Events, trainings, ID parties, and videos for City Nature Challenge

Helpful video from Plant NOVA Natives:

Have you ever noticed that we are not alone in this world?

A calendar and map of local events courtesy of Capital Nature: Explore nature on your own and share what you find using iNaturalist  … or join others at an event.  All observations made from April 26 through April 29 will count!

Cheerily, cheer up: Colt Gregory on birding by ear

It’s impossible to miss the robins outside the window right now, but even if you missed Colt Gregory’s “Introduction to Birding by Ear,” at the March 18 FMN chapter meeting, it’s not too late to start understanding birdsong.

An Arlington Regional Master Naturalist and lifelong birder, Mr. Gregory entertained the crowd with reasons to learn the songs of local birds: they hide, for one thing, and it’s easier to hear them than to see them. Listening and parsing their music requires focus, which is good discipline for our fragmented attention. And, well, it’s fun to impress people. There’s more to it, of course, and he’s graciously shared his slides as a resource.

You’ll find a sound suggestion for what not to do: don’t play recorded calls outside because it confuses the birds and annoys other birders. But you’ll mostly find excellent resources for developing your skills. Mr. Gregory particularly recommends the CD Birding By Ear: A Guide to Eastern Bird-Song Identification, narration by Richard K. Walton and Robert W. Lawson: “This is an excellent way to learn songs and calls. Using an interesting approach, the CD places birds in general groups like whistlers, sing-songers, mimics, name-sayers, and high-pitchers.”

Birding by Ear, by Colt Gregory, ARMN, March 18, 2019

Thank you to Kit Sheffield for arranging the presentation. If you are interested in sharing your skills with our members or community, please contact Mr. Sheffield at

Environmental Impacts of Road Salt

Article by Doug Britt, FMN and member, Reston Association’s Environmental Advisory Committee

Salt-based de-icing and anti-icing agents are routinely applied to roadways during and prior to winter storm events in Northern Virginia for the important purpose of maintaining public safety.  The primary agent used is sodium chloride (NaCl). The sodium, chloride, and other impurities in the salt eventually make their way into our environment through runoff from meltwater, as well as through splash and spray from vehicular traffic and wind. These processes can elevate sodium and chloride concentrations in the environment to harmful levels; although, sodium is not as prevalent a concern as chloride, owing to the greater solubility of the latter.

Road salt can contaminate drinking water resources, impair the ecology of lakes and streams, and harm local plants and animals. Salts also have negative impacts on infrastructure, vehicles, and other property. Corrosion from salts can increase the costs of maintenance, repair, and replacement of such infrastructure. Although there are a number of alternative de-icing agents available, sodium chloride as a brine solution appears to have the least negative environmental impact when considering the full life cycle of its production and application. Sodium chloride, nevertheless, can generate a host of environmental problems.

Water Quality Impacts

Contaminants from road salt enter water resources through storm drains, surface runoff, and infiltration into groundwater. In most parts of North America, chloride concentrations in freshwater surface waters are less than 120 mg/L. Chloride concentrations in Fairfax County surface waters have steadily increased for the past 25 years, consistent with the use of de-icing agents. Concentrations of chloride in surface waters are also correlated with the proportion of impervious surfaces in a watershed. Chloride also is seeping into groundwater throughout Northern Virginia where concentrations are steadily increasing with time. De-icing salts that seep into groundwater can be discharged as baseflow to local streams following a lag time of tens to hundreds of years.

Elevated chloride concentrations can lead to chemical stratification in lakes and ponds which impedes turnover and mixing of bottom and top waters – leading to oxygen deficiencies in deeper layers. High chloride levels are toxic to aquatic organisms such as fish and macroinvertebrates, and some aquatic plants. The presence of salt can also release toxic metals from the sediment. Various federal and Virginia state water quality standards and guidelines have been established to protect public health and the environment from the negative effects of sodium and chloride:

Soil Impacts

Through the process of cation exchange, the sodium ion replaces other soil cations such as calcium (Ca+), magnesium (Mg+), and potassium (K+) and changes soil permeability making soil more impervious, less stable, more acidic, and less fertile.

Pet Impacts

Ingestion of road salt directly (or from licking paws or drinking meltwater) can harm pet health in many ways, and in severe cases cause death. Salt exposure to a pet’s paws can also cause inflammation and sores that are slow to heal.

Wildlife Impacts

Birds may mistake salt crystals for seeds or grit. Consumption of even small quantities of salt can lead to death due to the extreme sensitivity of birds to salt. Some mammals (e.g., deer) are attracted to salt resulting in a higher risk for collisions with vehicles. Loss of salt sensitive vegetation can also impact wildlife habitat and create conditions favorable to non-native invasive species. Amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders also are known to be sensitive to elevated salt levels given their very permeable skin, their physiological dependence on osmotic processes, and their early life stage in wetland habitats.

Roadside Vegetation Impacts

Impairment of roadside vegetation is often the most visible sign of salt damage to the environment. Salt impacts vegetation foliage via dehydration and can affect root health through osmotic stress. Salt also can disrupt nutrient uptake, seed germination, and plant development. Impacts to roadside vegetation can impair wildlife habitat, destroy buffer zones that capture and retain pollutants, and lower species diversity.

Infrastructure Impacts

Salt exposure impacts infrastructure, which can greatly increase required maintenance and replacement costs. Corrosion of roads, bridges, and sidewalks is a documented consequence of winter road activities, as is corrosion of vehicles. De-icing salts also can damage vehicle parking garages, which suffer the same corrosion damage as bridge decks. In addition to corrosion damage, de-icing agents can increase the frequency of freeze and thaw cycles that are deleterious to asphalt.

What is Being Done to Address this Issue Locally?

Recently The Izaack Walton League of America has initiated a Winter Salt Watch program, encouraging citizen scientists to monitor local streams before and after road salting activities. Several Reston residents, including myself, are now participating by monitoring Reston tributaries of Difficult Run (DR) and Sugarland Run (SR). As a baseline, I recorded chloride concentrations prior to the first 2019 winter storm at two of these sites. The results were 91 mg/L (SR) and 101 mg/L (DR), both being above average but within the normal range for North American streams. Chloride concentrations measured at these same locations subsequent to road salting associated with the first two snow/ice storms of 2019 exhibited more than a fourfold chloride increase (412 mg/L and 479 mg/L, respectively). Data from other Reston sampling sites are not yet available. If you would like to participate in the Winter Salt Watch program, you may do so directly through the Izaack Walton League of America (, or you may contact Will Peterson, Reston Association Watershed Manager ( Reston Association and has been monitoring the water quality in Reston’s four lakes since 1997. Although chloride concentrations are not directly measured, conductivity values are recorded multiple times each year. Conductivity is a measure of the electrical conductance of water and is positively correlated with salinity. The conductivity of all four Reston lakes is much greater since 2015 than their historic values.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) is currently developing a Salt Management Strategy (SaMS) planning process. The goal of the SaMS is to develop a comprehensive suite of management measures capable of achieving the chloride loads called for in the Accotink Creek chloride Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). TMDLs are developed to determine the total amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can handle without resulting in the impaired status of that waterbody. Although the TMDL was specific to the Accotink Creek watershed, the SaMS is intended to be applicable to the Northern Virginia region, including Reston, since winter application of salt products occurs similarly across all of our region. The final SaMS product will be a report outlining a comprehensive strategy to successfully reduce the impacts of salt products applied to manage snow and ice while maintaining high standards of public safety.

In 2018, the VA DEQ completed a report entitled “Salt Management Strategy: Environmental Impacts and Potential Economic Costs and Benefits of Improved Management Practices in Northern Virginia.” A literature review conducted as part of that report suggested that by using Best Management Practices (BMPs) to optimize de-icing agents and their application methods, it is possible to reduce both the costs and the negative impacts of de-icing operations without jeopardizing public safety. Next steps in the development of the SaMS include identifying traditional and non-traditional BMPs to achieve the SaMS goal, developing a water quality monitoring program to evaluate implementation effectiveness over time, developing a comprehensive education and outreach campaign, and developing a mechanism to track BMPs and salt use through a stakeholder-driven participatory process. The final report is expected in early 2020.

Meanwhile as individuals and business owners we should be cognizant of the potential environmental impacts associated with the application of de-icing agents. This understanding may help us better balance the twin goals of protecting public safety while minimizing environmental damage.

• Fay, L., D. Veneziano, A. Muthumani, X. Shi, A. Kroon, C. Falero, M. Janson, and S. Petersen. 2015. Benefit-cost of various winter maintenance strategies. Minnesota Department of Transportation No. CR 13-03.
• Laite, K., 2017, Annual Environmental Monitoring Program Lakes Anne, Thoreau, Audubon and Newport, Bright Pond and Butler Pond, Aquatic Environment Consultants, Inc.

How to identify plants on iNaturalist

Are you thinking about supporting the City Nature Challenge? Here’s a super easy-to-follow-video to learn how.

No need to say more–just watch.

Review of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, by Peter Brannen

Reviewed by Tami Sheiffer

Studying mass extinction events from tens or hundreds of millions of years ago shows us that life on Earth is both precarious and resilient. In The Ends of the World, science writer Peter Brannen vividly describes the five past mass extinction events: End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, End-Permian, End-Triassic, and End-Cretaceous, and the lessons we can learn from them. This book offers something of interest to anyone interested in natural history, paleontology, geology, climatology, ecology, or evolution.

Brannen paints vivid pictures of life and destruction eons ago, interwoven with his personal tales of travel around the country talking with scientists and visiting paleontological sites. You can preview Brannen’s writing in one of his science articles, like this one titled “A Climate Catastrophe Paved the Way for the Dinosaurs’ Reign,” published in The Atlantic. Occasionally, Brannen’s storytelling risks anthropomorphism, as when he describes the first fish to walk on land in the Devonian as “bold explorers” and “brave pioneers.” However, Brannen’s engaging writing makes this book enjoyable reading for a broad audience.

By studying the causes of past mass extinctions, we find that most were caused by climate change. The Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, but drastic changes were violent and caused massive destruction. Life is ultimately resilient, and, eventually, surviving species evolved to repopulate a new Earth, but life after the extinction looked very different from life before. In the most deadly mass extinction, the End-Permian event, nearly all life was wiped out. This extinction event was caused in part by volcanic activity in the Siberian Traps burning underground coal basins and releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Our present day fossil fuel activity has a similar effect of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but at an even faster rate than in the end-Permian extinction. The overarching theme of the book is that  past mass extinctions can teach us lessons for the present, as we find ourselves in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. This time, human activity is the cause of the extinction–beginning tens of thousands of years ago with the loss of megafauna like marsupial lions, giant kangaroos, woolly mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths due to hunting, and continuing today due to habitat loss and human-induced climate change. This book is ultimately a cautionary tale: learn from the past so we can avoid a catastrophe on the same scale today. 

On March 20, 2019, Peter Brannen will be speaking at an event at the Library of Congress called “Climate Change, Nature, and the Writer’s Eye”, along with distinguished authors Annie Proulx and Amitav Ghosh. The authors will discuss environmental change and a writer’s responsibility to the issue. This event is approved for FMN continuing education credit. The event is free but registration is required. 

Want to review a resource? We’d love to hear from you. Instructions for submission await your click and commitment.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young


Reviewed by Ann DiFiore

Jon Young is an expert on bird language. Growing up near New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, Jon became fascinated with the wildlife outside his door. Under a local naturalist’s tutelage, he learned to recognize birds, their various calls, and the role they played in their habitat. He has since studied with San Bushmen in the Kalahari and indigenous peoples all over the world, learning techniques for tracking and observation, as well as their philosophies towards wildlife, the natural world, and our place in it.

Today he lives in Northern California and teaches seminars on bird language. Birds, he believes, are the watchers and sentinels of the natural world. Understanding bird language and behavior is key to learning how to access, connect with, and understand nature.

By learning the primary, or baseline, forms of vocalization—songs, companion calls, territorial aggression and adolescent begging—we can recognize alarm calls that break the pattern. Young has his students establish a daily “sit spot,” a place to observe bird activity and calls each day, becoming familiar with birds, feeding patterns, habits, and vocalizations. That familiarity opens up a new world of understanding and awareness: “…ultimately the birds will yield to us the first rite of passage:  a close encounter with an animal otherwise wary of our presence” (p. 173). 

Young’s insights into the complexity of bird language (chickadees vary alarm calls to indicate a specific predator, its proximity and approach), the uniqueness of each species and its behavior, infuse the reader with new appreciation for birds and all wildlife. 

In What the Robin Knows, Young discusses human impact on wildlife and suggests we adopt a routine of invisibility, an attitude of awareness, respect, and calm that minimizes disturbance. Heedless humans are responsible for bird plows—an alarm shape or form taken by birds when fleeing predators. While the humans may not mean harm, predators take advantage of disoriented songbirds, swooping down as they flee, using a technique called “wake hunting.” 

Master Naturalists will find Young’s information on bird communications and behavior fascinating. The techniques he uses to promote nature awareness and connection would be valuable to educators and interpreters. 

A section of the book that I found especially enjoyable and eye-opening related to observations of companion calls between mated pairs of cardinals’ daily visitors to my bird feeder. Their basic exchange is a “chip…chip” uttered every five seconds. I learned that what seemed like a bird version of humming is actually a means of checking on each other’s safety:

“Are you there?” 

“Yes, are you okay?”

“Everything’s fine, are you?”

When a “chip” goes unanswered, the mate will follow up with a more insistent “CHIP!” and then go to investigate. Young witnessed a concerned male fly towards his lady’s last “chip” to find her rocketing towards a shrub, a sharp-shinned hawk in hot pursuit. The male flung himself in front of the sharpie, spinning the hawk off course and saving his mate—a true Valentine’s Day cardinal’s tale. 

As Young observes, “If we learn to read the birds. . .we can read the world at large” (p. 173). What the Robin Knows is a great primer.


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“Road projects” for wildlife: Your hedge as sanctuary

If you are the only turtle living in someone’s yard, where are you going to find a mate? Asphalt and lawns are fine for moving people around, but they create barriers for wildlife. Fragmentation of our natural areas has a lot to do with why box turtle sightings are an increasingly rare occurrence in the suburbs.

Eastern box turtle, Plant NOVA Natives

Our parks, only some of which are large enough or undisturbed enough to nurture biodiversity, make up a small percentage of the land in Northern Virginia. It is up to us to connect those natural areas into wildlife corridors by using our own yards. By lining our properties with hedges, we can create pathways for turtles and other wildlife to navigate the landscape. Ideally such pathways would be uninterrupted, but even creating a series of islands is effective. Not only can native plants provide shelter, but the fruits, berries, and seeds they produce will attract songbirds to liven up our landscapes. Have you ever noticed that birds congregate on properties that have thickets?

Creating a hedge is very simple. Start by planting two or three native shrubs where you now have lawn, allowing dead leaves to create a ground layer. Add more shrubs and trees as your time and energy allow – the wider the corridor, the better. Many suggestions for suitable plants of various heights can be found on this page of the Plant NOVA Natives website. Hedges, which can look relaxed and natural like a hedgerow, or clipped and formal, provide the additional benefits of capturing stormwater and enhancing privacy.

For a little more inspiration, watch our two-minute video about the secret goings-on within native plantings. (The hotline keeps breaking–try this:

By the way: if you ever stop your car to help a turtle cross the road, be sure to deliver it to the side where it was heading, and no further. Box turtles are territorial and will not survive if you move them any distance.

2018 Annual Report from Fairfax Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists

Each year, our chapter submits a record of what our members have accomplished to the Virginia Master Naturalists home office in Charlottesville, VA. This year, we recorded 12,569 hours across 137  citizen science, education, and stewardship service projects, in addition to chapter administration.

As Past President Michael Reinemer recounts, numbers alone convey neither the dedication of our volunteers nor the outcomes of their work. Those results of these hours, so generously given, include bird counts and surveys, maintenance of bluebird houses and trails; installation and monitoring of nest structures for Purple Martins; stream monitoring; outreach to school children; education on native plants; citizen science efforts to collect data on wildlife populations, native plants, pollinators, and other natural resources; work with partners such as Earth Sangha, Northern Virginia Soil and Water, Fairfax County Parks; and many more.

The report itself is available in its entirety.

Winter Salt Watch: You Can Help

Road salt (sodium chloride) is everywhere during winter months. It keeps us safe on roads and sidewalks, but it can also pose a threat to fish and wildlife as well as human health. 

Fish and bugs that live in freshwater streams can’t survive in extra salty water. And many of us (more than 118 million Americans) depend on local streams for drinking water. Water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the extra salt, so it can end up in your tap water and even corrode your pipes. What can you do?

STEP 1: Test the chloride in your stream. Request a FREE test kit using the form on this page and follow the instructions you receive with your kit. (You can also order your own chloride test strips through Amazon.) You’ll want to test your stream:

  • Before a winter storm (to get a baseline reading).
  • After salt has been applied to roads.
  • After the first warm day or rainstorm following a snow or freeze.
  • After the next rain event.

STEP 2: Share your results using the free Water Reporter app. Just follow these simple instructions. With test results in one place, we can identify salt hot spots around the country, and you can see how salt is affecting your community. Check out the Winter Salt Watch map below!

STEP 3: Take action. If you find high levels of chloride, let someone know!

  1. Call your city or county department of environmental protection to report high chloride levels or large salt piles.
  2. Write a Letter to the Editor of your local newspaper or other news outlet to educate your community about this issue. You can start with our sample letter and adapt it for your use. (Download the Word file or PDF.)
  3. Share road salt best practices with community managers and state agencies.

Protect the health of your streams – and your community – with Winter Salt Watch!

Look what you’ve done!

by Michael Reinemer

As I sign off as president, passing the baton to Joe Gorney, I want to thank each Virginia Master Naturalist in the chapter for what you do. The numbers of volunteer hours are astounding.

It’s hard to overstate how desperately your hours and your expertise are needed. Fairfax County and the whole region suffer from habitat loss, climate change, pollution, fragmentation, overuse – among many other assaults.

Meanwhile, we humans are increasingly disconnected from nature, suffering from the “landscape amnesia” Pete Mecca describes to FMN classes. Or shifting baseline syndrome: It’s impossible to notice the many gradual declines in the natural world – unless you understand the natural world, and you care about it and you actively monitor it. Which is one of the things you do as master naturalists. The statewide mason bee monitoring project is a great example.

You may have read “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” the cover story by Brooke Jarvis in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27, 2018.  The now global, scientific alarm about loss of insect diversity and abundance was triggered in part by small bug club in Germany. That club of 63 amateur naturalists, which included a few with science backgrounds, documented an astounding 80 percent drop in insect numbers in their research plot over a 30-year period. They had been consistently monitoring and recording changes in insect numbers or biomass in addition to species.

What’s the big deal? As E.O. Wilson put it, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”  While the “10,000 years” part is probably optimistic, the role of decomposers, pollinators, and other insects is indisputable.

In her NYT piece, Jarvis talks about the long amateur naturalist tradition in Europe and how that has figured into faster, more aggressive response to the insect apocalypse there, compared to the U.S. 

So as part of the growing master naturalist movement in the U.S., you are a vital resource in this era of shrinking budgets for conservation and a time of overt hostility toward science in some quarters of the federal government. Your work as monitors, mentors, and stewards is invaluable.

While all the 2018 numbers aren’t in yet, look what you’ve done:

680 hours staffing information desks at nature centers

445 hours working on nature programs for the county

435 hours removing invasive plants

375 hours as Audubon at Home ambassadors, assessing wildlife habitat

360 hours for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feederwatch program

350 hours managing habitat and land for Fairfax County Park Authority

343 hours for school programs for Fairfax County Park Authority

330 hours for citizen science programs for the park authority

267 hours monitoring trails for Virginia Bluebird Society

260 hours working with the Plant NoVA Natives campaign

That’s just a small snapshot of your amazing numbers and work. Congratulations, and thank you. 

And a hearty thanks to the many volunteer leaders who serve as officers, committee chairs, and committee members who manage the training and all the mechanics that make the Fairfax Master Naturalists the force for nature that it is.