Six FMN Volunteers Help Riverbend Park Thrive

Photos and article courtesy of Valeria Espinoza, Volunteer Coordinator

Marilyn Kupetz

Marilyn Kupetz and wood turtle Harriet

Marilyn has volunteered at Riverbend for almost two years now. She serves as an Animal Caretaker and Roving Naturalist. Marilyn plays a key role as part of our Animal Care team. From enrichment to health monitoring, Marilyn helps us make sure the animals are happy and healthy. She is a volunteer who has gone above and beyond her role. She has also volunteered at cleanups and other park events. This year, she committed to assisting with park monitoring as a Roving Naturalist when we could only offer outdoor volunteer opportunities. Now she continues to fulfill both roles every week. Her support this year has made a remarkable difference to our park!

Toni Oliveira (center in feature photo)
Toni is someone who has gone above and beyond to carry our mission to protect and preserve our parks. Toni has volunteered with us for over a year now and has participated in several projects both at Riverbend and Scott’s Run. She has helped with park monitoring, trail maintenance projects, and watershed cleanup events. This year she adopted a spot at Riverbend where she restored a section of the park by removing invasives and seeding native grasses/plants. She has also helped staff with park monitoring at Scott’s Run and has become a key player in our restoration efforts by serving as a Lead Volunteer at our weekend cleanups. Toni’s commitment, positivity, and determination have made a huge difference at both parks!

Tom Blackburn

Tom Blackburn
Tom has volunteered at Riverbend for over 5 years! He has supported our interpretive programs, festivals, and park cleanups. This year Tom supported our trail monitoring efforts as a Roving Naturalist and once programs opened up again this fall, he assisted and lead several outdoor, socially-distanced programs. Tom has led several programs such as our Native Americans of Virginia fieldtrip, nature/ecology fieldtrips, and our Halloween Mystery at the Cabin program (a new program this year). Tom made this event very special for trick or treaters by portraying the character of a bootlegger’s ghost! During the shutdown, Tom served as a guest speaker at the Wildlife Explorers camp. He provided insight and knowledge on birds to our campers who truly enjoyed their experience.

Nancy Yinger

Nancy Yinger

Nancy has participated in the wildflower survey for over a year now. Last year, she also partook in the Caterpillars Count! Arthropod Survey. This year, she has continued surveying the park’s wildflowers while supporting our trail monitoring efforts. She has also “adopted” a pollinator garden by the Visitor Center. With her assistance, we plan to re-design this garden to better support Riverbend’s pollinators and educate visitors about native plants & flowers that support them. We are very lucky to have Nancy as part of our volunteer community.

Kris Lansing

Kris continued to monitor trails and survey the birds of Riverbend despite the cancelation of the birding walks during the pandemic. Thanks to her commitment we were able to stay up to date with trail conditions and continued to receive a snapshot of bird sightings this year. 

Robin Duska

Due to her regular volunteerism at Riverbend, Robin has been instrumental in bird surveying efforts.

Rendering Accessibility to Hidden Oaks

Hidden Oaks Nature Center (HONC), which is set within Annandale Community Park, has never had assigned maintenance nor natural resource management staff. With the reduction of Area 2 maintenance personnel, Hidden Oaks receives only limited support with trash and snow removal, plus emergency tree-fall cleanup. HONC is nestled within 52 acres of the community park and includes 2 miles of wooded trails. Yet no trail or garden maintenance is provided by the county. Fortunately, Hidden Oaks has Bob Dinse.

In nominating Bob for a 2020 Elly Doyle Park Service Award, park Managers Michael McDonald and Suzanne Holland praised Bob’s work at Hidden Oaks and enumerated many of his volunteer accomplishments. They wrote, “Bob demonstrates the responsible use and protection of natural resources through his conservation efforts. In addition to routine upkeep of existing trails, Bob alleviates erosion and stream bank deterioration, instructs and leads hundreds of seventh graders annually in hands-on trail stewardship activities, creates and enhances gardens, recruits and leads FMN volunteers for onsite projects, donates hundreds of dollars of native ferns and birdseed and, in doing so, effectively serves as a FCPA ambassador.”

Bob Dinse At Hidden Oaks Nature Center

Bob has been serving at HONC for approximately 11 years. He previously received an Elly Doyle Park Service award in 2014; and a Presidential Silver Service Award presented by AmeriCorps in large part for his over 350 hours of service and for preparation of Hidden Oak’s 50th anniversary in 2019.

After speaking with Bob it is readily apparent that his real reward is in caring for Hidden Oaks. His primary FMN service hours are at Hidden Oaks but he does contribute at other parks as well. At Hidden Oaks he not only maintains the trails, native plant gardens, and maintains stream crossings he is also the first friendly face most morning visitors see.

I recently met with Bob at HONC and he graciously took time from his day to give me an overview of his park maintenance responsibilities. His weekly plan for taking care of the park starts out at 6:00 in the morning to walk and clear, as required, over 2 miles of trails of fallen trees and hazardous debris to ensure trail user safety. He then executes his maintenance plan that is mercurial at best based on changing priorities. He always breaks around mid-day to meet with park staff and present his boots-on-the-ground report. I find it impressive that Bob is able to apply a variety of learned and innovative skills at the park. He has planted native plant gardens, created signage for trails, was instrumental in building fair-weather crossings on stream trails to repair flood damage, and enhanced the recently added ADA (American Disabilities Act) accessible path with ferns gardens and by repurposing deadfall logs as boundaries for the gardens and trail.

In addition to maintenance activities, Bob takes time to interact in community outreach. At various times, he leads interpretive programs for school groups, helps with Eagle Scout programs, and even collaborates with neighbor parks. For example, he recently cut, painted, and installed sixteen sign posts to expand an Eagle Scout interpretive trail project identifying animal tracks. Over time, he has built several wood duck nesting boxes in or near Holmes Run Stream as it flows into Roundtree Park.

Bob certainly leads and serves by example and should be congratulated for his 2020 Elly Doyle Award. Given his spirit of volunteerism it is not unexpected that for holidays he and his wife regularly lead Sierra Club volunteer mission trips overseas. In establishing the Sierra Club, John Muir wrote that he wanted to, “Explore, enjoy, and render assessable the mountains of the Pacific Coast …”. Please join FMN in thanking Bob for continuing Muir’s mission of conservation as he “renders accessible” the trails and grounds of Hidden Oaks.

Links:

Hidden Oaks nature Center is actively looking for immediate and long-term help with nature programs. If you are able to help please contact Kim Young, kim.young@fairfaxcounty.gov

Natura Longa, Vita Brevis

‘Natura Longa, Vita Brevis’ – this aphorism literally translates to ‘nature is long, life is short’. Meaning that nature will be around forever and we as human caretakers (and naturalists) have but only our lifetimes to nurture it. As John Muir wrote in his journal, My First Summer in the Sierra:

“What pains are taken to keep this wilderness in health, — showers of snow, showers of rain, showers of dew, floods of light, floods of invisible vapor, clouds, winds, all sorts of weather, interaction of plant on plant, animal on animal, etc., beyond thought!”

Of course, John Muir was journaling about how natural forces are in constant motion as a systemic, cyclical process of self-preservation but as the aphorism implies, we must be stewards of nature and take pains to ensure those natural processes stay in motion by actively sustaining the health and vitality of our earth’s natural mechanisms.

Cathy Ledec

To that end, Cathy Ledec (FMN 2017) has worked tirelessly for many years to “keep this wilderness in health” and will be honored on November 20th with the 2020 Sally Ormsby Environmental Stewardship Award recognizing her 17 years of volunteer service at Huntley Meadows Park (HMP) and for the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA). The award will be presented at the 2020 Elly Doyle Virtual Awards Ceremony.

As the award letter points out, “Cathy’s outstanding leadership and volunteerism, including President of Friends of Huntley Meadows Park (FOHMP), have contributed significantly to the long-term preservation of natural resources at Huntley Meadows (HMP) and throughout Fairfax County. Her advocacy on behalf of the Fairfax County Park Authority has successfully educated many about the importance of a healthy environment in maintaining Fairfax County’s high quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors. Her work is firmly focused on improving the environment and on protecting and restoring irreplaceable natural resources, including native wildlife.”

Cathy has contributed to a wide spectrum of high-impact causes such as supporting FCPA budget proposals, defending parkland from development, hands-on field projects, and serving on advisory boards or commissions that influence policy as well as others of a simpler type, such as the one I personally took advantage of as I walked the trails at HMP – the donation of a trail side bench.

Trail Bench at HMP

Karen Sheffield, Park Manager (HMP) wrote, “Cathy is a citizen steward. Cathy became a park volunteer at Huntley Meadows in 2003 monitoring bird nesting boxes for species presence and breeding success. Cathy also volunteers at the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center front desk, welcoming visitors, listening to visitor’s park experiences and answering questions, and sharing her expertise and stories with them. Environmental stewardship is one of Cathy’s main messages when interacting with visitors. Cathy also volunteers on large natural resource projects and leads community group projects, like tree plantings. Cathy’s 17-year service to the park has made and continues to make a positive and lasting impact, not only on the natural resources in the park but also on the visitors and volunteers she interacts with. Cathy truly embodies Huntley Meadows Park’s mission: To inspire community engagement through mindful management and meaningful encounters.”

Mary Cortina, former Park Authority Board Liaison to Friends Groups added, “There are so many smart, educated, talented, and passionate people in Fairfax County and it is truly an inspiration to serve in this County, if only to get to know a few of them.  Cathy Ledec stands out because she just works so hard and keeps at it – long after everyone else has called it a day – she’s there with one more letter to write, another tree to plant, another meeting to attend, another park to save, another community to build.  Cathy Ledec is truly a champion for the environment and parks in Fairfax County. We LOVE Parks in Fairfax County, and all the people who work on their behalf, including the staff and volunteers, deserve our gratitude for improving our quality of life.  Thank you for the service you provide to Fairfax County and for recognizing the important contributions of these special volunteers in our community.”

Cathy’s unique ability as an advocate and planner for our county parks coupled with her passion for nature and humble spirit make her a true steward for nature. She encourages others to first identify areas of personal interest and then find out how to get involved in those areas. She suggests checking out web sites such as Friends of Huntley Meadows Park (FOHMP), Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA), Volunteer Fairfax, Leadership Fairfax and others as launching points for your volunteer journey. Engaging with fellow VMN colleagues and reviewing the FMN service catalogue are additional resources to identify volunteer service opportunities.  Do you have a favorite county, state, or national park? Perhaps one that is in your immediate vicinity. Starting in your local neighborhood park cuts down on travel and enables you to witness immediate improvement to your community. To expand your horizons, most county and state parks have an associative ‘Friends Group’ that can be joined; this can lead to more service or advocacy opportunities. A Friends Group is not officially sponsored by a park but collaboration is frequent as well as mutually supportive and beneficial. Of course, most parks can be contacted directly to inquire about volunteer opportunities. Another good option would be to join a non-profit board through Volunteer Fairfax for example.  Once opportunities are identified we need only to take the next step to begin our own personal journeys.  Links listed at the end of this article are good examples to get you started.

Cathy’s leadership journey to the Sally Ormsby Award serves as a motivational model that others can follow.  Ledec says, “it is important that each of us find our passion and shape our volunteerism around this.  Learn from every volunteer experience and along the way you will meet many that inspire you to ramp it up to the next level.  Expand your base of knowledge and embark on new adventures.  Along the way you will meet, be inspired by, and learn from others.  Fill your journey with experiences that build on prior activities.  Lead by example and with enthusiasm.  Before you know it, you’ll be the next Sally Ormsby Awardee!”.


Example resource links:

FOHMP – http://www.friendsofhuntleymeadows.org/

FOMNSP – https://friendsofmasonneckstateparkinc.wildapricot.org/

Volunteer Fairfax – https://www.volunteerfairfax.org/

Volunteer FCPA – https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/volunteer

Volunteer VA – https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/volunteers

Let’s Hit the Trails

Scott Schroth

Hitting the trails is the first of many volunteer activities Scott Schroth got involved with when becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist. Scott, a recently certified Virginia Master Naturalist (2019 – Fairfax) hit the trails feet first with shovel and saw in hand. I emphasize ‘feet first’ because one of his primary engagements is with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), an organization that maintains 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and hundreds of miles of other trails throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and DC. Scott is active in trail maintenance and trail patrol at locations such as Massanutten, Sky Meadows State Park, and Shenandoah National Park. Trail Maintenance is restoration for the purpose of hiker safety that includes trail blazing/marking, clipping, and the construction of rolling grade dips. During Trail Patrol, Scott is there to help hikers and backpackers enjoy the AT experience in a responsible manner by providing trail information and general assistance as needed. The patrol also provides a valuable ‘eyes on the ground’ service by reporting trail conditions to Trail Restoration crews.

In addition, Scott is very active at Fairfax County’s Riverbend Park and Scott’s Run Nature Preserve. Both parks are managed by Riverbend staff and there are copious volunteer opportunities at each. Scott credits the friendly and highly qualified Riverbend park staff with making it easy to get involved with the diverse set of opportunities at each park. Scott particularly enjoys citizen science opportunities such as wildflower surveys, native grass seed collection, and the Adopt-a-Spot program. His recent recognition as Riverbend’s volunteer of the month (August 2020) attests to his high energy focus at Scott’s Run. He participated in several invasive removal and habitat restoration projects and led watershed cleanup activities over the summer.

It is wonderful to hear the enthusiasm in Scott’s voice as he talks about the many service activities he is involved with and the resources available via the VMN organization. It’s even more wonderful to sense the enjoyment he receives by volunteering and to see the results of his work in areas of need within our local and national parks. Thank you, Scott, for the immediate impact you have had and thank you to all the VMN volunteers that care about and contribute to sustaining our natural resources.

To get involved as a volunteer at River Bend and/or Scott’s Run please contact volunteer coordinator Valeria Espinoza at valeria.espinoza@fairfaxcounty.gov  

To get involved as a PATC volunteer, visit www.patc.net and contact a representative listed for your location and area of interest.

My $20 Dollar Stay-At-Home Ecology Kit

By Michael Walker

This past winter I had a wide variety of birds at my feeder including several charming Carolina wrens. For their size, they often “ruled the roost” and I was interested in having them nest in my yard, so I created some brush piles and bought two small “wren” houses. I was never a Boy Scout skilled at making bird houses and I knew my dad would be disappointed that I did not make the houses myself but being concerned about the loss of a finger on the power saw, I went unpainted pre-fab.

In mid-January, I hung each birdhouse with wire in shrubs about 4 feet above the ground since I read that wrens like to nest “low.” They were about 25 feet apart, one in a viburnum and the other in a magnolia. Over time I noticed some black-capped chickadees took an interest in one house and the other bird house was filling up with small sticks though I never seemed to be able to determine what bird was doing this work. I had lots of chickadees and Carolina wrens at the feeder along with cardinals, juncos, tufted titmice, nuthatches, blue jays and even crows. But the tenants of this property remained a mystery despite by best detective work.

As late spring approached, I finally identified the elusive residents of the other house: house wrens! For about two weeks they were very active, shuttling food into the box opening. Despite my best efforts, I never did get to see any of the baby birds. I hope they all fledged safely.

Chickadee house bedding

When activity ceased, I decided to clean out each birdhouse in the event another tenant wanted to have a go at family life. Each birdhouse has a convenient slide out base. When I carried each bird house to the table to remove the base, I was astonished to find that both houses were still fully occupied! Dozens of small angry ants were crawling out of the birdhouses onto my hands and arms. In addition to a healthy ant colony the chickadee birdhouse was filled with beautiful soft green moss. It looked like the moss one would find on the forest floor in Canada. No twigs or straw only this beautiful moss and lots of it for such a tiny bird couple to gather.

Wren house twigs

The vacant wren house, also loaded with thousands of ants, had no moss but was filled nearly to the top with twigs and feathers. After the ants made their frenzied escape, carrying away eggs and larvae, I pulled apart the nesting material to do a citizen science inventory of the sticks and twigs. There were over 460 sticks and twigs. Some as long as six inches

An enviable magic trick for a tiny bird, small nest box opening and no exterior perch! Of additional interest were the more than 50 feathers, some pure white, others black that were obviously not house wren feathers.

Wren house flotsam

And the ants! To get into the bird houses they had to climb up the branches of the shrub and carefully navigate a Wallenda-like high-wire into the nest box. Which ant explorer looked up from the dirt to see the empty bird house hanging in the air, beckoning exploration like we see with the moon or mars. Which ant pioneer was the first to cross the thin wire? How do they find their way up the tree without Google maps? How many individual trips did each ant make from ground to nest during the duration of the colony?  And what could we learn from the altruism that guides the cooperative spirit of these tiny relics from the Cretaceous?

Much, much to ponder on a summer evening on day 108 of the 2020 pandemic!

Nature in Isolation: Fairfax Master Naturalists find things to do during the pandemic, Part II

Sit Spot example

Claudia Thompson-Deahl recommends signing up to start a Sit Spot routine. A Sit Spot is a place on the land that you go to every day or several times a week. It is your special spot that is kind of like an anchor where you get to watch all that is going on in nature over the course of the year. You might sit on a rock, lean against a tree, up on a hill, etc. It is a place where you sit quietly, observe, interact and get to know the land on a deeper level. Subscribing provides daily emails for 14 days. Read the email, then go to your Sit Spot and do the daily nature activity. Claudia observes, “It’s been a really great way to start each day and these posts are a great inspiration.”

Mike Walker: Being confined to my home and having to cancel all time consuming outside volunteer activities, coincided with this long, cool spring and has evolved into a wonderful opportunity to examine closely my quarter acre corner of the universe, just like Thoreau did at Walden Pond. I have lived in my home for over 30 years but having much more time (and newly cleaned windows) has shown me many signs of nature that I had never seen before. By keeping the bird feeder filled into late May, I have been rewarded with visits from many bird species right outside my dining window. Just today a Rose Breasted Grosbeak, tufted titmouse and Black-capped nuthatch had breakfast with me. Maybe they were always around, but more time at the window means more interesting sightings.

Photo by Mike Walker

Two fox families are also in the neighborhood, one a block away with six hungry kits. Mother or dad pass through several times a day, I know of at least 5 squirrels that won’t try to rob my bird feeder anymore.

As I patrol my shrub and flower beds with more time on my hands, I am more aware of individual plant phenology, particularly given the cool spring and chilly nights. Watching the rapid spring growth of cool tolerant shrubs like the hollies and winterberry is amazing. I am in Year 8 of a battle to eradicate the six types of bamboo I cultivated (yes, willingly) for my koi pond. I lost the battle to “control” it and resolved to remove the bamboo before it and my wife and neighbors removed me. I am “down” to about 500 pencil-thin shoots that I trim back daily, finding the occasional 3 foot renegade hidden within a shrub when on bamboo patrol. My goal is to deprive the roots of any chlorophyll. I cautiously hope I am winning!

Photo by Mike Walker

Using instructions from Google, I have made multiple Mason Bee Houses (try it – help our native bees) and my compost bin door is left open so the wrens and chickadees can harvest the many insects for their nestlings. I am hopeful that the many bags of leaves from my yards and my neighbors that cover the perimeter of my property will reap a huge harvest of Fireflies in June.

Like Thoreau or Aldo Leopold, taking the gift of time to watch, be be aware, to listen, puts me closer to the natural world that exits right outside my kitchen door. I am making the most of this gift of time.

Cape May Warbler from mpnature.com

Janet Quinn: I saw my first warbler! After watching Bill Young’s Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s two webinars on Spring Warbler Plumage and Behavior, and viewing his webpage mpnature.com, I traveled to Monticello Park in Alexandria with binoculars and mask. Although I had to ask my fellow birders what I was seeing, I will always remember the brightly yellow-hued Cape May in the honeysuckle bush along the stream. On a second trip, an American Redstart sang cheerfully on a branch right above my head. Although there were many flits and shadows in the bushes and trees I could not identify, I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to learn about and experience these tiny natural wonders.

Beverly Rivera: I am using this ‘calmer’ time to improve other aspects of my life. For years, I have complained that my household throws away too much food, but now with more leisure time, and with my family captive to meal-planning meetings, we are using up everything, spending a lot less on food, and throwing away (or composting) far less. I also repurposed pieces of fabric and sewed napkins and cleaning cloths so that we have cut back on the use of paper towels to almost zero (and the timing couldn’t have been better).

I’ve also come to notice that you can still tell that someone’s smiling even though they’re wearing a mask. Everyone is going through a lot at the moment and a friendly ‘Good Morning’, a smile and a wave can go a long way to making someone’s daily routine more enjoyable.

Made a Difference to That One

By Beverley Rivera

When the gyms closed because of Coronavirus, I started pacing around my local trail instead. The trail angered me because of the prevalence of invasive plants. There are acres of lesser celandine, which were all in glorious bloom at the time, groves of Chinese wisteria, areas where all you can see is English ivy and bamboo, and impenetrable thickets of multiflora rose. But what really bothered me as I stomped around the trail yanking out armfuls of garlic mustard, was the number of tiny shrubs and trees that were completely overrun with honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet; our fledgling future forest was being girdled, smothered and out-competed by invasive plants.

Sapling in a strangle hold

At that time, very few of the tiny trees actually had leaves; but the bittersweet and honeysuckle start early, snaking to the top of the plants and then branching into an anchor before spreading and flourishing. What appeared to be a healthy leafy plant was actually a tiny stick of a seedling smothered with invasive vines.

Like most Master Naturalists, I suddenly had time on my hands due to the cancellation of many volunteer opportunities, so along my walks I started untangling the tiny plants and cutting back the vines. I knew it was a temporary measure, the invasives would be back, but my rationale was to give the seedlings a season to grow unencumbered and when invasive workdays resume, try to get back to do a more thorough job.

Making a Difference: I was reminded of that old story where someone walks along a beach and discovers thousands of starfish have been washed up and are dying. The person starts picking them up and tossing them back into the ocean. A passer-by comments that there are so many that it was impossible to make a difference; to which the starfish tosser replies, ‘Made a difference to that one’.

Sapling freed from entanglement

Walking the trail now, I am amazed by what a difference one person can make, I see healthy young trees and shrubs leafing out and it inspires me for what can be achieved when it is safe to resume our regular invasive management workdays again.

Planning Ahead: Careful planning is something that doesn’t always happen during the chaos of my everyday life. But instead of just jumping in and trying to get things done, I now have the time to plan: ‘How could I turn this into a learning experience for a school group?’ ‘When is a good time of year for inexperienced volunteers to be removing certain plants?’ ‘How could this seemingly impossible situation be made to work?’

Cultivating Patience: Last year I was involved in setting up an invasive management program at Lake Accotink Park and we were just at the point of getting a steady group of volunteers and making significant progress, when the Fairfax County Park Authority asked us to halt all activities until it is safe to have large gatherings again. Like other Master Naturalists, this also meant that many of my other events were cancelled. So, I have had to develop a patient attitude; things will get done, just not right at the moment. It was a major adjustment, but my frenetic exercise program has turned into enjoyable strolls where I notice things that I never noticed previously, a hillside covered with may apples, bluebirds, a fern I’ve never seen before. It’s allowed me to step back and enjoy the things that make us Master Naturalists in the first place.

Natives Knoll Project

By Sherry McDonald

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together? In this case a ‘plan and a planting’.

Sally Berman knee deep in the knoll

In September 2019 the FMN Communications team gave a shout out to FMN membership that South Run Recreational Center wished to improve the health and heartiness of a barren, unattractive knoll on the center’s grounds. I became a ‘first-responder’ to that call and I am excited to report that shovels, hoes, and rakes are in full swing and the patient is recovering nicely.

I worked on this project with both Sally Berman, Lead Landscaping Volunteer and Joseph (Kurt) Lauer, Volunteer Coordinator for the Park Authority at South Run and we became fast friends. Sally mentioned to me it was as much an education as it was fun for her. The project demonstrated to Sally the benefits of native plantings and I was able to exposit how emergent processes are created between native insects and birds and animals and even the soil, that are not as viable when incorporating non-natives only.

Natives Knoll in Work

The goals of the project were to transform a weedy, unsightly knoll into an attractive landscape and stabilize the soil to prevent erosion using native plants.With guidance from Matt Bright who runs the non-profit Earth Sangha (which grows native plants for our area) a plan was developed and South Run RECenter purchased more than 90 native plants for this project.  Even with the uncertainty of consistent help due to COVID-19 restrictions, volunteers (high school students, church family and friends) have been working to create the “Natives Knoll”, the whole time following social distancing guidelines. 

Sherry McDonald

As the project nears completion I reflect on how therapeutic gardening has always been for me and how it is a haleness that Sally shares as well. The hope is that when the park re-opens people will stop by to view this emerging Natives Knoll and increase their awareness to the benefits of native plant-scapes. Future steps and goals are to incorporate plant signage and potentially qualify the project as a certified Audubon at Home wildlife sanctuary. As the knoll attracts birds, pollinators and human benefactors, perhaps some of the latter will be inspired to join our landscaping team to share in the knoll’s continued growth.

Pinatas That Educate? Sweet!

By Mike Walker with Jerry Nissley

Mike Walker (Certified Master Naturalist) recently submitted the following creative success story detailing one constructive way to present conservation concepts AND have a great, fun time with your kids.

Mike related that he often looks for ways to drive home environmental messages to diverse groups of adults and children. Last December, with his son as his sage adviser, he created a pinata in the form of a dam for the annual Holiday Party at the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church.

Why a dam you might ask? Well, let’s take a short ride in the way-back machine: When his family joined the church 35 years ago, the annual Holiday Party featured a Santa Claus pinata. It occurred to Mike and his wife, Laura, that beating a beloved seasonal figure-head with a baseball bat seemed a bit odd – and face it, disrespectful to Santas everywhere – so Laura entered into negotiations with party organizers. Negotiations immediately determined that a traditional donkey pinata was out as well, since it might potentially offend members of both the Democratic party and PETA. Negotiations stalled, so the next year, candy was offered in a politically correct, plain, ecologically responsible, recyclable brown paper bag. WHOO HOO!

Well okay, that turned out to be rather boring and uninspired, so Laura decided to kick negotiations up a notch. The following year, she volunteered to make the pinata and constructed a modestly sized replica of the Berlin Wall, which was in the process of being torn down; the kids were invited to, “strike a blow for freedom (actually took 23).”

Since that time, the Walkers have made over 30, “socially responsible” pinatas – from Scud Missiles and rocket launches, to assault rifles, hand guns, a Litter Bug, a Gas Guzzler, a Gulf Oil Spill, a Box of Cigarettes, and a Box of Plastic Straws. Over time, the kids have not only struck blows for freedom but health, ecology, economy, and safety as well. As the topical causes expanded, so did the size of the pinatas. They currently measure in as large as 8 feet in length and 4 feet tall; and must be strong enough to withstand 50 bat-wielding kids for a few rounds who know that only paper and wood stand between them and handfuls of candy.

Replica Dam Pinata - Mike Walter
Dam Pinata – photo Mike Walker

The most recent pinata was a huge “hit” literally and figuratively since it modeled the dam in the popular children’s movie “Frozen II”, which (spoiler alert) is destroyed near the end of the movie. Party favors included clever educational fliers with coloring pages and illustrations of dam fish-passes.

It was a fun and thought provoking opportunity for kids and adults to learn about the spawning cycle of diadromous fish and eels. The event also raised awareness of the potential hazards caused by river barriers such that some kids still talk about the plight of fish that, “can’t get home.”

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Harriet

Marilyn Kupetz

So the bare facts are these: Harriet is a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) who lives in a terrarium at Riverbend Park. Roughly 10 inches long beak to tail, she has the brown eyes of a female and “a rough carapace and pyramid-like raised scutes” (Abugattas, 2017, p. 42). She’s of a certain age, but what that is exactly is unknown given that rescued reptiles don’t come with chips.

Unlike her box turtle peers—Romeo, Tortuga, Pumpkin, and Tojo—Harriet has all of her limbs. She certainly has all of her faculties. Each Thursday morning, when I come to take care of her, she peers up at me from her swimming basin, registers that I’m the behemoth who brings her strawberries, and crawls onto her landing stone to be lifted out, fed, and taken for a walk. After 6 months of this routine, we’re pals. I am lucky to have the privilege of learning about turtles from Harriet.

Harriet sunning in front of the Riverbend Visitor Center. Photo: Marilyn Kupetz

Although she knows what she wants, Harriet ambles to get it. While gazing at the back of this creature thus frequently at rest, I realized that turtle shells exhibit the Voronoi tessellations that, for example, Pixar uses to design scales for their digitally animated reptiles. 

Voronoi growth diagram

Animation by Balu Erti, CC BY-SA 4.0

Imagine two bubbles, or drops or water, or globs of tadpole eggs. When these masses are separate, they are more or less spherical, right? But when they come in contact with one another, their edges form planes and the geometrical shapes typical of the scales or bony plates covering dinosaurs and dragons. And turtles.

Biologists use Voronoi patterns to model cells. The tessellations help scientists understand what happens when cells multiply rapidly, making it possible to visualize cellular behavior so that, for example, doctors can treat illnesses.

Wikipedia reports that ecologists also use Voronoi patterns “to study the growth patterns of forests and forest canopies” and to develop “predictive models for forest fires.” An interesting conceptual shift from micro (cells) to macro (woodland systems).

Who knew that an elderly wood turtle could be such a good gateway to information about the natural world for curious citizen scientists?

Harriet doesn’t just stimulate learning, however. She and her kin offer volunteers a rare type of emotional connection: They show us that they appreciate the attention we give them. How do we know? By observing their uplifted heads as they sun, their ever enthusiastic consumption of fresh fruit and worms, and, yes, their gift of uninhibited deposits as they bathe.

They also enable us to work with other volunteers who, like philosopher Peter Singer, have come “to be persuaded that animals should be treated as independent sentient beings, not as means to human ends.” The Riverbend creatures cannot, alas, return to the wild—they were rescued from danger or abuse and are now dependent on human kindness. But those of us who care for them care about them.

Every 6 months, Riverbend’s Senior Interpreter Rita Peralta and Volunteer Coordinator Valeria Espinosa invite additional volunteers to help attend to not only Harriet and the box turtles, but also the snakes, frogs, and fish living in the Riverbend Visitor and Nature Centers. The always-welcoming Riverbend staff offer training sessions, flexible scheduling, and, best, the chance to nurture, learn from, and teach visitors about the gentle beings inhabiting the wild places that still remain to us in Fairfax County.

Questions: Ask Valeria Espinosa: valeria.espinoza@fairfaxcounty.gov or Rita Peralta: rita.peralta@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Questions from the perspective of a volunteer? Feel free to ask me anything.

FMN volunteers get credit for volunteering under Service Code: S182: FCPA Nature Center Animal Care

Reference
Abugattas, A. (2017). The reptiles and amphibians of the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Self-published. Contact author.