This Little Light …

Photo: Jerry Nissley

Cicadas have come and gone. The only visible remnant being dead-headed branches that result from flagging (laying eggs), in preparation for their legacy, the next generation of brood X. Invisible to us are the nutrients provided by countless insects as they drop and cycle into the earth. That was, of course, a tiny singular cycle within Nature’s big cycle.

Lightning Bug Chart – from Pinterest

The concept of singular cycles within the ‘big one’ struck me the other night as dusk creeped in on an evening silenced by a lack of humming cicadas. When what did appear? The next singular cycle; there always seems to be a next singularity. Perhaps more noticeable because the audial chaos of cicadas was now replaced with the visual peacefulness of – lightning bugs.

As shown in the lightning bug chart there are several significant species in our yards. The most common is Photinus pyralis with its familiar ‘J’ stroke flash. These fanciful little creatures light up an evening with joy – they bring a smile to my face when I notice the first blink of each evening. I love to hear the glee of my grandchildren chase down a few for further inspection. They never fail to please.

So it goes. Cycle after cycle. Cycle within cycle. Here for a season. Here for a reason. Appearing with determination to make a complex difference for a season and more importantly to prepare a legacy. Perhaps appearing for simple reasons, to bring joy into our world as a respite from the chaos.

A tiny lightning bug appeared to me in the dim of my rec-room the other evening. I thought, now there is one beautiful, exemplary individual – here for its season and for all the right reasons. I smiled, for Marilyn.

In memoriam: Marilyn Kupetz June 14, 1956 – June 12, 2021

Using Virginia’s Natural Community Research to Guide Stewardship Activities

Article by FMN Joe Gorney, photo by J. Quinn

As Master Naturalists, we sometimes help reclaim vegetated areas from the clutches of non-native invasives. At the end of this process, we’re often confronted with a degraded and/or blank slate in need of enhancement. But deciding what to plant can be a challenge. Optimally, we’d use a mixture of upper-story trees, mid-story trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to create a well-balanced plant community. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation maintains a publication entitled “The Natural Communities of Virginia: Classification of Ecological Groups and Community Types,” which includes information regarding the more than 300 natural communities that cover Virginia: https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-communities/. While the publication is an amazing resource, navigating all of that on-line information to find the appropriate community and then deciphering said information to decide what to plant can be a challenge, so much so that people might be tempted to either: a) give up; and/or b) default to the “TLAR” method of plant selection (That Looks About Right).

Faced with that scenario and motivated by some long-term restoration work in Arlington County, Glenn Tobin, an Arlington Master Naturalist since 2016, worked with ecologists and biologists from Arlington County, DCR’s Division of Natural Heritage, and several other groups.  He led a year-long effort to translate DCR’s publication into readily-accessible and practical guidance for people engaged in ecological restoration efforts. The original publication was pared down to the nine plant communities endemic to Northern Virginia. The resulting guidance has been published in a website entitled “The Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia.”  
(see: https://www.novanaturalcommunity.com/). 

The website contains a list of the nine forest communities we might encounter, key concepts to identify those communities, a dichotomous key for community identification, downloadable summary descriptions of each community, Excel spreadsheets with more detailed information, and a list of some natural community misfits. Species are included within each community and categorized by abundance (sparse, rare, restricted, common, dominant).

The website is intended as a guide, and not a “cookbook,” a guide that can help us formulate planting recommendations to enhance the ecological health of an area. The plant communities were selected to establish a desired end state for restoration. The information does not address edges or meadows, although the Clifton Institute in Warrenton is developing some information regarding meadows (https://cliftoninstitute.org/). If you’d like to see a presentation regarding the new website, log onto the VMN Continuing Education Webinar Series webpage and click the link from May 7, 2021. (Continuing Education Webinar Series – Virginia Master Naturalists)

For further information about integrating plant communities into your landscape, I also recommend the following books:

  • Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.
  • The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke & Doug Tallamy.
  • Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher.

Other valuable resources include:

Summer would be the perfect time to explore this information, so that you’ll know what to plant come Fall. Happy reading and good luck creating healthy landscapes throughout our communities and within our backyards., photo by

Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) Herpetology Internship Announced

Virginia Outdoors Foundation is thrilled to announce that they are now accepting applications for their 2021 Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) Natural Science Fellowship (Herpetology) position. This fellowship will be focused on the pursuit of scientific discovery and increasing knowledge related to the resident snake populations at VOF’s Preserve at Bull Run Mountains – which is a living laboratory and open-air museum based right here in the backyard of our nation’s capital (bullrunmountains.org).

The Preserve’s 2020 Annual Report can be found here for all of those interested in reviewing more information about them and their programs: https://www.vof.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/VOF-BRMNAP-2020-Annual-Report.pdf

Job listing/application portal can be found here:  https://recruiting.paylocity.com/recruiting/jobs/Details/600454/Virginia-Outdoors-Foundation/Natural-Science-Fellow-Herpetology

Celebrate National Moth Week! Workshop and Survey with Judy Gallagher

Io moth by Judy Gallagher

Thursday, July 29, 7:00 – 8:00 PM (Online via Zoom)
Field Trip: Saturday, July 31, 8:30 PM –10:30 PM Lorton, VA
Fee: FREE, but registration is required

You all know something about butterflies but you probably don’t know much about their cousins, the moths. Did you know many adult moths eat nectar but others don’t eat at all as adults? Join Judy to learn about the mysterious world of moths, and gain some information about identifying them.

On the outing, they’ll set up a black light to attract moths and use field guides and iNaturalist to try to identify them.  They’ll set up an iNaturalist project to keep track of the moths they see.

Brought to you by Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.

Planting for the Picky Eaters

Photo courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

Many insects are picky eaters, only able to eat the plants with which they evolved, meaning the plants that are native to their region. Butterflies are a good example, since although the adults can sip nectar from non-native flowers, their caterpillars depend on specific native plants.The majority of bees are more flexible than that, able to eat the pollen and nectar from a variety of species. They are known as generalist species, although even in their case they have their own favorites. The European Honeybee, for instance, is a generalist but chooses certain flowers in preference to others.

Of the approximately 400 native bee species in Virginia, about a fifth are plant specialists. Examples include the Spring Beauty Bee and the Blueberry Bee, which (unsurprisingly) depend on the flowers of Spring Beauties and Blueberries. These bees are short lived as adults, emerging when the plants they depend upon are in bloom, and quickly gathering the pollen they need to store in their nests for their larvae, thus pollinating the plants while they are at it.

Our local ecosystem requires the full spectrum of plant/animal interactions to flourish. It is easily knocked out of balance when too many native plants are displaced by introduced species, something that has happened in many of our yards. We can restore that balance by planting a lot of native plants. One strategy could be to start with flowers that feed various specialist bees from early spring to late fall, because they will also supply food for the generalist bees. Since many of these flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds as well, they make a winning combination. A list of popular native garden plants that feed specialist bees can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. It feels good to help the bees, whose numbers are in decline.

One of the many charms of native bee species is that they are highly unlikely to sting you, assuming you don’t try to grab one or otherwise threaten it. While they are foraging on a flower, you can get your face (and your camera) right up to them, and they will almost certainly ignore you. Gazing at bees brings surprises, as they come in many sizes and colors, including metallic blues and greens. It is particularly mesmerizing to watch bees on plants such as White Turtlehead, where they pry open the flowers and crawl inside, then back themselves out again, butt first. You can get a peek at those and other cute native bees on this two minute video, filmed in Fairfax County.

Plant NOVA Trees Event Volunteers Needed

Plant NOVA Natives was launched in 2014 to promote and increase the use of locally native plants in Northern Virginia. One of nine campaigns within the state-wide Plant Virginia Natives marketing partnership, it is a grand coalition of governmental, nonprofit and for-profit organizations that have pooled their resources to work toward this common goal. The campaign’s success rests on the action of the millions of individuals who make up our Northern Virginia community.

Plant NOVA Trees is a new and focused drive by the Plant NOVA Natives campaign to significantly increase and preserve the native tree canopy in Northern Virginia. The drive will launch in September 2021 and continue through the fall of 2026.

They are looking for people who can organize some kind of tree-related public event sometime this fall. To launch the native tree campaign, they will be sponsoring a region-wide Celebration of Trees, September through November. They are hoping that numerous people in every county will help them create buzz.

Some ideas for events include:

Tree walks (For the general public, you would want to make it short, snappy and fun.)
Tree plantings (be sure to report them on My Tree Counts)
Removing invasives that threaten trees
Webinars
Labelling trees with their names or placing signs in front of trees describing their particular benefits to wildlife and humans
Creating a GPS map of your community’s trees
Collecting seeds from your trees to be sent to the state nursery that grows seedlings
Forest bathing, scavenger hunts
Tie yellow ribbons around old oak trees (and red ones around red maples, etc)
Geocaching
Fairy houses in the woods
Photo contests
Anything creative you can come up with!

They have a sign to mail to organizers as well as brochures, and where selling their Native Plants for Northern Virginia guides is an option, they can provide those. If you do put on an event, they would love to add it to their Celebration of Trees event calendar, so please let Margaret Fisher know at plantnovanatives@gmail.com.

The Fairfax Chapter recognizes the valuable work to be done by Plant NOVA Trees and recently donated $2,500 to the campaign. Funds will be used for promoting awareness of the program and for community tree identification projects. You may make your own donation here.

ACTION ALERT: Help Prevent the Possible Spread of Avian Disease 

Reprinted with permission of Audubon Society of Northern Virginia; photo by Leslie Frattaroli, NPS

Clean and take down your feeders and bird baths until further notice!

As hard as it is for bird watchers to take their feeders down, there is now a critical reason to do so. Recent unexplained bird deaths in our region prompted organizations such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to recommend that citizens remove their feeders and bird baths until the cause of the mortality is determined.

If you do find a sick or dead bird, please report it to the VA Department of Wildlife Resources here.

For more specific information about avian deaths and how to possibly prevent them, read below.

From U.S. Geological Survey
Release Date: JUNE 9, 2021

In late May, wildlife managers in Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia began receiving reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs. No definitive cause of death is identified at this time.

This bird (pictured above) was found in the Washington, D.C. metro region with swollen eyes and crusty discharge, a sign observed on most birds affected by a May/June 2021 mortality event in the area.

The District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and National Park Service are continuing to work with diagnostic laboratories to investigate the cause of mortality. Those laboratories include the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the University of Georgia Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study and the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program.

Birds congregating at feeders and baths can transmit disease to one another. Therefore, the state and District agencies recommend that the public in the outbreak area:

Cease feeding birds until this wildlife mortality event has concluded;
Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution;
Avoid handling birds, but wear disposable gloves if handling is necessary; and
Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
If you encounter sick or dead birds, please contact your state or District wildlife conservation agency. If you must remove dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag to dispose with household trash. Additional information will be shared as diagnostic results are received.

Read previous information from VA Department of Wildlife Resources here.

FMN CE Hike: Bluebird Box Monitoring — Awesome!

BB nest feature photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Have you ever wondered what’s inside those white boxes on poles standing in open fields? They are Bluebird boxes paid for and erected by Bluebird Societies to provide habitat for Bluebirds, native cavity nesters. Trained personnel regularly monitor the boxes to record data for scientific research. A Fairfax Master Naturalist group recently explored the inside of 12 of them with Larry Meade, Northern Virginia Bird Club President and volunteer with the Virginia Bluebird Society. I was reminded of the carol The 12 Days of Christmas as Larry carefully opened each “gift” for a peek inside.

Organized by FMN Barbara Saffir, we met at Clark’s Crossing in Vienna on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Larry tapped the side of each box first to warn the parent bird of our approach. Their departure from the box was our first clue to which species was inside. The boxes are intended for use by Eastern Bluebirds but the conservation groups don’t mind if they are used by Tree Swallows (TS), Chickadees and other native cavity nesters. Nesting by other species, such as the non-native House Sparrow, is prevented by removing nesting material before it is completed. The opening is too small to allow entry by European Starlings.

Larry then unscrewed the side of the box, lowered it and we’d look inside. What follows is the day’s official report, enhanced by Larry’s astute birding observations and comedic interludes:

TS nest by Julie Ables

Nest 1 – TS nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: Tree Swallows use feathers to “feather their nests.”

Nest 2 – BB nest – 3 eggs
Tidbits: Bluebirds use pine needles to make their nests. Larry was logging eBird sightings and “birding by ear.” He wryly noted “butterflying by ear” doesn’t work.

Nest 3 – TS nest – 4 babies ready to go
Tidbit: We viewed quickly so parents could return and resume feeding these voracious eaters.

Nest 4 – BB nest – 3 babies
Tidbit: Larry used a mirror so we could see the babies tucked deep in the nest. This is the second brood in this box for the Bluebird pair.

Nest 5 – TS – 4 babies

Nest 6 – TS nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: Parent was agitated and circling us. We moved on quickly.

Nest 7 – TS nest -4 big babies
Tidbit: Box monitors remove a nest after the babies have fledged so parents can build a new one. Turkey Vultures are known as TVs. What is a pair called? A TV set.

Nest 8 – TS nest – 5 babies

Carolina Chickadees by Marilyn Parks

Nest 9 – Chic nest – 3 Babies
Tidbit:  Carolina Chickadees! Parents use moss to make the nest. Chickadees are native species and left alone.

Nest 10 – empty
Tidbit: In nearby trees we see a juvenile Orchard Oriole! Larry notes that seeing a new bird is like seeing a movie star.  So true!

Nest 11 – TS nest – 3 babies
Tidbit: We discover a nearby mulberry tree and taste some of the berries. No wonder birds love them!

Mulberry photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Nest 13 – BB nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: The nest is about 3 times as high as the other BB nests we’ve seen.

If you are interested in volunteering to monitor bluebird boxes, contact the Virginia Bluebird Society. Monitoring season runs from the end of April to early August each year. The excitement and joy of opening the boxes will enhance your contributions to citizen science!

2021 Tree Steward Symposium, June 24-25

Virtual
Thursday, June 24 and Friday, June 25, 2021
9am – noon both days
Register here.

Don’t miss the chance to collaborate with other tree stewards, hear speakers on the latest tree topics and learn about some of the latest resources available to expand your involvement in community outreach.

See the agenda here.

FMN Chapter Meeting: Native Bees, June 21

Augochloropsis metallica, a species of sweat bee; photo: USGS

Monday, June 21, 2021
7 – 9pm
Zoom

This chapter meeting will include the graduation ceremony for the Spring 2021 Basic Training Class.

Deana Crumbling will provide a presentation about native bees. Deana worked as a chemist with the U.S. EPA for 21 years and retired in 2019 to start a one-person business offering analysis of lead and arsenic in soil. She volunteered with the U.S. Geological Survey to learn how to identify native bees and watches bees in her suburban yard which has been converted to native habitat.

Please email Janet Quinn at vmnfairfax@gmail.com to receive the link.