Feature photo: At the 2019 Virginia Geological Field Conference, our excursion group investigated the landslide damage of Hurricane Camille in Nelson County. After 50 years this mountainside is still stripped to its bedrock from the floods and landslides caused by the hurricane.
Article and photo by FMN Stephen Tzikas
The annual Virginia Geological Research Symposium is an event I enjoy attending. It is typically held in April and is approved for the FMN Better Impact continuing education requirement. It is presented at a professional level and is a conference from which one can acquire valuable knowledge if working in the associated engineering and science fields. Moreover, because it is Virginia centric and geology related, it’s a great learning venture for Virginia master naturalists.
The last couple of years the symposium was held virtually, but it normally meets in Charlottesville. It is free and hosted by Virginia Energy, Geology and Mineral Resources. This organization serves as Virginia’s geological survey. The last symposium was held on April 21, 2022. At this symposium, the U.S. Geological Survey gave a couple presentations related to the 2011 Mineral, Virginia 5.7 magnitude earthquake felt over a wide area including Fairfax County (something most of us will remember). The quake was further discussed in the context of the more recent 2020 Sparta, North Carolina 5.1 magnitude earthquake. Other presentations given by the U.S. Geological Survey included Earth MRI geophysical datasets along the fall-line in SE Virginia and NE North Carolina, and the origin of Carolina Bays in the Coastal Plain of Virginia.
The College of William and Mary had several presenters too. Topics included:
- Age and origin of the Albemarle-Nelson mafic-ultramafic complex in the eastern Blue Ridge.
- Structural geology and geochronology of the Shores Melange in the Piedmont.
- Geology of the Schuyler 7.5-minute quadrangle in central Virginia and understanding Iapetan rifting, sedimentation, and magmatism.
- Petrology, structure, and geochronology of the Oakville metavolcanic sequence and the implications for the provenance of the Smith River Allochthon.
Of particular interest to me was the landslide hazard mapping in western Albemarle and Nelson Counties by Virginia Energy. I once attended a geologic field trip to Nelson County, the location hit hard by Hurricane Camille in 1969 through the devastating flooding and landslides caused by the hurricane. Another interesting topic was on geologic storage potential in Virginia, also by Virginia Energy.
James Madison University and Radford University students made presentations too.
It is worth exploring the Virginia Energy website at https://www.energy.virginia.gov/. The website features such links as “Ask a Geologist” and information on the geology and mineral resources of Virginia at https://www.energy.virginia.gov/geology/geologymineralresources.shtml.
This symposium is a wonderful resource among many available for geology enthusiasts in Fairfax County. Others include are:
- The Northern Virginia Mineral Club: https://www.novamineralclub.org/
- The Annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show at George Mason University
- NVCC 1-day 1-credit excursions (Field Studies in Geology under GOL-135)
- The Virginia Geological Field Conference (also with counterparts in PA, NJ, and NY)https://vgfc.blogs.wm.edu/
Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives
As community associations around Northern Virginia ramp up their native tree planting efforts, they are looking around to find ways to make it affordable. Burke Centre resident Craig Willett has solved that problem for his neighbors: all they have to do is fill out a simple form to get a free tree. A member of Burke Centre Conservancy’s volunteer Open Space Committee, Craig has organized a system both for private property and for common land. On private land, residents pick up seedlings from Craig’s house and plant them themselves. On common land, the Trustees of the various clusters put in a request, and Craig and his colleagues will install trees or shrubs either to replace ones that have died or to reforest open areas. You can see him pictured here with fellow volunteer Mike Hathaway, in red.
Trees grow slowly, and they also die slowly. Many neighborhoods around Northern Virginia have been losing their canopy coverage, bit by bit, so that once pleasantly shaded yards and streets where neighbors and children could gather are gradually becoming intolerable as our summer temperatures rise. Communities that wish to reverse this trend are most likely to succeed if they build a long-term routine for tree care and tree replacement into their master plans. Where there is no community association, residents will need to step forward to help each other make a plan.
Burke Centre Conservancy obtains its tree seedlings from Fairfax ReLeaf, a non-profit organization of volunteers who plant and preserve native trees on public and common lands in Northern Virginia. Individual landowners may also request seedlings from Fairfax ReLeaf.
Any community in Fairfax County that owns open space may also apply for free trees from the Fairfax Tree Preservation and Planting Fund. It is not necessary to be a 501(c)3 organization to apply as long as the open space is commonly owned. This is a solid funding source for organizations that want to plant either seedlings or larger trees. The application process looks a little intimidating at first glance because of the long list of requirements, but in fact the required steps are all ones that any organization would take anyway when planting trees.
Programs for obtaining free native trees are also available to communities in Arlington and Falls Church. And although not free, there are numerous ways to obtain native trees for a very low price. For example, the Virginia Department of Forestry sells tree and shrub seedlings for $2.00 apiece for orders of ten or more. Our local native plant garden centers all sell medium-sized trees in containers at reasonable prices. Those trees may look a little small when first planted, but they will rapidly catch up to trees that were planted when larger, since older trees suffer more transplant shock. Two wholesalers of larger trees offer their trees at wholesale cost to people who are organizing community plantings. Links to all these programs can be found on the Plant NOVA Trees website.
Since 2018, Burke Centre Conservancy has planted over 600 bare root seedlings, which is in keeping with the nature-centered philosophy of this community with its extensive network of trails through the woods. More details about their process can be found on this web page.
Feature photo: The arranged fruits of the Osage Orange tree into a happy face caught my attention and consequently initiated my interest to write this article.
Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas
In December 2021, while on a trail review for the Birdability website (https://www.birdability.org/), I came across a most unusual tree. I had traveled throughout the US and the World, and walked many trails in Fairfax County, but never have I seen this type of tree. It’s commonly called an Osage Orange tree, but also goes by many other names, including its scientific name Maclura pomifera. As I approached it, I saw grapefruit sized yellow fruits on the ground beneath it, with a pile of them arrange in a happy face configuration, as if beckoning me toward them. I looked at those fruits in greater detail, and I thought to myself that the exotic fruit looked like brains, because of the convoluted nature of it.
I asked a passer-by if he knew what kind of tree it was. He told me it was a “Monkey Tree,” so that became the basis of my internet search. Indeed, the fruits are also known as “Monkey balls” and “Monkey brains.” The Osage Orange tree is originally native to parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Today the tree has spread to much of the United States and Canada. Male and female trees have different flowers. Only the female tree bears fruit, but it is not edible. The early settlers of America had many uses for this tree and a lot of information on the tree and it uses can be found on the internet. The bark pattern on the tree has a characteristic deeply furrowed, scaly nature. Its twigs have thorns.
Fort Ward is a pleasant place to have a walk, with many ADA amenities. It also has a small museum on its grounds.
Image: Courtesy of The Clifton Institute
Every year community scientists help count the butterflies in 15-mile-diameter circles all around the country and contribute their data to the North American Butterfly Association. This summer The Clifton Institute will host their 27th annual butterfly count and celebrate their 20th year contributing their data to NABA. Butterfly enthusiasts of all levels of experience are welcome! If you feel like you don’t know many butterflies, this is a great way to learn and it’s always helpful to have more eyes pointing out butterflies.
Photo by J. Quinn
Below is a list of the various Stream Monitoring workshops and other monitoring opportunities in the area throughout June and July.
Accotink Creek Stream Monitoring
When: Saturday, June 11, 9:30 – 11:30am
Where: Accotink Creek, Springfield
Join Friends of Accotink Creek to monitor the health of the stream. For more information and to register, click here.
Little Hunting Creek Stream Monitoring Workshop
When: Sunday, June 12, 10:00am-12:30pm
Where: Paul Spring Stream Valley Park, Alexandria
This workshop was originally scheduled for April but was rained out… twice! Take this opportunity to join us as we visit the Paul Spring Branch of Little Hunting Creek for the first time in many years! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.
Sugarland Run Stream Monitoring Workshop
When: Tuesday, June 21, 4:00-6:30pm
Where: Sugarland Run Stream Valley Park, Herndon
This site is close to one of the largest great blue heron rookeries in the area at Kincora along Route 28, and seeing these beautiful birds along Sugarland Run isn’t uncommon. What a nice bonus to complement Sugarland Run’s big crayfish and other mighty macros! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.
Pohick Creek Stream Monitoring Workshop
When: Sunday, July 17, 10:00am-12:30pm
Where: Hidden Pond Nature Center, Springfield
This is the workshop site of a recently-retired stream monitor and is currently up for adoption. Come join us at this beautiful county park! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.
Holmes Run Stream Monitoring Workshop
When: Saturday, July 23, 9:00-11:30am
Where: Holmes Run Stream Valley Park, Falls Church
This workshop site is ae easily-accessible location just downstream of Lake Barcroft. Come explore this beautiful spot in the Cameron Run watershed! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.
More Training and Stream Monitoring Opportunities
- Izaak Walton League (Virginia Save Our Streams) – Stream Monitoring Certification Training
- Creek Critters by Audubon Naturalist Society – macroinvertebrate data collection app
- PocketMacros App – macroinvertebrate ID on Android and Apple
The Northern Virginia Water and Soil Conservation District(NVSWCD) is very excited to contribute their stream data to state and national datasets. If anyone would like to see data from all the NVSWCD regional stream monitoring team’s active sites, the NVSWCD organization can be found on the Clean Water Hub. Keep in touch with NVSWCD on our Facebook and Instagram.
Article and photos by FMN Barbara Saffir
THEY’RE BAAAACCCCCKKK! Flying fairies — ruby-throated hummingbirds — returned to Virginia in April so now it’s time to invite some to your house or apartment. It’s easy and cheap. Just serve up some irresistible food and an inviting home. That means a clean hummer feeder, native plants, and nearby trees for them to eat, nest, and snuggle in. A water source is a huge plus for all birds and critters, especially to help them survive summer’s searing heat. And it’s also paramount to avoid insecticides in your yard since bugs are the main course and high-octane fuel for these feisty, flying jewels that can beat their wings about 53 times each second, according to Cornell’s respected “All About Birds” website. Ruby-throats are the only hummers that nest east of the Mississippi.
First the flowers. Even if you can’t plant salvia, cardinal flower, bee balm, coral honeysuckle, trumpet vine, or other hummer-magnets in time, or if you live in an apartment with a pint-sized balcony, you can still buy them in containers. It’s best to place them near your hummingbird feeders so they can slurp some sugar water for desert after gobbling down their bug buffet. Cornell says they especially love the bugs that humans sometimes hate, including disease-carrying mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees, and spiders. And your local big box store is NOT the ideal place to buy hummer plants. Native plant nurseries appear to be the best sources for hummer-preferred flowers. When you go shopping, if you can, chose the plants with butterflies or hummers already feeding from them. And gobs of other wildflowers and flowering trees seduce hummingbirds, not just the ones you typically hear about. Virginia Tech offers some suggestions below.
Second, the feeders. All you need is a $4 hummingbird feeder (see below) and some plain white
granulated sugar. But NEVER hang any hummingbird feeders unless you’re willing to clean them every couple of days in the heat because dirty ones can form mold, fungus, bacteria, and fermentation, which can hurt or kill your hummers. The National Wildlife Federation says you need to refill the nectar “as often as every two days when summer temperatures remain above 90 degrees F. Rinse the feeder thoroughly—without soap—before refilling. Clean it once a month with a very mild, diluted bleach solution.” It also helps to hang the feeders from a ($4 and up) ant moat to prevent ants from monopolizing the nectar.
Feature photo: Slag Nuggets line this railroad track near Willoughby Brook, High Bridge, NJ
Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas
Not too far from Fairfax County is geologic treasure. Engineers love it. It is a by-product of iron ore smelting, one of the oldest chemical engineering processes. The by-product is called slag and it is unique and beautiful.
A few years ago I stopped at the Burden Iron Works in Troy, NY on my way to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for Reunion and Homecoming not far from the iron works. The iron works are not a big tourist attraction, so I had to call the curator for an appointment. The meeting I had with curator was just grand. We talked at least a couple hours on the engineering history of the area which included RPI. Before leaving he took me outside to walk the perimeter of the iron works
and told me about slag. Slag is the rock remaining after iron is extracted from the ore. The property and surrounding area has some slag scattered around. He told me it can usually be found easily along a building perimeter because that’s where it’s thrown by ground keepers who cut grass and don’t like hitting it with the mowers. He gave me a few pieces of the century-plus old slag and I finally departed.
Later, at the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center building at RPI, while looking at the geologic collection located there, a graduate student came out of his research lab and I struck up a conversation with him on the Burden Iron Works. He quickly went back into his lab to pull out a slag sample from the iron works in which some residue ore in a large slag sample formed a colorful blue glass mix with the ore. Impressed, I have ever since included old iron furnace stops on my road trips. If you keep in mind that slag samples are likely to be located along perimeter building ruins, you’ll find interesting nuggets. One especially pleasing location is the Lock Ridge Furnace Museum if you are passing through the Allentown, PA area. There are literally thousands of slag samples all over the grounds. It is much rarer to find slag samples with colorful shades of glass in them, but if you are curious, do a google image search on “colored iron slag” to see what I mean. Some slag samples can also be magnetic, and the color of a slag sample is due to the different mixes of elements and leftover metals in it.
Iron smelting was a big industry in the 18th and 19th century America, and you can usually find industrial furnace ruins from that period everywhere that had settlements. My stops at old furnaces usually take me through Pennsylvania on my trips to NJ and NY. However, we have local furnace ruins too. One nearby is the Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont, MD. This is a 19th century iron works and the website can be found at https://catoctinfurnace.org/village/
Slag samples could appear in a variety of other places too. The iron industry of yesteryear produced so much slag waste, the industry found uses for it. Iron ore slag is generally safe. It is just ore rock with the iron removed. While hiking in High Bridge, NJ one day, I came across large amounts of it lining the railroad tracks (along Buffalo Hollow Road near Willoughby Brook, and just off of Cregar Road). The slag made a suitable material cushioning the track area from the extended environment. Normally, one might see other forms of crushed stone gravel around railroad tracks. If you come across railroad tracks in your nature trail excursions, take a look at whether the tracks have stone ballast in the track bed, and whether it is slag.
If I have interested you to build a slag collection, please be aware that some parks might have rules requiring visitors not to remove anything from a site. Such rules, if they exist, are usually posted so visitors know. Now that you are aware, keep your eyes open for interesting geology on the ground at old furnace ruins.
Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives
Native groundcovers are becoming increasingly popular, for good reason: even if they have minimal time for gardening, people want to use native plants to support our local birds and butterflies. To avoid invasive non-native groundcovers such as English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra, they turn to native plants for the same landscaping benefits without the damage to our trees and the rest of the environment.
Equally popular among time-pressed residents are native trees, which are similarly easy to install and which have benefits that far exceed those of any other plants. Not only does the great mass of tree leaves and roots provide food and homes for birds, soak up stormwater, and cool the air, the insects that evolved with native plants are adapted to the chemical make-up of those plants and are able to co-exist peacefully with them. An American Beech tree, for example, is the host plant to 126 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Hickory to 200 species, Black Cherry around 450 species, and native oaks over 500 species. (The numbers for non-native trees are in the single digits or even zero.)
Over 30 species of locally native plants make excellent groundcovers, with options available for any growing condition. Several are evergreen, and many have the bonus of a month or two of colorful flowers. Some form a tight mat on the ground, while others such as ferns and White Wood Aster provide a taller look. Native sedges provide even more options. Some sedges make a beautiful substitute for the invasive Liriope, some look more like a grass that never needs mowing, and still others sport spiky seed heads that add a touch of quirkiness to the garden. Our local conventional garden centers are starting to carry some of these plants, and many more can be found at native plant garden centers.
Encircling native trees with native groundcovers makes eminent sense. Turf grass does poorly under trees because of the limited light. Trees do not appreciate lawn chemicals, not to mention the risk of injury from lawnmowers and string trimmers. A harmful but common practice, especially in commercial areas, is to pile layer after layer of mulch in a “mulch volcano” around trees and spray it with herbicides to prevent grass and weed growth. Not only does this poison the soil, but mulch that is touching the trunk will rot the bark, and compacted mulch prevents rainwater from reaching the roots. Arborist wood chips, which allow the water to run through, are an improvement over shredded bark mulch if applied properly and can protect the tree as it gets established. But in the long run, why not use nature’s alternative to a toxic mulch bed, which is to allow the fallen leaves to remain in place and add a “green mulch” made up of native plants? The trees and the soil will thank you for it.
All photos by Jerry Nissley
We all remember the ‘blue frog’ craze from last summer, right?
Well I certainly do. All the specimens I found were axanthic green tree frogs (Hyla cinerea). But this is a new year folks! Today I found a bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) exhibiting these traits. I get excited about stuff like this and I always like to share my excitement with others. Here is a quick overview of what I know. There is a ton of published information out there if you want to dig deeper.
Axanthism in its basic description is a genetic mutation that inhibits the animal’s ability to produce yellow pigments. There are three types of axanthism in amphibians: 1. complete to partial blue coloration due to a lack of yellow pigmentation, 2.
complete or partial dark coloration, and 3. normal coloration with black eyes. These are not distinct categories, and there can be amphibians that have a combination of these.
Type one is most common in the frog family (Ranidea) which is also the family that happens to be most commonly affected by axanthism. In my research, I could not find a community consensus as to why axanthism occurs in amphibians; whether it is genetic or environmental. There are persuasive arguments on both sides.
Axanthism seems to be most prevalent in North America and is more common in Northern regions; but if last summer is a trend, it is sliding quickly into the southeastern states. Axanthism is most common in frogs, with salamanders and newts having almost no cases.
So be on the look out for this very cool frog morph – it’s a eureka moment to spot one!