Image: Courtesy of Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District

Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District: Soil Your Undies Campaign

Article and Images Courtesy of The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District


Soil Your Undies Campaign

Soil Your Undies Challenge

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District is challenging residents all across Fairfax County to bury a pair of cotton underwear as part of a campaign to promote soil health awareness. How does it work? Just bury a pair of cotton underwear and dig it back up after at least 60 days. It’s the quick and dirty way to test the microbial activity in your soil. The more the underwear is deteriorated, the healthier your soil!

Although you can use the Soil Your Undies Challenge to check your soil health at any time, the most microbial activity occurs during the warm summer months, making this an easy and fun addition to your summer break plans!

Soil Your Undies Challenge Steps

Join the Challenge!

Step 1: Look for a place where you want to study the health of the soil. Make sure you are only studying sites on your property or with the permission of the landowner.

Step 2: Bury a pair of white cotton undies (or any white cotton clothing item) 3 inches under the soil’s surface. Be sure to take a “before” photo.

Step 3: Don’t forget to mark your study site with a flag or other easily-identifiable marker!

Step 4: Wait at least 60 days (this is the hard part…)

Step 5: Locate your marked study site and dig up your cotton undies. Be sure to take an “after” photo.

Step 6: How healthy is your soil? Healthier soils have a lot of microbial activity, and the healthy fungi and bacteria in the soil will break down your cotton undies. The more degraded your undies are, the more microbial activity you have in your soil, and the healthier your soil is.

Step 7: Share the results of your citizen science project! Email your photos and any notes you may have to [email protected], and share your results with us on Facebook @nvswcd and on Instagram @NorthernVirginiaSWCD. We’ll be sharing our results with you, too!

About Soil Health

Healthy soil contains billions of microbes that consume organic material (in this case, cotton underwear). In fact, one teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on the planet. In addition to chowing down on organic matter like cotton, they also help soil resist erosion, cycle nutrients, and store water.

As world population and food production demands rise, keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance. By farming using soil health principles and systems that include no-till, cover cropping, and diverse rotations, more and more farmers are increasing their soil’s organic matter and improving microbial activity. As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields. In backyards, healthy soil can promote the growth of a healthy lawn and landscaping, as well as help water infiltrate and prevent erosion.

You can improve soil health by following these four steps:

  1. Avoid soil disturbance wherever and whenever possible.
  2. Maximize soil cover with living plants and residue.
  3. Maximize biodiversity by growing a variety of plants and managed integration of livestock.
  4. Maximize living roots in the soil throughout the year.
Photo credit:

Discovering Bats in the Night Sky, October 1st

Photo credit:

Sunday, October 1, 2023
7:00 – 8:30 PM

Where: Dyke Marsh,
Alexandria, Virginia
Click here for map and directions.

Registration required: Please visit the Better Impact website to register.

Discovering Bats in the Night Sky with Deborah Hammer, Interpretive Guide

Join us as we explore bats in the night sky at Dyke Marsh in Alexandria, VA with expert Deborah Hammer – this is open to any FMN member – and limited to the first 12 registrants! This event is eligible for one and a half continuing education hours.

Did you know that there are over 1400 different species of bats, about 17 of which live in Virginia? Or that bananas, agave, mango, durian and guava are among the many plants pollinated by bats? If you would like to learn more fun facts, join us for an evening walk to learn all about the amazing lives of chiroptera (“hand-wing,” a.k.a. “sky puppies.”)

Using a sonar detector, participants will be able to hear the bats echolocating as they hunt for insects.

Deborah Hammer is a Fairfax Master Naturalist and serves on the boards of Bat Conservation and Rescue of Virginia and Friends of Dyke Marsh. She is also an autism/low-incidence specialist with Arlington Public Schools.

Photo FMN Deborah Hammer

Photo FMN Deborah Hammer

Registration: Please visit the Better Impact website to register.

Instructions for signing up for a hike via BI:

  1. Login to BI and click on Opportunities -> Opportunities Calendar
  2. Find event in the calendar (October 1) and click it.
  3. Click on the Sign-Up box- this will automatically register the FMN member and will put the event on your calendar.

Note: To claim CE hours: use All Continuing Education -> FMN All other Chapter Training

On day of event:

  • Please arrive by 6:45 PM to check in – We will meet at the entrance to the Haul Rd. Trail at Belle Haven Park/Dyke Marsh. The hike will begin promptly at 7:00PM.
  • Bring insect repellent. If they have a red-light flashlight, that is preferable to a traditional light.
  • Dress for the weather – wear protection as needed (e.g., rain)
  • Wear sturdy hiking shoes – we may be hiking on some trails that are wet &/or rocky
  • Bring drinking water
  • Bring a flashlight (red is preferred)

Questions? Contact Laura Anderko FMN VP and Program Chair at [email protected]

Afternoon at the Smithsonian II

This announces the second CE tour of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History developed and tailored for VMNs by FMN John Kelmelis.
Interpretive Tour of the Museum of Natural History for Virginia Master Naturalists
September 27, 2023 at 3:00pm
National Museum of Natural History in DC
Meet in the rotunda at the information desk beside Henry, the big elephant.
How long:
Approximately 2 hours.
Group limit.
6 individuals
To register:
1. Login to BI and click on your ‘Opportunities’ tab.
2. Select ‘Opportunity Calendar’ from the pull-down list.
3. Find event in the calendar and click on it to display event details.
4. To sign up, Click on the ‘Sign Up’ box in the lower right. This automatically signs you up and puts the event on your personal BI calendar.
5. To claim 2 CE hours: use All Continuing Education -> FMN All other Chapter Training

Once the tour fills, the event disappears from the Opportunity Calendar but remains on the Opportunity List and your personal BI calendar.
Feel free to take notes but no audio recordings please.

FMN Dr. Kelmelis will guide an interpretive tour of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History relevant to Virginia Master Naturalists.  This tour will identify the relationship of some exhibits to the natural environment of Virginia including the geologic history, mineralogy, entomology, osteology, evolution, mammalogy, and many other topics.  Some of the take-aways will include an introduction of how the NMNH’s display collection can be used to enrich the naturalist’s understanding of science, the scientific method, and some techniques that are applicable to naturalists’ domain of interests; as well as some facts related to the natural condition and history of Virginia.

Dr. Kelmelis is former Chief Scientist for Geography for the U.S. Geological Survey, Senior Counselor for Earth Science at the U.S. Department of State, former Professor of Science, Technology and International Policy, and Founding Faculty of the School of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University.  He holds a BA in Earth Science; MS in Engineering; and Ph.D. in Geography.  He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has held positions in many national and international scientific organizations.  He is a volunteer and docent at the Smithsonian Institution and a Virginia Master Naturalist in the Fairfax County chapter.

Advantages of Natural Science Sketching

Feature photo: Author’s covered bridge in nature setting (1970s), as self taught via the Jon Gnagy art set.

Article and illustrations by FMN Stephen Tzikas

We all have a bit of an artist in us when we learned to draw and use coloring books as children.  Some of us went further. I started self-learning art with the Jon Gnagy sets from the 1960s and 1970s.  He also had a television show.  My first dedicated art class was in 9th grade.  Among master naturalists, there are many sketchers, and I will offer my perspective on this subject.

My first application of art was with the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observer (ALPO).  They have a 1 year observing program focused on sketching astronomical objects.  What made the ALPO observation program so unique was an appreciation for details one cannot “casually see” or photograph.  When I first started this program, I was asked to pick a lunar crater and draw it as observed through a telescope.  My first sketch was not much more than a 1 minute drawing with a circle and a shadow in it.  By the time I graduated that program, I was sketching similar craters that would take me 3 hours to complete because of all the detail I could now see for which I was oblivious when I started the program. To illustrate this, I provide an example of my sketch of the crater Arzachel on the Moon.

Sketch of Moon Crater Arzachel, August 4, 2014 at Colongitude 7.97 degrees.  Magnification 169x using a Meade 12” Lightbridge telescope in Reston, VA.

Sketching details incorporate a gray tone scale (1 through 10) using different labelled pencils for this purpose. Moreover, a photograph can’t capture all the differences in live perception. Especially in astronomy, viewing gets distorted by the atmosphere. A properly identified astronomical sketch includes criteria to understand its context, such as the time and date, the object, the telescope used, and the accessories.  These sketches are accepted by various organizations as a record for future generations.   

Numerous natural science genres include colored scientific illustration, comics, and journals. Art I have seen over the decades show how illustrations have evolved, sometimes forced by necessity.  I once sketched a full Moon to compare my attempt to Galileo’s first attempt.  By then I was trained in astronomical sketching.  This feat is impossible to do in a night because many more hours would be needed than available, and keeping in mind that the shadows on the Moon are constantly changing due to movement through space.  This shadowing is defined by co-longitude and is the reason why one cannot just continue a lunar sketch the upcoming evening.  Out of necessity a style needs to be created to capture a background in a sketch and these styles evolved with time.  Style (what to accentuate) is not only a function of the historic time it was created, but also social factors that may have included materials available, social beliefs, talent, interpretations, and imagination.  The historically preserved sketch is a record of what could have existed at a time but no longer does.  Historical sketches and paintings often include environmental conditions useful to scientists, even if those works were never intended for that purpose.    

In a wider context, art can be a record of human consciousness.  The human consciousness can incorporate aspects of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Indeed, art can use a broad brush, to borrow a metaphor.  Art has its own unique place in nature sketching.  I would encourage others to submit articles to the FMN Newsletter as a means of preserving the various forms of art and observations for future generations. 

In addition to the FMN Newsletter as a source for art-related information, there is the art competition for the FMN recertification pins. Also, there are nature journaling meet-ups at the Clifton Institute and nature art classes are given at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.  Always available are You-tube videos on sketching. Just have a look at the fine pieces of art posted on the NOVA Nature Journal Club Facebook group at:

John Muir Laws also provides free videos online that have helped people become skilled observers to creatively document their experiences with nature. Experiencing the moment can sometimes be quite different from what a static photograph portrays. See the website at:

Elk Viewing Tours, Experience Virginia’s Elk In Person!

Dates and Times (Space Limited)

  • Tuesday, September 5 @ 6 pm
  • Thursday, September 14 @ 6 pm
  • Thursday, September 21 @ 6 pm
  • Thursday, September 28 @ 5 pm
  • Thursday, October 5 @ 5 pm
  • Tuesday, October 10 @ 5 pm
  • Tuesday, October 24 @ 5 pm
  • Tuesday, October 31 @ 5 pm


Tours meet at Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures (1124 Chipping Sparrow Road, Grundy VA 24614).


$20 per person

How to Sign Up

Each tour will be limited to 25 guests who will be required to pre-register through the DWR website.

Enjoy an informative guided bus tour of Virginia’s elk country in scenic Buchanan County this fall. These public elk-viewing tours, offered by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in partnership with Breaks Interstate Park, will travel through private lands, with special permission from the landowners, to view elk habitats that are otherwise inaccessible to the public. Pre-registration is required.


What to Bring

You can bring a camera, binoculars, and water. Plan on wearing footwear appropriate for the outdoors and bring a raincoat and an extra layer. (There will be some opportunities to get out of the bus.)


  • Participants under 18 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.
  • Pets are NOT allowed on the tour.
  • Unless otherwise instructed, please remain within arm’s reach of the bus.

What to Expect

Tours will last approximately 3 hours. Guides will have one or two designated stopping locations along the way where you can get out of the bus to see the elk. However, the tour and viewing of the elk will primarily take place from the bus. Tours will start and end at Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures Visitor Center, where restrooms will be available along with one stop during the tour.






Afternoon at the Smithsonian – Time Well Spent

Cover photo: Susan Martel

The first ‘Afternoon at the Smithsonian’ CE tour was a big success.

Ocean Hall. Photo – Sarah Miller

This tour identifies the relationship of some Natural History Museum exhibits to the natural environment of Virginia including the geologic history, mineralogy, entomology, osteology, evolution, mammalogy, and many other topics.  Some of the take-aways include an introduction of how the NMNH’s display collection can be used to enrich the naturalist’s understanding of science, the scientific method, and some techniques that are applicable to naturalists’ domain of interests; as well as some facts related to the natural condition and history of Virginia.

Photo – Sarah Miller

The CE tour was developed and led by FMN Dr. John Kelmelis. He is former Chief Scientist for Geography for the U.S. Geological Survey, Senior Counselor for Earth Science at the U.S. Department of State, former Professor of Science, Technology and International Policy at Pennsylvania State University.  He holds a BA in Earth Science; MS in Engineering; and Ph.D. in Geography.  He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has held positions in many national and international scientific organizations.  He is a volunteer and docent at the Smithsonian Institution and a Virginia Master Naturalist in the Fairfax County chapter.

Talking bones. Photo – Susan Martel

While the tour inevitably talked ‘big picture’ natural science concepts, the attendees mentioned they appreciated how John tailored his discussions towards the Virginia area and even specific FMN course material when appropriate.
In general, tour topics covered and Halls visited include:
1. Geology Gems and Minerals Hall
2. Butterfly Pavilion (in passing) and Insect Zoo
3. Bones
4. Ocean Hall
5. Deep time
6. Mammals
7. Ornithology

Geology. Photo – Sarah Miller

Everyone walked away from the program feeling it was two hours very well spent. FMNs on the tour were: Susan Martel, Peter Mecca, Margaret Coffey, Ramona Bourgeois, Sarah Miller, and Liz Nalle. Thank you to Susan and Sarah for sharing photos of the event.

John will schedule more tours over the course of the next several months as his schedule permits.

Our world is a creation of inordinate complexity, richness, and strangeness that is absolutely fascinating. Come – see for yourself.

Keep an eye on upcoming FMN newsletters for CE announcements.

Plan Pollination

Cover photo Jerry Nissley

The pollinator garden redux at the Potomac River Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge is certainly not a complete success story yet but the story behind how it got started and kicked off is a complement to success.

FMN table at Eagle Festival (Photo Jerry Nissley)

Let’s rewind … FMN set up an outreach table the Mason Neck Eagle Festival a few months ago. Near day’s end Gabby Youngken, Visitor Services Specialist at Potomac River NWRC, stopped by to see if FMN could advise them on how to refurbish their on-site pollinator garden. As circumstances would have it Sarah Mayhew had recently established an FMN Chapter Project (CP179) at Mason Neck to do their gardens. With FMN Steph Johnson as technical advisor, Sarah and other FMN members, along with Friends of Mason Neck, developed a phased work and maintenance plan/schedule and were in the midst of working it.

‘Before’ picture (Photo Jerry Nissley)

Fast forward … Because everything was documented the Mason Neck plan was easily extensible to NRWC. Surely since NWRC is directly across Belmont Bay from MNSP it stands to reason they would have the same weeds. Right? FMN sent MNSP plans to NWRC for review; followed up with a site visit to NRWC; met the staff; toured the property; and then tailored the plan for them. We then had to gather a volunteer base to execute the plan. FMN contacted Merrimac Chapter, since they operate in Prince William county. FMN has a frequent volunteer in the NWRC visitor center – he was in. Master Gardeners was interested in helping. NWRC has a few volunteer groups they tap and of course several hard working interns from the American

‘After’ picture. Invasives destined for proper disposal. Phase one done. (Photo Jerry Nissley)

Conservation Experience, EPIC Program. With the team set, Gabby picked 8 Aug to kickoff the project. Many hands make short work! Phase one done!

The team was able to save several native plants for reuse, turn the soil to remove roots, and then cover with black plastic (to smother roots) until the scheduled fall planting.

So the ‘success’ to date is really credit to how the group came together as a result of outreach to cooperate and collaborate on a project that benefits our park systems. Stay tuned for more on this effort when it completes.

Bonus factoid: The Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex is a complex of three National Wildlife Refuges in Virginia located along the Potomac River.
The three refuges are:
* Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge
* Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge
* Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge
The first two are administered jointly for planning, while the third is currently treated separately.
The pollinator garden is at the Occoquan Bay site.

Tree-of-Heaven is Not Heavenly!

Photo: Plant NOVA Natives

Article by Cindy Speas, Chair, Fairfax County Tree Commission

In summer many folks travel to the Shenandoah Valley and beyond for recreational opportunities. Driving in any direction from Northern Virginia in the growing season, there is a tree that can be seen everywhere along the highways and byways. The dramatic clusters of seeds are so large they look like giant flowers among the leaves. It’s not native walnut or native sumac—it is Ailanthus altissima, commonly called Tree-of-Heaven. Disturbed areas and right of ways along roads are perfect locations for this opportunistic pest to colonize. Ailanthus is popping up in suburbia as well, and those of us who love trees wonder why experts are calling for us to remove these attractive and fast-growing specimens from our properties as soon as possible?

Ailanthus was imported from China and widely distributed in the United States as an ornamental in the late 1700s and 1800s. Its behavior, though, is far from heavenly—it spreads aggressively through root sprouting and huge seed production; it grows to maturity rapidly with a very long taproot; it is characterized by its terrible odor; and it poisons the ground around its roots with chemicals, in a process called allelopathy. This prevents native trees and plants from growing nearby, allowing Ailanthus to quickly spread and dominate our landscape.

Additionally, Ailanthus is the preferred food source for a new invasive insect—the Spotted Lanternfly (SLF). In spite of state quarantines, this destructive pest has now been found in Fairfax County. It is a major threat to some of Virginia’s agricultural areas, especially our vineyards, peach orchards and hops. It is also a threat to native tree species like oaks and maples that thrive in our yards. Forest Pest Branch asks all residents to report Ailanthus here and report Spotted Lanternfly sightings here.

Some may ask why these non-native trees should be removed—don’t they at least provide shade and shelter in a warming world? They certainly can, but they crowd out our native oaks, beeches, hickories and maples, as well as failing to provide the critical food resources that native insects and other animals need to live and reproduce in a fully functioning, healthy ecosystem. If a plant like this is killing off or threatening major parts of our local natural food web, the entire system will eventually collapse. And we will lose our native tree canopy along the way.

How can we stop the spread of this nasty invasive? The first thing, of course, is not to purchase it in the first place! So be sure to learn how to identify it. You can become familiar with the iNaturalist app on your smartphone or use other online resources to name the plant. The second is to remove the tree if it is growing on your land. This pest, however, thrives when simply cut down, so strategies must be used to kill the root system right away. There are some excellent resources to help landowners eliminate this threat safely and efficiently. Blue Ridge Prism has excellent fact sheets with details about herbicide use for this and other invasive species.

Visit Plant Nova Natives for more information about invasives and their destructive roles in our native environment. If we could eliminate a threat like the Tree-of-Heaven, that would truly be heavenly.

Box Turtles Surveyed at The Clifton Institute

Andrew Eberly (L) holds a turtle while FMN David Gorsline (R) carries the radio receiver and transmitter, photo by The Clifton Institute

Article by FMN Janet Quinn, photos as marked

In mid-May I joined a group of citizen scientists  gathered at The Clifton Institute (Clifton) in Warrenton, Virginia, equipped with a radio receiver and antenna.  As the faint pings from the receiver grew louder, we followed the direction of the strongest sounds and eventually found our prize, a Woodland Box Turtle (terrapene carolina carolina)!  The transmitter equipped creature was snuggled in tall grass and would have been difficult to find without the transmitter.

Andrew inspects the transmitter, photo by author

We began our day learning about Clifton’s ongoing Box Turtle research program from Andrew Eberly, Habitat Specialist and our guide for the day.  Clifton is unusual in being not just an education center but also a research station and a conservation organization. That means that participants on their field trips have the unique opportunity to participate in real scientific research and to see ongoing restoration projects in action.

In spring 2022 Clifton launched an exciting new research project on Box Turtles. The goals of the project are to better understand how Box Turtles are doing at Clifton (where they are still common), why they are declining in the region, and how landowners can help turtles. They are especially interested in studying the animals’ movements in different kinds of habitats so that they can advise landowners on when and how to change mowing and haying practices to minimize turtle mortality.

Andrew weighs an unmarked turtle, photo by author

When they find a turtle they notch its shell with a unique code so that they can identify it when they (hopefully) see it again. They have found more than 106 turtles! They estimate that roughly 370 turtles live on the 400 acres they have surveyed. They have been amazed to find so many and want to figure out what makes their property so turtle-friendly.

As a pilot study, they attached radio transmitters to five of the turtles and tracked their movements to get a better idea of where they’re hanging out and when. Five turtles didn’t tell them much, but the tracking worked well enough that they had expanded to twenty turtles by the time of the May field trip.

After some of us took turns using the receiver and antennae to locate some of the previously

Andrew measures an unmarked turtle, photo by author

identified turtles, we moved to “Turtle Junction”, a site on the property known for its turtle habitat.  We were delighted to find two more unmarked turtles there.  Andrew carefully notched their shells, and weighed and measured them to log them into the survey subjects.

Flush with success, the group moved out of the lush forested area just as a spring downpour began.  Although The Clifton Institute is a 45-minute drive away from my home, the trip provided enough education, outdoor time in beautiful surroundings, and the feeling that I had added needed information to citizen science that I would readily go again and highly encourage you to do the same!



Kayak Adventure

Rafting up to start the float. (Photo Jerry Nissley)

On 30 July, 2023 FMN offered its first of (hopefully) several CE Kayak Adventures. Everything worked out to a T and what a nice evening it was too. Perfect weather, full moon, eagles, herons, frogs in our boats, high tide, and Tom (the lead guide) managed to navigate the group through the hydrilla to observe an active eagle nest.

The evening tour at Mason Neck State Park (MNSP) consisted of a 2 hour tour into Belmont Bay and the back waters of Kane’s Creek. The round trip is a leisurely 4.5 mile paddle through islands of spatterdock to where MNSP borders the Elizabeth Hartwell Wildlife Refuge. The turn around point is at an eagle nest that has been reused for many years by the same mated pair.

Frogs in our boats! (Photo Jerry Nissley)

We saw two mature eagles and at least one of this year’s fledglings. The group discussed the local wetland plants, birds, geography, Native American culture, and colonial history of Mason Neck Peninsula. Mason Neck supports a large rookery of great blue herons and many migratory species such as white egrets, osprey, various water fowl, and song birds. Wetland plants identified and discussed included spatterdock, pickerel weed, arrow arum, wild rice, and swamp mallow (hibiscus).

We started the float around dusk atop glass smooth water with a cool summer breeze at our backs. While deep in the gut of Kane’s Creek we stopped to admire the eagle nest and discuss the eagle’s importance to the conservation of the peninsula. Our return leg was gently accompanied by an ebbing tide, the serenade of frogs, and the sibilant song of insects. We finished the evening gliding in under the shine of a full moon.

Paddling through spatterdock into the sunset (Photo Jerry Nissley)

The paddle adventure adhered to Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) regulations, so the tour was limited to 12 boaters and two certified guides. FMN provided the guides who have been trained and skill certified by DCR. Both guides (along with 5 other FMN) are currently registered with Mason Neck State Park and provided introductory paddling and safety tips to the group prior to the float. Not a single paddler was lost!

To the moon. (Photo Pete Thiringer)

A big thank you to FMN Program Chair Laura Anderko for arranging the event with MNSP and one of our new chapter advisors, MNSP ranger Jamie Leeuwrik.
Participants were Deb Hammer, Kathyrn Pasternak, Marilyn Schroeder, Pam Alexander, Margaret Coffey, Cyndi Perry, John Kelmelis, Meg Oakley, Pete Thiringer, Julie Shaw, and Kristin Bauersfeld; with Tom Blackburn and Jerry Nissley as the guides.