Avian Influenza in Virginia

Photo:  Male Canvasback, Barbara Saffir

Avian Influenza (AI) is an infectious viral disease of birds. Since the state’s Avian Influenza outbreak in 2002, Virginia’s poultry industry has been vigilant in prevention techniques and anticipated response. The Virginia Poultry Disease Task Force meets quarterly to review the plan for response in the event of a future outbreak.  Of course AI affects wild birds as well.

Older birds are more at risk and susceptible. This virus can survive in soil, water and manure for 35+ days and survive 3+ months of cold weather.

Please see a variety of links from Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services here: https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/animals-avian-influenza.shtml

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources asks that reports be submitted to https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/diseases/bird-mortality-reporting-form/ if the following circumstance is discovered: multiple (at least five) dead, wild, free-ranging waterfowl (ducks, geese, or swans), seabirds (terns, gulls, cormorants, etc.), shorebirds (dunlin, black-bellied plovers, sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, etc.), upland game birds (turkeys, grouse, or quail), or avian scavengers (crows, raptors, owls, etc.).

The Southern Celestial Sky of Fairfax County

A twilight view of the southern sky from Lake Audubon on January 26, 2022.

Article and photo by FMN Stephen Tzikas

You may realize that the southern hemisphere has the awesome Magellanic Clouds in its night sky.  Some of us may never get to the southern hemisphere, but there are certain visible stars from Fairfax County that you probably never thought possible.

My first encounter with the southern hemisphere sky was in 1983 when I commenced my Master’s degree in engineering at the University of New South Wales, just outside of Sydney, Australia.  On the first night of my arrival I was so excited to run outside the International House dormitory in order to see the Magellanic Clouds. There they were, in addition to the Southern Cross, the very bright Alpha Centauri star, and the “upside down” constellations and Moon.  Where it not for the incredibly long double air flights to reach Sydney, I probably would have been too excited to sleep that night.

If you have done any star gazing or have joined a local astronomy club you may be familiar with the Astronomical League and its incredible astronomy observing programs:

https://www.astroleague.org/al/obsclubs/LevelObservingClubs.html

As an avid astronomical observer since I was a child, I have completed most of the Astronomical League’s observing programs.  Scroll down that link’s list of observing programs and you see the novice program called Constellation Hunter Observing Program – Southern Skies.  I did this program from Fairfax County in a very creative manner.  While I was in Australia as a student, I did all of my observing by naked eye and from the lawn of the University campus.  Fortunately my notes included all the amazing things close to the southern celestial pole.  But, from Fairfax County, I was able to reobserve most of the constellation stars in some greater detail.   Let me explain, because you can do the same. 

A screen shot of the very useful on-line Planetarium offered by In-The-Sky.org at https://in-the-sky.org/skymap.php.  You can use this site to plan what is in your southern sky on a particular night and time.

I live in Reston, and the coordinates of my town are 38.9586° N, 77.3570° W.  For all practical purposes they are the coordinates of Fairfax County.  Because we are just under 39 degrees from the equator, we can see a full 90 degrees south beyond our location.  Subtracting 39 from 90 degrees, means we can see as far as 51 degrees south of the equator.  For the casual stargazer, he or she is usually content with the stars of the ecliptic (the Sun’s apparent path across the sky) and points north to Polaris, the northern star.  But if you look south, you’ll see a parade of constellations marching past you each night and through the seasons along the southern most visible latitude arc of the Earth as seen from Fairfax County.  I live next to Lake Audubon, and there are places along the lake where there is a clear view of the southern sky directly opposite to the northern star.  The tree line and homes are only about 4 degrees above the horizon, and that is pretty good, especially on winter evenings or mornings where the tree line is also partially transparent due to the loss of foliage.

What exactly can be seen?  Most of us are familiar with the northern constellations and those of the ecliptic. Those are constellations with names such as the “Big Dipper,” Cassiopeia, Orion, Hercules, Virgo, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Cygnus and so on.  Some of you may even be familiar with some of the bright stars in our Fairfax County sky like Vega, Rigel, and Betelgeuse, some of which take on blue and red hues.  There are 88 constellations so I rather not name all the common stars and constellations seen from Fairfax County.  But under (i.e., south of) the ecliptic there are some constellations that can be seen in their near entirety if you find a clear spot, like one on Lake Audubon.  These include  Piscis Austrinus with its bright blue star Fomalhaut, as well as the constellations of Microscopium, Sculptor, Fornax, Caelum, Columba, Pyxis, Antlia, Telescopium, and Lupus.  Not only that, but there are even more southern sky constellations that reveal a good chunk of themselves, such as Centaurus, Vela, Phoenix, Grus, Corona Australis, and Norma.

The most challenging stars are those that form parts of constellations that are barely above our horizon.  On one night I was very excited to see the bright stars called alpha and delta Horologii. On another night I observed sigma Arae.  Under the constellation Columba, specifically just under the star eta Columbae, the constellation Pictor begins.  With a telescope it would be possible to see some of the more fainter stars in that constellation. Finally, really close to the horizon (so you’ll need to find an extraordinary viewing site), it would be possible to see alpha or zeta Indi.

As we get closer to the horizon, the thicker atmosphere extinguishes the brightness of stars.  Having a pair of binoculars will assist.  For those who love astronomy, this is a star gazing activity, naked eye or with binoculars, that is an enjoyable effort to find those hidden and exotic gems of the southern sky.

Easy Plant Combinations for Your Yard

Photo courtesy of Plant NOVA Trees

Are you ready to brighten up your yard but not to spend hours researching plant choices? You may be a candidate for a native plant “package” that includes plants that thrive in similar landscape conditions. Grouping them together will quickly beautify your property while benefitting the local ecosystem.

Trees, shrubs and groundcovers are the backbone of any landscape and are in fact all that most people want to bother with. You can find combinations for nine common situations on the Plant NOVA Trees website. If, for example, the ground in your yard gets soggy at times, you might choose a Wet Areas package and include a Sweetgum tree for shade, American Hornbeam in the understory, and a couple Smooth Hydrangea shrubs. If you underplant them with Golden Ragwort, you will have an evergreen groundcover that has the added bonus of bright yellow flowers for two months in the spring. If you don’t have room for a canopy tree, choose the Small Space Combo instead and pair the Common Witch Hazel shrub with its November blooms with the shorter spring-flowering Virginia Sweetspire.

When practical, there is a great deal to be said for planting each member of a grouping at more or less the same time, minimizing root disturbance by installing the specimens when small. Whether planting all at once or in stages, though, the healthiest landscape is one that is densely planted with native species, healing the soil and providing food and shelter from the ground to the canopy for our local birds, fireflies, butterflies and other residents. Professional gardeners of course need to be adept at exactly matching plants to the microclimates within a landscape, but the rest of us can do quite well just using the obvious sun, soil and water conditions as our guide.

Those with a flower garden in their yard can speed up its evolution into a native paradise by choosing combinations that will result in blooms over the course of the season. In a sunny areas, if you are guided by the spring, summer and fall packages on the Plant NOVA Natives website, the result will be a stunning combination of well-behaved plants that will attract butterflies throughout the growing season. Suggestions for shady or wet areas are included, as are ornamental grasses. You can also find locations of garden centers that stock native plants.

The Mysterious History of Native Grasslands in the Virginia Piedmont, April 16th

Image courtesy of the Clifton Institute

When:  Saturday April 16 @ 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Where: This program will take place at a grassland on Raccoon Ford Road, south of Culpeper.

Cost: $8 – $10

Piedmont grasslands are the most diverse plant communities in the state of Virginia. These prairies are also home to declining birds and insects and a number of rare plants. Grasslands in our region require frequent fires, mowing, or grazing to prevent them from turning into forests. Therefore there is an active debate about how prairies were maintained historically, how extensive they were, and how long they have been present in northern Virginia. Join grassland expert Devin Floyd from the Center for Urban Habitats to learn all about these special habitats and their history. This will be an outdoor event that will take place at one of Virginia’s most diverse grasslands.

Click here for more information and registration.

Bird Habitats on College Campuses

George Mason University Pond, Fairfax

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

We have anchors in life that allow us to perceive familiar surroundings through all sorts of lenses. These anchors could be our home town, places we lived and worked, or other important times in our lives such as education and residency on a college campus. I visit my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), annually, and I am always amazed what new interesting “discoveries” I make, that have always been there but were hidden in front of my eyes. As a young student there, my motivations and goals were different. When I am back visiting, I can now enjoy this lovely campus of interest through the perspective of geology, history, performing arts, architecture, guest lectures, public events, nature, and so on. That applied interest allows me to segue those “discoveries” to my local environment. My interest in birds, for example, encouraged me to think about the types of birds on the RPI campus, and voila, ebird listed a whole universe of birds I never knew existed there. It didn’t take me long to connect that thought to what might exist at GMU or Northern Virginia Community College locations in Fairfax County that I frequently visit.

Idyllic spot at Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus

I think most people don’t normally think of college campuses as birding locations, but they offer some outstanding benefits. For campuses located in suburbia and the countryside, efforts are usually made to make a campus peaceful, safe, and intellectually stimulating. Campuses can be vibrant places with trade shows and performing art events. One can also find sophisticated laboratories with halls of learning containing displays of historical instruments and specimens, and research posters displayed on the walls. College campuses are usually highly manicured and integrated with nature.

A college campus can be both quiet and full of noises, and not just those of student parties. There are the noises of nature, to quote Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight.” While I was unaware of a birding club during my student days, many universities are now interacting with organizations that cater to avian interests. For example, there is Audubon on Campus, where students can become campus ambassadors and establish a campus chapter. The National Wildlife Federation has a State of the Campus Environment report card, helping to improve unique student learning experiences to gain skills necessary for sustaining the health of our environment.

The application, iNaturalist, will usually list extensive inventories of wildlife on campuses, including birds, but also other animals and plants. College campuses are typically ADA compliant and may or may not offer disabled parking privileges free-of-charge without a permit. It’s best to check with the educational institution as policies vary and because college parking spaces can sometimes be difficult to find. Although campuses might not have a bird trail per se, they do offer an attractive setting for those who may have an association with one or more colleges, or just love being around academic institutions. I am not the only one who thinks so. These links will provide the latest bird sightings at GMU and the NVCC campuses:

So why not make a day of birding at a college campus? College Campuses often add value to the hosting town, and if a campus could not fill your entire need, their towns usually offer great restaurants, entertainment, and shops of interest.

Secrets, Spies, Sputnik and Huntley, February 28th

This double ring of antennae was the first U.S. tracking station to compile data on the path of the Russian satellite Sputnik just five hours after its launch. 

Photo courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

Secrets, Spies, Sputnik and Huntley

When: Monday, 2/28/2022 2:00 pm

Where: HUNTLEY MEADOWS LOCATION

3701 Lockheed Blvd.
Alexandria, VA,
Map of Huntley Meadows Park

Cost: $12.00

Click here for more information or call 703-768-2525.

Register Online.

Event Description:

Huntley Meadows Park is home to a nationally significant historic house, majestic forests, wildflower-speckled meadows and vast wetlands bursting with life. Some of the best wildlife watching in the Washington metropolitan area is here.  The Park we know and love today does have an intriguing history.

Take a stroll through the less-visited side of Huntley Meadows Park to uncover the history of spies, espionage and how the Cold War struggle between the US and the USSR shaped Huntley and the Fairfax County we know today. The program at Huntley Meadows Park runs from 2 to 4 p.m. The cost is $12 per person. Meet at the South Kings Highway entrance. The program includes a 2.4-mile walk over flat terrain.

Virtual Winter Lecture-Lift Ev’ry Voice, February 20th

Photo: Courtesy of the Fairfax County Park Authority (Green Spring Park)

Virtual Winter Lecture-Lift Ev’ry Voice

When: Sunday, 2/20/2022 1:30 pm

Where: Green Spring Gardens

4603 Green Spring Rd.
Alexandria, VA, 22312

Cost: $10.00

Click here for activity details or call 703-642-5173.

Registration is online.

Event Description:

From sea to shining sea, Black people have made rich contributions to American garden history. Join horticulturalist and historian Abra Lee on this journey through the DMV and beyond as we celebrate these horticultural trailblazers. A Zoom link will be emailed before the event. This virtual program is sponsored by the Friends of Green Spring and runs from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Landscaping with Nature

In the winter, as you drive across the American Legion Bridge or across many of our creeks, you may be startled to see large numbers of trees with bright white trunks and branches. You may worry that climate change has struck and left them bleached. Worry no more: those are American Sycamore trees, sometimes known as the Ghosts of the Woods, whose bark normally peels as the trees get taller, leaving a white and brown pattern that shows best once the leaves have fallen. These congregations of sycamores help us notice that our seventy or so locally native tree species are not randomly distributed throughout the woods but rather are living in natural plant communities. As our region ramps up the Plant NOVA Trees campaign, understanding natural communities can help us design our landscaped environments to better support our local ecosystem.

Sycamores and other trees that live in wet soil can survive there because their roots can tolerate low oxygen conditions. They don’t necessarily need a lot of water and can thrive in the low oxygen conditions of many of our dry, compacted lawns. Unlike non-natives, these native trees will provide food for vast numbers of caterpillars and thus for the birds and other critters that eat insects. The contributions of native trees to the food web, combined with the increasing numbers of beautiful species available for sale, are why they are the default choice in all but the harshest of our built environments. Planting any native tree is a very good way to contribute to our region’s effort to expand the tree canopy.

Having said that, though, is it possible for us to do even better by taking plant communities into account? Again, trees are not randomly distributed in the woods, and neither are the birds and other critters that depend on combinations of specific plants. It is not within our power to fully restore the ecosystems which we have destroyed, but we might at least nudge them in the right direction by grouping plant species that would naturally live together on the terrain we have occupied.

If your yard has wet or compacted soil, an American Sycamore could be a great choice. But what if you live on a dry hillside and your soil is not compacted? In that case, you might prefer to choose trees and accompanying understory plants that are more representative of a hillside natural community. For example, Mockernut Hickory, Flowering Dogwood and Maple-leafed Viburnum underplanted with Virginia Creeper and Blue-Stemmed Goldenrod would give you the start of an Acidic Oak-Hickory Forest, a very common plant community around here.

Dozens of plant communities have been identified in Northern Virginia, but only a few of them are very common. How can you tell which is most appropriate for your property? This is no easy task, even for experts, not only because it is highly technical but because humans have altered the landscape in many places beyond recognition. However, you might be able to make a reasonable guess based on the elevation of your yard in relation to the nearest creek. You can then look at a plant list for the relevant community and decide which ones you might like to add to your property, given its current light, soil and moisture conditions. Just as in nature, as your trees grow and shade out the understory, sun loving plants will give way to shade tolerant ones, providing future residents with a haven from the heat, far more useful than a sun-scorched lawn in this warming world.

Details about the plant community concept (and about how you can find someone to help you implement it) can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. Even if you have no planting plans, if you have a passing familiarity with our native trees and other plants, reading about our natural communities can add to your pleasure as you walk through our woods and notice the patterns.

Review of Storm, by George R. Stewart

Review by FMN Kristina Lansing

When was the last time you read a “thumping good read” about nature? If it’s been awhile and if you’re looking for something to really sink your teeth into, do give George Stewart’s “Storm” a try. First published in 1941, this book is considered by some to be one of the first eco-novels ever written. Roughly a decade after its publication — and influenced by its publication — the National Weather Service began naming all major storms.

The protagonist in Stewart’s narrative is Maria (pronounced “Ma-rye-a”), the storm herself, “born of a dalliance between northern and southern air off the coast of Japan. After a rapid gestation, she quickly begins to grow, devouring atmosphere.” A junior meteorologist at the Weather Bureau names her, then watches as “the baby eats and sleeps and makes babbling noises. But [she] does not stay cute for long and soon grows teeth. By the time she debuts on the Pacific Coast, she has left her youth behind.”* This captivating description in the Introduction aside, the book is deeply rooted in science.

People and organizations of course figure prominently in this book, and their stories rival the tale of the storm herself. For animal lovers, even an owl, a hog, and a coyote play important roles. “Storm” is a tale of dispassionate natural forces and of cause-and-effect. It’s also a tale of efficiency, of leadership and teamwork, of bravery, and of humanity.

In writing this novel, George Stewart collaborated with at least 15 organizations, to which the book is dedicated: he became a storm chaser; he rode locomotives, flatcars, even an engine snowplow. If you decide to read this splendid book, do try to crack it open on the eve of a big, local storm. Just make sure you have extra batteries for your flashlight in case the electricity goes out! The book’s not long, just under 300 pages.

George Stewart received his PhD in English literature from Columbia in 1922 and joined the English faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1924. He was a sociologist, toponymist, and founding member of the American Name Society, and he wrote over 20 books.

“Storm;” George R. Stewart; New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics; 2021; 304 pages. Introduction by Nathaniel Rich, p viii.

Public-Private Partnership Leads to a Greener Springfield District

Photo courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

A pilot project on Arley Street in Springfield is an environmental success story. With significant community initiative and modest government assistance, 4,300 square feet of asphalt in the Springfield district was converted back to green space.

Community property within the Springfield Station Homeowners Association (HOA) included a deteriorated basketball court which was at the end of its lifecycle and no longer provided a useful benefit to the community. During planning for the community space, residents decided to remove the basketball court entirely. The HOA applied to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District’s (NVSWCD) Conservation Assistance Program (CAP) for cost-share funding and technical assistance for the proposed conversion of the basketball court to green, open space. The community space is entirely within the Resource Protection Area (RPA) of an unnamed tributary of Middle Run (Pohick Creek) and eventually flows into the Potomac River. The community planned to remove the asphalt surface and reduce the compaction of the soil by adding at least two inches of topsoil and compost.  With this plan in mind, NVSWCD confirmed that the project was eligible for participation in CAP because it promotes infiltration, reduces the potential for nearby flooding, and improves stream health.

Through a newly established partnership between NVSWCD and Fairfax County’s Land Development Services (LDS), the project was able to receive the maximum possible cost-share amount eligible under the CAP. This partnership effectively created the new NVSWCD/LDS Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP), whereby LDS allocates funding for eligible CAP projects with funds collected under LDS enforcement action, thus improving the environment within the impacted communities where violations previously occurred. The Springfield Station HOA project was the first recipient of funding from the newly launched partnership.

The public-private partnership is one that will be replicated throughout the county for other community association and places of worship projects approved under the CAP program. Thus the 4,300 square feet could represent the first step in projects that occur across the county, improving water quality in every district.

LDS project lead Brandy Mueller said, “Though small in terms of scale, this project was really a huge endeavor and a great benefit to the community. This new partnership seeks engagement and environmental opportunities. We hope this successful case study will encourage others to pursue similar projects.”

Replacing impervious asphalt (which does not allow water to pass through it) with green space results in multiple environmental benefits:

  • Fields absorb water, replenish the groundwater and slowly contribute to nearby streams whereas asphalt (or other impervious surfaces) divert rainwater to storm drains and sewers.
  • Fields allow the water to feed the soil supporting trees and other plants and resulting in healthier habitats for wildlife, insects and birds.
  • Fields are about 30 degrees cooler than asphalt helping cool down surrounding areas.

                               

Photo of basketball court before conversion.                                 Photo of basketball court after conversion.

Photos courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

Learn more about the Conservation Assistance Program.

Article reprinted from the Fairfax County Land Development Services website: Public-Private Partnership Leads to a Greener Springfield District | Land Development Services (fairfaxcounty.gov)