Nature’s fine methods

Jerry Nissley

I recently attended a family reunion at my cousin’s restored farm house in Southampton County, Virginia. Standing sentinel to the house is a massive eastern white oak (Quercus alba) dramatically adorned with resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides). I was taken with this newly discovered (if only to me) fern and later sat down to research and write an article about the fern. 

Figure 1 House and oak tree

As I fondly rehashed conversations with the four generations at the reunion about how the land was recently recovered and the house rebuilt, and then discovered facts about the resurrection fern, what was originally an article revealed itself as a story. A story not only about a fern but more so of, well, resurrection—land into a distinguished Virginia farm, a house rebuilt into a home, and the recognition of a great white oak that has witnessed 350 years of history unfold. The symbolism of resurrection was inescapable.

The story parts blend so homogeneously with the first credo FMN students are introduced to: Awareness leads to knowledge which leads to appreciation which leads to conservation.

This story is an allegory of that credo. It tells of an initial awareness of the importance of the land and ensuing knowledge of its man-made and natural elements. It represents the appreciation of the forefather’s vision in developing the homestead and the innate desire of the current caretakers to preserve structures and conserve the beauty and integrity of the land’s natural treasures. One could loosely associate Jared Diamond’s warning about landscape amnesia—where people lose knowledge of how the natural world once was, with each succeeding generation accepting a degraded environment as the status quo (Diamond, 2005). That would not be the case with these people, with this environment.

As FMNers, we all love field trips right? So please, I invite you on a short, figurative field trip. One in which we will briefly discover some Virginia history, celebrate a sentinel oak, and then explore specific details about the resurrection fern.

The House 

We begin our field trip at the house in Southampton County, Virginia. The property has been in the Hart family for over 150 years and is now a registered Virginia Century Farm. Originally the farmers raised livestock on open land; rotated peanuts, corn, cotton, and soybeans to maintain soil quality; and designated large portions for timber.

Even though the property has been continually farmed by the family, as generations passed, the main house and farm buildings were at times rented out to achieve the greatest economic potential. The main house was adequately maintained, but the auxiliary buildings not so much. A few were lost to time and lack of maintenance, but the barn and blacksmith shed faired better.

My cousins, Patricia and Paul Milteer, were able to make the property their permanent home and tirelessly restored the farm house, barn, and blacksmith’s shed. They later applied to the Virginia Century Farm Program, and the farm is now officially registered by the state as The Hart Farm.

As stated on the program’s web-site, the Virginia Century Farm Program recognizes and honors those farms that have been in operation for at least 100 consecutive years and the Virginia farm families whose diligent and dedicated efforts have maintained these farms, provided nourishment to their fellow citizens and contributed so greatly to the economy of the Commonwealth. 

Figure 2 The Milteers’ Oak: Points: 366; Trunk circumference: 19’6”; Height: 100’; Average spread: 120’; Estimated age: 350 years

The family owners of farms designated as Virginia Century Farms receive a certificate signed by the Governor and the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, along with a sign for outdoor display (Century Farms, n.d.). 

The Tree 

Our field trip continues just out the front door. We can sit on the porch and consider the tree. Once the house and auxiliary buildings were restored functionally and aesthetically, the Milteers were able to focus on the massive eastern white oak standing as gatekeeper to their home. The oak provides home and food to a variety of animals. A barn owl (Tyto alba) nests in the branches and bats take sanctuary in the folds of the bark. 

The acorns take only one growing season to develop unlike those of the red oak group, which require at least 18 months for maturation. They are much less bitter than acorns of red oaks so they are preferred by a wider variety of wildlife. They are small relative to most oaks, but are a valuable annual food notably for turkeys, wood ducks, pheasants, grackles, jays, nuthatches, thrushes, woodpeckers, rabbits, and deer. The white oak is the only known food plant for the Bucculatrix luteella and Bucculatrix ochrisuffusa caterpillars. (Q. Alba, n.d.)

Recognizing the tree’s impressive size, the Milteers reached out to The Virginia Big Tree Program, an educational program within the Virginia Cooperative Extension that started out as a 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) project in 1970. Today the program is coordinated by the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech. Their mission is to increase the care and appreciation for all trees—big and small—and educate the Commonwealth about the value of trees and forests. The Virginia Big Tree Program maintains a register of the five largest specimens of more than 300 native, non-native, and naturalized tree species. The register includes information about each tree’s size, location, and unique characteristics. (Virginia Cooperative Extension, n.d.)

Trees are ranked on a point system measuring height, crown spread, and trunk circumference. The 500-year-old national record holder for Q. alba grows in Brunswick, Virginia and scored 451 points in 2012. The next highest scoringVirginia Q. alba scored 398 (Southampton), 397 (Lee), and 396 (Albemarle) respectively. (Big trees, n.d.)

Byron Carmean and Gary Williamson, volunteers for Virginia Big Tree Program, scored the Milteer’s tree at 366, so it probably will not make the top five (maybe the top ten).

The Fern

Let’s move our field trip just off the porch to contemplate the fern. Field trips don’t get easier than this, folks! 

Pleopeltis polypodioides (Andrews & Windham), also known as the resurrection fern, is a species of creeping, coarse-textured fern native to the Americas and Africa. The leathery, yellow-green pinnae (leaflets) are deeply pinnatifid and oblong. It attaches to its host with a branching, creeping, slender rhizome, which grows to 2 mm in diameter (P. Polypodioides, n.d.). The fern is facultative to North American Atlantic and Gulf Coast Plain physiographical areas.

Figure 3: Resurrection fern

This fern is not parasitic. It is an epiphyte or air plant. It attaches itself to a host and collects nourishment from air and water and nutrients that collect on the outer surface of the host. The resurrection fern lives commensalistically on the branches of large trees such as cypresses and may often be seen carpeting the shady areas on limbs of large oak trees as pictured on the Milteer’s tree. It also grows on rock surfaces and dead logs. In the southeastern United States, it is often found in the company of other epiphytic plants such as Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and is always found with some type of moss (phylum Bryophyta). The fern has spores (sori) on the bottom of the fronds and sporulates in summer and early fall (Oak and Fern, n.d.). Interestingly, rhizome sections are also viable offspring and can root themselves in new medium.

 The resurrection fern gets its name because it can survive long periods of drought by curling up its fronds and appearing desiccated, grey-brown and dead. However, when just a little water is presented, the fern will uncurl and reopen, appearing to “resurrect” and restores itself to a vivid green color in as little as three hours. Studies suggest these ferns could last 100 years without water and still revive after a single exposure. 

When the fronds “dry” as shown in Figure 4 (2 weeks after the reunion), they curl with their bottom sides upwards. In this way, they rehydrate more quickly when rain comes, as most of the water is absorbed on the underside of the pinnae. Experiments have shown they are able to lose almost all their free water (up to 97%) and remain viable, though more typically they lose around 76% in dry spells. For comparison, most other plants may die after losing only 8-12%. When drying, the fern synthesizes the protein dehydrin, which allows cell walls to fold in a way that can be easily reversed later (Plant Signaling, n.d.).

Figure 4 Dry fronds

Even more life, in forms that aren’t visible to the naked eye, may call the fern a community home. Stems, leaves, and flowers host microorganisms, creating a habitat called a phyllosphere, a term used in microbiology to refer to all above-ground portions of plants as habitat for microorganisms. The phyllosphere is subdivided into the caulosphere (stems), phylloplane (leaves), anthosphere (flowers), and carposphere (fruits). The below-ground microbial habitats (i.e., the thin-volume of soil surrounding root or subterranean stem surfaces) are referred to as the rhizosphere and laimosphere, respectively. Most plants host diverse communities of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, archaea, and protists. Some are beneficial to the plant; others function as plant pathogens and may damage the host plant or even kill it. However, the majority of microbial colonists on any given plant have no detectable effect on plant growth or function. Plant phyllospheres in general are considered a hostile environment for microorganisms to live due to the variation in ultra-violet radiation, temperature, water, and nutrient contents. The phyllosphere of P. polypodioides is considered even more extreme due to the mercurial environmental conditions this epiphyte is typically found in and the dry/wet states it cycles through (Phyllosphere, n.d.).

Microorganisms do indeed survive in the phyllosphere of P. polypodioides though, even during its dry periods. In “Changes in the phyllosphere community of the resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides associated with rainfall and wetting”, Jackson (2006) found the micro-organism community changes as the resurrection fern moves from a dry state to wet state. Additionally, the researchers found that certain populations of microorganisms increase their enzyme activity after the fern revives. The researchers concluded that these microorganisms are responding to the secretion of sugary organics released through the plant’s surface once the fern is back to its robust, green state. Changes in phyllosphere extracellular enzyme activity are seen first as an initial burst of activity following rainfall and a subsequent burst approximately 48 hours later as additional nutrient sources emerge.

Figure 5 Revived fern

Cultural studies have shown that Native peoples historically recognized the significance of the resurrection fern. It has been used as a diuretic, a remedy for heart problems, and as a treatment for infections. Benefits of the resurrection fern are not lost on the modern pharmaceutical industry. Recent medical research confirming these cultural reports have shown that extracts from the fern have anti-arrhythmic cardiac properties—truly a potential for resurrection of the heart.

Figure 6 Resurrection Fern up close

Thanks in part to the training provided by dedicated FMN program instructors, in this case our resident dendrologist Jim McGlone, I am aware of trees like never before. I see trees, I see what lives in trees, I see ferns, and I see the need for conservation. What I need to see more clearly and we all need to experience is the indelible, spiritual, personal relationship people need to have with nature. People are the caretakers of the gifts we have been given on earth, and people need to be the stimulus for conservation. As John Muir (1911) elegantly journaled, “How fine Nature’s methods! How deeply with beauty is beauty overlaid!” It is inspiring to me that something as small as a fern encouraged awareness, understanding, appreciation and, yes, resurrection of “nature’s fine methods”.

 

Works Cited

Big trees. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.americanforests.org: www.americanforests.org/get-involved/americas-biggest-trees/bigtrees-search/bigtrees-advanced-search/

Century Farms. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.vdacs.virginia.gov: www.vdacs.virginia.gov/conservation-and-environmental-virginia-century-farms.shtml

Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Viking.

Jackson, E. F. (2006). Changes in the phyllosphere community of the resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides, associated with rainfall and wetting. FEMS microbiology ecology 58.2, 236-246.

Muir, J. (1911). My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Miffin.

Oak and Fern. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.sciphotos.com: www.sciphotos.com/2016/01/oak-tree-resurrection-fern.html

P. Polypodioides. (n.d.). Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleopeltis_polypodioides

Phyllosphere. (n.d.). Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllosphere

Plant Signaling. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256378

Q. Alba. (n.d.). Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quercus_alba

Virginia Cooperative Extension (n.d.). Virginia Big Tree Program. Retrieved from ext.vt.edu: http://ext.vt.edu/natural-resources/big-tree.html

Riverbend Park: A story of abundant opportunities to volunteer

Tom Blackburn

When I graduated from the Master Naturalist training program about five years ago, Riverbend Park was the first place I looked for volunteer opportunities.  Although I volunteer with other parks and organizations, Riverbend has long been my favorite place to work.  Over the years, I have helped with kayak trips, astronomy programs, Bluebell Festivals, Native American Festivals, summer camps, scout merit badges, educational hikes, and trash cleanups.  I even created and led “Moonshine and Mayhem” hikes, with guidance from Park staff, during which I interpreted the history of the park during the Prohibition Era.  But my most rewarding time at the park has been as a School Programs Lead Volunteer (E 110).  

Riverbend hosts numerous classes of second through fourth graders who come to learn about the park’s natural resources, Native Americans, ecology, and the environment.  School Programs Lead Volunteers have a unique opportunity to open students’ eyes and imaginations to the natural world and the cultural history of the area.  Grade school students have a sense of wonder and excitement about the world that inspires me every time I lead a class.  Their enthusiasm as they learn to shoot a bow and arrow, figure out why sand is deposited along a trail, squeal over frogs and snakes, or learn life cycles of animals and plants always leaves me even more energized after the class than when I begin it.  I end each session convinced that I benefited from the class at least as much as the students.   

Working at Riverbend is particularly enjoyable because of the park’s welcoming and appreciative staff.  Rita Peralta, the Natural Resources Manager; Jordan Libera, the Senior Interpreter Program Manager; Valeria Espinoza, the Volunteer Coordinator; Julie Gurnee, the Visitor Center Manager; and the Interpreters are all committed to their tasks and a pleasure to work with.  

Numerous other FMNers have found Riverbend to be a rewarding place to volunteer.  To name just a few, Kris Lansing and Robin Duska lead bird walks (C106); Nancy Yinger, Jean Skolnick, Jerry Peters, Doreen Peters, and Janice Meyer conduct citizen science surveys of wildflowers, salamanders and dragonflies (C106); and Marilyn Kupetz provides care for the park’s animals (S182).  Other FMNs have helped with eliminating invasives and planting native plants at the park.  

It’s easy to begin volunteering at Riverbend.  Valeria Espinoza coordinates volunteers and sends periodic messages about volunteer opportunities.  If you contact her at valeria.espinoza@fairfaxcounty.gov, she will tell you how to get on her list.  And the Park  is accepting applications for School Programs Lead Volunteers through September, at https://volunteer.fairfaxcounty.gov/custom/1380/#/opp_details/179279. 

Come volunteer at Riverbend–you’ll be glad you did!

NVSWCD recognizes Plant NoVA Natives Campaign Partners as 2018 Cooperator of the Year

(Republished from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District site)

Established in 2011, the Plant NOVA Natives initiative has been key in increasing awareness of native plants across Northern Virginia and working across non-profit, government, and industry sectors to promote the use of natives in landscapes.  The work of the campaign partners greatly supports the initiatives of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD).  Information is sought between agencies to share common messages and lift each other’s programs.

For example, in spring 2018, the Plant NOVA Natives group purchased advertisements (pay for clicks) on social media platforms that promoted the use of native plants and linked to NVSWCD’s Seedling Sale webpage.  In total, the partners spent roughly $100 to promote the sale.  This drove many new customers to purchase seedlings, rain barrels, or composters during the sale, benefitting NVSWCD environmental education programs.

In addition, campaign partners post blog and Facebook items about the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program and the benefits the program provides for water quality through the addition of native plants as Conservation Landscapes.  Through their efforts, the Native Plants for Northern Virginia guidebook has become the definitive resource for highlighting the most common native plants in our region.  The campaign has renewed the interest in the utility of native plants throughout the landscaping community and many retail establishments have improved native plant visibility since the campaign began.  The campaign’s website is a clearinghouse and wealth of regionally-specific information, resources, and events.

There is no doubt that this campaign has contributed significantly to bringing groups together and elevating the shared interest in the use of native plants across many different landscapes.  The program is truly a partnership, by which the work of several agencies outweighs the work of one.  It is for these reasons and many more, that we recognize the Plant NOVA Natives Campaign partners as our 2018 Cooperator of the Year awardees.

The Cooperator of the Year award is named in honor of Diane Hoffman, an Associate Director with NVSWCD and the former NVSWCD District Administrator, for the legacy of cooperative spirit that she instilled throughout all District programs.

Visit https://www.plantnovanatives.org for more information about partnership, find native plant sales, and to peruse the wonderful resources they provide.

Fairfax Master Naturalist earns Reston’s 2019 55+ Volunteer of the Year Award

Don Coram

On April 18, I received the Reston Association 2019 55+ Volunteer of the Year Award. This surprised me since, although I am a certified Virginia Master Naturalist in the Fairfax Chapter, and my volunteer work was related to insects, my career was in mathematics. So how did I end up getting an award for service related to insects? Here is the story.

The Volunteer Reston Service Awards aim to recognize all of Reston’s volunteers and to distinguish a few volunteers who have gone above and beyond to support Reston Association (RA) and the Reston community. As a volunteer, I have been working to fill voids in Reston’s nature program, specifically related to insects and other arthropods. Insects may seem to be insignificant, but there are increasing alarms in the scientific community about the decline of insect populations and the negative effects to life on earth, including humans. 

One of the global issues is whether seasonal activity of plants, insects and birds are all responding synchronously to climate change. This issue is being addressed by CaterpillarsCount!, a National Science Foundation-funded study with lead universities of University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and University of Connecticut. Reston’s Walker Nature Center (WNC) is one of the 73 sites in the Eastern United States. Georgetown University approached the WNC seeking volunteers to collect data. WNC in turn contacted the FMN members in Reston to ask for volunteers. I volunteered and became the lead citizen scientist data collector for WNC site. The project required weekly surveys of caterpillars and other arthropods, in accordance with a strict scientific protocol, throughout the season. A colleague from Georgetown and I briefed the results in an FMN-recognized program at the WNC on April 23.  

Another challenge that I accepted was publicizing the bee kill in Reston. I also informed the Reston Association Board of Directors, briefed the Fairfax County Environmental Quality Advisory Committee, notified the Environmental Protection Agency, and contacted the Xerces Society, the national society for invertebrate conservation.  

I have participated in Reston’s Dragonfly Counts for many years and was recently promoted to instructor for the preparatory class and leader for the counting teams. (The class and the counting are FMN continuing education and service activities, E252 and C171, respectively.)  The original instructor on dragonflies in Reston moved away several years ago, so I volunteered to take over this project. Similarly, I led both teams surveying dragonflies in the 2018 Reston BioBlitz, when the leader of one of the teams was unable to participate.  

I have also volunteered in Reston surveys of butterflies and birds (FMN continuing education and service projects, E250,  C171, and C248). In fact, my volunteering began years ago with birds, continued to butterflies, and now includes dragonflies and caterpillars.  

I used the data gathered on butterflies, dragonflies, native bees, and caterpillars to author the invertebrates section of the Reston Annual State of the Environment Report (RASER), yet another FMN service project: C245. In the first edition of RASER, I contributed to several other sections, but observed that these sections were well-covered by the RASER working group, except for invertebrates. Thus for the second edition, I focused on invertebrates as the sole author.  

For each of the above projects, I volunteered time and expertise to photograph the subjects. For example, all of the photographs I used in the identification section of the Reston Dragonfly Class were taken in Reston. I believe that amateur photographs taken locally are easier for students to relate to than professional photographs in field guides covering a wide, unfamiliar area. I also submitted many of these photographs to iNaturalist and BugGuide.  

The activities discussed above illustrate success in meeting the FMN goal “to provide education, outreach and service for the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas in the Fairfax County area”. I first learned about FMN at the Spring Festival at the WNC in Reston.    

So the answer to the question of how a mathematician became a volunteer entomology awardee is the Fairfax Master Naturalist program.  

I welcome your participation in any of the projects I support.

Volunteer Reston honors Doug Britt for community service

Doug Britt was honored as one of two 2019 Volunteers of the Year, for his efforts to guide Reston into becoming a member of the Biophilic Cities Network. In 2018, Reston officially became the 13th partner community, joining such biophilic cities as Singapore;  Sydney, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; Oslo, Norway; Edmonton, Canada;  Portland, San Francisco, Austin,  and Washington, DC. The successful application to join this prestigious Network came about as a result of a recommendation made by the Reston Annual State of the Environment Report (RASER) Working Group, led by Mr. Britt. The RASER Working Group was established by Reston Association’s Environmental Advisory Committee in 2017. It was charged with the task of assessing and documenting the environmental conditions of the community to establish a baseline against which future changes could be measured. Doug served alongside five other Fairfax Chapter VMN program graduates: Don Coram (who won the 2019 Volunteer Reston 55+ Volunteer Award), Robin Duska, Linda Fuller, Lois Phemister, and Claudia Thompson-Deahl, all of whom helped prepare the RASER.

The first RASER was published in July 2017. It evaluated 16 separate environmental attributes of the Reston community, concluding with a postscript arguing that Reston is a biophilic community by design and intent of its founding principles. Reston’s particular way of connecting its natural areas to its residents (through its many walking paths, trails, Nature Center, recreation areas, and education/outreach programs) maximizes such connectivity and promotes more frequent, longer duration, and more immersive interactions, while the preservation of Reston’s green spaces also creates healthy viewscapes from much of the built environment.

The current RASER was completed by the Working Group in November 2018. The report updates and expands upon the first RASER. The 2018 report evaluates the status of the following environmental attributes: Air Quality, Streams, Lakes & Ponds, Stormwater Management, Drinking Water, Wastewater Treatment, Urban Forests, Meadows, Wetlands, Landscaping & Urban Agriculture, Birds, Mammals, Reptiles & Amphibians, Invertebrates, Wildlife Management, Hazardous Materials & Toxic Wastes, Light Pollution, Noise Pollution, and Education & Outreach. 

All together, the Working Group analyzed and reviewed more than 325 data sources and scientific reports during the summer and fall of 2018 by the Working Group. Each environmental attribute was then given a qualitative status using a traffic light icon to distinguish between “good”, “fair”, “poor”, or “undetermined”. The last designation indicates that not enough data exist to make a reasonable assessment at this time. The full report includes 135 graphs, tables, maps and photos, along with a complete list of references for readers interested in more detailed information. The current report also expands on each environmental attribute analyzed by including information about how each attribute relates to Fairfax County’s current Environmental Vision document (something that was not included in the earlier 2017 RASER). 

Another addition to the current RASER is a “Recommendations & Report Card” chapter. It describes 11 new recommendations for improving or protecting Reston’s environmental quality, and evaluates progress made towards implementing the 61 previous recommendations listed in the 2017 RASER. Nearly 2000 hours of uncompensated volunteer time went into the production of the RASER and implementation of many of its recommendations. 

The complete 2018 RASER (and its Executive Summary) can be viewed at the Reston Association’s NATURE OVERVIEW.

This work falls under Service Project C-245. Mr. Britt welcomes the service of Fairfax Master Naturalists who are interested in contributing.

Full account of the awards and the activities that led to them

Let’s talk turtles

Jerry Nissley

Although I developed “Turtle Talk” as my final project for the Spring 2019 FMN training class, I have been presenting talks with live turtles to elementary students for 6 years at Engleside Christian School, in Alexandria; Evangel Christian School, in Dale City; and Calvary Road School, in Alexandria. I believe that it is important to work with children so that they appreciate and care about the environment as they are growing up and when they become adults. Immediate and follow-on feedback on the presentations has been positive in this respect. Several students have reported, through their teacher to me, that their interest in nature increased as a result, and they began visiting parks and nature centers. 

Logan Switzer helped staff the Turtle Talk station at the 2019 Ellanor C. Lawrence Park Earth Day event

Our FMN class assignment to develop an interpretive talk gave me the perfect opportunity to develop a more polished presentation. I gave the new talk twice this spring, first at Eleanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly, at their Earth Day event, as a “Turtle Talk” station. I also spoke at Calvary Road Christian school to about 30 students in their 3rd- and 5th-grade classes for 2 hours.

For my presentation. I built a portable display board that showcases:

  • Woodland turtle fun-facts (e.g., Turtles are omnivores, live 90+ years, have a completely enclosed shell, endure a brumation period of 6 months in Virginia)
  • A description of their habitat and their conservation status to help visitors understand how vulnerable box turtles are
  • Photos of two of the male and female turtles that I care for
  • Additional technical and pictorial resources for tailoring the presentation to different audiences

Box turtles

My presentation features three live box turtles that I rescued in the Northern Virginia area as road saves. The turtles live in a year-round outdoor enclosure at my house. I feed them a variety of food: worms, slugs, grubs, cherries, berries, and mushrooms, with a vitamin supplement called Rep-Cal. With the teacher’s permission, the children are allowed supervised handling and feeding during a class presentation. Box turtles are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature species list due in large part to loss of habitat, roads, and slow breeding cycles. My goal is to create awareness of the importance of box turtles and their plight to encourage protection efforts.

Turtle Talk display

Additionally, I’ve designed and printed a tri-fold brochure to hand out as a public take-away. I also compiled various reference materials that I use to tailor a talk for a particular audience. For example, I displayed environmental information and talked about how we can help box turtles in our neighborhoods at the Earth Day event, but I would emphasize fun-facts at an elementary school demonstration. 

During the 2-hour Earth Day event at Ellanor C. Lawrence park, 38 people visited the Turtle Talk station, many of whom took brochures. Linda Fuller, an FMN colleague, organized the event.

The school presentations come under E254: Nature Presentations to Private Schools. I offered a “Turtle Talk” station in  at Huntley Meadows Wetland Appreciation Day on 5 May 2019, under the auspices of the FMN Service Project, E110: FCPA Nature Programs. Under E110, Volunteers plan, set up, lead, or assist with FCPA nature programs. Under both E254 and E110, volunteers may give interpretative talks on local wildlife and plants, lead trail walks, assist with live animal demonstrations, lead educational lessons in schools or with scouts, or assist with outreach activities. Our job as volunteers is to interact with participants, awakening their curiosity and helping them develop connections to nature and the outdoors. 

If any other FMN members are interested in creating live-animal presentations or general school presentations, I would be happy to consult, share what I’ve learned, and discuss the contacts I’ve developed. Working with children is meaningful and, I hope, it may lead to a new generation of committed naturalists and environmentally savvy adults.

If we work together, we can be a true force for nature

Cathy Ledec

If variety really is the spice of life, my work with Fairfax Master Naturalists is a tasty dish indeed. I engage with many projects throughout the year: as the president of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, the chair of the Fairfax County Tree Commission, as an Invasive Management Area site leader and Resource Management Volunteer for the Fairfax County Park Authority, Audubon-at-Home Ambassador, and as President of the Pavilions at Huntington Metro Community Association.

Mt. Vernon Government Center before our project

One of the most rewarding projects has been establishing a Natural Landscaping Demonstration project at the Mount Vernon Governmental Center, in Alexandria, Virginia. I attend meetings at this Fairfax County building frequently, and observed that the landscaping around the building had no variety, included mostly turf grass, and lacked blooming plants. The center needed some TLC! When I mentioned my observations and thoughts to Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, he was enthusiastic. So I marshaled resources and my network and went to work.

Next steps towards implementation included preparing a planting plan, with drawings of the landscaping beds; and researching and preparing plant lists. I consulted with fellow Fairfax Master Naturalist (FMN) Betsy Martin, who is also an Audubon-at-Home Ambassador and very knowledgeable about native plants. Betsy provided great guidance on low-impact ways to establish the mulched planting beds. These methods included covering the large areas of turf grass with cardboard or newspaper and covering with 3-4 inches of mulch. 

Betsy Martin and George Ledec deep in the mulch

We established the first planting bed in November 2017, with one of Betsy’s friends donating of a huge load of mulch. Consulting with technical experts from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District and Earth Sangha was especially important to the research and writing that resulted in our receiving two grants from these organizations for this project. (The grant writing process was fast, only taking a few months).  

Someone said to me once, “If you don’t plan, plan to fail.” So plan I did! The first planting event was in early April 2018. At the same time that I was planning for the planting, I started pursuing the needed permissions from the Fairfax County Facilities Management Division (FMD). This process was more challenging than I expected, but I kept the end goal in mind and eventually signed off on the needed Memorandum of Understanding with FMD. I knew that once this was signed, it would pave the way for future projects of this type for my fellow FMNers.

The goals of this project were to restore and improve environmental conditions. Converting turf grass areas to mulched planting beds would result in:

  1. Improved stormwater management
  2. Reduced urban heat island effect
  3. Restoration of wildlife habitat
  4. Improved visual appearance of the building
  5. Trees planted to shade the building, reduce summer cooling costs, provide natural privacy screen for staff working inside, and improve the view to the outside for staff working inside

Anticipating questions from the visiting public, I also prepared outreach materials on the project that could be shared with interested visitors.   

Concurrently, I was also contacted during the planning phase by a scout leader looking for an outdoor project for his scouts—what great luck!—and an excellent project for this scout troop and their families. This serendipity brought in more than 90 volunteers to establish the planting beds and the spring planting. The scouts dug holes, planted trees, moved mulch, and completed their work in one weekend. Volunteers rock! Thanks to FMNer Patti Swain for her help guiding the scouts.  

FMNers Maryann Fox and Chris Straub

We did a second planting in the fall of 2018, with thanks to FMNers Christine Straub and Maryann Fox, who helped with weeding and the fall planting. Special thanks to Supervisor Storck and his wife Deb for their help with the planting. Supervisor Storck’s support for this project was key to our success. 

We planted over a dozen tree seedlings and more than 100 native plants. There will be continuing need for maintenance, so you’ve not heard the last on this project. You, too, can join with us on our next maintenance day (I’ll send out a note and put it on the calendar), and record service hours to Stewardship project S256.

Blooming New England Aster with bumble bee in Summer 2018

This past April, I was honored for my work improving our environment with the 2018 Fairfax County Citizen of the Year award, both a humbling and thrilling recognition.

It remains very rewarding to watch the landscape our little team built fill in, bloom, and attract the birds and the bees. Every time I go by, there is a new flower blooming, with bees in attendance.

 

2018 in review for Fairfax Master Naturalists

Our year in numbers, courtesy of Michelle Prysby, Director, Virginia Master Naturalist Program

Heres’s the flyer

2018 infographic of FMN accomplishments

Fairfax Master Naturalist CaterpillarsCount! Project

Don Coram

CaterpillarsCount! (Citizen Science Service Code C254) is part of a multi-year, multi-site National Science Foundation-funded study to determine whether seasonal activity of plants, insects, and birds are all responding in the same way to climate change. The lead universities for the study are University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and University of Connecticut.  Figure 1 maps the 73 sites around the Eastern U.S. that collected data in 2018. 

The paper that was the impetus for the project is Increasing phenological asynchrony between spring green-up and arrival of migratory birds”, which appeared in Nature’s Scientific Reports, Vol. 7, in 2017. Phenology is a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (such as bird migration or plant flowering). At each site, volunteer citizen scientists count caterpillars and other arthropods on a specific collection of 50 leaves on each of 10 trees during the growing season (May-August). (50 is an arbitrary number intended to be a balance between getting enough data and not creating an overwhelming data collection chore.) These counts will be repeated over several years to look for trends. With 73 sites, there is no way this data could be collected without citizen scientists, hence the participation of naturalists like us.  Researchers at the universities analyze the data.  

For the Fairfax County site, the selected trees are in the Walker Nature Center (WNC) in Reston. WNC Director, Katie Shaw, is the site manager. I am the lead data collector, assisted by two other FMN members, Kim Schauer and Claudia Thompson-Deahl. Elise Larsen of Georgetown University has been our point of contact with the national CaterpillarsCount! project.  

In 2018, we conducted 140 surveys on 14 different dates, observing a total of 500 arthropods, including 13 caterpillars, which were present on 9.29% of surveys. (A “survey” observes the 50 leaves of one tree.) Nationally, the top 10 sites had caterpillars present in average of 5.32% of surveys, so our site looks good from this perspective.  

One of the prettiest caterpillars we found was the American dagger moth caterpillar, Acronicta americana, shown in Figure 2. We also observed fall webworm moth caterpillars, geometer moth caterpillars, and others that we could not identify.  Among the other arthropods we observed were debris-carrying lacewing larvae, daddy longlegs, beetle larvae, and sylvan jumping spiders.  

Because caterpillars are a major source of food for nestlings of migratory birds, we are especially interested in the timing of caterpillar availability. Caterpillar phenology  (e.g., lifecycle events) at the WNC site is shown in the Figure 3. Caterpillar occurrence peaked at 36.36% of surveys on August 19. Note that August 19 is late to provide a food source for nestlings. My conjecture for this lateness is that the insects usually responsible for caterpillars in the spring are becoming rarer (along with most flying insects; see More than 75 Percent Decline over 27 Years in Total Flying Insect Biomass in Protected Areas) and fall insects do not suffer as much predation by birds. No conclusions can be suggested yet about the effect of climate  change, since the sturdy will need to go on for several years to obtain comparative data.  

It is interesting that the “caterpillar” we observed most often is not a caterpillar at all. By definition, caterpillars are in the Order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), whereas the most observed larvae were dogwood sawfly larvae, Macremphytus testaceus, in the Order  Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants). Two of these larvae are shown in Figure 4. The larvae were so numerous that they defoliated the tree, a Red Osier dogwood.  

One benefit in participating in CaterpillarsCount! is learning to identify all sorts of arthropods. There is an online training course and field guide for this purpose. As a novice entomologist, I found both the opportunity and guidance valuable. 

One unexpected benefit is the opportunity to observe nature surrounding the survey sites in a leisurely way, closely, and repeatedly. I noticed animals that I missed on other visits to WNC, such as tadpoles growing legs, a Northern water snake sunning on the rocks, a grey catbird taking a bath, an American rubyspot damselfly, and a violet dancer damselfly.  

The project could use additional volunteers this year and in the future. New volunteers could establish a new survey site or help with the WNC site. Training and support are provided.  

Please join me at the Walker Nature Center on April 23 for a discussion of the project. Elise Larsen will present with me. The talk counts for continuing education credits.

Researcher bios

Elise Larsen, PhD, Biology, University of Maryland 2013. Post Doc, Georgetown University, 2013 – present. Co-investigator on CaterpillarsCount!

Don Coram, PhD, Mathematics, University of Wisconsin, 1985. Graduate, Fairfax Master Naturalist 2016, certified 2017.  Volunteer Reston awarded Don its 55+ Volunteer Award for his community service in 2019.

Frying Pan Farm Park Pollinator Garden: Community Partnerships in Action

Kim Scudera

In 2011, Frying Pan Park did not have a pollinator garden.

By October 2012, they did, and Fairfax Master Naturalist volunteers are the reason. Here’s the story.

Frying Pan has a long history, and hosts thousands of visitors each year, many of whom are the future stewards of our environment: young children. My own children had participated for years in summer camps at Frying Pan, learning about farm life and farm animals, making butter, playing outdoors.

In July of 2012, Ashley Stanton, then service project chair for FMN, put out a call for the development of a pollinator garden, as a “thank you” to Frying Pan for hosting our annual meeting.

Sarah Mayhew, FMN Class of ‘07, pulled together a team of people from Frying Pan Park, the Fairfax chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program, and representatives of the Virginia Native Plant Society (Potowmack Chapter) and Earth Sangha. Without her strong leadership, this project could not have happened. Carmen Bishop, FMN ’07, served tirelessly as liaison to the park.  

A site was chosen near the historic farmhouse: the location wraps around the south and east sides of the park’s Dairy House, where a neglected garden, created by a Girl Scout troop about ten years back, was in need of a major retrofit.

With lots of input from Carmen, Sarah, Cindy Morrow, Amol Kaikini, Terrence Liercke, Alan Ford, and Lisa Bright from Earth Sangha, I designed the pollinator garden in August 2012. By September, garden preparation was complete, and plants were donated by many FMN’ers, and by VNPS Potowmack and Earth Sangha.  

Why did VNPS and Earth Sangha choose to become involved? Expanding our understanding of the value of native plants, and putting those plants into the hands of Virginia homeowners, schools, and businesses, are key elements of the missions of these two organizations. Personal connections matter, too: for example, then-VNPS Potowmack President Alan Ford is a Fairfax Master Naturalist, and these personal connections brought volunteers and donations of plants to the garden.

Two planting days were all it took to get the garden established. The garden includes many plants important to bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects, including goldenrods, bee balm, and milkweed.

It’s one thing to get a garden started; the real challenge is keeping it going. Since 2012, I have donated over 275 hours of time caring for this garden, with help from the park (big thanks to Patrick McNamara and Marge Landis) and from FMN members. Cindy Morrow and Cynde Sears have been exceptionally helpful. 

The scope has expanded from the original Dairy House planting to maintenance and expansion of the herb garden around the Smoke House adjacent to the Dairy House.  

The herb garden was already a real magnet for pollinators of all sorts:  bees, butterflies, flies, wasps, and more. It was already home to a substantial stand of our native mountain mint. Adding more native plants with culinary uses was an obvious addition to our mission at Frying Pan, and Girl Scout Rachel O, along with her sponsor Kay Fowler, added many of these plants in 2016.

The garden has filled in well since it was first planted:

Dairy House before planting

 

Herb Garden before planting

 

Garden right after planting

 

Garden as of Summer 2015

 

Garden as of summer 2017

These photographs document the growth that made possible a dramatic increase in beneficial insects and their larvae in the garden: butterflies and moths (e.g., skippers, fritillaries, monarchs, cecropia moths) have been most prevalent. 

The garden has not only attracted more flying visitors—it has encouraged a considerable increase in two-legged traffic as well. The pollinator garden has hosted Brownie and Scout troops, summer campers and school groups for presentations on the value of pollinators and the plants that host them, and a steady stream of park visitors now have an interesting destination right next to the historic farmhouse, and en route to the chickens. 

In addition, at the park’s major events, FMN has hosted information tables which reached dozens of park visitors.  These tables were staffed by Marilyn Schroeder, Joe Gorney, Valerie Lamont, Barbara Whayne, and me.

Tending the garden—which I have done since inception—is a labor of love. I plan to not only keep it going, but to make it a service project of choice for the chapter (look for S109 if you’re a member). There’s still so much to do: more edging, pruning, planting, signage, weeding, formal certification by Audubon at Home, National Wildlife Federation, Xerces… And as my mother and grandmother always said, “Many hands make light work!”

Join us!