February Birding in Nicaragua

Article and all photos by FMN Robin Duska

Reprinted with permission from Northern Virginia Bird Club, originally published in The Siskin, April 2022

Strong-billed Woodcreeper

The prospect of birding near volcanos and in cloud forest drew me to Bill Volkert and Connie Ramthun’s February 2022 tour to Nicaragua. Likely because of its perennially fraught political climate and, despite its 750+ bird species, its lack of endemics, Nicaragua attracts few international birders. This was, however, the 16th trip for Bill and Connie, experienced and intrepid world travelers. Bill, an ornithologist and former naturalist at Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh, and Connie, who ran a native plant nursery, live in Wisconsin’s northern Kettle-Moraine.

Birding in gardens at the Best Western Mercedes Hotel across from Managua Airport netted my first trip lifer, a Hoffman’s Woodpecker. We then set off to Volcan Masaya

Masaya volcano

National Park and Visitor Center for an introduction to the geology of this volatile region where three tectonic plates converge. Peering down into the smoking, active Masaya volcano, we watched two Peregrine Falcons flying along its cliffs. Recommended human exposure to the sulphureous fumes? No more than 15 minutes.

Crimson-collared Tanager

By midday, we were in the dry forest of Montibelli private reserve, home to 175 species including Turquoise-browed and Lesson’s Motmots and 10 species of hummingbirds. I wish I’d recorded the surprisingly loud wingbeats of Red-billed Pigeons passing overhead there and at the nearby Chocoyero-El Brujo reserve—the flocks sounded as loud as small aircraft.

We worked with local guides at each site on our trip but unfortunately we “dipped” on Nicaragua’s only near-endemic, the Nicaraguan Grackle (Quiscalus nicaraguensis), allegedly found along Lake Cochibola (Lake Nicaragua) and nearby Lake Managua. Our leaders had occasionally seen it on earlier trips.

From our next base in the attractive colonial city of Granada, we took a morning boat trip amid the 365 islands that were formed when nearby Mombacho volcano erupted around 20,000 years ago. Mangrove Swallows and my favorite Scissor-tailed Flycatchers dipped into the water as we motored around. Among the 39 species seen that morning were a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and amid hundreds of Montezuma Oropendola nests, an optimistic Giant Cowbird. Later, we stopped in San Juan de Oriente, home to potters for over 1000 years. The beautiful and inexpensive pottery features both pre-Colombian and modern designs.

Highland Guan

Next we took the Pan-American Highway into the Matagalpa-Jinotega highlands, beautifully green even in the dry season. El Jaguar Reserve, run by eBird reviewer Liliana Chavarria-Duriaux and her husband, is home to 378 species. In the cloud forest surrounding Liliana’s coffee fields, vulnerable Highland Guan reliably amble out into view. We had fine sightings of three of my favorite trip species: Black-crested Coquette, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and Slate-colored Solitaire with its ethereal calls.

I especially enjoyed a morning to the west of El Jaguar at Reserva Natural Cerros de Yali where the oak-pine forest, a vital wintering area for warblers including Grace’s and Golden-winged, reaches its southern boundary in Central America. To our delight, four very similar warblers—Townsend’s, Hermit, Golden-cheeked, and Black-throated Green—showed up within minutes of each other. Nearby, a pair of Red Crossbills, a wide-ranging species, fed placidly in a pine.

We went on to enjoy more cloud forest at Selva Negra (Black Forest), where we stayed in lovely green-roofed German-influenced chalets. A

Three-wattled Bellbirds

Pale-billed Woodpecker, like other Campephilus woodpeckers including the extinct Ivory-billed, did its double-knock drumming out along a steep trail. I especially enjoyed watching male and female Three-wattled Bellbirds interact and listening to the male’s echoing call.

Spectacled Owl

Nicaragua’s handful of ornithologists participate in the Neotropical Flyways Project, monitoring and tagging birds for the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Ecotourism provides valuable support in this vulnerable habitat, but travel now is complicated by the Nicaraguan government’s Covid testing documentation requirements and concerns about birding equipment. Four travelers from Bill and Connie’s two February tours were unable to enter the country, due to the former. After our leaders’ equipment was confiscated upon their arrival, they successfully negotiated for its return and for ours to be allowed in when the rest of us arrived on later flights. I therefore recommend birders not travel independently to the country at this time unless they have contacts in Nicaragua who can help them negotiate such possible impediments.

Despite the pre-arrival issues described, this was one of the more pleasant, well-paced, and satisfying birding trips I’ve taken. As the only non-Wisconsinite in our group, I also enjoyed learning from others who had far more hiking/hunting/farming/gardening experience than I do. Lodgings were comfortable and very clean.

Our group trip list was 211 species during 10 birding days. Bill and Connie plan to return to Nicaragua in 2024 and can be contacted via his website, which also links to Bill’s “Where To Watch Birds in Nicaragua” guide: http://www.billvolkert.com.

Madagascar: Exploring a Biodiversity Hotspot through its Lemurs and Birds, May 17th

Photo: Collared Nightjar, Elizabeth Lyons

Tuesday, May 17, 2022
7 – 8:00pm
Cost: Free
Register here.

The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia presents, Madagascar: Exploring a Biodiversity Hotspot through its Lemurs and Birds.

Dr. Sally Bornbusch and Dr. Libby Lyons, a mother-daughter scientist team, will immerse the audience in the fascinating biodiversity of Madagascar. Based on their first-hand experience with Madagascar as a biodiversity hotspot, they will focus on its famous lemurs, a group of primates found only in Madagascar, and its suite of endemic birds. They will discuss some of the recently extinct animals, the human impacts that continue to challenge the island nation, and conservation efforts being undertaken to protect Madagascar’s unique biological richness. They will also reflect on their scientific career paths in hopes of helping young women and girls pursue their own passions in environmentalism and science.

For more information about this event please click here.

Sun Dogs Over Fairfax County

Article and all photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

Feature photo: 11/15/16 Sun dog observed from East Falls Church Metro Station near sunset. One can see the smaller left Sun dog over a building. The brighter Sun is on the right.

A long time ago, probably at a flea market, I saw a used book for sale.  It had a catchy title, which one might see on the front page of the National Enquirer.  That catchy title, Flying Saucers on the Attack (1967) by Howard Wilkins, caught my attention.  With a smirk on my face, I picked up the book and browsed through it.  Soon I had completely forgotten about the book’s title because the book had a very interesting list of natural meteorological phenomena in Chapter 10, which the author tried to convey as flying saucers.  Specifically, I recognized

2/22/17 Sun Dog (center) seen above Reston Metro platform near sunset.  Notice this right lobe has a parhelic circle extension (looks like a horizontal ray to the right of the Sun dog).  The faint vertical ray above and below the Sun dog is part of a 22 degree halo.

some of these entries as Sun dogs.  I also realized I had never seen a Sun dog, so I made it a priority to do so.  It didn’t take me long after that commitment to spot my first Sun dog.  In fact, over several months I saw four Sun dogs.  Their photographs are presented in this article.  Three of these were in Fairfax County. Perceptual awareness is such a powerful tool!

The Greeks were the first to identify Sun dogs. Aristotle noted in his Meteorology that “two mock suns rose with the Sun and followed it all through the day until sunset.” Sun dogs are formed when sunlight is refracted in the horizontal plane through six-sided, plate-like ice crystals that float in the atmosphere or in high elevation cirrus and cirrostratus clouds.  Sun dogs can appear solo or on each side of the Sun. The visual thrills don’t stop there. Do an internet search to learn about the different types of Sun arcs and Sun pillars, and parhelic circles. The Moon offers similar phenomena including lunar coronas.  

2/23/15 Sun dog spotted over Lake Audubon near sunset.  I caught a Sun dog looking outside my window.  The bright Sun dog is on the left, while the larger Sun is on the right.

I saw two Sun dogs from the Metro on my way home from work in Washington DC.  This is a good time to see Sun dogs low on the horizon in the late afternoon and as a “captive audience” from a train window.  I had my cell phone camera with me so I photographed the phenomenon, one at East Falls Church metro station, and one at Reston metro station. The pandemic put a pause on my Sun dog viewing opportunities, but I hope they will pick-up in the future again.

10/11/16 Sun dog seen (lower center) from the NJ side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge near sunset.  The bright Sun is on the left by the flag pole.  A good spot to find Sun dogs is from the windshield of your car.  On long trips you might see a Sun dog as I had, on my way home from NJ.

Sun dogs are red-colored at the side nearest the Sun.  Farther out the colors blend from orange to blue shades.

Red is the less deviated color, giving the Sun dogs that red inner edge. So Sun dogs are like a reversed rainbow, that is they have a reversed color scheme, because primary rainbows are red on the outside and violet on the inside. Sun dogs tend to occur when the Sun is near the horizon.  Sun dogs most commonly appear during the winter in the middle latitudes.  They can be quite bright, making one think they are actually viewing the Sun, if the Sun is blocked from view, such as being obstructed by a building.

If you have never seen a Sun dog, I think you will be pleasantly surprised with my photographs.  It’s really amazing all the sorts of things one can see in the sky whether during the day or at night.  I am always attentive for interesting atmospheric phenomena. I have seen quite a lot of weird things that I have had to research for answers.  As Master Naturalists we often look down or around us to observe nature, but sometimes a lot can be seen by looking up.

Fairfax County Park Authority Accessible Trails

Photo: Fairfax County Park Authority

Fairfax County has over 334 miles of trails in the County Park system.  The Park Authority’s goal is to provide the public with a trail network that is safe, enjoyable, flexible, maintainable, and environmentally responsible. The Fairfax County Park Authority is also committed to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which includes making programs, services, and facilities accessible for visitors and employees with disabilities.  The County does maintain a list of recommended accessible trails within its trail network.  A list of FCPA accessible trails can be found below.

Click here for information on general characteristics used to denote an accessible trail.


All trails listed below were measured from the closest accessible parking spaces on site to the trail and totaled in a round trip format.


New EPA Tool Provides the Public with Customized Updates on Local Enforcement and Compliance Activities

Environmental Protection Agency News Releases: Headquarters

March 22, 2022

Contact Information

EPA Press Office (press@epa.gov)

WASHINGTON (March 22, 2022) – Today, EPA announced the release of a new web tool, called “ECHO Notify,” that empowers members of the public to stay informed about important environmental enforcement and compliance activities in their communities.  Through ECHO Notify, users can sign up to receive weekly emails when new information is available within the selected geographic area, such as when a violation or enforcement action has taken place at a nearby facility.

“EPA is committed to empowering communities with the information they need to understand and make informed decisions about their health and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.  “We’ve also seen that increased transparency leads to stronger deterrence of environmental violations. As more people play an active role in protecting their neighborhoods from pollution, EPA has developed ECHO Notify so that finding updates on environmental enforcement and compliance activities is as easy as checking your email.”

ECHO Notify provides information on all EPA enforcement and compliance activities as well as activities of state and local governments under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

You can find ECHO Notify on EPA’s website at ECHO Notify, as shown below.


Visitors to the ECHO Notify homepage who wish to receive email updates only need to take a few simple steps:

  • Create an account, if you don’t have one already;
  • Select a geographic area and/or facility ID(s);
  • Choose the type of compliance and enforcement information of interest;
  • Enter an email address; and
  • Click “subscribe.”

Once subscribed, the user will receive an automated email (typically on Sunday) containing new information from the prior weeklong period. If no new information is available, no email will be sent. Email notifications include links for users to view additional information on ECHO, including a link to each facility’s Detailed Facility Report. Users can easily update their notification selections or unsubscribe at any time.

EPA has prepared a video that provides an overview of ECHO Notify and explains how to use it.  The video can be seen here, ECHO Tutorial: Intro to ECHO Notify


Millions of Trees at Risk in Northern Virginia? Introducing Tree Rescuers!

Photo courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

Northern Virginia’s oldest and best-loved trees are in danger, and the threat is in plain sight – and yet there are few who can see it.

But help is on the way! Tree Rescuers – a new community education and outreach program – is shining a light on non-native invasive vines, which pose a mortal threat to millions of mature trees in Northern Virginia.

More than 130 people from neighborhoods across Northern Virginia have already volunteered with Tree Rescuers, a new campaign sponsored by Plant NOVA Trees and aimed at preserving our area’s mature trees.

“We were amazed at how many people were ready to do something like this for the trees but didn’t know how to get started,” said Margaret Fisher, one of the coordinators of Plant NOVA Trees. “This is a great time to start, since the leaves are down and the vines can be seen more easily.”

As many as three million trees in Northern Virginia may be at risk, said Fisher.

Many people are unaware that invasive vines like English Ivy can eventually make a tree hazardous (and expensive to remove). Tree Rescuers volunteers learn how to identify problematic vines, then walk their neighborhoods spotting trees that need help.

The Tree Rescuers don’t remove any vines themselves, but they warn landowners by dropping off a brochure explaining the problem and ways to fix it.

Data gathered by Tree Rescuers will also help improve knowledge of the actual number of trees at risk, since the collected data is being aggregated and mapped. A map of neighborhoods surveyed can be viewed here.

Tree Rescuers is part of Plant NOVA Trees, a five-year campaign by local governments and nonprofit organizations to increase tree cover in Northern Virginia. Native trees are a key part of the solution to many community problems, from extreme weather and air and water quality to the health of birds, wildlife, and the Chesapeake Bay.

For more details about Tree Rescuers, or to volunteer, click here.

Plastics! Plastics! Everywhere.

Article and photos by FMN Mike Walker

Like last year, I saved every scrap of “plastic” that came in to my home in January and February. Fortunately I have a wonderful screen porch to store this stuff outside during the cold weather. As you can see above, in two months, I collected a shocking total of about 60 cubic feel of “plastic” stuff, ranging from bubble wrap, packaging waste (even from organic products) prescription bottles, shrink wrap, etc. I even had a plastic hose from my washing machine, plastic “throw-away” sunglasses from the doctor for eye dilation and plastic clips from ink for my printer. A real potpourri of plastic trash.  My wife and I do not go out of our way to buy plastic products, of course, I submit that we are typical consumers. Collecting two months worth of material is a vivid reminder of what is coming into our lives and how difficult it is to avoid an avalanche of plastic material.

After two months of collecting,  I sorted the plastic into what can actually be recycled….see my picture below….a small fraction of waste…15 bottles and some caps. While manufacturers offer “helpful” codes on the bottom of many plastic products, most plastic is simply not recyclable and in Fairfax County becomes waste to be incinerated.

Being aware of our use patterns for “stuff”…whether it be plastic, water consumption, gasoline or other resources is the first step in becoming aware of our impact on the earth and the search for serious reductions in consumption. Taking the time to simply collect the plastic that comes into your home for a period of time can become a real eye opener to the sheer volume and variety of plastics – including non-recyclable plastics – that are encountered everyday. It can really make you mindful to look for ways to reduce your consumption, too.

Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle

Photo:  Barbara Saffir

Reviewed by FMN Kristina Lansing

After a cold, grey winter, spring once again is on our doorstep. If you’re chafing to get outside but are finding conditions still a bit less than hospitable, try curling up instead with “Spring in Washington.”

“In the year the atomic age was born, a young man on a bicycle appointed himself monitor of spring in the nation’s capital. Starting before sun-up each morning, he pedaled miles and saw much before his workday began at the offices of the State Department. That the year was 1945 is of no importance, for the events he chronicled could have taken place in 1845 or 2045. The rites of spring are eternal.”*

Consider traveling back in time to experience what Washington was like back in 1945. Join author Louis J. Halle on his daily forays to the the Tidal Basin, Rock Creek Park, Dyke Marsh, Theodore Roosevelt Island, and the C&O Canal. Rock Creek was less visited back then and Dyke Marsh, lacking a boardwalk, was essentially off limits to all but the hardy and adventurous. A passionate observer of nature, Halle documents in detail the migration of birds, the awakening of foliage, and the changeability of the wind and the local weather. Written in the style of Aldo Leopold, but speaking very much with his own voice, Mr. Halle reflects not only on nature but on foreign affairs and the human condition. It’s a timely read for many reasons.

This book, which numbers just over 200 pages, is no longer in print but copies can readily be found in the Fairfax County Library system or for purchase via Amazon and Alibris. If at all possible, do try to snag a copy that features the illustrations of American artist Francis L. Jaques, as his drawings truly are delightful.

Louis J. Halle was born in New York City and educated at Harvard University. In 1979 he received the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Paul Dartsch Award for outstanding contributions to the field of natural history.

*“Spring in Washington;” Louis J. Halle; Johns Hopkins University Press; 1988; Forward by Roger Tory Peterson.

Hidden Oaks Renovation Plans Include Consideration for Wood Frogs’ Mating Season

Article Photos courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

Author Suzanne Holland is Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.

Preparations for construction take many forms. For Hidden Oaks Nature Center, the upheaval to the trees, park access and program scheduling are but a few of the aspects that site staff have long considered to get ready for the current renovation. One consideration was the construction’s impact on the pond that many frogs and salamanders use to mate in late winter and spring. Assisted by Eagle Scout Daniel Tootle, Hidden Oaks management planned a year in advance to minimize the habitat impact – a plan that has proven to be successful over the past two weeks.

Wood frogs arrived at Hidden Oaks Nature Center’s temporary pools on Feb. 20, 2022.

The current construction required filling in the existing pond. Staff’s concern was that this would disrupt mating patterns for the frogs and later the American toads and yellow spotted salamanders. Every March, more than a hundred wood frogs gather in a small body of water just outside of Nature Playce – the site’s outdoor nature exploration area. The male wood frogs call in a laughing duck manner to woo the female wood frogs from their winter slumber. All meet up in the pond. Females lay thousands of eggs which hatch into tadpoles which metamorphose into froglets by mid-summer.

In June 2021, Dylan Tootle and 23 volunteers installed two temporary ponds on either side of the planned construction zone as part of Dylan’s Eagle Scout project. Using repurposed baby pools and prefabricated pond liners, Tootle’s “ponds” created above-ground and in-ground options for the park’s resident amphibians. The first wood frogs appeared on February 20 and soon had eggs floating in the above-ground pool in front of the building. A few days later, the second pond was brimming with frogs. While programs are currently suspended at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, the frogs and their cacophony of sound have fascinated the construction crews and contractors. Unfortunately, a dozen frogs opted to disobey the signs, hop into the construction zone and plop into the partially rainwater-filled new pond still being built. The team from Kadcon installed a ramp in the new pond to accommodate the wood frogs, who find it easier to jump in than climb out the comparatively steep sides. Though rains have created plenty of puddles over the last few weeks, the frogs seem to prefer our ponds over the rainwater puddles.

Frog mating calls joined the construction noise to create a cacophony of sound at Hidden Oaks.


Wood frog egg masses soon appeared in the baby pool pond.

The new larger and permanent pond should be ready for its new inhabitants next week. Naturalists will then relocate the egg masses and newly hatched tadpoles into their new home. Sometimes the earliest laid eggs do not survive a hard freeze, but the adults can return to their shelter under the forest’s leaves and reenter “brumation”, a partial form of hibernation. They will rouse again when the weather warms up. The staff will track which pools the frogs and salamanders prefer and look forward to sharing the marvels of metamorphosis with visitors old and young.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center is located at 7701 Royce Street in Annandale. Please note the Nature Center is closed Feb. 14 to June 10, 2022, for renovations. No public restrooms will be available until April.




This entry was posted in Resource Management and tagged construction, Hidden Oaks Nature Center, nature, outdoors, Wood Frogs on  by .

The Importance of Wetlands

Feature photo: Mason Neck wetlands

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

(Article republished with permission from Audubon Society of Northern Virginia)

My first exposure to wetlands was when I was a child in the 1960s. I frequently saw the inlet of the Raritan River filled with thousands of cattails while sitting in the backseat as my parents drove over the Victory Bridge connecting Perth Amboy and South Amboy, NJ. Much of those wetlands and floodplain around the river contained clay deposits that fueled a large terracotta industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the most interesting geological finds of these clay areas included gem grade amber with prehistoric insect inclusions.

Later in life, as an engineer, I had some peripheral experiences with wetlands in engineering reviews of Federal construction. That took me to unique environments and terrains such as extreme cold regions, hot deserts, dams, and wetlands. But wetlands also caught my interest because of environmental concerns, which made up a significant portion of my early career.  Wetlands are protected and regulated. Many are found here in Fairfax County and local trails will bring you to them and the unique birds found within their boundaries. But before we note wetland birds, something should be said about the history behind protecting wetlands.

Wetland ecosystems protect and improve water quality, offer habitats, provide flood protection and erosion control, maintain surface water flow during dry periods, and present opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation. By the way, those cattails I used to see so frequently are an iconic wetland plant found worldwide in a variety of aquatic ecosystems such as marshes, ponds, lakes, and riparian areas.

Wetlands were considered an obstacle to development. They were often drained for farm land and construction. In the early 20th century, largely due to declining populations of ducks and geese, and the political pressure exerted by hunters, the federal government started protecting habitats for birds. The 1977 Clean Water Act was a big step forward for wetland protection. It protected waterways that resulted in protecting the wetlands that fed into them. Also in 1977, executive orders ended federal assistance for the draining and filling of wetlands.  A federal policy of “no net loss” of wetlands became the norm.

Munsell soil test kit

Rutgers University has a regularly recurring one-day continuing education course at their wetlands location: the Environmental Education Center at Lord Sterling Park in Basking Ridge. The Introduction to Wetland Identification course teaches the use of Munsell soil test kits for wetlands. Although an online version of the course exists, the in-person version is better for the practical experience it delivers. Wetland soils are often grey (reduced) or dark brown to black. Use of the Munsell color system assures consistent classification. The course also makes use of dichotomous keys to identify wetland plants.

Huntley Meadows wetlands

The eBird website posts bird sightings at wetlands throughout Fairfax County. Recently, as part of the Fall 2021 Fairfax Master Naturalist class, our field trip to Huntley Meadows wetlands in Alexandria recorded birds along a trail that was just under 2 miles. Birds spotted included: Canada Geese, Mallards, yellowlegs, herons, vultures, eagles, Belted Kingfishers, Northern Flickers, European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and several types of hawks, woodpeckers, and sparrows. More common birds included Blue Jays, Carolina Chickadees, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Wrens, crows, Tufted Titmice, and Northern Cardinals. In fact, Fairfax County Parks have documented more than 200 bird species in Huntley Meadows Park.

On another Master Naturalist field trip, we explored a different wetland at Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. While we didn’t keep count of birds on this trip, it is known to have many types of birds throughout the year including Tundra Swans, Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, Mallards, and many others. High tide is the best time to go because the birds are closer to the shore and will be feeding more actively.