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.

The Fall orientation session will be on Saturday, November 2, 9.30 am-12 pm. Please sign up here. 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.

Out with the sun, in with the moon

Jerry Nissley

That’s the unofficial mantra for the twilight kayak tour at Mason Neck State Park (MNSP).  A group departs in time to revel in the golden hour of the setting sun and returns after dark by the moon’s guiding light. The park schedules twilight tours two evenings a month, June through October, to coincide with the full moon, with an additional “evening” tour scheduled once a month that does not necessarily coincide with the full moon. The park offers Saturday morning tours as well. The approved service description for all kayak tours at MNSP is detailed in FMN service category E410.

Photo by Jerry Nissley

A typical tour group consists of between 10 to 12 people in kayaks or canoes, which are accompanied by a lead guide and a sweeper. All guides have been skill certified by a qualified Virginia State Park instructor. The objectives of any guided tour at MNSP are to introduce paddlers to the various plants and animals found at the park and to the conservational, historical and cultural significance of the Mason Neck Peninsula (MNP).

Photo by Jerry Nissley

Guides are trained up in each of the above objective topics prior to leading a tour. The guides may include culture from as early as 1608, when Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac and encountered the Dogue and the Taux Native Peoples on and around the MNP. Farmers, fishers and hunters, these tribes were part of the Algonquian-speaking Federation and built permanent long house villages along the Potomac River in counties that include Fairfax, Prince George, and Prince William. Records show that Miompse (now Mason Neck) may have been Taux capital known as Tauxenent. 

Colonial history includes times that saw the peninsula’s namesake, George Mason and his extended family, take virtual control of the area. George Mason’s home, Gunston Hall (1759) and the remains of his eldest son’s home built on Mason’s Lexington Plantation (1783) are still located on MNP. It is well documented that at one time George Mason’s family operated nearly 25 fish catching/processing facilities on the Potomac from what is now Prince William County, north into waters that are now in Washington, D.C. 

Photo by Jerry Nissley

Equally as important as the culture and history of MNP is understanding why the state park was established and how the natural resources found in and around are preserved. MNSP (est. 1965) and the conjoined Elizabeth Hartwell National Wildlife Refuge (est. 1969) were established for the conservation of the American Bald Eagle and supporting habitat. In 2017, 40 nesting pairs were counted on MNP alone. There is also an active great blue heron rookery with approximately 125 nests near the northern interior of the park. Numerous ospreys may be seen diving for fish each evening and great egrets frequently contrast the falling night with their bright white feathers. 

A typical 2.5-hour tour consists of outfitting the paddlers with gear, “kayak 101” instruction, and the round trip tour through Belmont Bay and the adjoining Kane’s Creek. As mentioned, the tour is timed to catch the setting sun and still have enough light so the group can see what the guides are talking about early in the tour. Paddling out we talk history and culture and point out birds such as osprey (Pandion haliaetus), bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), great egrets (Ardea alba), great blue herons (Ardea herodias), belted king fishers (Megaceryle alcyon), and red winged black birds (Agelaius phoeniceus) to name a few. Critters, too, like beaver, turtles, raccoons, deer, and snakes, are common. 

Photo by Jerry Nissley

About mid-tour, we stop to point out several of the aquatic plants that adorn the shore as the calm vail of dusk settles over the marsh. Spatterdock (Nuphar advena), pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata), wild rice (Zizania aquatic), arrow arum (Peltandra virginica), swamp rose-mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), and cattail (Typha latifolia) are abundant. 

Fun facts: Pickerel weed is such an efficient biological filter of polluted water in natural wetlands that it is used in constructed wetlands. Spatterdock has long been used in traditional medicine. Studies show that its root juice may be applied directly for skin for irritations, and the root and seeds may be eaten together for stomach conditions. Native wild rice and cattail were valuable food sources for native peoples. Wild rice found on the Potomac tidal tributaries was boiled and eaten or ground into a powder. The entire cattail plant was used—rhizomes are edible, the long, linear leaves were used for weaving mats and baskets, and the sausage-shaped spike (actually a dense aggregate of female flowers and seeds) was used to kindle fires and to stuff bedding. 

Once we enter the far reaches of Kane’s Creek, the quiet solitude of darkness is interrupted only by the chorus of frogs, the flight of dragonflies, and the distant hoot of an owl. We stopped one evening to listen to the grand frog chorus and I literally had to paddle closer to a kayaker to hear the question being asked.

Returning by moonlight is priceless. The herons and egrets have roosted for the night so I try to stay quiet and enjoy the rustling swish of shoreline trees, an occasional deer or raccoon drinking at water’s edge, the splash and churn of spawning snakehead or carp. One time a bass flopped into and out of a kayak as the fish leapt for and missed a flying insect. No worries though—just another cool story for someone to tell at the office on Monday.

The lead guide and sweeper now turn on small safety lights as the group glides back through the evening. The return leg is always the least eventful for me but the most positive. The cool darkness seems to wrap her arms around me and imbue a sense of tranquility within. It encourages inner reflection, a release from the agitation of the six o’clock news and the complexity that daily life may bring on. 

As we continue across glass like water of Kane’s Creek, we are bid adieu by the joyful noise of frogs, cicadas, and katydids in three-part harmony no less. Once back, we rack and stack the boats and call it night—and we are all better off somehow for the experience. Each guest is unique so during their night on the water, each guest makes unique connections with Mason Neck and its inhabitants that they will not soon forget.

Background on MNP 

Some of the informational material guides use to prepare is supplied by the park but most of the written material I learned from was prepared by fellow VMN and guide, Tom Blackburn. His material encouraged me to do my own follow-on research and learn additional details. Tom has volunteered at MNSP for many years and compiled a wealth of park and habitat information that he readily shares with the 10 or so guides each year. A big thank you goes out to Tom for his continued mentoring.

Photo by Jerry Nissley

Two thirds of Mason Neck peninsula, roughly 5000 acres, is protected area managed by four jurisdictions: Virginia State Parks (MNSP), Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (Pohick Park), U.S. Department of Interior-Bureau of Land Management (Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Elizabeth Hartwell National Wildlife Refuge) managed as part of the Potomac River National Wildlife Resources Complex.

The Fairfax County peninsula is shaped by Belmont Bay to the south, Potomac River to the east, with Gunston Bay and Pohick Bay bordering the north.

MNSP is a stellar example of the natural and recreational areas maintained by our great state of Virginia. Volunteer opportunities abound at the park and FMN members have indeed been involved in several areas—shore line clean-ups, invasive species removal, Eagle Festival, and of course guides to name a few. MNP consists of unique habitats (woodland and wetland) and was the site of a spring 2019 FMN program field trip. It appears to be a fall 2019 site as well. 

Rita Peralta, VMN and senior interpreter at Riverbend Park, was able to share her time with us and presented the wetlands portion in the Elizabeth Hartwell NWR section of the peninsula. The dendrology portion of the field trip was given in the MNSP section and was led by Jim McGlone, Chapter Advisor for the Fairfax Chapter of VMN and an Urban Forest Conservationist with the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Working together to keep Fairfax County streams healthy

Valerie Bertha

Front Row left to right: Victoria Skender, Richard Skender. Back row, left to right: volunteer, Bradley Simpson, representing Audubon, Terri Skender

Over three years ago, I started attending stream monitoring sessions with Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD). I was amazed at how much fun I had learning how to identify the benthic macro invertebrates (tiny spineless bugs) that live on the bottom of the streams in our community. I learned that the type and diversity of the creatures we found would tell us how healthy or impaired the stream was.

But the goal wasn’t just for me to learn something, stream monitors are citizen scientists whose work complements that of the NVSWCD. By submitting the data we collect to Virginia Save Our Streams, citizens have the opportunity to identify streams that need help and work with the county to determine a plan of corrective action. Our efforts also provide a baseline for monitoring pending construction projects to prevent any degradation of water quality.

So is the work valuable? Yes, and it’s not overly time consuming. Each session takes a mere 3 hours of the volunteer’s time.

Hellgramites from Holmes Run

But is it fun? Yes, it is! So much fun that I decided to take the next step and become a certified stream monitor. I adopted a site on Holmes Run near my house to monitor quarterly. My goal is to have around 8 volunteers per session. We find a variety of macro invertebrates: net spinners, beetles, hellgrammites, black flies, midges, flat worms and sometimes stone flies.

Anyone can volunteer. I have trained multiple girl scout troops, run workshops for high schoolers, and always accept individual volunteers. You do not need to be an FMN member. I enjoy working with NVSWCD because they provide the equipment and training certification, and they are always helpful.

Are you curious about the water quality of your local stream? Would you like to make a positive difference in our environment? Join me or other volunteers and participate in stream monitoring. Start here. Just search under Fairfax County Stream Monitoring.

If you would like to come to one of my quarterly stream monitoring sessions please send me an email at valerie.bertha@gmail,com. My next session is August 18, 9 am – noon. I will host another in November, time to be determined.

Citizen science in chest waders

Photo: Barbara J. Saffir

David Gorsline

David Gorsline monitoring nest boxes in Huntley Meadows. Photo by Barbara J. Saffir

For the past 25+ years, I have participated in a program of monitoring nest boxes for Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers in Huntley Meadows Park.

Our team monitors 16 boxes in the park’s wetlands. We are the people with the big boots and sticks, because almost all of the boxes are mounted on poles in one to three feet of water.

These two species of duck begin laying eggs in very late February, and the last of the eggs hatch by about Memorial Day, sometimes a little later. Both of these birds bear what are called precocial young; that is, the ducklings come out of their eggs already covered in down, ready to be on their own, and they leave the nest box with their mother after only a day or two. Thus, it’s not often that we see chicks in the nest, unlike our counterparts on the Eastern Bluebird team. But, come April, if you keep a close eye on the vegetation at the edge of the marsh, you might spot a line of little ducks swimming behind a female.

FMN Kat Dyer inspecting box #68, Huntley Meadows Park, June 2017. Photo: David Gorsline

There’s about six of us on the team, including FMN Kat Dyer. At the start of the breeding season, we clean the boxes and lay down a fresh layer of wood chips. We handle simple repairs in the field; we notify park staff if a box needs to be completely replaced. During the season, we check boxes once a week, count any eggs we find, and record hatching events. Our collected information goes on file at the park, as well as to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s NestWatch project.

Since the 1991 breeding season, the number of boxes that we have deployed and monitored has varied between 14 and 21. Not all the boxes are used in a given season, but typically about three-fourths of them are used. Hooded Mergansers, expanding their breeding range, began nesting in our boxes in 2001.

Between the Mergansers and the Wood Ducks, the number of ducklings leaving our boxes has fluctuated year to year. Our lowest year was 2015, with only 26 fledged; our big year was 2013, with 140 fledged. The annual average for the past 28 years (I’m still compiling results for 2019) was 87 ducklings.

Clutch of Wood Duck eggs. Photo: David Gorsline

Who enjoys this birdy bounty? Everyone who visits the park. Especially the nature photographers take particular pleasure when they can document a fledging. When the monitoring team is out on the marsh, we often field questions from park visitors who wonder what we’re up to, and how the ducks are doing.

This project falls under C106: FCPA Citizen Science Programs. We’re always looking for new volunteers. I like us to work in pairs, just in case someone takes a tumble or gets stuck in the mud. What can I say? Nature happens.

For me, perhaps the greatest pleasure comes at the beginning of the season. It’s cold, there may be snow on the ground and the wetland iced over. Yet, I know that I will be giving these birds a boost in their struggle to thrive.

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!