A Special Thank You to Ms. Williams and Her Thoughtful Students

Image: Courtesy of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District

Over the years young people have become more environmentally conscious. More and more Schools are providing educational opportunities for students to learn about environmental issues including sustainability and conservation.

One such learning opportunity was brought to my attention by a teacher, Ms. Williams, a volunteer at an after-school program leading an environmental awareness and water conservation class.  The students through their research came upon the 2019 FMN webpage article, The Incredible Journey Game: Understanding the Water Cycle One Drop at a Time by Kristina Watts.  Ms. Williams class found this article to be an invaluable resource.  They wanted to express their gratitude.

The story does not end there. The topic of water conservation was particularly important to Ms. Williams’ students.  One of her students, Cheryl, found a very informative and pro-active article entitled, The Ultimate Guide on Water Conservation: How To Save Every Drop” by Jonathan Jacobs. This article addresses the importance of water conservation and provides some very practical ways to take better care of our precious water supply.

Many thanks to Cheryl and the rest of her classmates for sharing this article with the FMN program. It is definitely a timely and informative addition to our webpages.

It is always good to hear from people who have found the FMN Blog articles informative and helpful. It is especially wonderful to know the articles have been used to enhance a learning experience.

Mary Ann Bush
FMN Communication Committee Chair.

Afternoon at the Smithsonian – Interpretive Tour of the Museum of Natural History

Photo by FMN Susan Martel, Geology section National Museum of Natural History with FMN Dr. John Kelmelis.

Tuesday, 5 Dec 2023
3:00 to 5:00PM (Tour is approximately 2 hours).
WhereNational Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.
Meet at the information desk in the rotunda beside Henry, the big elephant.
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 the event in the displayed 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 calendar.
  5. To claim CE hours: use All Continuing Education -> FMN All other Chapter Training

Bring paper and pencil to take notes if you desire. No 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.

Elly Doyle Awards – 2023

Fairfax County Park Authority and the Fairfax County Park Commission announced their 2023 Elly Doyle awards presented annually to deserving volunteers or organizations. For 2023, two FMN volunteers received “Outstanding Volunteer” Awards via parks they support. Jo Doumbia received an award via Hidden Oaks Nature Center (HONC) in Annandale and Celia Boertlein via Huntley Meadows Park (HMP) in Hybla Valley.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center – Photo curtesy of FCPA

Jo’s nomination letter cited her enthusiastic demeanor, graciousness in sharing her multilingual skills, and her joy of fostering natural history education in support of environmental justice. Jo is the perfect example of an outstanding volunteer.
The letter went on to say that she excels at her role inside the nature center building and also took it upon herself to go above and beyond the normal Volunteer on Duty role and extend Hidden Oaks’ interpretative outreach through a variety of activities within the local community. An experienced presenter and naturalist, Jo represents Hidden Oaks by planning and hosting nature outreach activities with neighborhood Community Centers supporting a highly diverse audience.
Since last summer Jo also interpreted monarch butterfly programs for elementary and high school age audiences at Wedgewood Community Center, which serves a highly diverse, low-income apartment complex in Annandale. These programs included monarch tagging and monarch migration activities.

Jo helping the Culmore teens into Kayaks at Riverbend – photo Jerry Nissley

She is the HONC liaison with Culmore Community Center. With Hidden Oaks’ staff, Jo put considerable effort into arranging four summer programs for 22 low-income Latino teens to attend complimentary STEM workshops at Hidden Oaks, Lake Fairfax, and Riverbend Park. Students participated in fishing, orienteering, geocaching, and kayaking. They studied live herps, STEM careers, conducted soil sampling with NVSWCD and benthic macroinvertebrates with DPWES. They were also sure to have fun at picnics and gathering around campfires. She coordinated volunteers from Fairfax Master Naturalists to assist in these events.
Through her vision and efforts, she extended Hidden Oaks’ nature interpretation programs to a more diverse audience, including those who are low-income and may otherwise not be able to participate in a paid program.

HMP Visitor Center – Photo Jerry Nissley

Celia received Huntley Meadows “Ken Howard” award and the Elly Doyle “Outstanding Volunteer” Award. Ken Howard was an autochthonal supporter of HMP and this eponymous award is considered HMP’s highest honor. Her Elly Doyle nomination letter stated that Celia is an essential member of the volunteer team. She wears many hats and is nearly always the first volunteer to assist with programs and scouts. Celia continues to fulfill her roving naturalist and vernal pool monitor duties without fail and dedicates an incredible amount of time and energy to support Huntley Meadows Park special events.

Celia helped immensely with the HMP Wetlands Awareness Day as a Friends of Huntley Meadows Park representative and stayed especially busy organizing the event. She continually steps up as an interpretive program assistant, field trip leader, roving naturalist, and vernal pool monitor – she is an essential park volunteer.  

HMP Big Pond – Photo Jerry Nissley

Celia continuously updates natural resource records with new developments in her vernal pool. She researches additional data, provides materials for others, and utilizes her contacts to reach out for more detail. She provides invaluable assistance in many different programs at HMP. Her skill set contributes to citizen science, educational, and community outreach activities. She brings a depth of naturalist knowledge and interpretation skills when speaking with park guests. As a roving naturalist she provides essential support to the park’s interpretive staff through her energetic, hands-on program assistance.

Vermiculture Part I – the Set-up

Vermiculture is the intentional cultivation of worms. In gardens and farms, worms are raised and used to break down organic materials as part of a composting process called vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is the natural aerobic (oxygen-required) process of the decomposition of organic matter into soil using worms. Worms breakdown organic material into bioavailable components. These components are primarily solid organic matter (worm castings) and liquid leachate (worm tea). Both can be used as organic fertilizers. PoTAYtoe, PoTAHtoe. The set-up process for vermiculture and vermicomposting is essentially the same, the difference is a matter of intent. My primary intent is to raise worms because I care for Woodland box turtles that eat worms and I fish a lot. The tremendous up-side is free organic, odorless plant fertilizer/soil and the elimination of unused organic household material by composting. As a side note – I have cared for box turtles for over 25 years and they are registered with DWR in accordance with captive native reptile regulations.

Three Tier Worm Box – Photo Jerry Nissley

Why Vermicomposting over traditional composting? Vermicomposting provides a faster, more efficient decomposition process. Worms can eat their weight in food daily. It is low odor so it can be done indoors and outdoors. The worms produce additional beneficial microbes as the organic material passes through their systems, which enriches the castings.

I contacted Melina Ciensk (FMN Chapter co-advisor) after I read that she ran a vermicomposting program at Occoneechee State Park. She shared her program handouts and presentation with me, which summarize the program and provided tips on how to get started. Her material was a very helpful resource for developing a plan of action for this home project.

The Essentials of Vermiculture:
I am sure most Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners are familiar with the benefits of composting so I will not belabor that aspect. Instead, we will focus on the practical aspects of establishing a home Vermiculture system.

Worms can be used in composting piles or composting bins. The former is typically a large pile in your backyard used specifically for creating organic compost, verses a smaller, more contained ‘bin’ used primarily for raising worms. As mentioned earlier, my intent is to raise worms, so I built a 3-tiered ‘worm box’.

Two upper tiers have screened floors – photo Jerry Nissley

Vermiculture bins a.k.a. worm boxes or bins, come in all shapes and sizes. Choosing one depends on your needs and space. I chose to build a wooden box because I had some extra, untreated wood remaining from another project. Plastic bins are popular and are readily available for purchase or DIY.
In a tiered box system, the worm colony is introduced into the lowest tier along with the proper bedding material and chopped food scraps. Once the colony processes the first-tier material, the second tier is added. The bottom tier has a solid bottom, covered with plastic and has a drain. All tiers have side holes for airflow.

The second tier then becomes the ‘feeding’ tier and the worms migrate up through the screen floor to feed. Repeat for top tier. The worms sense where the food is and always migrate to the tier with food.

Conceptual Vermiculture Bin – graphic open source

Knowing what to add to your worm-bin is crucial for the creation of high-quality compost, healthy worms, and preventing problems:

• Green Materials (Nitrogen-Rich): non-citrus fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, fresh clean grass clippings, and plant trimmings add necessary nitrogen to your mix.
• Brown Materials (Carbon-Rich): Dry leaves, straw, small wood chips, shredded paper, and cardboard provide carbon. A proper balance of greens and browns is essential for a healthy, odor-free bin. The carbon materials also help maintain moisture.
• Water: Keep the compost moist, but not soaked. Some moisture is necessary for the decomposition process.
• Avoid composting meats, dairy products, oils, and diseased plants as they can attract pests and pathogens. Be cautious of adding weeds that may have pesticides, seeds or invasive roots.

Stacked tiers will eventually be full of castings. Lid has holes to allow water in. Photo Jerry Nissley

The location of the worm bin can significantly impact its success. Ensure the spot is easily accessible year-round. You will want to add materials and harvest compost regardless of the season. An outside worm bin may need additional protection in the winter.
• Sunlight: While not mandatory, a location with partial sunlight can help warm the contents and speed up the composting process. However, too much sun might dry out the bin, so balance is key.
• Drainage: Good drainage is essential to prevent your compost from becoming waterlogged and drowning the worms. An area with a slight incline or well-drained soil can be advantageous.
• Proximity to Materials: Ideally, it should be near the source of your compost materials to minimize the effort required to transport scraps. Easy is as easy does.

By selecting an ideal location, choosing the right type of bin, and knowing what materials to compost, you are now equipped to start your Vermiculture adventure!

The success of your worm bin largely depends on the type of worms used. I will not add worms until the spring because my turtles are brumating and it is too cold to fish. More importantly, I will have the entire spring and summer to establish the colony before they must winter over.

Finished box. Painted exterior only. Drain to be added. Photo Jerry Nissley

The most popular worm choices are Red Wigglers and European Nightcrawlers for their complementary abilities. I plan to introduce both (500 and 100, respectively).
• Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida): These are the champions of vermicomposting. They thrive by decomposing organic material, they reproduce quickly, and tolerate a wide range of temperatures. They live in the top few inches of the soil eating away at the organic material.
• European Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis): Larger than red wigglers, these worms are also effective composters and are known as excellent bait worms for fishing. Nightcrawlers tunnel deeper into the soil, which aerates the layer, keeps it from compacting, and improves drainage.
• It is important to note that ordinary garden earthworms are not ideal for worm composting as they have different habitat preferences.

Most importantly, always check worms purchased from any supplier to make sure the batch is not contaminated with Asian Jumping Worms before introducing them into a compost.

Once established this three-tiered, 22” by 18” boxset is reportedly able to create 30-40 pounds of usable organic garden material per year. Red wigglers are hermaphrodites, so they can reproduce at a fast rate; they produce eggs (cocoon) often and are able to mate multiple times per year. A cocoon is about an 8th of an inch wide, yellow, and takes around 21 days to develop before hatching. If the cocoon is successful, 2-3 new worms should emerge. These new worms will grow to sexual maturity in around 40 days and will be able to mate and produce egg cocoons weekly.  With adding an initial 600 worms, I cannot even do the math for how many worms could be in the box by the end of the year.

We will see. To be continued…

1. Kiss the Ground – Documentary on Netflix that explores healing the world’s soils through regenerative agriculture. Highly recommended 
2. Jim’s Worm Farm – Worms and Vermicomposting supplies; resource information library
3. Melina Cienski, Community Forestry Specialist Rappahannock District; FMN Chapter Co-Advisor

Mast Years – Not Just for Pigs

Recently, while waiting for busses filled with 3rd graders to arrive for a school program at Huntley Meadows, the conversation of idle interpreters turned to the insane number of acorns we are finding and hearing in our yards this year. By hearing, I mean pelting like a hailstorm on our roofs, decks, cars, and metal grills even in a gentle breeze. We agreed that this is indeed a mast year in our area for some oaks, but we did not have time to fully discuss what causes masting or why it is called ‘masting’ because the busses arrived. So, after the 3rd graders were fully educated on the benefits of Wetlands and why that snake was eating a frog feet-first, I went home and did a little research…

The term masting comes from the ancient English word ‘mæst’. A term used to refer to years when forest acorn production increased significantly, and pig farmers were allowed to drive their stock into the forest to fatten them up.

I love etymology; today the term ‘mast’ is a general term for when plants (predominantly trees) flower together en masse every few years, producing large amounts of seeds. Most plants in Virginia flower and seed each year but these are mostly average flowering events. Some years see larger than normal flower and seed events.

Giant willow oak in my yard – photo Jerry Nissley

I recall the copious amount of catkins produced last spring and the dense pollen that wafted from the giant willow oak in my yard. As the wind blew, I saw literal clouds of pollen in the air that painted my deck (verily my house) yellow. This synchronized mass flowering and seed production occurs in populations of plants like oak and beech forests, not individual plants alone. All my neighbors have willow oaks.

A single willow oak produces both male flowers (in the form of catkins) and small cone flowers (female flowers), meaning that the trees are monoecious. Willow Oaks have male flowers on one part of their branch and female flowers on another part of the same branch.

Once the stamens have released their pollen into the air, the entire catkin will fall from the tree. Maybe you’ve seen thousands of such spent catkins littering a sidewalk beneath a willow oak early in the spring. On a flowering oak twig you have to look closely to see the female flowers — the future acorns.

These intermittent pulses of food production drive ecosystem-level functions and forest dynamics. The difference between a mast seeding year and a non-mast seeding year can be thousands of acorns, hickory nuts, or beech nuts. Mast seeding predominantly occurs in wind-pollinated tree species but has also been observed in grasses and dipterocarps (plants in tropical forest environments), according to Wikipedia.

My entire backyard under the tree canopy – photo Jerry Nissley

Hypotheses for mast seeding can be broadly assigned to three categories: economies of scale, resource matching, and proximate cues (i.e. weather). The key common feature is that the plants derive some benefit from making occasional large seeding efforts rather than regular smaller ones. It was also noted in our idle conversation that a mast may occur during a dry season, in an attempt by the trees to shed seeds that are taking away resources needed by the tree to simply survive the drought. In this case fewer of the seeds would be viable but ultimately also a benefit because it helps the tree survive. The two most common ways plants achieve success are by wind pollination and predator satiation. Large mass flowering will increase the chances of successful wind pollination. Predator satiation is when plant populations provide a glut of seeds every few years to make it much harder for consumers of the seed (birds and mammals) to eat them all – ensuring some seeds will remain available for new plants to grow. Of course, this glut of available food will also contribute to an increase in the number of consumers next season … and so it goes.

Everything is connected – yes?

Emerged, Emerging and Potential Infectious Diseases of Virginia Wildlife, December 7th

Photo: Courtesy of the VMN Continuing Education Webinar Series

Thursday, December 7, 2023
12:00-1:00 pm

VMN Continuing Education Webinar
Registration: Pre-registration required.

As Virginians, we live in a unique, diverse but fragile ecosystem comparable to any area on earth. A realization of this is made obvious when one considers the havoc that an introduced infectious disease can have on a wildlife population. In this presentation, the biology and impact of three different infectious diseases will be presented and the roles Master Naturalists could play in recognizing and controlling these diseases. The first is an infectious disease that has emerged: white nose syndrome of bats that is devastating the bat population in our state. The second, chronic wasting disease of deer, an emerging disease that is slowly spreading through the deer population of Virginia with potential public health implications. The final disease is Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (a.k.a. Bsal) a deadly disease that has recently spread from Asia to Europe and is expected to soon be found in North America. North America has the greatest salamander diversity in the world with much of this diversity occurring along the mid-Atlantic Appalachians.  


Robert “Bob” Dunstan is a veterinary pathologist who has over 100 publications dealing with diseases of animals and humans in their many manifestations.  He was a full professor of pathology at Michigan State University and at Texas A&M University where he specialized in dermatopathology.   In 2004, he was recruited by Pfizer to help develop new treatments for dermatologic diseases in humans.  To do this he started using artificial intelligence to quantify the microscopic effects of emerging topical therapies. Four years later he was recruited as a distinguished investigator by Biogen, where he studied Alzheimer’s disease as well as several autoimmune diseases.  He finished his career working for Abbvie, applying deep learning methods on inflammatory bowel disease.  Retiring this year, Bob became a Master Naturalist in 2012.


Surveys: Occoquan Bay NWR Natural Resources, November 29th and/or December 20th

Photo: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by Rusty Moran

Wednesday, November 29, 2023 and/or
Wednesday, December 20, 2023
7:30 am – 12 pm
Occoquan Bay NWR
13950 Dawson Beach Road
Woodbridge, VA

Participation is limited. Email to make a reservation here.

Many know Northern Virginia for its economic dynamism, cultural development and ever-changing landscape. Less well known are the places sheltering remnants of an earlier, vital, natural history. If you would like to discover native birds, other fauna and flora — in the company of dedicated citizen scientists — then consider joining one or more of the continuing natural resource surveys at Occoquan Bay NWR, Meadowood Recreation Area and other parks and preserves in eastern Fairfax and Prince William Counties. Each of these publicly-protected sites has a particular blend of habitats representative of Northern Virginia’s special natural character.

A report of each of the weekly, monthly surveys is emailed to participants as well as the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and other managing agencies. Summary reports, checklists and analyses of survey data provide an up-to-date inventory of species and insight into the state of populations.

Service Project at Monticello Park, November 19th

Photo: Northern Parula by Randy Streufert

Sunday, November 19, 2023
1 – 3 pm
Monticello Park
320 Beverly Drive, Alexandria

This program is part of Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s Stretch Our Parks initiative, in partnership with the staff of Alexandria Recreation, Parks and Culture.

Please join them for a service project in Monticello Park to restore trails damaged by erosion and remove non-native invasive plants to make room for more native plants that will benefit all of the park’s wildlife including its birdlife. This park is well loved among birders – so pitch in to help keep this gem of a park in good shape!

Please dress in layers, wear solid footwear and bring work gloves if you have them.

About Monticello Park: Among local birders, this 6.5-acre park is renowned for its great diversity of migrating warblers; nearly all eastern species have occurred here. The park’s creek is a focus for migrant activity, which is significant throughout the day. A steep canyon and creek are the prominent features of the site. This site was designated a Community Forest. Visit mpnature.com to learn more about the bird species that depend on this crucial migration stop-over.

Fall Cleanup in Two Easy Steps

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Here is an executive summary of eco-friendly yard maintenance recommendations for fall.

  1. Watch the pretty leaves flutter down from above.
  2. Do as little as possible to disturb those leaves or the flower stalks.

In the days when gardening meant growing food for the table, cleaning out plant debris before winter was a routine practice to reduce the spread of diseases that affect vegetables. That routine carried over when suburbanites switched their yards to ornamental plants and turf grass, with the unfortunate consequence that we deprived our non-human neighbors of the shelter and food they need to survive. The tide is turning, though, as people are realizing that attractive gardens that support the ecosystem do better when their caretakers go easy on the autumn chores.

Some birds and nocturnal mammals are able to dig for grubs in a lawn, but you may have noticed that most friendly critters such as box turtles, frogs, and katydids do not spend a lot of time frolicking on your turf grass. It would leave them much too exposed, not to mention starving. Layers of leaves from native trees and shrubs, by contrast, provide a smorgasbord for them. Some of their meals consist of the caterpillars and other insects that feed on the leaves of native trees in spring and summer until they float down to the ground in the fall. Those that escape predation turn into adults the next spring and start the cycle over. Other insects such as fireflies spend their entire lives in the leaf litter, coming out briefly to find mates. All this assumes that their homes are not chopped up or raked up to be sent off to mulch factories.

Similarly, dead stalks provide shelter for many little critters, including certain species of native bees that burrow into the ends of broken stalks to lay their eggs.  Plants left intact enliven our yards all winter with their interesting seed heads and waving stems, made even more lively as the songbirds perch on the stalks and scrabble in the leaves for the seeds of flowers and grasses.

As the plants emerge again in the spring, they have no trouble pushing past the dead leaves, which act as a natural mulch until they gradually decompose and feed the soil. Many of the dead flower stalks will have fallen down by spring, and those remaining are quickly hidden from sight by the growing plants. If those plants are native to our ecosystem, they continue to provide benefits the rest of the year by nourishing the caterpillars and providing nectar and pollen for the pollinators. Some of the thicker leaves such as oaks may smother turf grass under the trees, but that is just as well, since mowing around trees risks injuries to their bark, and walking under them compacts the soil and stresses the roots. Trees do best when their leaves are left in place out to the drip line. But if that isn’t possible, try to move these leaves intact into other beds.  Mulching fallen leaves with the mower blade is better than sending them off in a truck or dumping smothering piles in the woods, but it may chop up the insect larvae and eggs.

Simple adjustments such as these to our landscaping practices will greatly improve the prospects of our local ecosystem. Other important steps to take include adding native plants, removing invasive non-native plants, minimizing the use of outdoor lighting, and eliminating mosquito spraying with its lethal consequences to the living world. Learn more on the Plant NOVA Natives website.

Occoquan Tree Identification with Jim McGlone, November 18th

Photo: Occoquan Bay NWR, Rusty Moran

Saturday, November 18, 2023
1 – 3 pm
Occoquan Bay NWR Visitor Center
14050 Dawson Beach Road, Woodbridge, VA, 22191

Free, no registration required

Join Audubon Society of Northern Virginia for a walk through Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to learn how to identify common native trees and how you can be a good park neighbor by planting your own native trees at home. You’ll also learn why trees are so important, both in parks and the areas surrounding parks.

This program is part of our Stretch Our Parks initiative, in partnership with the staff of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established in June 1998 to provide habitat for migratory birds and endangered species. The refuge’s diverse grassland, marsh, and forest habitats attract a variety of songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl that depend on the area for food, nesting sites, and a place to rest.

Jim, an urban forest conservationist and forester, recently retired from the Virginia Department of Forestry and served as founding Chapter Advisor and dendrology instructor for the Fairfax Master Naturalists.