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 specifically 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.

Science in Your Watershed

Feature photo: The Mighty Potomac on June 2, 2018

Article, photo and images provided by FMN Stephen Tzikas

A watershed is a common geographic area that drains all streams and rivers into a common outlet, like a bay.  The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District has a macroinvertebrate stream monitoring program that helps protect our watersheds:

Getting to know your watershed is like getting to know your neighborhood.  Our local Potomac Watershed is part of the Chesapeake Watershed, which is part of the Mid-Atlantic Watershed, and which is part of the Eastern Watershed.  A principal river of a basin is a river that drains directly into the ocean.  Our Atlantic Seaboard Basin includes the Hudson River, Delaware River, Susquehanna River, our local Potomac River, and the Savannah River.  Your watershed’s information can be found at this USGS website which contains many USGS links:

You can visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website, type in your zip code, and get a local map of your watershed: example, my Reston home location is part of the local Difficult Run watershed.

Illustration by author:  Local Watershed Generated by the EPA website per input of the 20191 zip code. Notice the drainage pattern. Depending on a location’s geology, drainage patterns can be dendritic, trellis-like, rectangular, or radial.

The website provides physical, chemical and biological water quality factors from its monitoring locations.  In Fairfax County, drinking water comes from two major sources: the Occoquan Reservoir and Potomac River.  Fairfax Water operates both the Corbalis and Griffith treatment plants, where water undergoes a series of treatments.  In recent years, new emerging contaminants have become a concern in drinking water. You can help protect the drinking water quality in Fairfax County by preventing water pollution and reducing runoff.  For example, don’t flush expired pharmaceuticals in the toilet, and keep car wash suds out of the storm drains.

By visiting the USGS water data website, more interesting data can be gleaned: I used this site to compare historical information to an unusually high level of water in the Potomac River following a large rain event.  The unusual event took place on June 2, 2018, the day I took a geological excursion to Great Falls Park with Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC).

The flux of the Potomac River on June 2, 2018 was 25,000 cubic feet per second as recorded at Little Falls dam and pumping station. River flux is controlled both by precipitation and the size of the watershed. Flux affects erosion rates. When a path of a river narrows the velocity rises, and there is more erosion by 3 types of stream loads. Dissolved load is comprised of invisible minerals carried to the ocean, where through evaporation and concentration, the ocean receives its high salt content. The suspended load carries the coarser sands and requires a faster velocity.  The competence of a river is the maximum particle size that it can transport, and the thalweg is the line of lowest elevation within a watercourse. As one walks toward a thalweg, the brushing of sand particles upon the leg will be stronger. The bed load rolls along a river bottom, and these carry the largest and heaviest materials. The Appalachian Mountains feed these three loads through erosion.

The mountains now average about 3,500 feet in height, but were up to 20,000 feet at peak height some 200-300+ million years (Myr) ago. These higher mountains had a steeper gradient 100 Myr ago. The velocity was higher, as well as cut down, and so too the erosion. As a river cuts down, mass wasting can fill in through rock falls on the sides. In 100 Myr the Potomac River will be flatter and wider with a lower gradient. This is compounded by rising sea levels by melting polar region ice.  During the entire time of our NVCC geologic hike through Great Falls Park we did not change elevation.  But there was a cut down from upstream (where we stood on the shoreline) to downstream of the river (where it was a gorge). Another type of river dynamic is headward erosion. Downstream waterfalls push rocks off causing the waterfall to slowly move upstream. In floods the competency goes down and larger particles settle as the river covers a wider area.

Pro Illustration extracted by author:  Gage Height Potomac on June 2, 2018.  This illustration shows the gage height during the heavy water flows on June 2, 2018. Date marked by blue square.

Also visit the National Water Dashboard link at and go to Potomac River near Washington, DC Little

Falls Pump Station, by zooming in on the map.  Select that pump station and click the site page link on that new page.  Find the legacy real-time page link and select it.  At this link location one can search on specific parameters, such as gage height, for a date rage.  Gage height is the height of the water in the stream above a reference point. Notice how large Gage Height was on June 2, 2018 during my geological excursion.

The Corporate World Embraces Native Plants

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

Most corporate properties have pretty “standard” landscaping, meaning the plants do very little if anything to support the local ecosystem. More and more, though, we are seeing innovative landscape designs on commercial properties that demonstrate the potential for corporations to be leaders in the effort to save the natural world, starting on their own land. While they are at it, they are creating beautiful and welcoming spaces for their clients and employees.

One example of this approach is the work done at the recently-opened Kaiser Permanente medical centers in Springfield and Woodbridge (Caton Hill). Both properties are richly landscaped with trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials that are almost entirely native to Northern Virginia. (The few exceptions are non-invasive.)

According to Alton Millwood, director of Planning, Design and Construction at Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic, “The landscape design at Caton Hill Medical Center focused on allowing the natural environment to be a part of the community’s wellness plan. There is an abundance of research showing that exposure to nature can lower our heart rate, alleviate mental distress, speed recovery rates, and even alleviate symptoms of mental disorders. This is why Kaiser Permanente felt it was important to keep natural woodland areas on the project site and invite people into those space with trails and areas to sit and relax. Additionally, the native plants used on the site help to create a healthier environment by providing food and habitat for birds and other wildlife, conserving water, and reducing noise and pollution associated with mowing. It only made sense that if we were going to involve the natural environment for our own health that we would do what we could to improve the health of the environment.”

Another goal of the project was to help Northern Virginia region meet its stormwater goals to protect the local streams and the Chesapeake Bay. The planting beds and the rooftop meadow decrease the amount of runoff from impervious surfaces. Design considerations included using a variety of native plant species to provide four-season interest, using low-maintenance plants that will not require long-term watering, and choosing species that will grow to the appropriate size for their locations so that important sight lines remain open and safe.

The reaction of employees and patients alike has been extremely positive. “Many members and staff have taken advantage of the outside seating, walked through the Gardens and Health Park to immerse themselves in nature and its healing benefits, and observed the rooftop meadow flowers in full bloom, with birds and pollinators busy in their tasks.”

Asked what would be his advice to other corporations, Alton replied, “Using sustainable design practices such as planting native plants is good for people and the environment – it is a win-win. For corporations, sustainable design can impact their bottom line, too. Native plants are more likely to live long and thrive in our environment. They require less maintenance, less fertilizer and pesticides, and less water. All this adds up to savings for the owner. Hiring a like-minded design professionals can help you create places like Caton Hill Medical Center that help benefit our community and the local ecosystem.”

More photos of this and other corporate or small business landscaping projects can be found on the Commercial Landscaping page on the Plant NOVA Natives website.

Advantages of Natural Science Sketching

Feature photo: Author’s covered bridge in nature setting (1970s), as self taught via the Jon Gnagy art set.

Article and illustrations by FMN Stephen Tzikas

We all have a bit of an artist in us when we learned to draw and use coloring books as children.  Some of us went further. I started self-learning art with the Jon Gnagy sets from the 1960s and 1970s.  He also had a television show.  My first dedicated art class was in 9th grade.  Among master naturalists, there are many sketchers, and I will offer my perspective on this subject.

My first application of art was with the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observer (ALPO).  They have a 1 year observing program focused on sketching astronomical objects.  What made the ALPO observation program so unique was an appreciation for details one cannot “casually see” or photograph.  When I first started this program, I was asked to pick a lunar crater and draw it as observed through a telescope.  My first sketch was not much more than a 1 minute drawing with a circle and a shadow in it.  By the time I graduated that program, I was sketching similar craters that would take me 3 hours to complete because of all the detail I could now see for which I was oblivious when I started the program. To illustrate this, I provide an example of my sketch of the crater Arzachel on the Moon.

Sketch of Moon Crater Arzachel, August 4, 2014 at Colongitude 7.97 degrees.  Magnification 169x using a Meade 12” Lightbridge telescope in Reston, VA.

Sketching details incorporate a gray tone scale (1 through 10) using different labelled pencils for this purpose. Moreover, a photograph can’t capture all the differences in live perception. Especially in astronomy, viewing gets distorted by the atmosphere. A properly identified astronomical sketch includes criteria to understand its context, such as the time and date, the object, the telescope used, and the accessories.  These sketches are accepted by various organizations as a record for future generations.   

Numerous natural science genres include colored scientific illustration, comics, and journals. Art I have seen over the decades show how illustrations have evolved, sometimes forced by necessity.  I once sketched a full Moon to compare my attempt to Galileo’s first attempt.  By then I was trained in astronomical sketching.  This feat is impossible to do in a night because many more hours would be needed than available, and keeping in mind that the shadows on the Moon are constantly changing due to movement through space.  This shadowing is defined by co-longitude and is the reason why one cannot just continue a lunar sketch the upcoming evening.  Out of necessity a style needs to be created to capture a background in a sketch and these styles evolved with time.  Style (what to accentuate) is not only a function of the historic time it was created, but also social factors that may have included materials available, social beliefs, talent, interpretations, and imagination.  The historically preserved sketch is a record of what could have existed at a time but no longer does.  Historical sketches and paintings often include environmental conditions useful to scientists, even if those works were never intended for that purpose.    

In a wider context, art can be a record of human consciousness.  The human consciousness can incorporate aspects of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Indeed, art can use a broad brush, to borrow a metaphor.  Art has its own unique place in nature sketching.  I would encourage others to submit articles to the FMN Newsletter as a means of preserving the various forms of art and observations for future generations. 

In addition to the FMN Newsletter as a source for art-related information, there is the art competition for the FMN recertification pins. Also, there are nature journaling meet-ups at the Clifton Institute and nature art classes are given at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.  Always available are You-tube videos on sketching. Just have a look at the fine pieces of art posted on the NOVA Nature Journal Club Facebook group at:

John Muir Laws also provides free videos online that have helped people become skilled observers to creatively document their experiences with nature. Experiencing the moment can sometimes be quite different from what a static photograph portrays. See the website at:

Tree-of-Heaven is Not Heavenly!

Photo: Plant NOVA Natives

Article by Cindy Speas, Chair, Fairfax County Tree Commission

In summer many folks travel to the Shenandoah Valley and beyond for recreational opportunities. Driving in any direction from Northern Virginia in the growing season, there is a tree that can be seen everywhere along the highways and byways. The dramatic clusters of seeds are so large they look like giant flowers among the leaves. It’s not native walnut or native sumac—it is Ailanthus altissima, commonly called Tree-of-Heaven. Disturbed areas and right of ways along roads are perfect locations for this opportunistic pest to colonize. Ailanthus is popping up in suburbia as well, and those of us who love trees wonder why experts are calling for us to remove these attractive and fast-growing specimens from our properties as soon as possible?

Ailanthus was imported from China and widely distributed in the United States as an ornamental in the late 1700s and 1800s. Its behavior, though, is far from heavenly—it spreads aggressively through root sprouting and huge seed production; it grows to maturity rapidly with a very long taproot; it is characterized by its terrible odor; and it poisons the ground around its roots with chemicals, in a process called allelopathy. This prevents native trees and plants from growing nearby, allowing Ailanthus to quickly spread and dominate our landscape.

Additionally, Ailanthus is the preferred food source for a new invasive insect—the Spotted Lanternfly (SLF). In spite of state quarantines, this destructive pest has now been found in Fairfax County. It is a major threat to some of Virginia’s agricultural areas, especially our vineyards, peach orchards and hops. It is also a threat to native tree species like oaks and maples that thrive in our yards. Forest Pest Branch asks all residents to report Ailanthus here and report Spotted Lanternfly sightings here.

Some may ask why these non-native trees should be removed—don’t they at least provide shade and shelter in a warming world? They certainly can, but they crowd out our native oaks, beeches, hickories and maples, as well as failing to provide the critical food resources that native insects and other animals need to live and reproduce in a fully functioning, healthy ecosystem. If a plant like this is killing off or threatening major parts of our local natural food web, the entire system will eventually collapse. And we will lose our native tree canopy along the way.

How can we stop the spread of this nasty invasive? The first thing, of course, is not to purchase it in the first place! So be sure to learn how to identify it. You can become familiar with the iNaturalist app on your smartphone or use other online resources to name the plant. The second is to remove the tree if it is growing on your land. This pest, however, thrives when simply cut down, so strategies must be used to kill the root system right away. There are some excellent resources to help landowners eliminate this threat safely and efficiently. Blue Ridge Prism has excellent fact sheets with details about herbicide use for this and other invasive species.

Visit Plant Nova Natives for more information about invasives and their destructive roles in our native environment. If we could eliminate a threat like the Tree-of-Heaven, that would truly be heavenly.

Box Turtles Surveyed at The Clifton Institute

Andrew Eberly (L) holds a turtle while FMN David Gorsline (R) carries the radio receiver and transmitter, photo by The Clifton Institute

Article by FMN Janet Quinn, photos as marked

In mid-May I joined a group of citizen scientists  gathered at The Clifton Institute (Clifton) in Warrenton, Virginia, equipped with a radio receiver and antenna.  As the faint pings from the receiver grew louder, we followed the direction of the strongest sounds and eventually found our prize, a Woodland Box Turtle (terrapene carolina carolina)!  The transmitter equipped creature was snuggled in tall grass and would have been difficult to find without the transmitter.

Andrew inspects the transmitter, photo by author

We began our day learning about Clifton’s ongoing Box Turtle research program from Andrew Eberly, Habitat Specialist and our guide for the day.  Clifton is unusual in being not just an education center but also a research station and a conservation organization. That means that participants on their field trips have the unique opportunity to participate in real scientific research and to see ongoing restoration projects in action.

In spring 2022 Clifton launched an exciting new research project on Box Turtles. The goals of the project are to better understand how Box Turtles are doing at Clifton (where they are still common), why they are declining in the region, and how landowners can help turtles. They are especially interested in studying the animals’ movements in different kinds of habitats so that they can advise landowners on when and how to change mowing and haying practices to minimize turtle mortality.

Andrew weighs an unmarked turtle, photo by author

When they find a turtle they notch its shell with a unique code so that they can identify it when they (hopefully) see it again. They have found more than 106 turtles! They estimate that roughly 370 turtles live on the 400 acres they have surveyed. They have been amazed to find so many and want to figure out what makes their property so turtle-friendly.

As a pilot study, they attached radio transmitters to five of the turtles and tracked their movements to get a better idea of where they’re hanging out and when. Five turtles didn’t tell them much, but the tracking worked well enough that they had expanded to twenty turtles by the time of the May field trip.

After some of us took turns using the receiver and antennae to locate some of the previously

Andrew measures an unmarked turtle, photo by author

identified turtles, we moved to “Turtle Junction”, a site on the property known for its turtle habitat.  We were delighted to find two more unmarked turtles there.  Andrew carefully notched their shells, and weighed and measured them to log them into the survey subjects.

Flush with success, the group moved out of the lush forested area just as a spring downpour began.  Although The Clifton Institute is a 45-minute drive away from my home, the trip provided enough education, outdoor time in beautiful surroundings, and the feeling that I had added needed information to citizen science that I would readily go again and highly encourage you to do the same!