Fairfax Master Naturalist in Remer, MN, Home of Big Foot Sightings

Feature photo: Boozie Tim on point and neither I nor the evaluators are near. He is dragging a line because when out for banding work, once he points, I will tie him to a tree while the actual banding occurs.

Article and photos by FMN Melissa Stagnaro

My German Shorthair Pointer, Boozie Tim, and I weren’t looking for Sasquatch but were preparing for locating American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) hens and their chicks for banding.

American Woodcock prefer young forests with a moist floor which are likely to have an abundance of prey like earthworms lurking in the soil. Here is one of the places the group “hunted”.

I am an FMN graduate of 2021 and have been practicing banding at the Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge. While there have been a few woodcock banded at Occoquan, the mist nets most often capture passerines. Passerines are also called perching birds or songbirds. Passerines are distinguished from other orders of birds by the arrangement of their toes (three pointing forward and one back). The knowledgeable and caring volunteers at Occoquan helped me learn how to safely handle and band birds. I wanted to take what I had learned at Occoquan to a new level to find and band woodcocks.

Boozie Tim does other conservation work and I wanted to see if he could do pointing dog specific conservation work. He has been working birds since he was about four months old. Pointing-type dogs, as opposed to flushing-type or retriever-type dogs, should locate live, ground nesting birds and stand still oriented in the direction of the bird. Trainers often start pointing dogs out on pigeons since there are no game laws for pigeons, pigeons put off a strong odor making it easy for a beginner dog to find, and pigeons are, generally, strong flyers so if the dog is a bit naughty during training, pigeons safely fly off.

I studied up on woodcock habitat, behavior, and intricacies of banding, then headed out to Remer, Minnesota to a woodcock banding camp at the Pineridge Grouse Camp with my German Shorthair.

I had to pass a written test, demonstrate banding proficiency, and handle

In this photo you can see the splash in the larger circle and, in the smaller circle, a hole in the ground made by a woodcock pulling an earthworm out of the ground.

Boozie Tim through a bird course. He had to prove that he could find birds, hold point, and be steady. The dogs were all tested using pigeons, not woodcock, for safety and because during the spring only certified dogs are allowed to be “hunting” for woodcock. The bird course consisted of three stations. The first was a straightforward set up with a pigeon mimicking a male woodcock being found then flying directly away. The dog is expected to point the bird on the ground and be still as it flies away. The second was a test to see if the dog would stop when it saw a bird fly off; that is, only on the visual of the bird flying, not when the dog had smelled the bird. For this test a pigeon was in a launcher and, with careful placement and good timing, the pigeon was popped out of the device and flew off before the dog could have smelled it. Upon seeing it, Boozie Tim, with no command or help from me, was expected to, and happily did, freeze. On the woodcock spring “hunting” grounds, male woodcock and ruffed grouse, another ground nesting bird, might just fly off and a pointing dog must not chase them but instead must remain still, then focus on the handler to be instructed on what to do next. On the third station a pigeon was set up to act like a woodcock hen trying to lure a predator away from her nest or chicks. The hen woodcock does a distress call and mimics being wounded to move the attention off her nest or chicks. In the test the pigeon was tethered to a weight such that the bird flew, landed near the dog, flapped its wings, flew a bit more but again landed near the dog and kept doing this until the evaluators were sure the dog was not tempted to break point and go to the pigeon. No pigeons were harmed; all the dogs passed the tests.

To find woodcock one must understand their habitat preferences (and the timing of their migration). For the male display flight to attract a mate, he choses an open field for his singing ground. Although the first night it was too stormy for the ritual, every other night at banding camp all the attendees got to watch the male strut his stuff for the potential ‘ladies’.

On one of the “hunts” the team and I found a hen on eggs. It was concluded that she was not on chicks based on how she was holding her wings (which would be out to cover chicks but in when on eggs), how she had her neck tucked in, her bulging eyes, and the lack of “splash” nearby (hens will eliminate near chicks but not near eggs). Can you spot her?

It is fairly easy for an experienced dog to point woodcock, although the early spring growth could create a scent challenge with the release of chlorophyll and late spring growth could create a pinpoint location problem for the handler if the dog is pointing a thick bit of cover but the handler is not able to visually locate the chicks. Hens on nests are a special scent challenge for dogs and (other) predators; to protect themselves and the eggs, the hen puts off minimal odor. Team effort is required to have the best chance of success!

Once handlers are in a good spot – young forest with moist soil and a singing ground nearby – they keep their eyes peeled for “splash” (elimination material). Of course many birds eliminate in the woods but based on the size, shape, and location one can often locate woodcock splash.

The Minnesota banders have been pulled into some interesting research projects to do along side their banding efforts. One researcher is supplying banders with containers to gather fresh fecal matter from, separately, hens and chicks, to better understand eating habits. Early work shows a more varied diet than earlier believed.

It is unclear how long banding efforts will continue given the affordability of

Hint- Hens like to be near saplings to reduce the likelihood of being stepped on.

GPS trackers for the birds to wear. Unlike banding, which at most, would provide two data points – once when banded and twice if recovered (nationwide, only about 2 percent of banded woodcock are recovered), GPS trackers can provide data points along the whole migration route. Several of the woodcock banders are also certified to attach GPS trackers so the “hunt” over pointing dogs will continue but instead of an anklet, birds may be left with a back pack.

Boozie Tim and I are looking forward to returning to Minnesota in spring of 2023 to find some chicks and contribute to increasing the public’s awareness for woodcock and the need for woodcock habitat.

FMN CE Event Recap: Stargazing with the Analemma Society

Feature photo: Jerry Nissley; Observatory grounds, located on FCPA land in Great Falls.

Article by FMNs Laura Anderko and Jerry Nissley

On May 20, 2022, FMN VP Laura Anderko arranged for the Continuing Education event “Stargazing with the Analemma Society” with a visit to the Observatory at Turner Farm in Great Falls. Alan Figgatt from the Analemma Society spoke about the cosmos.  FMN members in attendance learned how to read an Evening Sky Map for May, were treated to a private tour of the facility, an inside presentation on the current configuration of night sky constellations, and an opportunity to view the stars via high powered telescopes setup outside.

 

The Observatory by Jerry Nissley. The left section of the roof is designed to slide open allowing the four telescopes contained there in unfettered sight lines to the sky. The telescope for the tall building has not been installed yet.
Observation room, by Jerry Nissley. Roof slides open for stargazing. These are two of four telescopes in the room all bolted to the floor for stability.

Classroom section of the facility, leading into the observation room,
by Jerry Nissley.
Outdoor portable telescopes, by Jerry Nissley.
Alan Figgat, by Laura Anderko.
FMN members getting an explanation of the monthly orientation of planets relative to the sun, by Jerry Nissley.
Night telescopes, by Laura Anderko.

Volunteer Opportunity: Authors for 2022 Reston Association State of the Environment Report

Since 2017, volunteers on a project team of the Reston Association Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) have produced the Reston Association State of the Environment Report (RASER) to inform residents about the state of various environmental attributes in Reston.
Project team leads Doug Britt (who also chairs the EAC) and Robin Duska are looking for additional volunteers with strong writing skills and subject matter knowledge or expertise to update the following chapters from the 2020 edition this summer:  MammalsReptiles & AmphibiansInvertebrates, and Hazardous Materials & Toxic Waste.
Authors are provided with a style guide, and the co-leads work closely with them to review and refine drafts ahead of publication. Each RASER chapter is structured to provide brief background on its subject, describe existing conditions for that subject in Reston, draw conclusions about the state of the environment in Reston for it, and make recommendations for preserving or improving conditions.
The project team will kick off the 2022 update of RASER at a Zoom meeting on June 9. All chapters in RASER are updated every other year, but its Report Card & Recommendations segment is updated yearly and briefed to the Reston Association Board of Directors.
Volunteers need not live in Reston to serve on the project team.
If you are interested in volunteering as an author or have questions, please contact Robin Duska via email at Robin.Duska@gmail.com 

Geology Adventures: Man-Made Slag

Feature photo:  Slag Nuggets line this railroad track near Willoughby Brook, High Bridge, NJ

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

Not too far from Fairfax County is geologic treasure. Engineers love it. It is a by-product of iron ore smelting, one of the oldest chemical engineering processes. The by-product is called slag and it is unique and beautiful.

A few years ago I stopped at the Burden Iron Works in Troy, NY on my way to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for Reunion and Homecoming not far from the iron works. The iron works are not a big tourist attraction, so I had to call the curator for an appointment. The meeting I had with curator was just grand. We talked at least a couple hours on the engineering history of the area which included RPI. Before leaving he took me outside to walk the perimeter of the iron works

Catoctin Furnace Slag Nugget Sample 1.  Vesicles pockmark this brownish and green tone slag sample.

and told me about slag. Slag is the rock remaining after iron is extracted from the ore. The property and surrounding area has some slag scattered around. He told me it can usually be found easily along a building perimeter because that’s where it’s thrown by ground keepers who cut grass and don’t like hitting it with the mowers. He gave me a few pieces of the century-plus old slag and I finally departed.

Later, at the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center building at RPI, while looking at the geologic collection located there, a graduate student came out of his research lab and I struck up a conversation with him on the Burden Iron Works. He quickly went back into his lab to pull out a slag sample from the iron works in which some residue ore in a large slag sample formed a colorful blue glass mix with the ore. Impressed, I have ever since included old iron furnace stops on my road trips. If you keep in mind that slag samples are likely to be located along perimeter building ruins, you’ll find interesting nuggets. One especially pleasing location is the Lock Ridge Furnace Museum if you are passing through the Allentown, PA area. There are literally thousands of slag samples all over the grounds. It is much rarer to find slag samples with colorful shades of glass in them, but if you are curious, do a google image search on “colored iron slag” to see what I mean. Some slag samples can also be magnetic, and the color of a slag sample is due to the different mixes of elements and leftover metals in it.

Catoctin Furnace Slag Nugget Sample 2. Vesicles and Blebs are found in this gray slag sample.

Iron smelting was a big industry in the 18th and 19th century America, and you can usually find industrial furnace ruins from that period everywhere that had settlements. My stops at old furnaces usually take me through Pennsylvania on my trips to NJ and NY. However, we have local furnace ruins too. One nearby is the Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont, MD. This is a 19th century iron works and the website can be found at https://catoctinfurnace.org/village/

Slag samples could appear in a variety of other places too. The iron industry of yesteryear produced so much slag waste, the industry found uses for it. Iron ore slag is generally safe. It is just ore rock with the iron removed. While hiking in High Bridge, NJ one day, I came across large amounts of it lining the railroad tracks (along Buffalo Hollow Road near Willoughby Brook, and just off of Cregar Road). The slag made a suitable material cushioning the track area from the extended environment. Normally, one might see other forms of crushed stone gravel around railroad tracks. If you come across railroad tracks in your nature trail excursions, take a look at whether the tracks have stone ballast in the track bed, and whether it is slag.

If I have interested you to build a slag collection, please be aware that some parks might have rules requiring visitors not to remove anything from a site. Such rules, if they exist, are usually posted so visitors know. Now that you are aware, keep your eyes open for interesting geology on the ground at old furnace ruins.

 

Reptiles and Amphibians, A Closer Look, webinar June 8th

Photo: FMN Barbara Saffir

Wednesday, June 8, 2022
7 pm
Smithsonian Associates Streaming Program
Code 1NV-116
Cost: Members $25; nonmembers $30
Register here.

Join naturalist and salamander enthusiast Matt Felperin, Roving Naturalist with NOVA Parks, for an introduction to the fascinating world of herpetofauna, or “herps.” Otherwise known as reptiles and amphibians, these largely misunderstood animals are admittedly not among the cutest of creatures, and some people just can’t stand looking at a snake.

But on closer examination, says Felperin, you might discover how fascinating (and even adorable) these animals can be. From frogs and salamanders to snakes, lizards, and turtles, discover what kind of cold-blooded critters can be found in the eastern United States. For example, did you know that the mid-Atlantic region hosts the greatest diversity of salamander species in the world? They include the endangered Shenandoah salamander, whose entire range is limited to three mountain slopes within Shenandoah National Park.

Felperin also uncovers some pretty amazing adaptations, such as wood frogs that become “frogcicles” and turtles that breathe out of their backside to survive the winter. And, he says, you may just find a new favorite animal.

Advancing Equity in Urban Greenspace, webinar June 21st

Tuesday, June 21, 2022
7 pm
Register here.

Join the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center at their next Earth Optimism webinar and hear from Atiya Wells, founder of the nonprofit Backyard Basecamp in Baltimore City. Atiya will highlight the importance of equity in landscape design, creation and community cultivation. With the Bliss Meadows project, Backyard Basecamp has reclaimed 10 acres of vacant land in their neighborhood to be used for environmental education and community greenspace, and to help communities of color reconnect with nature.

Pesticides 101: How You Can Protect Birds and the Environment

Tuesday, June 7, 2022
4 – 5 pm
Webinar
Register here.

Join American Bird Conservancy’s upcoming webinar for a discussion on the impacts of pesticides, how existing regulations are working – or failing – to protect the environment, and how individuals can reduce pesticide use at home.

An estimated 72 million birds are killed by pesticides and other toxic chemicals every year. Birds are not the only victims – overuse of harmful pesticides has led to insect population declines and adverse human health effects.

Yet these dangerous chemicals are widely available and used for everything from food production to home gardens.

Speakers:

  • Edward “Hardy” Kern, Director of the Pesticides and Birds Campaign, American Bird Conservancy
  • Lori Ann Burd, Environmental Health Director, Center for Biological Diversity
  • Aaron Anderson, Pesticide Program Specialist, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Moderator: Jordan E. Rutter, Director of Public Relations, American Bird Conservancy

 

 

Native Groundcovers and Trees: The Perfect Pairing!

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

Native groundcovers are becoming increasingly popular, for good reason: even if they have minimal time for gardening, people want to use native plants to support our local birds and butterflies. To avoid invasive non-native groundcovers such as English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra, they turn to native plants for the same landscaping benefits without the damage to our trees and the rest of the environment.

Equally popular among time-pressed residents are native trees, which are similarly easy to install and which have benefits that far exceed those of any other plants. Not only does the great mass of tree leaves and roots provide food and homes for birds, soak up stormwater, and cool the air, the insects that evolved with native plants are adapted to the chemical make-up of those plants and are able to co-exist peacefully with them. An American Beech tree, for example, is the host plant to 126 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Hickory to 200 species, Black Cherry around 450 species, and native oaks over 500 species. (The numbers for non-native trees are in the single digits or even zero.)

Over 30 species of locally native plants make excellent groundcovers, with options available for any growing condition. Several are evergreen, and many have the bonus of a month or two of colorful flowers. Some form a tight mat on the ground, while others such as ferns and White Wood Aster provide a taller look. Native sedges provide even more options. Some sedges make a beautiful substitute for the invasive Liriope, some look more like a grass that never needs mowing, and still others sport spiky seed heads that add a touch of quirkiness to the garden. Our local conventional garden centers are starting to carry some of these plants, and many more can be found at native plant garden centers.

Encircling native trees with native groundcovers makes eminent sense. Turf grass does poorly under trees because of the limited light. Trees do not appreciate lawn chemicals, not to mention the risk of injury from lawnmowers and string trimmers. A harmful but common practice, especially in commercial areas, is to pile layer after layer of mulch in a “mulch volcano” around trees and spray it with herbicides to prevent grass and weed growth. Not only does this poison the soil, but mulch that is touching the trunk will rot the bark, and compacted mulch prevents rainwater from reaching the roots. Arborist wood chips, which allow the water to run through, are an improvement over shredded bark mulch if applied properly and can protect the tree as it gets established. But in the long run, why not use nature’s alternative to a toxic mulch bed, which is to allow the fallen leaves to remain in place and add a “green mulch” made up of native plants? The trees and the soil will thank you for it.

Loudoun Wildlife Annual Meeting, Keynote Speaker, June 5th

Sunday, June 5, 2022
3-6 pm
Ida Lee Recreation Center
60 Ida Lee Dr. NW, Leesburg
Register here.

There will be a business meeting, awards presentation, quilt raffle, door prizes and a keynote speaker.

The Annual Meeting keynote speaker is Dr. Eric Kershner, Chief of the Division of Bird Conservation, Permits, and Regulations for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Headquarters Office in Falls Church, Virginia. Eric and his team work to implement tangible actions that conserve birds, including reducing impacts from anthropogenic sources.

This year’s topic will be “Bird collisions with Towers and Glass: What we are doing to reduce the risks and how you can join the fun!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking big steps to reduce the annual estimated loss of 6.6 million birds colliding with towers and the 1 billion birds colliding with glass in the U.S. They need your help! Learn how they are surveying their facilities and implementing cost-effective methods to reduce collisions with both towers and glass. Through their multipronged approach, they are working to apply effective methods to reduce bird collisions while simultaneously reducing costs for tower owners and even for some building owners. They hope to make bird conservation a way of life for all of us.

That Blue Frog Craze! Again?

All photos by Jerry Nissley

We all remember the ‘blue frog’ craze from last summer, right?

Normal color Green Tree Frog

Well I certainly do. All the specimens I found were axanthic green tree frogs (Hyla cinerea). But this is a new year folks! Today I found a bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) exhibiting these traits. I get excited about stuff like this and I always like to share my excitement with others. Here is a quick overview of what I know. There is a ton of published information out there if you want to dig deeper.

Type 1

Axanthism in its basic description is a genetic mutation that inhibits the animal’s ability to produce yellow pigments. There are three types of axanthism in amphibians: 1. complete to partial blue coloration due to a lack of yellow pigmentation, 2.

Type 2

complete or partial dark coloration, and 3. normal coloration with black eyes. These are not distinct categories, and there can be amphibians that have a combination of these.

Type one is most common in the frog family (Ranidea) which is also the family that happens to be most commonly affected by axanthism. In my research, I could not find a community consensus as to why axanthism occurs in amphibians; whether it is genetic or environmental. There are persuasive arguments on both sides.

Bullfrog with blue nose

Axanthism seems to be most prevalent in North America and is more common in Northern regions; but if last summer is a trend, it is sliding quickly into the southeastern states. Axanthism is most common in frogs, with salamanders and newts having almost no cases.
So be on the look out for this very cool frog morph – it’s a eureka moment to spot one!