Thieving Foxes

Photos by Celia Boertlein

By Celia Boertlein and Mary Ann Bush

FMN Celia Boertlein has a beautiful story. It involves some new neighbors of the four-legged variety. Celia says, “This past winter, the foxes had moved their den over to the neighborhood pool which is adjacent to my yard. They were in and out of my yard from March through May.  This past year, I was never really sure how many there were.”  This was not Celia’s first encounter with the fox family neighbors. She goes on to say, “They actually had dens under my shed and screened porch during the previous two years.  Spring of 2019 they had 4 pups, Spring of 2020 there were 5.” 

According to the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1325, the fox breeding season in temperate regions occurs during January and February. A litter size may correlate with the availability of food resources. Most litters consist of 3 to 7 kits, which are born in early to mid-Spring. In the early weeks after the kits are born, the female fox also known as the vixen stays in the den to nurse and care for the kits while the male fox procures food for his mate and offspring. The kits depend on their mother’s milk till they are about 8-10 weeks old. At three weeks old the kits start to walk and start to emerge from the den with their mother.

Celia goes on to talk about a particular fox behavior that is both curious and fascinating. The foxes have acquired quite a stash of some interesting items. She states, “Their stash has included tennis balls, hockey pucks, dog pull toys, frisbees, single flip flops and tennis shoes, and a LOT of Washington Post newspapers in their plastic bags. On one day, I collected 4 newspapers in my backyard. Never did figure out all the neighbors involved. Funniest part was my newspaper was always left alone in my driveway.”

Why would a fox procure such objects? Celia is watching a growing family with apparently healthy, active kits. There is some speculation that the kits, like puppies, need something to chew on as their teeth come in. The parents could be choosing items because of the smell, or they prefer squishy objects with a leather-like texture for chewing. Another theory was more basic, a toy is a toy whether the youngster is a child, a puppy, or a baby fox.

Celia tried to contact her neighbors about the items, “Many of the dog toys were not retrieved by their dogs’ owners after they found out that foxes had stolen them. The hockey pucks and frisbees went back to their amused neighbors. Most people were amused and didn’t want their items back when they found out foxes had gnawed on them. The only upset people were my next-door neighbor who expected their newspaper in the driveway at 5:30 a.m. and the WP delivery person who got several irate phone calls that their papers were missing. The only downside to having a fox den in my yard was finding squirrel and other decaying animal parts left behind. “

The fox family season is drawing to a close. One final observation from Celia, “The foxes had moved out of my yard by late April, but we have adults and what I think of as the juveniles out and about year round.  Early morning and late evening I see them a lot.”

Celia says she has been sharing this wonderful experience with her grandson, “My 3-year-old grandson FaceTimed me to see them.  We now exchange wildlife photos on a regular basis.”

One last note: Celia is enjoying the exciting experience of watching the foxes grow up naturally and taking photographs from a distance. This is the most positive way to interact with wildlife. Foxes are naturally fearful and skittish around humans. We should never feed or habituate any wild animal to human contact. We don’t want to take away the most important skill these beautiful creatures can possess: their ability to survive in the wild on their own!

Mini Grants to Beautify Neighborhood Entrances with Native Plants

Water’s Edge planting plan by Hands Dirty; Image and article courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

This spring, Audubon at Home partnered with Plant NOVA Natives to invite homeowners’ and civic associations to apply for funds to beautify their neighborhood entrances using low maintenance native plants. The mini-grant program was funded by Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation’s Environmental Education and Stewardship Grants Program.
 
Interest in converting entranceways to native plants was high, and 35 groups completed the application process which included obtaining authorization from their Boards. Choosing between them was not easy, as they all had good plans. The decisions were made based on the suitability of the site, ready methods to communicate with residents, and the visibility of the new plantings to residents and the public. Six matching grants of $2,350 apiece were awarded to Auburn Village Condo (Arlington), Park Glen Heights HOA, Civic Association of Hollin Hills, and Water’s Edge at Fairlakes HOA (Fairfax County), Cascades Community Association (Loudoun County), and Dominion Valley Owner’s Association (Prince William County).
 
The Audubon at Home organizers are looking forward to working with the communities to design low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly, and beautiful landscaped entrance plantings. Completed installations will receive a high-quality sign that says, “Native plants support birds and other wildlife.”
 
The funds will be used to cover costs of a landscape designer to create a design, recommend native plants, purchase and install the plants, and remove any invasive plants present (such as English ivy, Japanese Barberry, Periwinkle, etc.) Matching funds or sweat equity are required from the neighborhood association to cover part of the costs. Community associations will be conducting educational outreach on the habitat value of native plants to their residents and must commit to maintaining the plantings for five years.
 
It was heartening to see the number of neighborhood associations responding to the call to beautify their neighborhood entranceways with native plants. Whether or not they received a mini grant, all communities are encouraged to invite an Audubon at Home Ambassador to visit and provide advice on suitable, low maintenance native plantings. Residents of Arlington/Alexandria, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, and Rappahannock counties may submit a consultation request at https://audubonva.org/aah.

Review of World of Wonders, In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and other Astonishments, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Review by FMN Janet Quinn

A collection of 28 essays on topics ranging from catalpa trees to fireflies, reading this book did indeed fill me with wonder! I Googled a photo of a Southern Cassowary, listened to the call of the Potoo, and researched more about the delightful axoloti. Nezhukumatathil‘s prose is full of fascinating particulars about the creatures and plants of which she writes. For example, migrating monarch butterflies flying over Lake Superior still veer around a specific place where a mountain previously, but no longer, rose out of the water thousands of years ago. Anyone who has ever wondered about the natural world will learn from and appreciate these essays.

The double delight in this book is the beautiful, poetic writing of Nezhukumatathil through which she weaves stories of her childhood, growing up as a “brown girl” in western Kansas, meeting her husband, and sharing nature with her two sons.

She likens her friends who played outside with her in Arizona to the Cactus Wren, which lives in the saguaro cactus. “We were tough. Each of us so thin and small boned with spines strong and ready for a fight in case we ever needed to stand and face a shadow lurking over us.” She recounts the time when she moved between her sophomore and junior years of high school and was the new girl. She called it her “cephalopod year” when she would disappear as quickly from social situations as the vampire squid could from danger.

She knew her husband was “the one” when he did not shy from her description of the corpse flower and actually volunteered to take her on a road trip to see one with her. She ties their wedding to the colors of the Superb Bird of Paradise when her Indian relatives dance the “Macarena” with her husband’s relatives from Kansas.

Oh! I could go on and on, but you would enjoy it and learn so much more if you read it yourself.

Illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura
Milkweed Editions
184 pages

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

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.

EnviroPod: Fairfax County’s Nifty Podcast on All Things Environmental

Adapted from the Public Works and Environmental Services website

The Department of Public Works and Environmental Services helps residents learn how to support the county’s environmental efforts. In 2019, DPWES launched monthly EnviroPod episodes, which air from Apple Podcasts.

Scott Coco of Communications Productions, Fairfax County has now interviewed county leaders on 27 topics of interest to naturalists and gardeners. Here’s a selection of particular relevance to the Fairfax chapter:

Episode 22 – Food-Scraps-to-Compost Program with Christine McCoy

Fairfax County’s EnviroPod

Christine McCoy, Education and Outreach Specialist, Solid Waste Management Program, talks about the new food-scraps-to-compost program. Residents are welcome to bring their food scraps to two locations in the county: the I-66 Transfer Station on West Ox Road; or the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton. More information is available on the county website.

Episode 19 – Stream and Watershed Health with Shannon Curtis

Fairfax County’s EnviroPod

Shannon Curtis, Chief, Watershed Assessment Branch, Public Works and Environmental Services, talking about human activity on the land and how that affects stream and watershed health.

To send topic ideas to the county, email SWPDMail@FairfaxCounty.gov.

Cicadas! Cicadas Everywhere!

Article and photo by FMN Ana Leilani Ka’ahanui, also of Capital Nature

What’s that late spring, early summer buzz, that loud chorus in the trees, all over the DC metro area? The 17-year periodical cicadas have made their entrance, to the fascination and delight of nature lovers in our region. While some may fear the emergence of a billion insects, many are reveling in this natural wonder, as evidenced by the explosion of cicada photos on social media. There’s even a phone app for reporting sightings. Cicada Safari will record and track your discoveries on a live map, and help scientists collect valuable data.

Want to learn what the fuss is all about? Visit Cicada Mania for everything you need to know about the 3 periodical species of Brood X: Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula. And great radio programming by WAMU’s environmental reporter Jacob Fenston. While most cicadas have red eyes, did you know that some have white, gray, blue, or multi-colored eyes? Learn more fun facts like this by playing Brood X Bingo.

As the ground is now well above 64 degrees, Brood X is emerging to climb trees and plants to molt, then head to the treetops for some raucous partying to mate. Females lay their eggs in trees and the nymphs will later drop onto the ground, where they will burrow down and live till the next emergence party in 17 years. Their life cycle is a short 5-6 weeks and has been documented in this Return of the Cicadas video.

Dr. Michael Rapp is an entomologist at the University of MD and an excellent local authority on cicadas. Check out his media appearances at The Bug Guy. The New York Times covered all things cicada in great detail in this article. USDA entomologist Dr. Sammy Ramsey explains the science behind their loud calls. If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s a Washington Post article about recipes for cooking them.

Cicadas can be artists too. During the recent global City Nature Challenge, Teresa Leonardo discovered that cicadas had burrowed tunnels under some tarps in her yard in West Falls Church, VA in their effort to emerge. See their intricate patterns on iNaturalist.

According to the National Wildlife Federation: “Cicadas are mostly beneficial. They prune mature trees, aerate the soil, and once they die, their bodies serve as an important source of nitrogen for growing trees. When cicadas come out, they’re eaten by just about anything with an insectivorous diet.” As nature’s grand buffet, these curious creatures are providing entertainment and education for all ages.

Native Plant Sales are Booming

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Interest in using native plants in our yards has been growing over the past decade, gradually at first, and suddenly exponentially. It has long been known that native plants are critical to the ecosystem, and now thought leaders in the landscaping industry have taken up the cause of promoting them for our yards. Public gardens have set aside sections to demonstrate their value in the landscape, and gardening magazines are touting them in every edition. Garden centers have responded to the increase in demand for natives by increasing the diversity of plants available for sale.

When COVID struck last year, new gardeners flocked to garden centers in droves. As the country has started to open up this spring, sales have soared even higher. A very significant chunk of those increases has gone toward native plant purchases. The landscape designers and owners of garden centers that specialize in native plants have been exhausting themselves to keep up with the demand.

Why are native plants so particularly popular? We may be reaching a tipping point in acceptance of personal environmental responsibility, as the populace is finally facing the reality that our ecosystem is teetering in the balance and that the time to take action is now. Our own properties are a place where we can make a palpable difference by using locally native plants to support birds and other wildlife. Many of the new gardeners are younger and particularly attuned to the value of gardening not just for beauty but for a greater purpose. At the same time, the industry has had time to experiment with native plants and figure out where they do best in a landscape setting. It is now easy to find the plants and choose the ones best suited to a given landscaping need.

Several years ago, representatives of environmental organizations and governmental agencies got together to create Plant NOVA Natives, a campaign to promote the use of native plants in Northern Virginia. One strategy has been to provide a plant guide and resources on the Plant NOVA Natives website, with simple suggestions for every planting situation along with more details for those who are interested and even more details for landscape professionals. The other strategy has been to essentially deputize everyone who hears about the value of native plants to spread the word. One section of the website shows how to reach out to neighbors, community associations and faith communities. The website also lists the garden centers that only sell native plants – an introduction to three of those specialty nurseries is on this short video – as well as twenty-one conventional garden centers where volunteers for the campaign have been putting red “Northern Virginia Native” stickers on plants.

All in all, Northern Virginians are discovering that gardening to support nature has never been easier. Once healthy landscaping practices are adopted, the sight of a yard dancing with butterflies is enough to sell the native plant concept all by itself.

Quantify the benefits of trees with i-Tree and help NASA too!

Article by FMN Kim Schauer

MyTree is one of the many tools within the iTree suite of free online tools that uses peer-reviewed, USDA Forest Service research to quantify the benefits and values of trees,  and iTree’s tools will get a software update on May 3 that will embed the latest USFS science.

You can get an itemized list of ecosystem services (and an estimate of the monetary value of those services) by visiting the MyTree online app and entering details about the species, health, size and location-relative-to-your-home of your specific tree.

For example, MyTree indicates that a 40″ diameter sweetgum in excellent health in full sun within 20′ of a Mt. Vernon home that was built between 1950-80 on its northeast side:
• intercepts 1,594 gallons of rainfall annually
• avoids 247 gallons of runoff annually,
• sequesters more than 13 lbs. of carbon dioxide annually,
• saves 192 kWh of electricity in reduced air conditioning costs annually
• has stored 30,277 lbs. of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

MyTree is a helpful tool to give evidence that just leaving a tree standing and/or hiring a certified arborist to protect and preserve a tree can be a worthwhile investment. This tool is mostly meant to analyze individual trees.

A few of the other tools in the suite include:
   –iTree Design (for parcel-level analysis)
   –iTree Canopy (use aerial photos to estimate benefits of trees)
  –iTree Hydro (to quantify stormwater benefits)
  –iTree Species (estimate the benefits of different species)
   –iTree Planting (quantify future benefits of a new tree-planting project) 

As a side note, anyone who is collecting tree data with MyTree might also be interested in learning about NASA’s very cool citizen science project, GLOBE Observer: Trees. Using the app helps NASA improve and ground truth satellite data and track biomass gains/losses.

The GLOBE Observer: Trees app

   1.  Open the GLOBE Observer: Trees app.
   2.  Take a photo of a tree.
   3.  Walk to the tree (so the app can record the distance).
   4.   The app calculates the estimated height of the tree.
   5.  Enter more optional data to add to the value of your observation.
   6.  Contribute to to NASA scientists’ understanding of the world’s canopy!

Below is an excerpt from the GLOBE Observer: Trees webpage:

Tree height is the most widely used indicator of an ecosystem’s ability to grow trees. Observing tree height allows NASA scientists to understand the gain or loss of biomass which can inform calculations of the carbon that trees and forests either take in from or release into the atmosphere. Tracking how trees are changing over time can help us estimate the number of trees that make up an area.  Learn more about the science of trees, and how NASA studies them, on the Trees Science page.

Here’s a 4/21/21 article about it:
Science is Better Together: The Real-World Benefit of the NASA GLOBE Observer Trees

Hikers, listen up!

Article and photo of Sully by FMN Marilyn Parks

Two of my favorite things come together in Ellen Reid’s SOUNDWALK, nature and music.  Ok, three of my favorite things since I get to bring Sully!  

Wolf Trap Park offers two trails that take hikers through the winding, woody parkland behind the Filene Center.  SOUNDWALK is GPS-enabled work of free public art that uses music to illuminate the natural environment.  It has been tailor-made to its setting and encourages calm reflection and introspection as you follow the blue (2.5 miles) or orange (1.5) trail markers.  The sun was gleaming on Wolf Trap Run, the woods alive with spring growth.  Take time to look at the Redbud and Dogwood trees in bloom, the spring beautifies popping up through the forest floor.

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, Mann Center for the Performing Arts in association with The Fairmount Park Conservancy, and the Britt Festival Orchestra.  For more information on specific presentations, visit ellenreidsoundwalk.com.

Now through September 6, 2021 at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.  Free.  If you go, download the app before you arrive at the park and remember to bring your earbuds – not everyone wants to hear music as they’re walking the trails.

Note that the Ranger Station is closed and due to construction projects, many areas of the park are closed in the interest of public safety.  Face masks are required on NPS administered lands where physical distancing cannot be maintained.