Alexandria Neighbors Bring Trees to Their Community

Photo:  Plant NOVA Natives

Trees plant themselves and replace themselves – except in our lawns. Many Northern Virginia neighborhoods that are graced by magnificent mature trees are now slowly losing their canopy as those trees die from old age or disease (or are cut down while still healthy by humans.) Each lost tree means higher temperatures and air conditioning costs on that property, more stormwater runoff, and in the case of native trees, the loss of a home and food supply to thousands of our smallest neighbors including caterpillars and songbirds.

City of Alexandria residents Lynn Gas and Jane Seward were bemoaning the fact that their neighborhood of over 30 years was so much hotter than it used to be due to the loss of tree canopy. They decided to do something about it and started the Canopy Tree Restoration Campaign. After educating themselves about trees, they talked to their neighbors and got each to sign up to have a tree installed at a deep discount. They helped each homeowner select and mark the site. They then contracted with a landscape company to install all the trees on the same day. Each of the selected tree species was indigenous to the area and thus able to contribute to the local ecosystem. They planted 140 trees that first year.

The campaign has been a labor of love for Lynn and Jane, who have learned a lot in the process. Since the project began in 2017, they have planted around 280 trees. They often send out emails to remind people to water, since landscaper-sized trees must be watered regularly until they get established, a process that takes two or three years. They have used different nurseries and landscapers, trying to find the best trees at the best prices. It took a while to understand how nurseries work and to identify landscapers that know how to properly plant trees and are willing to give a good price. It is important when planting in many different yards to organize the planting so that landscapers can plant fast without losing time on logistics. They need to make money, so Lynn and Jane think of their coordination efforts as facilitating their work.

Lynn and Jane do not describe their initiative as selling trees. Rather, they ask people to participate in the neighborhood reforestation campaign, using phrases such as “A tree in your yard benefits all of us.” They also have received generous donations which allow them to donate trees to churches, playgrounds and schools as well as to neighbors lacking funds. When they donate a tree to someone, they thank them for participating in the campaign.

This Alexandria neighborhood campaign represents one model for how to organize a local tree drive. Other neighborhoods have come up with their own plans. Neighborhoods across Northern Virginia are starting to think about how they can participate in the five year Plant NOVA Trees campaign. Some may want to emulate the professional installation approach. Others might prefer to plant smaller specimens, which are less expensive (sometimes even free) and require less watering, though they need careful protection from lawn mowers and deer and will need some simple pruning to direct their growth after a couple years.

The first step will be for residents to take the initiative to create a project for their own neighborhood. It helps to plan well in advance of a spring or fall planting, because it may take time to source the trees as well as to create enthusiasm in the community and work out a plan for watering and maintenance. Tips on how to organize can be found on the Plant NOVA Trees website. Plant NOVA Trees is the collective effort of thousands of individuals across the region pitching in to get thousands of trees into the ground.

Arlington National Cemetery Treasures its Trees

U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue/released

Article by Plant NOVA Trees

Arlington National Cemetery is a place to honor, remember, and explore. The beauty of the grounds and the comfort of its visitors is enhanced by close to 10,000 trees, some dating back to before the Civil War. The diverse collection of this Certified Level III Arboretum include many species native to Northern Virginia including the state co-champion Pin Oak, near the Memorial Amphitheater. (A champion tree is the largest representative of its particular species within a geographic area.)

Arlington National Cemetery is dotted with native trees such as Redbuds with their lavender flowers in spring, Black Gum with its bright red fall foliage, and American Hollies that shelter the birds. Oaks are the most common species, which reflects their predominance in the Eastern forest.

Forester Greg Huse gives tours of the arboretum to visitors four times a year and points out the ecosystem services provided by mature trees. That Pin Oak, for example, not only supports the caterpillars that are the food for baby songbirds – a feature intrinsic to native plants but nearly absent in non-native ones – but also absorbs 1,400 pounds of atmospheric carbon and intercepts 23,000 gallons of storm water every year.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a landscape architect firm designed the Kennedy memorial site, home of the Eternal Flame. The designers worked around a 200 year-old Post Oak, 60 inches in diameter, which later became known as the Arlington Oak. In 2012, this massive tree was blown down by Hurricane Irene and could not be rescued. By good fortune, though, its acorns had been collected by American Forests as part of their historically significant trees project. Three of those saplings were donated back to Arlington Cemetery and planted in the same plaza, where they are now ten to twelve feet tall and thriving.

Trees are not the only native plants at the cemetery. Horticulturalist Kelly Wilson has been steadily adding a diversity of herbaceous and woody plants throughout the last decade, especially in the newer bio-retention areas (rain gardens). In these public areas, she designs with a small number of species to keep a neat-and-clean look, while in a staff parking area, she allows for more exuberance. Favorite natives utilized are the purple-flowering Ironweed which attracts many pollinators. Monarch caterpillars have taken advantage of the Butterflyweed. River Birch with its beautiful peeling bark does very well in rain gardens.

The 639 acres of Arlington National Cemetery, which is the resting place for 400,000 American servicemembers and family, are cared for by five permanent staff members who supervise the work of 90-100 contractors. The trees that grace this National Treasure are an essential feature, just as they are in any neighborhood where residents value the beauty and services they provide.

To learn what you can do to plant and protect trees on your own property, visit www.plantnovatrees.org. Many of the trees will still have their fall colors in November when Arlington National Cemetery hosts the Centennial Commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On November 9-10, a flower ceremony takes place where the American public will be able to place a flower at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On November 11, an Armed Forces full honors procession takes place as it did a hundred years ago on November 11, 1921. Find out more about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration at www.arlingtoncemetery.mil.

Celebrate Fall Color!

Photo and article courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

As Northern Virginia continues to celebrate trees to mark the start of the five year regional native tree campaign, autumn colors move to center stage. We may not get New England’s sudden (and brief) burst of color from the dominance of sugar maples, but our region makes up for it with the more gradual unfolding of a warm and lingering fall.

Most deciduous trees are best planted in the autumn, which conveniently coincides with the best time to choose a tree for its fall foliage. Trees are like people: within one species, there is plenty of variability, so if fall color is a high priority for you, this is the time to go shopping.

If your attention is drawn to a particular tree on a forested slope in Virginia, chances are you have spotted a Black Gum tree, whose red leaves positively glow in the sun. Other native trees with markedly red foliage include the Red Maples and the Scarlet and Shumard oaks. All these trees are eminently suitable for planting in a yard. Hickory trees have bright yellow foliage and tend to have planted themselves, as they are harder to find in nurseries because their deep tap roots makes it hard to dig them up. The muted red leaves of the Flowering Dogwood, Virginia’s state tree, provide a background for scarlet berries that are an important food source for migrating birds. This brings up two related subjects. The first is that it is important to choose native trees, as it is only plants that evolved within our local ecosystem that support that ecosystem. The second is that fall color is not just about foliage. The berries of many native plants, especially shrubs, ripen in fall and make a bright display that attracts birds to your yard. Many of those shrubs, such as blueberries, chokeberries, sumacs and native viburnums, also have brilliant fall foliage in their own right. Fall is also the time for the many species of the aptly named goldenrod and for the purples, blues, pinks, whites and even yellows of asters. Goldenrods and asters are the host plants for more species of caterpillars than any other perennials. But it is trees that support the most wildlife of all. If you only have the time and energy to plant one plant, let it be a native tree.

One of the fun things about our drawn-out autumn is watching the colors evolve over time. Certain patterns emerge. Sycamores start to fade well before summer’s end, with Dogwoods starting to turn rust red soon afterwards and Sassafras either red or gold. The brighter reds and yellows of canopy trees follow, with oaks being late to turn. Once those are shed, what is left is the light brown leaves of oaks and beeches that hold onto their leaves well into winter. The trees do not march in lock step, though, and there is plenty of variation from year to year, tree to tree, and even from branch to branch on the same tree. The Plant NOVA Trees website includes photos as well as a practical guide to choosing and planting native trees.

You might be thinking that when choosing a native tree, it might as well be one with bright red foliage. But consider that it is not a sea of red that makes autumn so beautiful but the quilt of contrasting red, gold, green and brown provided by the diversity of our woodland species. There are over fifty native species of trees to choose between in Northern Virginia, each of which plays its own important role in the beauty and the ecosystem of our region. Not only would it look odd to see only red trees, planting too many of one species puts the community at risk if disease strikes. Biodiversity is the key to resilience in a changing world.

New App Brings Awareness of ADA Requirements to Trails

Photos courtesy of Stephen Tzikas

Article written by FMN Steve Tzikas
Reprinted with permission of Audubon Society of Northern Virginia

As we celebrate Birdability Week, October 18  – October 24, 2021, we would like to highlight Steve Tzikas, an energetic volunteer who has been mapping trails in Northern Virginia for their “Birdability.”

“The Birdability Map is a crowdsourced map which describes the accessibility features of birding locations all over the world. This allows people with accessibility challenges to find out in advance if a birding location is one they would like to visit.”

Read Steve’s account of his mapping experience: 

In early 2021 I inquired if the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia needed any volunteers for a citizen science field project that involved exercise. As I got older I needed more exercise opportunities, but as a scientist and engineer, I wanted it to involve science to keep my interest. The response I received informed me about Birdability, which was founded in 2016 by Virginia Rose. As the Birdability website notes,

“Birdability works to ensure the birding community and the outdoors are welcoming, inclusive, safe and accessible for everybody.”  They “focus on people with mobility challenges, blindness or low vision, chronic illness, intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental illness, and those who are neurodivergent, deaf or hard of hearing or who have other health concerns.”

A lot of information can already be found on the Internet about Birdability, including that found on its own website. Rather than repeat much which has already been noted by others, this article focuses on how a government regulation can become common knowledge to the public.  

Accessibility is an important part of trail development, because it is key to ensuring that trails are available to all groups such as the elderly and people with disabilities. The first accessibility laws were enacted in 1968 under the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibited discrimination based on disability. 

After some thought the proposal to volunteer and evaluate trails for Birdability became an interesting prospect, even if not citizen science. Birdability still offered exercise by walking trails, but it also intrigued me. One of my many duties as an engineer over the years was the creation and review of facility design standards and agency policies as they related to specific requirements for the environment, safety, health, and security. These were technical requirements that few people, except professionals, ever see. Such regulations keep the public safe, even if they are not aware of their surroundings and the issues that impact them.  Sometimes, during reviews, a rather broad-based standard could include many other requirements not necessarily for my attention, but for other professionals in collaborating offices. As such, I would see information pertaining to ADA requirements. 

So, when I reviewed the Birdability template used in trail reviews, I thought about how this organization took a complicated regulation and converted it to an app for the public to use, educating them in the process. Moreover, this caught my interest, because as an engineer I also develop models that track government operations based on transactional data and the resource requirements that are part of those operations. Developing models based on big data is another item only professionals will do. But, Birdability developed a public app based on “dry” government requirements and made it appealing, useful, and educational.

The Birdability survey template covers the basic ADA requirements so people with accessibility challenges can access a reviewed trail quickly and get outside to experience the natural surroundings. When submitting a survey, reviewers are asked to comment on ADA aspects including parking, ramps, restrooms, and other accessible features as well as trail accessibility criteria such as surface(s), slope(s), shade, benches, gates, railings, steps, and viewing blinds.

The largest section is for any additional information. This connects the trail to the types of birds seen, seasonal conditions, width of trails, overall difficulty, wildlife activity, and so on. This is followed by a section for rating the location’s overall accessibility, and there is the ability to add photographs.

I forwarded suggestions for improvements, whether for future upgrades of the website itself, or to fellow reviewers on best practices for entering a review. For example; slope criteria are noted, but it’s not always an easy task to measure, especially if a trail has a lot of vertical variability. Reviewers can’t be expected to conduct an engineer’s transit measurement on every trail slope encountered. At first I attempted to measure the slope with the greatest incline. I used a simple astrolabe I owned to get a quick estimate for the degrees of inclination.  However, it was even easier to take a photograph and post it so a reader could decide whether such inclines posed a challenge to their body strength or wheelchair. The photograph section of the survey template acted as a useful place to add information that words alone could not describe accurately. I also noted other ideas by including comments, such as whether a trail is accessible through public transportation. 

Steve measuring slope

While most people might associate ADA with people using wheel chairs, the ADA also covers conditions due to deafness, blindness, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, missing limbs, autism, and other medical conditions.  

The accessibility guidelines apply to those trails that are designed and constructed for pedestrian use. These guidelines are not applicable to trails primarily designed and constructed for recreational use by equestrians, mountain bicyclists, snowmobile users, or off-highway vehicle users. Regulations also recognize the existence of constraints and limitations in the outdoor environment and allow for certain other exceptions. 

I do many of my reviews in my town of Reston, Virginia. Reston was founded in 1964 as a planned community. Today it has 60,000 residents, over 55 miles of walking paths, about 250 acres of woodlands and open space, 4 lakes, and a tree canopy covering about half of its total area. There is a high degree of accessibility, and there are many birds along the paths and lakes.  Birdability offers the chance to get to know your community and what it has to offer. The Birdability map notes the locations where people have submitted reviews. It is constantly growing with submissions.

Steve with Astrolabe

If you are seeking a good experience with exercise and learning, Birdability mapping may be the one for you. Visit the website and view the Birdability map, where you can read what others wrote, as well as submit your own trail review. Whether it is a simple trail review, or a more thoughtful one that attempts to identify the variety of birds and their habits through the seasons, it’s worth a try. 

A World of Bugs

Feature photo by J. Quinn

Photos and article by FMN Steve Tzikas

Upon following an approved sampling protocol,
a net is ready for examination, collection, and identification of the macroinvertebrates captured on it.

As kids, we all had a fascination with bugs. If we owned a microscope, inevitably a few bugs would be examined close-up. We would be fascinated by the insects at natural history museums, even as an adult. Some of us would decide to make a career around bugs. With a vocational education leading to certification and licensing, one can become a pesticide applicator to protect homes and properties against harmful insects. With a little more education one can get a 4-year entomology BS degree. Personally I went into engineering, but it would not be the last time I encountered insects in some other than ordinary fashion. When I was Chief of the US Army’s Environmental Office in Japan, I had a program to control pine beetles on forested property overseen by the Army. There too were those pesticide applicators and any issues that I may have had to address with environmental and safety concerns. At another point in my career, with Ports-of-Entry programs, I was one of many who occasionally offered support to ensure our Agricultural Specialists had the resources they needed to secure America from deadly pests that could enter the country. In fact, there are many opportunities for aspiring students when it comes to insects. For those aspiring students, and for that matter curious adults, there are opportunities to get up close to insects, but in a more friendly manner, because these insects help us monitor the health of streams.

I just entered the Fairfax Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist (VMN) course program, and one of the classes covers entomology and invertebrates. The VMN program is a great way to offer community service, get some exercise, and learn something that might be beneficial for a future goal. When I retire I would like to take some graduate level courses in GMU’s environmental science program, which has a biology/ecology component.

A large Hellgramite found by one of the sampling teams.

One of those local volunteer opportunities is with the popular stream monitoring program managed by the Northern Virginia Soil and Conservation District. It’s a chance to learn about watersheds, the basics of stream ecology and monitoring, the sampling and identifying of benthic macroinvertebrates, and the recording of that data for use by researchers and professional decision makers. For more information about this program, visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/soil-water-conservation/volunteer-stream-monitoring.

If this is something that appeals to your inner scientist, certifications are also offered once you accumulate some field experience. Part of that certification journey begins with this weblink: https://www.iwla.org/water/stream-monitoring/upcoming-water-monitoring-workshops.

This biological stream monitoring is great fun. People of all ages attend, not just teenagers. Like myself, there are also a lot of professionals – university graduates seeking new experiences, retired professors, and others who have an interest in life-long learning. Why not discover a whole new world of bugs? I hope to see you at one of the streams monitored in Fairfax County.

How to Improve Your iNaturalist Photos to Better Help Scientists

Photo courtesy of Barbara J. Saffir

By FMN C.E. Hike Coordinator Barbara J. Saffir
(iNat username: DMVphotographer)

WHY USE INATURALIST? 

If you want to contribute to citizen-science while exploring outdoors, iNaturalist’s free, user-friendly app and website provides the best virtual toolbox. Your data will actually get used. Real humans are available to respond to problems. You can join projects and interact directly with other observers around the globe. Plus, it’s downright fun! And iNat is powered by a world-class team of experts at the National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences.

But before you start snapping pictures, learn how to improve your photos so your observations can be identified easier by iNat’s artificial intelligence, which, in turn, helps scientists more. Some helpful camera tips follow. But in some cases, it also helps to learn when you need to photograph specific parts of some critters or plants to identify them.

CAMERA

Whether you use a cell phone camera, a DSLR, a mirrorless, or a point-and-shoot, its best to learn your camera’s capabilities by practicing and by studying its manual.

APP OR WEBSITE?

Most of the time I photograph and upload directly from iNaturalist’s app because it’s faster, easier, and it’s the sole photo app I allow to use my location, due to privacy. Also, if I have cell service, I can identify observations in the field and upload them immediately — though I usually wait until I’m connected to a power source since those functions use a lot of “juice.”

However, instead of relying solely on unaltered photos uploaded directly from the app’s camera, your photos will be better if you tweak them first with a third-party processing program like Photoshop. In less than 60 seconds, you can often improve the composition (via cropping), lighting, sharpness, and more before uploading them to iNat. If you upload using your computer, you can batch-edit the dates and locations. The website is also better at identifying critters and plants because it gives you ranges and can confirm if observations of your organism have already been made in that county, adds a local science teacher who identifies thousands of iNat observations. She also recommends that you should only identify what you, yourself, can confirm. For example, she says if iNat suggests a “two-spotted bumble bee” but you’re only sure it’s a “bumble bee,” stick with that. Of course, beginners and/or casual users have to rely on iNat’s suggestions until they learn more.

BASICS FOR IMPROVING PHOTOS:

 1.        IN FOCUS:  Look at your photo right away and if it’s not in focus, take another until it’s sharp.

 2.      SUBJECT SHOULD TAKE UP MOST OF THE FRAME:  Get as close as feasible.  Crop your photos to cut out major distractions, such as other species, weeds, and sticks.  Don’t crop too much or it will result in poor resolution. Also, don’t waste your time using “digital zoom” on a camera because of its poor quality — unless you’re far away and you spot the Loch Ness Monster or Brad Pitt.

 3.      WELL-LIGHTED:  Keep the sun behind you.  Use flash or a flashlight if needed.

 4.      ADDITIONAL VIEWS MAY BE NEEDED FOR ID:  Sometimes a close-up detail of an organism’s features, such as its underside, bark, leaves, head, etc., is needed. (See below for iNat’s ID tips.)

 5.      ADD SCALE IF NECESSARY:  Use your finger, a ruler, a penny, etc.

 6.      NOTES:  You can add notes to your observations, such as the number of plants or critters observed.  You can also add that you shot a video if anyone wants to see it.

7.      MISCELLANEOUS:  Clean your lens before photographing. Check your battery.  Use your foot, your chest, a tree, a fence, or another solid object as a makeshift tripod to prevent the camera from shaking.  For plant photos, bring a piece of cardboard for a backdrop and to block the wind. Join iNat projects to share your finds with people who care about them most.  Join local bioblitzes, such as City Nature Challenge each spring and Fairfax County Park Authority’s occasional bioblitzes.

INATURALIST’S PHOTO TIPS:  To pinpoint certain species, such as mushrooms, flowers, turtles, snakes, and birds, it’s best to learn about those subjects independently to know what kind of details are required to clinch an ID of specific species.  For example, with birds, it helps to photograph the entire bird, and to document important details, such as its color, shape, size, beak, behavior, habitat, and feather field marks (such as an eye ring or bars on its feathers) with photo(s) or in notes. https://www.inaturalist.org/guides/2465

PHOTO TIPS FROM RUTGERS UNIVERSITY:  The photo below shows how a plain background works best for identification purposes.  Click here for Rutger’s full presentation: https://botanydepot.com/2020/07/27/presentation-how-to-photograph-plants-and-more/

Lena Struwe and Peter Nitzsche, Rutgers University

DISCOVERY TIME:  So now that you’re prepared to contribute better photos to help citizen-science, the only question is: “Where should I go hunting for nature today?”  You don’t even have to venture far from home.  Fairfax County has more than 400 parks along nearly 1,000 miles of paved and dirt trails. Maybe you’ll even discover a whole new species.  This year, Virginia Tech discovered a new species of millipedes on its own campus.

Review of A Most Remarkable Creature, by Jonathan Meiburg

Review by FMN David Gorsline

Musician, traveler, and nature writer Jonathan Meiburg begins his book with a mystery: who — or what — killed bird G7? Eventually, he answers that question. Along the way, into his story of caracaras living and extinct, he packs 16 pages of excellent color photographs, a magpie’s collection of 50 pages of end notes, and a challenging trip up Guyana’s Rewa River.

We naturalists of the mid-Atlantic rarely encounter caracaras on our home turf. Only one species of these birds of prey, Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus), has a range that extends into Texas and Florida (older authorities recognize this population as C. cheriway). But the group is extensively represented in South America by five genera, occupying a variety of habitats. Meiburg describes the general body plan as “ten separate attempts to build a crow on a falcon chassis, with results falling somewhere between elegant, menacing, and whimsical” (p. 9); caracaras share with (not closely related) corvids intelligence and curiosity. In short, an engaging subject for Meiburg’s equally engaging book.

The book’s coverage of these ten species is a bit uneven, with emphasis on the wild birds found where Meiburg was able to travel. Readers might regret the material devoted to captive birds in aviaries in the United Kingdom, but with a bird so adaptable to living with humans, perhaps these are pages well spent.

The book’s strengths are that trip up the piranha-laden Rewa to see “bush auntie-man” (Red-throated Caracara, Ibycter americanus), involving a waterfall portage, columns of army ants, and crab-sized Theraphosa spiders; a visit to minor islands of the Falklands archipelago to find “Johnny rook” G7’s killer; and Meiburg’s introduction of 19th-century Anglo-Argentine naturalist William Henry Hudson. Hudson was closely observant, and more than a bit romantic.

Depending on your taste, your reaction to Meiburg’s anthropomorphizing may vary; it’s mostly endearing, and maybe unavoidable when a Black Caracara (Daptrius ater) peers at you with affable opportunism.

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg, Knopf, New York, 2021, 336 pages

Fewer Inputs to your Landscape, More Butterflies and Birds

Photo: Plant NOVA Natives

As more and more people buy native plants to beautify their yards, control stormwater and attract birds and butterflies, they are discovering additional opportunities to harmonize their property with the local ecosystem while maintaining a beautiful landscape. They are dropping some of their standard yard chores in favor of a slightly more relaxed approach.

Maintenance of native trees and shrubs is little different from maintenance of non-native ones, but chemical fertilizers are not generally recommended, and of course pesticides would be counterproductive, as they destroy the very ecosystem that the native plants were installed to enhance. The value of the native trees and shrubs is greatly increased if their fallen leaves are left in place. Within that leaf layer is where fireflies, butterflies, and many other interesting and beneficial insects complete their life cycles. Leaving the leaves where they lie has the added benefit of eliminating the chore and the incessant racket of gas-powered leaf blowers that disturb humans and songbirds alike.

Flower gardens with native plants also can be treated much the same as any other, as long as the gardener recognizes that most of these plants are perennial and not annual. The advantage of perennials is that they only need to be planted once. The disadvantage is that weeding will be needed, along with the ability to distinguish emerging weeds from emerging desirable plants, a task made easier for beginners by limiting the number of different species planted to three or four or by sticking to native groundcovers. These gardens cannot be handled the way maintenance crews typically deal with the plantings in public spaces. That method requires no knowledge of plant identification and consists of removing all the plant material each season, installing new annual plants, mulching heavily, then spraying any bare mulch with herbicides to kill everything else. (This practice explains the expanses of empty (and chemical-laced) mulch beds that we see in so many business areas.)

Of course, leaf mulch can be used in flower beds without applying herbicides and is a valuable addition to new plantings, cooling the soil and adding organic matter. In time, though, as the plants fill in, mulch becomes unnecessary and just an aesthetic choice. The plants themselves will shade the soil, and their dead foliage and stems if left over the winter add habitat for frogs and nesting areas for native bees. The days of “cleaning out” flower gardens in the fall so that only empty beds remain are rapidly fading away, as gardeners are learning that this is an unnecessary and somewhat harmful practice.

The watering requirements of native plants are generally light, if appropriate plants are chosen for the site. Unlike turf grass, which evolved in Europe and is poorly suited to Virginia summers, and annuals which start out the summer with very few roots, well-established native plants are adapted to our climate. Watering is needed right after planting, and for the first year or two in the case of trees larger than seedlings, depending on the size. Native plants in medium or large pots will need continued watering primarily when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. Beyond that, supplemental watering may actually be bad for some plants.

Details on low-input yard maintenance can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. For those who don’t want to do the gardening themselves (which is most people, after all), there are landscaping companies that specialize in maintaining naturalized landscapes and who have workers who can identify the native plants and protect them. The website has a list of Northern Virginia companies that have self-identified as having the requisite expertise. Manuel Rivas, the owner of one of these companies, volunteered to be interviewed to explain the process in English and in Spanish. Three versions of that video are available on YouTube, in English alternating with Spanish and in the two languages separately.
English and Spanish version
Spanish only
English only

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.