the equivalent of a coin toss.

More information here

Message from Fairfax Master Naturalist Chapter President, Joe Gorney

Photo (c) by Barbara J. Saffir

Chapter Members,

I hope this message finds you well. We are navigating stressful and challenging times, in which lives are disrupted and business-as-usual is no longer an option. Additionally, everyone’s circumstances are different. We might all be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.

Despite these challenges, and to help weather this storm, I encourage you to take advantage of available activities and resources. Here are a few ideas:

  • VMN Webinars: learn (or relearn) from their many on-line offerings;
  • Plant a Garden: take advantage of no-contact plant deliveries/pick-ups and increase the habitat value of your yard or deck;
  • Read a Book: immerse yourself in the writings of some of the many excellent nature authors.

The FMN Board is also working to coordinate a virtual Zoom meeting on the evening of May 28th. We hope that many people can participate.

As we move through the year (and into next year), we expect a long transition back to our “normal” activities, with interim measures to keep everyone safe. (I think of this period as a marathon, or an ultra-marathon, and not a sprint.) Throughout this, we will take our cue from our sponsoring state agencies and our health experts.

Finally, we just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I thank you for taking care of yourself and the world around you every day and look forward to meeting again, even if only virtually. I also look forward to the future when we can recommence all our community work. In the meantime, take care of yourself and those around you.

Stay-at-Homeschooling for Grown-Ups

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

We have all heard of naturalists such as Charles Darwin and James Audubon who undertook long and fruitful journeys of discovery. But did you know that many naturalists made their famous discoveries in their own yards? For example, Jean-Henri Fabre spent decades at his home in France on a small plot of hard scrabble where he documented numerous observations of insect behavior that are still read today for their wit as well as their fascinating conclusions about instinct and intelligence. The same opportunities for adventure are available to any of us who have access to any space – however small – where plants can grow.
You might think that by now the millions of human beings who live in our region would have figured out all there is to know about the local flora and fauna, but that is far from the case. Not only are new species being discovered all the time, but there is very little known about many of the ones we do recognize. Why not try your hand at natural science? Unlike Jean-Henri, who mostly had to go it alone, we have the ability to crowd-source our learning process by way of a giant citizen science project called iNaturalist. Who knows, you may be the next to discover a new species!
For most of us, however, the adventure will lie not in rarities but in finally noticing the common plants and animals in our yard which have been there all along. The joy will come not so much from our contributions to science – which are real if we document life on iNaturalist or on any of a number of other citizen science projects – but from witnessing how many more things there are in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our philosophy.
The main tool needed for this exploration is patience. A small yard may be home to hundreds or thousands of species, but they will not all present themselves at once. Plants of course emerge and develop over the growing season. Animals also emerge at different times, and many remain hidden from view. As you amble around your yard, take a close look at every little moving object. You will find that what you had assumed were identical little specks are in fact many different species going about their business. A camera, even a cell phone camera, can show you the details of pattern and color that your eye cannot register during your brief encounters. There is something irresistibly calming in watching this world at work.
If you have the opportunity to compare your yard to a neighbor’s, you may notice a pattern. Yards that appear lush to the modern eye are sometimes just Potemkin landscapes, ones where humans have labored to exclude nature by substituting ecologically useless (or even harmful) plants for the natives, removing the life-giving detritus, and attacking the remaining residents with chemicals. Even in yards such as those, signs of life will be stirring. But where such chemicals are avoided and where native plants are encouraged, a yard will support a cornucopia of animation, from tiny beetles to nesting songbirds. It is not difficult to create a yard with these happy conditions. To borrow a quote from suffragist Sarah Grimké, writing in 1837, “All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
Between April 24 and 27, people all over the world are coming together to document life on Earth. These are the four days of the annual City Nature Challenge, which in previous years has included a friendly competition between metropolitan areas but this year is simply a celebration of life and unity. We can contribute to the festivities by snapping photos of any wild plants or animals and uploading them to iNaturalist. How many native plants can you spot in your neighborhood? How many bees, birds and other critters can you spot taking advantage of them? Once you have caught the nature bug and find yourself longing for more, you can learn how to add those native plants that support the life on your property by visiting www.plantnovanatives.org. Garden centers – including several that specialize in native plants – are open and ready to help you choose the best ones for your situation.
The education we can soak in from the ecosystem of our yards goes far beyond a science lesson. We may observe that the natural world is at least as much about cooperation and accommodation as it is about tooth and claw. To recognize our fellow beings as individuals, each with the same claim on life as our own; to witness the interdependence of us all in our unfathomable complexity; to start to see our place in the universe – all these experiences wash away our tension and plant in us the seeds of compassion. It goes without saying that it is not just grown-ups who can benefit from these lessons.

Letter to My Great, Great Grandchild

For those of you able to enter the physical natural world through poetry, J.P. Grasser has published a poem that may resonate with you. The work of his fellow poets, living and gone, is also accessible on Poem a Day.

Smithsonian Learning Resources for Families

Learning Lab: A free, interactive platform for discovering millions of authentic digital resources and creating content with online tools. The Learning Lab has an immense amount of content, and the Getting Started guide is a helpful resource. In addition, the weekly Smithsonian Activities Choice Boards features weekly highlights for various subject areas. Issue One and Issue Two are available now. New issues are released each Monday.

Smithsonian Open Access: Allows students to download, share and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images without asking permission because they have been released into the public domain.

Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Program: Allows the general public to make things like historical documents and biodiversity data more accessible. Students can join fellow volunteers to add more field notes, diaries, ledgers, logbooks, manuscripts, biodiversity specimen labels and more to the collection.

Sidedoor: A podcast for students that enlists the help of biologists, archaeologists, zookeepers and astrophysicists to tell engaging and educational stories. (Check out this one in particular, on Alexander von Humboldt: His might not be a name you know, but you can bet you know his ideas. Back when the United States were a wee collection of colonies huddled on the eastern seaboard, colonists found the wilderness surrounding them scary. It took a zealous Prussian explorer with a thing for barometers to show the colonists what they couldn’t see: a global ecosystem, and their own place in nature. In this episode, we learn how Humboldt—through science and art—inspired a key part of America’s national identity.)

Resources for PK-5: SI has also created a large google sheet with online self-directed activities for parents and caregivers that allows them to assign to children in PK-5 grades. Most of these resources are interactive games and activities.

SI Office Hours: SI is also offering office hours to better support teachers who are using these SI resources. Teachers are able to connect with a Smithsonian educator and ask further questions on how to best use the SI tools and features being offered.

Other Smithsonian Resources

Student Discovery Sets: Puts primary sources in student’s hands by bringing together historical artifacts and documents on a wide range of topics. The Student Discovery Sets are free on iBooks.

Digital Collections: Over 400 digital collections are available online, featuring content from U.S. Presidents, musicians, inventors, historic newspapers and more.

By the People: A crowdsourcing initiative that allows anyone to volunteer to improve access to history by transcribing, reviewing and tagging Library of Congress documents.

Classic Children’s books: Available for free online via the Library website.

The Library of Congress YouTube Channel: Contains a wide range of author programming, as well as content from scholars and musicians.

Ask a Librarian: The tool remains available to the public, with Librarians available to answer questions and provide research assistance.

The Library’s National Screening Room: Showcase the Library’s vast moving image collection. It is designed to make otherwise unavailable movies, both copyrighted and in the public domain, freely accessible to viewers worldwide.

Presentations and Activities: Presentations look across the Library’s online collections to explore events and issues from U.S. history and beyond.

Resources from Other Agencies

City Nature Challenge: Fairfax Master Naturalists educate and organize

By Ana Ka’ahanui, FMN and Director Experiential Programs at Capital Nature

Join us for the #citynaturechallenge, a friendly global effort to safely explore biodiversity April 24-27, 2020! Even with our movement limited to minimize the spread of COVID-19, there is plenty of nature to observe at our windows, gardens, and in our neighborhoods. Join the DC metro area’s fellow citizen scientists to discover and share the amazing life near you!

Join these projects to have your observations counted. City Nature Challenge (April 24-27)
City Nature Month (April 1-30)

Visit www.iNaturalist.org and join the project City Nature Challenge 2020: Washington DC Metro Area: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-2020-washington-dc-metro-area

Photo and article by Barbara J. Saffir

To encourage people to participate in iNaturalist’s global “City Nature Challenge” bioblitz in April, I’m hosting two virtual Meetups: One through my own Nature  Photography DC/MD/VA Meetup and one through the  Sierra Club’s Meetup.  My fellow Virginia Master Naturalists and the public are invited to join these two free Meetups: https://www.meetup.com/Nature-Photography-DC-MD-VA/events/267877831/ https://www.meetup.com/sierrapotomac/events/270131226/

Pinatas That Educate? Sweet!

By Mike Walker with Jerry Nissley

Mike Walker (Certified Master Naturalist) recently submitted the following creative success story detailing one constructive way to present conservation concepts AND have a great, fun time with your kids.

Mike related that he often looks for ways to drive home environmental messages to diverse groups of adults and children. Last December, with his son as his sage adviser, he created a pinata in the form of a dam for the annual Holiday Party at the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church.

Why a dam you might ask? Well, let’s take a short ride in the way-back machine: When his family joined the church 35 years ago, the annual Holiday Party featured a Santa Claus pinata. It occurred to Mike and his wife, Laura, that beating a beloved seasonal figure-head with a baseball bat seemed a bit odd – and face it, disrespectful to Santas everywhere – so Laura entered into negotiations with party organizers. Negotiations immediately determined that a traditional donkey pinata was out as well, since it might potentially offend members of both the Democratic party and PETA. Negotiations stalled, so the next year, candy was offered in a politically correct, plain, ecologically responsible, recyclable brown paper bag. WHOO HOO!

Well okay, that turned out to be rather boring and uninspired, so Laura decided to kick negotiations up a notch. The following year, she volunteered to make the pinata and constructed a modestly sized replica of the Berlin Wall, which was in the process of being torn down; the kids were invited to, “strike a blow for freedom (actually took 23).”

Since that time, the Walkers have made over 30, “socially responsible” pinatas – from Scud Missiles and rocket launches, to assault rifles, hand guns, a Litter Bug, a Gas Guzzler, a Gulf Oil Spill, a Box of Cigarettes, and a Box of Plastic Straws. Over time, the kids have not only struck blows for freedom but health, ecology, economy, and safety as well. As the topical causes expanded, so did the size of the pinatas. They currently measure in as large as 8 feet in length and 4 feet tall; and must be strong enough to withstand 50 bat-wielding kids for a few rounds who know that only paper and wood stand between them and handfuls of candy.

Replica Dam Pinata - Mike Walter
Dam Pinata – photo Mike Walker

The most recent pinata was a huge “hit” literally and figuratively since it modeled the dam in the popular children’s movie “Frozen II”, which (spoiler alert) is destroyed near the end of the movie. Party favors included clever educational fliers with coloring pages and illustrations of dam fish-passes.

It was a fun and thought provoking opportunity for kids and adults to learn about the spawning cycle of diadromous fish and eels. The event also raised awareness of the potential hazards caused by river barriers such that some kids still talk about the plight of fish that, “can’t get home.”

Earth Day 50th Anniversary Nature Journaling Challenge April 22 to 30, 2020

Article and drawings by Elaine Sevy

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, I invite you to embrace this Nature Journaling Challenge and connect with nature on a more profound level.

Nature Journaling forces you to slow down and pay attention to what is around you. It will help you encounter beauty and wonder you would have otherwise missed.

Visit a nearby trail or explore your own backyard.

Allow yourself to relax and have fun, and worry less about drawing pretty pictures and more about creating a memory. Write notes about what you’re seeing, and let it pique your curiosity.

Do you have a favorite wild bird? Do you wonder if that bird is a resident or migrant? Look at it more closely and be amazed. Learn more about it at allaboutbirds.org (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and audubon.org. Write in your journal about what you see and learn, and develop a deep personal relationship with your bird.

Drawing by Elaine Sevy

Find a new pretty wild plant or look closely at one of your favorites and count the petals. Do the petals have stripes similar to a landing pad leading pollinators to the nectar? What kind of bee did I just see on that flower?

Make sure to note the place, date, time, weather, sounds, temperature, and how the experience makes you feel.

Consider downloading the iNaturalist App on your cell phone to help you identify the plants and animals you find. Visit inaturalist.org to learn about and participate in the City Nature Challenge 2020: Washington DC Metro Area, April 24-27. There’s a link under announcements on the Capital Naturalist Facebook page.

Include your family and children, and make it a game to find as many insects, birds, frogs, flowers, mushrooms, etc., as possible. Quickly draw little images of each critter on the same Earth Day journal page.

Want inspiration and ideas about how to create a journal page? There’s support groups that can help. Join The NOVA Nature Journal Club at
https://www.facebook.com/groups/544583139673338/. Once there, you can find a link to John Muir Laws’ The Nature Journal Club, which has an international following, free workshops and tools of all kinds. Copy ideas from other people, which will give you a new lens to look through. Let someone else’s journal page ignite your own creativity.

A good basic Nature Journaling kit includes: 6×8” or 5×7”sketchbook (at least 100 lb. weight paper to handle light watercolor washes), a mechanical pencil or 2B drawing pencil, pencil sharpener, kneaded eraser, a waterproof ink pen such as a Pigma Micron 05, set of watercolor pencils (Derwent is a good brand), a Pentel Aquash Water Brush and a paper towel. Also bring your cell phone for photo references, and binoculars. A shoulder bag makes your tools easily accessible.

Try your best to do some nature journaling on Earth Day, but there’s no pressure. Enjoy working on your journal through the end of April for this challenge.

Please submit photos of your journal pages to me (Elaine Sevy), so I can share them with others on Springfield Art Guild’s (SAG’s) Facebook Page and The NOVA Nature Journal Club Facebook Group.

Think Beyond What We See

Jerry Nissley

I recently viewed a beautifully composed, thought-provoking New York Times video, entitled, “The Church Forests of Ethiopia”, by Jeremy Seifert.

Even though the video is about Ethiopia, the concepts presented in it are easily extrapolated and applied to the need for maintaining the biodiversity of our local forests. It illustrates how abiotic factors interconnect with biotic factors and emphasizes the particular significance of trees in that ecosystem. The highlands of Ethiopia, where the story takes place, were once part of a continuously forested landscape. Over time, the vast majority of that ecosystem has been replaced by agricultural land void of trees, save the “Church Forests” that have been preserved by patrons of the church. The surrounding void has drastically changed the landscape.

I am preaching to the choir here when I say the mission of VMN is, in part, to help care for forests, and the video elegantly presents why we should. Preservation is mutually beneficial – we are inside the forest and the forest is inside us. Emergent properties and behaviors form that could not otherwise exist without interaction between all components (human, animal, plant, and even geology). Forests do not necessarily last forever and we must have a conservation plan. If we lose them – that’s it.

As VMNs, we are confronted with much the same communication problem as are the churches of Ethiopia, but to a lesser degree given that the two countries have different needs and demographics. That notwithstanding, both need to communicate with our communities to create an awareness about how vitally important our forests are and the benefits of preserving them sometimes in lieu of housing developments, industrial parks, and agriculture.

In a sense, we may think of our county, state, and national parks as our current Church Forests. Consider Huntley Meadows – it literally has a wall (fence) around it to protect the forest and wetland. We should do all we can to care for our parks and while we are at it, spread the word and always be in search of new church forests to plant.

Nature in Isolation: Fairfax Master Naturalists find things to do during the pandemic

Photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Tired of wearing a mask and lounging around the house? Fairfax Master Naturalists are finding ways to educate the public and appreciate nature despite the lockdown.

Margaret Fisher: To celebrate Earth Month, the Wild About Clifton team organized a virtual screening of the movie Hometown Habitat for all interested residents of Greater Clifton, a daily posting on Facebook and NextDoor.com of suggestions for helping nature on our own properties, and an online pledge to implement at least one of the suggestions. https://www.wildaboutclifton.org/clifton-earth-month-2020

Morel photo by Bill Hafker.

Bill Hafker has taken the opportunity having a lot more free time available than anticipated, combined with the annual 4-day April City Nature Challenge being changed to a celebration of City Nature Month, to try to get out each day into a new environment that remains open and safe, to hike, bike or kayak. While out getting physical exercise, he’s also “hunting” for as many species of living things as he possibly can in one month, and then uploading photos of his “catch” to iNaturalist, and identifying what they are. It is amazing how much more you find when you really slow down to look closely around your house, yard, and nearby neighborhood as well as the fields, woods, ponds, and waterways of northern Virginia. While spotting inspiring macro fauna like a kit fox playing outside its den is uplifting, he has especially enjoyed the excitement of finding some truly beautiful, but less noticed, bugs and fungi. While he picks places few people are frequenting, he did meet a mycophile on the hunt, who showed Bill (from a safe distance) where and how to spot the elusive morel.

Black and Gold Flat Millipede photo by Bill Hafker

If you are able to get out in April in the greater NOVA area and spot wildlife and upload it to iNaturalist, your observations will automatically become part of the City Nature Month data set. If you are not able or comfortable going out to make nature observations, your assistance would still be welcome if you could spend time in iNaturalist helping to identify the observations of others less knowledgeable in identifying what they are seeing.

Mike Walker found a way to continue to promote the educational and service goals of the Master Naturalist Program by using his “neighborhood” nextdoor.com website. Over the past few months he has written short articles on a variety of topics, such as the value of keeping some leaf litter and compost in the yard, garden and shrubby areas to create habitat for Fireflies…or “lightening bugs” depending on where you grew up. His catchy title “What if there were no fireflies this summer” drew  many responses and was sent to over 10,000 email accounts. Other postings addressed removing invasive English Ivy from trees,  Earth Sangha’s offer to deliver Virginia Native nursery plants directly to homeowners, and the recent decision of Fairfax County and other refuse companies to suspend collection of yard debris. (Why are you throwing away green gold: compost it!)

There may be other opportunities for FMN members to reach out to promote our programs- through community of HOA newsletters or other avenues. Watch for them!

Janet Quinn revived her interest in pressed flowers. She collects a variety of colorful flowers and interesting greenery, places them between two pieces of card stock or waxed paper in the pages of a thick book for a week and then uses craft glue to attach them to bookmark- or greeting card-shaped card stock. Using a self-adhesive laminating sheet to cover her masterpiece preserves it. The detail that is revealed in the plants is stunning. It’s fun to experiment with plants! What will garlic mustard and lesser celandine look like? Her favorite is the redbud flower that resembles a hummingbird when it is dried.

Mike Walker asks, “Small yard or deck? No space for a pond?” Consider a “small” water garden. I have a 30-gallon container on my patio with one lotus. These remarkable plants are winter hardy and grow in soil and standing water! Top it off each week and you will be rewarded with an exotic, amazing plant. Plus, the “water”will attact all sorts of creatures. This spring I found several damsel fly nymphs. Lily Ponds, a premier water lilly and water garden plant outfit near Frederick, Maryland is offering no covid contact buying and free shipping!

George Ashley, with tongue in cheek, gives us this account of his typical week during this period:

Monday: I mow my lawn.
Tuesday: I rest.
Wednesday: I comb my lawn.
Thursday: I rest.
Friday: I speak with the lawn critters. Salty the slug and I discuss his latest trails. Cheap Charlie the chipmunk is my bookie so we go over the games not played. Don’t know how but I still usually owe him a couple hundred bucks.
Saturday: I stand in my lawn and wave to my neighbors and the passing cars. A couple times folks waved back.
Sunday: I call friends and rest to prepare for another arduous week.