Creatures Of The Night at The Clifton Institute, September 9th

Saturday, September 9, 2023
– 9:30 pm

The Clifton Institute
6712 Blantyre Rd
Warrenton, VA 20187

Registration is REQUIRED.

Join The Clifton Institute to look and listen for creatures of the night! Participants will start by listening to the evening chorus of birds and katydids. Then everyone will take a gentle walk through fields and woods to look for nocturnal animals. Back at the farm house you will see what kinds of moths and beetles guides can attract with black lights.

Cost: Free!

Age: Adults and children ages 12 and up, accompanied by an adult. If you have younger children be sure to check out the Night-time Family Nature Walk happening at the same time!

Bring: Please bring a flashlight.

Weather policy: Date and time subject to change dependent on weather. Please check your email for updates on the morning of the event.

COVID-19 Information: This program will be entirely outdoors (an outside porta potty will be available). Please do not attend if you are experiencing or have experienced in the last two weeks any symptoms associated with COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, etc.).

Cancellation policy: If you register and can no longer attend this event, please let the Clifton Institute know as soon as possible so that we can open your spot to someone else.

By registering for this event, you are affirming that you have read and agree to the Clifton Institute liability release policy.

We look forward to seeing you at the Clifton Institute!

Results of The Clifton Institute’s 28th Annual Butterfly Count

Photo by Juan Gonzalez, Peck’s Skipper at The Clifton Institute 28th Annual Butterfly count

The Clifton Institute had a great count this year! They found 1,856 butterflies of 39 species. Compared to previous years, numbers were down, but diversity was about average. Other butterfly counts in the area have been down this year as well and we are guessing that the drought is to blame. Despite that, they had new high counts for Pipevine Swallowtail, Pearl Crescent, Red Admiral, Horace’s Duskywing, and Sachem, and no new lows. Numbers of Sachems and Pearl Crescents were both way up from previous highs.

Photos from the day are here!

This year they had the help of 38 volunteer counters that ranged from beginners to experts. Their area leaders were David Cox, Victoria Fortuna, Sue Garvin, David Gorsline, Walt Gould, Larry Meade, and Rebeca Sanchez-Burr. Many thanks to all for supporting the count!

A Thank you also to all of the landowners that allow access and make this count possible each year! Peck’s Skipper photo by Juan Gonzalez.

Report Your Plantings: Every Tree Counts!

Photo: Courtesy of Plant NOVA Trees

From Plant NOVA Trees:

Every tree counts! And counting every tree also helps show whether Northern Virginia is meeting its environmental goals. The Virginia Department of Forestry is counting planted trees to see if Virginia is meeting its stormwater goals to protect the bay, and the Department of Environmental Quality is asking Northern Virginia to plant 600,000 trees by 2025.

Birch leaf_edited.png                  Birch leaf_edited.png

Since most available land in Northern Virginia is private property, this goal will not be met without planting thousands of new trees in our own neighborhoods. Help keep track of the progress and build momentum by reporting your tree planting. The tree planting reports are forwarded and added to the Virginia Department of Forestry’s My Trees Count map, which is updated a couple times a year.

As of 7/20/2023:  12,677 trees and shrubs reported!

Click to report your tree and shrub plantings


Book Review by FMN Marilyn Schroeder: The Jewel Box:  How Moths Illuminate Nature’s Hidden Rules by Tim Blackburn

Moth watching?  Not as popular as bird watching, but in the same league as butterfly, dragonfly, bee, mammal and plant watching.

Tim Blackburn says the features that attract us to these species are:

– Visible – to attract attention

– Easy to find with little specialist training or equipment

– Enough diversity to hold people’s interest

– Identifiable, but with degrees of difficulty.  “Easy species to suck you in.  Harder ones to test your developing skills.  And puzzlers to present a real challenge.”

In The Jewel Box:  How Moths Illuminate Nature’s Hidden Rules, Tom Blackburn describes discovering his new hobby of moth watching.  A biology professor, Blackburn also draws readers into a deeper understanding of nature.  In each chapter, he features one or two of these insect jewels as an exemplar of a particular aspect of an ecological community.  Discussing elements such as intra- and inter-species competition, predator-prey relationships, and population cycles, Blackburn develops a complex concept of an ecological web.  He shows that understanding moths requires more than the context of other moths.  Moths also need to be studied in conjunction with their predators, parasites, viruses and available resources.   And each of those can only be understood in a wider context of interactions.  So everything is connected in an ecological web.

Seeing a beautiful moth on the cover, I picked up the book expecting pictures of moths with descriptions of their behavior and identifying field marks.  Page by page, I was drawn in to learning so much more about the natural world.  The Jewel Box is a great book for Master Naturalists, developing appreciation for these lovely lepidoptera and expanding on what we learned in class about Entomology and Ecology.

Radio Meteor Observing

Illustration 1: With Permission from  A meteor trail is capable of reflecting radio waves from transmitters located on the ground so that they can be detected by amateur radio antennas.   

Article by FMN Stephen Tzikas

We have all seen “shooting stars” or meteors.  They are rocky fragments that collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmospheres, causing that “shooting star” effect.  People can explore meteor observing a little more scientifically through the American Meteor Society website:

There is another aspect to meteor observing than can be done under any conditions, such as daylight hours and inclement weather, and that is with radio meteors.  Counts of radio meteors provide valuable data. Radio detection of meteors is more effective than optical observations.  Hence, it may be possible to discover many new minor meteor shower swarms, their cometary fragment trails, and their original associated comets.  A meteor in the Earth’s upper atmosphere produces a sharp pinging sound of about a second’s duration in the continuous live display found at  This website offers a way for anyone to gather intensity and duration data for radio meteor echoes on a continuous 24/7 basis, allowing the recording of meteor showers throughout the year.  A receiver tuned to a received radio beacon, an antenna, and a recorder or a computer, are needed if you decide to reproduce the set-up.  In Figure 1, I provide an example of a  Spectrum Waterfall Display taken from on April 16, 2015 for the Lyrid meteor shower at precisely 4:40 AM local time or 08:40:24 UTC and 55.24 MHz.

Figure 1: Author’s screenshot from

The Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar (CMOR) has an interesting website: .  While reviewing the website, take a look at the projects and activities that are being investigated.  The interesting research to determine meteor radiants and original source comets, including those for meteors not seen optically, is still in its early stages and needs support.  The American Meteor Society, whose link I provided earlier, also has a radio observing program.

The field of radio astronomy observation is large and relatively new.  Even for amateurs, there are many opportunities to develop the field.  Such opportunities usually require dedicated self-starters who can apply the science and engineering of radio astronomy into meaningful observations and datasets.  However, radio meteors is one of the simpler observational programs that master naturalists can enjoy.     

Meant to Catch Spotted Lanternflies, Glue Traps Are a Horrifying Hazard for Birds

Photo: Courtesy of Raven Ridge Wildlife Center Red-bellied Woodpecker stuck in a glue trap being transported to the Center in Pennsylvania

Wildlife rehabilitators, unable to save many victims, are urging the public to choose bird-safe methods of managing the invasive insects.

Glue traps are widely used to catch rodents or insects like the recently infamous spotted lanternfly. When the invasive insects became widespread, experts noticed that lanternfly traps were ensnaring other wildlife like birds and small mammals—a problem they call “bycatch.”

The strips of sticky tape can injure or kill birds and other wildlife, but fortunately, safer alternatives are available. Learn more about preventing harm from glue traps, and other bird-safe ways of controlling spotted lanternfly populations. 


NASA Moon Trees Quest: A Citizen Science Project Collaboration with the USDA Forest Service

Image Courtesy of the Globe Program NASA Moon Trees Quest

Did you know that in 1971 the Apollo 14 spacecraft carried seeds of several trees into space? Well those seeds of species such as sycamore, loblolly pine, coast redwood, sweetgum, and Douglas-firs were planted all over the United States. The NASA Moon Trees Quest is a citizen science project collaboration with the USDA Forest Service to collect data on the accessible remaining trees as well as examples of the species around the country. Using their free GLOBE Observer app, you can join the quest and help gather data about the trees near you. Click here to learn how to participate, accurately measure trees and submit your tree observations.

FMN’s to log volunteer hours for this activity there is an existing CS code of : C700: GLOBE Observer — NASA

Results of Third Annual Dragonfly Count at The Clifton Institute

Photo by Ana Ka’ahanui, Blue Dasher dragonfly

The Clifton Institute third annual dragonfly count took place on Sunday, June 25th. Their goals with the count are to track changes in dragonfly numbers to aid in their conservation and to generate interest in this fascinating group of insects.

With the help of 25 volunteers, they found 57 species of dragonflies and damselflies, a new high! They have now seen 67 species across the three years. They added three new species to the count this year, Aurora Damsel, Vesper Bluet, and Sable Clubtail (Larry Lynch photo). Other highlights included rare or uncommon species like Laura’s Clubtail, Lilypad Forktail, Appalachian Jewelwing, Sphagnum Sprite, and Amber-winged and Elegant Spreadwings (Linda Gammello photo).

It’s really exciting to start to be able to compare abundance across years. Numbers of several of the common pond-dwelling species (Slaty and Widow Skimmers, Eastern Amberwing, Common Whitetail, and Blue Dasher; Bob Blakney photo) were down this year. Could this be a result of lower water levels from the drought?

The results of the count are here and some of the best photos are here.

Thank you so much to the volunteers that made the count possible! Their area leaders this year were Bridget Bradshaw, Josh Jakum, Larry Lynch, and Larry Meade. A thank you to the landowners who allowed access to their special properties! The count volunteers are so grateful for their support of the count.

My Ball Lightning Encounter

Feature photo: A long-term underground coal fire produces a surface manifestation (steam) in Centralia, PA (June 2001), adjacent to the St. Ignatius cemetery. This is located about 3 miles from the ball lightning observation site.

Article, photo and illustration by FMN Stephen Tzikas

One of the rarest events in nature a Master Naturalist might encounter is ball lightning. Ball lightning is typically a small luminous ball hovering and moving just above the ground around the time of thunderstorms. Variations can exist. I surmise I once witnessed it, and as a scientist I immediately began taking mental notes of it as I observed it. I was sky gazing with friends. On July 24, 1999, at 10:15 PM, I observed a strange object materialize in front of me (less than 20 feet away). It moved upward and

Illustration 1 by Author: My ball lightning encounter was in the shape of a whirling rod. Bushes are to the left of the abandoned road. Two streetlights are in the background with a concrete road barrier between them as it is a closed abandoned road.

forward (about half a foot), and dematerialized, in a short period of about 5 seconds or less. The object was a flamelike consistency and the same color as orange fire. It appeared 3 feet over the road pavement. The rotating bent-rod like shaped object had its long axis parallel to the ground, and was about 1 ½ – 2 feet in length, and 3 inches in width. It flickered slightly in color with a touch of yellow. My camera went dead when I tried to take a photograph of it.

It had just been raining that evening. The materialization and dematerialization of the plasma-like rod looked similar to the process in the original Star Trek TV series transporter to materialize and dematerialize. It was completely silent and I did not notice an odor associated with electrical activity (such as ozone). No heat generation was felt, nor did I experience any psychological effects.

I was in Mount Carmel, PA, on an abandoned road near the corner of Hillside Drive and S. Pine Street. The abandoned road extends from Hillside Drive to Rt. 61. It heads in the direction of the town of Centralia which had been abandoned due to an underground coal fire. My photograph of the fuming ground in Centralia is at the intersection of Locus Avenue (Rt. 61) and South Street (a pull off parking area adjacent to the St. Ignatius cemetery). My ball lightning observation was on a hill top, which might have some significance. Some of the reactive underground activity in Centralia could have driven the electric potential needed for the creation of the ball lighting to an uphill location such as where I was.

I’ve known people who have claimed to see similar activity, which in a broader classification not only includes ball lightning but other rare phenomena such as Earth lights and St. Elmo’s fire. One person was aware of such activity in the Hudson Valley of NY and kept alert for it during his sky gazing activities. He once photographed a floating ball shaped object with short tentacles. A trained observer will take care to eliminate common confounding objects such as illuminated insects and airborne dust that might reflect distant light sources, or be an artifact of the photographic instrument itself (flash or infrared beam). Nighttime photography and video recording, under different meteorological conditions and with different types of recording instruments, can have some interesting and unexpected effects. Another upstate NY observer told me that a faint ball lightning orb approached him and went through him. He noted a short “high sensation” similar to a strong “caffeine buzz.” He contended to have developed a skin rash from it.

Another person I knew in Leesburg, Virginia said he witnessed a small orb of ball lightning inside a home (a couple inches in diameter) that was moving toward him. He decided to touch it and the resulting shock left him unconscious for a couple minutes. Perhaps it came into the house unnoticed, as ball lightning is said to pass through glass windows easily. It can move with varying speeds but typically moves slowly such as the speed of a walking human.

According to some statistical investigations, ball lightning had been seen by 5% of the population of the Earth. I would have thought that 5% was quite a large number. But then again, since I have known a few people who have seen it, perhaps 5% is not unreasonable. Moreover, almost all of us have seen another spectacular type of atmospheric manifestation called the auroras. If you see ball lightning please take care and don’t be tempted to touch it. It is an electrical phenomenon that can electrocute you if it is of high enough voltage. The two people I knew were lucky to survive the bout of unconsciousness and the skin issue with their respective encounters. Since it is electrical it also has the ability to be attracted to you as if you were a lightning rod. Use some caution and maintain your distance. See the internet for images and videos of ball lightning that were recorded.



“The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World” By: Peter Wohlleben

(Greystone Books Ltd, 2016, 248 pages)

A book review by Mike Garth, Fairfax Master Naturalist

As an avid nature photographer, I have spent countless hours observing wildlife, waiting for the peak moment to capture a photograph. Through it all I’ve learned habits and behaviors and developed a deeper sense of appreciation for the moment-by-moment nature of the lives that animals lead and endure.

I’m not sure how I came across “The Inner Life of Animals” by Peter Wohlleben (a German forester). But I found the title intriguing as it resonated with my belief (greatly influenced by those countless hours of observation) that there is more going on in an animal’s daily existence than meets the eye.

Indeed, I found the book offers a captivating journey into the emotional and intellectual world of animals. Through colorful narration and anecdotes, Wohlleben reveals the incredible intelligence, emotional depth, and cognitive abilities shown by a wide variety of animal species. From the empathetic behavior of elephants mourning their deceased companions to the intricate communication among ravens, each chapter reveals the profound inner lives of animals that often go unnoticed. There’s grief, courage, and shame to name just a few.

Be aware that this book is not a scientific resource. It does offer some scientific findings and complex concepts that are skillfully blended to complement observations made by Wohlleben. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths, making the book readable for a general audience yet still satisfying those of us who want some science thrown in. The goal of the book, I believe, is to spark curiosity and provoke contemplation about the inner lives of animals and perhaps inspire a greater appreciation for the way that we are all connected in some way.

For a naturalist who appreciates studying and understanding the complexities of the natural world, this book can offer valuable knowledge and a deeper understanding of animal behavior.