Solar panels vs. trees – how to choose?

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Residents who are interested in installing solar panels often face a dilemma. Which is better for the environment, solar panels or shade trees? After all, climate change due to burning fossil fuels is threatening the very existence of trees, not to mention human beings, and the timeline for preventing catastrophic temperature rises is short. Before we get out the chainsaw, though, there are several other things to consider.

One of the main reasons to try to limit temperature rises is to prevent ecosystem collapse. The native trees in our yards are as much a part of that ecosystem as the ones in the Amazon, providing food, shelter and nesting places not only for birds and mammals but for a myriad of invertebrates that are a critical part of the web of life. If we do not even protect the environment where we live, we can hardly expect people in the Amazon to take more of an interest.

Sunny rooftops are an ideal place to put solar panels, since that real estate is already built upon, and since decentralizing the grid helps build resilience. The land use anticipated for solar farms and new transmission lines is so massive, and the willingness of companies to replace forests with them so counterproductive and disheartening, that the more we use our own rooftops, the better. But solar energy is neither the only way to reduce fossil fuel use nor the most efficient of the various options for homeowners. The first step should always be to reduce energy consumption, by weatherizing and taking other steps to reduce waste. For those ready to make a big investment, an alternative to consider is a heat pump or even a geothermal system for heating and air conditioning. As is true for solar panels, the cost of installation can be partially offset by a significant tax credit. Some utility companies including Dominion allow customers to choose a renewable energy option (although “renewable” is not always the same as “clean,” since it includes burning chopped down trees, for example. But much of that electricity is generated by wind and solar farms.) It will take considerable effort and broad participation for our community to meet its climate goals, but not everyone has to do everything themselves on their own property. Those with sunny roofs can contribute solar energy. Those with trees can take care of them.

Trees themselves are what are known as a “natural climate solution.” They provide benefits that mitigate the effect of climate change. Trees improve the energy efficiency of houses. In the winter, they reduce heating costs by blocking the wind. In the summer, they reduce air conditioning costs, since roofs and walls in the shade are often twenty degrees cooler than those in the sun. In addition, trees improve air quality and sequester carbon dioxide. Their ability to capture stormwater is particularly important in flood-prone suburban and urban areas with their excess of impervious surfaces. The leaves of the trees capture much of the rain before it even reaches the ground. Once it does, transpiration by canopy trees sucks thousands of gallons of water from the ground, thus enabling the soil to control flooding.

It is interesting to use the National Tree Benefit Calculator at the bottom of this web page to see what you save in monetary terms by preserving a few mature trees, strategically located around your property. For the birds and other critters that depend on them, the native trees are priceless.

The Andromeda Galaxy with a Pair of Binoculars

Feature illustration:  The Andromeda Galaxy Sky Area. Excerpted from  The excerpt is set to November 24, 2023 at 9:00 PM from Reston, VA, but any time and location may be selected.  Notice the Great Square of Pegasus and the red oval above it.

Article by and illustrations courtesy of FMN Stephen Tzikas

The Andromeda Galaxy is an object often mentioned in sci-fi films and

Illustration by author: 1979 sketch of Andromeda Galaxy, using a 60mm Selsi refractor telescope and 187.5 magnification.

literary works.  It is our closest galaxy (not including Milky Way satellite galaxies) and can be seen by the naked eye in a dark sky location.  I was thrilled to see it through my childhood telescope.  With binoculars it is a fuzzy patch-like object.  That little patch is just the central core or brightest part of the galaxy.  The rest of the galaxy is so dim because of its 2.5 million light year distance.  If we could brighten the galaxy, it would be four full Moon lengths across the sky.  The central core of the Andromeda Galaxy with a pair of binoculars looks very similar to my 1979 illustration of it through a Selsi 60mm telescope.  The area around the Andromeda Galaxy is also home to other surprises too.

Close-up of the Andromeda Galaxy Sky Area.  Nu-And (magnitude 4.5) is the bright star to the upper left of the Andromeda Galaxy outline. The diagram’s center bright star, with green constellation line underneath, is Mu-And (magnitude 3.9).  The bright star in the center-left is Mirach (magnitude 2.1) with NGC 404 (red dot) next to it.  This illustration is also excerpted from for Nov. 24, 2023 at 9:00 PM.

A pair of binoculars can see EG Andromedae (EG And), a variable star. You can take measurements of it brightening and dimming via a visual comparison to nearby stars that are fixed in brightness. You can obtain a detailed star chart for measuring magnitude changes through the Variable Star Plotter at the AAVSO website and then inputting EG And. You can submit your measurements to their database. See

With a small telescope a little larger than binoculars, two more interesting objects can be seen nearby.  One is a beautiful

Excerpted from  The website is from “about the stars Planetarium” on HIP 3495, a.k.a. EG Andromedae in the constellation Andromeda. The star varies in magnitude from 6.97 to 7.8, and is circled adjacent to the Andromeda Galaxy.  In another blue circle, Nu And is to the upper left of EG And. 

double star named gamma Andromedae, or Almach. Through the telescope it appears as a bright, golden-yellow star next to a dimmer blue star. Some observers may get the impression that the blue star has a green hue. This green hue is an optical illusion caused by the contrast of the colors on the eyes and is very rare to see.  In actuality, there are no green stars, because any star emitting radiation in the green spectrum is also emitting enough red and blue radiation to combine and form white light. This double star, along with the double star named Albireo in the constellation Cygnus, are often described as the most visually colorful double stars in the sky.

The other nearby interesting object is beta Andromedae, or Mirach. It is a prominent orange/red hue star northeast of the Great Square of Pegasus. The galaxy NGC 404, also known as Mirach’s Ghost, is seven arcminutes away from Mirach. In a small telescope, it appears as a fuzzy star.  NGC 404 is located about 10 million light years away, or about 4 times Andromeda Galaxy’s distance.  Though NGC 404 is not as large or bright as the Andromeda Galaxy, is still worth a look.  It is easy to find, and a one of the brighter magnitude galaxies to observe in the sky.

Bench Dedication Honors McGlone

Photos and Article By FMN Susan Laume

A group of Fairfax Master Naturalists gathered on Saturday afternoon, December 2nd, to recognize the contributions of retired Virginia forester Dr. Jim McClone.  A bench was dedicated in his honor on a Mason Neck State Park trail, where McClone regularly took naturalists in training to learn tree identification.

Bench plaque expresses gratitude for McGlone’s many years of service to the FMN chapter

Recently retired in June, McGlone is credited with working to establish the Fairfax County chapter, serving as chapter advisor, and teaching dendrology to hundreds of Virginia Master Naturalists students.

Attending with his wife, who McGlone credits with steering him toward his long time career. McGlone also received the thanks of Officer Tayloe Willis, representing the State Park. Following the remarks, McGlone again led a winter tree identification; perhaps proving his gum balls don’t yet fall far from his favorite Black Gum trees.

Fairfax Master Naturalists gather to recognize retired forester Jim McClone


Officer Tayloe Willis makes remarks on behalf of Mason Neck State Park

McGlone and his wife, who he thanked during the dedication, look forward to spending retirement time together


Controlling English Ivy Saves Trees and Combats Climate Change

Photo: Plant NoVa Natives

Article by Elaine Kolish, Vice Chair, Fairfax County Tree Commission, Certified Master Naturalist

English Ivy is everywhere, in our neighborhoods, along our roads, and in our parks. It climbs over fences, covers sheds, and carpets forest floors. Unfortunately, many people think English Ivy is a benign plant that grows in the shade, where nothing else grows.

The truth is English Ivy is harmful in many ways. Even if well-manicured and contained on the ground, English Ivy provides a resting spot for mosquitos on hot days or hides puddles where they can breed, and who wants that! More importantly, when it covers forest floors it displaces native plants, and eliminates needed and productive biodiversity. When it climbs trees it harms and eventually kills them, which eliminates the important environmental benefits trees provide, such as wildlife habitat, preventing stormwater from entering streams, cooling our environment, and combatting climate change.

Trees are one of our best tools for capturing carbon dioxide, which is necessary to fight global warming. According to the US Forest Service, America’s forests sequester about 16% of the annual emissions from the United States. Because trees are such excellent carbon sinks, there are large scale reforestation efforts underway. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan calls for more than one billion new trees to be planted over the next 10 years. In addition, the government’s experts know that controlling invasive species that kill trees is an important strategy for enhancing carbon capture.

We as individuals also have an important role to play in controlling English Ivy at home and in our natural areas. Otherwise it covers everything in its path, and when left unchecked, English Ivy grows vertically (by rootlets on the stem). On trees, the weight of the vine weakens and breaks limbs, which can make trees more susceptible to infections, and over time the vines cover trees so totally that they die. But that’s not all. When English Ivy goes vertical it matures. It then will flower and set fruit. Birds then eat and disperse the fruit, spreading the English Ivy invasion.

Homeowners can protect their costly landscaping and help the environment by eliminating English Ivy from their gardens or, at a minimum, by keeping it from growing up trees. Wearing gloves, cut all the vines on a tree about two feet up and again at ground level. There is no need to pull the vines off the tree. Deprived of water and nutrients from the soil, the vines will wither. You will have to repeat this occasionally if you do not remove all the ivy. Hand pulling after a rain softens the soil is the best way to get rid of English Ivy. The debris should go in the trash. Do not compost it or put it out with the brush collection as it will continue to grow and spread in these locations.

The good news is that there are lots of alternative native ground covers that will support pollinators and our environment. You can find excellent suggestions in the Native Plants for Northern Virginia guide, such as Virginia Creeper and ferns.

You also can help our neighborhoods, forests, and parks by becoming a Tree Rescuer, or by working with organizations that do invasive management including pulling ivy. Working together, we can ensure the health of our wonderful trees and improve our environment, as well as our personal well-being, by spending time in nature.

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.

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 specially 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

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.


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.

Despite Predation, Bluebirds at Langley Fork Park Endure

Tree Swallow Residents of Box 11 (June 22, 2023).  The tree swallows would generally survive better than their bluebird competitors at Langley Fork Park in 2023.

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

As Bluebird Trail Monitoring Leader at Langley Fork Park in McLean, I have been trying to optimize the environment for the bluebirds at the park. The trail monitoring team and former trail leader all help in the effort, so I am fortunate to have their assistance.  

In 2021 we nurtured 63 total protected birds which included 26 bluebirds.  In 2022 we had 57 total protected birds which included 24 bluebirds.  In 2023 we had 49 protected birds of which 14 were bluebirds.  This can be contrasted to the five years prior to that in which Langley Fork Park monitoring succeeded with about 40 protected birds per year which included about five bluebirds a year.  Our efforts in the recent past are successful compared to the longer historical record. 

Were it not for the loss of 14 bluebird eggs in 2023, the count could have been 28 bluebird fledglings.  That would have been larger than the 2021/2022 counts.  All but one of the bluebird eggs were loss to predation.  On the other hand, all but one of the seven unhatched tree swallow eggs were part of clutch sizes that also included fledglings.  The solitary tree swallow egg in a Box 11 attempt was overcome by an ant infestation.  Another year of snakes at Box 7 resulted in five tree swallow nestlings being devoured. Consequently Box 7 has been moved, as was Box 9, that had four bluebird eggs vanish.  Indeed Box 7 was also attacked by a snake last year.  There aren’t any overhead trees in the area, and we maintained the grass so no large weeds could provide a pathway for snakes.  Nonetheless, it seems snakes can be skillful predators traveling up the bluebird pole and baffle.

As for a solution at the end of the season, we paired Box 7 with Box 4, as pairing boxes can provide

Box Pairing Experiment at Langley Fork Park. Boxes 5 and 9 in the photograph are spaced approximately 10 feet apart, as are Boxes 4 and 7.

positive outcomes when good park locations for boxes spaced more than 100 yards apart are limited.  This solution was used for Box 9 too, as it seems the birds didn’t care for all the playing field activity around Box 9’s former location.  Box 9 is now paired with Box 5.  This will be an interesting experiment. 

Bluebirds are territorial, so two pairs generally won’t nest in boxes that are closer than 100 yards. Though, boxes in pairs might attract a different species, like tree swallows.  Tree swallows compete with other species such as bluebirds, as well as their own species.  Tree swallow pairs will compete, sometimes to their deaths, with each other for nest sites.  Male tree swallows will claim a bird box and guard it, in hopes of attracting a female tree swallow.  Consequently there is a strange dynamic ensuing.  By installing boxes in pairs, they will be close enough that both boxes are unlikely to be occupied by the same species, but just plentiful enough to allow for another species without an aggressive competition between the two species.  This strategy has worked on bluebird trails.  There are different recommendations on how far apart to place the pairs, from on the same pole to as much as 24 feet apart. We placed our two pairs at about 10 feet.

Status of 2022 Changes

The start of the 2023 monitoring season incorporated some changes recommended in 2022.  Our team agreed that moving Boxes 1, 4, 7, 9 might help the bluebirds.  The data showed that Boxes 1, 2, 5, and 9 never had bluebirds. We also had the opportunity to add an 11th bluebird box which was installed.   

  • Box 1 was moved closer to the parking lot to get more attention by the bluebirds.  As a result of the move, the box produced 3 bluebird and 5 tree swallow fledglings. 
  • Box 4 has had occasions of broken eggs from intense competition.  Moving it from the corner of the field to a more bushy area closer to some benches improved it.  In 2023 this box produced 5 tree swallow fledglings.
  • Box 7 had a snake predator in 2022, but it was not under any trees and the weeds around it were cut.  We decided to leave it in place at the last moment in 2022.  Unfortunately in 2023 it was once again attacked by snakes.  No fledglings survived.  To avoid that mistake again, Box 7 is now paired in a good location for the upcoming 2024 season. 
  • Box 9 was moved a few yards farther from the human activity at this playing field area. Yet in in 2023 this box did not produce any fledglings and four bluebird eggs went missing. It is now paired in a better location for the upcoming 2024 season. 

Finally, something should be said of unhatched eggs, which for the most part is uncontrollable. Unhatched eggs could be a result of issues related to temperature, humidity, infertility, environmental chemical use, or physical damage to the eggshells. Sometimes too, if the female bird is inexperienced, or if there is not enough food nearby and she has to leave the nest frequently to forage, the eggs can be affected  negatively.