Skunk Cabbage, Spies and Waterfowl, a Photo Essay — CE Hike

Photos:  Barbara Saffir, unless otherwise labeled

On January 15th, 2022, with the temperature in the 20’s, or “seasonally brisk” as one hiker described the day, a hardy group of Fairfax Master Naturalists hiked through Foxstone Park in Vienna.  This was a Continuing Education, or CE, Hike.  (Our first stop was at a bridge in a nearby neighborhood which FBI spy Robert Hanssen used as his “dead drop” site.) Jim McGlone, pictured above in tan gloves, FMN Chapter Adviser and hike leader, gave an informative talk on the botany of skunk cabbage. Although too cold for note taking with pen and paper, cameras were in top form, resulting in this photo essay.  See an excellent handout on skunk cabbage. 

The second half of the day took a smaller group into Washington, D.C. We didn’t find as many ducks at Constitution Gardens and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pond as we would have liked, but we still saw relatively up close several kitten-cute buffleheads, a dozen ring-necked ducks, a gadwall, a northern shoveler, and other birds braving the cold. Some ducks came REALLY close to our five naturalists like they had been PAID to do that on cue. Some male mallards jumped out of the pond right in front of us and came to visit right at our feet. Of course, if they had been rainbow-colored wood ducks instead of mallards, it would have been more memorable.  See an excellent handout on Winter Ducks in the DMV.

Leader Larry Cartwright, Sarah Mayhew, Sarah Glassco.
Hope to see you again soon!

Review of Storm, by George R. Stewart

Review by FMN Kristina Lansing

When was the last time you read a “thumping good read” about nature? If it’s been awhile and if you’re looking for something to really sink your teeth into, do give George Stewart’s “Storm” a try. First published in 1941, this book is considered by some to be one of the first eco-novels ever written. Roughly a decade after its publication — and influenced by its publication — the National Weather Service began naming all major storms.

The protagonist in Stewart’s narrative is Maria (pronounced “Ma-rye-a”), the storm herself, “born of a dalliance between northern and southern air off the coast of Japan. After a rapid gestation, she quickly begins to grow, devouring atmosphere.” A junior meteorologist at the Weather Bureau names her, then watches as “the baby eats and sleeps and makes babbling noises. But [she] does not stay cute for long and soon grows teeth. By the time she debuts on the Pacific Coast, she has left her youth behind.”* This captivating description in the Introduction aside, the book is deeply rooted in science.

People and organizations of course figure prominently in this book, and their stories rival the tale of the storm herself. For animal lovers, even an owl, a hog, and a coyote play important roles. “Storm” is a tale of dispassionate natural forces and of cause-and-effect. It’s also a tale of efficiency, of leadership and teamwork, of bravery, and of humanity.

In writing this novel, George Stewart collaborated with at least 15 organizations, to which the book is dedicated: he became a storm chaser; he rode locomotives, flatcars, even an engine snowplow. If you decide to read this splendid book, do try to crack it open on the eve of a big, local storm. Just make sure you have extra batteries for your flashlight in case the electricity goes out! The book’s not long, just under 300 pages.

George Stewart received his PhD in English literature from Columbia in 1922 and joined the English faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1924. He was a sociologist, toponymist, and founding member of the American Name Society, and he wrote over 20 books.

“Storm;” George R. Stewart; New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics; 2021; 304 pages. Introduction by Nathaniel Rich, p viii.


Spring Spectacles: When & Where to Find Jaw-Dropping Birds, Blooms & Beasts in the Mid-Atlantic, March 15th

Photo (c) Barbara J. Saffir

Tuesday, March 15, 2022
7 – 8 pm
Register here.

Learn when and where to find some of the Mid-Atlantic’s most jaw-dropping plant and animal life, with nature photographer and Virginia Master Naturalist Barbara Saffir. In this joyful spring jaunt, she’ll reveal wildflowers worthy of Monet; a bounty of beasts; and close-up encounters with cobalt-blue, sunflower-yellow and ruby-red breeding birds that visit the DMV each spring. More than half of this “virtual safari” will focus on birds, with award-winning photographs of migratory and resident birds that capture their cool behaviors. Other animals and wildflowers will also make an appearance. You’ll learn about curious critters—such as backyard squirrels that “fly” and dazzling bugs typically overlooked by their human neighbors—and wildflower spectacles, including acres of blush-pink blossoms; pink, yellow, and purple native orchids; and miles of perky bluebells meandering along curving creeks.

This webinar will be recorded! By signing up on Zoom, you’ll be able to watch the live event and receive a link to the recording a few days after it airs. Closed captioning will be available at the live webinar and on the recording. The Earth Optimism lecture series through the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) airs live on Zoom every third Tuesday of the month.

See more past and upcoming SERC science talks.

Public-Private Partnership Leads to a Greener Springfield District

Photo courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

A pilot project on Arley Street in Springfield is an environmental success story. With significant community initiative and modest government assistance, 4,300 square feet of asphalt in the Springfield district was converted back to green space.

Community property within the Springfield Station Homeowners Association (HOA) included a deteriorated basketball court which was at the end of its lifecycle and no longer provided a useful benefit to the community. During planning for the community space, residents decided to remove the basketball court entirely. The HOA applied to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District’s (NVSWCD) Conservation Assistance Program (CAP) for cost-share funding and technical assistance for the proposed conversion of the basketball court to green, open space. The community space is entirely within the Resource Protection Area (RPA) of an unnamed tributary of Middle Run (Pohick Creek) and eventually flows into the Potomac River. The community planned to remove the asphalt surface and reduce the compaction of the soil by adding at least two inches of topsoil and compost.  With this plan in mind, NVSWCD confirmed that the project was eligible for participation in CAP because it promotes infiltration, reduces the potential for nearby flooding, and improves stream health.

Through a newly established partnership between NVSWCD and Fairfax County’s Land Development Services (LDS), the project was able to receive the maximum possible cost-share amount eligible under the CAP. This partnership effectively created the new NVSWCD/LDS Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP), whereby LDS allocates funding for eligible CAP projects with funds collected under LDS enforcement action, thus improving the environment within the impacted communities where violations previously occurred. The Springfield Station HOA project was the first recipient of funding from the newly launched partnership.

The public-private partnership is one that will be replicated throughout the county for other community association and places of worship projects approved under the CAP program. Thus the 4,300 square feet could represent the first step in projects that occur across the county, improving water quality in every district.

LDS project lead Brandy Mueller said, “Though small in terms of scale, this project was really a huge endeavor and a great benefit to the community. This new partnership seeks engagement and environmental opportunities. We hope this successful case study will encourage others to pursue similar projects.”

Replacing impervious asphalt (which does not allow water to pass through it) with green space results in multiple environmental benefits:

  • Fields absorb water, replenish the groundwater and slowly contribute to nearby streams whereas asphalt (or other impervious surfaces) divert rainwater to storm drains and sewers.
  • Fields allow the water to feed the soil supporting trees and other plants and resulting in healthier habitats for wildlife, insects and birds.
  • Fields are about 30 degrees cooler than asphalt helping cool down surrounding areas.


Photo of basketball court before conversion.                                 Photo of basketball court after conversion.

Photos courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

Learn more about the Conservation Assistance Program.

Article reprinted from the Fairfax County Land Development Services website: Public-Private Partnership Leads to a Greener Springfield District | Land Development Services (

A Tribute to E.O. Wilson, written by Doug Tallamy

Attribution of photo: Jim HarrisonCC BY 2.5, (cropped)  via Wikimedia Commons

E. O. Wilson was an extraordinary scholar in every sense of the word. Back in the 1980s, Milton Stetson, the chair of the biology department at the University of Delaware, told me that a scientist who makes a single seminal contribution to his or her field has been a success. By the time I met Edward O. Wilson in 1982, he had already made at least five such contributions to science.

Wilson, who died Dec. 26, 2021 at the age of 92, discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate. He worked out the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape in sustaining animal populations. And he was the first to understand the evolutionary basis of both animal and human societies.

Each of his seminal contributions fundamentally changed the way scientists approached these disciplines, and explained why E.O. – as he was fondly known – was an academic god for many young scientists like me. This astonishing record of achievement may have been due to his phenomenal ability to piece together new ideas using information garnered from disparate fields of study.

Big insights from small subjects

In 1982 I cautiously sat down next to the great man during a break at a small conference on social insects. He turned, extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t believe we’ve met.” Then we talked until it was time to get back to business.

Three hours later I approached him again, this time without trepidation because surely now we were the best of friends. He turned, extended his hand, and said “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Wilson forgetting me, but remaining kind and interested anyway, showed that beneath his many layers of brilliance was a real person and a compassionate one. I was fresh out of graduate school, and doubt that another person at that conference knew less than I — something I’m sure Wilson discovered as soon as I opened my mouth. Yet he didn’t hesitate to extend himself to me, not once but twice.

Thirty-two years later, in 2014, we met again. I had been invited to speak in a ceremony honoring his receipt of the Franklin Institute’s Benjamin Franklin Medal for Earth and Environmental Science. The award honored Wilson’s lifetime achievements in science, but particularly his many efforts to save life on Earth.

My work studying native plants and insects, and how crucial they are to food webs, was inspired by Wilson’s eloquent descriptions of biodiversity and how the myriad interactions among species create the conditions that enable the very existence of such species.

Though I am an entomologist, I did not realize that insects were “the little things that run the world” until Wilson explained why this is so in 1987. Like nearly all scientists and nonscientists alike, my understanding of how biodiversity sustains humans was embarrassingly cursory. Fortunately, Wilson opened our eyes. I spent the first decades of my career studying the evolution of insect parental care, and Wilson’s early writings provided a number of testable hypotheses that guided that research. But his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, resonated deeply with me and became the basis for an eventual turn in my career path.

Throughout his career Wilson flatly rejected the notion held by many scholars that natural history – the study of the natural world through observation rather than experimentation – was unimportant. He proudly labeled himself a naturalist, and communicated the urgent need to study and preserve the natural world. Decades before it was in vogue, he recognized that our refusal to acknowledge the Earth’s limits, coupled with the unsustainability of perpetual economic growth, had set humans well on their way to ecological oblivion.

Wilson understood that humans’ reckless treatment of the ecosystems that support us was not only a recipe for our own demise. It was forcing the biodiversity he so cherished into the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, and the first one caused by an animal: us.

A broad vision for conservation

And so, to his lifelong fascination with ants, E. O. Wilson added a second passion: guiding humanity toward a more sustainable existence. To do that, he knew he had to reach beyond the towers of academia and write for the public, and that one book would not suffice. Learning requires repeated exposure, and that is what Wilson delivered in The Diversity of Life, Biophilia, The Future of Life, The Creation and his final plea in 2016, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.

As Wilson aged, desperation and urgency replaced political correctness in his writings. He boldly exposed ecological destruction caused by fundamentalist religions and unrestricted population growth, and challenged the central dogma of conservation biology, demonstrating that conservation could not succeed if restricted to tiny, isolated habitat patches.

In “Half Earth,” he distilled a lifetime of ecological knowledge into one simple tenet: Life as we know it can be sustained only if we preserve functioning ecosystems on at least half of planet Earth.

But is this possible? Nearly half of the planet is used for some form of agriculture, and 7.9 billion people and their vast network of infrastructure occupy the other half.

As I see it, the only way to realize E.O.’s lifelong wish is learn to coexist with nature, in the same place, at the same time. It is essential to bury forever the notion that humans are here and nature is someplace else. Providing a blueprint for this radical cultural transformation has been my goal for the last 20 years, and I am honored that it melds with E.O. Wilson’s dream.

There is no time to waste in this effort. Wilson himself once said, “Conservation is a discipline with a deadline.” Whether humans have the wisdom to meet that deadline remains to be seen.

Doug Tallamy is Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



Photo: Courtesy of the Fairfax County Park Authority (Ellanor C. Lawrence Park)


When: Saturday, 02/12/2022 1:00 pm

Pond Shelter
5235 Walney Road
Chantilly, VA, 20151

Cost: $8 per person.

Click here for activity details or call 703-631-0013.

Registration is online.

Event Description:

Explore Walney Creek with a naturalist to meet some of the small creek critters (macroinvertebrates) that call it home. Learn why so many different types of macroinvertebrates are active in winter streams. The naturalist will demonstrate winter collecting and participants can help pick, sort and learn to identify these magnificent critters. The program at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park runs from 1 to 2 p.m.

Review of Water: A Natural History, by Alice Outwater

Reviewed by FMN Kristina Watts

Water: A Natural History is not just about water. As naturalists, we understand that everything is connected. I teach my students that streams are like the veins and arteries of the Earth, transporting nutrients and wastes; and we all know that water is necessary for life. I picked this book up thinking it would focus on hydrology, chemistry, and provide some details on the water cycle that would be fun to share. But instead, it was deeper than that: it’s the story of relationship, of activities and consequence.

Using aquatic resources as common thread that ties it all together, Alice Outwater takes the reader on a journey through time, showing us how humans have impacted the region that is now the United States since before European discovery of the continent. Starting with the beavers and eventually wrapping her narrative around buffalo, prairie dogs, mollusks, and alligators, she emphasizes how plentiful the animals were that lived on this land throughout pre-colonized history and how their behaviors shaped the ecosystems around them. We talk a lot about keystone species and their role in food webs, but this book highlights the direct connection between animals and the shapes of streams and rivers, ground water recharge, and water quality. Then she describes how human activity has reduced the populations of animals (and plants), and the resulting effects. She takes us through the human side of each story too, explaining for example the demand for fur in Europe during the 1600s, farmers’ naïve understanding of soil structure in the grasslands, and the U.S. government’s endeavors to engineer rivers for transportation and electric power needs.

All of the changes she describes through water’s “natural history” paint a picture of loss – loss of diversity and ecosystem health. She ends with a chapter on wastewater treatment (her specialty, as an environmental engineer by profession) and hope inspired by relatively recent environmental laws (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, etc.). She indicates that balance can be restored, if only we allow nature to take its course, well, more naturally. This book was published in 1996; my only complaint about it is that it is “old” – almost as much time has again passed as since the 1970s statutes and when the book was written. I’d love to see an update.

At 224 pages, this book is a pretty fast, colorful read and provides long-term, holistic perspective as well as interesting stories to enhance any discussions you may have involving water resources and our impact on them.

Water:  A Natural History, by Alice Outwater, Basic Books, Reprint edition (1997), 224 pages.

NVSWCD Seedling Sale Opens March 1st at 10am!

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District 2022 bare-root seedling sale features shrubs and small trees which are valuable to native bees and bear gorgeous flowers and fruits, and display beautiful colors. The fruits and flowers that these plants grow are important food sources to birds and pollinators! By planting these native species, you are directly contributing to the betterment of our environment. The plants in each package clean our water and air, prevent soil erosion, provide valuable habitat, and add beauty to your property. You can see this year’s seedling ribbon colors and learn tips and tricks for planting your seedling in the Fairfax County Tree Basics Booklet from NVSWCD and the Fairfax County Tree Commission. They hope you will also explore other native plant sales occurring throughout the Northern Virginia region this spring, like those promoted by Plant NOVA Natives.

View the seedling package contents, prices and ordering information here.

Pick up information and more here.

Natural History Field Study: Night Sky for Naturalists, Wednesdays, February 9th – March 16th

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

February 9 – March 16, 2022
Wednesdays, 6 – 8 pm
Class is hybrid with both Zoom lectures and in person field trips.
$200/ANS members; $250 nonmembers
Register here.

This Audubon Naturalist Society course provides a basic introduction to astronomy that emphasizes appreciation of Earth’s relationship to the universe. Topics covered include the celestial sphere, celestial navigation, motions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, telescopes, timekeeping, phases and motions of the Moon, tides, and eclipses. Field trips will provide hands-on experience with telescopes at the Montgomery College Astronomical Observatory, including both solar and nighttime observing.

EcoSavvy Symposium – Restoring Urban Forest, February 19th

Saturday, February 19, 2022
8:30 am – 12:30 pm
Online or in person at Green Spring Gardens, 4603 Green Spring Rd., Alexandria
Registration  703-642-5173 or online at (enter code H7T.BET2)

Help restore our urban forests, one yard at a time. This program will help you understand the ecological imperative to preserve and grow our tree canopy. Learn what you can do to help improve the issue of tree canopy decline throughout the region, and learn steps you can apply in your community and in your own yard to reverse this disturbing trend. A Zoom link will be emailed before the event. This virtual program is also available in person.

Keynote Speaker: Eric Wiseman, PhD, Associate Professor of Urban Forestry and Director of Virginia Big Tree Program

Also featuring Jim McGlone, PhD, Virginia Department of Forestry, and Casey Trees of Washington, DC

Presented by: VCE Green Spring Master Gardeners.